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Archive for June 2018

Science Policy Around the Web – June 29, 2018

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By: Patrick Wright, Ph.D



source: pixabay

Exposure Laws

Laws That Criminalize Spread of Infectious Diseases Can Increase Their Stigma

In most states, it is a crime to knowingly expose others to HIV and other infectious diseases. Many of these laws were passed in the 1980s and 1990s during the onset of the HIV era, when no effective treatments were available and fear and stigma surrounding the disease were at their highest. According to the CDC, there were 67 HIV-specific criminal laws in 33 states as of 2011. Many of these laws even turn biting or spitting, despite saliva not being a means of HIV transmission, into felony aggravated assault or attempted murder. Early in 2018, an Ohio man living with hepatitis C (HCV) reportedly spit saliva (mixed with blood) repeatedly at police and emergency medical technicians on scene to transport him to a hospital; he was sentenced to 18 months in prison last week. While it is crucial that there be laws in place to protect the public from malicious attempts at harm, it is possible these laws are contributing to stigmas already faced by individuals living with these diseases. These laws may not even by effective at stopping spread of disease. Regarding the sentenced man in Ohio, Kate Boulton, a staff attorney at the Center for HIV Law and Policy, noted “This person is now facing a year and a half of incarceration for something that didn’t harm anyone and didn’t pose a risk of harm to anyone”, emphasizing that HCV is not transmitted through saliva and requires substantial volumes of blood for there to be a transmission risk when exposed to the eye.

These exposure laws have been in a constant state of flux and revision, with some states reducing penalty and others outlining stricter and harsher approaches. In 1998, Iowa passed a law that stated individuals found guilty of knowingly exposing others to HIV faced up to 25 years in prison and had to register as sex offenders; this even applied even if safe sex practices were used and no one became infected. As a means to reduce HIV-associated stigma and reduce these punishments, advocates successfully pushed for that law to be replaced with a new one that both reduced penalties and also added hepatitis, meningococcal disease, and tuberculosis to the list of prosecutable exposure offenses so HIV was not singled out. However, this has the potentially negative effect of criminalizing exposures by people with diseases in addition to HIV. South Dakota Senate Bill No. 93 passed this year states that any person with a venereal disease (syphilis, gonorrhea, chancroid) who intentionally exposes another person to infection of that venereal disease is guilty of a Class 1 misdemeanor. It also states that any person who deliberately exposes another person to HCV infection (e.g. through blood or tissue donation, exchanging nonsterile intravenous/intramuscular drug paraphernalia) is guilty of a Class 3 felony. Just last year, California lawmakers voted to reform several criminal statues (S.B No. 239) that targeted people living with HIV. It reduced the penalty for HIV status non-disclosure from a felony charge punishable by up to eight years of imprisonment down to a misdemeanor with only six months of incarceration. Moreover, the new provisions now require an actual transmission to occur or for prosecutors to demonstrate that a defendant had intent to transmit HIV. It also recognizes that certain risk reduction measures (e.g. being on an HIV treatment regimen, safe sex practices) negate intent.

However, the negative consequences of these laws can be profound and far-reaching. Dr. Anne Spaulding, M.D., MPH is an Associate Professor in the Department of Epidemiology in the Rollins School of Public Health at Emory University noted “If you have to let people know that you are infected with HIV or hepatitis C before you have sex with them, why would anyone in their right mind get themselves tested and begin treatment?” commenting on the disclosure of disease status and possible criminal charges potentially discouraging individuals from getting tested in the first place. According to the Center for HIV Law and Policy, “HIV-related testing…can be the basis of criminal prosecution for those who are sexually active. The potential negative consequences of HIV testing at a particular time or location might inform an individual’s decision of whether or when to get tested for HIV; or whether to test anonymously or through a “confidential” testing process that reports their test results and identifying information to the state but maintains the confidentiality of those results.”. Kesler and colleagues recently estimated that 7% of their 124-person HIV at-risk cohort were less likely to get test for HIV due to concern over future prosecution, and this 7% reduction in testing could lead to an 18.5% increase in community in HIV transmission, 73% of which would be driven by the failure of undiagnosed HIV+ individuals to access treatment that would substantially reduce transmission risk. States have been unable to converge on an ideal solution to both address the criminal actions of infected individuals with malevolent intent while protecting those with no malice who are burdened with living with these diseases.

