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Science Policy Around the Web – May 11, 2018

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By: Mohor Sengupta, PhD

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source: Max Pixel

Drug prices

Why Can’t Medicare Patients Use Drugmakers’ Discount Coupons?

With high drug prices, affordability of specialized medicines is a matter of concern for many individuals, especially those on life-saving brand-name drugs.

Manufacturers of brand-name medicines provide discount coupons to people with private health insurance. Such discounts are denied for people with federal healthcare plans such as Medicare or Medicaid. For example, for one patient on Repatha (a cholesterol reducing drug), the co-payment is $618 per month with the Medicare drug plan, but it is only $5 for patients with commercial insurance plans. This discrepancy has resulted in a “double standard” because arguably, the discount is denied to the people who need it most, that is the retired population subscribing (compulsorily) to federal healthcare programs.

Drug manufacturers have an incentive to offer discounts on branded medicines as they increase the likelihood of purchase and results in greater access to and demand for the products. While these discount coupons are immensely beneficial for life-threatening conditions for which generic drugs are not available, a 2013 analysis has shown that lower cost generic alternative and FDA approved therapeutic equivalent was available for 62% of 374 brand-name drugs.

The federal government has argued that with the discount coupons, patients might overlook or be discouraged from buying cheaper variants of the brand-name drug. Even if a patient chooses to use a brand-name drug with a discount coupon over cheaper alternative, their health insurance plan still has to pay for the drug. That amount maybe more than Medicare or Medicaid may be willing to pay. This has resulted in the federal anti-kickback statute which prohibits drug manufacturers to provide “payment of remuneration (discounts) for any product or service for which payment may be made by a federal health care program”.

One important question is why do drug makers sell the brand-name drugs at a much higher price bracket when generic, cheaper options are available? In the present scenario, insurance companies should make the judgement about whether they are willing to cover such brand-name drugs for which generic alternatives are available. Often doctors prescribe brand-name drugs without considering their long-term affordability by patients. It is the responsibility of doctors and insurance providers alike to determine the best possible drug option for a patient.

Taking in both sides of the picture, use of discounts must be exercised on a case basis. It must be enforced for specialized drugs against which generic alternatives are not available and which are usually used for severe or life-threatening conditions. Currently for people with such conditions and on federal healthcare plans, affordability is a major challenge.

(Michelle Andrews, NPR)

 

EPA standards

EPA’s ‘secret science’ rule could undermine agency’s ‘war on lead’

Last month the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) administrator, Scott Pruitt issued a “science transparency rule” according to which studies that were not “publicly available in a manner sufficient for independent validation” could not be used while crafting a regulation. This rule is at loggerheads with Pruitt’s “war on lead” because a majority of studies on lead toxicity are observational, old and cannot be validated without consciously exposing study subjects to lead.

Lead is a potent neurotoxin with long term effects on central nervous system development. It is especially harmful to children. There are several studies showing lead toxicity, but many do not meet the inclusion standards set by the EPA’s the new science transparency rule. Computer models developed to assess lead toxicity, which played important role in EPA’s regulations on lead in the past, have amalgamated all these studies, including the ones that cannot be validated. If the science transparency rule is retroactive, it would mean trashing these models. An entire computer model can be rendered invalid if just one of its component studies doesn’t meet the transparency criteria.

Critics say that the transparency measure will be counter-effective as far as lead regulations are concerned. “They could end up saying, ‘We don’t have to eliminate exposure because we don’t have evidence that lead is bad’”, says former EPA staffer Ronnie Levin. Another hurdle is the proposed data sharing requirement. Lead based studies tend to be epidemiological and authors might be unwilling to share confidential participant data.

Bruce Lanphear of Simon Frazer University in Canada is skeptical of EPA’s intensions because the agency has not imposed similar transparency measures for chemical companies like pesticide producers.

Finally, this rule could set different standards for lead safely levels in different federal agencies. Currently Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) consider 5 micrograms per milliliter of lead in blood as the reference level. The EPA rule could lead to a new reference level, leading to discrepancies when complying with agencies across the U.S. government.

