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Posts Tagged ‘Ebola

Science Policy Around the Web – July 12th, 2019

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By Mohor Sengupta, Ph.D.

Source: Maxpixel

CDC made a synthetic Ebola virus to test treatments. It worked

During the 2014-2016 Ebola outbreak in Guinea, West Africa, infectious samples containing the virus were shared by local government with international scientific communities. Using these materials, Dr. Gary Kobinger and his team developed and tested the efficacy of a monoclonal antibody vaccine at the Canadian National Laboratory. The same vaccine, ZMapp, and other therapies are currently being deployed in the most recent Ebola outbreak, which is the second largest outbreak so far. Beginning in ] 2018 in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), this outbreak is still on the roll. Unfortunately, the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) did not have any viral samples this time, meaning they were unable to test the efficacy of ZMapp and other drugs against the recent viral strain. 

Scientists at the CDC, led by Dr. Laura McMullan, constructed an artificial virus from the sequence of the current strain shared by DRC’s National Biomedical Research Institute (INRB). The group used the sequence data to perform reverse genetics and generate the authentic Ebola virus that’s currently infecting scores of people in Ituri and North Kivu provinces of DRC. 

“It takes a lot of resources and a lot of money and a lot of energy to make a cloned virus by reverse genetics. And it would be so much easier if somebody had just sent the isolate”, Dr. Thomas Geisbert, who is not involved in the work, said. 

The CDC group established the efficacy of current treatments (a drug called Remdesivir and the vaccine ZMapp) on the viral strain by using their artificial virus for all the tests. Their work was published Tuesday in the journal Lancet.

For all four Ebola outbreaks that the DRC has seen, healthcare authorities have not shared viral specimens with foreign Ebola researchers. Instead, the whole genome sequence was provided every time. With the whole genome sequence data, the Lancet paper noted that there are at least two Ebola strains in DRC that have independently crossed into the human population.  

Reasons for not sharing viral samples by DRC are not known but it is a roadblock to rapid and efficient treatments in affected geographical regions. McMullan said that shipping of samples across such large distances is often a logistical issue and requires permission from several authorities and coordination of many people. 

 (Helen Branswell, STAT)

Plastic Has A Big Carbon Footprint — But That Isn’t The Whole Story

We are all too familiar with ghastly images of dead whales with plastic-filled stomachs. These images are compounded by pictures of how much waste is generated, such as a picture of a twenty-story high mound of plastic trash in a developing country that appeared in a recent news article. While there is worldwide concern about how to eliminate use of plastics, there is very little discussion about the environmental impact of the materials that will replace plastic. 

Plastic has a high carbon footprint. In a recent report the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL) has broken down the individual steps of greenhouse gas production, from the beginning of plastic production until it ends up incinerated as a waste. Manufactured from oil and natural gas, plastic production adds to carbon footprint right from its cradle when gases and oils leak into the environment. Subsequently, delivery of raw materials to the production sites further add to the burden. Being among the most energy intensive materials to produce, plastic production takes a heavy toll on energy, water and electricity. Finally, when plastics are incinerated, greenhouse gases end up in the environment. 

But what about the materials that commonly substitute for plastic, such as paper, compostable plastic, canvas or glass? What is their carbon footprint in production stages? Research by several independent groups has revealed that these materials leave an even larger carbon footprint during their production. Data have shown that polyethylene plastic bags not only used lesser fuel and energy throughout production, they also emitted fewer global-warming gases and left lesser mass of solid wastes, when compared with paper bags and with compostable plastic bags. Being more durable than other materials, use of polyethylene bags are more energy friendly than use of paper bags. 

Research done on behalf of the American Chemistry Council has shown that replacing plastic would eventually do more harm to the environment than their use. Finally, consumer habits count. If people don’t reuse plastics, then its advantages over paper cease to exist. Of course, the problem of permanent waste and global health consequences are issues that cannot be overlooked. The solution might lie in using plastics more wisely and re-using them as much as possible. 

(Christopher Joyce, NPR

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July 12, 2019 at 3:18 pm

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Science Policy Around the Web – June 11th, 2019

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By: Neetu Gulati, Ph.D.

