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Archive for August 2017

Science Policy Around the Web – August 29, 2017

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By: Allison Dennis, BS

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Source: pixabay

Science funding

1 Million fewer dollars available for studying the health impacts of coal mining

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, was instructed to stop its ongoing research into the potential health effects of surface mining by the U.S. Department of the Interior on August 18, 2017. The US$1 million study was established on August 3, 2016, “at the request of the State of West Virginia,” by the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement (OSMRE). OSMRE, an office within the U.S. Department of the Interior, selected the National Academy of Science to systematically review current coal extraction methods, the framework regulating these methods, and potential health concerns. Critics of the study point to the findings of a similar review undertaken by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences that were made public on July 21, 2017, which determined that the current body of literature was insufficient to reach any conclusions regarding the safety of mountaintop removal on nearby communities.

Mountaintop removal, a form of surface mining, employs the use of explosives to efficiently expose coal deposits that would otherwise require a large number of workers to extract over time. The excess soil and rock that has been blasted from the mountain is placed in adjacent valleys, leading to alterations of stream ecosystems, including increases in selenium concentrations and declines in macroinvertebrate populations.

The people of rural Appalachia experience significantly higher rates of cancer than people in the rest of the U.S., of which environmental exposures are only one potential risk factor. Widespread tobacco use, obesity, and lack of accessible medical care are all believed to underlie the cancer epidemic in Appalachia, culminating in a tangled web of risk.

It is unclear how the money from this study will be repurposed. The Obama administration cancelled a study of surface mining to redirect funds towards examining the little known effects of hydraulic fracturing.

(Lisa Friedman and Brad Plumer, The New York Times)

Cancer treatments

For breast cancer patients the cost of peace of mind may be both breasts

Between 2002 and 2012 the rates of women with a breast cancer diagnosis opting for a double mastectomy increased from 3% to 12%. In a majority of these cases, a lumpectomy may be medically sufficient. However for many women, this choice may stem from a personal pursuit of peace of mind rather than the advice of their doctors. The mastectomy procedure can extend time of recovery from a few days, in the case of a lumpectomy, to 4 to 6 weeks. Yet for many women, undergoing a lumpectomy followed by 5 to 7 weeks of radiation therapy would offer the same long-term survivorship. Additionally, 1 in 8 women with invasive cancer in a single breast is electing to remove both breasts.

The reasons for this increase is unknown. While the procedure has not been demonstrated to increase survivorship, the procedure itself is relatively risk free. Breasts are not vital organs, and improvements in reconstruction methods have provided women with a natural-looking, cosmetic replacement. For many women the cost of feeling their struggle with breast cancer is behind them is the removal of both breasts. Double mastectomies, along with the reconstruction surgeries they normally require, are usually covered by insurance.

Breast cancer is the most commonly diagnosed cancer type in the U.S. Mortality from the disease decreased by 1.9% per year from 2003 to 2012. Yet, for many women facing breast cancer, the choice of a double mastectomy may feel like the only empowering choice, one their doctors are willing to let them make.

(Catherine Caruso, STAT News)

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August 30, 2017 at 8:57 pm

Science Policy Around the Web – August 25, 2017

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By: Rachel F Smallwood, PhD

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Science policy

US science envoy cites Trump policies in a public resignation

The US Department of State houses the US Science Envoy Program, designed to allow accomplished US scientists to represent the country’s interests and goals in science and technology. These envoys engage international representatives, advocate for institutions, endorse science education and its importance, and advise the government on scientific matters. On August 21, 2017, in a letter to President Trump, Professor Daniel Kammen resigned his position as envoy. His focus in the program was on “building capacity for renewable energies.”

In his open letter to the president, he cited Trump’s leadership and policy decisions as his factors for leaving. He condemned Trump’s reluctance to call out white supremacists and neo-Nazis. He also stated that the president’s refusal of the Paris Climate Accord in addition to denial and undermining of environmental and energy research could not allow him to continue his position in good conscience. The first letter of each paragraph in the document spelled out the word “impeach.” He ends dramatically by asserting that Trump’s presidency is harmful to the United States and “threatens life on this planet.”

