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Science Policy Around the Web – December 02, 2016

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By: Liu-Ya Tang, PhD

Source: pixabay

Public Health

Childhood Bullying and Adult Overweight

Bullying is, without a doubt, a big problem in U.S. schools, as “40% to 80% of school-age children experience bullying at some point during their school careers” according to the American Psychological Association. What influence will bullying have on child development? Bullying can not only affect mental health, but also have a lasting effect on a person’s physical health. A recent study finds that bullied children were more likely to be overweight than non-bullied children at age 18.

Scientists studied a cohort of twins from 2,232 children who were followed to age 18. Bullying victimization was reported by mothers and children during primary school and early secondary school. At ages 10, 12 and 18, they collected data for indicators of overweight. To index genetic and fetal liability to overweight, co-twin body mass and birth weight were also used. They found that the association between childhood bullying victimization and being overweight at age 18 was influenced by the chronicity of exposure, as children bullied in both primary school and secondary school showed the highest risk of being overweight. They also measured whether childhood psychosocial risk factors (socioeconomic disadvantage and food insecurity) contributed to a higher risk of being overweight at age 18. To their surprise, the result showed that the elevated risk of bullied children becoming overweight is independent of their psychosocial risk.

The researchers further dug into the mechanisms of why childhood bullying puts kids at high risk for being overweight as a young adult. One possible reason is the allostatic load theory prediction, which states that “more chronic exposure to psychosocial stress is associated with the greatest metabolic abnormalities”. This theory has been supported by a study, in which they found that children being bullied may eat more due to impaired inhibitory control over feeding linked to prefrontal cortex abnormalities. In addition to explanations from the biological aspect, social mechanisms may also need to be taken into account. Bullied children may avoid participating in group sporting activities to reduce the risks of victimization from peers. It is important for school, clinical practice and public health agencies to identify the mechanisms and develop anti-bullying interventions, which could support bullied children to have a healthy life later and help reduce the large public health burden due to overweight. (Jessie R. Baldwin et al., Psychosomatic Medicine)

Climate Change

Will Climatic Warming Affect Soil Respiration?

It is estimated that nine times more carbon dioxide (CO2) is released from soils to atmosphere via soil respiration annually when compared with anthropogenic emissions. This efflux of carbon from soils is attributed to both plant root respiration and microbial respiration. Rising temperatures are expected to increase rates of soil respiration, which potentially provides a positive feedback to climatic warming. However, there were discrepancies in the observations from recent years, so the interaction between soil respiration and climate warming remains uncertain in climate projections.

To understand the complex relationship between soil respiration and temperature, 43 researchers from the United States and Europe conducted a global synthesis of 27 experimental warming studies spanning nine biomes, which results in >3,800 observations. There are numerous interesting findings. With the exception of boreal forest and desert, they didn’t observe significant differences in the temperature sensitivity of soil respiration between warmed or control treatments within other biomes (temperate forest, northern shrubland, southern shrubland, grassland and temperate agriculture). This finding suggests that acclimation of soil communities to warmer conditions is likely to have a greater impact for soil carbon dynamics in boreal forest and desert systems, while climatic warming will have little effect on other biomes. They also investigated the relationship between soil moisture, respiration rate and temperature, and found that the magnitude of the respiration response to warming decreased linearly with the degree of soil drying across the entire dataset.

Interestingly, they found a universal decline in the temperature sensitivity of respiration at soil temperature >25°C for non-desert biomes, while deserts have a higher temperature threshold at 55°C for reduced respiration. The significant difference in soil respiration in response to temperature could be due to a number of factors, such as different plant and microbial communities in the desert compared with other biomes, or abiotic decomposition as a major component of litter decomposition in deserts. Compared with lower latitudes, higher-latitude sites more often experience soil temperature <25°C, where soil respiration rates correlate positively with temperature. So higher attitudes will be more responsive to warmer temperatures. This study helps project future shifts for different geographic regions with the climatic warming. (Joanna C. Carey et al., PNAS)

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December 2, 2016 at 11:51 pm

Science Policy Around the Web – September 30, 2016

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By: Jessica Hostetler, PhD

Source: Flickr, under Creative Commons

Human Genetic Manipulation

World’s first baby born with new “3 parent” technique

On September 27, 2016, the New Scientist reported the birth of a baby born with DNA from three people. The now five-month old healthy baby boy was born in New York to a Jordanian couple who had struggled for years to have a healthy child. The baby’s mother had genes for the lethal Leigh syndrome, a neurological disorder typically resulting in death in 1-3 years after birth, from which her first two children had died. These genes were carried in about 25% of her mitochondria, the energy producers for cells, which contain 37 genes separated from the thousands of other genes held inside the cell’s nucleus. Mitochondrial genes are only passed down from mothers through the mitochondria present in the mother’s egg before being fertilized by a father’s sperm.

