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Science Policy Around the Web – December 02, 2016

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By: Liu-Ya Tang, PhD

Source: pixabay

Public Health

Childhood Bullying and Adult Overweight

Bullying is, without a doubt, a big problem in U.S. schools, as “40% to 80% of school-age children experience bullying at some point during their school careers” according to the American Psychological Association. What influence will bullying have on child development? Bullying can not only affect mental health, but also have a lasting effect on a person’s physical health. A recent study finds that bullied children were more likely to be overweight than non-bullied children at age 18.

Scientists studied a cohort of twins from 2,232 children who were followed to age 18. Bullying victimization was reported by mothers and children during primary school and early secondary school. At ages 10, 12 and 18, they collected data for indicators of overweight. To index genetic and fetal liability to overweight, co-twin body mass and birth weight were also used. They found that the association between childhood bullying victimization and being overweight at age 18 was influenced by the chronicity of exposure, as children bullied in both primary school and secondary school showed the highest risk of being overweight. They also measured whether childhood psychosocial risk factors (socioeconomic disadvantage and food insecurity) contributed to a higher risk of being overweight at age 18. To their surprise, the result showed that the elevated risk of bullied children becoming overweight is independent of their psychosocial risk.

The researchers further dug into the mechanisms of why childhood bullying puts kids at high risk for being overweight as a young adult. One possible reason is the allostatic load theory prediction, which states that “more chronic exposure to psychosocial stress is associated with the greatest metabolic abnormalities”. This theory has been supported by a study, in which they found that children being bullied may eat more due to impaired inhibitory control over feeding linked to prefrontal cortex abnormalities. In addition to explanations from the biological aspect, social mechanisms may also need to be taken into account. Bullied children may avoid participating in group sporting activities to reduce the risks of victimization from peers. It is important for school, clinical practice and public health agencies to identify the mechanisms and develop anti-bullying interventions, which could support bullied children to have a healthy life later and help reduce the large public health burden due to overweight. (Jessie R. Baldwin et al., Psychosomatic Medicine)

Climate Change

Will Climatic Warming Affect Soil Respiration?

It is estimated that nine times more carbon dioxide (CO2) is released from soils to atmosphere via soil respiration annually when compared with anthropogenic emissions. This efflux of carbon from soils is attributed to both plant root respiration and microbial respiration. Rising temperatures are expected to increase rates of soil respiration, which potentially provides a positive feedback to climatic warming. However, there were discrepancies in the observations from recent years, so the interaction between soil respiration and climate warming remains uncertain in climate projections.

To understand the complex relationship between soil respiration and temperature, 43 researchers from the United States and Europe conducted a global synthesis of 27 experimental warming studies spanning nine biomes, which results in >3,800 observations. There are numerous interesting findings. With the exception of boreal forest and desert, they didn’t observe significant differences in the temperature sensitivity of soil respiration between warmed or control treatments within other biomes (temperate forest, northern shrubland, southern shrubland, grassland and temperate agriculture). This finding suggests that acclimation of soil communities to warmer conditions is likely to have a greater impact for soil carbon dynamics in boreal forest and desert systems, while climatic warming will have little effect on other biomes. They also investigated the relationship between soil moisture, respiration rate and temperature, and found that the magnitude of the respiration response to warming decreased linearly with the degree of soil drying across the entire dataset.

Interestingly, they found a universal decline in the temperature sensitivity of respiration at soil temperature >25°C for non-desert biomes, while deserts have a higher temperature threshold at 55°C for reduced respiration. The significant difference in soil respiration in response to temperature could be due to a number of factors, such as different plant and microbial communities in the desert compared with other biomes, or abiotic decomposition as a major component of litter decomposition in deserts. Compared with lower latitudes, higher-latitude sites more often experience soil temperature <25°C, where soil respiration rates correlate positively with temperature. So higher attitudes will be more responsive to warmer temperatures. This study helps project future shifts for different geographic regions with the climatic warming. (Joanna C. Carey et al., PNAS)

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December 2, 2016 at 11:51 pm

Science Policy Around the Web – November 25, 2016

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By: Alida Palmisano, PhD

Source: pixabay

Climate Change

2016 Set to Break Heat Record Despite Slowdown in Emissions

An article published in the Washington Post discusses recent news about climate change. Temperatures around the globe are reaching a record high this year, according to a report from the U.N. weather agency. Another report from the World Meteorological Organization showed that while emissions of a key global warming gas have flattened out in the past three years, preliminary data through October showed that world temperatures are 1.2 degrees Celsius (2.2 degrees Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels. That’s getting close to the limit set by the global climate agreement adopted in Paris last year. It calls for limiting the temperature rise since the industrial revolution to 2 degrees C or even 1.5 degrees C. Environmental groups and climate scientists said the report underscores the need to quickly reduce emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases blamed for warming the planet.

