Science Policy For All

Because science policy affects everyone.

Posts Tagged ‘animal welfare

Science Policy Around the Web – February 24, 2017

leave a comment »

By: Alida Palmisano, PhD

Source: usda [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Public Access to Data

Lawsuit Aims to Force USDA to Repost Scrubbed Animal Welfare Records

“Put the records back on the internet.”

An article published in Science discusses a lawsuit filed on February 13 against the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) by an animal law expert at Harvard University. According to the plaintiffs, USDA violated the federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) when it removed thousands of animal welfare inspection reports and other records from a publicly accessible website. USDA generated records that document animal facility inspections, enforcement actions, animal censuses, and other information collected by the agency in the course of enforcing the federal Animal Welfare Act.  The law covers animals in more than 7800 facilities, including zoos, roadside circuses, and research laboratories at government agencies and academic medical centers.

The decision to remove the public access to these records may have been a response to a lawsuit involving another law, the Horse Protection Act. The plaintiffs in a 2016 Texas lawsuit accused USDA of violating their rights under the Privacy Act by posting inspection documents required by the Horse Protection Act. A resulting USDA review of all its public postings led the agency to scrub from its website documents generated under both the Horse Protection Act and the Animal Welfare Act.  In the future, the agency announced, people who want access to those records will need to file a FOIA request. The agency’s most recent FOIA report states that it takes an average of 94 days for the agency to respond to a simple FOIA request and 234 days on average for more complicated requests.

In February 13’s lawsuit, the plaintiffs invoke a section of FOIA that requires agencies to make publicly available electronically all records that it has released under FOIA which “because of the nature of the subject matter, the agency determines have become or are likely to become the subject of subsequent requests for substantially the same records.” (Meredith Wadman, ScienceInsider)

Science and Immigration

Grad Students, Postdocs with U.S. Visas Face Uncertainty

While U.S. courts are busy handling President Donald Trump’s travel ban on immigration from seven majority-Muslim countries, the temporary shut down of the executive order, the appeal to reinstate the travel ban, the rejection of the immediate restoration of the ban, and more appeals and rulings, graduates and postdoctoral students already in the United States are weighing their options and trying to plan rationally in an unpredictable and fluid situation.

Many scientists in the U.S. are on student or other working visas. All these visas may not be renewable, depending on future executive orders and regulations. The dilemma “simply ruins their future. It’s a catastrophe,” says a Yemeni biologist who is on a university faculty on an H-1B, a 3-year visa for professionals. For years, lawmakers in Washington have tried to reform abuses of visa regulations by companies using visas to bring workers to the U.S. to learn the ropes, and then send the trained workers to other countries where the job can be done cheaply. The H-1B system is contentious: on one side labor advocates want the exploitation of the H-1B system to stop supporting an outsourcing business model. On the other hand, tech companies like Google and Facebook say they can’t get enough visas for top foreign talent, as the cap on the number of H-1Bs issued every year means that sometimes foreign graduates from top U.S. universities, places like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of California, Berkeley, can’t get one. The travel ban already has harmed the top universities in the U.S., stranding students, faculty and scholars abroad, and making foreign schools more attractive to some of the world’s brightest students.

In papers filed in Brooklyn federal court, the schools (that include Columbia, Duke, Harvard, Johns Hopkins, Princeton, Stanford, Yale, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and several more) said that the order blocking travel from seven predominantly Muslim countries threatens their abilities to educate future leaders from every continent. They said the executive order has “serious and chilling implications” and that the ban “casts doubt on the prospect and value of studying and working here for everyone,” the papers said. (Meredith Wadman, Richard Stone, Science)

Genetic Engineering

US Science Advisers Outline Path to Genetically Modified Babies

“Scientists should be permitted to modify human embryos destined for implantation in the womb to eliminate devastating genetic diseases such as sickle-cell anaemia or cystic fibrosis — once gene-editing techniques advance sufficiently for use in people and proper restrictions are in place. That’s the conclusion of a 14 February report from the US National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine.”