(Ariel Wittenberg, E&E News)

 

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May 11, 2018 at 10:24 pm

Science Policy Around the Web – May 8, 2018

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By: Saurav Seshadri, PhD

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source: pixabay

Environment

EPA Cites ‘Replication Crisis’ in Justifying Open Science Proposal

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) may soon be using far less scientific evidence to inform its policy positions.  EPA administrator Scott Pruitt recently announced that, in an effort promote reproducibility and open access to information, the EPA will no longer consider studies whose underlying data or models are not publicly available.  However, such studies often represent the ‘best available’ data, which the EPA is legally obliged to consider, and form the basis of, among others, policies limiting particulate matter in the air.  Several studies that support the health and economic benefits of lower particulate limits do so by using detailed medical information whose disclosure would compromise patient confidentiality.  The so-called HONEST (Honest and Open New EPA Science Treatment) Act, put forth by House Republicans, aims to suppress such ‘secret science’; its detractors say that it’s a poorly disguised gift to industry interests, conveniently timed to take effect just before a scheduled review of pollution limits.

Opposition to the policy has been building steadily.  A letter signed by 63 House democrats, asking for an extension to the open comment period for the policy, has so far been unsuccessful. A separate letter, signed by almost a thousand scientists, and comments from several professional associations, have also been ignored – perhaps unsurprisingly, given Pruitt’s parallel effort to bar relevant scientists from EPA advisory boards.  The scientist behind the article calling attention to the ‘reproducibility crisis’ cited by Pruitt has also spoken out, writing that simply ‘ignoring science that has not yet attained’ rigorous reproducibility standards would be ‘a nightmare’.

Perhaps the most effective response has come from scientists who are outpacing the bureaucracy.  In a pair of papers published last year, a biostatistics and public health group at Harvard used air quality data, Medicare records, and other public sources to reiterate the health risks posed by air pollution.  Such studies could not be excluded by the new EPA policy and may influence regulators to keep particulate limits low.  Another potential roadblock to implementing changes could be the controversy surrounding Pruitt himself.  The administrator has been the target of several federal probes, following a series of scandals regarding his use of government funds for purposes such as a 24-hour security detail, soundproof office, and first class travel.  Bipartisan calls for his resignation have made his future at the EPA, and the quick implementation of a Republican agenda there, uncertain.

(Mitch Ambrose, American Institute of Physics)

Science funding

NIH’s neuroscience institute will limit grants to well-funded labs

With a budget of $2.1 billion, the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) is the fifth largest institute at NIH.  Yet each year many investigators are constrained by a lack of funds, while some large labs have accumulated so many grants that their principal investigator can only spend a few weeks per year on a given project.  To address this disparity, NINDS recently announced a plan to revamp implementation of an existing NIH policy, in which grant applications from well-funded labs must go through an additional review by a special council. While the current secondary review rarely rejects such applications, NINDS’ policy takes two steps to make the process more stringent: first, it increases the number of labs that would undergo review, to include labs that would cross the $1 million threshold with the current grant; second, it sets higher standards for review, requiring applications from such labs to score in the top 7% of all proposals to be successful.

Responses to the idea have been tentative, despite widespread support for its objective.  One potential cause for concern is its perceived similarity to the Grant Support Index (GSI), a previous NIH initiative with a similar goal (i.e., reallocating resources to sustain less-established but deserving researchers). The GSI sought to achieve this goal by placing a cap on the number of grants that a lab could receive, using a point system. However, this caused an uproar among scientists, who, among other issues, saw it as punishing or handicapping labs for being productive – it was quickly revised to create the Next Generation Researchers Initiative, a fund earmarked for early and mid-stage investigators, for which each institute is responsible for finding money.  The new policy appears to be a step towards meeting this obligation, and not, NINDS insists, a return to the GSI.

The impact of the new policy will probably be clearer after NINDS’ next round of grant reviews takes place, in January 2019.  So far, only the National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS) has a comparable policy, which has been in place since 2016.  The success of these approaches may well shape future cohorts of NIH-funded scientists – cutoffs and uncertainty are not unique to neuroscience, and other institutes are likely to be paying close attention.