(Michelle Andrews, NPR)

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June 29, 2018 at 10:42 pm

Science Policy Around the Web – June 26, 2018

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By: Maryam Zaringhalam, PhD



source: pexels

Women in STEMM

Sexual harassment is rife in the sciences, finds landmark US study

On June 12, the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine released their report: Sexual Harassment of Women: Climate, Culture, and Consequences in Academic Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. The 311-page report is the most comprehensive study on the topic, characterizing the problem of sexual harassment in academia and providing a series of evidence-based recommendations to combat harassment. The problem is pervasive in academia, with over 50 percent of women faculty and students reporting harassment, which is second only to the military’s 69 percent incidence. While sexual harassment is most often thought of as unwanted sexual advances, the report defined three classes of harassment, broadening this traditional conception: (1) gender harassment; (2) unwanted sexual attention; (3) sexual coercion. Gender harassment is the most prevalent form, which conveys the idea that women don’t belong in the workplace, for instance, by implying inferiority or telling demeaning jokes.

The report also documented the toll sexual harassment takes on academic achievement and career development, with consequences on mental and physical health that can lead to decreased participation in research and leadership, as well as leaving academia entirely. Authors of the report also have pointed out that harassment isn’t restricted to women alone, and that underrepresented minorities (including racial, ethnic, sexual, and gender minorities) have increased risk of harassment The resulting loss of talent deals a major blow to research integrity and progress in STEMM fields.

The study honed in on factors that contribute to harassment, with the largest predictor being institutional organization and environment, including a lack of understanding of the problem and potential mitigation strategies among leadership. The committee put forth a number of recommendations to address the problem. Strategies include treating sexual harassment as scientific misconduct (similar to a policy issued by the American Geophysical Union), improving transparency and accountability within institutions, and increasing diversity and inclusion through anti-harassment and civility-promotion programs.

The consensus study was prepared by the Committee on Women in Science, Engineering, and Medicine and was sponsored by NSF, NASA, NIH, NIST, NOAA, the Burroughs Wellcome Fund, the Henry Luce Foundation, and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

(Alexandra Witze, Nature)

Public health

What separation from parents does to children: “The effect is catastrophic”

On June 20th, the Trump administration announced the President would sign an executive order to end the controversial policy separating minors from their parents at the border. The policy had garnered a great deal of opposition from mental health professionals citing research that separation has lasting effects on child welfare and development. The American Academy of Pediatrics, the American College of Physicians, and the American Psychiatric Association had all issued statements warning of the traumatic effects of family separation. Over 13,000 mental-health professionals and 229 organizations have also signed a petition urging the administration to end the policy.

The effects of family separation have long been documented in case studies around the world—from state-run orphanages under Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu’s regime to Australian aboriginal children removed from their families. The effects range from post traumatic stress disorder to lower IQ to a higher risk of addiction later in life.

Notably, the executive order has not alleviated the concerns of the professional societies that expressed concerns about the original policy. The EO maintains the “zero tolerance” policy on illegal border crossings, which will continue to place children in detention facilities. It also does not specify whether or how separated families will be reunited in the future. At least 2,342 children have been separated from their parents between May 5 and June 9, and experts note that even if children are reunited with their parents soon, the trauma will have lasting effects into the future.

(William Wan, Washington Post)


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June 26, 2018 at 4:55 pm

Science Policy Around the Web – June 15, 2018

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By: Morgan Biggs



source: Shaury Nash via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

DNA Sequencing

Rapid genome sequencing could revolutionize health care for acutely ill babies

Genetic disorders and congenital anomalies are a leading cause of morbidity and mortality in infants. Of the 14% of newborns admitted to neonatal intensive care units, those with genetic disorders are often hospitalized for a greater period of time. Maverick Coltrin, like many other newborns, suffered from an undiagnosed genetic condition. Despite receiving multiple tests and medications, Maverick’s uncontrollable seizures could not be diagnosed by doctors.

