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Science Policy Around the Web – October 7, 2016

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By: Eric Cheng, PhD

Source: pixabay

Antibiotic Resistance

World health leaders agree on action to combat antimicrobial resistance, warning of nearly 10 million deaths annually if left unchecked

World leaders committed to take action on antimicrobial resistance during their September 21, 2016 high-level meeting on Antimicrobial Resistance in New York. This is the first time Heads of State made a commitment to address the root cause of antimicrobial resistance in human health, animal health, and agriculture. Dr. Margaret Chan, Director-General of the World Health Organization emphasized that “antimicrobial resistance poses a fundamental threat to human health, development, and security. The commitments made today must now be translated into swift, effective, lifesaving actions across the human, animal and environmental health sectors. We are running out of time.”

The committed countries pledged to strengthen regulation of antimicrobials, improve knowledge and awareness, and promote best practices. World leaders also agreed to foster innovative approaches using alternatives to antimicrobials and new technologies for diagnosis and vaccines. The committed countries will base their national action plans on the Global Action Plan on Microbial Resistance, a blueprint developed in 2015 by the World Health Organization along with Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and the World Organization for Animal Health. (United Nations Meetings Coverage and Press Releases)

Zika

Documents reveal intense battle over CDC Zika tests

In addition to battling the spread of Zika infections, the Center for Disease and Prevention (CDC) is currently in an internal battle with determining which test will be best in diagnosing someone with the disease. Robert Lanciotti is the Chief of the Diagnostics and Reference Activity in the Division of Vector-Borne Infectious Diseases in Fort Collins, CO. At the center of the debate is the agency’s prioritization of the Trioplex real-time PCR-based assay that tests for Zika, dengue, and chikungunya over the Singleplex assay which only detects Zika, which Lanciotti’s research found to be 39% more effective than the Trioplex assay.

Lanciotti claimed that the CDC “created a substantial and specific danger to public health” when it did not disclose lower sensitivity of the test it used. Lanciotti was subsequently reassigned to a non-supervisory position in his laboratory who then filed a whistleblower retaliation claim with the US Office of Special Counsel. Lanciotti alleged that the demotion was because of his concerns with the Zika test. Lanciotti has since been reinstated as director of his lab. In addition, the Office of Special Counsel requested that the CDC investigate Lanciotti’s concerns with the sensitivity of the Trioplex test.

The CDC’s own investigation found that Dr. Lanciotti’s allegations “are not substantiated by the available evidence.” The CDC ruled that “[t]here is insufficient, statistically robust, definitive data to reach an evidence-based conclusion that use of the Trioplex assay over the Singleplex in clinical practice will result in 39 percent of Zika virus infections being missed.” The CDC also noted that it is continuing to improve on the Trioplex assay such as enabling testing laboratories to use larger sample volumes in order to increase the assay’s limit of detection. The Trioplex assay is still approved for use as a method of detecting Zika virus, dengue, and chikungunya. (Jon Cohen, Science Magazine)

Research Funding

HHMI Launches New Program for Early-Career Scientists

The Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) recently launched a new program to recruit and retain early-career scientists that are underrepresented in the life sciences. These individuals include those coming from a disadvantaged background. The selected HHMI scientists will become Hanna H. Gray fellows, named after Hanna H. Gray, former chair of the HHMI Trustees and former president of the University of Chicago.

The purpose of the Gray Fellows Program is to find and encourage talented students and early scientists that are committed to continuing their scientific training in the nation’s top laboratories. The Hanna H. Gray Fellows grant competition is open to all eligible applicants and no nomination is required.  Selected fellows are required to devote at least 75 percent of their total effort to research during both the postdoctoral training and faculty phases of the award. In addition, part of the goal for the program is to position Gray fellows to be competitive for NIH grants and other awards when they transition to the faculty phase of their careers. (Howard Hughes Medical Institute)

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October 7, 2016 at 11:12 am

Now Entering the Final Frontier of Antibiotics

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By: Amy Kullas, PhD

Source: CDC

On September 21, 2016, the United Nations (UN) convened a special session to discuss options to stop (or at least slow) the emergence of new resistant microbial strains to the precious antibiotics that are still left. This meeting was only the fourth time in UN history that it has convened prominent global leaders to discuss a health related topic (HIV, non-communicable diseases, and Ebola were the others). During this assembly, the group agreed to tighten regulation of antimicrobials, and encourage development of new antibiotics and treatments.

