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Science Policy Around the Web – February 9, 2016

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By: Cheryl Jacobs Smith, Ph.D.

Photo credit: Contains LEAD via photopin (license)

Health Policy

What the Science Says About Long-Term Damage From Lead

Almost two years since the city of Flint, MI switched from Detroit water to their local water supply, the citizens are finally being listened to in regards to their drinking water. Time and time again, citizens and researchers were ignored when they tried to alert local officials to their poor water quality conditions. Finally, Flint residents and researchers were able to get the message out: not only is their local water undrinkable, it is contaminated with lead.

Lead intoxication or lead poisoning does not necessarily lead to seizures, hospitalizations or medical events. However, health care professionals are still alarmed because lead levels in children reached 5 micrograms per deciliter (5 ug/dL). The percentage of children in Flint, MI under the age of 5 with lead levels that high have now since doubled (2.4 percent to 4.9 percent). Furthermore, in areas with the highest levels of lead, more than 10 percent of children have lead levels that are at least that high.

The most worrisome statistics are the long-term and lasting effects due to lead poisoning. A study published in Pediatrics examining more than 3,400 children in Rhode Island identified that children with blood lead levels between 5 to 9 micrograms per deciliter (5-9 ug/dL) fell below reading readiness for kindergarten. Additional studies examining lead levels and child development also report increase likelihood to engage in risky behaviors such as smoking or drinking at an early age.

Now that attention is centered on Flint, MI and its trouble with lead in the water, focus needs to turn to mitigating any long-term damage children and adults may have as a result of lead poisoning. Historically, lead has been used ubiquitously in manufacturing. Not only used for pipes, lead has been an additive in gasoline, in paint and has also accumulated in soil. We should take a lesson from Flint and analyze the state of lead poisoning in our own communities. As Aaron E. Carrol comments, “Until we solve the lead problem for good, we may be condemning children to a lifetime of problems.” (Aaron E. Carroll, The New York Times)

Public Health and Infectious Disease

Governor, health officials sued over Ebola quarantines

During the Ebola epidemic in 2014, several people coming back to the United States from West Africa were quarantined: meaning they could not return back to their normal lives for at least 20 days. For several of these people, they felt the quarantine was akin to imprisonment and now have filed a lawsuit.

The lawsuit was filed by Yale Law School students against Connecticut Governor Dannel P. Malloy and state health officials on behalf of ex-quarantined plaintiffs or those plaintiffs still in West Africa. The plaintiffs who were quarantined claim that they had no Ebola symptoms that warranted their isolation upon their return. The lawsuit seeks monetary damages and an order preventing any future quarantines. Plantiffs say, “Being quarantined made me feel like a criminal.” “There was no scientific reason to confine me to my apartment, with no visitors and a police officer parked outside my door.”

Like other governors of New York or New Jersey who issued quarantines to health workers returning from areas in Africa endemic with Ebola, Governor Malloy adopted the same stringent policies. Not only did health care workers feel undue prejudice or discrimination as a result of traveling to West Africa, but so did Liberians living in Connecticut. It will be interesting to see what the court rules.   (Dave Collins, The Washington Post)

Drug Policy

Cancer drug’s usefulness against Alzheimer’s disputed

A study described in the top biomedical journal, Science, in 2012 observed that bexarotene, an FDA-approved cancer drug, was able to clear a protein, A-beta, from the brains of mice. This reduced plaque formation and smaller forms of the protein which in essence reduced the pathology of Alzheimer’s disease which is known to accumulate proteins that form plaques in the brain that reduce brain function. Excitingly, the mice treated with bexarotene showed signs of improved learning and memory—a reversal of Alzheimer’s symptoms. However, a year after their work appeared, four reports, also in, Science, disputed some of those findings.

In tests on rats, Amgen, a pharmaceutical company, found that bexarotene didn’t drop levels of plaques or smaller forms of the protein, A-beta. The author of the original Science paper, Dr. Landreth, argued that the present study did not use a formulation of the drug that would persist at high enough levels in the brain to be useful.

“Larger trials would be more informative”, says Landreth, who stands by his group’s original findings. “When we published our Science paper, it took us five years and we did the best science we could,” Landreth says. “And I am convinced that we are right.” (Laura Sanders, Science News)

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February 9, 2016 at 9:00 am

Science Policy Around the Web – February 5, 2016

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By: Eric Cheng, Ph.D.

