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Science Policy Around the Web – June 21st, 2019

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By Neetu Gulati Ph.D.

Image by Kathy Bugajsky from Pixabay 

Tech disorder? Smartphones linked to bizarre horn-like skull bumps

Two Australian researchers published a study inScientific Reports this year with an unusual discovery: people are growing horn-like bone spurs at the base of their skulls. They found these protrusions on around 400 adults aged 18 to 86, and larger growths were found among younger people. Bone spurs usually do not cause pain or require treatment, but if they become too large can become a problem.

While the study originally did not get much press, it has broken headlines recently after a BBC article covering how modern life is transforming the human body. The authors in the original research article hypothesized these bone spurs could be due to “sustained aberrant postures associated with the emergence and extensive use of hand-held contemporary technologies, such as smartphones and tablets.”

While the article has led to sensationalized media accounts, some experts have questioned the validity of the conclusions, saying the study lacks a control group and cannot prove cause and effect between the spurs and technology. Furthermore, there may be bias in the study because the subjects are people with enough neck problems to warrant visiting a chiropractic clinic, where the authors of the study work.

Regardless of the exact cause of the bone spurs, numerous cases of “texting neck” ailments and similar problems have occurred as technology use as increased since the early 2000s. Dr. David Geier, an orthopedic surgeon, commented that the study “isn’t going to convince people not to use their phone. But small changes like putting pillows under our laptops and holding the phone or tablet higher up and away from our laps can promote better posture.” Others, such as Dr. Evan Johnson, an assistant professor and director of physical therapy at the New York-Presbyterian Och Spine Hospital, commented that the bone spur “is a really big ‘So what?’ moment… The fact that you have this little bony projection in your skull, that means nothing.” It will be important to see if these projections get worse over time, to the point of leading to pain.

(Dr. Shamard Charles, NBC News

Type A blood converted to universal donor blood with help from bacterial enzymes

Donor blood plays a critical role in the healthcare system. However, there is a constant shortage of blood for transfusions around the world. Blood shortages are made more complicated because blood transfusions cannot be done with just any blood, the patient and donor blood types must be compatible or else the recipient’s body can have a deadly immune response to the donor blood. The immune system recognizes specific sugar molecules on the surface of red blood cells, which denote blood as one of the four types: A, B, AB, or O. Blood type O is coveted as universal donor blood, because it lacks these unique sugar molecules, also known as antigens, so they are not recognized as “foreign” in a patient’s body, even when given to people with other blood types. 

Now, researchers have discovered a way to convert type A blood to type O, using a combination of two bacterial enzymes to remove the “A-defining” antigens. Harvey Klein, a blood transfusion expert at the National Institutes of Health, commented on the work, “this is a first, and if these data can be replicated, it is certainly a major advance.”

Previous attempts by researchers to remove the A-defining antigens from blood have had limited success, because the enzymes used were not very efficient. In the most recent study, bacterial enzymes identified from a human stool sample removed the sugars in human blood efficiently using only tiny amounts of the enzymes. If these findings can be translated to practical application, the amount of universal donor blood could nearly double, as type A blood makes up approximately 1/3 of the blood supply. To get to that point, more work needs to be done to confirm that these enzymes are not altering anything else in the blood.

(Elizabeth Pennisi, Science)

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June 21, 2019 at 2:59 pm

Science Policy Around the Web – June 18th, 2019

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By Allison Dennis, B.S.

Source

Congress is debating-again-whether genes can be patented

The last time the U.S. government issued an official guidance on human gene patenting, it was from the Judicial Branch in 2013. By a unanimous decision, the Supreme Court ruled that two genes whose DNA sequence can be used to predict the probability of a patient developing breast or ovarian cancer, BRCA1 and BRCA2, could not be patented. Companies are still free to pursue patents manipulating or mitigating the effects of specific genes, but the ruling invalidated the patents held by Myriad Genetics for these two genes and opened the door for clinical labs to begin widely testing patient samples for mutations across a wide variety of disease predicting genes that might have otherwise been patented.