The report follows a 2015 National Academies summit between scientists, ethicists, legal experts and patient groups from around the world. At the time of the meeting, given the outstanding scientific, ethical and legal questions surrounding the issue, the organizers concluded that scientists shouldn’t yet perform germline editing on embryos intended for establishing a pregnancy. However, the organizers also stated that altering human embryos for basic research was acceptable.

The latest iteration of this ongoing CRISPR debate moves the bar a little further. The report recommends restricting the technique to severe medical conditions for which no other treatment exists. Eric Lander, president of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, said, “It’s a very careful, conservative position that’s just a little bit beyond an absolute bar.” In the report, the committee also called for international cooperation, strict regulatory and oversight framework, public input into decisions and long-term follow-ups of children who have edited genomes. The report adds that for now, genome editing should not be used for human enhancement, such as improving a person’s intelligence or giving them super-strength.

The report drew immediate criticism from a California-based non-profit organization called the Center for Genetics and Society. “This report is a dramatic departure from the widespread global agreement that human germline modification should remain off limits,” said Marcy Darnovsky, executive director of the center. “It acknowledges many of the widely recognized risks, including stigmatizing people with disabilities, exacerbating existing inequalities, and introducing new eugenic abuses. Strangely, there’s no apparent connection between those dire risks and the recommendation to move ahead.” (Sara Reardon, Nature)

Have an interesting science policy link?  Share it in the comments!

Written by sciencepolicyforall

February 24, 2017 at 11:23 am

Science Policy Around the Web – June 10, 2016

leave a comment »

By: Nivedita Sengupta, Ph.D.

photo credit: Tc Morgan via photopin cc

Animal Welfare and Biotechnology

US government issues historic $3.5-million fine over animal welfare

The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) fined Santa Cruz Biotechnology, a major antibody provider, over alleged violations of the US Animal Welfare Act. The penalty so far is the largest in USDA’s history accounting to US $3.5 million.

As one of the leading producer of monoclonal antibodies, the company extracts antibodies from animals such as goats and rabbits for research after injecting the animals with proteins to stimulate antibody production. After inspection of the company’s facility in California, USDA found evidence of mistreatment of goats and rabbits in their facility. Agency inspectors reported goats with untreated coyote bites and massive tumors, and rabbits housed in cruel conditions. They also discovered that Santa Cruz Biotech was keeping 841 goats in a hidden facility. In 2007, USDA lodged three animal-welfare complaints against Santa Cruz Biotechnology. Before a scheduled hearing on the USDA complaints, more than 5,000 goats and rabbits disappeared from Santa Cruz’s facilities and the incident was completely ignored by the company. Santa Cruz would not confirm whether the animals were killed or sold.

The news of animals disappearing lead to a public outcry and scientists turned to social media to boycott Santa Cruz’s products. Dr. Stephen Floor, a biologist at the University of California, Berkeley, commented that his lab has since sought out other antibody providers. Even though the quality and type of antibodies varies widely and researchers tend to stick with products from a single company to ensure that their experiments are replicable, they definitely also want to ensure that animal rights are protected.

After contesting the government complaints, an agreement was made on 19th May in which the company “neither admits nor denies” that it violated US animal-welfare regulations. However according to the settlement agreement Santa Cruz Biotech will pay the fine as part of the settlement. It also includes permanent revoking of Santa Cruz Biotech’s government license to sell, buy and trade or import animals. Moreover it demands the company to cancel its registration to operate as a research facility that uses animals. So far Santa Cruz Biotech and Covington & Burling, a Washington DC law firm representing the company have not given any comments regarding the settlement. However the settlement ends the long running investigation and also points at the fact that not only proper regulations, strict vigilance is also needed to protect the laws. (Sara Reardon, Nature News)

Mosquito Control Policies

US reviews plan to infect mosquitoes with bacteria to stop disease

The United States (US) Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is under process of reviewing an application from the biotechnology start-up MosquitoMate to use the bacterium Wolbachia pipientis as a tool against the Asian tiger mosquito Aedes albopictus. MosquitoMate plans to market Wolbachia as a pesticide to kill only mosquitoes and leave other insects untouched. The EPA sought for public-comments on this matter before making the decision.

