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Archive for February 2017

Science Policy Around the Web – February 24, 2017

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By: Alida Palmisano, PhD

Source: usda [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Public Access to Data

Lawsuit Aims to Force USDA to Repost Scrubbed Animal Welfare Records

“Put the records back on the internet.”

An article published in Science discusses a lawsuit filed on February 13 against the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) by an animal law expert at Harvard University. According to the plaintiffs, USDA violated the federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) when it removed thousands of animal welfare inspection reports and other records from a publicly accessible website. USDA generated records that document animal facility inspections, enforcement actions, animal censuses, and other information collected by the agency in the course of enforcing the federal Animal Welfare Act.  The law covers animals in more than 7800 facilities, including zoos, roadside circuses, and research laboratories at government agencies and academic medical centers.

The decision to remove the public access to these records may have been a response to a lawsuit involving another law, the Horse Protection Act. The plaintiffs in a 2016 Texas lawsuit accused USDA of violating their rights under the Privacy Act by posting inspection documents required by the Horse Protection Act. A resulting USDA review of all its public postings led the agency to scrub from its website documents generated under both the Horse Protection Act and the Animal Welfare Act.  In the future, the agency announced, people who want access to those records will need to file a FOIA request. The agency’s most recent FOIA report states that it takes an average of 94 days for the agency to respond to a simple FOIA request and 234 days on average for more complicated requests.

In February 13’s lawsuit, the plaintiffs invoke a section of FOIA that requires agencies to make publicly available electronically all records that it has released under FOIA which “because of the nature of the subject matter, the agency determines have become or are likely to become the subject of subsequent requests for substantially the same records.” (Meredith Wadman, ScienceInsider)

Science and Immigration

Grad Students, Postdocs with U.S. Visas Face Uncertainty

While U.S. courts are busy handling President Donald Trump’s travel ban on immigration from seven majority-Muslim countries, the temporary shut down of the executive order, the appeal to reinstate the travel ban, the rejection of the immediate restoration of the ban, and more appeals and rulings, graduates and postdoctoral students already in the United States are weighing their options and trying to plan rationally in an unpredictable and fluid situation.

Many scientists in the U.S. are on student or other working visas. All these visas may not be renewable, depending on future executive orders and regulations. The dilemma “simply ruins their future. It’s a catastrophe,” says a Yemeni biologist who is on a university faculty on an H-1B, a 3-year visa for professionals. For years, lawmakers in Washington have tried to reform abuses of visa regulations by companies using visas to bring workers to the U.S. to learn the ropes, and then send the trained workers to other countries where the job can be done cheaply. The H-1B system is contentious: on one side labor advocates want the exploitation of the H-1B system to stop supporting an outsourcing business model. On the other hand, tech companies like Google and Facebook say they can’t get enough visas for top foreign talent, as the cap on the number of H-1Bs issued every year means that sometimes foreign graduates from top U.S. universities, places like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of California, Berkeley, can’t get one. The travel ban already has harmed the top universities in the U.S., stranding students, faculty and scholars abroad, and making foreign schools more attractive to some of the world’s brightest students.

In papers filed in Brooklyn federal court, the schools (that include Columbia, Duke, Harvard, Johns Hopkins, Princeton, Stanford, Yale, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and several more) said that the order blocking travel from seven predominantly Muslim countries threatens their abilities to educate future leaders from every continent. They said the executive order has “serious and chilling implications” and that the ban “casts doubt on the prospect and value of studying and working here for everyone,” the papers said. (Meredith Wadman, Richard Stone, Science)

Genetic Engineering

US Science Advisers Outline Path to Genetically Modified Babies

“Scientists should be permitted to modify human embryos destined for implantation in the womb to eliminate devastating genetic diseases such as sickle-cell anaemia or cystic fibrosis — once gene-editing techniques advance sufficiently for use in people and proper restrictions are in place. That’s the conclusion of a 14 February report from the US National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine.”

The report follows a 2015 National Academies summit between scientists, ethicists, legal experts and patient groups from around the world. At the time of the meeting, given the outstanding scientific, ethical and legal questions surrounding the issue, the organizers concluded that scientists shouldn’t yet perform germline editing on embryos intended for establishing a pregnancy. However, the organizers also stated that altering human embryos for basic research was acceptable.

