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Posts Tagged ‘GMOs

Science Policy Around the Web – July 19, 2016

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By: Emily Petrus, Ph.D.

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Data Mining

Big Data Fighting Terror

How do we stop terrorist attacks before they happen? The US Department of Defense (DOD) has projects dedicated to maintaining our military prowess; however, a new branch of science may be our best bet in fighting this increasingly sinister opponent. Managing huge sets of data from multiple sources presents a challenge for our intelligence and military organizations as we scramble to thwart acts of terror. This involves identifying target locations, suspects and reacting quickly and/or proactively.

After the terror attacks of 9/11, the Patriot Act was passed to allow the government unprecedented access to data from Americans, including bulk phone metadata – famously leaked by Edward Snowden after working for the National Security Agency. Although this type of data is no longer accessible since the bill expired in 2015, the government now has more data than it knows how to handle from social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook. The National Science Foundation and the DOD are seeking interdisciplinary approaches to efficiently analyze huge data sets and enhance predictive abilities to spot potential terror suspects or events.

It is estimated that ISIS members make up to 90,000 posts on social media per day, so sifting through these posts is a challenge being tackled by researchers and data miners. A 2015 paper looked at 3.1 million Arabic tweets related to ISIS from 250,000 different users over the span of a few years. Using big data analytics they were able to use present tweets to determine if users were pro or anti-ISIS. After identifying users’ present status, they used an algorithm to look at past tweets and predicted which users became ISIS supporters with 87% accuracy.

Our country must weigh the benefits of using big data to foil terror plots before they happen against the loss of privacy. Just this month the House of Representatives voted to block expansion of the Patriot Act, which would have allowed banks to share information with federal authorities of those suspected of funding terrorism. America may be the land of the free, but like France, this leaves us vulnerable to opportunistic terrorists.


House gives thumbs-up to GMO label law; bill goes to Obama

Food labels are about to get more complicated: a law proposed by the Senate was passed by the House of Representatives on July 14th will require foods containing genetically modified organisms (GMOs) to be labeled. The labels will be designed with United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) oversight, and can include text, a logo, or a Quick Response (QR) smartphone code. The federal government was pushed to action by the recent legislation in Vermont, which required GMO labeling for foods in grocery stores. This caused many food products to be removed from sale in Vermont such as Coca-Cola, Sabra Hummus, and Heinz Ketchup because companies did not have the motivation or time to prepare labels for Vermont’s new law.

The benefits of passing a law reduces the patchwork of laws bound to spring up in other states, which decreases the burden of individual state labeling for food makers. However there is no consensus on what qualifies as a GMO, as some genetic modifications are simply via selective breeding, while others are “in the lab” like recombinant DNA techniques. Other problems with the bill are exceptions; including foods made with a GMO no longer have the genetic material after processing, which is the case with many sweeteners and cooking oils.

Although the “right to know” movement stimulated by public interest has good intentions, unfortunately the anti-GMO movement is not backed by scientific research. Recently, more than 100 Nobelaureates penned a letter to Greenpeace requesting they stop their anti-GMO campaign. They point to examples of GMO products being better for public health and the environment, as they increase food’s nutritional value and often reduce the amount of chemicals required.

Overall, the mandatory GMO labeling is a compromise bill which will increase the amount of information available about the foods we purchase. Unfortunately the variety of methods used and the complexity of genetic modification of food makes it difficult to make into a simple label for the general population’s benefit. (Jim Spencer, Star Tribune)


Science’s status shifts in new Brexit government

The weeks following the Brexit yielded an atmosphere of chaos for British politicians, citizens and scientists as the world came to grips with what an EU exit would do for the economy and everyday lives of those in the UK. Scientists in the UK are especially anxious following the Brexit, as researchers have much at stake with a split from the EU. These include limited access to EU research dollars, less mobility for scientists seeking training opportunities and collaborations between the UK and EU, and an uncertainty for the level of support they will receive from the new UK government.