It is no secret that the scientific community has serious concerns regarding the Trump administration’s views of and plans for scientific policy and research. This past April a March for Science was held on Earth Day with the intention of demonstrating the importance of science and the amount of support it garners. There has also been worry and discussion over what the administration’s recommendations will be for prioritizing funding for scientific research.

Professor Kammen’s resignation highlights a struggle for scientists in his position. For an administration that does not seem to appreciate the gravity of scientific matters such as climate, energy, and health research, there seems to be an important need for knowledgeable and experienced advisors to help them. However, when those experts’ advice is not heeded, and when the administration takes a stance that the experts are opposed to, it is difficult for them to continue. While resignations in these kinds of positions often seem to have a domino effect, at least one envoy is planning to remain in his position, and the state department confirmed it is in the process of appointing more.

(Jeff Tollefson, Nature)

Scientific Training

NSF issues a reminder that grant-winning universities should be formally training students in ethics

The National Science Foundation recently posted a notice reminding universities and research institutions of their responsibilities in teaching their trainees about ethical research practices. In 2007, the US Congress passed the America COMPETES Act, which requires institutions applying for funding from the NSF to show that they are educating their students and trainees on good science and ethical practices. The NSF enacted this by implementing the Responsible Conduct in Research (RCR) requirement; however, they only gave vague guidelines, allowing institutions flexibility in executing this training. In 2010, they did recommend that institutions incorporate a risk assessment to determine the needs for training.

In 2013, the NSF’s Office of the Inspector General published an independent report on compliance with the RCR requirements. There were several areas where institutions were falling short. Almost a quarter of the schools had no training at all when first contacted, and no schools conducted risk assessments. Additionally, a substantial portion of the universities that did having training implemented went with a minimalist approach, only have a short, online course. However, not all of the blame can be placed on the institutions. The America COMPETES Act did stipulate that the NSF should create written guidelines or templates for institutions to follow in implementing these trainings.

Despite the RCR requirements’ failure to induce institutions to provide satisfactory training in ethical science, the NSF has reiterated the importance that universities and institutions comply with providing this training. At a time when facts are being called “fake news” and leaders are making statements and decisions against scientific consensus, it is more important than ever that young scientists learn to conduct sound, ethical science and interpret it in honest and realistic ways. While it is good that the NSF is encouraging this, many hope that in the future they will take a more proactive and forceful stance in enforcing it.

(Jeffrey Mervis, Science)

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August 25, 2017 at 10:58 am

Science Policy Around the Web – August 22, 2017

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By: Leopold Kong, PhD

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Image: By Tkarcher [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Zika

The case of the disappearing Zika

Early last year, there were over 35,000 suspected and confirmed cases of Zika virus infection per week in South America. This year, the number has plummeted below 1,000 per week. In the United States, only a single case of local Zika transmission has been reported this year in contrast to 224 in 2016.  Neither improved mosquito control nor climate change can explain the good news.  Experts attribute the drop in Zika cases to the development of immunity against the virus, which has spread rapidly.  Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease (NIAID), says he is not “entirely surprised” by this trend, but is “impressed by how steep it has been”.  A vaccine is still needed to curb potential future epidemics, but its development is now complicated by lack of populations susceptible to infection.  Increased Zika cases have been reported in Mexico this year, which could lead to outbreaks in Texas. Currently, a vaccine developed by NIAID is entering a placebo-controlled study of 2400 people in Zika-affected areas.