Photo source: pixabay.com

Environment, science and society

Congress approves bill to ban plastic microbeads in skin care products

Plastic microbeads used in a variety of personal-care products from soaps to face washes will be phased out starting in 2017. Microbeads are tiny plastic particles used as an abrasive in many beauty products such as facial scrubs, soaps, and toothpastes. These beads do not dissolve and can remain in the environment for decades.

The Microbead-Free Waters Act of 2015 was introduced by Congressmen Frank Pallone, Jr. (NJ-6), Ranking Member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, and Fred Upton (MI-6), Chairman of the Committee. It is believed that “these tiny plastic particles that are polluting our environment are found in products specifically designed to be washed down shower drains,” said Pallone. “And many people buying these products are unaware of their damaging effects on the environment.” This view is in alignment with research that shows how these beads slip through wastewater treatment systems and into waterways. Sherri A. Mason, an environmental chemist at the State University of New York in Fredonia, estimates that 11 billion microbeads are released into the nation’s waterways each day.

At the state level, states such as Illinois and California already have passed microbead bans while more than half of the states are considering them. However, the growing number of state and local laws with conflicting restrictions and timelines helped to motivate the sponsor of the bill in the Senate. The federal legislation will prohibit the manufacture of products containing plastic microbeads as of July 1, 2017, and phase out sales of the product over the next two years. The federal law will take precedence over state laws that are starting to phase out microbeads over similar concerns. (Congressional Research Service)

CRISPR technology

UK scientists gain license to edit genes in human embryos

A team of British scientists has received permission to edit genes in human embryos for scientific studies. Although there is currently a voluntary moratorium observed by scientists worldwide on DNA alterations that could be passed down to subsequent generations, the proposed studies would not contradict them because the altered embryos will not be implanted into a womb.

On February 1st, the British regulatory agency that oversees reproductive biology, the Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority, approved an application by Kathy Niakan, of the Francis Crick Institute in London, to utilize a new genetic editing technique called Clustered regularly-interspaced short palindromic repeats or CRISPR (or CRISPR/Cas9) to alter human embryos. This CRISPR system enables researchers to precisely remove specific DNA sequences.

In the United States, Congress has banned the government from supporting research where a human embryo is destroyed. This ban, however, does not apply to privately or state funded researchers. “This type of research should prove valuable for understanding the many complex issues around germline editing,” said George Daley, a stem-cell biologist at Boston Children’s Hospital in Massachusetts. “Even though this work isn’t explicitly aiming toward the clinic, it may teach us the potential risks of considering clinical application.” (Ewen Callaway, Nature)

Federal Research Funding

White House wants $1 billion for Vice President Biden’s cancer moonshot. Where will it come from?

In his next upcoming budget, President Barack Obama will ask Congress for $755 million for cancer research. This will bring the total price tag of Vice President Joe Biden’s cancer “moonshot” to $1 billion. However, it is still not known if Congress will agree to this new funding proposal for 2017. In addition, it is also not known how much existing money will be reshuffled at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in order to support this year’s moonshot plans.

Currently, the White House plans to immediately fund the Moonshot initiative with $195 million in “new cancer activities” at NIH for the 2016 fiscal year. Most of this spending is predicted to occur at the National Cancer Institute (NCI) which already received a $264 million boost in new money this year as part of the overall $2 billion NIH budget increase. Although researchers are “very excited and enthusiastic” about the initiative, they have questions about exactly where the money will come from, says Jon Retzlaff, managing director for science policy and government affairs for the American Association for Cancer Research in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Bolstering certain NCI programs partway into the fiscal year may force the institute to divert funds from other programs.

Currently, Biden plans to continue the moonshot’s financial momentum in the White House’s FY 2017 budget request to steer $75 million to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for moonshot activities, and $680 million for NIH. If this request will be approved by Congress is still up in the air, Retzlaff notes. This is because the budget request calls for using “mandatory funds” to pay for these increases. Mandatory funds are not directed through the regular annual appropriations process, but instead the money comes from dedicated sources approved by Congress. Using mandatory funds preempts congressional oversight which is generally not supported by lawmakers. If approved, this additional funding will represent an increase of about 15% over what the federal government is already spending on cancer research, the nation’s second leading cause of death. (Jocelyn Kaiser, Science magazine)

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February 5, 2016 at 9:00 am

Science Policy Around the Web – February 2, 2016

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By: Agila Somasundaram, Ph.D.

