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Science Policy Around the Web – November 17, 2015

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By: Cheryl Jacobs Smith, Ph.D.

Public Health Policy

In Reversal, Death Rates Rise For Middle-Aged Whites

A recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) entitled: Rising morbidity and mortality in midlife among white non-Hispanic Americans in the 21st century, reported an increase in mortality among middle-aged white non-Hispanic men and women of the United States. The authors of the paper, Anne Case and Angus Deaton are economics professors at Princeton University and Deaton was awarded the 2015 Nobel Prize in Economics for his work in poverty. Despite being an expert in this area of research, his most recent findings leave many questioning the veracity of his and his co-author’s findings.

Historically, minority populations in the United States have suffered disproportionately from increased mortality that many have accepted as either a result of reduced access to healthcare resulting in poor health and uncontrolled co-morbidities or poorly controlled chronic diseases leading to premature death. Rarely had white non-Hispanics been associated with poor outcomes when compared to these groups and this study is one of the first to highlight the disparity among white non-Hispanics as well as to demonstrate that it is a mortality rate that has spiked dramatically between 1999-2013.The authors state, “This change reversed decades of progress in mortality and was unique to the United States; no other rich country saw a turnaround [during this time period].”

The authors suggest that perhaps the U.S. economic downturn that occurred around that time more severely hit the white non-Hispanic population because they were not accustomed to such a decline in lifestyle. The authors further imply that perhaps this caused an increase in despair and/or depression that provoked prescription drug use that lead to drug abuse. Indeed, the number of unintentional, overdose deaths as a result of prescription pain relievers has quadrupled since 1999. This study certainly brings attention to a new population group experiencing disparity in health and warrants further investigation into this area to validate their findings and intervene to slow and/or reverse this tragic trend in mortality among white non-Hispanics. (Rob Stein, NPR)

Drug Policy

Painkiller Abusers Aren’t Completely Abandoning Prescription Opioids for Heroin, Study Shows

A study published in The New England Journal of Medicine conducted by researchers at Washington University School of Medicine, revealed that opioid abusers aren’t necessarily abandoning ship for heroin. Interestingly, after surveying 15,000 patients at drug-treatment centers in 49 states, the study found that opioid abusers are using the two drugs simultaneously as availability allows. Senior investigator, Theodore J. Cicero said, in an interview “[that] [f]luctuating between heroin and prescription opioids could potentially make it difficult for abusers to dose correctly, trying to match the high of one to the other.” This would most likely increase the adverse events associated with opioid use.

Consistent with opioid use on the rise, the authors found that 42% of patients surveyed in 2014 reported they had taken prescription opioids and heroin within a month of entering treatment. This finding is up 23.6% from 2008. The study also identified a likely drive to increase heroin use—the lower cost and availability was a driving factor among prescription opioid users switch to heroin. Understanding why people find these drugs so appealing and monitoring their prescription use will hopefully provide better avenues for drug abuse prevention and treatment. (CJ Arlotta, Forbes)

Basic Science Research

Three science ideas you’ll be hearing more about in 2016

There is important work being done in the basic sciences. If your work is judged to be a “breakthough,” you could stand to be awarded $3 million dollars—twice the dollar amount of the Nobel Price! The goal of the Breakthrough Prize award is to highlight the hard and important work being done in the basic sciences and translate these findings to the public. Three of the breakthrough ideas are highlighted below:

  1. Neutrinos are the key to understanding the unknown universe

Two of the researchers awarded the 2016 Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics, Arthur B. McDonald of Queen’s University in Canada, and Takaaki Kajita of the University of Tokyo in Japan were recent recipients of the Nobel Prize in Physics for their discovery that neutrinos can oscillate. Given the ability of neutrinos to oscillate goes against dogma because it assumes neutrinos have mass—whereas the Standard Model of physics suggests neutrinos have zero mass. It is an evolving thought that neutrinos are the key to understanding the known universe.

  1. Understanding the human genome can lead to new treatments for diseases

The Breakthrough Prizes in the Life Sciences went to researchers, John Hardy of the University College London, and Helen Hobbs at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center and Howard Hughes Medical Institute. Their individual findings discovered inherited mutations that cause early onset Alzheimer’s disease (Dr. Hardy) or genetic variants that alter levels and distribution of cholesterol and other lipids (Dr. Hobbs) throughout the body. These findings highlight that the better we understand our genome the better we can prevent and treat disease.

  1. Exploring ancient DNA can help explain the origins of humans

Svante Pääbo of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology won a Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences for pioneering the sequencing of ancient Neanderthal DNA. The implications from his work are that we would be able to compare Neanderthal genomes to modern humans and detect specific genetic changes that resulted in the first modern humans.

“Breakthrough Prize laureates are making fundamental discoveries about the universe, life and the mind,” Breakthrough Prize co-founder Yuri Milner said. Technology is changing our view of the world advancing science at an exponential pace. Yet, the biggest questions remain to be answered. It is an exciting time to be doing science. (Dominic Basulto, Washington Post)

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Written by sciencepolicyforall

November 17, 2015 at 9:00 am

Science Policy Around the Web – November 6, 2015

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By: Sylvina Raver, Ph.D.

