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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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Written by sciencepolicyforall

August 9, 2016 at 9:00 am

The Campaign to Battle Zika

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By: Melissa Pegues, Ph.D.

On February 1, 2016 the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the Zika outbreak a public health emergency, meaning that the response requires the coordination of global partners to detect infections, control mosquito populations, and develop vaccines and diagnostic tests to prevent the spread of the disease. With concerns that Zika will move into the US as summer begins, there is an urgent need to contain the epidemic. Congress, however, has been slow to respond and continues to debate how exactly to fund the fight.

Zika infection is rarely fatal and is commonly accompanied by symptoms such as rash, fever, and joint pain, but some do experience more serious symptoms including Guillain-Barre syndrome, a rare form of paralysis. However, Zika gained significant publicity when medical professionals in Brazil and other Latin American countries noticed a frightening association between Zika virus infection in pregnant women and babies born with microcephaly. Microcephaly is a rare birth defect where infants are born with underdeveloped brains and smaller than average head size. Although only considered an association for many months, studies of Zika infection in pregnant mice and monkeys have found evidence supporting the link between Zika infection and microcephaly. In support of the mounting evidence, Tom Frieden, the director of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), recently stated that “It is now clear that the virus causes microcephaly.

While research moves quickly to demystify the Zika virus, the political system has failed to gain a foothold amongst the confusion. The White House had requested $1.885 billion towards the Zika fight in February, and in a rare bi-partisan effort, Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Bill Nelson (D-FL) topped Obama’s request with a $1.94 billion proposal that included $144 million for vaccine research that would also include funding for research into dengue fever and chikungunya. That proposal ultimately never came to a vote. The Senate has approved $1.1 Billion in emergency funds and the House of Representatives has offered a bill that would reallocate just $622 million from existing programs for the Zika response, but neither measure has been passed by both chambers.

The Capital Hill battle over Zika has revealed a number of underlying political viewpoints that each affect how politicians respond to this crisis. Republicans worry that abortions may increase due to the severe birth defects associated with Zika infections in pregnant women, and with evidence mounting that Zika can be sexually transmitted, Republicans are debating whether the better message is use of contraception or abstinence. Federal public health officials have countered that they do not believe their role is not to tell women if they should become pregnant, but rather focus on preventing spread of the disease. Pope Francis has weighed in and suggested that the use of contraception is acceptable to help prevent the spread of Zika.

On the other hand, Democrats have expressed concern over use of pesticides. In a proposal meant to help control mosquito vector populations, Senator John Cornyn (R-TX) suggested easing regulatory restrictions on pesticides. Democrats have accused Republicans of trying to exploit fears and countered that exceptions for use of pesticides already exist. The White House also commented that the Republican-led House’s proposal removes Clean Water Act protections that are not acceptable during this emergency. Democratic representatives Peter DeFazio (D-OR) and Grace Napolitano (D-CA) stated “Over the years, proponents of exempting pesticide spraying from the Clean Water Act have used the crisis of the day as the reason to support their legislation.”

While Congress debates how to best combat Zika, the CDC reports that the number of cases of pregnant women in the US with the virus has climbed to 279 as of late May, and multiple models are predicting the spread across the US. Furthermore, WHO chief, Margaret Chan, has cited a number of policy failures that allowed for lapses in mosquito control and the spread of Zika. At a recent World Health Assembly meeting, Chan said Zika took the world by surprise and revealed fault lines in the world’s collective preparedness. In addition, the spread of Zika, resurgence of dengue, and the emerging chikungunya threat are prices paid for “a massive policy failure that dropped the ball on mosquito control in the 1970s.”

With the outbreak of Zika spreading, many concerns have arisen over how to respond to Zika and prepare for other emerging threats. In a recent essay, Ronald A. Klain, the White House Ebola response coordinator from 2014 to 2015, urged Congress to put aside their differences and fund preventive measures for new epidemics. He stated that the threat of emerging disease is “not coming to the United States: It is already here.” In support of this, the Senate recently voted 93-2 to move forward with negotiations with the House of Representatives. Public officials have continued to urge politicians to focus on controlling the disease, but Chan stated that for now “all we can offer is advice. Avoid mosquito bites. Avoid pregnancy. Do not travel to areas with ongoing transmission.”

