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Science Policy Around the Web – January 17, 2016

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By: Kseniya Golovnina, PhD

Source: Wikimedia Commons, by Copyright (c) 2004 Richard Ling, under Creative Commons

Biodiversity

The Mysterious World of Antarctica is More than Penguins

On December 21, 2016 the Australian Antarctic Division (AAD) released a video, which was made under the sea ice in O’Brien Bay, south of Casey research station in East Antarctica. This was the last part of the Australian Antarctic program, led by Dr. Johnny Stark, with the aim to observe the effect of climate change and ocean acidification due to increased carbon dioxide emissions on the Southern Ocean seafloor communities.

AAD biologist Dr. Glenn Johnstone and his team launched a remotely operated vehicle (ROV) through the small hole drilled in the ice and captured a rare glimpse of wonderful colorful Antarctic underwater world. They discovered a flourishing community of sea life below the massive ice sheet, at 30 meters below the surface, where the water temperature is −1.5°C year round, and the sea is covered by ice that is 1.5 meters thick for more than 10 months of the year. The video surprisingly revealed “a habitat that is productive, colorful, dynamic and full of a wide variety of biodiversity, including sponges, sea spiders, urchins, sea cucumbers and sea stars.”

About 30% of the carbon dioxide emitted into the atmosphere is absorbed by the ocean and increases its acidity. According to NASA Earth Observatory, increased acidity will increase the ocean’s ability to absorb carbon dioxide, making the carbonate shells of marine organisms such as corals thinner and more fragile. Higher water temperatures would also decrease the abundance of phytoplanktons, which play an important role in the carbon cycle absorbing excess carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. The increased carbon dioxide in the ocean might facilitate the growth of a few species of phyplanktons that take carbon dioxide directly from the water, but overall excess carbon would be detrimental to most ocean species.

Scientists are only now beginning to understand the complex underwater Antarctic ecosystem. Antarctica may be one of the first places where the detrimental effects of ocean acidification are seen, says Dr. Stark. These studies could be a good future indicator of the effects of climate change and ocean acidification on ocean ecosystems. (Australian Antarctic Division)

Food Policy

One or Two Tablespoons of Nutella?

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has closed collecting public comments about a regulatory change that would cut Nutella’s labeled serving size by half. More than 650 comments were collected. “One tablespoon or two tablespoons?” – The Washington Post explains the difference. The issue was about the appropriate reference amount customarily consumed (RACC) and product category. Nutella is classified as a dessert topping, with a RACC of two tablespoons. The serving size typically indicates how much Americans consume at a time and not how much they should, to make it easy for people to compare different products.

Its manufacturer, Ferrero, has asked that Nutella be reclassified as a jam or put in a different product category. This would cut the serving size that Nutella displays on its labels to one tablespoon, which would also decrease the sugar and calorie counts. It is already the second request from Nutella’s company since 2014. As they said to the Washington Post “it was simply seeking clarity as it and other companies prepare their new Nutrition Facts labels, slated for release in 2018”. However, critics of Nutella’s FDA petition including Lindsay Moyer, a senior nutritionist at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, warn people about the marketing ploy to trick people into thinking that it has less calories. If Nutella’s serving size is changed to one tablespoon, it could advertise a mere 100 calories per serving — versus roughly 188 calories for two tablespoons of peanut butter, or 196 calories for almond.

At the same time the question of one or two tablespoons seems not so relevant if one takes a look at the company’s website, where they say “you could circle the world with the amount of Nutella produced every year”. U.S. sales of Nutella are up 39% — from $161.4 million to $224.3 million — in the past five years in comparison with 5% for other nut butters. (Caitlin Dewey, The Washington Post)

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January 17, 2017 at 12:09 pm

Science Policy Around the Web – January 13, 2017

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By: James Taylor, PhD

Source: pixabay

Brexit and Science

Scientists Need To Wake Up to the Opportunities of Brexit

The decision of the United Kingdom to leave the European Union last July has raised numerous concerns about the future of science within the UK, most notably regarding access to EU funding, such as Horizon 2020, and the effect of new immigration controls on non-UK researchers and students. A recent House of Lords report has called for the UK government and scientists to come together and address these concerns.