The development of new antibiotics has not been keeping up with the demand. In the United States, pharmaceutical companies have lost interest in developing new treatments. In fact, the most recent ‘new’ class of antibiotics was developed more than 30 years ago, in 1984. Pharma argues that it costs too much money (estimated at $1 billion and takes an average of a decade) to develop a product that will ultimately fail. Without changes in current policies to combat antimicrobial resistance, an estimated $100 trillion could easily be spent by 2050. Hopefully, this attitude may begin to change as the US government’s Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA) announced to invest up to $170 million to support antibiotic development.

Antibiotics were once hailed as “wonder drugs” since they were virtually effective against every pathogen encountered. Nowadays, what used to be common infections and easily treated with routine antibiotics are now resistant. Moreover, this is a worldwide problem. Using metagenomic analysis, scientists have isolated DNA from soil samples from around the globe and identified the presence of antibiotic resistance genes on all seven continents.

Why has there been this increase in antibiotic resistance? The answer is multifaceted. First, many times when people go to the doctor’s office, they expect to be given a prescription for some drugs to ‘help them feel better.’ Physicians may not wait for cultures to be taken and have the results in hand before prescribing a medication. Thus there is the strong possibility that what is ailing them is a viral infection, such as the common cold, rather than a bacterial infection and antibiotics are ineffective against viruses. It is estimated than almost a third of antibiotics prescribed in the United States are not needed and not effective. Further, the prescription may be for a broad-spectrum antibiotic used to kill many pathogens, as compared to a narrow-spectrum antibiotic that would have a higher specificity for a specific type of bacteria. Use of narrow-spectrum antibiotics is less likely to cause resistance. Also, once the patient begins to ‘feel’ better, he or she may not finish the entire regimen of the prescribed medicine. This likely will leave behind bacteria that have been exposed to the specific antibiotic only to be stronger the next time the microbe encounters it. Other times, people may not even seek medical attention and purchase antibiotics over the counter or online. This practice is becoming common in India and as a result the country houses “some of the most resistant bacteria in the world.”

Additionally, antibiotics and antimicrobials are routinely used in agriculture and are given to livestock (cattle, pigs, poultry, etc.) in their feed or drinking water, and sprayed on crops. Shocking estimates are that over 50% (other estimates are as high as 70%) of the antibiotics in the United States are used in food production. This equates to a whopping 25 million pounds of antibiotic products used on livestock each year! They are given for a variety of reasons: to use less food to gain weight while helping the animal gain weight faster, and of course the treatment, control, or prevention of diseases. Many scientists feel that this heavy use of antibiotics in agriculture is contributing to the rapid increase in antibiotic-resistant bacteria. In China, one study found antibiotic resistance genes present in the manure at pig farms that routinely used antibiotics was increased 28,000 times when compared to farms that do not use antibiotics. More than 60 different antibiotics have been isolated from randomly taken samples from both the Yangtze and Pearl Rivers. Thus, the correlation between antimicrobial use in food production and the significant increase in bacterial resistance has prompted a reexamination of agricultural practices in numerous countries, including the U.S.

The CDC stated “up to half of antibiotic use in humans and much of the antibiotic use in animals is unnecessary and inappropriate and makes everyone less safe.” On the CDC’s urgent list of resistant bacteria are: Clostridium difficile (C. difficile), Carbapenem-resistant Enterobacteriaceae (CRE) and drug-resistant Neisseria gonorrhoeae (cephalosporin resistance). The last-line antibiotics are beginning to fail against these pathogens. Recently, there has been a cluster of gonorrhea cases reported in Hawaii in which the bacteria demonstrated high resistance to azithromycin and reduced susceptibility to ceftriaxone. Physicians are prescribing these two drugs in combination in an attempt to slow the emerging resistance of this relentless microbe. Scientists remain concerned that gonorrhea may soon be resistant to all antibiotics. Even one of the most prominent hospitals in the nation, the National Institutes of Health’s Clinical Center, suffered an outbreak in 2011 of Carbapenem-resistant strain of Klebsiella pneumonia that quickly spread beyond the intensive care unit, ultimately killing six of the patients.

