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Science Policy Around the Web August 23rd, 2019

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By Allison Cross PhD

Source: Flickr

A Once Common Gecko Is Vanishing from Parts of Asia

The tokay gecko, once commonly found across Southeast Asia, southern China and India, is now becoming a lot less common. Recently studies assessing gecko population trends suggest that populations have declined as much as 50 percent in China, Vietnam, Thailand, Myanmar, Indonesia, the Philippines and Bangladesh.  This recent decline has scientists and conservationists concerned about major population collapse and even extinction.

The vanishing gecko population is believed to be, at least in large part, due to the large, currently unrestricted, trade of these animals. Though the exact number of tokay geckos captured for trade each year is unknown, the figure is estimated to be at least one million.  Most of these animals are sold to China, where the gecko is used as an ingredient in traditional Chinese medicine. 

Currently, there are no international rules regulating the trade of geckos, but this may soon change.  The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), an international treaty aimed at protecting endangered plants and animals, is set to vote at the end of August on whether geckos should be added to the treaty.  If the vote goes through, countries will be required to monitor and report all trade and prove that it is not harming the gecko population.  While members from Australia, the European Union, India, the Philippines and the U.S. support the addition of the tokay gecko to the treaty, China and Indonesia remain in opposition. 

(Rachel Nuwer, Scientific America)

Treatment for Extreme Drug-Resistant Tuberculosis Wins U.S. Government Approval

The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates about half a million people worldwide are diagnosed every year with multi-drug-resistant tuberculosis (TB), and around 8.5% of cases are characterized as extensively drug-resistant (XDR) TB.  Common TB treatments are ineffective for those suffering from XDR TB and, up to this point, the treatment offered to these patients involved an eight-drug combination taken for more than a year.  This eight-drug combination comes with serious side-effects and is largely ineffective, with as many as two-thirds of patients succumbing to the disease despite treatment. 

For decades, research into development of new TB treatments was rare, but donations from governments and philanthropist in the early 2000s sparked more research in the area. This research has resulted in a new and promising therapy developed by the TB Alliance, a non-profit research group in New York City. The new therapy is a three-drug regimen; pretomanid, bedaquiline, and delaminid.  Clinical trials of the new regimen were extremely promising; 90% of XDR TB patients recovered following 6 months of treatment. This success rate far exceeds the 34% success rate obtained with the current treatment options.

The new XDR TB regimen was approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration on August 14th and it has the potential to quickly reach the patients who need it the most.  As TB mostly effects the world’s poorest people, the key to success is to keep the price low. Currently, the TB Alliance is negotiating a price for the latest treatment with the two pharmaceutical companies.


(Amy Maxmen, Scientific America) 



Written by sciencepolicyforall

August 23, 2019 at 3:18 pm

Science Policy Around the Web – July 6, 2018

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By: Kelly Tomins, BSc


source: pixabay

Genetic privacy

Could DNA Testing Reunite Immigrant Families? Get the Facts.

Since the enactment of the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” immigration policy, over 2300 children have been separated from their families at the border. The policy caused widespread outrage throughout the US, and over 400,000 people protested the policy at the “Families Belong Together” march last week. Although the policy has since been redacted, the government has shown little transparency on how they plan to reunite families. Could DNA testing be a solution?

DNA testing companies, MyHeritage and 23andMe, seem to think so. They have offered thousands of testing kits to help reunite migrant children to their families. Scientifically, these tests are very reliable, and can detect direct relations by 99.9% accuracy. However, the science is the least complicated aspect of this situation.

Consent and privacy are several of the most troubling aspects of the use of these tests. Due to medical privacy rules, children would need a designated legal guardian or representative to have their DNA tested, which is clearly a problem. In addition, adults likely cannot give informed consent, especially since they are in distressing conditions and many do not speak English. Migrants may feel pressured to have the sequencing done if they believe it is the only way to be reunited with their children. DNA sequencing reveals private information about health and paternity, and sequencing data stored in databases has been used to genetically track criminals. It is difficult to imagine that detainees would be given enough information about DNA sequencing and its’ implications to make an informed decision.

Despite these concerns, according to an unnamed federal official, DNA testing has already begun. Jennifer K. Falcon, communications director for RAICES, a nonprofit in Texas that offers free and low-cost legal services to immigrants and refugees, is extremely against DNA testing in this context. In addition to her concerns regarding consent, she argues that the government will have access to extremely personal data that could be used for future surveillance. Although 23andMe and MyHeritage have assured that the genetic data will only be used for reunification, it is unclear what will happen to the DNA samples and data afterwards.

Beyond the ethical and logistical hurdles in this case, DNA sequencing is not a quick fix. 23andMe state on their website that sample processing takes 6-8 weeks. It would also be a logistical nightmare to obtain and match DNA samples from all the detainees currently in custody, especially when matching results from two different genetic testing companies. Critics point out that registering the identity and locations of migrant parents and children would have circumvented the need for such invasive testing. Although genetic tests are cheaper and more accessible than ever, they require unique consideration to address issues of privacy and consent.