Firstly, the government should engage scientists throughout the negotiation process and not just in regards to funding. Leaving the EU will require reworking and harmonizing numerous consumer protection, environmental and manufactory laws, for which technical advice is indispensible. The report welcomes the recent increase in science funding from the government, but states that any loss in EU funding should be compensated for. They recommend that both the Department for International Trade (DIT) and the Department for Exiting the European Union (DExEU) appoint scientific advisors immediately.

Secondly, the report calls for the scientific community’s voice to be heard alongside that of business during the negotiations. The UK’s relationship with the EU has been consistently harmonious in regards to research, providing a solid point of agreement amongst more difficult negations.

Thirdly, the UK should explore research collaborations beyond the EU. The report suggests this could be realized if the UK were to offer to host a large, international research facility comparable to the Crick Institute or the Diamond Light Source. They also highlight the potential for industrial collaboration and reform of R&D taxation which would not be possible within the EU.

Immigration remains a key concern in regards to Brexit, with many EU scientists in the UK uncertain of their futures with many now considering leaving. The report emphasizes the need to attract and retain the best international talent going as far as to suggest 10 year research grants and support for immediate family for foreign scientific leaders. They also call for the government to clearly state how immigration laws will affect researchers coming to work in the UK, and that the number of international students coming to study in the UK should not count against any immigration targets. (Graeme Reid, The Guardian)

Biomedical Research

The New Face of US Science

A recent analysis has found that the face of biomedical research has changed considerably over the last few decades. The study, which pooled data on holders of PhDs working as biological or biomedical scientists from the Survey of Doctorate Recipients and the American Community Survey, found that the doubling of NIH funding between 1998 and 2004 had a profound effect on the demographics of the scientific workforce. The authors classify scientists who entered the workforce around this time (i.e. under 40s) as a new cohort, giving them the not so snappy title of “doubling boomers”.

The 1998 to 2004 funding increase meant the number of PhD graduates increased significantly during this time, but the lack of growth in academic positions and funding cuts mean that only 1 in 5 still work in academia (as compared to 1 in two in 1990). For the aspiring academic this may seem like terrible news, but the report also found that the majority of biomedical PhDs now work in the private sector where they earn around $30,000 more a year than their academic peers and report lower pressure to publish publications.

The work force is more diverse than ever, with almost half of young biomedical scientists coming from US minority races. The largest growth has come from Asian ethnic groups, followed by a modest increase in researchers from Latino backgrounds. However the proportion of black scientists showed only a minor increase. These demographics should be borne in mind when devising recruitment and retention strategies to make the workforce more egalitarian.

Finally they found that scientists under 40 are likely to have children around the time they will be applying for their first grant. This is particularly problematic for female scientists, who the study found were less likely to have a stay-at-home spouse who can shoulder household responsibilities. The current academic career trajectory does not take in to account these important differences.

Despite many of these problems being discussed anecdotally for quite some time, the systems for tracking the fates of holder of PhDs after they graduate remain lacking, especially for those who leave academia. The authors insist that better and more transparent data is critical for designing new policies to assist young researchers. (Misty Heggeness, Kearney Gunsalus, José Pacas and Gary McDowell, Nature News)

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January 13, 2017 at 10:37 am

Science Policy Around the Web – January 6, 2017

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By: Aaron Rising, PhD

Source: Flickr

Technology

Do You Want to Be a Superhero? Your Electronics Might Be Able to Get You a Little Closer to Being ‘Wolverine’!

In a recent communication in the journal Advanced Material, and summarized in The Christian Science Monitor, researchers have designed a conductive material that has quite a number of uncanny attributes. It consists of polarized, stretchable, polymer chains that are connected via ion-dipole interactions. This material stretches well, tolerating “extreme strains exceeding 5000%”, has high electrical conductivity, and is practically invisible.

What makes this material even more Incredible and Amazing is its ability to completely heal in 24 hours at room temperature. If cut with scissors, the ends will reconnect like new when placed in close proximity to one another. In talking with the Monitor, a co-author, Christopher Keplinger, described how we could go from metal robots like in Transformers to ones that look more like Data from Star Trek. “What you usually imagine is a metallic, clumsy piece of hardware that you would not want to have near yourself for any sort of collaboration or interaction – the mismatch in mechanics with the robot being hard and the human body being soft makes direct contact dangerous. Now imagine a new class of robots that are based on soft, elastic materials, being powered by stretchable electronic circuits and thus much more closely resemble the elegant design of biology.”

