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Archive for September 2019

Science Policy Around the Web September 27th, 2019

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By Andrew Wright BSc

Image by Herm from Pixabay 

Extreme sea level events ‘will hit once a year by 2050’

According to the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate released on September 25th,  the effect of climate change on the worlds oceans and ice formations are so severe that they are partially irreversible even with steep cuts to emissions by 2050. While such cuts will reduce far more drastic and damaging changes in the latter half of the 21stcentury and beyond, increased temperatures, acidification, oxygen decline, marine heatwaves, and a weakening of critical ocean currents (that affect weather patterns among other ecological systems) are all but certain. This will lead to extreme sea level events that are “historically rare”, meaning they occur roughly once per century, occurring every year, especially in tropical regions.  Further, sea level rise is projected to continue beyond 2100 even in optimal emission reduction scenarios, with an estimated range of 1 meter of ocean rise in the best-case scenario and multi-meter rise in the worst-case scenario. To compare, since 1993 the ocean has risen by about 8cm, or less than 10% of the projected expected ocean rise, and flooding in the United States has increased by over 200%.

            Almost 2 billion people live on the coast and as such sea level rise will cost several trillions of dollars a year in damages and lead to millions of displaced migrants. These damages will be alongside collapsing coastal ecosystems that supply 10% of the world’s population with their livelihood and 4.3 billion people with a significant part of their food. The magnitude of these effects was revised upward in this most recent report to account for accelerating ice melt from Greenland and Antarctica, which is now surpassing thermal expansion as the primary contributor to ocean rise.

(Damian Carrington, The Guardian

Grad student unions dealt blow as proposed new rule says students aren’t ‘employees’

The question of whether graduate students at private universities are considered employees has been revisited several times by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) since its original 2000 decision allowing graduate students to form a union at New York University. As NLRB members are politically appointed, decisions about the validity of university graduate student unions have vacillated with the priorities of concurrent presidential administrations. In 2004, the NLRB under the George W. Bush administration ruled that graduate students are not considered employees, while in 2016 the NLRB overturned that decision under the Barrack Obama administration and allowed graduate students at Columbia University to form a union if they were compensated for teaching.

The most recent proposed rule, under the Donald Trump administration, counters previous guidance in stating that graduate students are not “employees” regardless of the compensatory mechanism, and thereby do not hold the capacity to form a union. In this case, the NLRB is comprehensively addressing the graduate student employee issue by going through the mechanism of the official rulemaking process rather than by deciding the issue on a case-by-case basis as has been previously.

This new rule, which has a 60-day public comment period, will affect a number of private universities where students have decided to unionize as at least 12 schools have done so far. What is less clear is how this will affect ongoing negotiations that have been entered into by graduate student unions and universities as those unions face delegitimization.

Interestingly, part of the reason that the NLRB is using this rulemaking process is due to the withdrawal of petitions by students at the University of Chicago, Yale University, Boston College, and the University of Pennsylvania, without which the NLRB was unable to rule on their individual cases. However, according to the executive director of the National Center for the Study of Collective Bargaining in Higher Education and the Professions William Herbert, Congress has the authority to stipulate who is and is not an employee under U.S. labor law, which will most likely open the proposed rule to litigation.

(Katie Langin, Science)

Written by sciencepolicyforall

September 27, 2019 at 10:55 am

Science Policy Around the Web September 23th, 2019

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By Silvia Preite PhD

Image by PublicDomainPictures from Pixabay 

The modality of newborn delivery strongly alters gut microbiota composition

A high number and variety of microbes colonize the human gut. These microbes, the gut microbiota, contribute to multiple bodily functions, including digestion, metabolism, and modulate susceptibility to diseases and response to cancer therapies. 

As part of the large-scale “Baby Biome Study,” a recent research published in Nature provides strong evidence that the mode of delivery of infants, influences the gut microbiota composition. This study reports data collected at 4, 7, and 21 days after the birth and includes nearly 600 newborn kids in the UK, half of which were delivered vaginally and half by c-section. Compared to children born through the vaginal canal, c-section babies lacked “health-promoting” strains. Instead, opportunistic bacteria associated with hospitalization dominated.

The study also reported other more complex relationships between mothers and newborn microbiota. For example, mothers receiving prophylactic antibiotics, that cross the placenta, carried offspring with altered gut microbes. Similarly, children not breastfed early in life display comparably changes. 

