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Archive for May 2016

Science Policy Around the Web – May 31, 2016

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By: Emily Petrus, Ph.D.

Biomedical Research Salaries

Higher Salary for Postdocs Coming Soon

What do a Metrobus driver and a recent biomedical PhD graduate in have in common? Their salary! Although both positions are important to keeping society moving forward, figuratively or literally speaking, one can imagine the disparity between the educational time commitment between these two positions.

New rules set forth by the US Department of Labor dictate that employees with annual salaries falling below $47,476 must be paid overtime for hours they work beyond 40 hours per week.  Research scientists who have recently (typically within 5 years) received a PhD in biomedical sciences will undergo additional training before the next step in their career, similar to residency among medical school graduates.  These highly skilled postdoctoral researchers are called postdocs, and they fall below this threshold, with an average starting salary of $45,000.

This gives research organizations such as academic universities and the National Institutes of Health two options: track the hours their postdocs log at the bench and pay them overtime, or raise the base salary above the threshold.  Because scientific research rarely falls neatly into a 9-5 time table, NIH director Francis Collins is leading the NIH to increase postdoc pay to avoid logging hours for overtime pay.  Most academic research labs follow NIH guidelines for postdoc salary, so the NIH’s commitment to increase their pay should spill over into most other areas of biomedical research.  In a recent article penned by Collins and Thomas Perez, the U.S. Secretary of Labor, they called on the nation to “embrace the fact that increasing the salary threshold for postdocs represents an opportunity to encourage more of our brightest young minds to consider choosing careers in science.”

Although these salary increases will increase the pressure on labs already struggling with tight funding, it may serve as an incentive for future generations to choose biomedical research careers over driving a Metrobus. (Beryl Lieff Benderly, Science Articles)

Chemical Safety

United States poised to approve major chemical safety overhaul

Did you know that companies can use new chemicals in their products without demonstrating their safety for consumers or the environment? How about that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) cannot ask them to remove it until they demonstrate toxicity, which requires a costly amount of research and legislative action? If this sounds backwards to you, take heart: the House of Representatives has approved a long overdue overhaul of the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA).  This measure is expected to be approved by the Senate and President Obama with the next few months.

The TSCA was originally passed in 1976, and contains wording difficult for environmentalists, consumers, and even industry to follow. The original act required the EPA to consider regulatory costs during safety review, effectively reducing the importance of science-based research into chemical safety for consumers and the environment while favoring regulatory cost saving measures. It also made toxicity testing difficult by the EPA by requiring the minimal (“least burdensome”) amount of testing instead of full-fledged studies. The new TSCA will enable the EPA to order companies to prove chemicals are safe for consumers and/or the environment before introducing them to the marketplace, to hopefully avoid another issue such as the widespread use of asbestos in construction until the 1970’s.

Other components of the revised TSCA include an emphasis on reducing numbers of animals used in toxicity studies by replacing them with other testing methods when possible. The act also aims to identify and increase studies on “cancer clusters,” areas of the country which have higher incidences of cancer which may be due to environmental effects.

The revision of the TSCA is arguably the biggest environmental legislative success since the Clean Air Act amendment of the 1990’s. By containing clearer language, it makes the act “a careful compromise that’s good for consumers, good for jobs, and good for the environment” – said John Shimkus (R-IL). (Puneet Kollipara, ScienceInsider)

Mental Health

Children in Poverty at Risk for Increased Incidence of Mental Health Issues

Is it the chicken or the egg?  When it comes to mental health and poverty, it can be difficult to determine causation versus correlation: are mentally unstable people unable to provide for themselves, or is the stress of poverty causing mental health issues?  A recent study in children has determined a third genetic component to the puzzle, related to how the structure of DNA differs between poor and healthy children.

Although it has long been known that children from families below the poverty line have increased incidences of mental and physical ailments such as depression and diabetes, many have pointed to environmental factors such as relatives smoking or poor nutrition as the main culprits. New evidence suggests exposure to stress in utero and during childhood changes the very DNA of these children. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter important for maintaining “happy” brain chemistry and is often targeted for treating depression. New researchers found that the DNA for a serotonin transporter protein is altered in poor children, which may decrease the amount of serotonin allowed to get into brain cells. This was also correlated with higher levels of stress, indicating that growing up in poverty can change fundamental biological components and create lifetime mental health issues for these children.