While these materials won’t make you invincible or heal like Wolverine they may make your cellphone or computer a little better at fighting crime or perhaps surviving being dropped. For a more global importance, this new material would allow for more suitable robotic human aids and caretakers. The use of robotic caretakers and companions has a rather large implication in both the health and the manufacturing sectors of our economy. (Joseph Dussault, The Christian Science Monitor)

Health

A New Human Organ

We all know the major organs in our body, the heart, brain, lungs, stomach, etc. In fact, for well over 100 years medicine has stated we have 78 organs in total. These organs have been discussed and described in modern textbooks such as the 40th edition of “Gray’s Anatomy” published in 2008. The editors of the prestigious textbook have revised the most recent version as a new organ called the mesentery has been found. It is located in and around the abdomen.

While discussed as early as 1885 by Dr. Frederick Treves and described as far back as 1508 by Leonardo da Vinci, the mesentery is a lining of the abdominal cavity that attaches to the intestine. This lining is what keeps the intestines in place in our gut. Treves described the mesentery ‘existed only sporadically, in disjointed ribbons, dispersed among the intestines and therefore did not meet the definition of an organ’. And as such was not and has not been classified as one of the 78 organs.

Two Irish scientists, however, disagreed and have claimed that the mesentery was not correctly categorized. According to Dr. J Calvin Coffey and Dr. D Peter O’Leary in The Lancet Gastroenterology & Hepatology, the mesentery can really be described as a single and continuous tissue and thus can be classified as an organ. First summarized in the Independent and subsequently in Discovery Magazine and The Washington Post, the new organ’s function isn’t entirely understood. Talking to the Independent Dr. Coffey said, “Now we have established anatomy and the structure. The next step is the function. If you understand the function you can identify abnormal function, and then you have disease. Put them all together and you have the field of mesenteric science.”

This new discovery opens up the possibility that some gastrointestinal ailments that have previously been associated with one organ, such as the stomach, may in fact be more aligned with the mesentery. Because the function of the mesentery is largely unknown, drug companies have a new target to test drugs and academic and government research groups have a complete new system to study. How to appropriately tackle the funding and attention this new organ and the emerging ‘mesenteric science’ will receive is just now being examined. (Tom Embury-Dennis, Independent)

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January 6, 2017 at 1:17 pm

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Science Policy Around the Web – December 23, 2016

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By: Joel Adu-Brimpong, BS

Source: Flickr, by Ben Gordon, under Creative Commons

Public Health

Looking Beyond Flint

All eyes turned to the city of Flint, Michigan as it burst onto the national scene after reports revealed that children were being exposed to dangerously high levels of lead in their drinking waters. Although shocking, a recent study shows that the Flint narrative is no abnormality. “In fact, it doesn’t even rank among the most dangerous lead hotspots in America,” states Reuters, an international news agency and investigative body that conducted the study.

In this Reuters report, it was discovered that almost 3000 areas in the country had at least twice the lead poisoning rates of the infamous Michigan city, with much less press coverage. In some areas, such as Baltimore, Cleveland and Philadelphia, areas with multigenerational lead poisoning, about 40 to 50 percent of children had elevated levels of lead. Nationwide estimates by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) purport that approximately 2.5 percent of small children, children between ages one and five, present highest levels.

For this study, Reuters obtained lead poisoning data from state health departments and the CDC. But rather than peruse and detail state or county-level data, Reuters pursued more granular results; testing for lead poisoning at the neighborhood-level. Altogether, Reuters observed 2,606 census tracts, or small county subdivisions, and 278 zip codes across the country with at least twice the prevalence rate of lead poisoning as Flint. It was noted that while poverty remains an integral predictor of lead poisoning, victims span the American tapestry of rich and poor, urban and rural and black and white.