Another recent report delivered some positive news, showing global CO2 emissions have flattened out in the past three years. However, the authors of the study cautioned that it is far too early to declare that the slowdown, mainly caused by declining coal use in China, is a permanent trend. Even if China’s emissions have stabilized, growth in India and other developing countries could push global CO2 levels higher again. Even the recent election in the United States — the world’s No. 2 carbon polluter — could also have a significant impact.

Some researchers stressed that it’s not enough for global emissions to stabilize, saying they need to drop toward zero for the world to meet the goals of the Paris deal. “Worryingly, the reductions pledged by the nations under the Paris Agreement are not sufficient to achieve this,” said climate scientist Chris Rapley of University College London. (Karl Ritter, Washington Post)

Information and Technology

Facebook, Google Take Steps To Confront Fake News

Are we, as a society, really prepared for today’s way of receiving information from the web? In a recent article, NPR reporter Aarti Shahani talks about the issues related to viral fake news.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has addressed (multiple times) the issue of fake news, which are inaccurate or simply false information that appears on the Web in the guise of journalism. Zuckerberg said that the notion that fake news on his platform influenced the election in any way is “a pretty crazy idea.” But many disagree; and as a former employee, Antonio Garcia-Martinez says Zuckerberg’s comment sounds “more than a little disingenuous here.” Facebook makes money by selling ad space inside its news feed. It also makes money as a broker between its advertisers and other online companies. A company spokesperson told NPR that it is not doing business with fake news apps as these outside parties are not allowed to use the ad network. But the company did not address the reality that fake news in the Facebook news feed attract people and clicks, which translate to money.

Google, another tech giant, said that it is working on a policy to keep its ads off fake news sites. Garcia-Martinez says that it’s “ambitious” of Google to make this promise. “Where does it end? Are they just going to limit it to advertising?” he asks. “Are they not going to show search results of things that are obviously false? I mean, even false content itself is free speech, even though it’s false speech.”

These issues are emerging in today’s society because of technological advances; however policy and legislation struggle to keep up with the evolving way we interact with the world. (Aarti Shahani, NPR)

Public Health

Could the FDA be Dismantled Under Trump?

A recent article reflects on how the President-elect may change the work of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Public health policies shift may include a surrender of the FDA’s rules for off-label promotion of drugs, the importation of more drugs from other countries, and fewer requirements for clinical trials (the gold standard for determining whether medicines are safe and effective). “Between a Trump presidency and a radically pro-business Congress, the next few years may see a removal of numerous consumer protections,” said Michael Jacobson, co-founder and president of the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

The FDA’s balancing act between patient protection and the drug and device industry’s push for a quicker path to market has never been easy. Over the past few years, spurred by patient advocacy groups and much of the pharmaceutical industry, lawmakers have fought over bills that would change how the country regulates prescription drugs and medical devices. Regardless of whether that legislation advances, Trump’s presidency is likely to enable the industry to get much of what it wants in terms of deregulation. “At the very least, President-elect Trump will support ‘Right-to-try’ laws that attempt to provide access to unapproved drugs,” the authors wrote.

One former FDA official, who spoke anonymously, said that the support for the right to try movement signals a broader disapproval of regulation. “The people who believe in that don’t believe there should be an FDA,” the former official said. Jacobson, of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, said that Congress could easily cut the FDA’s budget thereby “crippling programs to prevent foodborne infections, prevent dishonest food labels, and keep unsafe additives out of the food supply.” Others said even if he intends to overhaul the FDA, Trump may be surprised to find that there are limits to what he can do. “You can be against regulation all you want but the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act is not something that is malleable within executive orders,” said Dr. Sidney Wolfe, founder and senior adviser to Public Citizen’s Health Research Group, which has long battled the agency for better patient protection. “There are laws, many laws, and it took a long time to get them.” (Sheila Kaplan, STAT)