The latest iteration of this ongoing CRISPR debate moves the bar a little further. The report recommends restricting the technique to severe medical conditions for which no other treatment exists. Eric Lander, president of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, said, “It’s a very careful, conservative position that’s just a little bit beyond an absolute bar.” In the report, the committee also called for international cooperation, strict regulatory and oversight framework, public input into decisions and long-term follow-ups of children who have edited genomes. The report adds that for now, genome editing should not be used for human enhancement, such as improving a person’s intelligence or giving them super-strength.

The report drew immediate criticism from a California-based non-profit organization called the Center for Genetics and Society. “This report is a dramatic departure from the widespread global agreement that human germline modification should remain off limits,” said Marcy Darnovsky, executive director of the center. “It acknowledges many of the widely recognized risks, including stigmatizing people with disabilities, exacerbating existing inequalities, and introducing new eugenic abuses. Strangely, there’s no apparent connection between those dire risks and the recommendation to move ahead.” (Sara Reardon, Nature)

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February 24, 2017 at 11:23 am

Synthetic Biology to Cure Diseases – Promises and Challenges

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By: Emmette Hutchinson, PhD

       Synthetic biology is an interdisciplinary field that utilizes an engineering approach to construct novel biological products, circuits and designer organisms. This field has the potential to revolutionize many aspects of society from chemical production to healthcare. Synthetic biology holds particular promise in the production of biological therapeutics or chemical compounds for the treatment of disease. Increased efficiency and stability of production can be especially beneficial when treating global diseases that are typically associated with poverty. Treatment for these conditions is typically funded by grants from large charitable foundations, sometimes leading to scarcity as funding recedes.

In 2015, 212 million cases of malaria were reported worldwide, predominantly among the poorest countries in the world. While major initiatives such as the President’s Malaria initiative and the Gates foundation focus on various aspects of combating the disease, such as the spread of the parasite and the eradication of the disease, respectively, cost-effective treatments for infections are still needed. The most efficacious treatments for malaria are artemisinin-based combination therapies (ACTs). The 2015 Nobel Prize in Medicine was awarded in part to Youyou Tu for her work demonstrating that artemisinin, an Artemisia annua (sweet wormwood) extract, was an effective anti-malarial treatment. Landmark research published in 2006 demonstrated synthetic production of artemisinic acid, a precursor to artemisin, in yeast. Prior to this study, the only source of artemisinin was tiny hairs found on the surface of the wormwood. The supply of artemisinin has previously been unstable, resulting in dramatic price fluctuations. These price spikes have resulted in both shortages and unattainable cost of treatment. The pharmaceutical giant Sanofi licensed the yeast strain with the hope of creating a more reliable source of artemisinin. In part, due to market forces pushing down the price of artemisinin (primarily a surge in world-wide Artemisia annua cultivation), Sanofi recently sold both its technology and production facilities to Huvepharma. Despite the potential of synthetic biology to disrupt the pharmaceutical industry, this is an example of how existing production methods can impede adoption of more efficient (and stable) synthetic approaches. An alternative to synthetic production of artemisinin in yeast, termed COSTREL (combinatorial supertransformation of transplastomic recipient lines), re-creates the enzymatic pathway necessary to produce artemisinin in tobacco. Although not as efficient as synthetic production of the chemical in yeast, this route offers a significant per-acre boost in artemisinin production over the native source and a potentially more open market to supply drug manufacturers.

Similar to malaria, snake bites predominantly affect impoverished regions of the world. This makes the use of life-saving anti-venoms particularly burdensome as they are both expensive and difficult to produce. The World Health Organization estimates that up to 2.5 million cases of envenoming occur each year, resulting in death, amputations and permanent disabilities. Antivenoms are typically produced using plasma from hyperimmune animals, an often expensive and time-consuming process. In some cases, the profit margins are considered too low to continue producing effective antivenoms such as FAV-Afrique, a polyvalent antivenom effective against 10 species of sub-Saharan snakes. Two recent approaches utilizing synthetic antibody fragments have shown promising effects for protection against specific snake venoms. In a screen for antibody fragments to snake venom, Prado and colleagues found two fragments that protected mice against muscle damage from Bothrops jararacussu and Bothrops brazili venom. Ramos and colleagues designed two synthetic DNA sequences encoding components of coral snake (Micrurus corallinus) venom. Serum obtained from animals immunized with these DNA sequences resulted in 60% survival of animals given a lethal dose of coral snake venom. This second approach eliminates the need for difficult-to-obtain venom when seeking to generate hyperimmune animals as anti-venom producers. It is possible that these or similar synthetic biology approaches could be utilized to produce FAV-Afrique or other polyvalent antivenoms in a faster, more cost-effective manner than hyperimmune animals.