(Jon Cohen, Science)

The Scientific Workforce

Graduate Student immigration in the US and the UK shifting to Canada and Australia

In 2015-16, the United States and United Kingdom hosted nearly 384,000 and 200,000 international graduate students respectively. The two countries have been the world’s top two hosts for graduate students since the 1970s.  However, since the travel ban in the United States and the Brexit referendum in the United Kingdom, the numbers have been dropping.  In contrast, universities in Canada and Australia are reporting spikes in their application numbers.  Joint surveys conducted in February and July found that about a third of US universities have decreased international graduate student applications, particularly from India, the Middle East and China.  Sayed Mashaheet, a native of Egypt who earned his PhD in crops science at North Carolina State University, says that many international students see the United States as a riskier investment since the election.  With its friendly citizenship pathways, Canada maybe benefiting from these changes. The University of Toronto received 27% more international-student applications this year for a total of 15,000 compared to 11,951 in 2016.  Sofia Solar Cafaggi chose to pay her way through medical school at the University of Toronto instead of attending the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio for free because she will be eligible for Canadian citizenship after three years.  “In the US, I would have stayed an alien for at least the next decade, and that made me nervous about career prospects given the current political drama,” she says.  If the shift continues for the US and the UK, “some programmes will simply collapse,” says Anita Gopal, international officer for the US national Postdoctoral Association in Rockville, Maryland.

(Virginia Gewin, Nature News)

Science Funding

Trump’s list of Science Priorities aims to steer federal agencies’ focus

On August 17, the White House issued a memo to federal agencies outlining how their research money should be used.  Written jointly by the White House Office of Management and Budget and Office of Science and Technology Policy, the document sets the White House’s priorities for the next budget request.  This year, the memo lists five priorities in this order: military superiority, security, prosperity, energy dominance, and health.  The list greatly contrasts with Obama’s research priorities that included global climate change, clean energy, Earth observations, advanced manufacturing, and innovations in the life sciences, biology and neuroscience.  The list also appears to contradict President Trump’s own 2018 budget requests.  For example, the memo focuses on support for breakthroughs in military technologies and for helping older Americans remain healthy despite large cuts for those same areas in previous proposals.  Notably, the memo supports research in precommercial technology in energy, which would presumably include the Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy.  However, President Trump has previously called for this agency to be shut down.  The budget for the 2019 fiscal year are due next  month.

(Jeffrey Mervis, Science)

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August 22, 2017 at 5:36 pm

Science Policy Around the Web – August 18, 2017

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By: Nivedita Sengupta, PhD

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Climate Science

Effort backed by California’s flagship universities comes as US President Donald Trump shrugs off global warming

As US President Donald Trump announces to withdraw from Paris Agreement, renouncing climate science and policy, scientists in California are deciding to develop a home-grown climate research institute -‘California Climate Science and Solutions Institute’. California has always tried to protect the environment with different initiatives and this one is already getting endorsed by California’s flagship universities and being warmly received by Governor Jerry Brown. The initiative is still in the early stages of development and will also need clearance from the state legislature. The institute will aim to fund basic as well as applied research in all the topics related to climate change ranging from ocean acidification to tax policy. Priority will be given to projects and experiments that engage communities, businesses and policymakers. “The goal is to develop the research we need, and then put climate solutions into practice,” says Daniel Kammen, an energy researcher at the University of California, Berkeley. He also states that this work will have global impact. The climate research project being undertaken in California may have an ally too, as the science dean of Columbia University of New York city, Peter De Menocal, plans to build an alliance of major universities and philanthropists to support research for answering pressing questions about the impacts of climate change. De Menocal already tested the idea on a smaller scale by launching the Center for Climate and Life at Columbia University last year, which raised US$8 million of private funding. This is no the first time California has taken the initiative to support an area of science that fell out of favor in Washington DC. In 2004, President George W. Bush restricted federal support for research on human embryonic stem cells. This led to the approval of $3 billion by the state’s voters to create the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine in Oakland. Since then, the center has funded more than 750 projects. The proposal for a new climate institute also started along a similar path, as a reaction to White House policies, but its organizers say that the concept has evolved into a reflective exercise about academics’ responsibility to help create a better future. The panel members wish to put forward a complete plan to set up the institute to the California legislature this year, in the hope of persuading lawmakers to fund the effort by September 2018, before Governor Brown’s global climate summit in San Francisco.