However, after his parents were given the opportunity to participate in a study that would analyze both Maverick and his parents’ DNA with a rapid whole genome sequencer, doctors were able to properly diagnose Maverick’s condition in less than two days. They discovered that the newborn suffered from Pyridoxine-Dependent Epilepsy, a form of epilepsy that could be easily treated with vitamin B6 supplements.

Similar trials using rapid whole genome sequencing (rWGS) are being conducted to determine its’ effectiveness compared to standard genetic tests. Results from a study conducted by Stephen Kingsmore, founder of the Rady Genomic Institute, revealed that rapid sequencing offered accurate diagnoses for 18 of 42 infants with suspected genetic disorders, while standard genetic tests identified a disease in only four cases. In addition to providing doctors and families with a faster and more precise diagnosis, rapid whole genome sequencing is more cost-effective. Using the rapid diagnosis method from rWGS resulted in hospital savings of $800,000 for six cases in the Rady Study. Furthermore, the cost of performing the test for all 42 families totaled $675,000, illustrating the economic feasibility of rWGS. Rapid whole genome sequencing technology could greatly benefit families by significantly decreasing hospitalization time and expense.

The implementation of rWGS technology in hospitals has additional value to doctors, as more research opportunities and hypotheses can be generated from the analysis of the collected genome data. In order for physicians and researchers to receive the greatest benefit, they would need to identify which patients could receive the most value from the rapid whole genome sequencing test. As the level of effectiveness varies from different patients, sometimes the less expensive test will suit some patients just as well as the rWGS.

Rapid whole genome sequencing is a healthcare innovation that could drastically improve the health outcomes of acutely ill infants and significantly decrease the cost of care.

(Sarah Elizabeth Richard, The Washington Post)


An outspoken epidemiologist become U.S. science envoy

Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy (CIDRAP), has recently been selected to serve as one of five 2018 U.S. Science Envoys. Other 2018 U.S. Envoys include renowned engineers and administrators such as James Schauer, the director of the Wisconsin State Laboratory of Hygiene, and Charles Frank Bolden Jr., the former Administrator of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

Since its launch in 2009, the Science Envoy program has significantly enhanced relationships and improved collaboration with other countries to address issues in science and technology, as well as develop cutting edge innovations. These scientists will use their influence and expertise to better aid and develop solutions to various health and technology challenges in priority countries.

Osterholm’s qualifications as the new Science Envoy for Health Security combine expertise in infectious disease epidemiology, as well as leadership in the research, prevention, and control of infectious disease. In this position, Osterholm will focus on combating biological threats by collaborating with priority countries on infectious disease preparedness and antimicrobial stewardship. Through CIDRAP’s Antimicrobial Stewardship Project, information and educational resources will be offered to better educate communities on the appropriate use of antimicrobials, reducing microbial resistance, and decreasing the spread of multi-drug-resistant organisms.

(Jon Cohen, Science Magazine)


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June 15, 2018 at 3:36 pm

Science Policy Around the Web – June 11, 2018

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By: Roger Mullins, Ph.D.


source: pixabay

Gender Equality

Minister looks for signs of gender bias in federal science departments

After previously acting to alleviate the gender gap among university researchers, Canada’s minister of science is now taking active measures to do the same with gender inequity in the federal government. Of note is her evidence-based approach to addressing this problem.

The present course of these actions is currently at the information-gathering stage. An earlier 2017 survey by the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada (PIPSC) revealed a troubling under-representation of women in science, with a key note of concern being the “diminishing proportion of women to men” in higher level positions. Based on this prior information, Duncan has requisitioned surveys from science-based departments in the federal government to collect more comprehensive and useful demographic data about their staff. This data will then be used to inform any impending policy changes.