Now the UK has selected a new prime minister, Theresa May, who has been busy re-organizing government offices. A new department responsible for research funding and oversight will now be headed by Greg Clark, a previous science minister, which is positive news for the scientific community. The department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) replaces the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills which had research budget of $6.3 billion. The Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC) also seems to be rolled into the BEIS, although some worry that without a specific department for environmental concerns, funding and priority for this research and combating climate change will fall by the wayside.

With a swift ascension to the prime minister spot and no actual campaign, scientists have very little idea if May values scientific research. In the past she has pushed to restrict visas (hampering scientist movement and training opportunities), and supported a bill to ban “designer drugs”. However scientists remain hopeful as “[s]he has been an example of good practice in gathering evidence, and also of explaining her decisions when they have not gone with the scientific advice” said Sarah Main of the Campaign for Science and Engineering in London. For the future, scientists will have to wait and see if May views science as a funding priority. (Davide Castelvecchi, Nature News)

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July 19, 2016 at 9:00 am

Science Policy Around the Web – February 2, 2016

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By: Agila Somasundaram, Ph.D.

Map representing scientific collaborations from 2005 to 2009 using data from Scopus. International cooperation. Credit: Computed by Olivier H. Beauchesne and Scimago Lab

Science Policy on a Global Scale

Global science engagement

The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) will have its annual meeting in Washington DC, from 11 to 15 February 2016. World leaders in science and policy will discuss major challenges, such as food security and health, facing the global community. Dr. Geraldine Richmond, President of the AAAS, says that nations need to employ ingenious ways to find solutions to the ever-increasing demands for food, energy, water, and a healthy environment, which are complex and interconnected problems. Dr. Richmond emphasizes the importance of international research partnerships and innovative approaches that assimilate perspectives and lessons from all over the world, including the developing countries. Such ‘Global Science Engagement’ will be the focus of this year’s AAAS meeting. Dr. Richmond cautions that isolationist views that undervalue international initiatives are unwise. For example, the United States spends billions of dollars providing clean drinking water to its people, but 90 percent of that water is flushed down the drain. Valuable lessons could be learnt from countries such as Namibia where recycled water has been consumed since 1969 with no adverse health consequences. Diversity in opinions, ideas, and experiences is essential to furthering creativity and innovation that is required to solve complex global problems. But scientists in developing countries face difficulties connecting with their peers in more advanced nations, for e.g. due to limited journal access, and people in the United States who are interested in global engagement have limited ways to do so. While commending the efforts of AAAS and other scientific societies in facilitating international engagements, Dr. Richmond calls for more efforts and commitment to strengthen such collaborations. (Geraldine Richmond, Science)

Zika Virus

New Weapon to Fight Zika: The Mosquito

The Zika virus is rapidly spreading in the Americas, and has been linked to a severe defect in brain development, microcephaly, in babies. The Zika virus is spread by mosquitoes, mainly the Aedes aegypti species, which also transmits deadly infections such as chikungunya, yellow fever and dengue fever. Efforts to develop vaccines against the virus are underway, but it may take many years, even a decade, before an effective vaccine can be given to the public. Experts argue that new methods are needed since the traditional ones, involving insecticides and reducing stagnant water to prevent mosquito breeding, aren’t enough.

The British company Oxitec has developed genetically engineered mosquitoes that transmit a lethal gene to their progeny, which die before reaching adulthood. These engineered mosquitoes have been successfully used to lower mosquito populations by more than 80 percent in certain parts of Brazil. Oxitec says this is an ecologically friendly approach because only one species is targeted, as opposed to chemical spraying that affects many organisms. But the release of genetically modified organisms into the environment has met with opposition. Another approach is to infect the mosquitoes with the bacterium Wolbachia, which makes it harder for the mosquitoes to transmit viruses. The bacteria can be passed through eggs, making this a self-sustaining method. Initial results in Brazil appear promising, encouraging trials on a larger scale. A third powerful approach is the use of gene-drives. Gene-drives allow for the propagation of a desired trait, for e.g. sterility, through a wild population. Though gene-drives have been tested in laboratory scales, it might be not so easy to deploy it in public yet, mainly because of concerns that it would be very difficult to reverse things if something undesirable happens.