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Education and Mental Health

Sesame Street’s new brand of autism education

There’s a new Muppet on the block: her name is Julia, she’s in preschool, and she has autism. Julia’s arrival on Sesame Street is part of a coordinated effort by the Sesame Workshop – the nonprofit organization behind the long-running educational children’s program – to reduce the stigma associated with autism and to normalize the disorder among preschool children. The initiative, called Sesame Street and Autism: See Amazing in All Children, is a web-based project with resources for parents that include videos aimed at educating kids ages 2-5 about their peers with autism, a storybook featuring Julia and her friends, and free daily routine cards that parents can use to teach their autistic children basic skills like teeth brushing.

The new initiative was created based on solid academic research thanks to input from multiple universities, professional organizations, and advocacy groups. The Sesame Workshop also worked to ensure that these resources included the viewpoints of individuals with autism. One in 68 children in the US is diagnosed with autism, which ensures that young kids are almost assured to interact with an autistic peer.  Despite the prevalence of the disorder, bullying is still extremely common. One recent study by the Interactive Autism Network found that 63 percent of children with autism have been bullied. The Sesame Street initiative aims to foster tolerance and acceptance with preschool age children in the hope of decreasing bullying among older children, in part by normalizing the features of autism, rather than by exaggerating how they may be disabling to children with the disorder. There’s plenty of room for optimism concerning the effectiveness of using Sesame Street as a platform for this type of education. A 2015 report from the National Bureau of Economic Research found that the program is “the largest and least-costly [early-childhood] intervention that’s ever been implemented” in the US. (Lauren McKenna, The Atlantic; Elizabeth Blair, NPR)

Drug Policy

In heroin crisis, white families seek gentler war on drugs

The nation’s long-running war on drugs has been defined by zero tolerance and stiff prison sentences. It emerged during a crack cocaine epidemic of the mid 1980’s that was primarily concentrated in poor, predominantly black, urban areas. In contrast, the heroin epidemic of the last decade is concentrated in white communities, many of which are suburban and middle-class. This demographic shift in drug use is starting to have profound consequences on how the drug war is being waged. Families who have lost loved ones to heroin are increasingly channeling their anger and grief into efforts to change the language surrounding addiction, and to urge politicians and government to treat drug use as a disease instead of a crime. For example, the derogatory term “junkie” is falling out of favor in lieu of softer and more understanding language. President Obama visited West Virginia recently, a mostly white state with staggering numbers of heroin overdose deaths, to discuss a new proposal to expand access for drug treatment and prevention programs. Presidential hopefuls from both parties have adopted a tone of compassion, rather than punishment: Hillary Clinton has been hosting forums on the issue in New Hampshire, and Jeb Bush is openly discussing his family’s experiences with drug addiction. In a dramatic shift, the Gloucester, Massachusetts police department is employing a new approach to heroin use that at least three dozen other departments have now adopted: users will no longer be arrested if they walk into a police station for help, even if they are in possession of heroin or its associated paraphernalia.

Many people welcome this shift as a needed course correction in light of our scientific understanding of the biology of addiction. However, some black scholars express frustration that similar calls for a more empathetic approach to drug addiction were not heard when they originated from the black community.  Kimberle Williams Crenshaw, a scholar of racial issues at Columbia and UCLA law schools, notes …”had this compassion existed for African-Americans caught up in addiction and the behaviors it produces, the devastating impact of mass incarceration upon entire communities would never have happened.” (Katherine Q. Seelye, The New York Times)


Create a global microbiome effort

In last weeks’ issue of Science magazine, a group of leading scientists in the US called for the creation of a Unified Microbiome Initiative (UMI) which would assemble researchers with representatives from private and public agencies and foundations to study the activities of the Earth’s microbial ecosystems. Nearly every organism and habitat on Earth hosts a unique population of microorganisms, known as its microbiome. These microbial communities are fundamental to nearly all aspects of life on Earth. For example, soil microbes drive the production of usable forms of crucial planetary elements like carbon and nitrogen, and their manipulation shows promise for reducing agricultural use of pesticides, fertilizers, and water use. Ocean microbes produce much of earth’s oxygen, and may be able to be engineered to remove gases from the Earth’s atmosphere that contribute to global warming. Emerging research has revealed the role played by microbes that live within our own bodies in driving overall health and shaping our behavior. This human microbiome is increasingly seen as a target for new drugs, and is an essential tool for precision medicine.

Despite the crucial functions that microorgansms play, and the spectacular promise that they show for addressing challenges to environmental and human health, scientists know very little about how microbes interact with each other, their environments, and their hosts. This is in large part due to an absence of tools currently available that would “enable a mechanistic, predictive, and actionable understanding of global microbiome processes.” Addressing these technical limitations are central to the proposed UMI. The team calling for its formation describes a need for enhanced multi-disciplinary collaboration between physical, life, and biomedical sciences; engineering, and computer science in order to implement hypothesis-driven approaches that can establish causal relationships between microorganisms and their environments.

A second – and equally important – aspect of a UMI involves the need for enhanced collaboration between researchers who study different microbiome populations. Boundaries between scientists who investigate various microorganism communities are artificial and are largely due to historical divides between scientific disciplines, rather than reflecting fundamental differences between microbes that colonize a human mouth or the ocean floor. Furthermore, microbe communities are not limited to national borders but are instead part of a global microbiome. Indeed, the journal Nature contains an accompanying call for the creation of an International Microbiome Initiative to provide universal insight into the microscopic organisms all around and within us. (Alivisatos et al., Science; Dubilier, McFall-Ngai, & Zhao, Nature; Ed Yong, The Atlantic)

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Written by sciencepolicyforall

November 6, 2015 at 9:00 am