Duncan has fought for diversity in research for decades and firmly espouses the idea that “diversity and research excellence go hand in hand.” This is by no means empty rhetoric, as an overly homogeneous or male-dominated field will suffer from limitations in their perspectives on topics that involve gender, which are more common than assumed. For example, she notes deficiencies in the design of early airbags, artificial heart valves, and voice recognition software, which were originally calibrated with male users and recipients in mind. There is no apparent benefit from “halving the potential field of innovation.” Aside from the obvious issues of fairness, researchers may provide better service to society if they actively seek to maintain a diverse set of colleagues and employees.

The results of her actions here will go a long way toward informing actions taken in other countries to alleviate gender bias in their respective science communities. When the information is made available, it will also be interesting to see how other nations science departments compare in their efforts to promote diversity and gender equity.

(Emily Chung, CBC News)

International Research

Here’s how China is challenging the U.S. and European brain initiatives

The ongoing development of the China Brain Project is a major feature of China’s new focus on neuroscience and brain research, as delineated by their government’s latest 5-year plan. Of interest to other leading nations is how their approach to neuroscience will challenge and inform their own research, as well as the impact it will have on national standing in the sciences. The latest step, and perhaps an unexpected one, has been the rapid launch of the Shanghai Research Center for Brain Science and Brain-Inspired Intelligence.

By their own account, the preparation for the national CBP center “was taking a long time,” which spurred Shanghai and Beijing to take the initiative to launch their own center. In line with the latest 5-year plan, the CBP is primarily focused on neural mechanisms underlying cognition, translational studies of neurological diseases, and artificial intelligence. The scientists heading the Shanghai & Beijing center are however also interested in brain changes at the mesoscopic (brain cell circuitry) connectome level and how education affects neural development. China faces the same brain health challenges as other countries with an aging population and many see advances in neuroscience as a means to alleviate the burden to public health systems and caregivers.

The U.S. and European Commission both have their own brain and neuroscience related initiatives and research focus, and the world will be watching and waiting to see how they compare and how researchers integrate their findings. Following at the heels of a large influx of national focus and investment in the sciences, China has also taken steps to attract scientists from across the globe for their research laboratories. This is itself not without complications. While not insurmountable, foreign researchers report feeling constricted by language difficulties and state-limited access to online resources. This step to acquire outside researchers places China in direct competition with other nations in the search for crucial scientific minds.

Time will tell how an emerging major player will affect the science policy of other leading scientific nations, but the well-defined topical focus, high priority, generous funding, and open recruitment of overseas talent all suggest that we will be seeing a great deal of brain research from China in the future.

(Dennis Normile, Science)

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June 12, 2018 at 10:30 pm

Science Policy Around the Web – June 8, 2018

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By: Sarah L. Hawes, PhD


source: pixabay

Treatment Guidelines

Good News for Women With Breast Cancer: Many Don’t Need Chemo

Completion of a large, international clinical study headed by Dr. Joseph A. Sparano of Montefiore Medical Center in New York spells out excellent news for early-stage breast cancer patients. These patients are typically asked to endure both chemo and endocrine therapies after tumor removal. Endocrine therapy to block the hormone estrogen results in side effects similar to menopause and can increase risk of uterine cancer. Notoriously toxic chemo therapy can damage heart and nervous tissue, compromise patient immune systems, and increase risk of leukemia.

Since 2004, genetic test such as Oncotype DX Breast Cancer Assay have provided a small number of women confidence that chemotherapy is not needed to treat their cancer. Following surgical removal of small, non-metastasized breast tumors, tissue is genetically tested to determine whether chemotherapy is advisable as a next step. A very low Oncotype DX tumor score (≤10) indicates cancer with a low risk of recurring, so that chemotherapy is not needed. A very high tumor score of (≥25) indicates a more persistent cancer, and the need for chemotherapy to suppress its recurrence. But most breast cancers return an intermediate tumor score – falling between 10 and 25.