Remarking on the three approaches, Dr. Peterson, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said, “We don’t know about the efficacy of any of them on a wide enough scale… For now, we’ve got to deal with what we have.” Experts say that the traditional methods of mosquito control need to be intensified, till we have proven the large-scale efficacies of the new approaches and/or developed an effective vaccine. (Andrew Pollack, The New York Times)

Scientific Integrity

How cases like Flint destroy public trust in science

While the Flint water crisis is being investigated, disturbing reports emerge about how studies that showed a problem in Flint’s drinking water were dismissed. In Fall 2015, a team of researchers in Virginia Tech, led by Dr. March Edwards, examined the lead content of drinking water in Flint homes. The study revealed that the 90th percentile reading was 27 parts per billion. The Environmental Protection Agency considers 5 parts per billion a cause for concern, and 15 parts per billion as the limit above which the problem should be fixed. However, tests conducted by the city showed lead levels within safe limits. The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality responded saying that the state was perplexed by the study results, but not surprised, given that Dr. Edwards’ “group specializes in looking for high lead problems.” According to reports, the city’s water testing results had been “revised by the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality to wrongly indicate the water was safe to drink.” The state officials attempted “to use power instead of logic and scientific reasoning to defend and hide their actions,” says Dr. Edwards. Similarly, studies done by Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, pediatrics program director at Michigan’s Hurley Medical Center, were also initially criticized. Her study showed that the percent of children with elevated blood lead levels doubled, or tripled in some areas, after the change in water source. When the state later analyzed its data using the same approach as Dr. Hanna-Attisha, the results matched.

Dr. Naomi Oreskes, science historian at Harvard University, says that though these events may not classify as “science denials,” they constitute a less-defined category of “no one likes bad news.” “Why didn’t government officials take it seriously when scientists tried to raise an alarm?” she asks. When government officials responsible for people’s safety commit acts like these, it crushes the public’s faith in science, and exacerbates problems such as denial of climate change or the safety of vaccination. How do we prevent problems like Flint from reoccurring? The answer is not clear yet, but some suggestions include conducting better checks and balances by independent researchers not affiliated with the government, and not overlooking the role of universities in protecting public welfare. According to Dr. Aron Sousa, the work by Edwards and Hanna-Attisha should reinforce the public’s faith in good science. (Chelsea Harvey, The Washington Post)

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February 2, 2016 at 9:00 am

Science Policy Around the Web – September 1, 2015

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By: Daniël P. Melters, Ph.D.

Picture source: Dr. Torsten Wittmann, UCSF via Nikon’s Small World, 2003 Photomicrography Competition

Clinical Stem Cell Regulations

China announces stem-cell rules

Long-awaited regulations by the Chinese government meant to curb rogue stem cell clinics offering unproven treatments have been announced. Overall, these new regulations have been welcomed by stem-cell scientists in China and the rest of the world. The measures offer a straightforward path towards clinical studies. China’s stem cell clinics have been subject of criticism by Chinese government and the scientific community, but these clinics keep offering desperate patients costly, and most likely, ineffective treatments. These were often labelled as clinical trials as a cover to charge patients.

The new measures outline requirements for such studies, including obtaining a patient’s informed consent and using clinical grade stem cells that have been approved by an independent body. Only authorized hospitals will be allowed to carry out such stem cell treatments. These hospitals will be forbidden to charge patients or advertise their treatment options. Researchers who plan to do a pilot study, will have to register with the Chinese health ministry and show documentation in line with pharmaceutical companies trying to get a drug approved in the US. The mechanism laid out for clinical studies looks pretty similar to those in other countries, and more rigorous than some. But the measures might not apply to military hospitals, or to private clinics affiliated with military hospitals, which have in the past fallen outside health-ministry jurisdiction in China. Despite the general optimism, there is one major concern. The new measures are unclear in how it will be enforced. (David Cyranoski, Nature News).