Map representing scientific collaborations from 2005 to 2009 using data from Scopus. International cooperation. Credit: Computed by Olivier H. Beauchesne and Scimago Lab

Science Policy on a Global Scale

Global science engagement

The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) will have its annual meeting in Washington DC, from 11 to 15 February 2016. World leaders in science and policy will discuss major challenges, such as food security and health, facing the global community. Dr. Geraldine Richmond, President of the AAAS, says that nations need to employ ingenious ways to find solutions to the ever-increasing demands for food, energy, water, and a healthy environment, which are complex and interconnected problems. Dr. Richmond emphasizes the importance of international research partnerships and innovative approaches that assimilate perspectives and lessons from all over the world, including the developing countries. Such ‘Global Science Engagement’ will be the focus of this year’s AAAS meeting. Dr. Richmond cautions that isolationist views that undervalue international initiatives are unwise. For example, the United States spends billions of dollars providing clean drinking water to its people, but 90 percent of that water is flushed down the drain. Valuable lessons could be learnt from countries such as Namibia where recycled water has been consumed since 1969 with no adverse health consequences. Diversity in opinions, ideas, and experiences is essential to furthering creativity and innovation that is required to solve complex global problems. But scientists in developing countries face difficulties connecting with their peers in more advanced nations, for e.g. due to limited journal access, and people in the United States who are interested in global engagement have limited ways to do so. While commending the efforts of AAAS and other scientific societies in facilitating international engagements, Dr. Richmond calls for more efforts and commitment to strengthen such collaborations. (Geraldine Richmond, Science)

Zika Virus

New Weapon to Fight Zika: The Mosquito

The Zika virus is rapidly spreading in the Americas, and has been linked to a severe defect in brain development, microcephaly, in babies. The Zika virus is spread by mosquitoes, mainly the Aedes aegypti species, which also transmits deadly infections such as chikungunya, yellow fever and dengue fever. Efforts to develop vaccines against the virus are underway, but it may take many years, even a decade, before an effective vaccine can be given to the public. Experts argue that new methods are needed since the traditional ones, involving insecticides and reducing stagnant water to prevent mosquito breeding, aren’t enough.

The British company Oxitec has developed genetically engineered mosquitoes that transmit a lethal gene to their progeny, which die before reaching adulthood. These engineered mosquitoes have been successfully used to lower mosquito populations by more than 80 percent in certain parts of Brazil. Oxitec says this is an ecologically friendly approach because only one species is targeted, as opposed to chemical spraying that affects many organisms. But the release of genetically modified organisms into the environment has met with opposition. Another approach is to infect the mosquitoes with the bacterium Wolbachia, which makes it harder for the mosquitoes to transmit viruses. The bacteria can be passed through eggs, making this a self-sustaining method. Initial results in Brazil appear promising, encouraging trials on a larger scale. A third powerful approach is the use of gene-drives. Gene-drives allow for the propagation of a desired trait, for e.g. sterility, through a wild population. Though gene-drives have been tested in laboratory scales, it might be not so easy to deploy it in public yet, mainly because of concerns that it would be very difficult to reverse things if something undesirable happens.

Remarking on the three approaches, Dr. Peterson, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said, “We don’t know about the efficacy of any of them on a wide enough scale… For now, we’ve got to deal with what we have.” Experts say that the traditional methods of mosquito control need to be intensified, till we have proven the large-scale efficacies of the new approaches and/or developed an effective vaccine. (Andrew Pollack, The New York Times)