Image by PublicDomainPictures from Pixabay 

People eat at least 50,000 plastic particles a year, study finds

Over 300 million tons of plastic are produced each year, and while it can take over 400 years for plastics to degrade, they can be broken down into smaller and smaller pieces, eventually leading to microplastics. Microplastics can be found all around the world: from the deepest depths of the ocean to the air around us. Now, microplastics have been found in a place much closer to home: our bodies. According to a recent study, the average person in the U.S. eats at least 50,000 particles of microplastic in a year, and also breathe in similar quantities.  And it’s known that humans ingest these particles, as microplastics have been found in human stool samples as well.

These particles are seemingly impossible to avoid; they have been found in many food and drink sources, including both tap and bottled water, beer, and seafood. Not all food and drink items have been tested, however, meaning that there are major gaps in identifying quantities of ingested microplastics. The study assessed less than 20% of caloric intake, meaning it’s possible that the amount of microplastic particles is much higher than 50,000 per year. Speaking of untested foods such as processed products, meat, dairy, and bread, Dr. Kieran Cox, lead author of the study, commented that “it is really highly likely there is going to be large amounts of plastic particles in these. You could be heading into the hundreds of thousands.”

The largest contributor of microplastics came from drinking bottled water, which contains 22 times more plastic than tap water on average. The effects of ingesting microplastics will have on human health are currently unknown. However, the study has encouraged Cox to change his own behavior in response to his findings. I definitely steer away from plastic packaging and try to avoid bottled water as much as possible,” he said.

(Damian Carrington, The Guardian

Canada Plans to Ban Single-Use Plastics, Joining Growing Global Movement

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced a plan to ban single-use plastics as early as 2021, expressing a wish that his children be able to play without their experiences tainted by dead birds and fish killed by pollution. In 2016, less than 10% of plastic was recycled in Canada. Trudeau noted that the nation throws away 8 billion Canadian dollars’ worth of plastic material each year, including 34 million plastic bags daily according to the Environment and Climate Change Canada.

Before the ban goes into effect, the Canadian government will analyze which plastic products should be banned, but Trudeau suggested that Canada will follow the example of the European Union, which voted to ban 10 single-use plastics earlier this year. The banned items are the most commonly found plastics on European beaches, including plates, cotton swabs, and straws. Additionally, at least 32 countries around the world and 3 US states have banned single-use plastic bags, which could also be included in Canada’s ban. 

Trudeau announced that by recycling and reusing plastic, not only would pollution be reduced, but the move could lead to the creation of over 40,000 jobs. The announcement came as Trudeau is readying for a general election at the end of the year, during which climate change and the environment are expected to be important issues.

(Dan Bilefsky, The New York Times

“Pig Ebola” is spreading uncontrollably in China and Vietnam

African swine fever, sometimes referred to as “pig Ebola”, is a highly contagious viral disease that is currently ravaging Asia’s pig industry. The current outbreak of the virus, which kills most animals it infects, started last year in China. China accounts for over half of the world’s pigs, and since the outbreak began in August, over 20% of the country’s pig herd has died, either through succumbing to the disease or to culling, according to Christine McCracken, an animal protein expert at Rabobank. She estimated that by the end of the year, China may lose up to 200 million of its roughly 440 million pig population.

Now, the disease has spread to several countries that neighbor China. From May 24 to June 6 alone, there were 163 new outbreaks, with almost 4,000 ongoing outbreaks worldwide, according to the World Organization for Animal Health. There is no current treatment or vaccine for African swine fever, the only way to prevent spread is to kill all animals that have been infected or potentially exposed, or to use strict biosecurity measures. Like China, Vietnam has also begun to cull its pig population, having killed about 2 million pigs since the outbreak began.

While the virus cannot be transmitted from pigs to humans and is not a food safety issue, it has had strong economic impacts. The Asian economy has suffered greatly, as many in the region rely on raising pigs for their livelihood, and thousands of small producers have been put out of business. A single pig can provide 200 pounds of food, so even small losses add up. While pork prices have not changed significantly due to the disease yet, it is expected that prices may skyrocket by 2020 and may affect the global pork market. 

(Vox Staff, Vox)

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June 11, 2019 at 9:32 am

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Science Policy Around the Web – February 5, 2019

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By: Neetu Gulati, Ph.D.

Source: Pixabay

Macedonia name change paves way for science cooperation with Greece

Greece and the Republic of Macedonia have been at odds for decades over the name of the latter country. After the dissolution of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s, the nation known colloquially as Macedonia was founded. However, because a region in northern Greece shares a name with the republic, Greece has disputed the country’s name, and tried to bar its entry to international organizations such as NATO and the UN. The Prespa Agreement, ratified by the Republic of Macedonia on January 11, 2019 and Greece on January 25, 2019, is set to relieve tensions by changing the disputed country name to ‘The Republic of North Macedonia,’ and the short name of ‘North Macedonia.’