Genetic Modification Market

Alphabet, soon-to-be Google’s mother company, might enter the genetic modification market, a business that seems far away from the advertisement-supported search engine. Recently, Google has invested in the CRISPR genetic modification company Editas Medicine via its ventures. Combined with a report from The Information website and contemplations by one of its leaders, Linus Upson, about genetically modified mosquitoes, and it is not too surprising that Google is thinking about this direction. Their goal seems to be in line with the British-based company Oxitec: eliminate disease-carrying mosquitoes to improve human health globally by using genetically modified mosquitoes.

Although the potential of GMO mosquitoes to combat diseases like malaria and dengue are established, the use of CRISPR makes some scientist cautious. CRISPR can be used to employ a technology called “gene drive”. Recently, a group of leading scientists wrote a paper calling for caution in deploying this technology broadly. The main fear: that gene drive has the potential to genetically modify an entire population into GMOs and do it many times faster than naturally evolving species, via a mutagenic chain reaction. To introduce these genetic changes, CRISPR is currently the most obvious technology of choice.

Whether or not Alphabet will produce a viable product, their interest in genetic editing technologies should be a clear sign to the legislatures in Washington, DC that existing regulations need to be updated, and new regulations be introduced to guarantee the safety of people and our environment.

Scientific Reproducibility

Earlier this week, a study was published in Science repeating 98 original psychology papers. Brian Nosek, a social psychologist and head of the Center for Open Science in Charlottesville, Virginia, selected 98 papers from three psychology journals to independently replicate the published results. Only 39% of the 100 repeats were successful. This number is derived from the team’s subjective scaled assessments for success or failure. Furthermore, the team tested if the original studies indeed did find significant results, and 97% of the original studies did, but only 36% were the same results as published. In addition, the team found that the average size of the effects found in the replication studies were only half of that what was reported. Although this study is only a very small sample of all the psychology studies published each year, it is important to realize that scientist should be less confident about their claims.

Nosek’s work is part of the Reproducibility Project which started in 2011 amid many reports of scientific misconduct and retractions, in part as a result of the blog Retraction Watch, founded in 2010. Not only are psychology studies subjected to validation by replication, a similar study in on the way in the field of cancer biology, where critical experiments are reproduced by independent groups who will only use the published protocols. The first results of such verification trials has also call for a critical analysis of preclinical cancer research standards. The team leader of the current psychology replication study does propose a potential solution: in addition to the Transparency and Openness Promotion Guidelines, the scientific community should devote 3% of scientific funding to replication studies. Currently, it is about zero.

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September 1, 2015 at 9:00 am

Science Policy Around the Web – August 21, 2015

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By: Amy Kullas, Ph.D.

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Genetically Modified Organisms

Scotland says ‘no’ to GMOs        

In March 2015, the European Union (EU) agreed on an amendment to its genetically modified organism (GMO) regulation. The amendment allows individual member countries and devolved authorities to restrict or prohibit GMOs (including reasons ‘other than science’) in food or feed once the EU has approved a GMO. Previously, GM crops were approved at the European level.

This amendment allows Scotland to ban GMO crops. As Richard Lochhead, Scotland Rural Affairs Secretary, confirmed that the Scottish government will submit a request that Scotland be excluded from any European consent for allowing GM crops. Thus, the growth of crops containing genetically modified organisms (GMOs) will not be allowed in Scotland. To justify this decision, Mr. Lochhead stated: “Scotland is known around the world for our beautiful natural environment – and banning genetically modified crops will protect and further enhance our clean, green status.” Latvia and Greece have already submitted their requests to the EU to ban GM crop cultivation in those countries.