(Maya Wei-Haas, National Geographic)

Endangered species

Rhino Embryos Made in Lab to Save Nearly Extinct Subspecies

Thousands of northern white rhinos once inhabited the grasslands of east and central Africa, but habitat loss and poaching led to the population’s swift demise. All hope for the survival of the rhino subspecies seemed lost when the its’ last remaining male, Sudan, died earlier this year.  There are now only two surviving individuals of the subspecies, a mother-daughter pair named Najin and Fatu, both of whom are infertile. Remarkably, a new breakthrough in reproductive technology has reignited the possibility of saving this subspecies.

In a recent study published in Nature Communications, Dr. Thomas Hildebrant, a wildlife reproductive biologist, and his team show for the first time that rhino embryos can be created using in vitro fertilization (IVF). Although there are no remaining living males of the subspecies, there are four samples of frozen sperm that could potentially be used for reproduction. The research group created four hybrid embryos by combining frozen northern white rhino sperm and eggs from southern white rhinos. The scientists plan on implanting these hybrid embryos into surrogates, to see if they survive to birth. If that is successful, the scientists aim to extract eggs from the remaining female northern white rhinos and create pure-blood northern white rhinos in the lab.

Since there is a limited supply of northern white rhino gametes (only four sperm samples and two egg samples), Hildebrant and his team are also pursuing a technology called induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSC). iPSC are a type of stem cell that can be created from adult cells, such as skin or blood. These iPSC can then be reprogrammed into various cell types. iPSC have already been created from northern white rhinos, and scientists are now figuring out how to convert them to sperm and eggs. Since the San Diego zoo has skin cells from 12 northern white rhinos, the future conversion of these cells into gametes could provide more genetic diversity to any future population.

While many conservation scientists applaud the use of technology to save the subspecies, many wonder whether the resources should rather be spent protecting habitats for remaining rhinos on-the-ground. In a study in Nature Ecology and Evolution, scientists show that de-extinction efforts can lead to a net biodiversity loss, since resources could be spent on endangered species. As Dr. Bennett, a conservation scientist at Carleton University, puts it “if the person is couching de-extinction in terms of conservation, then she or he needs to have a very sober look at what one could do with those millions of dollars with living species — there’s already plenty to do.”

(Steph Yin, New York Times)

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Written by sciencepolicyforall

July 6, 2018 at 3:11 pm

Science Policy Around the Web – June 27, 2017

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By: Sarah Hawes, PhD

Source: pixabay


An Arms Race with Nature

H7N9, a new bird flu emerging in China, has infected roughly 1,500 people and killed 40% of them. The virus is contracted directly from infected birds but is not yet easily transmissible between humans, however researchers at The Scripps Research Institute have evidence H7N9 could potentially become transmissible between humans fairly easily. They examined a fragment of the virus that interacts with receptors on animal cells to gain entrance, and identified three minor mutations that could cause the fragment to shift from preferentially entering avian cells to preferentially entering human cells. If these mutations were to occur, it could rapidly result in a pandemic.

Tests in a viral fragment do not prove functionality in the intact virus; that would require mutating H7N9 itself. A 2014 moratorium on mutating three types of viruses (SARS, MERS, influenza) to more dangerous forms is expected to lift when the Department of Health and Human Services finishes current work drafting a new policy establishing reviews designed to assess benefit/risk ratios before funding research.

The subject is divisive, even among scientists in the field. Stanford researcher David Relman says he would support efforts to test mutations in a weakened strain of flu, but not in the H7N9 virus.  Bioterrorism expert Thomas Inglesby opposes increasing the contagious lethality of a virus, and opposes publishing such procedures due to concern that less benevolent actors would be enabled to replicate the process. NIH funded researcher, Ron Fouchier in the Netherlands, whose alteration of H5N1 to become highly contagious between ferrets (the animal model for humans) in 2011 influenced the moratorium, believes examining dangerous virus mutations in a controlled lab environment is important to identify potential pandemic viruses.

Many of these topics were discussed at the recent Immunology and Evolution of Influenza Symposium, and are sure to be a hot topic at the July 16 – 19 Centers of Excellence for Influenza Research and Surveillance meeting. With policy guidance needed on benefit/risk, potentially safer models, security, and publication limitations, the new HHS policy will be critical. (Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR)


Modeling with Dough – Pick your Species

The Supreme Court found the Endangered Species Act was “intended to halt and reverse the trend toward species extinction—whatever the cost.” Today, in light of the cost, conservation policy makers are being invited to triage species extinctions. Fish and Wildlife Service representatives recently met with ecologist Dr. Leah Gerber to discuss her proposed use of an algorithm guiding conservation funding.

A self-proclaimed environmentalist, Gerber says her model suggests that defunding “costly failures,” including the spotted owl, golden-cheeked warbler and gopher tortoise, could help save about 180 other species. Gerber says policy makers may opt to continue to support species that her algorithm rejects, as was done for the koala in Australia where algorithm triage has been used. In this case, a popularity contest may determine who lives and who goes extinct.