During infancy (around nine months of age) the overall microbiota composition grew more similar among kids with different delivery histories. However, Bacteroides, a health-promoting strain known to influence the immune responses and reduce inflammation, remained at a low level in c-section babies. It remains unclear how long the microbiota remains altered. Future studies will have to assess this and to quantify long-term health consequences. Interestingly, epidemiological studies report a greater incidence of asthma and diabetes in humans delivered by c-section. 

(Shao et al., 2019, Nature)

Written by sciencepolicyforall

September 24, 2019 at 10:27 am

Science Policy Around the Web September 20th, 2019

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By Allison Cross, PhD

Image from Flickr

Hunt for Cause of Vaping Illness Suggests Multiple Mechanisms of Damage

A vaping-related respiratory illness has affected nearly 500 individuals across 3 dozen states and has been linked to 6 deaths since the first case was reported back in April. Experts, however, are still uncertain about what is causing the nationwide outbreak and even what the condition is exactly.  

report earlier this month from the FDA suggested they may have identified the source of the problem, vitamin E acetate,  a common contaminate in vaping products.  However, more recent information indicates that no single contaminate was identified in all product samples tested from sick individuals. To date, the only thing found in common among the nearly 500 individuals who have fallen ill is that they recently vaped in the US or its territories.  

On September 16th, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention activated its Emergency Operations Center (EOC) to help to enhance operations and provide additional support to CDC staff working to identify the cause of the disease.  The CDC advices those concerned about the outbreak to refrain from using e-cigarettes or vaping products.

E-cigarettes and other vaping products have recently been under scrutiny by those concerned about the recent increase in popularity of vaping among adolescents.  Many have been pushing for a ban on flavored e-cigarettes as these products are believed to be deliberately targeting youth.  The recent outbreak has led to renewed calls for a total ban on these and other vaping products.  In response to the outbreak, regulators in New York approved a ban on the sale of flavored e-cigarettes on Tuesday the 17thand Michigan followed suit on Wednesday.   The health and human services secretary, Alex M. Azar II, also announced that the FDA is outlining a plan for removing flavored e-cigarettes and nicotine pods from the market, though finalizing this ban will take several weeks. 

(Emily Willingham, Scientific American)

Trump’s decision to block California vehicle emissions rules could have a wide impact

California has long struggled to reduce smog in its cities and for almost 4 decades, as a part of the federal Clean Air Act, they have been granted special permission by the EPA to set their own air pollution standards.  This may soon change however as President Trump announced that the administration plans to revoke California’s authority to set its own automotive emissions standards. The Trump administration, instead, aims to set a single national standard for automotive emissions. Many are concerned, however, about the more lenient national standard proposed by the Trump administration. 

Although California is only 1 of 49 states, the implications of revoking California’s authority to set its own emission standard are far reaching.  The Clean Air Act currently allows others states to adopt the standards set by California and, as of today, thirteen other states and Washington DC abide by California’s stricter standards. 

The plan currently proposed by the Trump administration aims to freeze fuel-efficiency standards for all vehicles after 2020.  Experts estimate that this new standard would increase average greenhouse gas emissions from new vehicles by 20% in 2025 compared to the level projected under the current rules.  

California leaders have pledged to challenge the decision by the Trump administration in court.  It is likely that other states and environmental groups will join in support of California and it is possible that the lawsuit makes its way all the way to the supreme court. 

 (Jeff Tollefson, Nature

Written by sciencepolicyforall

September 20, 2019 at 5:44 pm

Science Policy Around the Web September 13th, 2019

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By Neetu M. Gulati PhD

Image by mika mamy from Pixabay 

Genetically modified mosquitoes breed in Brazil

An experiment to curb the population of tropical disease-carrying mosquitoes in Brazil may have failed. In 2013 and 2015, mosquitoes with a modification called OX513A, which prevents these mosquitoes from reaching adulthood and being able to reproduce, were released into a region of Brazil. This experiment was meant to limit the spread of mosquito-borne infectious diseases that plague the area, including zika, dengue, and yellow fever. 

Initially, the goal of the genetic modification experiment was to reduce the mosquito population by 90%, which was successful during the field trial. Only about 4% of genetically modified mosquitoes were expected to be able to reach adulthood, and it was hypothesized that these mosquitoes would be too weak to reproduce. However, about 18 months after the experimental trial period ended, the mosquito population has returned to pre-trial levels. A recent study has revealed that the gene modification has been passed on in 10-60% of the mosquitoes in the area, suggesting they were able to reproduce. Furthermore, modified mosquitoes are as able to carry infectious diseases as non-modified mosquitoes. Critics of the experiment warn that not enough was known about these mosquitoes and there may be unintended consequences to the genetic modification, including a possibility of making the species more robust. The authors of the new study posited “These results demonstrate the importance of having in place a genetic monitoring program during releases of transgenic organisms to detect unanticipated consequences.”