The Prespa Agreement not only ends the political stand-off between the two nations, but also opens the door for strategic partnerships in many ventures, including science. While some people opposed the Agreement, scientists in both nations welcomed the change, commenting that political tensions and bureaucratic procedures will hopefully no longer hinder collaboration. “Science is done by people, and many people were affected by the mutually negative spirit among the two countries that prevailed in the past years,” commented Ioanna Chouvarda, a Greek scientist.

Many are hopeful that the name change will positively impact scientific and diplomatic ties between the two nations. A spokesperson for the Republic of Macedonia’s science ministry commented that they hope the agreement will lead to more formal scientific and technological cooperation between the two nations. Greek Alternate Minister for Research & Innovation Costas Fotakis commented, “scientific diplomacy is an effective tool that can strengthen the relations between Greece and North Macedonia, as well as the Western Balkans in general. This agreement is very timely, especially considering that several research themes are of mutual interest in both countries.” 

(Julianna Photopoulos, Nature)

The modern tragedy of fake cancer cures

The news media can sometimes sensationalize and overclaim the results of scientific advances. This is especially dangerous when results have yet to be vetted by the peer-review process, as was the case when the Dan Aridor, chairman of a small biotechnology company in Israel claimed, “we believe we will offer in a year’s time a complete cure for cancer.” The story, published by the Jerusalem Post, made bold and likely unattainable claims that the new technology would have no side-effects, be less expensive than current therapies, and be “effective from day one.” However, the new treatment has so far only been tested in a single study in mice. Furthermore, it has not yet been published and therefore has not been scrutinized or validated by other scientists in the field of cancer research. 

The claims made by Aridor may just his optimism and faith in his product, but if taken at face value they are completely unbelievable. For one thing, the original article points out that the company has not yet started clinical trials, which would take years to complete, negating the hope of a cure within a year’s time. But even those clinical trials are not likely to succeed. The odds that a cancer therapy will successfully pass clinical trials is 3-5%, according to data from MIT and the Biotechnology Industry Organization. However, even the hurdle of getting from animal studies to clinical trials is not to be overlooked, which can easily take over five years.

Cancer therapies are still worth the investment of time and money. Successful drugs like Keytruda have made a large impact on those suffering from the cancer. However, therapies do not perform the same in every patient, and ‘cancer’ is not just one disease. Often, proper dosing of cancer therapies involves a balance between the effectiveness of the treatment and the harm of the side effects. Thus, it is unlikely that a single treatment will cure all cancers without a hitch, as boldly claimed by Aridor. It is much more realistic that some treatments will work for particular types of cancers more effectively than others, with limited side effects. Speaking more conservatively about the new treatment, the CEO of the company, Ilan Morad, commented that while the company believes their therapy will cure cancer, “we still have a long way to go.”

(Matthew Herper, STAT)

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February 5, 2019 at 12:22 pm

Science Policy Around the Web – February 1, 2019

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By: Caroline Duncombe, B.S.

Source: Pixabay

How old emails hold new clues to Coca-Cola and CDC’s controversial relationship

The mission of the Centers for Diseases Control and Prevention (CDC) is to protect America from health, safety, and security threat. Yet, private emails obtained through the Freedom of Information Act reveal that a Coca-Cola Company’s influence over the federal agency refutes such a mission. Email correspondences between top CDC officials and Coca-Cola employees exposed how the soda giant tried to push the World Health Organization (WHO) to emphasize exercise over diet as the solution to the obesity epidemic via CDC’s influencing power.

            Within the 295 pages of communications from 86 emails was a request by former Coca-Cola senior vice president Alex Malaspina that WHO “should not only consider sugary foods as the only cause of obesity but consider also the lifestyle changes that have been occurring throughout the universe.” Other uncovered emails revealed that the former CDC director of Division for Heart and Disease, Barbara Bowman, gave advice to a Coca-Cola executive on potential contacts that have influence over WHO’s regional office and then director-general Dr. Margaret Chan.