Growing up in poverty is stressful for children; however there are ways to attenuate their suffering.  High quality, affordable, preschool and childcare is one way the government can step up to the plate.  “Headstart” is a program which enables children of families below the federal poverty line to enjoy a stimulating, warm environment and may reduce the burden of their families to choose between working and providing for their families or staying home to avoid daycare expenses. There are a multitude of issues creating stressful environments for poor families, but providing high quality child care and healthy meals for kids for part of the day is a small investment towards a big, epigenetic payoff in generations to come. (Sara Reardon, Nature News)

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May 31, 2016 at 12:00 pm

Science Policy Around the Web – May 27, 2016

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By: Sophia Jeon, Ph.D.

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Drug regulation and rare diseases

FDA delays decision on whether to approve Sarepta drug for Duchenne

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is wedged between a rock and a hard place to decide whether or not the agency should approve the controversial drug, eteplirsen, for Duchenne muscular dystrophy (DMD). DMD mainly affects boys and is considered a rare disease as it affects fewer than 200,000 US cases per year. As the name implies, it is a neuromuscular condition in which symptoms include frequent falling, trouble getting up or running, and learning disabilities. Average life expectancy for those afflicted with DMD is about 25, and there is no treatment. Considering these devastating factors, it is easy to understand why DMD patients, and their parents would want to hasten the approval of a drug that could potentially save their lives.

On the other hand, it is also easy to understand why the FDA is hesitant to approve this drug. The FDA is a regulatory agency and one of their missions is to evaluate drugs to determine whether or not they are safe and effective to be in the market. The issue is with a Phase III study that Sarepta Therapeutics did to test the efficacy of eteplirsen – that the trial was not well-designed making it difficult to come to a definitive conclusion that this drug works. The trial only involved 12 patients, without a placebo control group. If the FDA makes a decision to approve this drug under political pressure from various stakeholders, a drug that potentially could be ineffective for many kids with DMD only gives them and their family false hope and decreases the motivation for pharmaceutical companies to develop more effective DMD drugs.

Understanding patients’ needs, FDA has an expanded access program that, with the FDA’s approval, allows patients to try experimental drugs. In addition, the Orphan Drug Act gives pharmaceutical companies more incentive to develop drugs for rare diseases. However, it is clear that patients whose lives are on the line do not think the drug development is happening fast enough and are willing to try any option they have available. In 2015, there was even a bill introduced, called Right to Try Act that allows patients to have access to an experimental drug without the FDA’s approval. How much should public input or influence be taken into account in a drug approval process? Should FDA have better strategies in effectively communicating and engaging with patient groups? These are some good questions without definitive answers. (Ed Silverman, STATnews)

Research evaluation and bibliometrics

The pressure to publish pushes down quality

Let’s look at our current research culture. Whether or not you get an academic position, a grant, or a renewal of a grant all depends on how much you publish. “Publish or perish” is a phrase that is frequently used in academic science and it definitely rings true for many researchers in the US. People evaluate your research and productivity based on the number of your publications and the impact factor of the journals you publish in. Daniel Sarewitz recently wrote in Nature about the negative consequences of promoting this “publish or perish” culture.

The first problem is that increasingly everyone in research, whether conscious of it or not, seems to be contributing to this culture, and we need a cultural shift, which does not happen overnight. However, there are efforts to change the way we evaluate science. For instance, Declaration on Research Assessment (DORA) was initiated by the American Society for Cell Biology with a group of editors and journal publishers to try to make that cultural shift and start the movement for everyone in science to realize that merely an impact factor or how many times your paper has been cited should not and cannot accurately reflect your productivity, assess your work’s value or even define your career.

The second problem that Daniel talks more about in this article is the problem of rigor. Some researchers are so pressured to publish that they end up do things that are unethical or produce hard-to-replicate findings by experiments that are not rigorously designed. Researchers also sometimes exaggerate the importance of their findings in order to publish or hand-wave at any inconsistencies in their discussion sections. The real harm is done not only when other researchers waste time trying to chase a false lead but also when these not-rigorously-tested studies accumulate to adversely affect public health. A popular example is the study done by Andrew Wakefield who published his (false) claim linking the MMR vaccine to autism. These problems should not just stop at being “concerns,” instead it is time to re-think the strategies of evaluating science and doing science. Scientists could do better quality science by spending more time thinking and rigorously testing hypotheses than strategizing how to write an attractive story to publish more in a “high impact” journal. (Daniel Sarewitz, Nature Comments)

Clinical trial design and personalized medicine

Personalized medicine: Time for one-person trials

Biomedical research is in a very unique position right now. Recent technological advances have allowed scientists to easily and economically perform activities such as whole genome sequencing (WGS), big data analysis, mobile health data tracking and tissue and cell engineering. These technologies, especially when used in combination, can be a powerful tool that not only offers scientific insight into human biology but also brings up a number of exciting opportunities for prevention and treatment of diseases. These are a few of many reasons the President’s Precision Medicine Initiative (PMI) is gaining much attention.