While the possibility of artemisinic acid-producing yeast, high artemisinin-yielding tobacco, and more efficient sources of anti-venom are compelling, regulatory challenges and ethical dilemmas are abundant in the burgeoning field of synthetic biology. Both the US and the EU have recently held surveys and drafted opinions concerning the ethics and risks of synthetic biology. One potential issue with the use of synthetic biology approaches to industrial scale production of chemicals or recombinant proteins is the potential for uncontained spread of the recombinant organism or uncontrolled transfer of the modified genetic material. Another concern centers around the impact of synthetic biology on existing biological diversity. There are also concerns regarding the proliferation of synthetic biology capabilities and biosecurity. At the moment, the United States is in middle of an epidemic of opioid addiction. Synthesis of more complex chemicals in yeast also opens up issues with substance control. A research group has already demonstrated the ability to synthesize heroin in yeast, cheaply and effectively in much the same manner as one might brew beer, raising the possibility that new, designer substances of abuse could be produced in a similar manner. Approaches to the issue of biocontainment have varied, but as the control of synthetic transcriptional circuits becomes robust, more efficacious approaches to biocontainment can be developed. One recent approach to this problem implemented a two-part genetic version of a Dead Man’s Switch into E. coli, which will kill the synthetic organism when certain conditions are not met. As a standard operating procedure, this system would go a long way toward addressing containment of engineered organisms.

The engineering of novel biologicals, re-purposing of existing or development of new transcriptional circuits and entirely new organisms holds immense promise for all aspects of society. These technologies will likely impact the treatment of diseases typically associated with poverty initially, as the increased efficiency of production will lead to stability in price and decreased scarcity of therapeutics. Once concerns of containment and potential effects on existing ecosystems are sufficiently addressed, the broad application of these technologies becomes more reasonable. As the methodologies enabling the creation of designer organisms and novel biologicals improves, the market forces that impede adoption of more efficient synthetic sources of therapeutics may also have less of an impact.

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February 23, 2017 at 4:33 pm

Science Policy Around the Web – February 21, 2017

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By: Rachel Smallwood, PhD


Should We Treat Obesity Like a Contagious Disease?

Researchers are modeling obesity from a public health perspective as a contagious disease. There are many factors associated with obesity, including genetics, low levels of physical activity, and high caloric intake. An earlier study examined the effects of different social factors on an individual’s risk of being obese; it found that people with obese friends and family were at an increased risk for obesity, and this trend was influenced by how close the relationships were.

In this model of the prevalence of obesity, the researchers included a factor to represent obesity as a “social contagion”, reflecting those previous findings and indicating a potential increased risk and increased prevalence due to transmission from one person to another. This mechanism is assumed to be related to people adopting the behaviors of those close to them; notably, activity levels and type and quantity of food consumed. The model predicts obesity rates in populations with terms associated with the genetic contribution to obesity, the mother’s non-genetic contribution to her offspring, and the prevalence of obesity. Essentially, the more obese individuals there are in a society, the more likely it is for someone to know and interact with an obese person.

The models indicate that obesity prevalence plateaus around 35-40% without an intervention. The model is still fairly primitive, but the researchers hope that in future it could provide insight into the effects of potential interventions. For example, is it better to target an intervention to individuals who are already obese, or should the reach of the intervention be more broad and target the population as a whole? When the models reach a level of complexity comparable to the existing factors for obesity, they can be a powerful tool in preventing and addressing the epidemic. (Kelly Servick, Science Magazine)


Brain Scans Spot Early Signs of Autism in High-Risk Babies

A study recently published in Nature showed that alterations in brain development in children who go on to be diagnosed with autism precede behavioral symptoms. High-risk infants’ brains were scanned with MRI at 6, 12, and 24 months. It was determined that the infants who were subsequently diagnosed with autism had a faster rate of brain volume growth between 12 and 24 months. Additionally, between 6 and 12 months, these infants had a faster rate of growth in the surface area of folds on the brain, called the cortical surface.