(Jeff Tollefson, Nature News)

Retractions

Researchers pull study after several failed attempts by others to replicate findings describing a would-be alternative to CRISPR

The high-profile gene-editing paper on NgAgo was retracted by its authors on 2nd August, citing inability in replicating the main finding by different scientists around the globe. The paper was published in Nature Biotechnology in May 2016. It described an enzyme named NgAgo which could be used to knock out or replace genes in human cells by making incisions at precise regions on the DNA. The study also emphasized the findings as a better alternative to the CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing system which revolutionized gene editing and has even been used to fix genes for a heritable heart condition in human embryos. Han Chunyu, molecular biologist at Hebei University of Science and Technology in Shijiazhuang is the inventor and immediately attracted a lot of applause for his findings. However, within months, news started emerging in social media about failures to replicate the results. These doubts were confirmed after a series of papers were published stating that the NgAgo could not edit genomes as stated in the Nature paper. Earlier, Han told Nature’s news team that he and his team had identified a contaminant that can explain other groups’ struggles to replicate the results and assured that the revised results would be published within 2 months. Yet on August 2, they retracted the paper stating that “We continue to investigate the reasons for this lack of reproducibility with the aim of providing an optimized protocol.”

The retraction of the paper, however, puts in question the future of the gene-editing center that Hebei University plans to build with 224 million yuan (US$32 million) as Han as the leader. Moreover, Novozymes, a Danish enzyme manufacturer, paid the university an undisclosed sum as part of a collaboration agreement. Dongyi Chen, Novozymes’ Beijing-based press manager, told Nature’s news team in January that the technology is being tested and shows some potential, but it is at a very early stage of development and hence it is difficult to determine its relevance. Following the news of retraction, he stated that the company has explored the efficiency of NgAgo, but so far has failed to track any obvious improvement. Yet they are not giving up hope as scientific researches takes time.

(David Cyranoski, Nature News)

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August 18, 2017 at 5:11 pm

Science Policy Around the Web – August 15, 2017

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By: Liu-Ya Tang, PhD

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Picture Source: pixabay

Public Health

Obesity and Depression, Entwined or Not?

It might seem that obesity and depression are not related since they are diseases from different parts of the body; however, health care practitioners have observed that these two diseases have a close relationship. The development of obesity and depression can be a vicious cycle, one favoring the other. Extra weight brings anxieties to obese people, which can cause poor self-image and social isolation. These are known contributors to depression. On the other hand, people experiencing depression tend to overeat and avoid exercising. According to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 43 percent of people with depression are obese, compared with 36.5 percent of the general population. People with obesity have a higher risk to develop depression, and vice versa, according to one 2010 study.

Both obesity and depression are chronic diseases that are hard to treat, placing a big burden on the health care system. Obesity rates in the United States are among the highest in the world. Obesity alone costs almost $150 billion per year in direct expenses, and this number is estimated to increase about $1.24 billion each year till the year 2030. The cost of treating depression is even higher, which is more than $200 billion every year. So it is urgent to find ways to treat both diseases more effectively if they are bidirecitonally comorbid.

When depression and obesity coincide, the combination of physical and mental health interventions becomes important, which has been supported by several studies. Researchers from the University of Texas-Southwestern found that patients’ depression were alleviated when they did weekly exercise sessions, which were prescribed by physicians. Another study from Duke University found that the rate of depression in obese women was decreased by 50 percent simply by helping them control their weight. The combinatorial treatment has been adopted. Dr. Sue McElroy, a psychiatrist in Mason, Ohio, screens patients for weight and BMI, and treats obesity and depression together. She tailors her prescription, as some antidepressants can cause weight gain. Her “self-taught” method was welcomed by her patients. However, this is not a general practice in treating patients with both symptoms. To benefit patients’ health and reduce cost for curing obesity and depression, the whole health care system needs a change.

(Shefali Luthra, Kaiser Health News)

 

The ACA

What do people and health-policy experts think about repealing the ACA?