With these advanced technologies, scientists are beginning to realize that personalized medicine, not just genetic counseling but one that includes a number of other measures, such as your metabolic profile, lifestyle factors, environmental exposures, etc., is the future of biomedical science. One-person trials hope to address a number of issues that the current clinical research or trial designs cannot address sufficiently such as the fact that people have different responses to drugs, and that there has been a lack of inclusion of minority or health disparities populations in many clinical trials taking place in the US. N-of-1 trials would not only address that issue but also could reduce any ethical concerns for placing patients in a randomized placebo control group especially when there is no standard-of-care, because everyone in the trial would be getting the experimental drug for a certain period of time, wait for the effects to wear off, and then a placebo for another to examine their responses to the drug. (Nicholas J. Schork, Nature Comment)


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May 27, 2016 at 1:30 pm

Science Policy Around the Web – May 24, 2016

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By: Allison Burrell, MS, MPhil

photo credit: koya979/Shutterstock

Human Development

Embryology policy: Revisit the 14-day rule

Human developmental biology is at a crossroads. Recently, two labs reported a breakthrough that advances the field of embryology, but ushers in ethical and legal quandaries. Human embryos were grown in vitro for 12-13 days, well beyond the previous 9-day record and nearly double the typical 7-day survival. In vitro research uses cells outside their normal environment. Currently the regulatory and legal statute, going back decades, limits in vitro human-embryonic research to 2 weeks. Also known as the 14-day rule, this regulation is based upon a delineation in development called the ‘primitive streak’ that occurs after the first 14 days after fertilization. Following the formation of this streak, the embryo loses its ability to split into two independent embryos, thus solidifying its status as a biological individual; although, in vivo this also represents the completion of implantation. In vivo means within the organism, and in this context refers to an embryo naturally growing inside a woman’s womb. However, in the lab when culturing embryos in vitro, implantation does not occur, whereas in vivo embryogenesis implantation into the placenta would occur after the 14-day mark. Therefore, since these experiments are completed in vitro the 14-day rule shouldn’t be considered the boundary when moral status begins, and legal research tissue ends. Now, with the impetus of researchers forging past this so-called ‘line in developmental sand,’ regulators must reevaluate the limit.

First suggested in 1979, by the US Department of Health’s Ethics Advisory Board, the 14-day limit is now law in at least 12 countries, and referenced in numerous other reports and guidelines related to embryonic research throughout the world. With re-evaluation of the limit on the table, this could conjure up philosophical and ethical debates. It must be firmly stated that the 14-day rule is a policy tool, written to ensure a figurative space for embryonic research in a pluralistic society.

One could argue that the rules should not necessarily be changed just because researchers are now able to grow embryos beyond the 14-day boundary. It was initially created not only because 14 days was unattainable, but due to a physiological observation. Yet this policy tool is just that, a tool. A tool used to preserve the trust of the public while still allowing for research to move forward. The regulations that govern the circumstances surrounding embryonic growth in vitro must be amended. And in doing so, the emendation of the 14-day rule will address scientific, as well as moral concerns. To encourage a thoughtful revision, developmental biologists should communicate, to the public as well as to international policy makers, why embryonic research is important, and how a possible extension of the 14-day rule will aid that research.

In the interim, the International Society for Stem Cell Research (ISSCR)  has released updated guidelines for stem cell research and clinical translation. Even with the publication of guidelines, the interdisciplinary task force that led the revision must maintain close collaborations with international foundations and governments to prevent public criticism and the implementation of restrictions that hinder the progression of the embryonic research field. (Insoo Hyun, Amy Wilkerson, and Josephine Johnston; Nature)

Microbiology – BREAKING NEWS

Rebuilding trust in biology : An opinion ahead of the NSABB microbiology biosecurity meeting

Today (May 24, 2016), the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) will meet at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to discuss and vote to approve the revised NSABB report. Back on January 7-8, 2016, the NSABB met to consider the risks, benefits, ethics, and policy surrounding gain of function studies, particularly regarding infectious pathogens, leading to the final report. This debate officially started 18 months ago, and will culminate today.

The primary purpose of meetings like this is to implement biosecurity policies designed to protect the public from research projects that could pose a risk to national, and global safety. The promise that new biological technologies will be beneficial and safe is still on shaky ground and public trust in this research is flagging. Infractions are still occurring, as just last week it became apparent that certain labs at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) were subjected to secret sanctions and suspensions for mishandling bioterror pathogens. Prior to that, the NIH stumbled upon a 30-year old smallpox virus in a neglected freezer when the virus should have only been safely secured at either of two dedicated storage facilities in the world, in which this freezer was not located. And additionally, the US military erroneously sent live infectious anthrax from a secured facility to over 200 labs in the world.