The couple worked with US-based fertility expert John Zhang from the New Hope Fertility Center in New York City to undergo an approach for mitochondrial replacement therapy (MRT) called spindle nuclear transfer. Dr. Zhang transferred the nucleus of one of the mother’s eggs into a donor egg, which had the nucleus removed but contained healthy mitochondria. Several of these eggs were then fertilized with the father’s sperm to make 5 embryos with nuclear genes from both the father and the mother and mitochondria from the donor. The only healthy embryo was then implanted into the mother, and resulted in the birth of a healthy baby boy, with 99% healthy mitochondria.

This type of egg manipulation is now legal in the UK, though effectively banned in the US, so the team completed the fertility work in Mexico, which lacks clear regulations for the procedure. While several people such as Sian Harding who reviewed ethics for the UK guidelines, and legal scholar Rosario Isasi (from a Nature article), have acknowledged that Zhang’s group appears to have followed ethical guidelines, questions remain about the ethics, quality and safety of the technique.

The report was covered in a number of additional articles and commentaries, including in the New York Times, Science, and Nature. The commentaries note that researchers are eager for more information on a host of fronts such as the choice of using Mexico as the site of the work (as opposed to a more regulated and rigorous scientific environment) and the threshold of contaminating maternal mitochondria used in transfers (5%). These and other specifics are likely to come up when Dr. Zhang and team report on the case at the American Society for Reproductive Medicine meeting in October, 2016. (Jessica Hamzelou, New Scientist)

Health Policy

Why do obese patients get worse care? Many doctors don’t see past the fat

One in three Americans is obese; despite this fact, doctors and the healthcare system remain ill equipped in “attitudes, equipment and common practices” to treat obese patients. Beyond equipment issues, such as 90% of ERs and 80% of hospitals lacking M.R.I. machines built to accommodate very obese patients, research into bias against obese patients (both conscious and unconscious) shows that healthcare providers spend less time with such patients and refer them for fewer diagnostic tests. The same review reports that doctors feel less respect for obese patients and are more likely to stereotype them as “lazy, undisciplined and weak-willed,” all of which can negatively impact communication in the doctor-patient relationship, which in turn affects quality of care. In an effort to address the problem, the American Board of Obesity Medicine was founded to educate physicians about patient care and provide certification for achieving “competency in obesity care.”

Currently, these attitudes can lead health care providers to misdiagnose symptoms as being obesity-related instead of fully investigating other, potentially life threatening causes. Drug dosing may often be incorrect for obese people, particularly for cancer drug regimens for which obese individuals have worse outcomes across the board. Many orthopedists refuse joint hip and knee replacement surgery for obese patients unless they lose weight, though a review committee from the American Association of Hip and Knee Surgeons recommends a measured approach including options for surgery in some patients after the risks are discussed. The problems obese patients face may be exacerbated by the risk-averse hospital culture where adverse event scores affect Medicare reimbursements; thus pushing hospitals to avoid helping higher-risk patients. Beyond this there is a distinct lack of guidance from drug makers for correct dosing of anethesia drugs, with only a few examples, for instance a report from Dr. Hendrikus Lemmens out of Stanford University. Dr. Lemmens notes that 20-30% of obese-patient stays in intensive care after surgery are due to anesthetic complications and are likely frequently caused by drug dosing errors. Providing quality healthcare will likely only increase as the numbers of obese patients continue to increase in the US. (Gina Kolata, New York Times)

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September 30, 2016 at 9:00 am

Science Policy Around the Web – August 26, 2016

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By: Leopold Kong, PhD

Adipose Tissue  Source: Wikipedia Commons, by Blausen.com staff, “Blausen Gallery 2014“.

Health Policy

Is there such a thing as ‘fat but fit’?