            Though Coca-Cola enacted a policy in 2015 to disclose on its website its funding portfolio for scientific research and partnerships. There is little to no federal oversight over sugar and beverage industries. This is a startling fact when considering the extent of the obesity epidemic in America and the significant role that sugary drinks play in augmenting such an epidemic. After the revelation of the relationship between Coca-Cola and the CDC, discussions have increased on restricting direct contact between federal agencies and soda giants. 

(Jacqueline Howard, CNN)

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February 1, 2019 at 4:24 pm

Science Policy Around the Web – January 28, 2019

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By: Allison Cross, Ph.D.

Source: Pixabay

A Drug That Eases Miscarriages Is Difficult For Women To Get

The CDC estimates that each year in the U.S. alone, over 1 million women suffer miscarriages during the first trimester of pregnancy.  When a woman finds out that her pregnancy is not viable, she is usually given three options: wait for the miscarriage to occur on its own, take medicine to induce the miscarriage, or undergo a surgical procedure (known as a D&C) to remove the contents of the uterus.  For women who want to avoid a surgical procedure but do not want to wait for the miscarriage to occur on its own, the medically induced miscarriage is a favored option. 

Misoprostol is the medication currently prescribed in the U.S. to induce miscarriage.  Although this medication works for many, a single dose of the medicine is ineffective for about 30% of women.  When the medicine is ineffective, women end up either returning to their doctor for another dose or moving forward with surgery.  However, a recent studyin the New England Journal of Medicine found that combining the currently used medication, misoprostol, with mifepristone is more effective than misoprostol alone in inducing miscarriage.  The study followed 300 women experiencing first trimester pregnancy lose and found the combination of misoprostol and mifepristone increased the chance of successfully inducing miscarriage to 90%, a 14% increase over misoprostol alone. 

Although this new study may provide hope for women suffering an early pregnancy loss and wishing to avoid surgical intervention, most doctors in the U.S. are unable to prescribe mifepristone due to current FDA regulations.  Mifepristone was approved by the FDA in 2000 but is currently regulated under what is known as a Risk Evaluation and Mitigation Strategy (REMS).  The REMS designation means that the FDA can restrict how and where the medication is distributed.  For mifepristone, the REMS restriction prohibits its availability in commercial pharmacies; the drug can only be distributed from clinics or hospitals designated as mifepristone suppliers.  

As mifepristone is commonly used for abortions, some argue that the REMS designation for the drug is driven by political motives rather than due to concerns about drug safety.  Currently, medical societies including The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, the American Academy of Family Physicians and the American Medical Association are trying to overturn the FDA REMS classification of mifepristone.  

(Mara Gordon and Sarah McCammon, NPR)

Ebola Vaccine Supplies Are Expected to Last

The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) is currently facing a devasting Ebola outbreak and recently reported 689 confirmed and probable infections and 422 deaths. However, the World Health Organization (WHO) recently announced that they expect to have adequate supplies of an experimental Ebola vaccine to stop the outbreak. 

The experimental vaccine, known as V920, is made by Merck and was first shown to be highly effective in a clinical trial during the West African Ebola crisis of 2014-2016. In the current outbreak, Dr. Peter Salama, WHO’s deputy director-general of emergency preparedness and response, has reported that the vaccine is “highly, highly efficacious”, showing a efficacy rate well above 90%.  

After the West African Ebola crisis of 2014-2016, Merck made an agreement with the WHO and with Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance to maintain a stockpile of 300,000 doses of the vaccine at all times while they worked to get the vaccine licensed. As most Ebola epidemics have been controlled after less than 100 cases, the 300,000-dose stockpile seemed more than sufficient. However, tens of thousands of doses of the vaccine have already been used with the recent outbreak in the DRC, raising concerns that the supply would be depleted.  

Merck’s team lead for the Ebola vaccine project, Beth-Ann Coller, confirmed that in addition to the 100,000 doses of the vaccine that the company has already sent to the WHO, they still have about 300,00 doses on hand. However, due to the uncertainly of around the outbreak, Coller said the company is also exploring options to expand the stockpile further. 