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November 25, 2016 at 9:00 am

Science Policy Around the Web – November 22, 2016

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By: Rachel Smallwood, PhD

Photo source: pixabay

Federal Research Funding

US R&D Spending at All-Time High, Federal Share Reaches Record Low

Recently released data from the National Science Foundation (NSF) showed trending increases in scientific research funding in the US across the past several years. Estimates of the total funding for 2015 put the value at an all-time high for research and development (R&D) funding for any country in a single year. In 2009, President Obama stated a goal to devote 3% of the USA’s gross domestic product (GDP) to research, and we have been making slow progress to that point; in 2015, 2.78% of the GDP went to research. Businesses accounted for the largest portion of overall scientific funding, contributing 69% of the funds. The second largest contributor was the federal government; however, it had the lowest percentage share of the total since the NSF started tracking funding in 1953, and the actual dollar amount contributed has been declining since 2011. Therefore, although the overall percentage of GDP going to research is increasing, that increase is driven by businesses, whereas the GDP percentage contributed by the federal government has dropped to almost 0.6%.

When taking a closer look at types of research, the federal government is the largest funding source for basic science research, covering 45% of the total. However, businesses make up the majority of the funding for applied research (52% in 2014) and experimental development (82% in 2014). This disproportionality in funding types combined with the decreases in federal research spending are concerning for the basic science field. There is more competition for less money, and this concern is compounded by uncertainty and questions about President-Elect Trump’s position on and plans for scientific funding. Aside from a couple of issues, primarily concerning climate change and the environment, he has said very little about science and research. Many scientists, institutions, and concerned citizens will be watching closely to see how science policy develops under Trump’s administration and its effects on federal spending and beyond. (Mike Henry, American Institute of Physics)

Biomedical Research

‘Minibrains’ Could Help Drug Discovery for Zika and for Alzheimer’s

A group of researchers at Johns Hopkins University (JHU) is working on a promising tool for evaluating disease and drug effects in humans without actually using humans for the tests. ‘Minibrains’ are clusters of human cells that originated as skin cells, reprogrammed to an earlier stage of development, and then forced to differentiate into human neural cells. They mimic the human brain as far as cell types and connections, but will never be anywhere near as large as a human brain and can never learn or become conscious.

A presentation earlier this year at the American Association for the Advancement of Science conference showcased the potential utility for minibrains. A large majority of drugs that are tested in animals fail when introduced in humans. Minibrains provide a way to test these drugs in human tissue at a much earlier stage – saving time, money, and animal testing – without risking harm to humans. Minibrains to test for biocompatibility can be made from skin cells of healthy humans, but skin cells from people with diseases or genetic traits can also be used to study disease effects.

A presentation at the Society for Neuroscience conference this month demonstrated one such disease – Zika. The minibrains’ growth is similar to fetal brain growth during early pregnancy. Using the minibrains, Dr. Hongjun Song’s team at JHU was able to see how the Zika virus affected the cells; the affected minibrains were much smaller than normal, a result that appears analogous to the microcephaly observed in infants whose mothers were infected with Zika during the first trimester.

Other presentations at the meeting showcased work from several research groups that are already using minibrains to study diseases and disorders including brain cancer, Down syndrome, and Rett syndrome, and plans are underway to utilize it in autism, schizophrenia, and Alzheimer’s disease. Though there might be a bit of an acceptance curve with the general public, minibrains potentially offer an avenue of testing that is a better representation of actual human cell behavior and response, is safer and more affordable, and reduces the need for animal testing. (Jon Hamilton, NPR)

Health Policy

A Twist on ‘Involuntary Commitment’: Some Heroin Users Request It

The opioid addiction epidemic has become a significant healthcare crisis in the United States. Just last week the US Surgeon General announced plans to target addiction and substance abuse. He also stated the desire for a change in perception of addiction – it is a medical condition rather than a moral or character flaw. Earlier this year, the Centers for Disease Control published guidelines that address opioid prescribing practices for chronic pain, strongly urging physicians to exhaust non-pharmacologic options before utilizing opioids. In response to the rising concern over prescription opioid abuse, steps have been taken to reduce prescriptions and access. This has resulted in many turning to heroin – which is usually a cheaper alternative anyway – to get their opioid fix.