Federal aid to assist states in lead poisoning management is quite limited. After the Flint debacle, Congress delivered $170 million in aid to Flint. However, the budget allocated to the CDC to assist states in lead poisoning control is only a fraction of the Flint package. With the 21st Century Cures Act set to withdraw approximately 3.5 billion from the Prevention and Public Health Fund, a fund established under Obamacare, and a pervasive political rhetoric regarding the repeal of Obamacare, lead poisoning may return to its obscure position in the public sphere. (M.B. Pell and Joshua Schneyer, Reuters)

Drug Policy

When Drug Prices Rise, Americans Turn Outward?

A recent study revealed that 70 percent of Americans take at least one prescription drug a day. And if you are among this group, or care for someone on medication, you are most likely aware that drug prices have been rising. In fact, a 2015 poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF) found that roughly 80 percent of Americans deemed costs of prescription drugs ‘unreasonable.’ A report by the IMS Institute for Healthcare Informatics earlier this year indicated that, after accounting for estimated reimbursements, net medication spending for the 2015 year was roughly $310 billion. So what happens when drug prices exceed affordability in the U.S.?

A poll by KFF last month found eight percent of survey respondents, or roughly 19 million adults in the U.S., had or knew someone in their household who had imported a drug at some point. Drug prices when obtained outside the country (i.e., Canada, Mexico, etc.) may be half the sticker price in the U.S., or even cheaper. This finding comes on the heels of recent spikes in prescription drug prices such as that of Daraprim, a life-saving drug often prescribed for AIDS patients, Cycloserine, a drug used to treat tuberculosis, Epipen, an injection device for patients with severe allergies, and others which have caused national outrage.

Although illegal for Americans, in most instances, to import drugs into the U.S. for personal use due to safety and effectiveness concerns, experts contend that eight percent is a conservative number. Some respondents may be reluctant to report violations of the law or are uncomfortable with talking about daily struggles with drug affordability. Demographics of individuals who imported prescription drugs ranged from young adults in college to elderly retirees, with prescription drugs imported spanning treatments for chronic and acute conditions.

Earlier this week, Senate Democrats sent a letter to Donald Trump urging the President-elect to effect bipartisan support to curb rising drug prices. But with no assurances in sight to curtail the epidemic of rising drug costs, will even more Americans turn outward in order to meet their prescription needs? If so, how might this affect the quality of circulating drugs and medication adherence practices? (Rachel Bluth, Kaiser Health News)

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December 23, 2016 at 9:00 am

Science Policy Around the Web – December 20, 2016

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By: Liz Spehalski, PhD

Source: Flickr, under Creative Commons

In-Vitro Fertilization

UK Approves Mitochondrial Replacement Therapy Trials For Assisted Reproduction

The UK Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority (HFEA) has given the green light to allow mitochondrial replacement therapy, a type of assisted reproduction that can help families to avoid passing on genetic diseases. The method is controversial because the embryos contain genetic material from three people: two eggs and one sperm. The decision has been widely anticipated and comes after years of debate and a change in the country’s laws in 2015.

Mitochondria are responsible for generating more than 90% of the energy required by the body to sustain life and support organ function. When mitochondria fail, cells generate less and less energy, resulting in cell injury and cell death. The parts of the body that require the most energy; the heart, brain, muscles, and lungs, are the most affected by mitochondrial disease. Mitochondrial disease is difficult to diagnose due to its wide range of symptoms, which can include seizures, strokes, developmental delays, blindness, and heart problems.

Mitochondrial replacement therapy involves exchanging damaged mitochondria for heathy ones by transferring only the nuclear DNA from one egg or fertilized embryo from the mother into a donor egg, whose mitochondrial DNA is intact but nuclear DNA is removed. The technique has already been performed in Mexico and the Ukraine, and John Zhang, a physician at New Hope Fertility Center in New York City, has said that a baby boy conceived by the technique in Mexico seems healthy to this point. Recent work with eggs from affected women, however, found that some of the defective mitochondria from the mother’s egg was transferred to the embryo along with the DNA, raising questions about the effectiveness of the treatment. Currently, congressional action has blocked the FDA from allowing mitochondrial replacement procedures to be attempted in the United States.