These resistant pathogens have been coined the nickname “superbugs”. However, these superbugs are not nearly as cute as one may envision – little single-celled organisms wearing capes to fight crime. They should be the ones considered criminal, costing billions of dollars annually and killing almost a million people. Advocates and public health experts have been warning of the superbug emergence for decades, but these warnings mostly fell on deaf ears. Last year, the Obama administration revealed a national plan to tackle superbugs and established a presidential council to reduce antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Now for the first time, world leaders finally met to discuss this emerging problem. Hopefully, it is not too late and this global threat will not continue to grow logarithmically out of control.

Interested in learning more about this topic? Check out the TED talk by Maryn McKenna titled: “What do we do when antibiotics don’t work anymore?”

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October 7, 2016 at 11:09 am

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Science Policy Around the Web – September 16, 2016

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By: Sterling Payne, B.Sc.

Energy change inventory, 1971-2010 License: Creative Commons

Global Warming

Oceans are absorbing almost all of the globe’s excess heat

Climate change is a massive point of interest in public health. As trapped energy in the atmosphere continues to warm the earth, global ice sheets are diminishing, average temperatures are rising, and weather patterns are becoming more erratic. These changes can both directly and indirectly affect public health in a negative way.

A recent report published by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) states that global ocean surface temperatures have steadily increased in the past century. The massive increase in surface temperature stems from oceans absorbing almost 90% of excess heat that is trapped in the atmosphere due to accumulation of greenhouse gases. Warming oceans lead to the melting of ice and increases in global sea levels, as well as changes in lifestyle of marine species, if not driving them to complete extinction. For example, ice sheets used by polar bears for breeding and hunting are available for less time each year, effectively shortening the time in which the species can be most productive.

The IUCN report adds to a seemingly endless pile of evidence that points to human-induced climate change as a very real thing. In the wake of the 2016 presidential election, it will be interesting to see how each candidate addresses science, and to what degree of significance they assign human-induced climate change. In the interim, here are some helpful tips for reducing your carbon footprint! (Tim Wallace, The New York Times)

Antibiotic Resistance

Use antibiotics wisely

“Neosporin” is the first thing that comes to my mind whenever I get a small cut or abrasion. Sporting the antibiotics neomycin, bacitracin, and polymyxin B, the tiny yellow tube is a breath of relief when trying to prevent an infection. However, after applying my gel-like defense, my thoughts almost always jump to the topic of antibiotic resistance. The quick doubling time of many bacterial species, paired with heavy use of antibiotics, gives rise to antibiotic-resistant strains that are no longer affected by humans’ number-one go-to. As Peter Jørgensen and others state in a Nature comment piece, killing all bacteria is not an option, because our bodies also rely on the microbiome to function properly. Antibiotics don’t recognize the healthy bacteria from the harmful, and when they’re used, simply kill everything.

The double-edge nature of antibiotics paired with growing levels of drug-resistant bacteria makes for a public health issue of paramount importance, one that will be addressed at the UN high-level meeting on Antimicrobial Resistance on September 21, 2016. Jørgensen and others feel that this meeting absolutely needs to address the positive roles of bacteria and the microbiome, and how they are helpful to human survival. The authors propose various strategies for maintaining the resilience of the human microbiome to resistance, such as holding agricultural companies accountable and lessening their use of antibiotics for animal growth, educating the public on antibiotic uses and how resistance develops, and strengthening collaboration between global organizations. All-in-all, the world needs to recognize the impact of bacteria, both positive and negative, on humans and the world we live in. For a visual, informative view on resistance development, watch this video showcasing an experiment conducted by individuals at the Harvard Medical School and Technion-Israel Institute of Technology. (Peter S. Jørgensen et.al., Nature Comments)

Public Health

No driver? Bring it on. How Pittsburgh became Uber’s testing ground

I am hard-pressed to think of a situation that defines “science policy” more than the self-driving car trials being conducted by Uber in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. On Wednesday, September 14, 2016, Uber rolled out a fleet of around 100 autonomous vehicles to pick up passengers and transport them throughout the city. Though autonomous, each vehicle will have a driver to take control if need be, as well as an engineer to monitor the self-driving system. Despite human additions, the job of getting riders from point A to point B will mostly be up to the vehicle itself. Will Knight, senior editor for the MIT Technology Review, stated the following about his self-driving Uber trip: “I mostly felt pretty safe. However, several times the person behind the wheel needed to take control: once so the car didn’t become stuck behind a truck, and once to avoid another vehicle making a sudden turn”. It will be interesting to see how other riders react, knowing that for the most part, the car is driving without any human input.