Since March, the Trump administration has strived to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act (ACA), but the Senate rejected this repeal, as 3 republican senators voted “no” last month. How do people feel about repealing the ACA? What do most people say the Trump administration should do after the Senate failed to repeal? There were two reports about it.

The first one was about a survey conducted Aug. 1-6 by the Kaiser Family Foundation, which capture the opinions of 1,211 adults. Their analysis found that a majority of people (78 percent) think that the government should make the ACA work better. Grouping this majority by Political Party ID, reveales 95 percent are Democrats, 80 percent re independents and 52 percent are Republicans. Even 51 percent of President Trump’s supporters think both parties should work together to improve the health law.

The second report said that a coalition of liberal and conservative health-policy leaders is making suggestions for how to strengthen the existing ACA law, aligned with a favorable view in the public. The nine group members are from think tanks, universities and advocacy groups, who can be influential in health-policy formation of the government. The coalition was founded when it appeared that the Republican-controlled Congress would pass a repeal of the ACA without a replacement plan. It took the group eight months to come up with a five-point set of principles. It says that the government should continue providing subsidies to insurers that extend plans to 7 million lower-income customers and strong incentives for Americans to carry health insurance. The latter will help the cost of expensive care be shared by a stable insurance pool with healthy customers. They also urge the government to bring health plans to about two dozen counties, which would be left providerless in the ACA marketplace for 2018. The group said they intend to present their idea to Republican and Democratic lawmakers. “We are trying to model bipartisanship so incremental steps can be taken,” said by Ron Pollack, chairman emeritus of the liberal consumer-health lobby Families USA.

To prevent the potential collapse of health insurance market, the Senate is planning a bipartisan hearing on health care in September. In the House, a group of around 40 Republicans and Democrats known as the Problem Solvers Caucus aims to making urgent fixes to the ACA law. On September 27th, insurers will sign contracts with the federal government over what insurance plans to sell on the marketplace for 2018, which pushes Congress to come up with a solution before then.

(Phil Galewitz, Kaiser Health News, and Amy Goldstein, The Washington Post)

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August 15, 2017 at 6:27 pm

Science Policy Around the Web – August 11, 2017

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By: Saurav Seshadri, PhD

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source: FDA

Health information privacy

Finding the legal line between voluntary disclosure and doctor-patient confidentiality

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has suffered a setback in its efforts to protect private health information from what they see as unjust and unauthorized access by the government. Last week, a court in Utah ruled that federal agents are free to collect sensitive prescription records without a warrant. The concept of ‘third party doctrine’, which states that individuals lose their expectation of privacy when information is disclosed voluntarily (in this case, to a physician or pharmacist), played a key role in the court’s reasoning. This position contradicts common-sense expectations of doctor-patient confidentiality, as well as the spirit of the Health Information Privacy and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA), which pledges that ‘your health information cannot be used for purposes not directly related to your care without your permission’.

The details of the case are as follows. Like almost every state, Utah monitors the prescription and distribution of controlled substances, ostensibly to prevent drug abuse and overdose, and archives this information in a database. Utah began requiring a probable cause warrant to access the database after an incident of police misconduct in 2015, but since then, DEA agents have been circumventing this rule by using administrative subpoenas to pull any record they feel is relevant to an investigation, without judicial oversight. When Utah stopped complying on the grounds that this practice violates state law and the Fourth Amendment, the DEA challenged the state in court and won.

The decision is disappointing, considering the ACLU won a similar suit in Oregon in 2014. However, there is hope that it may be revisited soon: United States vs. Carpenter will use the context of cell phone data to question the validity of the third party doctrine, which, if successful, would have clear implications for this case. Carpenter will be argued by the ACLU before the Supreme Court this fall.