Nearly 70% of American adults are overweight or obese, raising their risk for health problems such as heart disease, diabetes, and high blood pressure. However, about a third of obese individuals appear to have healthy levels of blood sugar and blood pressure. Whether these ‘fat but fit’ individuals are actually “fit” has been controversial. A recent study published in Cell Reports has sought to dissect differences in the fat cells of the ‘unfit’ obese versus the ‘fit’ obese using tools that probe the patterns of genes being turned on or off. Fat from non-overweight people were also examined in the study. Interestingly, fat of non-overweight individuals and obese individuals differed in over 200 genes, regardless of ‘fitness’. However, the fat of ‘fit’ versus ‘unfit’ obese individuals only differed in two genes. Dr. Mikael Rydén, the lead author of the study commented: “We think that adds fuel to the debate. It would imply that you are not protected from bad outcomes if you are a so-called fit and fat person.” The study also highlights the complexity of fat’s influence on health, and raises the possibility of ‘fat’ biopsies. For example, fat from normal weight individuals following an unhealthy lifestyle may have marked differences that are diagnostic of future obesity. With the rising cost of treating chronic diseases associated with being overweight, further studies are warranted. (Lindzi Wessel, Stat News)

Biomedical Research

Half of biomedical research studies don’t stand up to scrutiny

Reproducible results are at the heart of what makes science ‘science’. However, a large proportion of published biomedical research appears to be irreproducible. A shocking study by scientists at the biotechnology firm Amgen aiming to reproduce 53 “landmark” studies showed that only 6 them could be confirmed. The stakes are even higher when it comes to pre-clinical cancer research. In fact, they are $30 billion higher, according to a recent study, suggesting that only 50% of findings can be reproduced. Primary sources of irreproducibility can be traced to (1) poor study design, (2) instability and scarcity of biological reagents and reference materials, (3) unclear laboratory protocols, and (4) poor data analysis and reporting. A major stumbling block may be the present culture of science, which does not reward publishing replication studies, or negative results. Higher impact journals generally prioritize work that demonstrates something new and potentially groundbreaking or controversial. When winning grant money and academic posts hinges on impact factor, reproducibility suffers. However, with such high potential for wasting substantial funds on medically significant areas, radical changes in science policy towards publishing, peer review and science education is urgently needed. The recent reproducibility initiative aiming “to identify and reward high quality reproducible research via independent validation” may be a step in the right direction. However, a paradigm shift in scientists’ attitudes towards what constitutes important research might be necessary. (Ivan Orannsky, The Conversation)

Biotechnology

In CRISPR fight, co-inventor says Broad Institute misled patent office

The intellectual property dispute over the multibillion-dollar CRISPR gene editing technology has grown increasingly heated in the last months. With the FDA giving the go-ahead for the first U.S. clinical trial using CRISPR and with China beginning a clinical trial this month using this technology, the tension is high. On one side of the dispute is University of California’s Jennifer Doudna whose initial work established the gene-editing technology in a test tube. On the other side is Broad Institute’s Feng Zhang, who within one year made the technology work in cells and organisms, and therefore broadly applicable for biotechnology. Was Zhang’s contribution a substantial enough advance to warrant its own patents? Was Doudna’s work too theoretical and basic? This week, a potentially damning email that emerged from the legal filings of the dispute was made public. The email is from a former graduate student of Zhang’s, Shuailiang Lin, to Doudna. In addition to asking for a job, Lin wrote that Zhang was unable to make the technology work until the 2012 Doudna publication revealed the key conceptual advances. Lin adds: “I think a revolutionary technology like this […] should not be mis-patented. We did not work it out before seeing your paper, it’s really a pity. But I think we should be responsible for the truth. That’s science.” A spokesperson for the Broad Institute, Lee McGuire, suggested that Lin’s claims are false, and pointed out that Lin was in a rush to renew his visa, and had sent his explosive email to Doudna after being rejected for a new post at the Broad Institute. With CRISPR technology promising to change the face of biotechnology, the drama over its intellectual property continues to escalate. (Antonio Regalado, MIT Technology Review)

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August 26, 2016 at 9:00 am

Science Policy Around the Web – May 4, 2016

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By: Cheryl Jacobs Smith, Ph.D.

Science Education Policy

Are Science Lecture Classes Sexist?

Students of both sexes complain it is increasingly more difficult to get A’s in college science and math classes then in other non-science, technology, engineering, or math (STEM) classes. However, women are suffering disproportionately to a “grade penalty” in sciences versus male college students.