Taking these findings, the research team used a machine learning approach called a deep-learning neural network to make a model to predict whether an infant would be diagnosed with autism based on their MRIs from 6 and 12 months. This model was tested in a larger set of infants, and the model correctly predicted 30 out of 37 infants who went on to be diagnosed (true positives), and it incorrectly predicted that 4 infants would be diagnosed with autism out of the 142 who were not later diagnosed (false positives). These results are much more robust than behavior-based predictions from this same age range.

More work needs to be done to replicate the results in a larger sample. Additionally, all of the participants were high-risk infants, meaning they had a sibling who was diagnosed with autism, so the results are not necessarily generalizable to the rest of the population. Further studies need to be done in the general population to determine if these same patterns are observable, but that would require an even larger sample due to the lower risk. However, the early detection of symptoms and prediction of diagnosis are potentially valuable tools, especially considering another recent publication showed that early intervention in children with autism affects the severity of symptoms years down the road. (Ewen Callaway, Nature News)

Science Funding

Ebola Funding Surge Hides Falling Investment in Other Neglected Diseases

Funding totals from 2015 reveal a trending decrease in funding for neglected diseases, excluding Ebola and other viral hemorrhagic fevers. Neglected diseases are diseases that primarily affect developing companies, thus providing little incentive for private research and development by commercial entities; the other diseases include malaria, tuberculosis, and HIV/AIDS. Given the recent surge of funding for Ebola research, the analysis firm, Policy Cures Research, decided to separate it from the other neglected diseases in its analysis to observe funding patterns independent from the epidemic that dominated the news and international concerns. Funding was tracked from private, public, and philanthropic sources.

The funding for Ebola research has primarily gone to development of a vaccine, and over a third of the funds were provided by industry. For the other diseases, the decline in overall funding is mostly represented by a decline in funding from public entities, primarily comprised of the governments of large, developed countries. Those countries accounted for 97% of the research funding for neglected diseases in 2015, so any significant change in that funding category would affect the overall funding amounts. However, there was also a slight decline in philanthropic funding. When including Ebola with the others, funding of neglected diseases was actually at its highest in the past ten years. It is not known whether money was funneled from the other diseases to Ebola research, or if this decline is indicative of less research spending in general. (Erin Ross, Nature News)

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February 21, 2017 at 10:03 am

Science Policy Around the Web – February 17, 2017

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By: Thaddeus Davenport, PhD

Source: pixabay


Decision in the CRISPR-Cas9 Patent Dispute

This week, Heidi Wedford from Nature News reported that the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) made a decision on the disputed patents for the gene editing technology known as CRISPR-Cas9 in favor of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard. The CRISPR-Cas9 system has been widely publicized, and this publicity is arguably not out of proportion with the potential of this technology to simplify and accelerate the manipulation of DNA of both microbial (prokaryotic) and higher order (eukaryotic) cells for research and therapy. A simplified, programmable version of CRISPR-Cas9 for use in gene editing was initially described by Charpentier and Doudna, and it was rapidly translated for use in eukaryotic cells by Zhang and colleagues at the Broad Institute in parallel with Doudna, Charpentier, and others.

The USPTO decision follows a dramatic and ongoing dispute over whether the patent application submitted by the University of California on behalf of Doudna and Charpentier – which was submitted before that of the Broad Institute, and described the technology in broad terms as a method of cutting desired DNA sequences – was sufficient to protect the CRISPR-Cas9 intellectual property when the Broad Institute later filed a fast-tracked patent application describing the use of CRISPR-Cas9 for use in eukaryotic cells. Because the Broad Institute’s application was expedited, it was approved before the University of California’s application. In January of 2016, the University of California filed for an ‘interference’ proceeding, with the goal of demonstrating to the USPTO that Doudna and colleagues were the first to invent CRISPR-Cas9, and that the patent application from the Broad Institute was an ‘ordinary’ extension of the technology described in the University of California application.