One of the first steps in treatment and recovery for addiction and dependence is detoxing. However, opioids are highly addictive and many people struggle with the temptation to relapse. Additionally, many of the programs designed to help with the initial detox have long wait lists, are expensive, and may not be covered by insurance, further deterring those with addiction and dependence from getting the help they need. These factors have caused many to start turning to their states, asking to be voluntarily committed to a program on the basis that they are a danger to themselves or others because of their substance abuse. This is currently an option in 38 states. These programs can be held in either privately-run institutions or in state prisons. However, this practice is controversial because if the person’s insurance does not cover their stay, it falls to tax payers to foot the bill. While this is unpopular with some, advocates say the civil commitment laws are important options while there may be no other immediate ways for an individual to get help. (Karen Brown, NPR)

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November 22, 2016 at 9:00 am

Science Policy Around the Web – November 18, 2016

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By: Thaddeus Davenport, PhD

Source: pixabay

2016 Presidential Elections

How the Trump Administration Might Impact Science

Donald Trump is now the President-elect of the United States of America. Mr. Trump’s loose speaking (and tweeting) style, affinity for controversy, relative disregard for facts, and his lack of experience in domestic and foreign policy, led him to make a number of vague, and sometimes contradictory statements about his specific policy positions over the course of his campaign. In light of this, there are few people on earth – and perhaps no people on earth, including Mr. Trump – who know exactly what to expect from his presidency. In Nature News last week, Sara Reardon, Jeff Tollefson, Alexandra Witze and Lauren Morello considered how Mr. Trump’s presidency might affect science, focusing on what is known about his positions on biomedical research, climate change, the space program, and immigration. The authors’ analyses are summarized below:

Biomedical Research – Mr. Trump will be in a position to undo the executive order signed by President Obama in 2009, which eased some restrictions on work with human embryonic stem cells, a decision criticized at the time by the current vice-president elect, Mike Pence. In his characteristically brash speaking style, Mr. Trump also called the NIH ‘terrible’ in a radio interview last year, but beyond this, he has said little about his plans for biomedical research.

Climate Change – Early signs suggest that Mr. Trump will dramatically shift the direction of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and undo some of its work to curb greenhouse gas emissions under the Clean Power Plan implemented by President Obama. Mr. Trump has already appointed Myron Ebell, a denier of climate change, to lead the transition at the EPA and other federal agencies involved in climate change and environmental policy. Mr. Trump has also vowed to pull out of the Paris Climate Agreement which, under the terms of the agreement, may not happen immediately, but it may influence how and whether other countries participate in the agreement in the future.

Space Program – Based on writings from Trump’s campaign advisers there may be continued support for deep space exploration, especially through public-private partnerships with companies such as Orbital and SpaceX, but not earth observation and climate monitoring programs, which account for one third of NASA’s budget.

Immigration – A central pillar of Mr. Trump’s campaign was his strong and divisive stance on immigration. He has vowed to build a wall on the US border with Mexico, deport millions of illegal immigrants, defund ‘sanctuary cities’ throughout the United States, impose “extreme vetting” of immigrants, and stop immigration from countries where “adequate screening cannot occur”, which he believes includes Syria and Libya, and set new “caps” on legal immigration into the United States. These proposals have drawn objections from human rights advocates, and scientists worry that they may discourage international students and researchers from working in, and contributing their expertise to, the United States.

It remains to be seen how Mr. Trump will shape the future of science in the United States and the world, but it is clear that he is taking office at a pivotal moment. He would do well to seriously consider how his policies and his words will impact research, discovery, and innovation within the United States, and more importantly, the long-term health of vulnerable populations, economies, and ecosystems around the globe. (Sara Reardon, Jeff Tollefson, Alexandra Witze and Lauren Morello, Nature News)

Public Health

Soda Taxes on the Ballot

Given the focus that has been placed on the outcome of the Presidential election, you may NOT have heard about the results of smaller ballot items including a decision to begin taxing sodas in four US cities – San Francisco, Oakland, and Albany, California, and Boulder, Colorado – as reported by Margot Sanger-Katz for the New York Times. These cities join Berkeley, California and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, which passed soda taxes of their own in 2014 and June of 2016, respectively. The victory for proponents of soda taxes came after a costly campaign, with total spending in the Bay Area region campaign on the order of $50 million. Former New York City mayor, Michael Bloomberg, and Laura and John Arnold spent heavily in support of taxing sodas, but did not equal the spending by the soda industry, which opposed the taxes. During his time as mayor, Mr. Bloomberg attempted to ban the sale of sodas larger than 16 ounces in New York City in 2012, but this was struck down in the New York State Court of Appeals in 2014.