Transportation is a large matter of public health. Regardless of the method (bus, train, personal car, etc.), the safety of the people being transported is the highest priority. With the recent death of driver using a Tesla in autopilot mode, I expect the public to be healthily hesitant regarding the deployment/testing of self-driving vehicles. Some Pittsburgh residents feel exactly this way about the current Uber trials. As autonomous transportation moves forward, safety will be at the forefront of all efforts. For some, this means taking the human out of the equation completely. With no shortage of personal vehicles on the road today, autonomous vehicles need to have benefits, and safety absolutely needs to be one of them. (Cecilia Kang, The New York Times)

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September 16, 2016 at 9:00 am

Science Policy Around the Web – September 6, 2016

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By: Amy Kullas, PhD

Vaccines

Parents remain apprehensive of vaccine safety and efficacy

In a recent survey published by the American Academy of Pediatrics, an alarming percentage of parents are refusing or delaying important vaccines. This percentage continues to increase because “parents believe they are unnecessary”. This phenomenon has directly resulted in outbreaks of measles and mumps in the United States, and polio in Syria.

The misguided “anti-vaccination movement” began with a paper published by Andrew Wakefield in The Lancet in 1998. The authors alleged that eight children (out of a very small sample size of 12) developed autism shortly after receiving the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine. The impact of this now-retracted paper still ripples through the scientific community and beyond, to within the general public in the United States.

Numerous celebrities (Jim Carrey, Robert De Niro, Jenny McCarthy-just to name a few) and the Republican party nominee, Donald Trump, continue to fuel the anti-vaccine fire spreading through the United States. Trump has gone as far to say: “Autism has become an epidemic. Twenty-five years ago, 35 years ago, you look at the statistics, not even close. It has gotten totally out of control.” Further, he said, “Just the other day, two years old, 2½ years old, a child, a beautiful child went to have the vaccine, and came back, and a week later got a tremendous fever, got very, very sick, now is autistic.” The ultimate result has been a “dangerous drop in MMR vaccinations” according to public health officials. Given Trump’s stance on vaccination and how the candidate has made vaccine policy into a political topic could have grave consequences on American youth for years to come.

Interestingly, there has been a change in reasoning as to why parents refuse vaccines for their children. In 2006, the number one reason cited was parental belief that vaccines caused autism. In 2013, this was no longer the popular belief; instead parents are stating vaccines are “unnecessary” and are failing to vaccinate their children. The “parental noncompliance” with the CDC’s recommended vaccination strategy continues to be “an increasing public health concern.” (Ariana Eunjung Cha, The Washington Post)

Zika and Insecticides

Millions of honeybees killed after insecticide spraying to combat Zika-carrying mosquitos

In an effort to annihilate Zika-carrying mosquitos in South Carolina, officials in Dorchester County approved an aerial spraying of Naled-a common insecticide. This decision ultimately led to millions of honeybees getting killed. The majority of the victims were from Flowertown Bee Farm and Supply. Co-owner, Juanita Stanley stated, “the farm looks like it’s been nuked.” The farm lost close to 50 hives which housed ~2.5 million bees.

Naled was approved for “mosquito control” in 1959. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) notes that Naled “is not a risk for humans” and they “aren’t likely to breath or touch anything that has enough insecticide on it to harm them.” Unfortunately, Naled does not discriminate bees from mosquitos and efficiently kills them both. The EPA does recommend spraying the chemical between dusk and dawn, when bees are not typically foraging.

