Science Policy For All

Because science policy affects everyone.

Archive for September 2016

Science Policy Around the Web – September 30, 2016

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By: Jessica Hostetler, PhD

Source: Flickr, under Creative Commons

Human Genetic Manipulation

World’s first baby born with new “3 parent” technique

On September 27, 2016, the New Scientist reported the birth of a baby born with DNA from three people. The now five-month old healthy baby boy was born in New York to a Jordanian couple who had struggled for years to have a healthy child. The baby’s mother had genes for the lethal Leigh syndrome, a neurological disorder typically resulting in death in 1-3 years after birth, from which her first two children had died. These genes were carried in about 25% of her mitochondria, the energy producers for cells, which contain 37 genes separated from the thousands of other genes held inside the cell’s nucleus. Mitochondrial genes are only passed down from mothers through the mitochondria present in the mother’s egg before being fertilized by a father’s sperm.

The couple worked with US-based fertility expert John Zhang from the New Hope Fertility Center in New York City to undergo an approach for mitochondrial replacement therapy (MRT) called spindle nuclear transfer. Dr. Zhang transferred the nucleus of one of the mother’s eggs into a donor egg, which had the nucleus removed but contained healthy mitochondria. Several of these eggs were then fertilized with the father’s sperm to make 5 embryos with nuclear genes from both the father and the mother and mitochondria from the donor. The only healthy embryo was then implanted into the mother, and resulted in the birth of a healthy baby boy, with 99% healthy mitochondria.

This type of egg manipulation is now legal in the UK, though effectively banned in the US, so the team completed the fertility work in Mexico, which lacks clear regulations for the procedure. While several people such as Sian Harding who reviewed ethics for the UK guidelines, and legal scholar Rosario Isasi (from a Nature article), have acknowledged that Zhang’s group appears to have followed ethical guidelines, questions remain about the ethics, quality and safety of the technique.

The report was covered in a number of additional articles and commentaries, including in the New York Times, Science, and Nature. The commentaries note that researchers are eager for more information on a host of fronts such as the choice of using Mexico as the site of the work (as opposed to a more regulated and rigorous scientific environment) and the threshold of contaminating maternal mitochondria used in transfers (5%). These and other specifics are likely to come up when Dr. Zhang and team report on the case at the American Society for Reproductive Medicine meeting in October, 2016. (Jessica Hamzelou, New Scientist)

Health Policy

Why do obese patients get worse care? Many doctors don’t see past the fat

One in three Americans is obese; despite this fact, doctors and the healthcare system remain ill equipped in “attitudes, equipment and common practices” to treat obese patients. Beyond equipment issues, such as 90% of ERs and 80% of hospitals lacking M.R.I. machines built to accommodate very obese patients, research into bias against obese patients (both conscious and unconscious) shows that healthcare providers spend less time with such patients and refer them for fewer diagnostic tests. The same review reports that doctors feel less respect for obese patients and are more likely to stereotype them as “lazy, undisciplined and weak-willed,” all of which can negatively impact communication in the doctor-patient relationship, which in turn affects quality of care. In an effort to address the problem, the American Board of Obesity Medicine was founded to educate physicians about patient care and provide certification for achieving “competency in obesity care.”

Currently, these attitudes can lead health care providers to misdiagnose symptoms as being obesity-related instead of fully investigating other, potentially life threatening causes. Drug dosing may often be incorrect for obese people, particularly for cancer drug regimens for which obese individuals have worse outcomes across the board. Many orthopedists refuse joint hip and knee replacement surgery for obese patients unless they lose weight, though a review committee from the American Association of Hip and Knee Surgeons recommends a measured approach including options for surgery in some patients after the risks are discussed. The problems obese patients face may be exacerbated by the risk-averse hospital culture where adverse event scores affect Medicare reimbursements; thus pushing hospitals to avoid helping higher-risk patients. Beyond this there is a distinct lack of guidance from drug makers for correct dosing of anethesia drugs, with only a few examples, for instance a report from Dr. Hendrikus Lemmens out of Stanford University. Dr. Lemmens notes that 20-30% of obese-patient stays in intensive care after surgery are due to anesthetic complications and are likely frequently caused by drug dosing errors. Providing quality healthcare will likely only increase as the numbers of obese patients continue to increase in the US. (Gina Kolata, New York Times)