Written by sciencepolicyforall

June 15, 2016 at 9:00 am

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Science Policy Around the Web – April 12, 2016

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By: Amy Kullas, Ph.D.

A representation of the surface of the Zika virus is shown. A team led by Purdue University researchers is the first to determine the structure of the Zika virus, which reveals insights critical to the development of effective antiviral treatments and vaccines. (Purdue University image/courtesy of Kuhn and Rossmann research groups)

Funding the ongoing Zika pandemic

Shifting funds for Zika is a good start, but more money is still needed

Last week, the White House made the decision to redirect $589 million in unspent federal funds, previously allocated for an Ebola response, to cover costs associated with fighting and researching Zika. The White House is still advocating for additional funding for both the ongoing Zika pandemic and to replenish the money that was moved away from Ebola. Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), informed ScienceInsider that ~$50 million of the reallocated funds will go to NIAID to fund Zika research. None of the redirected funds will come out of the money that NIAID had previously received for research on Ebola, as the vast majority of those funds have already been spent. Further, Fauci warns “That’s not enough to last me very long. We can start the work, but we can’t finish what we need to do.”

Dr. Anne Schuchat, principal deputy director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention revealed in a press conference on April 12, “Everything we know about this virus seems to be scarier than we initially thought.”

In February, the Obama administration had requested almost $2 billion to help thwart the Zika virus and its transmission. Unfortunately, the Republican-controlled Congress failed to act on this emergency funding request. White house officials are nevertheless still trying to persuade Congress to pass the emergency Zika funding. Fauci bleakly predicts, “If we don’t get all of the Zika money, that is when things start getting hurt,” alluding to the possibility of having to further shift critical NIAID funds away from ongoing malaria, influenza, and tuberculosis research. (Puneet Kollipara, ScienceInsider)

Mental Health

Solutions to mental health impairments require global collaboration

Globally, almost 1/3 of people will suffer from a mood, anxiety, or substance-use issue during their lifetime. In fact, these disorders are one of the leading causes of disability. The resources to assist people facing these problems are not only inadequate in the United States, but around the world as well. There are some countries in Africa, where people are extremely underserved leaving them particularly vulnerable because these countries have the fewest resources for mental-health care as they only one psychiatrist for the entire country. In fact, there are only 9 mental health providers per 100,000 people worldwide.

Importantly, support for mental health does not lack political backing. Both the World Health Organization and the World Bank will coorperate to broaden global efforts in mental health. This past September, mental health was included in the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals. Since 2011, new investments (estimated at ~$80 million US) have been made by the three largest funders of mental-health research in low- and middle-income countries: the US National Institute of Mental Health, Grand Challenges Canada, and the UK Department for International Development. Recently, research has focused on efficacy, effectiveness and implementation in the low- and middle-income countries. These local research teams often work or consult with colleagues in rich countries. Researchers, clinicians, and caregivers must unite to all work together because “when it comes to mental health, all countries are developing.” (Pamela Y. Collins & Shekhar Saxena, Nature Comment)

Vaccine shortage and Global Health

Dangerous shortage of yellow fever vaccine

Four. There are only four facilities worldwide that produce yellow fever vaccines: the Pasteur Institute, two government facilities in Russia and Brazil, and a French vaccine company Sanofi Pasteur. Unfortunately, their combined efforts have been failing the world’s demands and the ongoing outbreak in Angola only further emphasizes the escalating shortage. Jack Woodall, formerly of the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization, warns “another major outbreak…could be impossible to control.” He admits that this potential is something that he’s deeply concerned about.

Yellow fever is an acute viral hemorrhagic disease transmitted by infected mosquitoes. The ‘yellow’ in the name refers to the jaundice that affects some patients. Without treatment, up to half of severely affected people will die. Annually, there are an estimated 60,000-80,000 deaths attributed to yellow fever globally. There is no specific treatment for yellow fever, leaving vaccination the most important preventative measure.