On February 15th of this year, the USPTO ruled that the technology described in the Broad Institute’s application was distinct from that of the University of California’s. The importance of this decision is that the patents granted to the Broad Institute for the use of CRISPR-Cas9 in mammalian cells will be upheld for now. It also creates some complexity for companies seeking to license CRISPR-Cas9 technology. Because of the overlapping content of the CRISPR-Cas9 patents held by the University of California and the Broad Institute, it is possible that companies may need to license the technology from both institutions. The University of California may still appeal the USPTO’s decision, but this is a significant victory for the Broad Institute for the time being. For many scientists, this dispute is a dramatic introduction to the inner workings of the patent application process. We would do well to familiarize ourselves with this system and ensure that it works effectively to accurately reward the discoveries of our fellow scientists and to facilitate the transfer of technology to those who need it most, without imposing undue economic burden on companies and consumers. (Heidi Wedford, Nature News)

Scientific Publishing

Open Access to Gates Foundation Funded Research

Also this week, Dalmeet Singh Chawla reported for ScienceInsider that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation had reached an agreement with the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) that will allow researchers funded by the Gates Foundation to publish their research in the AAAS journals Science, Science Translational Medicine, Science Signaling, Science Immunology, and Science Robotics. This agreement follows an announcement in January in which the Gates Foundation decided that research funded by the foundation would no longer be allowed to be published in subscription journals including Nature, Science, and New England Journal of Medicine, among others, because these journals do not meet the open access requirements stipulated by the new Gates open-access policies. The new Gates Foundation policy requires its grant recipients to publish in free, open-access journals and to make data freely available immediately after publication for both commercial and non-commercial uses. A similar policy is being considered by the nascent Chan Zuckerberg Initiative.

In the agreement with AAAS, the Gates Foundation will pay the association $100,000 in order to make Gates-funded published content immediately freely available online. Convincing a journal as prominent as Science to make some of its content open-access is a step in the right direction, but it is perhaps more important as a symbol of a changing attitude toward publishing companies. Michael Eisen, co-founder of the Public Library of Science (PLoS) open-access journals, was interviewed for the ScienceInsider article and noted, “[t]he future is with immediate publication and post-publication peer review, and the sooner we get there the better.” This sentiment seems to be increasingly shared by researchers frustrated with the hegemony of the top-tier journals, their power over researchers’ careers, and the constraints that subscription-based journals impose on the spread of new information. Funding agencies including the Gates Foundation, Howard Hughes Medical Institute, and the National Institutes of Health are in a unique position to be able to dictate where the research they fund may be published. A collective decision by these agencies to push the publishing market towards an improved distribution of knowledge – through open-access publishing and post-publication peer review – and away from the historical and totally imagined importance of validation through high-tier journal publication would enrich the scientific ecosystem and accelerate innovation. In this regard, the efforts by the Gates Foundation are laudable and should be extended further. (Dalmeet Singh Chawla, ScienceInsider)

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February 17, 2017 at 12:44 pm

Genetically Modified Animal Vectors to Combat Disease

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By: Sarah L Hawes, PhD

Mosquito larvae: ©ProjectManhattan via Wikimedia Commons

Diseases transmitted through contact with an animal carrier, or “vector,” cause over one million deaths annually, many of these in children under the age of five. More numerous, non-fatal cases incur a variety of symptoms ranging from fevers to lesions to lasting organ damage. Vector-borne disease is most commonly contracted from the bite of an infected arthropod, such as a tick or mosquito. Mosquito-borne Zika made recent, regular headlines following a 2015-2016 surge in birth defects among infants born to women bitten during pregnancy. Other big names in vector-borne disease include Malaria, Dengue, Chagas disease, Leishmaniasis, Rocky Mountain spotted fever and Lyme.

Vaccines do not exist for many of these diseases, and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) Division of Vector-Borne Diseases focuses on “prevention and control strategies that can reach the targeted disease or vector at multiple levels while being mindful of cost-effective delivery that is acceptable to the public, and cognizant of the world’s ecology.” Prevention through reducing human contact with vectors is classically achieved through a combination of physical barriers (i.e. bed nets and clothing), controlling vector habitat near humans (i.e. dumping standing water or mowing tall grass), and reducing vector populations with poisons. For instance, the Presidential Malaria Initiative (PMI), initiated under President Bush in 2005, and expanded under President Obama, reduces vector contact through a complement of educating the public, distributing and encouraging the use of bed nets, and spraying insecticide. Now a 600 million dollar a year program, PMI has been instrumental in preventing several million Malaria-related deaths in the last decade.