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September 30, 2016 at 9:00 am

Science Policy Around the Web – September 27, 2016

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By: Nivedita Sengupta, PhD

Source: pixabay

Alzheimer’s Disease

Larger studies are under way to test whether the promising early data holds up

Recent clinical trials reported that the drug “Aducanumab” might remove toxic amyloid-β proteins thought to trigger Alzheimer’s disease from the brain. In the study involving 165 people, 103 patients received the drug once a month for 54 weeks and the other group received a placebo. Patients receiving infusions of aducanumab experienced a reduction in the amount of amyloid-β in their brains, which was in accordance with the findings of a pretrial mouse study in which the drug cleared amyloid-β plaques from the animals’ brains. “This drug had a more profound effect in reversing amyloid-plaque burden than we have seen to date,” says psychiatrist Eric Reiman, executive director of the Banner Alzheimer’s Institute in Phoenix, Arizona.

Whether aducanumab works to ameliorate the memory and cognitive losses associated with Alzheimer’s is currently under phase III clinical trials. Scientists have debated for years whether accumulation of amyloid-β causes memory loss and other symptoms of Alzheimer’s. This trial is in favor of the “amyloid hypothesis”, and suggests that elimination of the protein might alleviate the symptoms. In the past, other Alzheimer’s drugs have looked promising in early-stage trials, but ended in failure and even caused deaths of patients because of brain inflammation. Aducanumab also showed abnormalities on brain-imaging scans but it was in less than one-third of the patients. Hence, to avoid death of participants, researchers closely monitored such anomalies in these Alzheimer’s trials. All of the reported imaging abnormalities eventually disappeared in about 4 to 12 weeks, and no patients were hospitalized.

Patients who received higher doses of the drug, or who had genetic risk factors for Alzheimer’s, were more likely to develop the brain anomalies. Accordingly, Biogen — the company that makes aducanumab —adjusted the drug’s dosage and the monitoring schedule for people with genetic risks for Alzheimer’s in its phase III trials.

Aducanumab is a bright spot in the field of Alzheimer’s therapeutics after years of failed antibody and other types of drug trials. “This is the best news we’ve had in my 25 years of doing Alzheimer’s research, and it brings hope to patients and families affected by the disease,” says neurologist Stephen Salloway of Butler Hospital in Providence, Rhode Island, who was on the team that ran the initial trial. (Erika Check Hayden, Nature)

Clinical Trials

Investigators are now required to disclose all clinical trials, whether successful or not

On 16th September 2016, the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) announced the new rules for clinical-trial disclosures. According to the new law, it is required that all researchers must report the design and results of all clinical trials whether successful or not. The revised law also empowers the government to enforce penalties for those who fail to comply. The new rule will be effective from 18th January onwards and researchers have 90 days to comply. The disappointing results of clinical trials will no longer remain unpublished, and the new rule intends to crack down on the large number of clinical trials that are conducted but never reported. Robert Califf, head of the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) says, “A lot of major universities just miss the point that if you do an experiment on a person and get consent, you really have the obligation to make the results known.”

The old rule mandated that researchers conducting trials with human subjects had to register their study with the HHS website,, before starting their work, and should follow up with information about their methods and results. But there were many exceptions and loopholes which created a lot of ambiguity. This allowed researchers to avoid reporting all the trials, particularly the failed ones. Christopher Gill, a health researcher at Boston University in Massachusetts says, “This can bias the literature and obscure important information on whether an experimental therapy is harmful. From the perspective of consumers and science, failures are as important as successes”.

Under the new rule, all trials must be registered on within 21 days of enrolling their first patient and researchers can no longer wait for the results of their trials to report their data. Additionally the NIH’s companion rule edicts that NIH-funded researchers have to register phase I trials and also trials that do not involve an FDA-regulated product, such as behavioral interventions. Further changes dictate reporting the details of plans to conduct trials, outlining the statistics to be used to analyze the results, and revealing any changes in the protocol over the course of the study. The final HHS rules will give regulators a greater ability to enforce existing regulations, because many studies of drugs that are eventually licensed are still not reported. (Sara Reardon, Nature)

Income Inequality

Wages for top scientists are shooting skywards while others are being left behind

Income inequality in science is in the rise and is evident in all universities across several countries. The salary gap between elite scientists and those toiling in the benches is expanding over the past few decades. Limited data on the salaries of scientists is available making it difficult to determine the full extent and causes of income inequality. “But the gap in wages has reached a point at which it could be driving talented young people away from careers in academic science”, says Richard Freeman, an economist at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The results of Nature‘s 2016 salary survey also support this concern.