Insurance claims filed in 2004 indicate that only one in four women received a BRCA mutation test before being diagnosed with cancer. By 2014, more than 60% of these tests were administered diagnostically, allowing women confirmed to be at risk to pursue prevention and early detection of breast and ovarian cancer before developing either. The effect of the 2013 Supreme Court ruling to dramatically reduce testing costs in combination with technological developments and public health awareness have been attributed to this shift.

Now lawmakers in the legislative branch are weighing in. Senators Thom Tills and Chris Coons filed a bipartisan draft bill that would expand the types of inventions eligible for a U.S. patent to include previously restricted subject matter falling under “abstract ideas,” “laws or nature,” or “natural phenomenon,” which could be interpreted to include human genes. While Tillis has since made clear that it was “was never the intent” to again give companies ownership over single human genes, the changes could allow companies to limit examination of specific genetic variants like those most likely to cause disease. Supporters of the bill feel it is necessary to provide companies with sufficient intellectual property to incentivize their research into isolated natural products. Many point to less-restrictive patent codes abroad, which they feel put the U.S. at a disadvantage.  

Following two weeks of Congressional hearings, and a letter signed by 170 scientific organizations, nine nobel prize winners along with 74 leading physicians and scientists have weighed in by urging lawmakers to more carefully consider the proposed changes. The level of concern or eagerness expressed for the bill seems largely up to the interpretation of the reader, suggesting that much more work is needed for the bill to achieve its stated goal of reducing frustration and confusion generated by the Supreme Court rulings.

(Megan Molteni, Wired Magazine)

Federal Grants Restricted To Fighting Opioids Miss The Mark, States Say

Of the 70,237 drug overdose deaths captured by the CDC in 2017, nearly a third involved cocaine, psychostimulants, which include MDMA and methamphetamine, or both. The CDC cites “changes in the drug supply, mixing of substances with or without the user’s knowledge, and polysubstance use” as emerging threats. Yet the opioid-focused way grant money is allocated may be restricting the ability of states to adapt.

At the frontlines of the opioid epidemic are state officials dedicated to making the most of federal grants designed to offer struggling states a financial lifeline. For example in 2017, Arizona used funds from a State Targeted Response grant to train 9,197 individuals in Naloxone usage and purchase 8,798 Naloxone kits, allowing first responders to perform 5,649 overdose reversals. Many states are using the money to implement the hub-and-spoke model, first developed and demonstrated to be effective by Vermont, in which intensive addiction treatment is offered at a limited number of hubs connected by a local network of outpatient addiction programs and primary care physicians. Through this structure, the hub-and-spoke model can make at least one licensed mental health or addiction counselor accessible per 100 patients.

While the framework provided by the hub-and-spoke model may intuitively help address addiction beyond the specific use of opioids, they rely on Medication Assisted Treatment, an intervention that has only been approved for opioid addiction. Similarly the use of Novaxalone is only effective in reversing opioid overdoses, in the case of cocaine overdose it is ineffective. Additional research is underway to develop parallel treatments for other substances, but these efforts have been eclipsed by the national focus on opioids.  

In 2017, opioids accounted for less than half of the overdoses suffered in eleven states, including Pennsylvania, Texas, and California. This may point to the effectiveness in opioid specific treatment, but it also the persistent dangers of drug-use. Currently, the funding opportunities are insufficient to address the gaps in the mental health system needed to more completely help patients living with addiction. The pathways leading to drug-abuse, no matter the current drug of choice, may provide a common point of intervention resilient against the so called “emerging threats” of substance abuse.