The county insists they gave residents plenty of notice prior to the spraying through a newspaper announcement and a Facebook posting. However, some residents suggest otherwise, stating “Had I known, I would have been camping on the steps doing whatever I had to do screaming, ‘No you can’t do this.’” The Dorchester county officials have issued a statement stating that they are “not pleased that so many bees were killed” and they have not offered to compensate the beekeepers for their losses. (Ben Guarino, The Washington Post)

Health

Bye-bye to antibacterial soaps

On the Friday before the holiday weekend, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) released its final ruling that will ban specific ingredients, such as triclosan and triclocarban, commonly used in antibacterial and antimicrobial soaps. Soap manufacturers will have an additional year to negotiate over less common ingredients, like benzalkonium chloride. Altogether, the FDA has taken a stance against 19 chemicals, which are used in almost half of soap products. Reasons behind the ban include: “are not generally recognized as safe and effective…and are misbranded.” To date, the manufacturers have not shown that these ingredients are safe for daily use as well as failed to demonstrate an increase in efficacy when compared with plain soap. Hand sanitizers and antiseptic products used in healthcare or the food industry are not affected by this ban.

In 2013, the FDA first issued a warning to the industry that unless it could provide substantial proof that compounds like triclosan and triclocarban were more beneficial than harmful, the chemicals would need to be removed. Triclosan is in more than 90% of the liquid soaps labeled as ‘antibacterial’ or ‘antimicrobial’. Triclosan disrupts the bacterial cell wall, breaking it open and ultimately killing the bacterium. However, this mechanism of killing occurs over a couple hours, much longer than it takes a person to wash his or her hands. Additionally, researchers found that triclosan can disturb hormone balance to interrupt the normal development of the reproductive system and metabolism in animals. Scientists warned that there could be similar effects in humans. Some of the large companies have been proactive and started removing the chemicals from their products. (Sabrina Tavernise, New York Times)

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September 6, 2016 at 9:15 am

Science Policy Around the Web – August 9, 2016

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By: Thaddeus Davenport, Ph.D.

Infectious Diseases

Local Transmission of Zika Virus in Miami

Most of the world became aware of Zika virus earlier this year when doctors in Brazil noticed a correlation between Zika virus infection in pregnant women and microcephaly in their newborn children. Recent articles in the New York Times on July 29th and August 1st report a notable shift in the course of the Zika virus epidemic – local transmission of the virus within the United States. In the last year, there have been over 1600 cases of Zika virus detected in the United States, but nearly all of these were imported infections, in which individuals became infected while traveling in Zika-endemic regions or through sexual transmission of the virus from people traveling outside of the United States. Because the Zika-carrying mosquito species, Aedes Aegypti is resident in parts of the continental United States, many people expected that it was only a matter of time before Zika virus would be transmitted locally within the United States. On July 29th, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Florida State Department of Health reported that Zika virus was transmitted to at least four individuals in the Wynwood neighborhood of Miami. By August 1st, the number of individuals infected in the neighborhood had risen to fourteen, and the CDC issued a travel advisory discouraging pregnant women from traveling to the affected area. Though Congress went to recess last month without passing a bill to provide funding for the fight against Zika virus, perhaps, and hopefully, the news of local Zika transmission will motivate bipartisan action in Congress to fund mosquito control efforts and basic research on this still poorly understood virus. (Pam Belluck, New York Times)

Clinical Research

First CRISPR-based clinical trial set to begin this month

The gene-editing technique commonly referred to as CRISPR-Cas9 has received significant attention over the last year because of its impressive potential to target, cut, and modify nearly any sequence of interest within a genome. David Cyranoski reported for Nature News that scientists in China are poised to be the first to use CRISPR-Cas9 technology in a human clinical trial. The trial will enroll individuals with metastatic, non-small cell lung cancer, for whom other treatment options have failed. T cells, immune cells capable of killing infected, cancerous, or otherwise afflicted cells, will be removed from these individuals and modified using CRISPR-Cas9 to delete the gene for a protein called PD-1, which plays a role in downregulating the immune response. It is hoped that removing PD-1 will make the participants’ T cells better able to mount an immune response against cancer cells. As an additional measure of safety, the genome of modified cells will be sequenced in order to confirm that there are no off-target modifications outside of the PD-1 gene that might impact the safety or validity of the study. Initially the trial will test the safety of introducing CRISPR-Cas9-modified cells into ten individuals at three different dosages, while also monitoring the effect of the treatment on cancer progression. A similar trial is set to begin in the United States later this year. These will be important proof-of-concept studies to show that CRISPR-Cas9 can be applied safely and effectively in the treatment of disease. (David Cyranoski, Nature News)