(Helen Branswell, STAT)

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January 29, 2019 at 3:18 pm

Conspiracy Theories and Ebola: How a US Federally Funded Research Facility in the Heart of Sierra Leone’s Ebola Outbreak Acerbated Local Misconceptions about Ebola

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By: Caroline Duncombe

ebola-549471_1920.jpg

An inherent distrust follows what one does not understand; scientific endeavors if not explained properly are easily misunderstood. From climate skeptics to CERN’s 666 logo, the world is wrought with conspiracy theories surrounding science. The role of conspiracies should not be underestimated or neglected, especially since such theories are interspersed with layers of truth. Usually conspiracies reside harmlessly on the edge of the web, but during the Ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone an unaddressed rumor resulted in fatal consequences. Rumors revolving around a Tulane University research facility located in Kenema Government Hospital prompted a breakdown in relations between the local populations and international health care workers. This mistrust led to the refusal to permit blood draws for diagnostic purposes during the critical initial stages of the Ebola outbreak. By underestimating the importance of cultural and religious symbolism surrounding scientific research U.S. federal funding agencies, laboratory researchers, and private companies made a crucial mistake. By analyzing this curious conspiracy theory, scientists, funding agencies, and health practitioners can learn from past mistakes and become more aware of the impact of research beyond pure scientific pursuit.

Background

            On May 24th, 2014,a young woman miscarried in Kenema Government Hospital. Given the recent outbreak in nearby Gueckedou, Guinea, Ebola was suspected. A day later, the same hospital reported the first confirmed case of Ebola in Sierra Leone. Soon after, Kenema became a hot zone – the entry point for the Ebola virus to spread throughout Sierra Leone and eventually the world. The repercussions of the Ebola outbreak extend well beyond the 11,310 death count in West Africa to economic, social, medical, and cultural spheres.

The Kenema Government Hospital was not a typical Sierra Leonian public hospital. In fact, the hospital was well-equipped, with the only Lassa fever isolation ward anywhere in the world. The lab dated to 2005, when Tulane University received a $10 million grant from the U.S. National Institutes of Health to study “Diagnostics for Biodefense against Lassa fever”. Since previous investigations of sporadic Lassa fever outbreaks were based out of Kenema, the natural choice for the establishment of first-rate laboratory infrastructure was Kenema Government Hospital.

As the years passed, the Tulane research laboratory acquired more grants and partnerships. One of the principal collaborators was the private for-profit company, Metabiota, which received grants from two U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) agencies – Defense Threat Reduction Agency and Biological Engagement Program – to primarily study the pathogenesis of Lassa fever, a ‘US bioterror threat’. Due to stipulations in NIH grant funding, the substantial amount of money flowing into this “shiny new” research laboratory could not be applied to assisting patients in the “dilapidated, cramped, and poorly resourced Lassa ward only some 50m away” (Bausch). During the Ebola outbreak, the Lassa laboratory’s focus shifted to Ebola, continuing research until the NIH did not renew funding in 2014, primarily due to safety reasons.

The Conspiracy Theory

Following the 2014 outbreak, a conspiracy theory circulating throughout Sierra Leone, essentially claiming that the U.S. created Ebola, or a Lassa-Ebola hybrid, and either intentionally or accidentally released this bioterror weapon from the U.S. NIH and DoD-funded research facility at Kenema Government Hospital. While such a rumor lacked credible evidence, there were specific circumstances surrounding the policies of the research outpost that fed into the narrative – truths that should have been addressed through culturally sensitive policies.

Four main factors converged into a superstitious and suspicious narrative about the Lassa research laboratory. First, by branding the Lassa research facility with a bioterrorism component, the project assisted in drawing out a natural conclusion that bioterror weapons were also present in the laboratory. Tulane University’s initial grant application in 2005 framed Lassa virus as a US biosecurity threat through key words such as “Diagnostics for Biodefense” and “LASV as a biological weapon directed against civilian or military targets necessitates development of… diagnostics.” The framing of the diagnostic development laboratory in terms of a biodefense strategy against the NIAID Category A classification was not an accident, but rather a necessity to gain funding. As Annie Wilkins puts it “whether the prospect of weaponization is regarded as sensationalism or a real concern, all researchers are aware of the utility the bioweapons threat has in obtaining funding.” By emphasizing biodefense and collaborating with the U.S. DoD via Metabiota’s funding stream, a natural linkage between the work of the research outpost and bioweapons developed.

