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Science Policy Around the Web – February 10, 2017

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By: Saurav Seshadri, PhD

Source: pixabay

Sleep

The Purpose of Sleep? To Forget, Scientists Say

Humans spend approximately one third of their lifetime sleeping, yet the purpose of sleep is still largely unknown. A pair of recent studies in the journal Science suggest that a key function of sleep is to give the brain a chance to rewire itself, specifically by cutting down connections between neurons, which naturally scale up during wakefulness, and especially during learning.

In one paper, researchers used 3D electron microscopy to measure the sizes of these connections, called synapses, in mouse brain slices. They found that sleep produced a significant decrease in the size of synapses. Interestingly, this effect was more pronounced in smaller synapses, which were likely strengthened by general information processing while awake, than large ones (~20% of synapses), which may encode more well-established memories. In the other, researchers used two-photon imaging in live mice to observe sleep-induced changes in synapses. They found a similar decrease in synaptic strength, and went on to identify the signaling pathway that caused this effect; blocking this pathway prevented a normal reduction in the scope and magnitude of a learned behavioral response.

These findings underscore the importance of sleep, especially for memory consolidation involved with learning. Studies like these can have far-reaching effects on the public’s perception of sleep, influencing individual habits as well as policy related to education. For example, they suggest that prioritizing sleep when setting school start times (an issue currently under debate in Montgomery County schools) could improve students’ lesson retention and ultimately their test performance. They also point to important cellular and molecular processes that take place during sleep, which could help explain how existing sleep aids adversely affect brain functioning and memory (a public health concern), and ultimately lead to the development of better drugs. (Carl Zimmer, The New York Times)

Drug Policy

Massive Price Hike for Lifesaving Opioid Overdose Antidote

Increased public exposure to the epidemic of opioid abuse, which continues to intensify in the US, has made it increasingly influential in politics, possibly including the recent presidential election.  A crucial tool for communities at the forefront of this public health crisis is naloxone, which can reverse potentially fatal symptoms associated with overdose. The Evzio naloxone auto-injector, produced by Kaleo, is one of two such products approved by the FDA. Kaleo has recently come under fire for increasing the price of Evzio from $690 to $4,500.

Kaleo cites several justifications for the price hike. Firstly, they offer coupons to patients whose insurance doesn’t cover Evzio. Second, they argue that large insurance companies and government agencies (such as the Veterans Health Administration, which sees a high rate of opioid use) can negotiate prices, while other organizations are currently well funded (thanks to public concern) to absorb the increase. Thirdly, they are expanding their donation supply to allow smaller groups to apply for free devices. However, experts say that the increase is not justified by production costs, and some organizations have been forced to switch to alternative drugs.

News of the decision arrives at a time when the public is particularly sensitive to drug pricing, and have made their concern clear to lawmakers. Negotiation with drug companies over prices has been a prominent campaign issue in recent elections. Public outcry following similar moves by investor Martin Shkreli and Mylan led to hearings by a special congressional committee. Soon after the last election, a bill that would have allowed patients to import cheaper drugs from Canada became a high-profile occasion for posturing in the Senate, where it failed despite overwhelming public support. These stories highlight the often antagonistic relationships between the American public, its government, and the pharmaceutical industry, and illustrate how disruptive drug pricing can directly affect policy. (Shefali Luthra, Scientific American)

Scientists in Politics

Geneticist Launches Bid for US Senate; while Empiricists Around the Country Will March for Science

Donald Trump’s agenda of self-serving lies and denial of evidence has led to unprecedented levels of engagement and activism across the country. The scientific community has been especially impacted by Trump’s brand of broad, allegedly populist anti-intellectualism. Thus, although the empirical facts uncovered by scientific research are inherently apolitical and should be treated as such, scientists are beginning to mobilize to oppose the Trump administration in several ways.

One essential path to policy change is increased representation. With that in mind, evolutionary biologist Dr. Michael Eisen, an HHMI-funded investigator at UC Berkeley and co-founder of the People’s Library of Science (PLOS), recently announced his candidacy for the US Senate in 2018. Dr. Eisen’s platform seems to center on bringing a scientific perspective to Senate proceedings, and working towards comprehensive yet practical solutions to issues such as climate change. More of Dr. Eisen’s views can be found on his twitter feed and blog.