This decision by Scotland has troubled many scientists because Lochhead made his decision without public consultation. Almost 30 scientific societies and organizations are urging the Scottish government to reconsider this ban. Further, the Royal Society of Edinburgh and the British Society of Plant Breeders have requested a meeting with Lochhead to discuss the “scientific evidence on GM crops”. Lochhead responded “I will be happy to meet representatives of the science community and reassure them that these changes will not affect research as it is currently carried out in Scotland. (Ned Stafford and Chemistry World, Scientific American and Erik Stokstad, ScienceInsider)

Animal Rights and Biomedical Research

Has U.S. biomedical research on chimpanzees come to an end?  Follow-up from post on June 26, 2015: ZERO labs have applied for a permit!

Earlier this summer, the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) revealed its plan to change its classification of captive chimpanzees, including those used in research laboratories, to endangered under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Additionally, the USFWS also announced that it was going require a permit for doing scientific research on captive chimps.

However, with the implementation deadline of September 14 looming less than a month away, no labs have applied for an ESA permit to conduct research on chimpanzees in the United States. At this point, it is unclear if the biomedical research on chimps has stopped or will stop; however, once stopped it will be significantly more difficult to start that line of research again. The USFWS requires at least 90 days for review of the permit request; therefore no labs will have a permit before upcoming deadline meaning any ongoing projects must stop on September 14. Dr. Robert Lanford, the current director of the Southwest National Primate Research Center (SNPRC), said no research is currently being done on any of the chimpanzees in the Center and that recent research ended early to avoid the upcoming deadline. He further stated “public opinion is currently heavily influencing this process…nobody wants to be the first test case.” (David Grimm, ScienceInsider)

Global Policy

Incentives for vaccination and beyond

In an attempt to increase the immunization rates of poor children, 70 local health clinics, in the Indian state of Haryan, have begun offering parents a free kilogram of sugar if their child(ren) begins the standard vaccination series. Additionally, if the child(ren) finishes the series of vaccines, then the parent will get a free liter of cooking oil. This concept of giving incentives mirrors the model currently used in randomized controlled trials to test the efficacy of new medicines or treatments.

Based on a pilot study, scientists, epidemiologists, and economists gained insight into why the immunization rates are low. In contrast to regions of the United States, the issue is not that people are opposed to immunization. Ester Duflo, an economist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, reveals that instead “it is certain obstacles, such as lack of time or money, are making it difficult for them to attend the clinics.” Further, this ideology is translating to other social programs, such as educational programs. This philosophy is generally welcomed in the global development arena as a mechanism to enable governments to: “promote development, relieve poverty and focus money on things that work.” (Jeff Tollefson, Nature)

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August 21, 2015 at 9:00 am

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Science Policy Around the Web – February 13, 2015

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By: Julia Shaw, Ph.D

Climate Change – Geoengineering

Elite science panel calls on U.S. to study climate modification

A panel of experts selected by the National Research Council of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences recently released a report recommending government-sponsored research on the “risks and benefits” of geoengineering to alter albedo. “Albedo” in this context relates to how much light the Earth reflects back into space and albedo modification is one potential approach to counteracting the effects of global warming. Marcia McNutt, editor-in-chief of Science, former director of the U.S. Geological Survey, and chair of the committee stressed that the recommendation reflects a harsh reality and the need for action: “That scientists are even considering technological interventions should be a wake-up call that we need to do more now to reduce emissions, which is the most effective, least risky way to combat climate change.” The report supports “small-scale field experiments” provided an appropriate entity governing geoengineering research and the surrounding ethical issues is established and recommends researchers design studies to simultaneously improve basic knowledge of climate regulation. Some of the albedo experiments could include the injection of large volumes of sulfate particles into the atmosphere and marine cloud whitening through the introduction of salt particles into coastal cloud belts. A separate report released by the National Research Council addressed the topic of carbon dioxide removal, a much less controversial tactic for moderating the effects of climate change. However technological and financial hurdles continue to beleaguer removal approaches. (Chris Mooney, The Washington Post)