However, similar to the shift seen as users transitioned from OxyContin to Heroin, public health fear that the next shift will turn to drugs not classified as opiods and therefore ineligible to be combated with the funds. In 2017, eleven states

(Carmen Heredia Rodriguez, Elizabeth Lucos, and Orion Donovan-Smith, Kaiser Health News)

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June 18, 2019 at 5:22 pm

Science Policy Around the Web – June 14th, 2019

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By: Andrew Wright BSc

Image by David Mark from Pixabay 

The Pentagon emits more greenhouse gases than Portugal, study finds 

A recent study published by Brown University quantified the Pentagon’s total greenhouse gas emissions from 2001 to 2017 using estimates from the Department of Energy and fuel consumption data. The results demonstrated that during the time period studied, the Pentagon’s emissions were “in any one year…greater than many smaller countries‘ greenhouse gas emissions”. In 2017 alone, the Pentagon output 59 metric tons of CO2, ranking it higher than Sweden (42 metric tons), Portugal (55 metric tons) , or North Korea (58 metric tons). The Pentagon’s energy consumption is largely from air emissions (~55%) and diesel use (~14%), while the rest is dedicated to powering and heating military facilities.

Were it to be considered a standalone country, the Pentagon would be the 55th largest contributor of CO2 emissions, according to the study’s author Neta Crawford. In a separate article, she noted ”…the Department of Defense is the U.S. government’s largest fossil fuel consumer, accounting for between 77% and 80% of all federal government energy consumption since 2001″. While measures have been put into place by the Pentagon to reduce its emissions in recent years, given the threat assessment the Pentagon produced that warns fully two-thirds of military installations in the U.S. are or will be at risk due to climate change, further efforts may be needed.

 (Sebastien Malo, Reuters

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June 14, 2019 at 3:58 pm

Science Policy Around the Web – June 11th, 2019

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By: Neetu Gulati, Ph.D.

Image by PublicDomainPictures from Pixabay 

People eat at least 50,000 plastic particles a year, study finds

Over 300 million tons of plastic are produced each year, and while it can take over 400 years for plastics to degrade, they can be broken down into smaller and smaller pieces, eventually leading to microplastics. Microplastics can be found all around the world: from the deepest depths of the ocean to the air around us. Now, microplastics have been found in a place much closer to home: our bodies. According to a recent study, the average person in the U.S. eats at least 50,000 particles of microplastic in a year, and also breathe in similar quantities.  And it’s known that humans ingest these particles, as microplastics have been found in human stool samples as well.

These particles are seemingly impossible to avoid; they have been found in many food and drink sources, including both tap and bottled water, beer, and seafood. Not all food and drink items have been tested, however, meaning that there are major gaps in identifying quantities of ingested microplastics. The study assessed less than 20% of caloric intake, meaning it’s possible that the amount of microplastic particles is much higher than 50,000 per year. Speaking of untested foods such as processed products, meat, dairy, and bread, Dr. Kieran Cox, lead author of the study, commented that “it is really highly likely there is going to be large amounts of plastic particles in these. You could be heading into the hundreds of thousands.”

The largest contributor of microplastics came from drinking bottled water, which contains 22 times more plastic than tap water on average. The effects of ingesting microplastics will have on human health are currently unknown. However, the study has encouraged Cox to change his own behavior in response to his findings. I definitely steer away from plastic packaging and try to avoid bottled water as much as possible,” he said.

(Damian Carrington, The Guardian

Canada Plans to Ban Single-Use Plastics, Joining Growing Global Movement

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced a plan to ban single-use plastics as early as 2021, expressing a wish that his children be able to play without their experiences tainted by dead birds and fish killed by pollution. In 2016, less than 10% of plastic was recycled in Canada. Trudeau noted that the nation throws away 8 billion Canadian dollars’ worth of plastic material each year, including 34 million plastic bags daily according to the Environment and Climate Change Canada.

Before the ban goes into effect, the Canadian government will analyze which plastic products should be banned, but Trudeau suggested that Canada will follow the example of the European Union, which voted to ban 10 single-use plastics earlier this year. The banned items are the most commonly found plastics on European beaches, including plates, cotton swabs, and straws. Additionally, at least 32 countries around the world and 3 US states have banned single-use plastic bags, which could also be included in Canada’s ban. 