One of the metrics used to measure disparities in salaries is the Gini coefficient in which 0 means everyone earns the same and 1 indicates maximum inequality. In 2012, economist Paula Stephan found that the Gini coefficient has more than doubled between 1973 and 2006 in most fields and faculty ranks in science, with the biggest increases in the life sciences. In contrast, it grew only 35% for full-time male earners in the United States and 18% for US households.

A major issue responsible for the rise of the Gini coefficient is the doubling of the National Institutes of Health’s budget during the late 1990s and early 2000s. This created competition among institutions for a small pool of top-ranked, grant-winning scientists. Everybody wanted to employ the most productive scientists who could bring in grants thus driving up the salaries. “One way for universities to minimize risk is to pick someone who is a demonstrated winner,” says Donna Ginther, a labour economist at the University of Kansas. Like the US, in the UK too, the salaries of top-earning professors have been pulling away from the pack since the late 1990s. An analysis of full-professor salaries in UK in July suggested that low ranking universities, to improve their REF (Research Excellence Framework – an assessment, done by UK funding agencies roughly every five years) performance, are offering high salaries to recruit researchers with high-quality papers to boost their scores. A similar trend is seen in other countries like China and Germany.

On the other end of the salary spectrum, there is little pressure to boost pay. With grants getting harder to win, labs are employing low-cost workforce to maximize research output. This labor environment benefits from the willingness of postdocs to sacrifice income for a chance at an academic research career. Even those lucky enough to land offers for tenure-track junior faculty positions find that starting salaries are not very negotiable.

High salaries at the top can attract productive workers, but low pay at the bottom signals that there may not be a good future in this career. If big rewards become concentrated among a smaller group of people in a highly competitive area, then others who could still have been productive scientists end up losing a disproportionate amount in terms of earnings and career prospects and it could keep promising people from further pursuing a research career. (Corie Lok, Nature)

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September 27, 2016 at 11:47 am

Science Policy Around the Web – September 23, 2016

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By: Emily Petrus, PhD

Source: pixabay

Biomedical Research

BRAIN Initiative might get a global boost

While politicians met at the UN General Assembly in New York this week, another meeting of a more scientific variety was going on nearby at Rockefeller University. The US National Science Foundation (NSF) hosted a meeting to organize neuroscientists from across the globe to develop new ideas to organize their field of research. The US BRAIN initiative was launched in 2013 as an effort to study key issues in neuroscience, such as how the brain connects and functions at the cellular and systems levels. Worldwide, other countries have similar initiatives in place or in planning, thus NSF wanted to get a feel of how data and resources could be shared between scientists regardless of country. For example, Japan and China are investing heavily in primate research, while America and Europe tend to shy away from these organisms, but put more focus on basic research and clinical applications.

One problem that neuroscientists encounter as they compare research findings is differences in data acquisition and processing, with each lab having their own in-house protocols and analyses. A global repository of data with access to super computers and/or powerful microscopes for all could be a boon for how neuroscience research of the future is performed. Other researchers voiced concerns over the possibility that a global project would re-direct funds from local and national sources. This new neuroscience “club” could also create yet another economic hurdle for developing nations’ scientists to overcome.

Politicians at the UN General Assembly voiced their support for an International Brain Initiative, and were met by cautious enthusiasm from neuroscientists. Time will tell if a truly global approach to neuroscience materializes, but political and financial support for neuroscience research makes this an exciting time to be a scientist. (Sara Reardon, Nature)

2016 Presidential Elections

How do the candidates stack up on science?

With the first presidential debate scheduled for Monday, September 26, our nation continues a heated election season with two powerful candidates. Although science is generally low on the priority list for the voting public, it remains an integral part of how our educated nation works. Research influences broad issues in public policy, and policy influences how science gets funded and moves forward.