(Brett Max Kaufman, ACLU)

 

International science policy

Indian scientists get their day to speak out

Though hundreds of international sites participated in the March for Science earlier this year, major cities in India were conspicuous by their absence. On Wednesday, a series of public demonstrations finally gave the Indian scientific community an opportunity to add their voices to this global movement. The marches, organized by the Breakthrough Science Society, saw modest but encouraging turnout, despite reports of scientists being instructed not to attend.

India is the largest source of immigrant scientists and engineers in the US, but it lags behind its regional peers in numbers of top-tier scientific publications. Part of the reason for this discrepancy is a lack of government support for scientific institutions and funding agencies. While the Indian Department of Science and Technology has received substantial boosts in funding in recent years, budgets are still far short what scientific department heads say they need. One of the march’s core demands was for the government to increase investment in R&D from ~0.8% to 3% of GDP, in line with other developed Asian countries.

The other main goal of the march was to counteract rising levels of pseudoscience and religious intolerance of science in Indian culture. Organizers point out that violent incidents motivated by superstition still occur regularly, and cite ‘confrontational chauvinism’ regarding science by high-ranking officials. While this toxic blend of anti-science sentiment and nationalism is not unique to India, the country is unusual in that its constitution explicitly includes developing a scientific temperament as a ‘Fundamental Duty’ of its citizens. Ultimately, as in the US, the extent to which such events will truly promote rational discourse and evidence-based policy remains to be seen.

(Sanjay Kumar, Science)

 

Marijuana legalization/Opioid crisis

Hands-off/Hands-on approaches to the war on drugs

Initial recommendations from two separate commissions on drug policy set up by the Trump administration have yielded unexpected results. First, the Task Force on Crime Reduction and Public Safety has urged officials to continue the Obama administration’s hands-off stance on enforcing federal anti-marijuana laws. This is a surprising outcome, considering the Task Force was created by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, and was expected to support a crackdown on state-level legalization: Sessions has blamed marijuana for increased violent crime, and recently notified several pot-tolerant states that they will face increased scrutiny from his Justice Department. Though the report’s suggestions are not binding and several methods to discourage legalization still exist (such as raiding dispensaries or suing state governments), given the overwhelming public support for legal marijuana and Sessions’ increasingly tenuous political position, it appears unlikely that any significant changes in enforcement policy are on the way.

The second report comes from the President’s Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis. The death toll and burden to society of opioid addiction have increased dramatically in recent years, and the commission offers several constructive, bipartisan solutions that echo those advocated by public health and drug policy experts. However, Trump has already signaled his disinterest in these suggestions, ignoring the commission’s ‘urgent’ request to ‘declare a national emergency under either the Public Health Service Act or the Stafford Act‘ in order to divert more resources into fighting opioid abuse. Trump routinely exploited the opioid epidemic for political points while on the campaign trail, often using it to justify ‘tough-on-crime’ proposals such as a Mexican border wall, mandatory minimum sentencing, and property seizure. The report does not recommend any of these measures, instead encouraging expanded drug treatment under Medicaid, which would have been gutted by the GOP’s attempted repeal of the Affordable Care Act. Failure to effect change in opioid-afflicted communities, which strongly supported Trump in 2016, could be politically costly for him in 2020; but steadily climbing rates of addiction mean that this timeline would be too late for many.

(Daniel Politi, Slate, and Christopher Ingraham, The Washington Post)

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August 11, 2017 at 5:54 pm

Science Policy Around the Web – August 4, 2017

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By: Emily Petrus, PhD

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source: pixabay

CTE Research

National Football League Backs out of Funding Brain Research

A new study released this week added more fuel to the fire surrounding the health problems associated with playing contact sports, most notably American football. The study found signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) in the brains of 110 out of 111 former National Football League (NFL) players. Repetitive head trauma is thought to cause CTE, which can result in behavioral and mood disorders and cognitive impairment. Football players donated their brains to the Concussion Legacy Foundation so that scientists could evaluate the impact of playing contact sports on their brains. Currently CTE is only diagnosed post-mortem, so developing effective diagnoses and treatments for living patients would benefit NFL players, soldiers and others at risk of head trauma.