The second factor was out of the control of Tulane University: A suspicious coincidence. Due to its proximity to Guinea, laboratory capacity, and fluidity in movement across the Sierra Leone-Guinea border, the first confirmed case of Ebola in Sierra Leone occurred in Kenema Government Hospital. Although there potentially were other cases of Ebola in Sierra Leone, none of the primary health care clinics in the area had the laboratory capacity to officially diagnose Ebola. A natural speculation ensued: what are the chances that the one Biodefense laboratory in Sierra Leone, where the hemorrhagic Lassa fever virus was located, was also the site of the first confirmed case of a “new” bioterror threat that also causes hemorrhagic fever, Ebola? Money draws attention, and the money flowing into this singular laboratory was substantial when compared with other public hospitals in Sierra Leone. For reference, the Sierra Leone Ministry of Health and Sanitation allocated U.S. $20 million budget to run the entire national health system in 2009.

Third, a nurse from Kenema Government Hospital claimed to an audience at a fish market that “the deadly [Ebola] virus was invented to conceal “cannibalistic rituals”. The statement and an already distrustful community culminated into a riot at the hospital on July 25th, 2014. Such a case further cemented the people’s suspicions that the laboratory was “stealing” the blood of Sierra Leonians. Even though collecting blood is necessary for diagnostic tests, there are many deeply held cultural beliefs about blood in Sierra Leone, and many people are reluctant to participate in blood test as a result.

Fourth, the research facility suspiciously and suddenly shut down right at the beginning of the outbreak without much explanation to the community. Additionally, many of the Sierra Leonian staff who could have addressed the suspicions about the facility pre-outbreak have since died while bravely combatting Ebola. All of these factors accumulated into the conspiracy theory that actors involved with the bio-defense grant and the US government created a bioterror weapon and unleashed it on West Africa.

Policy Considerations

The accumulation of these factors demonstrate the importance of cultural sensitivity and awareness when implementing scientific research policies. In 2018, Tulane University and a variety of partners received a new $15 million federally funded grant to study how Ebola and Lassa survivors fought off the diseases. Hopefully, the researchers are opening this facility with a new awareness and increased precautions on the spiritual and social baggage they bring to Kenema. This is especially important when considering the potential for further stigmatization of Ebola survivors if called to Kenema Government Hospital for research or treatment purposes.

There are several policy considerations that could alter the course of this conspiracy and help acclimate the community to both the presence of a well-equipped laboratory and blood draws for diagnostic purposes. Research institutions should refrain from using vocabulary such as “biodefense” and “bioweapon” to describe the purpose of research. A clinician in the Lassa ward pointed out that “The average Sierra Leonian won’t see Lassa Fever as a bioweapon threat. Only in the Western world do they see it like that.” Since the potential for contracting Lassa and Ebola is an everyday reality for Sierra Leonians, research initiatives on such diseases should be spoken about in terms of their potential for public health. Additionally, universities seeking to do medical research should consider the cultural significance of their location, and contemplate ways, including shifting location, that might reduce any negative connotations. Engaging influential spiritual leaders in productive information partnerships could also assist in assuaging local concerns.

Policy considerations should also be contemplated by grant funding institutions like the NIH and DoD. First, grant stipulations should integrate a layer of flexibility for distributing certain supplies and resources for patient care. Second, the NIH and DoD should be cognizant of their bias in funding grants that are written in terms of biodefense interests of the US, especially when related to countries where such a ‘bioweapon’ is an everyday reality. This is especially important because such bias incentivizes deleterious narratives that invokes cultural, social, and medical consequences.  Lack of funding for neglected infectious diseases that only burden developing countries by the US is a complex and important issue that will require deep structural changes – and would require another blog post to contemplate. Yet, a simple solution would be to require scientific grant applications to contain a section in which the applicant considers the cultural and social impact of the work within the community of interest. In addition, community outreach with intentional dialogue on assuaging concerns about sensitive research activities should made be mandatory.

The conspiracy theory exacerbated the already high level of mistrust in Western interventions during the outbreak. As the Washington Post emphasizes, the lesson from this case study is “that winning the trust of communities at risk is absolutely indispensable to limiting the impact of the inevitable next Ebola epidemic in West Africa.” Hopefully, the Tulane University research center in Kenema Government Hospital has learned from past mistakes, and seeks to engage the community and douse suspicions against their research upon re-opening the laboratory this year. Conspiracy theories usually integrate truth with speculation. The traditional method of ignoring such theories or flat out denying (as was the case with Tulane University) may have detrimental consequences as seen during the Ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone. The power in a conspiracy theory is not necessarily its truth, but it’s power to persuade people that it is true. And as scientists who are often focused on the facts, we often have a hard time understanding that concept. When doing research, it is crucial to be cognizant of the social perception of science and attempt to build bridges between gaps of understanding on cultural practices and scientific endeavors.