Scientific Integrity

How cases like Flint destroy public trust in science

While the Flint water crisis is being investigated, disturbing reports emerge about how studies that showed a problem in Flint’s drinking water were dismissed. In Fall 2015, a team of researchers in Virginia Tech, led by Dr. March Edwards, examined the lead content of drinking water in Flint homes. The study revealed that the 90th percentile reading was 27 parts per billion. The Environmental Protection Agency considers 5 parts per billion a cause for concern, and 15 parts per billion as the limit above which the problem should be fixed. However, tests conducted by the city showed lead levels within safe limits. The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality responded saying that the state was perplexed by the study results, but not surprised, given that Dr. Edwards’ “group specializes in looking for high lead problems.” According to reports, the city’s water testing results had been “revised by the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality to wrongly indicate the water was safe to drink.” The state officials attempted “to use power instead of logic and scientific reasoning to defend and hide their actions,” says Dr. Edwards. Similarly, studies done by Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, pediatrics program director at Michigan’s Hurley Medical Center, were also initially criticized. Her study showed that the percent of children with elevated blood lead levels doubled, or tripled in some areas, after the change in water source. When the state later analyzed its data using the same approach as Dr. Hanna-Attisha, the results matched.

Dr. Naomi Oreskes, science historian at Harvard University, says that though these events may not classify as “science denials,” they constitute a less-defined category of “no one likes bad news.” “Why didn’t government officials take it seriously when scientists tried to raise an alarm?” she asks. When government officials responsible for people’s safety commit acts like these, it crushes the public’s faith in science, and exacerbates problems such as denial of climate change or the safety of vaccination. How do we prevent problems like Flint from reoccurring? The answer is not clear yet, but some suggestions include conducting better checks and balances by independent researchers not affiliated with the government, and not overlooking the role of universities in protecting public welfare. According to Dr. Aron Sousa, the work by Edwards and Hanna-Attisha should reinforce the public’s faith in good science. (Chelsea Harvey, The Washington Post)

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February 2, 2016 at 9:00 am

Science Policy Around the Web – January 29, 2016

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By: Daniël P. Melters, Ph.D.

Infectious Diseases

Zika virus, linked to microcephaly, on the rise

Only a few months after the scare of the epidemic of chikungunya, a new virus has emerged on the American continents: Zika virus. The same mosquito (Aedes aegypti) that transmits yellow fever, dengue, and chikungunya also transmits this virus. In the last few months of 2015, there was a sharp rise in babies born with microcephaly. Some hospitals in north Brazil that would only see five cases a year, now see over 300 in six months. These babies have abnormally small heads and the rare neurological disorder Guillain-Barré syndrome. The rise in cases with microcephaly strongly correlated with an ongoing Zika virus epidemic in the north of Brazil. In addition, the Zika virus RNA was found in the amniotic fluid of two fetuses. It is thought that women who were pregnant became infected with the virus and gave it to the growing fetus. Nevertheless, there is no formal evidence that the Zika virus causes microcephaly. In fact, a recent report argues that a surge in finding birth defects is too blame for the increase in microcephaly cases in Latin America.

This has not stopped local and global authorities from warning people of the potential dangers of the Zika virus. Brazil has suggested its citizens in affected regions not get pregnant. The CDC in the U.S. is warning tourists who go to regions where Zika virus is epidemic to take precautionary measures to prevent being bitten by mosquitos. On Thursday, January 28th, the World Health Organization declared an International Emergency. The last International Emergency was the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. Another complicating factor is the expected increase in number of mosquitos due to El Niño. Although most people who get infected by Zika virus will remain asymptomatic, some people will have a rash and a fever. As of now, no cure exists. Therefore, researchers around the world are rushing to develop a vaccine. Two potential vaccines against West Nile virus, after being repurposed for Zika, might enter clinical trials as early as late 2016, according to Dr. Fauci (NIH/NIAID) [recent talk by Dr. Fauci on emerging viruses]. But caution about a quick cure is warranted, as it might take several years before a Zika vaccine becomes commercially available. (, BBC News website)

Mental Health

One step closer to understanding schizophrenia

Schizophrenia is a debilitating psychiatric disease that affects over two million people in the United States alone. Often, this disease start in the later years of adolescence and early adulthood. Delusional thinking and hallucinations characterize schizophrenia, but the drugs available to date to treat schizophrenia are blunt and frequently patients stop using them because of their side effects. Although this new study will not lead to new treatments on the short term, it does provide researchers with first firm biological handle on the disease.