Agricultural researchers rattled by demands from group opposed to GM foods

Last month U.S. Right to Know (USRTK), a nonprofit opposed to genetically modified (GM) food targeted at least four universities with freedom of information requests asking administrative officials to give them all correspondence between certain researchers and specific companies associated with GM-produced foods, including Monsanto, Syngenta, DuPont, Dow and public relations firms Fleishman-Hillard and Ogilvy & Mather. The researchers involved had all written articles for GMO Answers, a website supported by food and biotechnology firms. According to Gary Ruskin, Executive Director of USRTK the goal of the correspondence search is “ to learn how these faculty members have been appropriated into the PR machine for the chemical-agro industry.” Although Kevin Folta, a researcher at the University of Florida, Gainesville, is willing hand over his records, he is wary of USRTK’s intentions saying, “They’ll report, ‘Kevin Folta had 200 e-mails with Monsanto and Syngenta’ as a way to smear me.’” Many researchers are waiting for the final say from university lawyers before responding to USRTK’s requests. Although USRTK contends their requests are only meant to increase transparency, some researchers are concerned about repercussions on academic freedom. As another targeted researcher, Alison Van Eenennaam of the University of California, Davis, put it, “Your first inclination . . . is to stop talking about the subject. But that’s what they want. And I don’t want to be intimidated.” (Keith Kloor, ScienceInsider)

Health and the Environment

In Nevada, a Controversy in the Wind

Two geoscientists from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, Brenda Buck and Rodney Metcalf, together with Francine Baumann, an epidemiologist from the University of Hawaii are raising concerns about the effect of naturally occurring asbestos on cancer incidence in Nevada. Historically, naturally occurring veins of asbestos were actively mined; however the health risks of such activity are now more fully appreciated. Asbestos fibers can be easily inhaled and will lodge in the lungs, causing inflammation that can lead to mesothelioma and other respiratory diseases over time. Buck and Metcalf previously published research identifying numerous asbestos deposits in the state and the presence of potentially harmful asbestos fibers near Boulder City, eastern Henderson, and Las Vegas possibly caused by natural erosion and commercial development in the area. More recently they teamed-up with Dr. Baumann who used data from Nevada’s cancer registry to draft a preliminary report in 2012 noting an unusually high number of mesothelioma cases in younger residents and women in the aforementioned areas, which suggested exposure to asbestos at an early age. The response from the Nevada Department of Health was unequivocal. The department revoked Dr. Baumann’s access to the state cancer registry and forced her to remove an abstract and cancel a pending presentation on their findings for the Geological Society of America’s national meeting upon threat of legal action. Department officials maintain that their own analysis found no significant asbestos risks and further contend that “Dr. Baumann gave too much weight to a few anomalous cancer cases.” Nonetheless the Nevada Department of Transportation delayed plans for a highway project through Boulder City and the health department recently increased its monitoring of airborne fibers in southern Nevada. Determined to publish what they saw as an important health concern, Dr. Baumann and her colleagues instead evaluated cancer data reported to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. On Tuesday their study, which reported elevated rates of mesothelioma in adults under age 55 and increased disease rates in women, all found in southern Nevada and all potentially linked to exposure to naturally-occurring asbestos, was published in the Journal of Thoracic Oncology. Rather than run from controversy, Dr. Baumann believes that “with public health research, the important thing is getting information into the open and then discussing it.”   (Deborah Blum, The New York Times)


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February 13, 2015 at 9:00 am

Science Policy Around the Web – January 23, 2015

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By: Thomas Calder, Ph.D.