Trudeau announced that by recycling and reusing plastic, not only would pollution be reduced, but the move could lead to the creation of over 40,000 jobs. The announcement came as Trudeau is readying for a general election at the end of the year, during which climate change and the environment are expected to be important issues.

(Dan Bilefsky, The New York Times

“Pig Ebola” is spreading uncontrollably in China and Vietnam

African swine fever, sometimes referred to as “pig Ebola”, is a highly contagious viral disease that is currently ravaging Asia’s pig industry. The current outbreak of the virus, which kills most animals it infects, started last year in China. China accounts for over half of the world’s pigs, and since the outbreak began in August, over 20% of the country’s pig herd has died, either through succumbing to the disease or to culling, according to Christine McCracken, an animal protein expert at Rabobank. She estimated that by the end of the year, China may lose up to 200 million of its roughly 440 million pig population.

Now, the disease has spread to several countries that neighbor China. From May 24 to June 6 alone, there were 163 new outbreaks, with almost 4,000 ongoing outbreaks worldwide, according to the World Organization for Animal Health. There is no current treatment or vaccine for African swine fever, the only way to prevent spread is to kill all animals that have been infected or potentially exposed, or to use strict biosecurity measures. Like China, Vietnam has also begun to cull its pig population, having killed about 2 million pigs since the outbreak began.

While the virus cannot be transmitted from pigs to humans and is not a food safety issue, it has had strong economic impacts. The Asian economy has suffered greatly, as many in the region rely on raising pigs for their livelihood, and thousands of small producers have been put out of business. A single pig can provide 200 pounds of food, so even small losses add up. While pork prices have not changed significantly due to the disease yet, it is expected that prices may skyrocket by 2020 and may affect the global pork market. 

(Vox Staff, Vox)

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June 11, 2019 at 9:32 am

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Science Policy Around the Web – June 7th, 2019

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By: Mary Weston, Ph.D.

Source: Pixabay

Pfizer had clues its blockbuster drug could prevent Alzheimer’s. Why didn’t it tell the world?

Last Tuesday, the Washington Post reported that the biopharmaceutical company Pfizer had hints that their rheumatoid arthritis drug Enbrel might reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s disease, but chose not to report these findings to the public.

In 2015, after analyzing hundreds of thousands of insurance claims, a team of Pfizer researchers observed that their anti-inflammatory drug Enbrel might also decrease the risk for Alzheimer’s by 64%. They recommended that the company conduct a costly clinical trial to prove the link but, after several years of internal debate, the company decided not to pursue the lead.  The question remains: why did Pfizer not release these findings to the scientific community?

Pfizer claims they did not pursue the research due to scientific considerations – they argue that since Enbrel cannot cross the blood-brain barrier and directly reach brain tissue, it is unlikely to prevent the debilitating neurodegenerative disease. Further, Pfizer claimed that they did not to report the research because the statistical findings did meet “rigorous scientific standards” and were concerned about misleading researchers down a false path. However, Pfizer is also losing its patent protection on Enbrel soon, meaning that generics will become available and the drug will be much less profitable, reducing any financial incentive for further research or clinical trials (likely to cost around $80 million).

Some in the scientific community are questioning Pfizer’s justification. Keenan Walker, an assistant professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins, argues that the scientific community benefits when the data is available, stating that ““[w]hether it was positive data or negative data, it gives us more information to make better informed decisions.’’

Several scientists argue that Pfizer’s results should be release because they could provide clues to combating the disease and slowing cognitive decline in its earliest stages. Specifically, recent research is hinting that inflammation may promote Alzheimer’s disease. Further, neurodegenerative research is notoriously challenging and there are no major drugs that treat Alzheimer’s. Even several recent phase 3 clinical trials have been halted because the drugs were not effective. Due to a lack of progress in the field, a couple large pharmaceutical companies, including Pfizer, have just closed their neurology-related research programs.