A study from the University of Michigan, that has been submitted to the open access journal, PLoS One, observed that female college student typically earn half a letter grade lower in large, introductory math or science courses than in other classes at the university. In contrast, male college students only received a grade that was a third of a letter grade lower. Both sexes do worse in the introductory chemistry course, however, female college students experience a “grade penalty” more often than male college students.

What is interesting is that the reverse is true when looking at STEM laboratory grades and breaking it down by gender. Female college students do better overall in laboratory classes compared to lecture and even outscore their male counterparts. The author of the study, Dr. Timothy McKay, a Michigan professor of physics, contributes this difference the the fact that labs allow time for students to go at their own pace and polish up their reports without a ticking time clock — such as you have with in-class timed examinations. Why would women do worse on objective, timed tests? McKay speculates that something called “stereotype threat” is at play, whereby women may not perform at their best when they feel that they are in an environment where women don’t succeed. Timed tests add an element of stress, which can trigger this sort of self-doubting, counterproductive anxiety.

McKay is now conducting experiments to see if he can level the playing field. In some lecture classes, he is replacing a few high-stakes exams with biweekly in-class quizzes. The hope is that more frequent evaluation will lower stress levels and diminish self-doubt. He is also working with psychologists to program an online coaching system to send reassuring messages to female students, designed to reduce anxiety. (Jill Barshay, U.S. News).

STEM Education

Top business leaders, 27 governors, urge Congress to boost computer science education

Top businesses in the United States — Apple, Facebook, Target, Walmart, and AT&T—are calling on Congress to improve computer science education in all K-12 schools. The companies worry that the U.S. is losing its competitive edge in science among the nation’s youth in technological fields. A bipartisan coalition of 27 governors has joined the effort. They hope by supporting the teaching of coding and programming that this will draw in middle-class jobs to their states. Moreover, with children who are trained in computer science and math, they will be giving them the skills they need to be successful in a modern economy. “Our schools should give all students the opportunity to understand how this technology works, to learn how to be creators, coders, and makers — not just consumers,” they wrote Tuesday in an open letter to lawmakers. “Instead, what is increasingly a basic skill is only available to the lucky few, leaving most students behind, particularly students of color and girls.”

It is estimated that nearly 500,000 U.S. jobs require some level of computer-science understanding, yet three-quarters of the nation’s public schools do not offer any computer science courses, often forcing companies to turn to foreign workers for specialized skills. To make matters worse, the federal government has virtually no federal funding dedicated to enhancing computer science offerings in K-12 schools. For many schools, computer science education is treated as an elective: a nice-to-have option for the few students who are naturally inclined to seek it out. However, there is a push to treat computer science as a core subject instead, such as algebra or biology, to which every student is exposed. “It just seems so ridiculously obvious that our education policy has to include computer science as a basic. The fact that you’d even discuss it seems absurd,” said Barry Diller, chairman of the online travel company Expedia and of IAC, which owns websites including the Daily Beast, Dictionary.com and the dating site Match.com.

Business leaders say democratizing access to computer science will give students a leg up in the burgeoning tech fields but also in almost any job. “Computer science is not just about becoming an engineer, but teaching people how to think in a different way, in a critical way,” said Jack Dorsey, co-founder and chief executive of Twitter. “That can be helpful in any field.” (Emma Brown, Washington Post).

Science in Health

After ‘The Biggest Loser,’ Their Bodies Fought to Regain Weight

“The Biggest Loser” is a reality TV show where contestants who are extremely overweight compete in their weight loss efforts and whoever is ‘the biggest loser’ wins. Danny Cahill, winning contestant from Season 8 of NBC’s television show said, “I’ve got my life back. I mean, I feel like a million bucks” upon winning. However, in the 5 years since the show’s end, he has gained more than 100 pounds back despite his best efforts. In fact, most of the season’s contestants have regained most if not all the weight they lost. Surprisingly, some are even heavier now.

Kevin Hall, a scientist at a federal research center, had the idea to follow contestants from “The Biggest Loser” for six years. The project was first to measure what happened to people over that time period. Their stunning results showed the body’s resistance to weight loss. “It is frightening and amazing,” said Dr. Hall, an expert on metabolism at the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, which is part of the National Institutes of Health. “I am just blown away.”

A person’s resting metabolism, which determines how many calories a person burns at rest, is set to the individual’s body weight set-point. Therefore, when a person deliberately loses weight, regardless of if they are a normal weight or not, the body will slow its metabolism to thwart their best efforts.