These infractions barely touch the surface, since smaller minor breaches are not regularly reported in the news. That this is occurring ad nauseam in countries with strict biosafety regulations, makes one wonder how many incidents slip through the cracks in these countries as well as ones with lesser regulations.

The NSABB’s focus today on debating gain of function mutations run the risk of jeopardizing the reputation of the “global biomedical research enterprise.” One way to gain public trust is to provide transparency in the process, which is why the report and meeting minutes are published online, and the meeting is also public. A second way is to give scientists leading this research the responsibility of helping encourage responsible behavior amongst colleagues to prevent accidental and premeditated misuses of biology. Thirdly, accountability is an imperative tenet towards gaining public trust. Creation and enforcement of new scientific norms that do not detract from the goal of honesty through accountability are changes that can’t come too soon. Lastly, transparency must be reiterated in relation to potentially hazardous experiments, such as inserting a gene, or genes, responsible for airborne transition to a virus that currently can only be transmitted via mosquito bite. This experiment may inform scientists how said gene(s) are responsible for airborne evolution, and thus enable the prevention of future deleterious outbreaks. But if this airborne mutant recombinant pathogen were to be accidentally released, or fall into the wrong hands, it could quickly become an epidemic or bioterrorism tool. Science that enforces trustworthiness, accountability, transparency, open communication and feedback, organized vetting of new technologies, and responsibility can, and will, allow for the growth of science in a safe and beneficial path. (Filippa Lentzos and Nicholas Evans, The Guardian)

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May 24, 2016 at 11:00 am

Global disparities in cancer treatment and recent policies to address cancer care

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By: Nivedita Sengupta, Ph.D.

photo credit: phalinn via photopin cc

According to American Cancer Society more than 8 million people worldwide die from cancer every year. The number of deaths worldwide from communicable diseases like malaria, HIV and AIDS is insignificant compared to the number of global deaths from cancers which is expected to cross the 13 million mark by 2030, making cancer the leading cause of death worldwide. Cancer as a non-communicable disease has long been considered a disease of developed countries, where people are more likely to succumb to long-term chronic diseases rather than dying from infectious diseases. However, according to statistics from the World Health Organization (WHO) and American Cancer Society, of the 14.1 million new cancer cases reported worldwide in 2012, 6.1 million were from developed countries compared to 8 million in developing countries – and these numbers are still rising. The number of new cancer cases in developing countries is predicted to rise to 13.1 million by 2030. These discrepancies between developed and developing countries are also apparent in childhood cancers. Childhood cancers account for less than 1% of the total cases in developed countries but about 4% in developing countries. Considering that reliable data on incidence are only available for a fifth of the world population consisting of people in mostly high-income countries, the actual statistics on cancer in developing countries may be even higher making cancer a significant and growing health burden in developing countries.

Escalation of cancer cases in developing countries over the past years has resulted in an increase in cancer-related health care costs, building up a global financial burden due to cancer. In 2010, $290 billion was spent to treat 13.2 million new cancer cases worldwide and this spending is projected to increase to $458 billion by 2030. Despite a wealth of data on how to diagnose and treat cancer, funding for cancer remains a low priority in context of health spending for both developing countries and for the nations providing donations. Only 5% of global resources devoted to cancer are spent in developing countries. In 2014, total global funding for development assistance for health was $35.9 billion, and only 2% of that amount was allocated for assistance in the area of non-communicable diseases of which cancer is only one aspect. This sets up an untenable situation as developing countries do not have the resources to tackle the rising human cost of cancer within their borders and necessitates significant global interventions and funding.

One potential in-country way to combat and prevent many of the deaths from cancer could be by raising awareness of the signs and symptoms of cancer among the general population, as well of awareness of proven ways to prevent cancer. A 2007 study on breast cancer in Malaysia found that 52.2% of newly diagnosed patients have stage III and IV cancers due to a lack of awareness of the signs and symptoms of cancer leaving them to seek treatment further into the disease progression. Most of these women were from rural Malaysia, with little or no education. Earlier screening for these and other cancers could help prevent cancer deaths. The major cancer types found in the developing countries are breast, cervical and colorectal cancer. Many of these cancers respond to treatment if detected early and treated adequately. However due to lack of cancer diagnosis facilities, by the time cancer is detected in these poor people it progresses to a stage where palliative care becomes the only option. In another example, potentially up to 20% of cancer deaths in developing countries could be prevented by immunization against HBV and HPV infections. Public-private global health partnerships like GAVI Alliance have partly facilitated the availability of HPV vaccines in the poor countries such as Kenya, Ghana, Madagascar, Malawi, Niger, Sierra Leone and the United Republic of Tanzaniato. However, poor people living in the middle income countries like China, Malaysia, India and Brazil are excluded from this initiative due to their country’s slightly higher income.