The candidates have some points of agreement and points of contention for various scientific topics. For example, both Trump and Clinton support NASA and space exploration, although Trump is more eager for a private sector endeavor. Both Trump and Clinton support vaccines in children, with Trump having some reservations, but for other issues of public health such as funding for biomedical research, Clinton has clear proposals for increasing funding, while Trump seems more skeptical than supportive of funding NIH.

Neither candidate has voiced strong opinions on the use of genetically modified foods. However, Clinton does support food labeling, citing a “right to know”, while the Republican Party opposes making labels mandatory. In addition, neither candidate has made a clear statement about gun research; while Clinton has proposed many changes to gun control, Trump supports a right to carry at the national level. Improving Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) education is a topic about which Clinton is passionate, while Trump’s stance is less clear. He maintains that education should be on a locally managed level, which means geography would impact the availability of quality STEM programs.

The strongest point of contention is regarding climate change, where Clinton proposes creating clean energy jobs and cutting greenhouse gas emissions, while Trump considers climate change a hoax and vowed to use American-produced natural gas and oil and reverse the EPA’s moratorium on new coal mining permits.

Overall the candidates have said little regarding these top scientific issues, but based on what they have said in the past, there are certain issues they agree on, while others are divisive in both politics and for the general public. (Science News Staff, ScienceNews)

Biomedical Training

It’s postdoc appreciation week!

In 2009 the US House of Representatives officially declared a week of appreciation for the forces which move scientific research: the postdoc. Postdoctoral fellows/researchers (postdocs) are research scientists who have completed a PhD and continue their training under a more established principle investigator in order to expand their research experience and launch their careers. The National Postdoctoral Association (NPA) pioneered the celebrations in 2010, giving postdocs perks such as career fairs, ice cream socials, and free tickets to local events. Although some of these perks may seem superficial, the larger goal of this week is to bring attention to the plight of these mid-career scientists.

Recently postdocs have been an increasingly vocal part of the research community, as their numbers swell and job prospects appear bleak. Under the organization of the NPA, postdocs have won increases in stipend (pay) levels dictated by the NIH. The NPA has also provided recommendations, information and guidance to the White House and other policy branches of the government. Their goals are to enhance postdoctoral training experiences and opportunities for postdocs in academic and government research settings. The US is placing more focus on getting students to study Science, Technology, Engineering and Math, however biomedical PhDs are being produced at an unsustainable rate for academia, government and industry to employ. By celebrating postdoc appreciation week, the focus is briefly shifted to the other end of the pipeline, where conditions must improve if more people are to be inspired to join at the entry point.

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September 23, 2016 at 3:29 pm

Science Policy Around the Web – September 20, 2016

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By: Valerie Miller, PhD

Source: Flickr, under Creative Commons

Public Health

How More Kids Could Avoid the Dentist’s Drill

Earlier this summer, the question of whether or not to floss has gotten a lot of attention. As it turns out, there is not much evidence to support the idea that flossing can prevent cavities. Yet, for children, the use of dental sealants, which protect molars from plaque and decay, has been shown to reduce the risk of cavity formation by over 75 percent. According to guidelines from the American Dental Association (ADA) and the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry, sealants can be used not only to prevent the start of tooth decay, but can also stop the progression of early decay that has already begun. An analysis of nine randomized control trials demonstrated that for each 1,000 sealants placed, 207 cavities would likely be prevented.

Despite overwhelming evidence that dental sealants can prevent tooth decay and cavities, sealants remain underused in children, with the CDC reporting that, in 2011-2012, only 41 percent of children between the ages of 6 and 12 had at least one dental sealant placed on a permanent tooth. This data also showed that 21 percent of kids between the ages of 6 and 12, and 58 percent of adolescents ages 12 to 19, experienced cavities in permanent teeth, demonstrating the underuse of dental sealants. Most concerning, of the kids in the 6- to 12-year age range, 44 percent of kids without dental insurance coverage were found to have untreated decay, indicating that kids in a population who don’t get regular dental care would likely benefit the most from the use of dental sealants. One way to reach more children is through the use of school-based programs, in which dental hygienists provide sealants in schools to at-risk students. Such programs have been shown to result in 50 percent fewer cavities in the following four years in students who received sealants, compared to students who did not get them.