When a yellow fever outbreak occurs in an urban setting, like the one in Angola, it is often relentless as the mosquitoes can easily transmit the virus person to person. William Perea, of the World Health Organization’s (WHO’s) Control of Epidemic Diseases department, stated that Angola has confirmed 490 cases and almost 200 deaths, the actual numbers could be 10 fold higher. Since February, a large vaccine initiative has been underway, reaching 6 million of Luanda’s estimated 7.5 million residents. Currently, yellow fever has stretched into 6 of the 18 provinces in the country. The global emergency yellow fever vaccine stockpile has been left empty, unlikely to be replenished anytime soon. (Kai Kupferschmidt, ScienceInsider)

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Written by sciencepolicyforall

April 12, 2016 at 12:00 pm

Science Policy Around the Web – February 12, 2016

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By: Rebecca A. Meseroll, Ph.D.

Zika research funding

Obama requests $1.8 billion in emergency funds to fight Zika

President Obama issued a statement of intent to request $1.8 billion from Congress to develop resources to combat the spread of Zika virus both internationally and domestically.  Zika, which is transmitted by the Aedes aegypti mosquito, has spread rapidly around Central and South America, the Caribbean, and the Pacific Islands in the past year, and is an emerging public health threat, especially due to its possible link with congenital microcephaly, a severe birth defect, in children born to women infected with the virus during their pregnancy.  The funds requested by the president would be used for a variety of purposes in an aggressive effort to contain the spread of the virus, including mosquito control, research on the virus and a potential vaccine against it, public education campaigns, and support personnel and equipment for areas where the outbreak is ongoing.  Congress will have to decide whether to grant the funds, which would be part of the 2017 budget, later this year.  While there is much to be done to minimize the impact of Zika, health officials indicate there is no cause for alarm about large-scale spread of the virus in the United States at present, but women who are pregnant or considering becoming pregnant are advised to use caution when planning travel to countries affected by Zika. (Jon Cohen, ScienceInsider and Mark Landler, The New York Times)

Climate change policy

Supreme Court stays climate change regulations

The Clean Power Plan, developed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) at President Obama’s behest last year, sought to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from power plants by 32% compared to 2005 levels.  The EPA’s rules would require states to create their own plans, due to the agency by September of this year, detailing how they would reduce emissions beginning in 2022.  This week, however, the US Supreme Court granted a request put forth by many states and power companies to put the regulations on hold on the grounds that they are outside of the purview of the EPA.  Thus the regulations are set up to endure a lengthy legal battle, as the case will not come up in appeals court until June, after which it will likely be appealed to the Supreme Court, who would not hear the case until 2017.  Although the Supreme Court did not give its reasons for granting the stay, experts suggest that the Court may be telegraphing its wariness about the legality of the regulations by making this decision before the case has gone through a lower court.  The Obama administration remains confident and environmentalists hopeful that the regulations will hold up in court, however it may be necessary in the future for Congress to pass climate change legislation before progress can actually be made. (Jeff Tollefson, Nature and Robert Barnes and Steven Mufson, The Washington Post)

HIV and organ transplantation

First HIV-positive organ transplants to occur in the United States

Years of advocacy led to the passage of the HIV Organ Policy Equity Act in 2013, which lifted a ban on research into organ donations between HIV-positive individuals, and now the life-saving promise of the law is about to come to fruition. Doctors at Johns Hopkins received permission from the United Network for Organ Sharing to perform the first kidney and liver transplants between HIV-positive donors and recipients in the US, and they are prepared to conduct the procedures as soon as the first patients are ready. Johns Hopkins will be the first in the world to perform liver transplants between an HIV-positive donors and HIV-positive recipients, however doctors in South Africa have had success with kidney transplants of this kind since 2008.  It has been estimated that organs from more than 500 potential HIV-positive deceased donors have gone unused each year because of previous prohibitions, thus this new source of HIV-positive donor organs for HIV-positive recipients is expected to improve wait-times for all patients hoping for an organ to become available.  The current HIV-positive transplants will utilize only organs from deceased donors, as more research must be done to determine the outcomes of kidney donation for HIV-positive patients. (Daniel Victor, The New York Times and Ariana Eunjung Cha, The Washington Post)

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February 12, 2016 at 9:00 am

New nutritional guidelines for 2015-2020 released after compromises with Congress, food industry

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By: Kimberly Leblanc, Ph.D.