Another significant problem needing attention is a lack of proper infrastructure (in terms of equipment and people) for cancer treatment in developing countries. Currently, treatment options in developing countries are very limited and expensive. In developed countries people can have better health care coverage and access to up-to-date cancer care facilities and treatment, in addition to dedicated cancer research centers and specialists. Most developing countries have limited treatment centers with proper infrastructure and oncologists. According to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), even though 85% of the world’s population resides in developing countries, the average number of pieces of therapy radiation equipment in developing countries is only 0.4 units per million inhabitants, compared to more than six units per million inhabitants in developed countries. The few developing countries who are privileged enough to have access to radiotherapy equipment face considerable financial burdens in then providing the necessary training, equipment set-up and maintenance, protocols and quality control for proper usage of these machines for cancer treatment. Oncology and palliative care training is limited in medical schools and very few doctors and nurses can afford to have training outside their country resulting in lack of sufficiently trained staff in developing countries to deal with the increasing load of cancer cases.

Even treating cancer patients at all can be difficult in developing countries. Apart from expensive cancer drugs themselves, pain medications for palliative care like morphine are not easily available in these countries. Statistics show that 99.9% of cancer patients in developing countries are dying with untreated pain. 84% of the morphine used globally goes to the developed countries, leaving just 16% for the rest of the world. This is not because of limited morphine production but rather mainly because of onerously complicated and expensive narcotic supply regulations set by the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB). The structure of surveillance and accountability requirements implemented by INCB makes it almost impossible for poor nations to comply because of poor infrastructure and lack of educated people to handle issues necessary to comply with the regulatory needs. Moreover, country specific regulatory laws make it harder for the doctors to prescribe these medicines. All patients in need of pain relief could be helped if proper laws are implemented to gain access to pain medication and palliative care.

Drug companies themselves can help to address these health disparities in developing countries. On March 31st 2016, GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) CEO Andrew Witty announced a series of new patent policies designed to make innovative GSK medicines available to more people living in under-developed and developing countries. The new polices have a special focus on improving access to cancer drugs specifically. In the policy, GSK plans to stop filing for patents on its molecules in 50 of the least developed and low-income countries. In developing lower-middle-income countries, GSK will continue to file for patents but will grant licenses to generics manufacturers. This will enable easier access to cheaper generic versions of GSK’s drugs in those countries for the treatment of cancer. Furthermore, GSK will submit patents on future cancer drugs it develops to the United Nations-backed Medicines Patent Pool (MPP). The MPP deals in large-scale licensing agreements between drug developing companies and generics manufacturers thus enabling greater access to medicines in up to 127 developing countries. GSK has been applauded for this venture and the initiative also reveals the growing awareness among people regarding the magnitude of disparities in cancer care around the world. However experts says that a lot more still needs to be done in terms of improving access to needed medications. Ironically, most of the world’s poor live in ‘middle income’ countries such as China, India and Brazil that are not included in these polices and therefore will not gain anything from these new measures.

To reduce the death burden due to cancer in developing countries significant funding is needed, and one key challenge is how to obtain that funding. International advocacy is required to mobilize the international community and individual governments to take action. A number of influential international advocates like the UN, WHO and IARC are already active and trying to form partnerships with international health professionals, non-government organizations (NGOs), and funding organizations to bridge the gap between funding and treatment. By taking the necessary steps in proper direction to strengthen cancer prevention, early detection, treatment and palliation, much can be done to help improve cancer control in developing countries.

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May 23, 2016 at 9:00 am

Science Policy Around the Web – May 20, 2016

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By: Valerie Miller, Ph.D.

License: (license) Photo Credit: photo credit: Happy Days via photopin (license)

Global Health

Society is Messing with Your Sleep

There are a number of factors, such as work, personal habits and families, that determine how much sleep a person gets. Individual chronotypes, the sleep cycle an individual’s body naturally prefers, also affect sleeping patterns. However, a question that remains to be answered is: does society as a whole affect sleeping patterns? Researchers from the University of Michigan seeking to examine societal effects on sleeping patterns at the population level have published a study in the journal Science Advances that used smartphone data to track sleep cycles in different countries. The researchers created a smartphone app, called Entrain, which was designed to recommend sleeping times to travelers to help them deal with jetlag in new time zones. People who signed up for the app were also given the option to answer questions for research purposes, such as where they live, how much indoor or outdoor light they’re exposed to, their usual bedtime, and when they typically wake up. The study included data from over 5,000 app users. Shift workers were excluded from the analysis.