Soda tax advocates see the outcome of this year’s ballot initiatives as a sign of a sea change in public acceptance of programs intended to discourage soda consumption (and increase revenue for municipalities), but it is indisputable, especially in light of the results of the presidential election, that the set of relatively liberal cities that have adopted soda tax measures do not accurately represent the thinking of people throughout the United States. Though it is still too early to know if soda tax programs lead to improvements in public health, evidence from Berkeley and Mexico – which passed a soda tax in 2013 – indicates that these programs have the potential to decrease soda consumption. Regardless of how similar initiatives may perform in other cities on future ballots, the increasing number of cities participating in soda tax programs will provide valuable data to inform policy decisions aimed at reducing obesity and diabetes. (Margot Sanger-Katz, New York Times)

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November 18, 2016 at 9:00 am

Science Policy Around the Web – November 15, 2016

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By: Sarah Hawes, PhD

Source: PHIL

Zika

Florida voters weigh in on GM mosquito releases: What are the issues?

Concern over mosquito-borne Zika virus arriving in the United States this year spurred rapid allocation of resources toward identifying solutions. Clinical trials are just beginning for a traditional, attenuated vaccine while parallel efforts include research into injecting small DNA segments to effectively vaccinate by engaging a patient’s own cells to produce harmless, Zika-like proteins. However the risk of severe birth defects in infants born to Zika infected mothers is a powerful incentive for expediency. One answer exists in the use of genetically modified (GM) mosquitos to reduce vector number by breeding them in the wild. In August, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) agreed for the first time to release of GM mosquitoes in the U.S.

The GM mosquitos in question are almost exclusively non-biting males of the Zika vector species Aedes aegypti, modified by British biotech company Oxitec, to carry a gene that prevents their offspring from reaching sexual maturity. Oxitec has used similar techniques successfully since 2009 in the Cayman Islands, Malaysia, Brazil, and Panama. A document prepared by the FDA Center for Veterinary Medicine examines myriad concerns, and determines program risks to be negligible. It includes ecosystem reports showing lack of predators reliant on the invasive Aedes aegypti, and explains that no recognized method exists for the genome-integrated transgene to impact or spread among other species. However a small percentage of GM mosquitos survive to adulthood and could transfer modified genes (or transgene resistance) to next-generation Aedes aegypti. In addition, some fear that population reduction among one disease-carrying mosquito species will make way for another, such as Aedes albopictus, which is also capable of carrying Zika, Dengue, and Chikungunya.

On Election Day, the final word on whether or not to release Oxitec GM mosquitos was given to voters living in the proposed release-site in the small peninsula neighborhood of Key Haven, Florida, and in surrounding Monroe County. Countywide, 58 percent of voters favored release. Within Key Haven, 65 percent opposed it. Following this divide, the decision now rests with Florida Keys Mosquito Control Board. (Kelly Servick, Science Insider)

HIV Vaccine

Controversial HIV vaccine strategy gets a second chance

The first participants in a $130 million HIV vaccine study, funded primarily by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, received injections last week in South Africa. The study is a modified repetition of a study conducted in Thailand seven years ago that used nearly three times the number of participants and reported a modest 31.2% risk reduction through vaccination. In a nation with 6 million HIV positive persons, this would still be valuable if reproduced, but there is concern that alterations in the vaccine intended to boost efficacy could have the opposite effect.

No mechanism has been found for the vaccine’s efficacy in Thailand, making it hard to improve on. In hopes of extending the duration of protection, twice the amount of an HIV surface protein will be given. A canary-pox virus carrying pieces of HIV virus common in Thailand seven years ago (targets on which to hone the body’s immunity) has instead been loaded with strains common in South Africa. Finally, a stronger immune stimulant, or “adjuvant,” is included in the injection. However, in May, a study by National Cancer Institute vaccine researcher Genoveffa Franchini found that monkeys were protected from HIV by the old but not by the new adjuvant. Franchini suggests that the new adjuvant may even leave vaccinated persons more susceptible to infection. The South Africa study leader Glenda Gray says that Franchini makes a “compelling” argument for adding a group to repeat use of the old adjuvant, if more money can be found.