Although the use of dental sealants is highly recommended by the ADA, concern has been raised because some sealant materials contain a small amount of bisphenol A (BPA), which has estrogenic properties. However, a 2010 study recommended the use of dental sealants while minimizing exposure by rinsing the mouth out after placement. In addition, despite ADA research and guidelines, a survey of dentists in 2011 found that 40 percent felt that sealing early tooth decay was not good practice, believing that decay may continue underneath the sealant. While it can be hard to change the mindset of getting rid of decay with a drill and filling, 24 percent of dentists reported that they didn’t currently seal early tooth decay lesions, but they would be willing to consider it. Thus, parents may have to ask for sealants for their children in order to receive them. (Katherine Hobson, FiveThirtyEight)

Cancer Treatment Guidelines

Prostate Cancer Treatment Doesn’t Save More Lives than Active Surveillance

In recent years, a number of concerns regarding prostate cancer screening have been raised by doctors, as screening may lead to so-called “over-treatment” of prostate cancer, increasing the risk of adverse effects while doing little to save lives. A new study published in the New England Journal of Medicine has shed light on this issue by demonstrating that 10-year outcomes following surgery, radiotherapy or “active surveillance,” which involves regular testing and monitoring of cancer progression while forgoing therapy, were nearly identical. In each case, the rate of death due to prostate cancer was around 1 percent. These results may help men who are reluctant to pursue treatment, which comes with adverse side effects including sexual and urinary dysfunction.

Although survival outcomes were nearly identical in all three groups studied, there were some differences noted between each group. For example, patients in the active surveillance group were found to have twice as much cancer progression, including metastasis to bone and lymph nodes, when compared with patients in either the surgery or radiotherapy group. While increased cancer progression did not necessarily lead to higher risk of death, nearly 55 percent of men in the active surveillance group chose to pursue surgery or radiotherapy after their cancers progressed. The results suggested that active surveillance is a safe choice, when taking into account various factors such as disease progression and aggressiveness, age, and overall health. For example, for men who are older and are suffering from other health issues, immediate action might not be necessary if diagnosed with prostate cancer, as these patients are more likely to die from other causes before dying from prostate cancer. Yet, for younger men who are diagnosed with prostate cancer when they are otherwise healthy, the choice to pursue treatment or active surveillance may be more difficult, due to the side effects from treatment, as well as the potential consequences and increased need for aggressive treatment if the cancer progresses. In any case, the results of this study will provide more information to help each patient make an informed decision regarding their treatment. (Alice Park, Time)

Sports Policy

Sorry Redskins Fans: Native American Mascots Increase Racial Bias

A debate that has perpetuated within the American sports world is the use of Native American mascots to represent sports teams. Proponents of Native American mascots argue that these symbols respectfully honor Native American history, while opponents believe that such mascots perpetuate negative stereotypes against Native American peoples. At the center of the debate is the Washington Redskins football team, which has faced numerous protests and lawsuits over the use of “Redskins” as a team name. Team officials have used the results of a recent Washington Post survey, which found that 9 out of 10 Native Americans don’t take offense to the use of “Redskins” to represent the team, as evidence that a change isn’t needed. However, polls and studies such as this ignore the possibility that the use of Native American imagery may affect how others perceive Native Americans, potentially reinforcing stereotypes.

Recently published research has provided evidence that Native American imagery could induce implicit bias. Study participants were unaware that their viewpoints regarding Native Americans were being affected by the images they were shown. These results led researchers to conduct a “real-world” study, which examined if there were differences in attitudes towards Native Americans when comparing participants from cities that host teams with Native American mascots, to participants from cities with neutral sports mascots. The study found that residents of cities with Native American mascots were more likely to associate Native Americans with warlike traits, thus demonstrating that incidental exposure to such representations can influence perceptions regarding actual members of a certain group, and cause the active promotion of stereotypes within the general population. (Justin Angle, The Washington Post)

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September 20, 2016 at 10:04 am

Science Policy Around the Web – September 16, 2016

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By: Sterling Payne, B.Sc.

Energy change inventory, 1971-2010 License: Creative Commons

Global Warming

Oceans are absorbing almost all of the globe’s excess heat

Climate change is a massive point of interest in public health. As trapped energy in the atmosphere continues to warm the earth, global ice sheets are diminishing, average temperatures are rising, and weather patterns are becoming more erratic. These changes can both directly and indirectly affect public health in a negative way.