On December 15, the HFEA announced that it would allow clinics to apply for licenses to conduct limited trials of the technique, with the goal of preventing mothers from passing down mutations in mitochondria. “Today’s historic decision means that parents at very high risk of having a child with a life-threatening mitochondrial disease may soon have the chance of a healthy, genetically related child. This is life-changing for those families,” said HFEA chair Sally Cheshire. An HFEA spokesperson projected that the UK’s first child with three people’s DNA could be conceived as early as March 2017. (Ewen Callaway, Nature News)

Biotechnology

Commerce Secretary Announces New Biopharmaceutical Manufacturing Institute

Penny Pritzker, US Secretary of Commerce, announced on Friday a new institute to be added to the Manufacturing USA Institute; the National Institute for Innovation in Manufacturing Biopharmaceuticals (NIIMBL). The institute is the eleventh of Manufacturing USA Institute, the first funded by the Department of Commerce (DOC), and the first awarded under the Manufacturing USA “open topic” competition, in which industry was encouraged to propose institutes allocated to any manufacturing area that is not already being tackled.

While pharmaceutical manufacturing relies on chemistry, biopharmaceuticals are a drug product manufactured in or isolated from biological sources. They include vaccines, blood and blood components, stem cell and gene therapies, recombinant proteins, among other biologics. Many of these products are widely used for the treatment of an array of diseases such as cancer, autoimmune disorders and infectious diseases, generating billions of dollars worldwide.

The goals of this institute will be to keep biopharmaceutical manufacturing in the USA and to scale up the production of complex biological drugs. “In communities from coast to coast, the Manufacturing USA network is breaking down silos between the U.S. private sector and academia to take industry-relevant technologies from lab to market,” said Secretary Pritzker. “The institute announced today is a resource that will spread the risks and share the benefits across the biopharmaceutical industry of developing and gaining approval for innovative processes. The innovations created here will make it easier for industry to scale up production and provide the most ground-breaking new therapies to more patients sooner.”

NIIMBL received $70 million from the US Department of Commerce, and will be getting another $129 million from a public-private consortium of 150 companies, academic institutions, and nonprofits, as well as 25 states. The University of Delaware will be coordinating the institute’s partnership with the DOC. The hope is that NIIMBL will help to advance U.S. leadership in the biopharmaceutical industry, foster economic development, improve medical treatments, and ensure a qualified workforce by collaborating with educational institutions to develop new training programs matched to specific biopharma skill needs. (Press Release, Department of Commerce)

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December 20, 2016 at 9:07 am

Science Policy Around the Web – December 13, 2016

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By: Allison Dennis, BS

Source: pixabay

Whistleblowers in Science

Keep your reviewers close and your online, anonymous, post-publication reviewers closer

A recent ruling by the Michigan Court of Appeals has ruled that anonymous online scientific reviews are a protected form of speech. Fazlul Sarkar, a former researcher at Wayne State University, had sued the site PubPeer in 2014 in an attempt to reveal the identity of several anonymous online reviewers to mixed success. Sarkar claimed that the defamatory and public nature of several online reviews posted anonymously to PubPeer had cost him a forthcoming tenure position at the University of Mississippi, one that came with a $350,000 a year salary. These reviews brought into question the validity of several images found in his published works.

While the initial ruling in March of 2015 largely sided with PubPeer to protect the anonymity of their online posters, a follow-up just two weeks later compelled PubPeer to reveal the IP address of a user who had gone as far as to repost quotes from an email response from the Senior Executive Assistant to the President of Wayne State University confirming their knowledge of the online allegations.

PubPeer filed an appeal of the decision by the end March, which garnished the collective support of science and internet moguls, Bruce Alberts, and Harold Varmus, Google, and Twittter in addition to the ACLU who filed amicus briefs in support of online anonymity. The summer brought more trouble for Sarkar as thirteen of his papers were retracted.