The enormity of South Africa’s AIDS epidemic (18% of global cases) compels empathy for the perspective held by Gray, who said, “Someone has to put their stake in the ground and have the courage to move forward, knowing we might fail.” At the same time one would hope that the use of $130 million in HIV research funds is being fueled more by quality medical science than by desperation and action-bias. (Jon Cohen, Science Magazine)

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November 15, 2016 at 9:45 am

Science Policy Around the Web – November 8, 2016

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By: Saurav Seshadri, PhD

Source: pixabay

Mental Health Research

FET Flagships: lessons learnt

The European Commission (EC), the executive body of the European Union, launched two major Future and Emerging Technologies (FET) Flagship projects in 2013, with funding of about 1 billion euros each. Both aim to foster collaboration and scientific innovation over a period of 10 years, in the fields of neuroscience (the Human Brain Project or HBP) and material chemistry (the Graphene Flagship). As these projects transition to the infrastructure construction phase, which has been funded for the next two years, the EC has released a statement reflecting on the first, ‘ramp-up’ phase of these high-level initiatives.

The assessment presented of the Flagships’ success is uniformly positive; the Directors write that they ‘create amazing collaboration opportunities’, ‘mobilis[e]…enthusiastic young researchers’, and ‘spread an innovation mind-set in Europe’. The EC expects this evaluation to be corroborated by an independent review by a panel of experts, due to be published in early 2017. Key insights from the initial phase include the power of flagships to foster international community-building, the importance of balanced and transparent governance and management, and the need to fine-tune the size and composition of the Consortium of funding entities over time.

A driving force behind some of these lessons is the controversy that has faced the HBP almost since its inception: in 2014, a group of leading neuroscientists sent a protest letter to the EC stating that the HBP was ‘not a well-conceived or implemented project’. The letter now has more than 800 signatures, and led to the formation of mediation committee, based on whose recommendations in 2015 the HBP dissolved its executive board and significantly changed its scientific focus. The recent release of long-gestating computational tools has also helped address criticism. In navigating these challenges and moving forward, the HBP merits attention for its similarity to our own BRAIN Initiative in scope, methodology, and scale. (European Commission)

HIV/AIDS

HIV’s patient zero exonerated

Gaetan Dugas was a French Canadian airline steward whose cooperation with CDC researchers helped identify sexual contact as a key step in HIV transmission in 1984. Unfortunately, this contribution earned him the label of ‘Patient Zero’ for HIV in the United States, which, along with an influential book that portrayed him as an unrepentant and malicious spreader of the disease, led to his widespread condemnation. On a larger scale, this characterization of the epidemic was a setback in the fight against homophobia, even at the policy level: in 1988, a Presidential Commission on HIV recommended that behavior among gay men that ‘fail[s] to comply with clearly set standards of conduct’ be criminalized.

However, a recent study in Nature has found ‘neither biological nor historical evidence’ that Dugas was the primary case of HIV in the US. The authors used a highly sensitive method to recover and sequence viral RNA from samples collected in the late 1970s, which revealed that HIV most likely jumped from Africa to the US via the Caribbean in approximately 1971, and that Dugas’ HIV genome was typical of US cases far downstream of ancestral strains. Ignorance may explain how scientists and the public in the 1980s came to scapegoat Dugas: with our current understanding of HIV’s long incubation period, it appears possible that many of Dugas’ partners could have contracted the disease years before they met him.

According to Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of NIAID, “The history of diseases has always been, in part, that someone needs to be blamed.” This study highlights the scientific and ethical pitfalls inherent to this mentality. (Sara Reardon, Nature News)

Schizophrenia

Schizophrenia secrets found hidden in the folds of DNA

Schizophrenia is known to be highly heritable, but the individual genes conferring risk for the disease have remained elusive. Advances in sequencing capabilities have allowed researchers to vastly increase the statistical power of studies aimed at identifying these genes: one such large-scale effort, the Psychiatric Genomics Consortium (PGC), identified over 100 common variants associated with schizophrenia, by using more than 36,000 cases and 100,000 controls. While progress has been made in understanding how some of these mutations contribute to changes in gene expression and brain network development, the majority remain unexplained. One obstacle is the fact that many of the loci are in regulatory regions, often without any obvious nearby target gene.