But what if a potentially safer, cheaper and more effective solution to reduce human-vector contact exists in the release of Genetically Modified (GM) vector species? Imagine a mosquito engineered to include a new or altered gene to confer disease resistance, sterility, or to otherwise impede disease transmission to humans. Release of GM mosquitos could drastically reduce the need for pesticides, which may be harmful to humans, toxic to off-target species, and have led to pesticide-resistance in heavily-sprayed areas. Health and efficacy aside, it is impossible to overturn or poison every leaf cupping rainwater where mosquitos breed. GM mosquitos could reach and “treat” the same pockets of water as their non-GM counterparts. However, an insect designed to pass on disease resistance to future generations would mean persistence of genetic modifications in the wild, which is worrisome given the possibility of unintended direct effects or further mutation. An elegant alternative is the release of GM vector animals producing non-viable offspring – and this is exactly what biotech company Oxitec has done with mosquitos.

Oxitec’s OX513A mosquitos express a gene that interferes with critical cellular functions in the mosquitos, but this gene is suppressed in captivity by administering the antibiotic tetracycline in the mosquitos’ diet. Release of thousands of non-biting OX513A males into the wild results in a local generation of larvae which, in the absence of tetracycline, die before reaching adulthood. Release of OX513A has proven successful at controlling mosquito populations in several countries since 2009, rapidly reducing local numbers by roughly 90%. Oxitec’s OX513A line may indeed be a safe and effective tool. But who is charged with making this call for OX513A and, moreover for future variations in GM vector release?

Policy governing use of genetically modified organisms must keep pace with globally available biotechnology. Regulatory procedures for the use of GM vector release are determined by country, and there is a high degree of international policy alignment. The Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety is a treaty involving 170 nations currently (the US not included) that governs transport of “living modified organisms resulting from modern biotechnology” with potential to impact environmental or human health. The World Health Organization (WHO) and the Foundation for the National Institutes of Health (FNIH) published the 2014 guidelines for evaluating safety and efficacy of GM mosquitos.

Within the US, the 2017 Update to the Coordinated Framework for the Regulation of Biotechnology was published this January in response to a solicitation by the Executive Office of the President for a cohesive report from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and US Department of Agriculture (USDA). Separately, biotech industry has been given fresh guidance on whether to seek FDA or EPA approval (in brief):  if your GM product is designed to reduce disease load or spread, including vector population reduction, it requires New Animal Drug approval by FDA; if it is designed to reduce pest population but is un-related to disease, it requires Pesticide Product approval by EPA under the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act.

Thus, for a biotech company to release GM mosquitos in the US with the intent of curbing the spread of mosquito-borne disease, they must first gain FDA approval. Oxitec gained federal approval to release OX513A in a Florida suburb in August 2015 because of FDA’s “final environmental assessment (EA) and finding of no significant impact (FONSI).” These FDA assessments determined that the Florida ecosystem would not be harmed by eliminating the targeted, invasive Aedes aegypti mosquito. In addition, they affirmed that no method exists for the modified gene carried by OX513A to impact humans or other species. Risks were determined to be negligible, and include the accidental release of a few, disease-free OX513A females. For a human bitten by a rare GM female, there is zero risk of transgene transfer. There is no difference in saliva allergens, and therefore the response to a bite, from GM and non-GM mosquitos. In addition, as many as 3% of OX513A offspring manage to survive to adulthood, presumably by spawning in tetracycline-treated water for livestock. These few surviving offspring will not become a long-term problem because their survival is not a heritable loop-hole; it is instead analogous to a lucky few mosquitos avoiding contact with poison.

Solid scientific understanding of the nature of genetic modifications is key to the creation of good policy surrounding the creation and use of GMOs. In an updated draft of Guidelines For Industry 187 (GFI 187), the FDA advises industry seeking New Animal Drug Approval to include a molecular description of the intentional genetic alteration in animals, method for alteration, description of introduction to the animal, and whether the alteration is stable over time/across generations if heritable, and environmental and food safety assessments. Newer genomic DNA editing techniques such as CRISPR offer improved control over the location, and thus, the effect of genetic revisions. In light of this, the FDA is soliciting feedback from the public on the GFI 187 draft until April 19th, 2017, in part to determine whether certain types of genetic alteration in animals might represent no risk to humans or animals, and thus merit reduced federal regulation.

Following federal clearance, the decision on whether to release GM vectors rests with local government. Currently, lack of agreement among Florida voters has delayed the release of OX315A mosquitos. Similar to when GM mosquito release was first proposed in Florida following a 2009-2010 Dengue outbreak, voter concern today hinges on the perception that GM technology is “unproven and unnatural.” This illustrates both a healthy sense of skepticism in our voters, and the critical need to improve scientific education and outreach in stride with biotechnology and policy. Until we achieve better public understanding of GM organisms, including how they are created, controlled, and vetted, we may miss out on real opportunities to safely and rapidly advance public health.