 (Christopher Rowland, Washington Post)

Trump administration halts fetal-tissue research by government scientists

The Trump administration has announced that government scientists will stop using human fetal tissue for research and is placing new limitations on researchers in academic settings who use federal funding from the NIH.

It is not entirely known how many research projects will be affected by the new regulations. Government scientists will be allowed to continue their current work, but are prohibited from acquiring new tissue samples. Current extramural research at universities and privately funded work can continue but any new grant proposals or renewals of existing projects must be approved by an ethics advisory board that will be formed.

In addition to halting government fetal tissue research, the administration has decided to cancel an ongoing HIV research contract with the University of California San Francisco, effectively ending a 30-year partnership. The project involves using fetal tissue to develop mouse models with human-like immune systems to develop new HIV therapies.

Use of fetal tissue is essential to for studying certain human biological processes, such as kidney development. Often biomedical research uses mice as substitutes of people, but in this case, murine kidney development is too different from their human counterparts to be of use. Some researchers fear that these new restrictions will set back certain research for years to come. Important areas of research that depend on using fetal tissue including HIV, neurodegeneration, human organ growth and regeneration, Zika (determining how/why the virus affects developing fetuses so severely), and certain types of vaccine development.

POLITICO reports that this decision was made after much debate between the White and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), which wanted a less restrictive policy. In a statement released Wednesday, HHS said that “promoting the dignity of human life from conception to natural death is one of the very top priorities of President Trump’s administration.” HHS is now reviewing whether sufficient alternatives to human fetal tissue exist and will be supporting the development and validation of these models. However, good alternatives for certain fetal tissue research are elusive and many scientists say that the tissue is essential for some fields.

 (Sara Reardon, Nature)

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June 7, 2019 at 6:11 pm

Science Policy Around the Web – June 4th, 2019

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By: Patrick Wright, Ph.D.

Image by succo from Pixabay 

National Academy of Sciences to allow expulsion of harassers

The National Academies of Sciences (NAS) voted to approve an amendment to their bylaws that would allow expulsion of a member by the two-thirds vote of the 17-member NAS Council for sexual harassment and any other breaches of its Code of Conduct; 84% of votes cast were in favor of this amendment. 

Under this new amendment, any person can bring a complaint about an NAS member for a breach of the Code of Conduct, which can include scientific misconduct, bullying, and discrimination, in addition to sexual harassment. The complainant must then document wrongdoing by presenting official findings by outside entities (e.g. funding agencies) rather than NAS conducting investigations itself.  

In June 2018, the collective National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) published a report characterizing sexual harassment in STEM settings, preferentially impacting women and driving many to leave science. The report, entitled “Sexual Harassment of Women: Climate, Culture, and Consequences in Academic Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine” states that “…sexual harassment is a serious issue for women at all levels in academic science, engineering, and medicine, and that these fields share characteristics that create conditions that make harassment more likely to occur. Such environments can silence and limit the career opportunities in the short and long terms for both the targets of the sexual harassment and the bystanders—with at least some leaving their field.” This amendment approval marks another step forward in addressing this issue at a national level by putting NAS policy in parity with the National Academy of Medicine which voted to allow expulsion of sexual harassers this past January.  

Marcia McNutt, president of NAS, stated, “All women who have had a tough road–even those who have made it—I’m sure like me are happy to see this day where they can finally say: ‘The climate is going to change’. No longer will a climate be tolerated that doesn’t allow women to have the same chance as their male colleagues to thrive.” 

 (Meredith Wadman, Science)

Ph.D programs drop standardized exam

An increasing number of U.S. research universities are no longer requiring the Graduate Record Examination (GRE) General Test as part of their Ph.D program application requirements. In 2018, 44% of molecular biology and 35% of neuroscience Ph.D programs sampled from 50 top-ranked research universities stopped requiring GRE scores. One potential initial driving force behind this trend was the 2017 decision by the University of Michigan Biomedical Sciences Program end their GRE application requirement, leading other programs to follow suit. However, more than 90% of sampled chemistry, physics, and computer science programs, among others, still required general GRE scores in 2018. 