Source for image: Creative Commons; author Alfred Palmer

Climate Change

Wrap-up: U.S. Senate agrees climate change is real—but not necessarily that humans are causing it

The U.S. Senate voted this week on several amendments to affirm their belief on climate change. One of the amendments, which states that climate changes is real and not a hoax, was approved by 98 of the 99 senators present. This consensus was a surprise to many people, because several conservative politicians have challenged the idea of climate change in the past. Another amendment that was more controversial specifies that humans are contributing to climate change. This amendment failed to reach the 60-vote majority required for passage, despite being attached to the Keystone Pipeline bill to entice approval by conservative senators. Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) believes that this vote was still a victory though, stating, “I think this is a significant step forward, and I think in the months and years to come more and more Republicans will accept that position.” Future climate-based amendments will likely continue this debate. (Puneet Kollipara, ScienceInsider)


Federal Science Policy

Science gets its moment in Obama’s 2015 State of the Union

In President Obama’s 2015 State of the Union address, the President discussed several important science-related topics. The idea of “precision medicine” gained the national spotlight, as the President announced, “Tonight, I’m launching a new Precision Medicine Initiative to bring us closer to curing diseases like cancer and diabetes—and to give all of us access to the personalized information we need to keep ourselves and our families healthier.” Precision medicine, also known as personalized medicine, involves tailoring medication specific to a patient by utilizing information about the patient, such as their genomic sequence. The Precision Medicine Initiative is still in the planning stages. The president also stressed the country’s dire need to combat climate change, and described the recent negations with China on cutting carbon pollution as a helpful step in the right direction. NASA also gained attention in the President’s address. The President highlighting astronaut Scott Kelly’s year-long trip in space and described its potential to help NASA plan future trips to Mars. (Puneet Kollipara, ScienceInsider)


Genetically Modified Organisms

Scientists Work to Contain Modified Organisms to Labs

With the invention of genetic engineering in the 1970s, scientists have been addressing the need to contain genetically modified organisms in the lab. Several methods have been developed, such as physical containment with sealed containers or biological methods involving suicide genes or nutrient dependent genes. Recently, scientists from Harvard Medical School developed a novel method to prevent a genetically modified E. coli strain from spreading into the wild. The research team engineered the bacterium’s genetic code by replacing a specific stop codon, defined as a 3 nucleotide signal that stops amino acid construction at the end of a protein, with a different stop codon. The researchers then incorporated this removed stop codon into the middle of essential genes and created a synthetic amino acid that would be incorporated into that codon site. With this technique, the engineered bacteria can only survive in the presence of the synthetic amino acid. According to Dr. Karmella A Haynes, an assistant professor at Arizona State University, “this research represents a step-change towards building reliable control switches for G.M.O.s.” This novel technique may become a useful tool for industries that grow large amounts of genetically modified bacteria. Further information about this study can be found in the journal Nature. (Andrew Pollack, New York Times)



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January 23, 2015 at 11:31 am

Science Policy Around the Web – December 9, 2014

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By: Jennifer E. Seedorff, Ph.D.

Flu Season – Public Health

Potential for a deadlier flu season

This flu season has the potential to be an especially bad season. This year the predominant circulating flu strain is a H3N2 virus, and historically the H3 strains have been associated with more severe flu seasons, including increases in hospitalizations and deaths. This season may be especially bad because some of the circulating H3 viruses have mutated since the strains for the vaccine were chosen, and these mutations may mean that the vaccine may be less effective against the mutated strain. Despite the mismatch between the flu strains and the vaccine, vaccination is still highly recommended. The vaccine will still provide protection against other strains of flu, including the unmutated H3N2 strain that is also in circulation, and may still provide a “weak defense” against the mutated strain, according to the CDC.   Additionally, this year CDC recommends that anti-viral drugs like Tamiflu (oseltamivir) be given to vulnerable patients with flu symptoms without waiting for a positive flu test, since these drugs work better when given earlier in the infection. Dr. Thomas Frieden, director of the CDC, said that, “Flu is unpredictable, but what we’ve seen thus far is concerning.” (Donald McNeil, Jr. New York Times)