 

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January 17, 2019 at 6:34 pm

Science Policy Around the Web – February 21, 2017

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By: Rachel Smallwood, PhD

Obesity

Should We Treat Obesity Like a Contagious Disease?

Researchers are modeling obesity from a public health perspective as a contagious disease. There are many factors associated with obesity, including genetics, low levels of physical activity, and high caloric intake. An earlier study examined the effects of different social factors on an individual’s risk of being obese; it found that people with obese friends and family were at an increased risk for obesity, and this trend was influenced by how close the relationships were.

In this model of the prevalence of obesity, the researchers included a factor to represent obesity as a “social contagion”, reflecting those previous findings and indicating a potential increased risk and increased prevalence due to transmission from one person to another. This mechanism is assumed to be related to people adopting the behaviors of those close to them; notably, activity levels and type and quantity of food consumed. The model predicts obesity rates in populations with terms associated with the genetic contribution to obesity, the mother’s non-genetic contribution to her offspring, and the prevalence of obesity. Essentially, the more obese individuals there are in a society, the more likely it is for someone to know and interact with an obese person.

The models indicate that obesity prevalence plateaus around 35-40% without an intervention. The model is still fairly primitive, but the researchers hope that in future it could provide insight into the effects of potential interventions. For example, is it better to target an intervention to individuals who are already obese, or should the reach of the intervention be more broad and target the population as a whole? When the models reach a level of complexity comparable to the existing factors for obesity, they can be a powerful tool in preventing and addressing the epidemic. (Kelly Servick, Science Magazine)

Autism

Brain Scans Spot Early Signs of Autism in High-Risk Babies

A study recently published in Nature showed that alterations in brain development in children who go on to be diagnosed with autism precede behavioral symptoms. High-risk infants’ brains were scanned with MRI at 6, 12, and 24 months. It was determined that the infants who were subsequently diagnosed with autism had a faster rate of brain volume growth between 12 and 24 months. Additionally, between 6 and 12 months, these infants had a faster rate of growth in the surface area of folds on the brain, called the cortical surface.

Taking these findings, the research team used a machine learning approach called a deep-learning neural network to make a model to predict whether an infant would be diagnosed with autism based on their MRIs from 6 and 12 months. This model was tested in a larger set of infants, and the model correctly predicted 30 out of 37 infants who went on to be diagnosed (true positives), and it incorrectly predicted that 4 infants would be diagnosed with autism out of the 142 who were not later diagnosed (false positives). These results are much more robust than behavior-based predictions from this same age range.

More work needs to be done to replicate the results in a larger sample. Additionally, all of the participants were high-risk infants, meaning they had a sibling who was diagnosed with autism, so the results are not necessarily generalizable to the rest of the population. Further studies need to be done in the general population to determine if these same patterns are observable, but that would require an even larger sample due to the lower risk. However, the early detection of symptoms and prediction of diagnosis are potentially valuable tools, especially considering another recent publication showed that early intervention in children with autism affects the severity of symptoms years down the road. (Ewen Callaway, Nature News)

Science Funding

Ebola Funding Surge Hides Falling Investment in Other Neglected Diseases

Funding totals from 2015 reveal a trending decrease in funding for neglected diseases, excluding Ebola and other viral hemorrhagic fevers. Neglected diseases are diseases that primarily affect developing companies, thus providing little incentive for private research and development by commercial entities; the other diseases include malaria, tuberculosis, and HIV/AIDS. Given the recent surge of funding for Ebola research, the analysis firm, Policy Cures Research, decided to separate it from the other neglected diseases in its analysis to observe funding patterns independent from the epidemic that dominated the news and international concerns. Funding was tracked from private, public, and philanthropic sources.

The funding for Ebola research has primarily gone to development of a vaccine, and over a third of the funds were provided by industry. For the other diseases, the decline in overall funding is mostly represented by a decline in funding from public entities, primarily comprised of the governments of large, developed countries. Those countries accounted for 97% of the research funding for neglected diseases in 2015, so any significant change in that funding category would affect the overall funding amounts. However, there was also a slight decline in philanthropic funding. When including Ebola with the others, funding of neglected diseases was actually at its highest in the past ten years. It is not known whether money was funneled from the other diseases to Ebola research, or if this decline is indicative of less research spending in general. (Erin Ross, Nature News)

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February 21, 2017 at 10:03 am