A common belief in academia is that GRE scores represent innate intelligence and thus are coupled with success in graduate school; in reality, this likely is not the case. Joshua Hall, Director of Graduate Admissions for the Biological and Biomedical Science Program at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and colleagues showed that for 280 graduate students in his program, GRE scores did not correlate with the number of first author publications or time needed to complete degree. An analogous study by Moneta-Koehler et al. looked at 495 biomedical Ph.D students at Vanderbilt University and reported that GRE scores did not predict which students passed their qualifying exams, graduated, had a shorter time to defense, delivered more conference presentations, or published more first author papers. On the other hand, GRE scores were observed to be moderately predictive of grades on first semester coursework. 

Problematically, in addition to the lack of evidence that GRE scores are predictive of success in an academic research environment, it is also possible that GRE requirements hinder diversity and inclusion efforts by disadvantaging underrepresented groups. Members of underrepresented groups, including women and racial and ethnic minorities score lower on the exam than do white and Asian men. The cost of test preparation and training, in addition to the cost of taking the exam itself, can be burdensome for those of lower socioeconomic status. Many programs have now begun to assess the extent to which removing the GRE from application requirements will diversity applicant pools. For example, Jon Gottesman, director of the Office of Biomedical Graduate Research, Education, and Training at the University of Minnesota’s Medical School, recently sent out a survey to biomedical graduate programs soliciting demographic information on applicant pools. 

Going forward, it may be vital for graduate programs to revisit their standardized testing admission requirements. Arthur Kosowsky, chair of the Department of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Pittsburgh, which removed the GRE application requirement in 2018, believes the test “…is both not really measuring something useful….and at the same time discriminating against students who we are trying to work very hard to increase the numbers of in our program.” 

 (Katie Langin, Science)

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June 4, 2019 at 4:38 pm

Science Policy Around the Web – May 31st, 2019

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By: Silvia Preite, Ph.D.

Image by rawpixel from Pixabay 

Common drink and food sweetener – High-Fructose Corn Syrup – accelerates colon cancer growth in mouse models: what about in humans?

Increased consumption of sugar-sweetened drinks has been associated with higher risk of obesity and intestinal cancers. However, whether sugar directly contributes to tumor development, independently from obesity, is less clear. A common sweetner of sodas, fruit-flavored drinks and processed foods is high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS). A recent study published in Science revealed that consumption of HFCS accelerated colon cancers in predisposed mice bearing a mutation in a tumor-suppressor gene commonly found in human colorectal colon cancers. Strikingly, the human diet equivalent amount of HFCS required to see such effects in mice corresponds to 12 ounces of a sweetened drink – one can of soda per day!

Mice fed with HFCS did not become obese or developed metabolic syndrome, however, developed larger and more advanced tumors, compared to water-treated animals. Mechanistically, HFCS leads to increased levels of fructose and glucose in the intestinal lumen and serum, that can be transported and utilized inside the tumor to generate energy and support its growth. The identification of these events opens new possibilities for the development of therapeutic strategies aimed at controlling tumor growth; in particular, targeting of fructose metabolism may selectively slow tumor progression without affecting survival of normal cells. 

Further studies are needed to assess if similar tumorigenic mechanisms take place in humans. Moreover, whether prolonged and extensive consumption of HFCS has a greater detrimental effect on human health compared to other types of sugar remains to be determined. Regardless, this study could contribute to increase public awareness about the potential deleterious effects on physical health and tumor development due to sweetened drinks and processed food whose comsumption is globally rising. 

(Source: Goncalves et al., Science, 2019)

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May 31, 2019 at 3:08 pm