The researchers first created a mathematical model to determine what might be considered a “normal” bedtime and wake time for each user location, using local sunset and sunrise times. They then compared these times to the actual sleep and wake times reported by the users. They found that there were variations on a demographic level, with older people sleeping less and waking earlier, and with women of all age groups getting more sleep than men. At the society level, the researchers found that there was little variation on when people in different countries wake up, although people in locations with earlier sunrises tended to get up slightly earlier. However, major differences were found when people in different countries reported going to bed. In other words, in countries where people tend to get less sleep, such as Japan and Brazil, later bedtimes are the cause, not rising earlier.

The study did not delve into the particular reasons for why some societies have later bedtimes, but did discuss that oftentimes, wake times are more rigid than bed times, due to work and school responsibilities. With bed time, people have more control in deciding when they want to go to bed, which may be based on how tired one is, how much sleep one wants to get and what else is going on in ones’ life. However, when bedtimes are differing across societies, cultural reasons are likely the cause, but future studies will need to be performed to determine what those reasons are. (Julie Beck, The Atlantic)

Child Health Policy

Beware the Monkey Bars! Playground Concussions are Rising

According to a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), an increasing number of children have been visiting the ER due to traumatic brain injuries, including concussions, sustained at playgrounds. The study, recently published in the journal Pediatrics, looked at children between the ages of 0-14 who visited an ER in the US between 2001 and 2013. They found that the estimated annual visits to the ER due to traumatic brain injuries remained relatively stable between the years 2001 and 2008, with fewer than 20,000 per year. However, this number has steadily increased to approximately 30,000 estimated ER visits per year by 2013. Of all pieces of playground equipment, the monkey bars and swings were the two places where children suffered the most traumatic brain injuries, followed by the slides.

The CDC doesn’t have a clear answer as to what is causing the increase. One suggestion posits that children are playing on playgrounds that aren’t repaired or maintained enough. Another possibility is that due to a number of recent reports regarding concussions in professional sports, doctors, parents and teachers have an increased awareness of traumatic brain injury, leading to more diagnoses.

Although concussions are serious injuries, they represent a relatively small percentage of injuries that occur at the playground. A study by the Consumer Product Safety Commission determined that fractures were most likely, representing 40% of all playground injuries in 2015. Concussions accounted for 3% of injuries, and internal injuries that affected the head accounted for an additional 9.5%. (Leah Libresco, FiveThirtyEight)

Public Health

How safe is bike commuting? Perhaps less than you think

While most people think of biking as a healthy way to commute that is earth-friendly and can be faster, cheaper and more reliable than driving or public transportation, it turns out that biking is a lot less safe than people realize. Of all methods of transportation, biking is the second most dangerous, with motorcycles claiming the top spot. According to a 2007 study published by the CDC, people in the US are twice as likely to die while biking than riding in a car per trip, and 500 times more likely to die per trip than taking the bus. In US cities, the addition of dedicated bike lanes and trails have helped to reduce fatalities. Washington, DC and Boston are safest large cities for bicyclists, with only 1.5 fatalities per million residents in 2014, whereas Tucson, AZ was the least safe, with 11.4 fatalities per million residents.

Accidents aren’t the only health risk that bicyclists face. Air pollution is another risk that affects bike commuters. A 2015 study by researchers at Colorado State University found that, on average, people commuting by bike inhaled three times more air pollution than drivers, caused by heavier breathing and longer commute times outside in the presence of cars.

Despite these factors, Johanna Boogaard, a researcher at the Health Effects Institute in Boston, argues that biking is still the best commuting option for overall health due to the benefit of getting regular exercise. In fact, using data from the Netherlands, a nation in which many people bike, Boogaard and colleagues demonstrated that the benefits of cycling (3-14 months of lifespan gained) outweighed the negative effects of accidents (5-9 days lost) and air pollution (0.8-40 days lost). Boogaard also was confident that the findings of her study would hold true in the US, a place where there are more traffic accidents, but where more people with inactive lifestyles could benefit from physical activity. (Sadie Dingfelder, The Washington Post)

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May 20, 2016 at 9:00 am

Science Diplomacy Between the US and Cuba

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By: Steven Witte, B.Sc.

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Located less than 90 miles apart, Cuba and the United States share many of the same environmental and public health challenges. Invasive species such as lionfish, African catfish, and marabou are threatening native species. Oil drilling in the Gulf of Mexico poses a potential risk for an environmental disaster, and tourism is threatening coral reefs and other important ecosystems. And recently, the Zika virus and chikungunya have been spreading throughout the Caribbean. It is predicted the viruses may make their way to Cuba and eventually even parts of the United States. By working together, these two countries could develop better strategies to solve these problems. But cooperation between the US and Cuba has been extremely difficult for several decades because of strained relations between the two nations.