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February 16, 2017 at 9:46 am

Science Policy Around the Web – February 10, 2017

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By: Saurav Seshadri, PhD

Source: pixabay


The Purpose of Sleep? To Forget, Scientists Say

Humans spend approximately one third of their lifetime sleeping, yet the purpose of sleep is still largely unknown. A pair of recent studies in the journal Science suggest that a key function of sleep is to give the brain a chance to rewire itself, specifically by cutting down connections between neurons, which naturally scale up during wakefulness, and especially during learning.

In one paper, researchers used 3D electron microscopy to measure the sizes of these connections, called synapses, in mouse brain slices. They found that sleep produced a significant decrease in the size of synapses. Interestingly, this effect was more pronounced in smaller synapses, which were likely strengthened by general information processing while awake, than large ones (~20% of synapses), which may encode more well-established memories. In the other, researchers used two-photon imaging in live mice to observe sleep-induced changes in synapses. They found a similar decrease in synaptic strength, and went on to identify the signaling pathway that caused this effect; blocking this pathway prevented a normal reduction in the scope and magnitude of a learned behavioral response.

These findings underscore the importance of sleep, especially for memory consolidation involved with learning. Studies like these can have far-reaching effects on the public’s perception of sleep, influencing individual habits as well as policy related to education. For example, they suggest that prioritizing sleep when setting school start times (an issue currently under debate in Montgomery County schools) could improve students’ lesson retention and ultimately their test performance. They also point to important cellular and molecular processes that take place during sleep, which could help explain how existing sleep aids adversely affect brain functioning and memory (a public health concern), and ultimately lead to the development of better drugs. (Carl Zimmer, The New York Times)

Drug Policy

Massive Price Hike for Lifesaving Opioid Overdose Antidote

Increased public exposure to the epidemic of opioid abuse, which continues to intensify in the US, has made it increasingly influential in politics, possibly including the recent presidential election.  A crucial tool for communities at the forefront of this public health crisis is naloxone, which can reverse potentially fatal symptoms associated with overdose. The Evzio naloxone auto-injector, produced by Kaleo, is one of two such products approved by the FDA. Kaleo has recently come under fire for increasing the price of Evzio from $690 to $4,500.

Kaleo cites several justifications for the price hike. Firstly, they offer coupons to patients whose insurance doesn’t cover Evzio. Second, they argue that large insurance companies and government agencies (such as the Veterans Health Administration, which sees a high rate of opioid use) can negotiate prices, while other organizations are currently well funded (thanks to public concern) to absorb the increase. Thirdly, they are expanding their donation supply to allow smaller groups to apply for free devices. However, experts say that the increase is not justified by production costs, and some organizations have been forced to switch to alternative drugs.

News of the decision arrives at a time when the public is particularly sensitive to drug pricing, and have made their concern clear to lawmakers. Negotiation with drug companies over prices has been a prominent campaign issue in recent elections. Public outcry following similar moves by investor Martin Shkreli and Mylan led to hearings by a special congressional committee. Soon after the last election, a bill that would have allowed patients to import cheaper drugs from Canada became a high-profile occasion for posturing in the Senate, where it failed despite overwhelming public support. These stories highlight the often antagonistic relationships between the American public, its government, and the pharmaceutical industry, and illustrate how disruptive drug pricing can directly affect policy. (Shefali Luthra, Scientific American)

Scientists in Politics

Geneticist Launches Bid for US Senate; while Empiricists Around the Country Will March for Science

Donald Trump’s agenda of self-serving lies and denial of evidence has led to unprecedented levels of engagement and activism across the country. The scientific community has been especially impacted by Trump’s brand of broad, allegedly populist anti-intellectualism. Thus, although the empirical facts uncovered by scientific research are inherently apolitical and should be treated as such, scientists are beginning to mobilize to oppose the Trump administration in several ways.

One essential path to policy change is increased representation. With that in mind, evolutionary biologist Dr. Michael Eisen, an HHMI-funded investigator at UC Berkeley and co-founder of the People’s Library of Science (PLOS), recently announced his candidacy for the US Senate in 2018. Dr. Eisen’s platform seems to center on bringing a scientific perspective to Senate proceedings, and working towards comprehensive yet practical solutions to issues such as climate change. More of Dr. Eisen’s views can be found on his twitter feed and blog.