The developing human brain is the site of neuronal pruning. At first, the brain makes an excessive number of connections between neurons, but as children grow-up, most of these redundant connections are lost. You can see this a competition between the connections where the strongest ones survive. Neuronal pruning in the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain involved in thinking and planning, happens in adolescence and early adulthood. The latest finding, published in Nature, found that people who carry genes that accelerate or intensify that pruning are at higher risk of developing schizophrenia than those who do not. To date, no specific genetic variant has been found, although the MHC locus seems a likely candidate. Indeed, one specific gene in this locus, C4 gene, is involved in neuronal pruning. The C4 gene produces two products: C4-A and C4-B. Too much of the C4-A variant results in too much pruning in mice, which would explain why schizophrenic patients have a thinner prefrontal cortex. These new findings help to connect the dots better than ever before. Next up will be developing drugs that regulate neuronal pruning and the hope is that this will create a new anti-schizophrenia drug. (Benedict Carey, New York Times)

Technology

Analyzing body chemistry through sweat sensor

A small, wearable sensor has been created that can measure the molecular composition of sweat send those results in real time to your smartphone. The sensor, a flexible plastic patch, can be incorporated into wristbands. Several labs have been working on developing such a patch for a while, but most of them could only detect one molecule at a time. This newly developed flexible printed plastic sensor can detect glucose, lactate, sodium, potassium, and body temperature. When the sensor comes in contact with sweat an electrical signal is amplified and filtered. Subsequently, the signal is calibrated with the skin temperature. This latter step is essential, according to the lead scientist Jarvey. The data is then wirelessly transmitted to your smartphone. Because the sensor is not as accurate as a blood test, rigorous testing for medical use is therefore required.

The potential of this new devise is that it can tell, for instance, a diabetic patient in real-time that his blood sugar levels are too low or too high. It could also tell someone who is physically active that she is getting dehydrated and needs to drink water. One particular project could greatly benefit from this new technology. Last year President Obama announced the Precision Medicine Initiative. The goal of this initiative is to enroll over one million American participants and follow them over time to learn about the biological, environmental, and behavioral influences on health and disease. After all, most disease still do not have a proven means of prevention or effective treatments. Having technology such as this that can monitor and track basic biological data in real time could provide a wealth of information to researchers looking to make connections between a person and a disease.  (Linda Geddes, Nature News)

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January 29, 2016 at 9:00 am

Science Policy Around the Web – January 26, 2016

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By: Danielle Friend, Ph.D.

CTE Research

Debate over chronic traumatic encephalopathy research funding

In response to growing concerns regarding the long-term health consequences of repeated head injuries like those sustained by football players in the National Football League (NFL), the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has awarded almost $16 million to science researchers working on projects that will address this issue. Specifically, much of this money will go towards investigating chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a neurodegenerative disease that has been linked to repeated head trauma. Currently, the only means for studying CTE is to examine brain tissue postmortem, however there is a clear need for the ability to diagnose and treat individuals while they are still alive. Some of the focus of the research will be to develop ways in which CTE can be diagnosed and studied while patients are still living.

While there is an obvious need to fund research focusing on CTE, funding for these projects does not come without controversy. For a number of years, the NFL criticized researchers for raising alarms about the dangers of repeated head trauma in football players. In 2012 the NFL granted the NIH $30 million in an “unrestricted” agreement for CTE research. However, it was recently reported that while the funds from the NFL will support research on traumatic brain injury, the money will not be used to fund studies focusing on CTE. The NIH has made statement indicating that this decision was not made by the NFL; however, ESPN reported the NFL funding will not support CTE studies because a portion of the money was awarded to Dr. Robert Stein at Boston University, a researcher who has who has publicly criticized the NFL for its negligence surrounding CTE. In 2014 Dr. Stein filed a declaration opposing the NFL’s lawsuit settlement with thousands of former players and accused the NFL of hiding the link between football and CTE. Both the NIH and the NFL argue that ESPN’s report is inaccurate. What does not appear to be under debate is whether the CTE research will be funded at all, the NIH has promised to fund the studies with other federal funds. (Ken Belson, New York Times)

Medical devices and drug policy

New devices may help with the opioid abuse epidemic

Opioid abuse is currently a significant public health concern in the United States. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention each day 44 people die from prescription opioid overdoses and rates are among the highest on record. Additionally, in 2013 it was estimated that 2 million Americans over the age of 12 had either abused or were dependent upon opioid painkillers.