A recent report published by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) states that global ocean surface temperatures have steadily increased in the past century. The massive increase in surface temperature stems from oceans absorbing almost 90% of excess heat that is trapped in the atmosphere due to accumulation of greenhouse gases. Warming oceans lead to the melting of ice and increases in global sea levels, as well as changes in lifestyle of marine species, if not driving them to complete extinction. For example, ice sheets used by polar bears for breeding and hunting are available for less time each year, effectively shortening the time in which the species can be most productive.

The IUCN report adds to a seemingly endless pile of evidence that points to human-induced climate change as a very real thing. In the wake of the 2016 presidential election, it will be interesting to see how each candidate addresses science, and to what degree of significance they assign human-induced climate change. In the interim, here are some helpful tips for reducing your carbon footprint! (Tim Wallace, The New York Times)

Antibiotic Resistance

Use antibiotics wisely

“Neosporin” is the first thing that comes to my mind whenever I get a small cut or abrasion. Sporting the antibiotics neomycin, bacitracin, and polymyxin B, the tiny yellow tube is a breath of relief when trying to prevent an infection. However, after applying my gel-like defense, my thoughts almost always jump to the topic of antibiotic resistance. The quick doubling time of many bacterial species, paired with heavy use of antibiotics, gives rise to antibiotic-resistant strains that are no longer affected by humans’ number-one go-to. As Peter Jørgensen and others state in a Nature comment piece, killing all bacteria is not an option, because our bodies also rely on the microbiome to function properly. Antibiotics don’t recognize the healthy bacteria from the harmful, and when they’re used, simply kill everything.

The double-edge nature of antibiotics paired with growing levels of drug-resistant bacteria makes for a public health issue of paramount importance, one that will be addressed at the UN high-level meeting on Antimicrobial Resistance on September 21, 2016. Jørgensen and others feel that this meeting absolutely needs to address the positive roles of bacteria and the microbiome, and how they are helpful to human survival. The authors propose various strategies for maintaining the resilience of the human microbiome to resistance, such as holding agricultural companies accountable and lessening their use of antibiotics for animal growth, educating the public on antibiotic uses and how resistance develops, and strengthening collaboration between global organizations. All-in-all, the world needs to recognize the impact of bacteria, both positive and negative, on humans and the world we live in. For a visual, informative view on resistance development, watch this video showcasing an experiment conducted by individuals at the Harvard Medical School and Technion-Israel Institute of Technology. (Peter S. Jørgensen, Nature Comments)

Public Health

No driver? Bring it on. How Pittsburgh became Uber’s testing ground

I am hard-pressed to think of a situation that defines “science policy” more than the self-driving car trials being conducted by Uber in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. On Wednesday, September 14, 2016, Uber rolled out a fleet of around 100 autonomous vehicles to pick up passengers and transport them throughout the city. Though autonomous, each vehicle will have a driver to take control if need be, as well as an engineer to monitor the self-driving system. Despite human additions, the job of getting riders from point A to point B will mostly be up to the vehicle itself. Will Knight, senior editor for the MIT Technology Review, stated the following about his self-driving Uber trip: “I mostly felt pretty safe. However, several times the person behind the wheel needed to take control: once so the car didn’t become stuck behind a truck, and once to avoid another vehicle making a sudden turn”. It will be interesting to see how other riders react, knowing that for the most part, the car is driving without any human input.

Transportation is a large matter of public health. Regardless of the method (bus, train, personal car, etc.), the safety of the people being transported is the highest priority. With the recent death of driver using a Tesla in autopilot mode, I expect the public to be healthily hesitant regarding the deployment/testing of self-driving vehicles. Some Pittsburgh residents feel exactly this way about the current Uber trials. As autonomous transportation moves forward, safety will be at the forefront of all efforts. For some, this means taking the human out of the equation completely. With no shortage of personal vehicles on the road today, autonomous vehicles need to have benefits, and safety absolutely needs to be one of them. (Cecilia Kang, The New York Times)

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September 16, 2016 at 9:00 am

Science Policy Around the Web – September 13, 2016

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By: Daniël P. Melters, PhD

Giraffe by Muhammad Mahdi Karim through Wikimedia

Conservation Policy

There are four species of giraffe – right?