A recent study from Dr. Daniel Geschwind’s group at UCLA addresses this problem by showing that many non-coding variants identified by the PGC actually do contact genes involved in brain development, when the 3-dimensional structure of chromatin is taken into account. The authors used a cutting-edge technique called chromosome conformation capture to generate high-resolution maps of physical interactions between regulatory regions and genes. This approach revealed that loci of previously indeterminate function may in fact influence pathways linked to schizophrenia, including neurogenesis and cholinergic signaling.

Coming on the heels of another study, which used whole exon sequencing in about 5,000 cases to show that rare variants contribute to risk for schizophrenia, these findings represent significant progress towards understanding the mechanistic implications of genome-scale data in psychiatric disorders. This understanding is a key step towards using such data to develop personalized treatment strategies, which may be a priority for Dr. Geschwind, as he was appointed head of precision medicine efforts in the UCLA Health System in March. The above approach can also be generalized to other neurodevelopmental disorders (a prime candidate is autism, for which Dr. Geschwind helped establish the world’s largest gene bank), and holds great promise for the future of care for these devastating diseases. (Tim Newman, Medical News Today)

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November 8, 2016 at 9:00 am

Science Policy Around the Web – November 4, 2016

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By: Courtney Kurtyka, PhD

Source: Flickr, by Wellington College, under Creative Commons

Science Education

Unexpected results regarding U.S. students’ science education released

The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) is a nation-wide exam and survey used in the United States to ascertain student knowledge and education in key areas. Recently, the 2015 science education results from fourth, eighth, and twelfth graders in the United States were released, and showed some surprising outcomes. Out of seven different hands-on activities that students were asked if they completed as part of their curriculum, only one (simple machines) showed a positive correlation between activity participation and scores on the exam. Some activities (such as using a microscope or working with chemicals) showed no correlation with scores on the exam, while students who engaged in activities such as handling rocks and minerals actually performed worse than students who did not. Furthermore, not as many students engage in scientific activities as part of their curriculum as one might expect. For example, 58% said that they never used simple machines in class, while 62% say they never or rarely work with “living things”.

An anonymous expert on the assessment suggested that one potential explanation for these unexpected results is that the assessment asks whether students completed any of these activities “this year”. Therefore, for the results from twelfth graders, students who use rocks and minerals in class tend to be in lower-level science courses, and are more likely to not perform as well on the exam as students in higher-level courses that would not include that activity. However, this does not account for the low level of reporting of scientific activities overall.

Another concerning aspect of the exam is related to the reporting of the results. The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), which manages the NAEP, operates a website that is both difficult to use and incomplete. In fact, when using the drop-down menu of results from the survey, only the results of activities that have positive correlations with test scores are listed. NCES has said that they show results based on what they think are of greatest interest to the public.

While some cite the positive results as a reflection of the success of active learning techniques, others note that 40% of twelfth graders who took the NAEP did not have a “basic” knowledge of science. Additionally, these results are interesting for many because the twelfth graders reflect the first students to have spent their entire education under No Child Left Behind, which mandated annual assessment of reading and math for third through eighth graders. Since many have argued that this law leaves less room for teaching topics that are not tested (such as science), examining students’ scientific performance under these guidelines is important. (Jeffrey Mervis, Science Magazine)

Health Disparities

Sexual and gender minorities are officially recognized as a minority health population

The National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities (NIMHD), one of the institutes and centers within the National Institutes of Health, recently officially recognized sexual and gender minorities (SGM) as a distinct minority health population. The SGM population is very diverse, including lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender communities, as well as those from additional sexual and gender classifications that differ from various norms (such as traditional, cultural, etc.).

Multiple health disparities (meaning that the likelihood of disease and death from particular diseases and disorders in that group differ from the average population) have been identified in the SGM population. Some of these issues include a lower likelihood of women who have sex with women getting Pap smears and mammograms, and higher rates of depression, panic attacks, and psychological distress in gay and bisexual men.

Previously, the NIH requested a report on SGM health that was published in 2011, and later created the Sexual and Gender Minority Research Office (SGMRO) following the results of the report. Now, this official designation will allow researchers focused on SGM health to be able to apply for health disparity funding from the NIH, and Karen Parker (the director of the SGMRO at the NIH) said that she hopes that it will lead to increased interest in applications to support health research related to this population. (Nicole Wetsman, STAT)

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November 4, 2016 at 9:00 am