(Jocelyn Kaiser, Science)

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May 8, 2018 at 6:11 pm

Science Policy Around the Web – May 4, 2018

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By: Rachel Smallwood Shoukry, PhD

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Environment

Hawaii might be about to ban your favorite sunscreen to protect its coral reefs

The state legislature in Hawaii has just passed a bill banning over-the-counter sale of sunscreens that contain oxybenzone and/or octinoxate, which encompasses about 70% of sunscreens. The ban was proposed and passed due to concern over the effect of the two chemicals on coral reefs. If the bill is signed into law by the governor, it will be the first law banning sunscreens to protect a marine environment. They hope that by eliminating these sunscreens from being purchased in Hawaii, they can greatly reduce the amount of the chemicals that end up in the water due after being washed off of swimmers or showered off.

Proponents of the ban cite emerging research that has shown these two chemicals to be harmful to coral reefs. Though only a few studies have been published at this point, their data indicates that the chemicals deplete the reefs of nutrients and cause them to be bleached white. They also pose potential threat to other aquatic life. Researchers found oxybenzone in the waters off of Maui in levels sufficient to cause bleaching in warm waters. Coral reefs are vital for marine ecosystem health, protect coastlines from waves, and are important for tourism, contributing billions of dollars to the tourism industry each year. They have been greatly damaged and threatened in recent decades, with scientists predicting they will soon disappear completely unless significant interventions take place. Locations around the world are implementing measures to preserve their reefs.

There are many opponents of the ban, however. Some scientists feel that the effect of the chemicals is a small contribution among a large number of factors. Rising ocean temperatures, over fishing, other ocean pollutants, and invasive aquatic species all contribute to dying reefs. The Hawaii Medical Association and sunscreen manufacturers believe that more scientific study should be done to merit such drastic action, especially since oxybenzone and octinoxate are some of the most common sunscreen ingredients for blocking UVA and UVB rays, which are known to cause skin cancer. There are sunscreens without these chemicals, however, and the increasing awareness of the threats to coral reefs has inspired the development of natural alternatives.

(Lindsey Bever, The Washington Post)

Privacy

In Hunt For Golden State Killer, Investigators Uploaded His DNA To Genealogy Site

Progress in the field of genetics has numerous exciting possibilities and implications. These possibilities are accompanied, however, with many difficult questions to answer. Police recently used a publicly-available genetic database to find and arrest the Golden State Killer – one of the country’s most notorious serial killers and rapists. Although DNA forensics were only in their earliest stages at the time when the Golden State Killer was just winding down his activity, police obtained his DNA from several of the crime scenes.

After having no luck with law enforcement genetic databases, police uploaded his DNA to GEDmatch.com; this site allows people to upload raw genetic data and find others whose data match theirs to some degree, and it warned users that they were not guaranteeing the privacy or security of their data. The matches on the site led the police to a relative, and they were able to look through that person’s family tree and identify a likely suspect based on a profile built during the investigation of the crimes. They then obtained the suspect’s DNA from a discarded item, and when tested, it came back as a match, and Joseph James DeAngelo was arrested.

This story has a good ending – a murderer coming to justice – but it does pose questions that have to be considered in the era of easily obtainable genetic data when millions of people are submitting their DNA to be analyzed. The family member of DeAngelo who submitted a genetic sample probably did not realize that it would lead to the arrest of a relative, and DeAngelo likely also had no idea his relative had done this or that his identity could be traced through it. Some geneticists have cautioned against this very thing, as well as other scenarios that would be equally undesirable (and a point of concern even for law-abiding individuals). While identifying criminals is advantageous, this situation does highlight the fact that users probably do not consider all of the potential ways their data could be utilized and all the potential parties who could access it, either legitimately or through illegal means. There are federal and state laws that prohibit discrimination based on genetics, and an individual’s genetic information is now considered protected health information and is thus protected under HIPAA. However, these large databases that have millions of users’ genetic data primarily regulate themselves beyond that, and even more so when an individual chooses to share their genetics. Experts recommend reading the terms of service very carefully and giving serious thought to any decision regarding sharing of your genetic information.