Successful test flight of the Orion spaceship

NASA’s Orion spaceship successfully completed its first unmanned test flight on December 5th. Orion is intended to replace the retired shuttle for manned spaceflight, including missions to the Moon and eventually Mars. Mark Geyer, NASA’s Orion program manager, commented on the successful flight and splashdown in the Pacific, “It’s hard to have a better day than today.” This 4.5 hour unmanned spaceflight was intended to test the performance of critical re-entry systems, including its thermal shielding. The Orion spaceship is being developed in parallel with a new launch rocket that will likely be ready around 2017-2018. Amos reports that commentators are “worried that the policy as laid out cannot continue in its current guise.” John Logsdon, a historian, commented that, “the first Orion launch with a crew aboard is 2020/21, and then nothing very firmly is defined after that, although of course NASA has plans. That’s too slow-paced to keep the launch teams sharp, to keep everyone engaged. It’s driven by the lack of money, not technical barriers.” Ellen Stofan, NASA’s chief scientists said that, “We have all these technologies mapped out and we’re asking, ‘what is the most sustainable path we can get on (to acquire them)?’” Despite concerns about the pace of development and future missions, Friday’s launch was a reason for celebration. As mission control commentator Rob Navias said, “There’s your new spacecraft, America.” (Jonathan Amos, BBC News)


Regulatory Policy – FDA

New drug labels to include more information on risks of medications during pregnancy

In June 2015, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) will begin to require labels on prescription drugs and biologics to include more information on risks to pregnant and breastfeeding women, and on the reproductive risks to both men and women. Prior to this rule change, drugs were given a letter grade based on known or unknown risks of the medication during pregnancy and breastfeeding. “The ABC system was useless. Every thing was C, and all it said was there was no known data during pregnancy but that wasn’t necessarily the case,” said Jacques Moritz, director of gynecology at Mount Sinai St. Luke’s and Mount Sinai Roosevelt in New York. Sandra Kweder, deputy director of the Office of New Drugs in the Center for Drug Evaluation and Research, FDA, wrote, “Our new method provides for explanations, based on available information, about the potential benefits and risks for the mother, the fetus, the breastfeeding children, and women and men of reproductive age.” The new rule will require that the information packets included with medications approved since 2001 include subsections on “Pregnancy,” “Lactation,” and “Females and Males of Reproductive potential” and include a summary of risks and the data to support the conclusions.  The rule will not require companies to do studies on the risks during pregnancy and lactation, but will require them to provide the information, if it exists. “Oftentimes the research is out there in the medical literature,” Kweder said and that, “oftentimes companies know about it,” but may not include it. (Brady Dennis, Washington Post and Sabrina Tavernise, New York Times)



Compromise in debate over genetically modified plants in the European Union

Recently, a compromise was reached in the approval process of genetically modified (GM) plants for cultivated in the European Union (EU). Approval of genetically modified crops has been particularly controversial in Europe where resistance and support for GM crops varied greatly amongst the member states. Prior to this compromise, approval by the EU Commission would have allowed GM crops to be grown in all member states, some of which have laws that ban cultivation of GM plants. This compromise agreement will allow individual member states to overrule EU approval of GM crops in their state. This agreement should help to speed up the approval process, but still needs to be approved to come into force. The compromise of letting individual member independently decide on whether to allow GM crops to be grown has met with resistance from both supporters and defenders of GM crops. Still the EU commissioner of Health and Food Safety Vytenis Andriukaitis called the deal “a significant step forward, after 4 years of intense debates . . . (The agreement will) give the democratically elected governments at least the same weight as scientific advice when it comes to important decisions concerning food and environment.” (Daniel Cressey, Nature News)


Written by sciencepolicyforall

December 9, 2014 at 2:16 pm

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