Drug Development – Antibiotic Resistance

New Funding for Antibiotics Development

Bacterial resistance to antibiotics is a significant and emerging threat to public health. Methicillin resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) – a commonly reported and widely feared strain of S. aureus – is one example of a bacterium that was once readily treatable with penicillin and related antibiotics, but which became difficult to treat after acquiring resistance genes. As current antibiotics become less effective against pathogenic bacteria, doctors are running out of tools to treat infections. An important hurdle to addressing the problem of antibiotic resistance is obtaining the funding necessary to support basic research. Unlike drugs to treat chronic health problems, effective antibiotics designed to cure infections of limited duration, are not necessarily a good investment for pharmaceutical companies. Asher Mullard reported for Nature News that CARB-X – Combating Antibiotic Resistant Bacteria Biopharmaceutical Accelerator- a public-private partnership supported primarily by the US government, Wellcome Trust, and the UK-based Centre for Antimicrobial Resistance hopes to provide US $350 million to motivate and accelerate the development of new antibiotics over the next five years. While many biotechnology companies support the initiative, some researchers, including Kim Lewis a researcher at Northeastern University, worry that CARB-X is too heavily focused on drug development instead of the discovery of novel antibacterial compounds. Despite their limitations CARB-X and other similar programs will likely provide valuable incentives for biotechnology and academic researchers to work towards better antibiotics for the common good. (Asher Mullard, Nature News)

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August 9, 2016 at 9:00 am

Science Policy Around the Web – June 6, 2016

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By: Amanda Whiting, Ph.D.

photo credit: DSC03602.JPG via photopin (license)

Human Genetics

Scientists reveal proposal to build human genome from scratch

The limits of genomic engineering took another step forward with the publication of a proposal in Science to synthesize a human genome from the ground up. The project, called the Human Genome Project – Write or HGP-write, seeks to take the progress made by the original Human Genome Project in reading a human genome one step further, and “learn by building” in order to test our understanding of how genetic information results in a living, functioning cell. “You know all the parts needed [to make a chromosome], so you take these parts and rebuilt it,” said chromosome biologist Torsten Waldminghaus of Philipp University of Marburg in Germany who is not a part of this project. “If it’s functional, you see that you were right.”

HGP-write originally made headlines back in May with the report that a private, invite-only meeting of 150 scientists would be held at Harvard Medical School to discuss the project. The meeting was criticized for excluding the media and asking participants to not contact the media or post to Twitter about it. Concerns about the private meeting stemmed from not being able to have an open dialogue with other scientists and the public about ethical concerns surrounding the topic of “Einstein genomes” or “human beings without biological parents.” The meeting organizers including George Church, a professor of genetics at Harvard Medical School, clarified the project’s intentions by saying the goal was to create functioning cells, not people. The recently published proposal goes on to further clarify the intentions of HGP-write, including several “stepping stone” pilot projects such as constructing specific chromosomes to model human diseases and potentially developing cells powered by “baseline” human genomes, containing the most common pan-human alleles (or allele ancestral to a given human population) at each position. (Kelly Servick, Science Insider)

Science-policy research

UK government slammed for losing track of its own research

An independent analysis into the commissioning and publication of the UK government’s policy-related research has found significant problems, delays and overall confusion. The London-based science-advocacy group, Sense About Science, instigated the analysis as a “response to media stories of government research being suppressed or withheld” and had “the aim of determining the scale and significance of the problem and to look into potential remedies” according to their website. The UK government spends around $3.6 billion US per year on research related to policy-issues, both conducted in house and out-sourced to external researchers. This information is then (theoretically) used to make government decisions in policy areas ranging from social and public policies, to health and climate change.

While all of this research was funded and conducted, the analysis found that there is no “comprehensive account” or centralized mechanism to find out just what research has been done, how much public money was spent, or whether any of it was published and accessible. “Sir Stephen [the lead investigator] has revealed that we don’t know what has become of millions of pounds worth of government-commissioned research because government itself doesn’t know whether it was published, or where it all is now,” said Tracey Brown, director of Sense about Science. The report recommended that the UK government establish a central and searchable database of all government-commissioned research and commit to the prompt and routine publication of any work that has been used in deciding government policy. (Daniel Cressey, Nature News)

Antibiotic Resistance

The superbug that doctors have been dreading just reached the U.S.