Details of the algorithm are not explicit, but Dr. Gerber’s recent publication in PNAS is a straightforward return-on-investment calculation analyzing the mathematical relationship between funds requested, spent, and species success or decline.  Gerber finds “the cost–success curve is convex; funding surpluses were common for the species least likely and most likely to recover” so it’s not simply ‘money in – species out’. Other factors – endemism, keystone status, level of species risk – are also important, though Gerber acknowledges they are not currently included.

While proponents call use of the equation “doing the best you can with what you have,” lack of data on its predictive validity make it a frightening policy tool governing something as permanent as species extinction. What if region affects costs, population growth is slower in species reaching sexual maturity later, a break-through in understanding one species’ requirements is just around the corner or we haven’t yet discovered the significance of the niche occupied by another species? What if business or political interests conflict with a species’ needs? What if the algorithm developer seeks intellectual property legal status, as is happening now with a proprietary algorithm used in parole and sentencing situations? Algorithms impacting public policy should be vetted by multiple experts in germane disciplines, validated, and kept publicly accessible for healthy scrutiny. (Sharon Bernstein, Reuters)


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June 27, 2017 at 11:42 am

Science Policy Around the Web – March 8, 2013

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By: Jennifer Plank

photo credit: andre.vanrooyen via photopin cc

photo credit: andre.vanrooyen via photopin cc

Our biweekly linkpost, bringing you interesting and informative links on science policy issues buzzing about the internet.

Elephant Poaching Pushes Species To Brink Of Extinction – A recent publication in PLOS ONE states that the total number of elephants has decreased 62 percent from 2002-2011. A ban on ivory poaching in 1989 initially reduced the amount of the trade; however, over the past decade as many as 25,000 elephants have been killed yearly. The largest contributor to this crisis is increased trade within China. (Christopher Joyce)

Legislator Grills NIH Over Tobacco Grant – NIH director, Francis Collins, recently attended a hearing regarding how different Health and Human Services agencies are dealing with reduced budgets. While at the meeting, Representative Andy Harris (R-MD) questioned Collins about a grant to investigate tobacco control funded by the NCI. The PI on the grant, Stanton Glantz, was investigating the influence of  “third parties” funded by the tobacco industry. The study, published in Tobacco Control, uncovered a link between the tobacco industry and formation of the Tea Party. Harris, a member of the Tea Party, opposes this finding and would prefer that money from tax payers does not cover such research. Collins was also alarmed by the finding and hopes to strike a balance between not funding an “unfortunate outcome” and not micromanaging all NIH-funded research. (Jocelyn Kaiser)

We Have A Limited Window of Opportunity: CDC Warns of Resistance Nightmare – On Tuesday, Dr. Thomas Frieden of the CDC released new statistics regarding infections by the highly drug resistant bacteria carbapenem-resistant Enterobacteriaceae (or CRE). To date, 42 states have reported at least one incidence of CRE infection, the occurrence of CRE has increased 4-fold over 10 years, and 4.6 percent of hospitals and 17.8 percent of long term care facilities have diagnosed CRE in the first 6 months of 2012. Together, these factors suggest that the situation is dire. Increasing the severity of these findings are the facts that CRE is resistant to nearly all antibiotics and results in fatality in nearly half of patients who contract the infection. The CDC has published a list of recommendations to limit the number of CRE infections; however, none of the recommendations are required or funded. (Maryn McKenna)

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March 8, 2013 at 12:07 pm

Science Policy Around the Web – December 21, 2012

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photo credit: mikebaird via photopin cc

photo credit: mikebaird via photopin cc

By: Jennifer Plank

Our weekly linkpost, bringing you interesting and informative links on science policy issues buzzing about the internet.

Policy Lifts Otter-Free Zone in California – In 1987, the Fish and Wildlife Service moved 140 sea otters to San Nicolas Island off the California coast. The goal of this effort was to maintain two distinct populations of these endangered animals in the hopes of maintaining the species in case of an oil spill. At the same time, the service also established an “otter-free zone” at the request of fisherman and the Navy. This week, the “otter-free zone” restriction was lifted, a victory for environmentalists who did not believe the otters natural migration paths should be restricted. (Felicity Barringer)

The Gun Lobby’s Favorite Part of the Health LawA section of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) entitled “Protection of Second Amendment Gun Rights” states that the Department of Health and Human Services can not collect information about gun ownership. It also states that insurance providers cannot deny coverage or raise premiums due to gun use. This section in the ACA was added by the Senate majority leader, Harry Reid (D, NV). This language of the ACA is not without controversy as epidemiologists claim that gun use can kill as many people as influenza while gun-rights advocates maintain that any policies monitoring gun ownership is infringing on Second Amendment rights. (Jay Hancock)

Chicago’s Field Museum Cuts Back on ScienceThe Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago is cutting $3 million from its science budget this year including a program for research on the institutes collection of fossils, plants, and animals. Nationally, museum endowments have been low due to the recession, and the Field Museum has also been financing expansion projects resulting in a significant budget crisis. Staff at the museum will provide input on how to apply the budget cuts.  (Helen Shen)

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Written by sciencepolicyforall

December 21, 2012 at 1:35 pm