In the past, American and Cuban scientists have successfully collaborated together. In the mid-nineteenth century, the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC, established ties with two Cuban institutions in Havana: the Economic Society of Friends of the Country, and the Royal Academy of Medical, Physical, and Natural Sciences. Soon after, Jesse Lazear and Carlos Finlay, scientists from the USA and Cuba, respectively, collaboratively made crucial discoveries concerning the transmission of yellow fever, leading to effective preventive measures. During the Cold War, however, diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba were severed. Further, embargoes were put in place preventing trade between the countries. As a result, Cuba could no longer receive funding or equipment from the United States, except in very specific circumstances. It also became difficult for American scientists to travel to Cuba for meetings, thus affecting scientific relationships.

Re-establishing scientific collaborations with Cuba would benefit both the US and Cuba in a number of ways. Vaccines or drugs are currently unavailable for Zika and Chikungunya viruses, and the best option is to closely monitor the spread of these diseases. Sharing data with Cuba, which already has observation programs in place, would help identify outbreaks and develop responses. The Cuban biotechnology industry has many products that could be used by Americans – for example, Cuba is an important producer of vaccines, exporting them to many other countries. More recently, a company in Cuba has developed a drug for treating severe diabetic foot ulcers, which can prevent the need for amputations. Other companies have products to prevent or treat many diseases that impact U.S agriculture and cattle, such as a vaccine for serious tick infestations. Cuba would benefit from scientific expertise in America, as well as funding and equipment that could be provided, as many of the research institutions in Cuba currently operate on small budgets. Allowing Cuban scientists to attend conferences in America would provide a healthy exchange of knowledge and expertise.

Over the past several decades, many attempts have been made to re-establish scientific relationships with Cuba. During President Jimmy Carter’s administration, the National Science Foundation (NSF) considered establishing links with Cuban research institutions and tried to finance joint research projects, but these goals were never realized. More recently, the Center for Science Diplomacy of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) has made several visits to Cuba to promote scientific cooperation. In 2014, the AAAS and the Cuban Academy of Sciences signed a historic agreement in which both organizations agreed to work together on four scientific areas: infectious diseases, cancer, antimicrobial resistance, and neuroscience. Following this agreement, Cuban and American scientists met in Washington, DC, and discussed plans to create further agreements on collaborations for ocean science research and conservation. In 2015, President Barack Obama’s administration re-established diplomatic ties with Cuba. Although this is beneficial for fostering scientific relationships, many barriers still remain. The trade embargo is still in effect, for example, and it is still difficult for scientists to travel to Cuba. However, progress has been made. The United States has enacted policy to allow Cubans to get educational grants and scholarships. And scientific equipment can now be donated to Cuba, unless it has potential military applications.

Going forward, several ideas have been proposed to foster scientific relationships between Cuba and the United States. High-level governmental agreements could go a long way in enabling scientific collaboration. Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that work internationally in partnership with governments to try and solve global problems could also catalyze shared scientific programs. For example, the Clinton Climate Initiative has partnered with the governments of several island nations and helped them reduce their dependence on fossil fuels by using renewable energy. Others have suggested that the United States shut down its Naval base in Guantánamo Bay, and re-purpose the facilities as a marine research institution and peace park.

Regardless of the form it takes, cooperation between scientists in Cuba and the United States could benefit both countries as they address emerging environmental, public health, and biomedical problems. In addition, cooperation through science could pave the way to peaceful cooperation in other arenas between both countries, as they re-establish connections following several decades of unfavorable relations.

Written by sciencepolicyforall

May 18, 2016 at 9:00 am

Posted in Essays

Tagged with ,

Science Policy Around the Web – May 17, 2016

with 2 comments

By: Melissa Pegues, Ph.D.

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Zika Virus

WHO’s Zika guidelines don’t include delaying Olympics

With the summer Olympic games slated to begin in Brazil in August, many have expressed concerns about the health risks posed by the recent outbreak of Zika virus in Central and South America. Despite these concerns, the World Health Organization (WHO) released a statement on Thursday making it clear that they are not calling for a cancellation of the Olympic games this summer.

The Zika virus, which is transmitted by mosquitoes, has garnered much attention recently after infection with the virus during pregnancy has been found to cause microcephaly in infants. Microcephaly is a birth defect in which the brain does not develop properly resulting in a smaller than normal head. The virus has also been associated with the development of Guillian-Barre syndrome, a rare form of paralysis.