Earlier this month, the Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion released the new nutritional guidelines, Dietary Guidelines for Americans, for 2015-2020. Many of the guidelines are familiar from previous versions, recommending a wide range of fruits and vegetables, at least 50% of grains being whole, fat-free or low-fat dairy, a variety of lean proteins, and limiting saturated fats, trans-fats, and sodium. One of the new recommendations was a stricter limit on sugar intake, with no more than 10% of daily calories coming from added sugar. The World Health Organization (WHO) has made similar recommendations, citing evidence that lowering added sugar could reduce the risk of obesity, heart disease, Type 2 diabetes and some types of cancer. In an article for Politico, Michael Jacobson, president of the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), said that the recommended limit is “a major step forward.” The biggest surprise in the guidelines was the recommendation that men and boys “reduce their overall intake of protein foods” such as meat, poultry and eggs, and add more vegetables to their diets.

The nutritional advice is updated every five years, and it has become mired in political controversy because of its impact on how the food industry does business and how Americans eat. Recommendations from the report guide decisions on the aims of food assistance programs, the content of school meals, the labeling and advertising of food products, and the advice given by health professionals. With billions of dollars at stake, food industry groups bristle at any potentially negative mention of their products. The interest groups unhappiest with the guidelines are likely to be sugar growers and food manufacturers, as a result of the government’s new recommended limit on added sugars. However, before the recommendations could make it to the new guidelines, they were met with strong opposition from a number of corporate and agricultural interest groups, the meat industry in particular.

One of the many recommendations made by the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee in their report that did not make it into the final version of the guidelines was for Americans to adopt a diet low in red and processed meat, which met with strong opposition from meat industry groups. The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, the National Pork Producers Council, and the North American Meat Institute spent hundreds of thousands of dollars last year lobbying, with a part of their goal being “to get lean beef recognized in the final health dietary patterns statement.” “Those things should be part of, and remain part of a balanced diet, and there’s no reason to cut back,” said Dave Warner, spokesman for the National Pork Producers Council. That comment stands in stark contrast to the findings of the WHO last October, which classified the consumption of red meat as “probably carcinogenic to humans” and the consumption of processed meat as “carcinogenic to humans” based on “sufficient evidence in humans that the consumption of processed meat causes colorectal cancer.” The 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee was more conservative in their report, stating, “moderate evidence reports inconsistent positive associations between colorectal cancer and the intake of certain animal protein products, mainly red and processed meat. Limited evidence shows that animal protein products are associated with prostate cancer incidence.”

Another recommendation that didn’t make the cut was the advice for Americans to consume more plant-based foods and less meat to help promote environmentally sustainable eating habits. That suggestion elicited intense lobbying and criticism from the food and meat industries, leading to a congressional hearing on the topic last year. In December of 2015, Congress passed a spending bill that contained a directive for the Obama administration to ignore environmental factors and focus solely on nutrients in the next revision of the guidelines. However, food production, and livestock in particular, has a significant negative impact on the environment. Livestock producers, which include meat and dairy farming, account for about 15% of greenhouse gas emissions around the world. That’s more than all the world’s cars, buses, boats, and trains combined. If you think regulating this would fall under the Environmental Protection Agency’s jurisidiction, think again. In December of 2015, Congress renewed a provision that prevents the EPA from requiring emission reports from livestock producers, making the meat industry the only major source of greenhouse gases in the country excluded from filing annual reports. Despite the evidence and the recommendations from the committee, the pressure from industry and farm state lawmakers has led USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack and HHS Secretary Sylvia Mathews Burwell to promise furious lawmakers that they would steer clear of recommendations concerning the environmental impact of the consumption of meat.