Not knowing what else to do, physicians treating patients with intermediate scores have dutifully followed the 2000 National Cancer Institute recommendation that all pre-metastasis breast cancer patients receive chemo therapy to avoid recurrence and metastasis. Now, Dr. Sparano’s study indicates that many do not need it.

The study, called TAILORx, will be published in The New England Journal of Medicine. It began in 2006 and – with funding from the US and Canadian governments, philanthropic groups, and the company which makes Oncotype DX – followed over 9,000 breast cancer patients aged 18 to 75 for a median duration of seven years. Seventy percent of these women had intermediate tumor scores. With their informed consent, participating women were assigned at random to receive either endocrine therapy alone, or else in combination with chemotherapy.

Over the course of the study, the rates of survival and clearance of cancer were no different between these two groups. This means that for a majority of patients whose cancer is detected at an early stage, toxic chemo therapy provides no added benefit and can be safely avoided. The study results also clarified that, for women younger than 50 (median age at diagnosis is 62 in the US), chemotherapy is still advisable if tumor scores are above 16.

Coauthor Dr. Ingrid A. Mayer from Vanderbilt expressed excitement, noting that with these research findings “we can spare thousands and thousands of women from getting toxic treatment that really wouldn’t benefit them. This is very powerful. It really changes the standard of care.”

(Denise Grady, New York Times)

Basic Science

Scientists race to reveal how surging wildfire smoke is affecting climate and health

A record 2017 wildfire season inflicted serious health and economic challenges throughout the western United States. Over two million acres burned in California and Montana alone, flooding the closest towns with smoke carrying nearly 20 times the acceptable limit of particulate matter set by the Environmental Protection Agency for weeks on end.

The frequency of wildfires is projected to increase, yet a fundamental understanding of their billowing byproduct – smoke – is lacking. Thankfully the next two years will see over $30 million in spending by two cooperative research programs investigating the chemistry, physics, and environmental and public health implications of wildfire smoke. One research campaign is being funded and run by the National Science Foundation (NSF); the other is a joint endeavor by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

“This is definitely the largest fire experiment that has ever happened,” says Carsten Warneke of NOAA’s Earth System Research Laboratory in Boulder, Colorado. Old data on wildfire smoke lacks detail, being largely garnished by satellite observation of established fires. The new research will gather data at all atmospheric levels, using satellites as well as aircraft to fly through and sample smoke plumes and employing researchers on the ground to test low-lying smoke. Sampling will begin in the first 24 hours to monitor fast dynamics of smoke chemistry as it passes through different atmosphere levels and interacts with clouds, potentially seeding ice crystals and impacting weather. In addition to wildfires, researchers will study the smoke released by controlled burns for farming and forestry.

The goal of these large scale research campaigns, Warneke says, is “to do the whole picture at one time and understand how the whole thing plays together.” Newly generated data will enable scientists to predict the rates and types of pollutants released based on the composition of land burned – including density of vegetation or man-made structures – and what that means for climate, weather, and human health.

(Warren Cornwall, Science Magazine)

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June 8, 2018 at 6:03 pm

Science Policy Around the Web – June 6, 2018

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By: Leopold Kong, PhD


source: pixabay

Research funding

China increasingly challenges American dominance of science

Earlier this year, China’s science minister announced that China’s total spending on research and development in 2017 was estimated to be US$279 billion, which is up 70.9% since 2012 and represents 2.1% GDP. In comparison, the United States devoted 2.8% GDP to research and development that same year.  In terms of scientific research, the United States spends half a trillion dollars, more than any other country, but China has pulled into second place and is on track to surpass the U.S. by the end of this year, according to the National Science Board.  In fact, China surpassed the US in terms of scientific publications in 2016. According to Pastor-Pareja, a geneticist who gave up Yale for Bejing, there are now 30 fly genetics laboratories in Beijing, more than in either Boston or San Francisco. Furthermore, China has 202 of the world’s 500 most powerful supercomputers, 60 more than the U.S., and the largest radio telescope ever built, a US$180 million dish used to hunt for black holes.