(Fabian Schmidt, Deutsche Welle

America is in danger of losing its “measles-free” status

In 2000 the United States was declared measles-free, 37 years after the introduction of the measles vaccine in the US and Canada. Now, almost two decades later, the US is at risk of losing an official designation of “measles-elimination” status in October. This status is only given to countries without continuous measles transmission for at least one year, where cases of the disease can be linked back to a traveler who brought the virus from another place where it has been circulating. An outbreak of measles in New York state now jeopardizes this. The CDC reported over 1,200 measles cases in the US, with over 75% of the cases occurring in the state of New York. 

This is occurring because it is common in some groups to opt out of the measles vaccine. And it is not just the US; measles cases have increased around the world, and some other countries have also lost measles-free status in the last year.

The outbreak in New York can be traced back to Ukraine, which has had tens of thousands of measles cases in the last year. It then spread throughout a tight-knit community of people who chose not to vaccinate for perceived safety concerns. So while this outbreak can be linked to a traveler, many are concerned that if vaccine coverage rates continue to decline, the virus could spread enough, especially in under-vaccinated communities, that the outbreaks will begin to be “homegrown.”

(Julia Belluz, Vox)

Written by sciencepolicyforall

September 13, 2019 at 10:53 am

Science Policy Around the Web September 9th, 2019

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By Ben Wolfson PhD

India Is Trying To Make Contact With Its Vikram Lander After Finding It On The Moon

During an attempt to become the fourth country to land on the moon (after the U.S., former Soviet Union and China), India lost communication with its lunar lander Vikram early last Friday. Contact was lost during the “15 minutes of terror”, the autonomous final descent to the lunar surface.

The Vikram lander was being carried by the Chandrayaan-2 orbiter, which was launched in July. It was attempting to land near the South Pole of the moon, currently a region which is completely unexplored. After landing Vikram would have deployed Pragyaan, a rover that would have collected data for 2 weeks.

Over the weekend the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) announced that they had located Vikram using the Chandrayaan-2 orbiter, and that they were attempting to reestablish communication.

Despite the landing failure, Indian scientists remain optimistic about the future of the Indian space program. Even with the loss of the lander, they will still be able to do research using the Chandrayaan-2 orbiter. The orbiter has eight instruments and will map the moon from orbit for at least one and potentially up to seven years. In light of this success, the ISRO stated that 90-95% of the mission objectives were successful.

(Jonathan O’Callaghan, Forbes)

Written by sciencepolicyforall

September 10, 2019 at 3:42 pm

Science Policy Around the Web September 3rd, 2019

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By Ben Wolfson PhD

Image by Dimitris Vetsikas from Pixabay 

Biohackers are pirating a cheap version of a million-dollar gene therapy

This past weekend, the 4th annual Biohack the Planet, a conference for community scientists and biohackers, was held in Las Vegas. In addition to discussions concerning the future and goals of biohacking, a group of biohackers announced their efforts to develop a pirated version of the gene therapy Glybera, called Slybera.

First approved in Europe in 2012, Glybera is a gene therapy meant to treat the rare genetic disorder lipoprotein lipase deficiency (LPLD). Glybera provided a “one-off” solution to LDLD by inducing a patients body to produce new copies of the missing protein. Approximately 1 in every million people suffer from LPLD, meaning that there existed an exceedingly small market for the drug. Moreover, upon its release it was deemed the world’s most expensive drug at approximately 1 million dollars per dose. Due to financial issues associated with this high cost, Glybera was withdrawn from market in 2017.

At Biohack the Planet, research leader Gabriel Licinia described the process of creating a prototype pirated version of Glybera, which he says cost less than $7,000 and was created in only 2 months. Licinia and his colleagues got the gene sequence used in Glybera from the original papers published describing it, and ordered the DNA from a commercial DNA synthesis company. They then inserted the DNA into a genetic construct capable of inducing mammalian cells to produce the LPL protein.

While Licinia demonstrated that this method works in cells, it would likely not have the same long lasting effects as Glybera, which uses viruses as carriers for the LDL gene, producing stable expression of the protein for a number of years.

The future of Slybera is uncertain, as there is currently no defined clinical path for products created by biohackers. However the team is taking steps to demonstrate their seriousness, including distributing their materials to fellow biohackers so they can attempt to replicate their studies.

(Alex Pearlman, MIT Technology Review

Written by sciencepolicyforall

September 3, 2019 at 3:49 pm