In a move to possibly decrease overdose and abuse rates, an advisory panel at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) earlier this year voted 12 to 5 to recommend approval for a new medical device that avoids the need for prescription opioids in pill form. The new device, known as Probuphine and developed by Braeburn Pharmaceuticals, is a small rod the size of a matchstick that can be implanted into a patient’s arm. The rod dispenses daily doses of a common painkiller known as buprenorphine. Importantly, Probuphine allows for the delivery of buprenorphine for months at a time. In addition to possibly serving as a safer means to deliver painkillers to patents, the new device may also serve as a means to treat those with opioid addiction. For example, an addict could be implanted with the device and receive daily does of buprenorphine for several months as the individual weans themselves off other opioids. Although an opioid itself, buprenorphine has been shown to help individuals overcome withdraw from other opioids. The device would also make it easier for individuals to manage their addiction by decreasing the number of trips to reach treatment and the implant may also help curb the illegal sale and use of buprenorphine.

Although the FDA recommended approval, others remain skeptical. Although buprenorphine can help addicts decrease and eventually stop their use of other opioids, buprenorphine can be addictive on its own. In fact, emergency room visits for buprenorphine related incidents have been on the rise. Additionally, other concerns include the need that opioid addicts have to adjust their does of buprenorphine over the course of recovery, usually starting with high doses and decreasing their dose over time. (Sabrina Tavernise, New York Times)

Astronomy discoveries

Nine Planets Again?

Two astronomers, Konstatin Batygin, professor of planetary science and Mike Brown, professor of planetary astronomy at the California Institute of technology, announced last week that they had evidence that there may be a ninth planet in our solar system. The new planet is believed to be the size of Neptune and to take approximately 15,000 earth years to orbit the sun. Although the planet has not been observed directly, Batygin and Brown inferred its existence based on gravitational pull of the planet on six small objects beyond Pluto. In their recent publication entitled “Evidence for a Distant Giant Planet in the Solar System” in the Astronomical Journal, Batygin and Brown present detailed evidence and arguments for the existence of the new planet. Based on their calculations, the two astronomers suggest that the planet is at least the size of Earth, but likely much bigger. Furthermore, their work suggests that the new planet is somewhere between 20 to 100 billion miles from Earth. Brown is not new to finding novel planets-like bodies, in fact in 2005 Brown identified Eris which was a big as Pluto. This identification raised questions about what should be considered a planet, and in response the International Astronomical Union decided that Eris should not be considered a planet. Pluto also lost its planetary status. The race is now on for the first scientist to directly observe our possible new ninth planet. (Eric Hand, ScienceMag)

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January 26, 2016 at 9:00 am

Science Policy Around the Web – January 19, 2016

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By: Amy Kullas, Ph.D.

Water Contamination

Michigan attorney general to investigate into Flint, Michigan water crisis

Michigan’s attorney general, Bill Schuette, announced on January 15, 2016 that he will be conducting an investigation into the ongoing water crisis in Flint, Michigan to assess whether any laws have been violated. “The situation in Flint is a human tragedy in which families are struggling with even the most basic parts of daily life,” Schuette said in a statement. “While everyone acknowledges that mistakes were made, my duty as attorney general requires that I conduct this investigation.”

The water crisis stems from a decision two years ago by the state of Michigan, which had taken over the city’s budget amid a financial emergency, to save money by switching Flint’s water supply from Lake Huron to the Flint River. This decision was billed as a temporary cost-saving measure until a new supply line to Lake Huron was ready. However shortly after the switch, residents began to complain the water looked, smelled and tasted funny. Later, researchers revealed that the river water was highly corrosive (almost 20 times more corrosive than the water in Lake Huron) and that there were elevated levels of lead in the drinking water. Sadly, a Flint pediatrician, Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, announced that records showed blood lead levels in local toddlers doubled or even tripled in some cases since the water switch.