The increased investment in science has enabled Chinese scientists to make more cutting edge discoveries.  For example, last year, biologists in China were the first to clone a monkey, which may speed medical research. Chinese physicists developed the proof of concept for a quantum communications system that is theoretically instant and secure. Much of this growth is driven by aggressive recruiting programs such as the Thousand Talents, which targets Chinese citizens who have studied science in the United States or elsewhere, driving a “reverse brain drain”.  The program has recruited more than 7,000 scientists, who are given a US$160,000 signing bonus and guaranteed research funding for many years.  Foreign-born scientists may get additional perks such as subsidies for housing, meals, relocation and additional bonuses.

Despite the massive growth in science, Chinese research faces challenges in quality control.  For example, last year, 107 scientific papers involving over 400 Chinese authors were retracted in a major publication fraud.  In fact since 2012, China has retracted more scientific papers because of faked peer-reviews than all other countries and territories put together, according to Retraction Watch.  In 2013, Science had exposed a thriving academic black market in China involving corrupt scientists and editors operating in plain view.  Poor quality Chinese research may be exacerbated by lack of stringent regulatory systems. “In America, if you purposely falsify data, then your career in academia is over.  But in China, the cost of cheating is very low. They won’t fire you. You might not get promoted immediately, but once people forget, then you might have a chance to move up”, said Zhang Lei, a professor of applied physics at Xi’an Jiaotong University in an interview with the New York Times.  Still, China has much to offer as collaborators according to experts. Denis Simon, executive chancellor of Duke Kunshan University noted, “The Chinese, for the first time, really have something to offer us. It is vitally in the U.S. interest to plug in.”

(Ben Guarino, Emily Rauhala and William Wan, The Washington Post)


Took an ancestry DNA test? You might be a ‘genetic informant’ unleashing secrets about your relatives

Last Friday, police revealed parts of the arrest warrant for Joseph DeAngelo, the 72 year old former police officer accused of being the Golden State Killer who committed at least 12 murders, more than 50 rapes and over 100 burglaries from 1974 to 1986. Until recently, DeAngelo had eluded capture until DNA from a genealogical website was found to match the DNA found at one of the killer’s crime scenes. The lead from the website belonged to a distant relative of the suspect which helped lead the authorities to focus their investigation on DeAngelo.  Supplemented with other evidence, such as saliva collected from the suspect’s garbage can for a more direct DNA match, the authorities arrested DeAngelo in April of this year.

The DNA match was found on GEDmatch, a Florida- based website that pools raw genetic profiles, which now number more than a million genomes.  In at least eight states, authorities can search law enforcement databases for possible genetic matches.  Genetic family searching has been used numerous times in the past.  For example, in 2003, Craig Harman was identified as the individual who threw a brick through a windshield of a passing vehicle that caused the driver to suffer a fatal heart attack via a DNA match to Harman’s brother. In 2011, the serial killer Lonnie Franklin, charged on 10 counts of murder, was identified through DNA of Franklin’s son.

While genomics searching may provide valuable leads, some critics say it infringes on privacy. “When you put your information into a database voluntarily, and law enforcement has access to it, you may be unwittingly exposing your relatives — some you know, some you don’t know — to scrutiny by law enforcement. Even though they may have done nothing wrong,” said Andrea Roth, assistant professor of law at UC Berkeley Boalt School of Law and an expert on of forensic science in criminal trials.  Genomics searching failed in 2014 when Micheal Usry, a New Orleans filmmaker was falsely accused of murder using evidence from AncestryDNA after authorities asked for access to the data through a court order. “…even though it is easy to think of this technology as something that is used just to track down serial killers,” says Roth, “If we allow the government to use it with no accountability or no further safeguards, then all of our genetic information might be at risk for being used for things we don’t want it to be used for.”

(Ashley May, USA Today)

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June 5, 2018 at 10:00 pm