(Laurel Wamsley, NPR)

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May 4, 2018 at 8:50 pm

Science Policy Around the Web – March 2, 2018

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By: Patrice J. Persad, PhD

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The Environment

Plastic Pollution Is Killing Coral Reefs, 4-Year Study Finds

Plastic, plastic everywhere / Disease of corals on the flare. A large-scale investigation surveying coastal regions of the Asia-Pacific, including parts of Myanmar, Thailand, Indonesia, and Australia, found that approximately 11.1 billion pieces of plastic littered coral reefs. Given that the populous China and Singapore were omitted from the analyses, the bona fide count may be higher than this published value. Supporting the hypothesis that plastic, a manmade product, may find it’s way into coral reefs proximal to regions with more humans and with less developed waste management systems, the less densely populated Australian locations had the smallest numbers of plastic items while heavily populated Indonesian sites had the largest numbers.

Although quantification of plastic occupying the seas, especially on the visible surface, were pursued by other research groups, a link between plastic and the physiological state of the corals beneath was understudied and, thus, never established. Upon viewing diseased phenotypes of coral reefs imprisoned by plastic, Joleah B. Lamb and colleagues constructed regression models to determine if coral disease presence was associated with the presence of plastic debris. The likelihood of having skeletal eroding band disease, white syndromes, or black band disease increased significantly in the onslaught of plastic debris. The team also noted differences in disease likelihood for coral anatomy/morphology categories; the massive coral morphology, the most intricate coral structure, had the highest disease likelihood when engulfed with plastic items (although this category had the lowest likelihood of plastic waste encounters).

How does plastic precisely contribute to coral disease? Researchers are not completely sure. However, there are several hypotheses. Plastic debris cloak coral reefs and bar contact with the sun’s rays. Solar interaction is vital because coral species—those involved in reef generation—have a symbiotic relationship with the photosynthetic algae, zooxanthellae. The algae nurture these corals and assist with the formation of the reef’s calcium infrastructure. Another sea of thought is that the plastic items on reefs may be gouging coral tissue and allowing pathogenic microorganisms from surrounding waters to creep in. A third explanation is that the chemical compounds constituting plastic itself may incite disease outbreak on coral reefs.

The coral reef is an ecosystem with brilliant biodiversity rivaling that of the terrestrial tropical rainforest. Like the mangrove forest and seagrass communities, the coral reef is both a nursery and asylum for various fish and invertebrate species. If these facts on the mere ecological worth of protecting coral reefs do not compel citizens, then the economic worth might. These natural underwater marvels rake in billions of dollars from tourism, aquaculture, and fishing. Coral reefs prevent beach battery in the midst of titanic tempests. The oceans and waterways are interconnected, along with the ecosystems and accompanying food webs. Even though the Asia-Pacific was the center of Lamb et al.’s study, citizens everywhere can engage in recycling plastics or diminishing use of non-biodegradable plastic items.

(Christopher Joyce, National Public Radio)

Wildlife Conservation

China’s lust for jaguar fangs imperils big cats

One fang, two fangs, three fangs, four / Of the jaguar gone in gore. Imagine you are a police officer in Bolivia. Your duty is monitoring wildlife trafficking and apprehending any individuals who are exploiting native species. Recently, you have encountered several decapitated jaguars, an endangered species, in local canals. Aside from these decapitated jaguars, other retrieved cadavers were fangless if not headless. After communicating with colleagues in neighboring Brazil and Belize, you learn that these are recurring patterns in jaguar fatalities. The next week, you discover pamphlets and posters advertising payment for a single jaguar fang: $120 – $160 USD. Your division confiscates almost 200 jaguar fangs. During a briefing with your supervisor, you gravely state, “Sergeant, I think this [wildlife trafficking] is getting bigger than we thought.”

From the above scenario, why are jaguar fangs such a popular commodity? For generations, tiger body parts, such as bone, teeth, and skin, have been important components of traditional Chinese medicine. Fortunately, authorities are successfully limiting the tiger parts trade. As a result, many in China are now directing attention, unfortunately, to another big cat, the jaguar, as a proxy. However, the jaguar is not the only big cat grievously affected by this shift. As one case in Belize features, poor species recognition by poachers ended an ocelot’s life. As the wildlife trade is highly profitable around the globe—superseded by only weapons and drugs—the conservation front in the form of law enforcement can gain little economic or corporal support. In fact, consequences for those who violate wildlife trafficking laws rarely involve incarceration. Prominent ecologist, Vincent Nijman, feels this may stem directly from the international society’s indifference to the fate of poached species, especially if the immediate reward of killing or capturing species brings in more money than saving them.