Governor Rick Snyder has already declared a state of emergency and requested that President Obama declare a state of emergency at a federal level. The extra assistance would provide much needed assistance like grants for temporary housing and home repairs as the city deals with damage done to its water system. On Saturday, the President authorized the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Department of Homeland Security to lead the national disaster relief efforts. Additionally, singer Cher is trying to help. She and Icelandic Glacial are combining to donate 181,440 bottles of water to Flint residents. (Jason Hanna, Sara Ganim and Eliott C. McLaughlin, CNN)

Women in Science

Female engineers receive fewer citations even though they publish in better journals

While gender disparity is not a novel phenomenon in science, certain specialties are worse than others. A recent study that analyzed almost 1 million engineering-related publications showed that while female engineers are published in slightly higher impact journals on average than their male counterparts, their work receives fewer citations. This study used bibliometrics, which is the statistical analysis of written publication patterns. The authors filtered for engineering journals published between 2008 and 2013, resulting in 679,338 articles with nearly 1 million co-authors. In order to assign gender to the researchers, the authors utilized databases of male and female first names originating to the country of the researcher’s affiliation. The results showed that women made up only about 30% across all scientific disciplines and a dismal 20% of the authors on the engineering papers. However, the study also showed that when the main author was a female, that research was generally published in a more prestigious journal (demonstrated by a 2% higher impact factor score). Further, the authors of the study correlated that these papers were cited 3% less frequently than publications from male-led studies. The authors suggest that women scientists could close this gap if they were to collaborate with each other as often as they do with male researchers. (John Bohannon, ScienceInsider and Ghiasi, et. al, PLOSone)

Clinical Trials

Clinical trial goes tragically wrong

Biotrial acknowledged on January 15, 2016 that their phase I clinical trial in France was going terribly wrong. The compound that they were testing is an inhibitor of fatty acid amide hydrolase (FAAH), an enzyme that breaks down endocannabinoids in the brain. The drug was aimed to treat multiple disorders, such as neurodegenerative diseases, anxiety, and chronic pain. At the time of the initial announcement, there were six male patients in the hospital: one who was brain-dead (and later died), at least three patients may suffer irreversible brain damage if they survive, one other has neurological symptoms and the last was under observation with no noticeable symptoms. MRI imaging has shown “deep, necrotic and hemorrhagic lesions in the brain” of the effected patients.

This trial was authorized this previous summer after successful completion of animal studies, including those conducted in chimpanzees. This phase I trial consisted of 128 previously healthy male and female volunteers ranging from 18-55 years of age. Phase I studies are designed to test safety and tolerability of a drug, as well as how, and how fast, the chemical is processed by the human body. Participants of this particular study group were to receive €1900, which included travel expenses; in return, they agreed to stay at Biotrial’s facility in Rennes for 2 weeks, swallow either drug or placebo for 10 consecutive days, undergo extensive medical tests, and provide at least 40 blood samples.

Ninety individuals were given the drug in varying doses while the others were given placebo. The first of the volunteers began taking the drug on January 7th and the symptoms began surfacing three days later. “The 84 other volunteers exposed to the drug have been contacted,” announced the hospital. Ten of them came in to be examined and did not have the ‘anomalies’ seen in the hospitalized patients. (Martin Enserink, ScienceInsider)

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January 19, 2016 at 9:00 am

UPDATE: Science Policy Around the Web – January 15, 2016

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By: Amanda Whiting, Ph.D.

photo credit: Microbe World via photopin cc

West Africa Ebola epidemic

New Ebola case confirmed in Sierra Leone, one day after the outbreak was declared over

A 22-year-old woman in Sierra Leone who passed away earlier this month has been confirmed as testing positive for Ebola. Authorities in the area are now actively engaged in “investigating the origin of the case, identifying contacts and initiating control measures to prevent further transmission,” according to a statement today by the World Health Organization (WHO). This new case comes a day after the WHO officially declared the West Africa Ebola epidemic over. Dr Bruce Aylward, WHO’s Special Representative for the Ebola Response, said yesterday that “we still anticipate more flare-ups and must be prepared for them.” Francis Langoba Kelly, spokesman for the Office of National Security in Sierra Leone, told local radio Friday that country’s level of preparedness is high and there is no cause for concern over the current case. It it hopeful that the country’s preparedness for and (unfortunate) practice in this situation will quickly shut down any possible transmission routes from this case. (J. Freedom du Lac and Kevin Sieff, The Washington Post)

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January 15, 2016 at 1:34 pm

Posted in Linkposts

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