Protests are another way for individuals to make their voices heard by policy makers. The March for Science, which currently has over 350,000 followers on Facebook, will be an opportunity for ‘scientists and science enthusiasts’ to both call for and demonstrate support for the scientific community, and promote solidarity between science and the public. The main march will be held on April 22nd, 2017 in Washington D.C.; satellite marches are scheduled in over 100 additional cities. Organizers hope to maintain the momentum gained by January’s Women’s Marches, which saw historic attendance. (Sara Reardon, Nature News; Lindizi Wessel, ScienceInsider)

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Science Policy Around the Web – September 13, 2016

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By: Daniël P. Melters, PhD

Giraffe by Muhammad Mahdi Karim through Wikimedia

Conservation Policy

There are four species of giraffe – right?

Recent work published in Current Biology by Axel Janke’s group at Göthe University in Frankfurt, Germany looked at seven genes to determine the genetic relationship between different giraffe found throughout Africa. Previously, giraffes had been grouped in sub-genera based on their coating pattern, but the study of genetic relationships showed that over the last 1 to 2 million years, four distinct groups of giraffes have evolved. The authors argue that their findings represent four distinct giraffe species.

This finding has profound implications for our understanding of African bio-geography and subsequently conservation policy, especially after the latest report that states that in the last two decades 10% of earth’s wilderness has been destroyed. But using genetic data to guide conservation policy is a poorly developed area in part because of our limited understanding of how genetic variation can tell us if two groups of animals are indeed two distinct species. Genetic analysis showed that the forest and savannah elephant are indeed distinct from each other, but they can form hybrids if they do meet. To prevent conservation limbo, the International Union of Conservation of Nature still considers the African elephant as a single species. With regards to the giraffe study, evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne wrote a critical note on his blog in response to Janke’s article and subsequent media coverage. In short, the geographical dispersion of giraffes limits the potential for hybrids to be formed; yet zoo giraffes can form hybrids without much trouble. (Chris Woolston, Nature News)

US Cancer Moonshot Initiative

Blue Ribbon Report lays out wishlist for moonshot against cancer

Vice-president Joe Biden proposed a moonshot to cure cancer last year after his son died from brain cancer. In the last State of the Union, President Obama vowed to accelerate 10 years worth of scientific advances in five years. To create a framework, a blue ribbon panel of the National Cancer Institute’s (NCI) National Cancer Advisory Board (NCAB) consulted 150 experts and reviewed more than 1600 suggestions from researchers and the public. This culminated in a list of 10 recommendations.

One recommendation that stands out is the push for clinical trials for immunotherapy, a promising approach to harness the bodies’ own immune system to fight against the disease. Another recommendation is the creation of a new national network that would allow patients across the country to have their tumors genetically profiled and included in the new database. This latter recommendation overlaps with another health initiative that recently came out of the White House, the Personalized Medicine Initiative.

This leaves one question unanswered: will Congress fund the moonshot. So far lawmakers have not included money in the draft-spending bill and inclusion in another bill remains uncertain. With the release of this Blue Ribbon Report, the NCI NCAB hopes it will implore Congress to fund the moonshot. Nevertheless, co-chair Dinah Singer suggests that even without new funding, NCI could begin funding some projects in the report on a small scale. (Jocelyn Kaiser, Science Insider)

Drug Policy

Public libraries frequently used for drug use

Libraries are an ideal location for studying and reading, with its public access, quiet corners, and minimal interaction with other people. An unforeseen consequence is that people who abuse heroin are using public libraries more and more.

The problem of heroin and painkiller resulting in overdoses is a growing epidemic. This was further exemplified by a recent controversial picture, made public by Ohio’s East Liverpool police, that has made world wide head lines, as it depicted two adults unconscious as a result of a heroin overdose and their 4-year old son in the backseat. Public libraries are especially exposed because everyone can walk in freely and linger around if they please. No transaction or interaction is required. As a result, public libraries are turning to strategies to limit their space being used for drug-abuse. The American Library Association encourages libraries to get training on interacting with special populations, such as drug users and the homeless. In addition, librarians are partnering with the police and social workers. Altogether, the role of a librarian now includes that of a mix of first responders and social workers. (Kantelo Franko, Stat News)

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Written by sciencepolicyforall

September 13, 2016 at 9:06 am