On December 9, 2016, the Michigan Court of Appeals found upon further review that Sarkar was “not entitled to unmask the identities of any speakers on pubpeer.com” citing “anonymity protections afforded by the First Ammendment.” Although this ruling does not dismiss Fazlul Sarkar’s case against John and Jane Doe, the protection of anonymity makes the suit moot. (Adam Marcus and Ivan Oranksy, STAT)

Federal Funding

Bipartisan cure found for stalled 21st Century Cures Initiative

In an end of the year push, the House and Senate passed the 21st Century Cures Initiative, a bill aimed at bringing legislation and regulation up to speed with biomedical research. At the end of November, a draft of the bill emerged from negotiations that were largely palatable to both Republican and Democrats across the House and Senate. A previous draft of the bill had successfully passed the House in July. However agreement over the source of funding could not be reached, arresting any further progress of the bill. The passing months brought Fred Upton, the Republican Representative who had originally spearheaded the bill close to the term limit afforded, as the chair of the Energy and Commerce Committee. The results of the recent elections seemed to be enough to incentivize compromise for Democrats in the final months of the Obama administration. Both parties returned to negotiations settling on a combination of funds derived from the selling of petroleum reserves and the Affordable Care Act.

In the end, the bill won 392-26 in the House and 94-5 in the Senate. Highlights of the bill under the title of Development include the accepted substitution of “data summaries” for full clinical trials when a new indication is to be added for a previously approved drug and expansion of off label-uses. The FDA has been tasked with evaluating evidence from the real world in an effort to speed-up and improve patient access. Highlights under the title of Discovery include a $4.8 billion boost to the NIH budget and $1.8 billion power pack for Joe Biden’s Cancer Moonshoot. A complete play-by-play of the winners and losers of the final version of the bill can be found in Sheila Kaplan’s article on STATnews. (Sheila Kaplan, STAT)

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December 13, 2016 at 10:38 am

Science Policy Around the Web – December 9, 2016

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By: Amy Kullas, PhD

Infectious Diseases

Current Mumps Outbreak is the Worst in Recent History

2016 has been the worst in recent history for mumps outbreaks. According to a report released by the Center for Disease Control (CDC), almost 4,000 cases of mumps have been reported. This number is almost triple the number of cases reported in 2015. Mumps symptoms include: puffy cheeks and a swollen jaw (due to swollen salivary glands), fever, headache, tiredness, and loss of appetite.

In prevention of mumps, the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine is ~88% effective when a person gets both of the recommended doses and ~78% effective when a person received a single dose. The mumps vaccination program began in 1967. Prior to this, mumps was considered a ‘classical’ childhood disease in the United States. Some clinicians say, “the efficacy of the vaccine wanes after 10 to 15 years.”

Though mumps outbreaks can still occur in vaccinated communities (particularly in close-contact settings like colleges), high vaccination rates aids to limit the size, length, and spread of the outbreak. This ongoing outbreak is hard-hitting college campuses. In fact, some universities have scaled back dining hall hours in addition to asking students to “cancel nonmandatory social gatherings” in an attempt to thwart the infectious disease. Other universities have begun to recommend and offer a third dose of the mumps vaccine to students. (Melissa Korn, The Wall Street Journal)

Vaccination

Antivaxers Meet with Trump

Andrew Wakefield, the orchestrator of the “anti-vaccine movement”, met with Donald Trump this past summer. This misguided movement began with a paper published in 1998 by the now discredited Wakefield in The Lancet. The authors claimed that 2/3 of children developed autism soon after receiving the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine. Though this study has been disproven numerous times and has been retracted, the impact still flows not only through the scientific community, but also into the general public. This is why the scientific community cringed when Trump appeared to be sympathetic towards their cause.

When parents refuse to vaccinate their children, they cite the belief that vaccines cause autism or state that vaccines are “unnecessary”. Vaccination is an extremely effective strategy for preventing infectious diseases. However, this strategy is only successful when the vast majority of individuals are immunized against a particular pathogen in order to offer some protection to individuals who are not medically able to receive the vaccine.

Wakefield stated, “For the first time in a long time, I feel very positive about this, because Donald Trump is not beholden to the pharmaceutical industry. He didn’t rely upon [drug makers] to get him elected. And he’s a man who seems to speak his mind and act accordingly.” While Trump has appeared to be interested and open-minded on vaccines, there are limits to what he can do to undercut vaccination policies. But the antivaxers remain hopeful that Trump will be a powerful ally who would trigger more of a cultural impact as opposed to passing laws. (Rebecca Robbins, STAT news)

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December 9, 2016 at 9:40 am