Recent work published in Current Biology by Axel Janke’s group at Göthe University in Frankfurt, Germany looked at seven genes to determine the genetic relationship between different giraffe found throughout Africa. Previously, giraffes had been grouped in sub-genera based on their coating pattern, but the study of genetic relationships showed that over the last 1 to 2 million years, four distinct groups of giraffes have evolved. The authors argue that their findings represent four distinct giraffe species.

This finding has profound implications for our understanding of African bio-geography and subsequently conservation policy, especially after the latest report that states that in the last two decades 10% of earth’s wilderness has been destroyed. But using genetic data to guide conservation policy is a poorly developed area in part because of our limited understanding of how genetic variation can tell us if two groups of animals are indeed two distinct species. Genetic analysis showed that the forest and savannah elephant are indeed distinct from each other, but they can form hybrids if they do meet. To prevent conservation limbo, the International Union of Conservation of Nature still considers the African elephant as a single species. With regards to the giraffe study, evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne wrote a critical note on his blog in response to Janke’s article and subsequent media coverage. In short, the geographical dispersion of giraffes limits the potential for hybrids to be formed; yet zoo giraffes can form hybrids without much trouble. (Chris Woolston, Nature News)

US Cancer Moonshot Initiative

Blue Ribbon Report lays out wishlist for moonshot against cancer

Vice-president Joe Biden proposed a moonshot to cure cancer last year after his son died from brain cancer. In the last State of the Union, President Obama vowed to accelerate 10 years worth of scientific advances in five years. To create a framework, a blue ribbon panel of the National Cancer Institute’s (NCI) National Cancer Advisory Board (NCAB) consulted 150 experts and reviewed more than 1600 suggestions from researchers and the public. This culminated in a list of 10 recommendations.

One recommendation that stands out is the push for clinical trials for immunotherapy, a promising approach to harness the bodies’ own immune system to fight against the disease. Another recommendation is the creation of a new national network that would allow patients across the country to have their tumors genetically profiled and included in the new database. This latter recommendation overlaps with another health initiative that recently came out of the White House, the Personalized Medicine Initiative.

This leaves one question unanswered: will Congress fund the moonshot. So far lawmakers have not included money in the draft-spending bill and inclusion in another bill remains uncertain. With the release of this Blue Ribbon Report, the NCI NCAB hopes it will implore Congress to fund the moonshot. Nevertheless, co-chair Dinah Singer suggests that even without new funding, NCI could begin funding some projects in the report on a small scale. (Jocelyn Kaiser, Science Insider)

Drug Policy

Public libraries frequently used for drug use

Libraries are an ideal location for studying and reading, with its public access, quiet corners, and minimal interaction with other people. An unforeseen consequence is that people who abuse heroin are using public libraries more and more.

The problem of heroin and painkiller resulting in overdoses is a growing epidemic. This was further exemplified by a recent controversial picture, made public by Ohio’s East Liverpool police, that has made world wide head lines, as it depicted two adults unconscious as a result of a heroin overdose and their 4-year old son in the backseat. Public libraries are especially exposed because everyone can walk in freely and linger around if they please. No transaction or interaction is required. As a result, public libraries are turning to strategies to limit their space being used for drug-abuse. The American Library Association encourages libraries to get training on interacting with special populations, such as drug users and the homeless. In addition, librarians are partnering with the police and social workers. Altogether, the role of a librarian now includes that of a mix of first responders and social workers. (Kantelo Franko, Stat News)

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September 13, 2016 at 9:06 am