On May 26th, researchers from the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center published their findings that for the first time, a person in the United States was found to be carrying bacteria resistant to an antibiotic of last resort, colistin, a polymyxin antibiotic. The sample of E. coli came from a 49 year old woman in Pennsylvania and was found to be carrying a colistin-resistance gene, known as mcr-1. This gene, first discovered in China in late 2015 in pigs treated with colistin, most worryingly was found to be located on a small piece of circular DNA known as a plasmid, allowing it to be easily shared and spread among bacterial strains. Similarly, the American sample also contained plasmid-borne mcr-1, leading to fears about when (not if) bacteria with other resistance genes might come in contact with it and gain additional resistance.

“It basically shows us that the end of the road isn’t very far away for antibiotics — that we may be in a situation where we have patients in our intensive care units, or patients getting urinary-tract infections for which we do not have antibiotics,” CDC Director Tom Frieden said in an interview.  While Congress recently increased spending in the 2016 fiscal year by at least  $375 million for the purpose of battling antibiotic-resistant bacteria, one would hope that this latest incident on American soil would further spur action at the highest levels including urgent action to improve detection, control outbreaks and especially prevent new cases by improving prescribing patterns so that antibiotics are used only when necessary. In addition, significant research is needed into the link between antibiotic use in food animal products and the rise of antibiotic-resistant infections in humans. (Lena H. Sun and Brady Dennis, Washington Post)

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June 6, 2016 at 3:00 pm

Science Policy Around the Web – January 5, 2016

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By: Nivedita Sengupta, Ph.D.

Scanning electron micrograph of neutrophil ingesting methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus bacteria. Credit: NIAID. Photo source: Wikimedia Commons

Dual Use Research of Concern (DURC)

U.S. oversight of risky pathogen research could be better, draft report concludes

Gain of function (GOF) mutation studies that manipulate dangerous pathogens to develop treatment and vaccines can pose significant threat to public safety in event of an accidental or intentional release of the modified infectious agent. A recently released report by an expert advisory group, National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) to the U.S. government concludes that though just a small subset of the GOF studies pose such a risk, current policies regulating such studies required further policy supplementation.

The debate on GOF studies came into prominence in 2011 when two research groups reported GOF studies on H5N1 avian influenza virus resulting in a more virulent and readily transferable virus. This led to a controversy over publication of the results and fear of pandemic in case of escape of these agents from the laboratory. In 2014, the U.S. government suspended 18 funded GOF studies involving pathogenic viruses such as influenza and SARS. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) later exempted few of the studies while NSABB and National research council (NRC) continued to review the risks and benefits of such studies. Following the NRC meeting, NIH commissioned an independent firm to evaluate the risk and benefits of such studies.

The report submitted by the firm analyzed the probability of both lab accidents and security breaches and concluded that “only a small fraction of laboratory accidents would result in a loss of containment; of those, only a small fraction would result in a laboratory-acquired infection, and of those, only a fraction would spread throughout the surrounding community (or global population).” It further states that some types of GOF experiments may not pose any security threat. The report also highlights the regulatory gap overseeing this kind of research. There are some regulatory requirements for handling the lethal viruses and bacteria classified as select agents; however GOF studies involving MERS virus and seasonal influenza viruses does not seems to be regulated by any of the current policies.

The draft report also proposes multistep guidelines while making funding decisions on research proposals related to GOF studies. In the initial step, reviewers would evaluate three criteria to determine whether the study needs further special evaluation. Studies requiring further evaluation would have to undergo a seven step review process before making a funding decision. In the final step, all the funded studies would be regularly reviewed by the sponsoring institution and federal funding agencies.