The jaguar’s plight—the species’ decimation—emerges from more than China’s hunger pangs for fangs. Urbanization has down-sized this big cat’s habitat, a range of tropical rain forests and savannas. Because of losses in sanctuary and hunting grounds, the jaguar may prey upon cattle and other agricultural animals. Consequently, irate farmers lash out by killing these feline threats. Agricultural stakeholders have several options to share the land peacefully: incorporating guard animals into herds, securing baby farm animals in complexes/shelters, granting loans on the basis of cattle/agricultural animal management history, and deterring predators with innocuous barriers, such as moats and man-made lights.

The exploitation of the jaguar, South America’s prime big cat, impacts other species’ survival and spawns from previous misdeeds against other species. Many sets of individuals are responsible for and partake in such a transgression against the jaguar. Cooperation among international conservation organizations and law enforcement agencies will be needed given the scope of wildlife trafficking and the low-key sense of emergency from society. Perhaps a beautiful friendship will cultivate between the International Criminal Police Organization’s (INTERPOL’s) environment crime division and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) or TRAFFIC (if such a bond has not already deepened).

(Barbara Fraser, Nature News)

 

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March 2, 2018 at 9:34 pm

Science Policy Around the Web – June 27, 2017

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By: Sarah Hawes, PhD

Source: pixabay

Influenza

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)

Conservation

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 – May 9, 2017

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By: Emily Petrus, PhD

By Robert A. Rohde (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Environment

Please Pass the Crickets!

Most people know that eating beef is bad for the environment. A new study from the University of Edinburgh and Scotland’s rural college quantifies the impact human carnivores could have if we switched half of our current meat intake to insects such as crickets and mealworms. Cattle require huge swaths of pasture and produce enormous amounts of greenhouse gases such as methane. Methane is released during normal digestive processes, and methane and other greenhouse gases such as nitrous oxide are released from manure.

The idea of switching from a plate of steak to a bowl of mealworms may be too much for most Westerners, so what’s the human meat lover to do? Luckily, the study suggested that switching harmful beef for chicken or imitation meat (such as tofu) can yield large environmental benefits, because poultry and soy plants both require less land and produce less greenhouse gasses than cattle. The study also concluded that “meat in a dish”, or lab grown meat, was not more sustainable than chicken or eggs.

Although meat might not be replaced by insects any time soon for humans, we can still begin to incorporate insects into the farming discussion. Currently cattle raised for human consumption are fed diets of hay, soy, grain and other surprising items. These cattle need high levels of protein, which is one reason why mad cow disease became so prevalent – uneaten parts of cows were fed to other cows, which made them sick. Insects could help solve the protein gap for cattle, which was supported by a general survey of farmers, agricultural stakeholders and the public in Belgium.

Our eating practices affect the environment; moving towards a sustainable agricultural system is a commendable goal. Every person can decide for themselves how far they’re willing to go along the food chain to achieve a smaller carbon footprint. (ScienceDaily)

Vision Loss

Letting the Blind See Again

Vision loss is devastating – vision is the most relied upon source of sensory input for humans.  This can occur from an accident or genetic/physiological disorders. Retinitis pigmentosa causes a degeneration of the retina, and affects about 100,000 people in the US. Currently there is no cure, but clinical trials are exploring treatments to slow the process using gene therapy, dietary changes, or other drugs.

A new synthetic, soft tissue retina has been invented by a graduate student at Oxford University.  This artificial retina is biodegradable and uses synthetic but biological tissues to mimic the human retina.  The material composition is less likely to trigger an adverse reaction in the body and are less invasive than current retina transplants made of hard metal materials. Restrepo-Schild developed a bilayer of water droplets which respond to light with electrical impulses. The signals translate to cells at the back of the eye just like healthy retinal cells should. The new retina prototype has yet to be tested in animals to see if it translates well to humans.