Protests are another way for individuals to make their voices heard by policy makers. The March for Science, which currently has over 350,000 followers on Facebook, will be an opportunity for ‘scientists and science enthusiasts’ to both call for and demonstrate support for the scientific community, and promote solidarity between science and the public. The main march will be held on April 22nd, 2017 in Washington D.C.; satellite marches are scheduled in over 100 additional cities. Organizers hope to maintain the momentum gained by January’s Women’s Marches, which saw historic attendance. (Sara Reardon, Nature News; Lindizi Wessel, ScienceInsider)

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Science Policy Around the Web – February 3, 2017

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By: Eric Cheng, PhD

Source: pixabay

Trump and Science

Scientists’ Lives Upended by Trump’s Immigration Order

New executive orders have been signed by President Trumpthat suspend immigration into the United States from “terror-prone regions.” The target countries listed are Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Syria, Sudan, and Yemen. These new immigration orders have caused chaos at U.S. airports to people from these countries, including people with a valid U.S. visa or green card who were traveling outside of the U.S. when the order was signed. It is also affecting scientists who are currently in the United States, but are visiting from the affected countries. For example:

Ehssan Nazockdast was planning to attend his sister’s wedding in Tehran in March. One hitch: The specialist on fluid dynamics at New York University in New York City is an Iranian citizen. That leaves him vulnerable under an executive order signed by U.S. President Donald Trump on Friday that calls for the rigorous vetting of applicants for U.S. visas from Iran and six other predominantly Muslim nations, and bars the entry of any citizen from those nations for 90 days while procedures for that vetting are put in place. Nazockdast has lived in the United States for nearly a decade, has a green card, and has two young daughters with a wife who is a U.S. citizen. But now that Nazockdast is branded with a scarlet letter, he dare not leave. “I’m living in a big prison called the United States of America,” he says.

A federal judge has issued an emergency stay that halts deportations of refugees with valid U.S. entry documents. Two days after executive order was signed, John Kelly, Secretary for Homeland Security, issued a statement deeming “the entry of lawful permanent residents to be in the national interest,” which was interpreted as allowing the re-entry of green card holders. from nations covered by the order, although they could receive extra scrutiny. The Council on American-Islamic Relations still intends to file a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court Western District of Virginia challenging the constitutionality of what it calls the “Muslim ban.”

Over 7000 scientists of all nationalities and religions, including 43 Nobel laureates, have signed an open letter, warning that Trump’s order “significantly damages American leadership in higher education and research” and calls it “inhumane, ineffective, and un-American.” (Richard Stone and Meredith Wadman, ScienceInsider)

Science Policy

Scientists ‘Partly to Blame’ for Skepticism of Evidence in Policymaking, says AAAS CEO

In addition to access to high-quality technical experts to handle science-related global crisis, an United States president also needs to believe that scientific evidence is useful in setting government policy says American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) CEO Rush Holt. At the winter meeting of the American Physical Society in Washington, D.C., Dr. Holt remarked how scientists are partly to blame for the decreased priority of scientific evidence in U.S. policymaking.  One potential explanation for this devaluation of evidence may be due to scientists’ way of presenting evidence that is too “condescending and hierarchical. We might say, ‘Let me try to explain this to you. Maybe even you can understand this.’ And that is not very effective. So we are partly to blame,” stated Dr. Holt.

Dr. Holt believes that “reverence for evidence” has been part of the nation’s political discussion since the United States was founded, and traditionally covers both parties. The biggest challenge now will be to try and empower policymakers to think about any scientific evidence presented to them and to evaluate the validity of the conclusion based on the evidence for themselves. (Jeffery Mervis, ScienceInsider)

Public Health

Senate Finance Committee OKs Tom Price, MD, for HHS Chief

The Senate Finance Committee voted 14-0 to approve the nomination of Rep. Tom Price, MD, (R-Ga), to head the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). All votes were from the Republican members of the committee because 12 Democratic members boycotted the executive session to confirm Dr. Price. Although the committee normally requires at least one member from each party present to reach its quorum requirement, the rule was suspended prior to the vote. Now Dr. Price’s nomination will go before the Senate for a vote, which will only need a simple majority of 51 votes for confirmation. (Robert Lowes, Medscape)

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Written by sciencepolicyforall

February 3, 2017 at 10:01 am