By: Amy Kullas, Ph.D.
Michigan attorney general to investigate into Flint, Michigan water crisis
Michigan’s attorney general, Bill Schuette, announced on January 15, 2016 that he will be conducting an investigation into the ongoing water crisis in Flint, Michigan to assess whether any laws have been violated. “The situation in Flint is a human tragedy in which families are struggling with even the most basic parts of daily life,” Schuette said in a statement. “While everyone acknowledges that mistakes were made, my duty as attorney general requires that I conduct this investigation.”
The water crisis stems from a decision two years ago by the state of Michigan, which had taken over the city’s budget amid a financial emergency, to save money by switching Flint’s water supply from Lake Huron to the Flint River. This decision was billed as a temporary cost-saving measure until a new supply line to Lake Huron was ready. However shortly after the switch, residents began to complain the water looked, smelled and tasted funny. Later, researchers revealed that the river water was highly corrosive (almost 20 times more corrosive than the water in Lake Huron) and that there were elevated levels of lead in the drinking water. Sadly, a Flint pediatrician, Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, announced that records showed blood lead levels in local toddlers doubled or even tripled in some cases since the water switch.
Governor Rick Snyder has already declared a state of emergency and requested that President Obama declare a state of emergency at a federal level. The extra assistance would provide much needed assistance like grants for temporary housing and home repairs as the city deals with damage done to its water system. On Saturday, the President authorized the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Department of Homeland Security to lead the national disaster relief efforts. Additionally, singer Cher is trying to help. She and Icelandic Glacial are combining to donate 181,440 bottles of water to Flint residents. (Jason Hanna, Sara Ganim and Eliott C. McLaughlin, CNN)
Women in Science
Female engineers receive fewer citations even though they publish in better journals
While gender disparity is not a novel phenomenon in science, certain specialties are worse than others. A recent study that analyzed almost 1 million engineering-related publications showed that while female engineers are published in slightly higher impact journals on average than their male counterparts, their work receives fewer citations. This study used bibliometrics, which is the statistical analysis of written publication patterns. The authors filtered for engineering journals published between 2008 and 2013, resulting in 679,338 articles with nearly 1 million co-authors. In order to assign gender to the researchers, the authors utilized databases of male and female first names originating to the country of the researcher’s affiliation. The results showed that women made up only about 30% across all scientific disciplines and a dismal 20% of the authors on the engineering papers. However, the study also showed that when the main author was a female, that research was generally published in a more prestigious journal (demonstrated by a 2% higher impact factor score). Further, the authors of the study correlated that these papers were cited 3% less frequently than publications from male-led studies. The authors suggest that women scientists could close this gap if they were to collaborate with each other as often as they do with male researchers. (John Bohannon, ScienceInsider and Ghiasi, et. al, PLOSone)
Clinical trial goes tragically wrong
Biotrial acknowledged on January 15, 2016 that their phase I clinical trial in France was going terribly wrong. The compound that they were testing is an inhibitor of fatty acid amide hydrolase (FAAH), an enzyme that breaks down endocannabinoids in the brain. The drug was aimed to treat multiple disorders, such as neurodegenerative diseases, anxiety, and chronic pain. At the time of the initial announcement, there were six male patients in the hospital: one who was brain-dead (and later died), at least three patients may suffer irreversible brain damage if they survive, one other has neurological symptoms and the last was under observation with no noticeable symptoms. MRI imaging has shown “deep, necrotic and hemorrhagic lesions in the brain” of the effected patients.
This trial was authorized this previous summer after successful completion of animal studies, including those conducted in chimpanzees. This phase I trial consisted of 128 previously healthy male and female volunteers ranging from 18-55 years of age. Phase I studies are designed to test safety and tolerability of a drug, as well as how, and how fast, the chemical is processed by the human body. Participants of this particular study group were to receive €1900, which included travel expenses; in return, they agreed to stay at Biotrial’s facility in Rennes for 2 weeks, swallow either drug or placebo for 10 consecutive days, undergo extensive medical tests, and provide at least 40 blood samples.
Ninety individuals were given the drug in varying doses while the others were given placebo. The first of the volunteers began taking the drug on January 7th and the symptoms began surfacing three days later. “The 84 other volunteers exposed to the drug have been contacted,” announced the hospital. Ten of them came in to be examined and did not have the ‘anomalies’ seen in the hospitalized patients. (Martin Enserink, ScienceInsider)
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