Science Policy Around the Web – September 9, 2016

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By: Thaddeus Davenport, PhD

Source: pixabay


DNA Data Storage

In a recent Nature News article, Andy Extance described the growing need for novel data storage methods and materials. It is estimated that between 2013 and 2020 there will be a tenfold increase in digital information, requiring 44 trillion gigabytes of storage. This is a number that is difficult to comprehend, but it’s magnitude and the rapid rate of digital data growth are put in context by a second, more shocking, estimate: if the expansion of digital information continues at the forecasted rates the amount of data requiring storage in 2040 will require “10 to 100 times the expected supply of microchip-grade silicon.” For this reason, researchers have begun considering alternative data storage materials including DNA, which is able to store information at an impressive density; it is estimated that 1 kg of DNA would be sufficient to store the world’s digital archives. DNA is also stable – while there is data loss from hard disks after less than ten years of storage, Nick Goldman, a researcher pioneering DNA data storage at the European Bioinformatics Institute (EBI), notes that in 2013, researchers successfully read the genome of a horse that had been trapped in permafrost for 700,000 years. But there are a number of hurdles that must be overcome before we are able to stream our favorite show out of a test tube. These hurdles include: 1) it is slow to read and (especially) to write DNA sequences, 2) DNA synthesis is error prone, 3) DNA synthesis is currently expensive and 4) it is difficult to specifically access desired information stored within DNA. There have been exciting advances over the last few years from researchers at EBI, Harvard, the University of Washington, and Microsoft that begin to address these problems. This year, researchers at Microsoft and the University of Washington reported successfully storing and retrieving 200 megabytes of data in DNA. This is a far throw from the 44 trillion gigabytes of storage we will require in 2020, but progress in science is non-linear and the need for alternative storage media will motivate the growth of this exciting field. (Andy Extance, Nature News)


Oklahoma Shuts Down Wastewater Injection Wells Following Earthquake

There is a significant amount of wastewater that is released in the process of extracting oil and gas from traditional and hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) wells. One way to dispose of this wastewater is to inject it deep into the earth’s crust. As oil production has increased within the continental United States within the last few years, wastewater injection has increased in stride. Recent evidence suggests that wastewater injection into rock formations alters pre-existing stresses within faults, in some cases leading to slippage that results in an earthquake. A recent article by Niraj Chokshi and Henry Fountain for the New York Times reported that on September 3rd, Oklahoma experienced a 5.6-magnitude earthquake – tying the state’s previous record for its most severe earthquake set in 2011. In response, Oklahoma government officials ordered the shutdown of three dozen wastewater injection wells in the area most affected by the earthquake. The quake comes amid an impressive increase in earthquake frequency for the state. In 2009, there were only three earthquakes of magnitude 3 or greater, but in 2015, this number increased to over 900. To address this increase, state officials ordered a reduction in wastewater injection last year with the hope of decreasing earthquake activity. To date in 2016 there have been over 400 earthquakes of magnitude 3 or greater in Oklahoma. While it is widely accepted that oil and gas production and the associated wastewater injection have set off a number of earthquakes in Oklahoma and other states, it remains unclear if last Saturday’s earthquake was the result of this activity. In the future, additional monitoring of injection wells will provide valuable data to inform decisions on the placement and operation of wastewater injection wells. (Niraj Chokshi and Henry Fountain, New York Times)


Early Support for Amyloid Plaques as the Causative Agent of Alzheimer’s Disease

As humans are living longer, Alzheimer’s disease is becoming an increasingly significant public health problem. The prevailing hypothesis is that aggregation of proteins such as amyloid-β (Aβ) into larger “plaques” leads to Alzheimer’s disease, but there is still no direct evidence to demonstrate that Aβ plaques cause Alzheimer’s disease. In a Nature News & Views article this week, Eric M. Reiman, summarizes the results of an article published in the same journal, which showed that a human antibody, called aducanumab, was able to reduce Aβ plaques in a dose-dependent manner in a small, 12-month placebo-controlled human trial. Though other Aβ-targeting therapies have successfully reduced Aβ aggregates, the most tantalizing result of this study comes from early exploratory analysis of the trial data, which suggested – based on a study population that is too small to make definitive conclusions – that higher doses of aducanumab and larger reductions in Aβ plaques were associated with slower cognitive decline. Before accepting the hypothesis that Aβ plaques cause Alzheimer’s disease, it will be critical to repeat the experiment in larger clinical trials appropriately powered to measure the impact of antibody treatment and plaque reduction on cognitive decline. The study authors also noticed that high doses of antibody were sometimes associated with the inflammation within the brain, causing them to limit the maximum antibody dose tested. Overall, these are exciting results, which, if confirmed in larger clinical trials, would provide much-needed clarity about the mechanism of Alzheimer’s disease and inform future treatments. (Eric M. Reiman, Nature News & Views)

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Written by sciencepolicyforall

September 9, 2016 at 9:20 am