Another way to restore vision is gaining traction: xenotransplants (transplants from animals to humans). Just last year a Chinese boy’s vision was restored after a corneal transplant from a pig. Pigs are good candidates for human transplantation because they are anatomically and physiologically similar, and they are ethically more desirable sources than non-human primates. Although pigs are not immunologically similar to humans, the eye transplants are unlikely to be rejected by the recipient because this part of the body is immune-privileged.

Restoring vision is an important and admirable task. Scientists and clinicians have multiple avenues to explore to help people regain their sight. (ScienceDaily)

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May 9, 2017 at 9:43 am

Science Policy Around the Web – January 24, 2017

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By: Leopold Kong, PhD

Landfill by Dhscommtech at GFDL, via Wikimedia Commons

Environment

New Discovery Could Lead to a Safer Solution to Plastic Pollution

Polyethylene terephthalate (PET) is a commonly used resin of the polyester family used in the fibers for clothing and liquid containers. In 2015 alone, 56 million tons of PET was produced. Although recyclable, with 1.5 billion pounds recovered annually in the United States, PET is not biodegradable and is a major presence in landfills. Screening 250 samples of contaminated soil, waste water and sludge from a bottle recycling factory for microorganisms that can grow on PET, a team of Japanese scientists has discovered a bacterium, Idoenella sakaiensis, that can break down this tough plastic. Recently spotlighted as a major breakthrough of 2016 by the American Chemical Society, research on the bacterium continues as scientists seek to unlock the mechanism behind the biodegradation pathway that was previously thought to be impossible. Professor Kenji Miyamoto, one of the study authors, said, “This is the first PET-degrading bacterium found [with potential] to develop a new and nature-friendly system”. (Research Highlights, Keio University).

Biomedical Research

Trump Asks NIH Director Francis Collins to Stay On

Last Thursday, on the eve of the inauguration, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) announced that Dr. Francis Collins has been asked to continue his role as NIH director by the Trump administration for an unspecified time. This eleventh hour development came as Collins received back the letter of resignation he had sent late last year, something all presidential appointees do. If asked to stay on through this presidential term, Collins, part of Obama’s science ‘dream team’, would be the first NIH director since the 1970s to be chosen by two presidents.

Ezekiel Emanuel, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania said, “In general, I think more than eight years has not been a good idea. There’s a cycle, and eight years is hard to have new ideas and new energy.”  Nonetheless, Collins, a National Academy of Sciences member who led the human genome project and a highly vocal Christian apologist, would serve as an effective bridge between the research community and the new Republican administration to secure much needed funding for basic research. Tony Mazzashi, senior director for policy and research at the Association schools and Programs of Public Health in Washington DC said, “ I think everyone in the research community will be thrilled.” (Jocelyn Kaiser, Science)

Public Health

Novavax Starts New Clinical Trial in Bid to Prove Failed RSV Vaccine

Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV) is a significant public health burden, infecting almost all children by age 2, with 5 to 20 out of 1,000 requiring hospitalization and with a mortality rate of 8 to 34 out of 10,000. Unfortunately, the development of an effective vaccine has been challenging. In the late 1960s, an RSV vaccine for infants devastatingly failed clinical trials with 80% of children receiving the shot being hospitalized. Recent advances in immunology and the RSV vaccine target has led to a new generation of potentially safer and more effective vaccine candidates from industry giants Novavax, GlaxoSmithKline, Global Vaccines, AstraZeneca and MedImmune. Also being explored is vaccination of expectant mothers to protect infants.

However, the field took a hit last year when Novavax’s candidate vaccine failed its phase 3 clinical trials, resulting in a 30% layoff of its workforce. Nonetheless, last Thursday, the company announced that it has started a new phase 2 trial on older adults in the southern hemisphere.  “We expect the results from this trial to inform the next steps in our older adults program and would ensure we maintain our leadership position in this very attractive market opportunity,” said Stanley Erck, president and CEO of Novavax. (Tina Reed, Washington Business Journal)

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January 24, 2017 at 10:04 am