Nutritional issues were also a bargaining chip in the spending bill that was passed in December. In recent years, reforms to the school lunch and breakfast programs have allowed the USDA to improve critical nutritional standards. A study published in JAMA Pediatrics earlier this month concluded that the nutritional quality of school meals has increased by about 30 percent, and an analysis by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) documents improvements, too. Yet the School Nutrition Association (SNA), which represents cafeteria directors and receives financial support from food companies, has lobbied Congress to relax some standards, complaining that the sodium standards would be “extremely difficult to achieve” and that stricter nutritional standards have led to cafeterias losing money. Their demands were met in the congressional directives that were attached to the bill, which prohibits the federal government from requiring less salt in school lunches until more research is done and allows schools to obtain exemptions from whole-grain requirements. This despite the fact that the CDC found in 2014 that 90% of school-aged kids eat too much sodium, and that the USDA reports that 97% of all schools are already meeting the 100% whole grain rich rules. As of January 20th, 2016, the Senate Agriculture Committee has voted in support of a compromise plan in the re-authorization of the Healthy, Hunger-free Kids Act, which incorporates the SNA’s demands to table the sodium recommendations and allow exemptions to the whole-grain requirement. The SNA had also asked to relax the fruit and vegetable requirement, but lawmakers didn’t budge on this key tenet of the standards.

Nutritional research is constantly evolving, and our guidelines should evolve with new evidence as it comes out.  Debates over the scientific evidence for certain guidelines, such as the link between saturated fat and heart disease, are reasonable. That’s the point of having a Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee made up of scientists and medical professionals review the evidence before submitting their recommendations. As a prime example, the committee reversed the recommended cholesterol limit of 300mg/day in the new guidelines “because available evidence shows no appreciable relationship between consumption of dietary cholesterol and serum cholesterol.” However, scientific evidence isn’t the only factor influencing our guidelines. Agricultural and corporate interest groups, due to their size and financial incentives, have the power to shape the nutritional guidelines based on economic interests rather than scientific evidence. This power, and the desire of certain politicians to cater to these groups, is troubling, especially in a time when childhood obesity has more than doubled in children and quadrupled in adolescents in the past 30 years and when type 2 diabetes accounts for 20% to 50% of new-onset diabetes case patients in youth.

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February 1, 2016 at 9:00 am

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Science Policy Around the Web – September 29, 2015

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By: Cheryl Jacobs Smith, Ph.D.

Photo source: capitol via licence

Legislative Policy

Congress moves closer to averting government shutdown with Senate vote

Amidst the controversial language to de-fund Planned Parenthood in a continuing resolution (CR) to keep the federal government solvent, the Senate pushed ahead with a stopgap spending bill to keep federal services running for a few more months – and with no cuts to Planned Parenthood. An earlier link post by Sara Cassidy, M.S., Ph.D. reported that some in Congress were pushing for budget legislation that would de-fund Planned Parenthood written into the CR to fund the National budget. That particular addition to the legislation threatened that the CR would not be passed by the September 30th deadline resulting in a government shutdown. However, since John Boehner, 53rd Speaker of the House, announced his resignation at the end of October, Republican leaders joined by Democrats went forward with a short-term funding measure to keep the government operating without cuts to Planned Parenthood. On Monday, the Senate overwhelmingly advanced the government funding bill by a 77-19 vote. Final passage in the Senate is likely to come Tuesday. The House is expected to vote Wednesday. (Lisa Mascaro, Los Angeles Times)