Although many prominent medical ethicists have publicly called for the postponement or relocation of the games, few athletes have expressed concern over the risks posed by Zika. However, Marcos Espinal, the director of the Zika response of the Pan American Health Organization, has strongly rejected the idea of postponing the games. He cited trends seen from dengue and chikungunya, similar viruses that are also carried by the same Aedes aegypti mosquito, in that infections peak during the summer months and subsequently drop off after the season changes. Furthermore, he noted that the games are occurring in the winter months of August and September when mosquitoes are not so abundant. International Olympic Committee (IOC) director, Richard Budgett, reaffirmed that although the situation is being closely monitored, the IOC is committed to continuing with the Olympic games this summer.

In their statement, WHO urged athletes and anyone traveling to Brazil to attend the Olympic games to take steps to protect against Zika, including wearing insect repellent and clothing that covers as much of the body as possible. The WHO statement also cautions against sexual transmission of the virus and suggested practicing safe sex or abstaining from sex during their stay and for at least four weeks after returning from the epidemic zone. This recommendation contrasts those issued by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) that recommend abstaining from sex for eight weeks after returning, further highlighting how little is known about transmission of the virus. There have been few documented cases of sexual transmission and many questions regarding sexual transmission of the virus remain, including if an asymptomatic infected person can transmit the virus sexually. WHO also recommended that Olympic visitors stay in air-conditioned accommodations and avoid areas where there is increased risk of being bitten by a mosquito such as “impoverished and overcrowded areas in cities and towns with no piped water and poor sanitation.” (Pam Belluck, New York Times)

Genetic Engineering

Secret Harvard meeting on synthetic human genomes incites ethics debate

The ability to modify the genome is rapidly advancing the medical field, but a private meeting of scientists has brought intrigue and concern to the field of genetics. Nearly 150 Scientists gathered at Harvard Medical School last week to discuss how to create a complete genome from scratch. The project has been described as a follow-up to the human genome project, but rather than aiming to read all of the base pairs of the human genome, the goal is to synthesize a “complete human genome.” Although scientists already have the capability to synthesize DNA chemically, significant focus is being given to improving these techniques with the goal to construct complete genomes that could be implanted in cells for research purposes.

However, the meeting has drawn criticism because the organizers of the event asked attendees not to contact the media or post to Twitter during the meeting. Researchers Drew Endy and Laurie Zoloth published an essay questioning the decision to keep the meeting private. In their joint statement they questioned whether the organizers gave full consideration to potential ethical issues by asking “how many Einstein genomes should be made and installed in cells, and who would get to make them?”

George Church, the Harvard geneticist who oversaw the meeting, explained that the project was aimed at creating cells, not people. He further explained that the project is not restricted to the human genome, and that these techniques could be applied to other animals, plants, and microbes. The meeting was originally intended to be open with video streaming and numerous invited journalists, but attendees were asked not to publicly discuss the event since there were also plans to pair the meeting with a peer-reviewed article. Church commented that “there was nothing secret about it” that a video of the meeting will be released with their soon-to-be published peer-reviewed article. (Joel Achenbach, Washington Post)

Federal Science Initiatives

Earth’s microbes get their own White House Initiative

With months left in Obama’s presidency, the White House Office of Science and Technology has announced yet another scientific endeavor, the National Microbiome Initiative (NMI). This latest initiative will join numerous other efforts in the Obama administration’s scientific legacy including: the BRAIN Initiative, the Antibiotic Resistance Solutions Initiative, the Precision Medicine Initiative (PMI), and the Cancer Moonshot Initiative. The human “microbiome” is the collection of microbes that inhabit our bodies, and variations in its composition has been found to correlate with many diseases including autoimmune diseases, diabetes, and obesity.

The NMI however includes many governmental departments to study the microbiome of many ecosystems such as “those that help plants pull nutrients from soil, to those that capture and release carbon dioxide in the ocean.” Because these environments contain many species of bacteria, viruses, and fungi, determining the role of any one species is nearly impossible. Reaching the lofty goals set by this initiative will require better tools to dissect individual species within the microbiome, and to address these shortcomings, the NMI has set forth 3 goals:  supporting interdisciplinary research, developing platform technologies, and expanding the microbiome workforce. To support these goals, the NMI will receive an investment of $121 million dollars from federal 2016 fiscal appropriations and 2017 fiscal proposals, as well as commitments of $400 million dollars from stakeholder and institutions in different sectors. (Kelly Servick, ScienceInsider)

Have an interesting science policy link?  Share it in the comments!

Written by sciencepolicyforall

May 17, 2016 at 9:00 am