Advancing the science to benefit these groups in theory should serve in the NFL’s interest, however the initial damaging reports demonstrating the dangers their players face didn’t sit well. In 2012 the NFL pledged $30 million to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) for brain research, however the partnership is set to expire this year with about half the money unspent. A 2016 New York Times article revealed some unsettling interactions between the NFL and NIH, when a congressional study found that the NFL tried to direct their funding away from research performed by certain scientists. The NIH was set to award a $17 million grant to Dr. Robert Stern at Boston University to study the link between repeated concussions and CTE, however representatives from the NFL attempted to discredit Dr. Stern’s work. The NIH chose to fund Dr. Stern’s highly ranked proposal, and reserve the NFL’s money for future research. It seems now that future research funded by the NFL and distributed by the NIH is unlikely to happen.

Eliminating conflicts of interest is important for research to remain unbiased and evidence based. Concussion research conducted by the NFL or clinical trials performed by pharmaceutical companies can produce bias results. There is a need for the NIH and FDA to act as fair and unbiased grant reviewers and funding distributors. Even among players at the NFL there is a spectrum of how people feel about the dangers of playing football, best exemplified by the following quotes:

“We live and breathe it and this is what we’re so passionate about. Literally, I would — if I had a perfect place to die, I would die on the field.” – Jamal Adams Jet’s Rookie

“I hope All these young cats that are willing to die for the game of football find a higher purpose in life. Look football is great but I ain’t dying for this sh*t. Lol.” – Martellus Bennett Green Bay Packers Tight End (Twitter)

(Laurel Wamsley, NPR)

 

Human Genetic Engineering

No Super-Babies Yet

The United States has had a long history with avoiding research using stem cells. Since in vitro fertilization (IVF) became possible in the 1970’s we have been debating the ethics of using human stem cells and embryos for research. During George Bush’s tenure as president, stem cell research was explicitly un-fundable with public tax dollars (i.e. from NIH). As scientists found new ways to create stem cells without fetal tissue and Barack Obama’s presidency began, the US finally embraced stem cell research. However, researchers are still not permitted to use public funding to create and destroy human embryos – they can only use already fertilized embryos donated by patients from IVF clinics. If the research is privately funded, then researchers can both make and dispose of human embryos.

This little history lesson sets the stage for a discovery made in America and published this week in Nature, where researchers in Oregon (with collaborators in South Korea and China) were able to use gene editing to remove a heart defect-causing gene in human embryos. This technique is called CRISPR-Cas9, which uses prokaryotic (bacterial) DNA to target desired genes to be deleted or replaced and has already been used to edit embryos (human, other vertebrates, invertebrates and plants) with mixed results. There are reports of both off-target mutations (editing occurring in the wrong place) or mosaic embryos, meaning some cells are edited while others are not. What sets this new paper apart from the pack is the researchers inserted the CRISPR-Cas9 complex at the same time as the sperm, thus the editing began at fertilization. The inserted Cas9 protein was degraded too quickly to be effective at producing off-target mutations, and since the editing happened at conception only one out of 58 embryos was a mosaic. In contrast, waiting as little as 18 hours after fertilization to edit the embryo resulted in 13 out of 54 mosaic embryos.

For those worried about the production of designer babies, this study alleviates some of these concerns as well. Although researchers in this study provided a synthetic DNA template for the CRISPR-Cas9 system to rewrite the faulty gene, the cells ended up using the healthy mother’s DNA strands. This means scientists aren’t yet able to create babies to specifications, just strongly favor the existing but healthier parental gene to be passed on to the offspring. There are obvious ethics issues involved in creating human embryos and destroying them in the name of scientific discovery. However, getting rid of fatal diseases by gene editing could be music to the ears of parents who long to have children of their own but don’t want to risk having children affected with lethal conditions. The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine have launched the Human Gene-Editing Initiative to tangle with these issues as they arrive to policy forums.

(Heidi Ledford, Nature News)

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August 4, 2017 at 3:31 pm