Pharmaceuticals

FDA OKs Novo Nordisk Diabetes Drug Tresiba

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved Novo Nordisk’s anti-diabetic drug, Tresiba on Sept. 25. The Denmark-based company behind Tresiba is pleased with the FDA’s approval. “We are very happy with FDA’s decision to approve Tresiba and Ryzodeg as we believe these products offer significant benefits and important treatment options for people with type-1 and type-2 diabetes”, said Lars Rebien Sørensen, president and chief executive officer of Novo Nordisk. Sørensen added that this approval is a milestone for the company. Tresiba was initially disapproved by the FDA due to the lack of data on the risk for heart problems. Tresiba is a long-acting insulin used to control blood sugar levels of type-1 and type-2 diabetics and can last up to 42 hours. Living with type-1 or type-2 diabetes is similar to other chronic disorders where the care and maintenance of the disease encompasses every minute of the day. This longer-acting insulin promises to give some relief. Another positive aspect about the passage of Tresiba is that Novo Nordisk’s North America’s chief medical officer, Todd Hobbs said that “We want to do everything we can to make it as affordable and as broad of an access as we can.” (Julienne Roman, Tech Times)

Environmental News

After a year of stonewalling, Volkswagen finally came clean

Volkswagen stunned two senior officials with the U.S. Environmental Protective Agency (EPA) by admitting the automaker hacked its own cars to deceive U.S. regulators about how much their diesel engines pollute and exceed EPA emission regulations. U.S. officials exposed the deception on September 18, triggering Volkswagen’s admission that it had installed software in its cars to detect when they were being tested and alter settings to conceal the true emissions of 11 million cars sold worldwide. As a result, Volkswagen, the world’s largest automaker by sales, faces EPA fines that could reach $18 billion. (Reuters)

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September 29, 2015 at 11:00 am

Science Policy Around the Web – September 18, 2015

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By: Sara Cassidy, M.S., Ph. D.

photo credit: timtom.ch via photopin cc

Legislative policy

Turmoil in Congress could lead to government shutdown and a stall in scientific research

Planned Parenthood has received a lot of negative press surrounding a video of a high-level executive talking about fetal tissue collection and sale. Despite the fact that Planned Parenthood is completely within the law regarding such sales, and fetal tissue research (typically in the form of stem cell research) is also legal and funded by the NIH (in the form of grants to university researchers), and has real promise in saving individuals with devastating disease, some in Congress are using anti-abortion grandstanding and the threat of de-funding Planned Parenthood to hold up passage of a continuing resolution (CR) to keep the government solvent. If a CR is not passed by Sept 30th, the government will likely experience a shutdown similar to the one experienced in 2013.

The government shutdown impedes science in a variety of different ways. When the government is unfunded, NIH cannot enroll new patients to the clinical center including children with cancer. In 2013, the FDA was forced to furlough approximately 45% of its employees, which jeopardized food safety, since they were no longer able to inspect food manufacturers or monitor food imports. And the government shutdown was felt in science beyond the DC metro area. Scientists applying to the federal government for grants and funding to conduct research, who would have otherwise had their applications reviewed in October, had to wait until January for review. The Washington Post estimates the likelihood of a government shutdown on Oct 1st as “well over 50%”to 70%.

Women in STEM

Miss Vermont uses the talent portion of Miss America 2016 to promote STEM

Alayna Westcom didn’t tap dance or sing for her talent in Atlantic City on Sunday night (9/13/15), she chose beakers and chemicals in an effort to wow the crowds with chemistry. Westcom has a B.S. in forensic science from Bay Path University and an M.S. in medical laboratory science from the University of Vermont. More recently, she completed an internship with the Vermont state medical examiner’s office. Westcott plans to attend medical school after her tenure as Miss Vermont with the goal of becoming a medical examiner herself. Since her victory as Miss Vermont 2015, she has traveled the state sharing her love of STEM with school children, hoping reach 10,000 by the end of the year. Her chemistry demonstration in last night’s competition mixed potassium iodide, hydrogen peroxide, and soap to produce a foamy eruption called “elephants toothpaste”. You can see the demonstration at the 2015 Miss Vermont pageant here. While Miss Vermont was not crowned Miss America on Sunday, her elevation of science was a welcome addition to the talent competition.

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Written by sciencepolicyforall

September 18, 2015 at 9:00 am