Although the NSABB reports details a thorough risk benefit analysis and recommends a set of policy guidelines for research funding for GOF studies, it is expected to draw extensive comments during the upcoming NSABB meeting. However, some scientists believe that due to the perception of a larger scale benefits of these studies, the recommendations of the report may not lead to stricter policy guidelines. (David Malakoff, ScienceInsider)

Antibiotic Resistance

Spread of antibiotic-resistance gene does not spell bacterial apocalypse — yet

The worldwide emergence of bacteria resistance to colistin – one of the “last resort” antibiotics – was  recently reported in numerous countries. Colistin is one of the few antibiotics which are rarely used in humans as it can cause kidney damage; thus, bacterial resistance due to overuse in humans has not occured. However, mutations conferring colistin resistance have been previously reported in soil bacteria, and most recently it has been identified in plasmids, those small sections of circular DNA which are readily shared among bacteria. The ease of this transfer of plasmids between bacteria has resulted in the emergence of colistin-resistant bacterial species. As colistin is considered as a last resort drug, the appearance of resistant bacterial species has resulted in an outcry in the medical field.

However, not all researchers and physicians are considering this as the worst possible news, since colistin is not the only last resort antibiotic available. They suggest that even with the emergence of colistin-resistant bacteria, the drug can still be used for treatment in conjunction with other antibiotics. Moreover, they state that all antibiotics have a spectrum of activity and thus a larger dose may overcome the apparently resistant bacteria.

Even though the appearance of colistin-resistant bacteria now may not be the end of the antibiotic line, it is only a matter of time before that becomes fact. The last new class of antibiotics, lipopeptides, were discovered in the 1980s and the newest antibacterial compound teixobactin has a long way to go before it can be used beneficially as an antibiotic. Though a lot of antibiotics have been developed in past years, the functional basis of all these drugs are quite similar and thus may not work any better (or prevent resistance from occurring) than each other.

Government incentives for companies that continue to develop new antibiotics are a good thing, so long as bacteria do not quickly develop resistance against these new drugs. So, in addition to the important work of developing new antibiotics, we must also try to use our existing drugs in a better way and try to find a different alternatives to treat bacterial infections. In this regard, current policies for the proper use of antibiotics should be regularly revisited with preventing antibiotic-resistance in mind. This will require further policies which dissuade the misuse of antibiotic in farm animals and agriculture, as well as in hospitals. Furthermore, worldwide cooperation is needed to create global policies to prevent the misuse and overuse of antibiotics in the near future. (Sara Reardon, Nature Trend Watch)

Women in STEM

Why Are There Still So Few Women in Science?

The 2015 Noble prize in physiology or medicine was awarded to Dr. Youyou Tu for her discoveries regarding a novel therapy for malaria. The Noble prizes in Chemistry, Literature, Physics, and Physiology or Medicine were first awarded in 1901 and since then 18 women have received the Noble prize. Current statistics show that approximately 50% of doctoral candidates are women; however, less than 20% of them end up in a tenured research position. So what is the cause of fewer women in science? Clearly it is not the quality of work done by the women, as this has already been substantiated in many ways.

A significant reduction in number of women in science occurs during the postdoctoral years, after receiving PhDs and before reaching tenure. This drop in number of female scientists can be caused by a number of factors. For instance, the most widely accepted issue is trying to balance a career with motherhood. In addition, the current academic system does not make the job easier by demanding long hours at work to earn tenure, leaving little time for anything else. Even after overcoming all these obstacles the accomplishments of a woman is seen with bias and skepticism as mentioned by Dr. Virginia Valian in her book, Why So Slow? The Advancement of Women. Dr. Meg Urry, a professor of physics at Yale, thinks that the accomplishments of women in science are under appreciated in such a way that they themselves lose the confidence to continue further. Some of the other challenges faced by women in science are subtle but unique, and are so overtly ignored that it even escapes notice by women. Some of these challenges are unconscious institutional bias and lack of proper mentoring. A study done in 2012 found that both male and female professors would offer a job to the male applicant, when presented with identical curriculum vitae  of two imaginary applicants one male and one female. Moreover, if they did hire the female applicant, her salary was nearly $4,000 lower than male counterpart. This bias is not only limited to the salary and extends even to promotions and office space and professional interactions.

Though there are many policies in science to address these gender imbalances, current circumstances warrant that these policies be re-evaluated. One policy for all may not be the best way to deal with the present situation. Policies should be crafted to attempt to remove any bias in salaries, allocation of research space, and promotions, in addition to raising public awareness regarding importance of women in scientific field. This in turn, might result in motivating women to continue in the scientific field. (Eileen Pollack, The New York Times Magazine)

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Written by sciencepolicyforall

January 5, 2016 at 9:00 am