The strategy involves rearing and environmental release of mosquitoes infected with a particular strain of Wolbachia which do not allow the paternal chromosomes of mosquitoes to form properly following mating. The released male mosquitoes will mate with the wild females which do not carry the same strain of Wolbachia. As a result the fertilized eggs will fail to hatch and the pest population will dwindle. MosquitoMate has tested Wolbachia in A. albopictus in three states over the past three years. According to Stephen Dobson, founder of the company, the approach resulted in reduction of wild mosquitoes by more than 70% in those areas. Apart from A. albopictus MosquitoMate is also using Wolbachia to target Aedes aegypti, thought to be the main vector for Zika. Other countries like China are also conducting field trials of Wolbachia to regulate the mosquito population.

The ongoing releases of large mosquito population can be expensive and hence the non-profit international collaboration, Eliminate Dengue, is testing another approach that requires rearing of fewer mosquitoes. It uses a starter set of mosquitoes carrying a different Wolbachia strain to infect the wild population. This strain of Wolbachia do not interfere with the development of the offspring but the infection prompts an immune response which consumes key cellular resources, thus making them ineffective at transmitting viruses.

So far MosquitoMate’s field testing plans have not prompted any public resistance. By contrast, US residents have protested against proposed trials of genetically engineered mosquitoes developed by Oxitec of Milton Park, UK. Both Oxitec and MosquitoMate alter the male mosquitoes using lethal reproductive weapon but Oxitec modifies mosquitoes with a gene, instead of bacterium Wolbachia.

Considering the current increasing incidence of Zika and also other mosquito transmitted deadly viruses like dengue and Chikungunya, many countries are considering new options for reducing mosquito populations. “We need as many effective tools as we can get, so we need to give Wolbachia a try,” says Tom Scott, an entomologist at the University of California, Davis. (Emily Waltz, Nature News)

Heart Disease

Protective gene offers hope for next blockbuster heart drug

Rare mutations though often regarded as harmful, sometimes can be beneficial too. On May 18th, scientists at DeCODE Genetics, subsidiary of the biotechnology giant Amgen reported in the New England Journal of Medicine a genetic variant found in Icelanders which lowers the risk of heart disease by more than one third. This variant was identified by comparing genomes of thousands of Icelanders with their medical record. In this study, about 2,600 Icelanders were fully sequenced and limited genomic data and family-tree records was used for another 398,000 inhabitants. After analyzing all the genomic data it was found that 1 in 120 Icelanders has a mutation resulting in inactivation of one copy of the ASGR1 gene. People having the mutant variant have lower levels of non-high-density lipoprotein (non-HDL) cholesterol, compared to the wild type population. Moreover, in follow-up analysis on approximately 300,000 people from Iceland as well as 4 other countries also revealed that carriers of this variant were 34% less likely to develop heart disease. Besides this, the variant didn’t seem to cause any adverse health effects. So far scientists have found that as a result of the variant, a protein is inactivated which recycles a class of sugar-coated proteins. However which biomolecules are precisely affected and what results in a significantly-decreased risk of heart disease is still under study.

This rare mutation could be the basis for the next blockbuster drug for heart disease. Kari Stefánsson, a geneticist at DeCODE Genetics (bought by Amgen in 2012) in Reykjavik stated that Amgen headquarter in California has already prepared drugs which mimics the effect of this genetic variant found in Icelanders. The level of protection provided by the ASGR1 mutant variant is comparable to that offered by another human gene variant discovered earlier. The earlier gene variant also reduced cholesterol levels and the drugs developed to mimic the mutation, blocks the PCSK9 protein that influences blood cholesterol levels. Furthermore this drugs were approved by the US Food and Drug Administration last year. PCSK9 inhibitors have been advertised as the next blockbusters in cholesterol-lowering drug market.

However Kari Stefánsson argues that the ASGR1 variation reduces risk of heart-disease more substantially than expected, just on the basis of its effect on cholesterol alone. This makes the ASGR1 variation potentially more valuable. “This is a genetic discovery that is pointing to the possibility of manipulating something other than just blood lipids,” he says. “We have no drugs, really, that affect the risk of coronary heart disease that work on alternative mechanisms.” (Ewen Callaway, Nature News)

Have an interesting science policy link?  Share it in the comments!

Written by sciencepolicyforall

June 10, 2016 at 11:00 am