It was already known that those who deliberately lose weight will have a slower metabolism when the diet ends. So the researchers were not surprised to see that “The Biggest Loser” contestants had slower metabolisms when the show ended. What shocked the researchers was as the years went by and the numbers on the scale climbed, the contestants’ metabolisms did not recover. They became even slower, and the pounds kept piling on. It was as if their bodies were intensifying their effort to pull the contestants back to their original weight. These research findings give insight into the nation’s obesity problem and the struggles individuals go through to keep the weight off. (Tracey Yukich, The New York Times).

 

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May 4, 2016 at 9:00 am

Big Tobacco-like behavior from Coca-Cola

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By: Danielle Friend, Ph.D.

photo credit: coca cola via photopin (license)

This story is not a new one. A company develops a product and uses mass media to market the product to people all over the globe. The product becomes a household name. Several years later, scientists discover that the product contains ingredients that are unhealthy and may actually cause health problems. In response, the company attempts to place blame elsewhere, tries to discredit scientific findings, and confuse the consumer. This time, however, we are not describing the Tobacco industry. No, this time it is the soda industry.

Although obesity rates may no longer be on the rise as they were between the years of 1988 and 2000, rates are anything but declining. In 2014 it was estimated that 29 percent of American adults were obese and even a greater percentage were overweight. It will likely not surprise anyone to know that production and consumption of sugary beverages, like soda, have tracked with obesity rates surprisingly well. In fact, soda sales and consumption were at their highest during the years in which obesity rates showed the steepest increase, and now as soda production and consumption have decreased, obesity rates have plateaued. What led to this decrease in soda sales and consumption is likely a mix of several factors. Government agencies implementing “Soda Taxes,” regulations regarding the availability of soda in schools, and the restrictions on marketing towards children have all likely made an impact. In fact, American consumption of full calorie sodas has decreased by 25 percent since the 1990s indicating that these regulations have encouraged consumers to make healthier choices.

However, to counteract consumers’ growing concerns about “cutting calories” (and potentially their products), Coca-Cola, the largest producer of sodas, has recently gone to great lengths to shift consumers’ concerns regarding the obesity epidemic from what they eat to how much they exercise. In August of 2015, the New York Times reported that Coca-Cola had spent more than $1.5 million on the establishment of what was known as the Global Energy Balance Network or GEBN, a “voluntary public-private, not-for-profit organization dedicated to identifying and implementing innovative solutions – based on the science of energy balance – to prevent and reduce diseases associated with inactivity, poor nutrition and obesity.” When developing the GEBN, Coca-Cola appointed Dr. Steven Blair, a professor of Exercise Science and Epidemiology and Biostatistics at the University of South Carolina’s School of Public Health, and Gregory A. Hand, Dean of the School of Public Health at West Virginia University as GEBN administrators, and James O. Hill, director of the Center for Human Nutrition at the University of Colorado Health Science Center the president of the GEBN. Most shockingly, early on in the establishment of the GEBN, Coca-Cola’s role in appointing the group’s leaders, establishing the mission statement, and funding of the program were hidden from the public. In addition to establishing the GEBN, since 2010, Coca-Cola has gifted more than $21.8 million to scientific research and an additional $96.8 million to other health and wellness partnerships that tote the company’s moto “when it comes to weight don’t worry  about what you eat, focus on exercising”, a statement that no doubt would help hurting soda sales. In addition to teaming with scientists to dissipate the blame on the soda industry for the rise in obesity, Coca-Cola has also spent more than $120 million since 2010 to support other partnerships, including more than $3 million to the American Academy of Pediatrics to launch another website known as Healthychildren.org, and more than 1.7 million to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

In addition to the report in the New York Times, in August of 2015, the advocacy group, The Center for Science in the Public Interest, released a letter signed by 37 scientists and public health experts accusing the GEBN of “peddling scientific non-sense.” In response to this criticism, in August, the Chief Technical Officer at Coca-Cola released a statement, “I was dismayed to read the recent New York Times’ inaccurate portrayal of our company and our support of the [GEBN]. The story claimed Coke is funding scientific research to convince people that diets don’t matter – only exercise does. In fact, that is the complete opposite of our approach to business and well-being and nothing could be further from the truth.” He goes on to say that “At Coke, we believe that a balanced diet and regular exercise are two key ingredients for a healthy lifestyle and that is reflected in both our long-term and short-term business actions.”

Despite the denial that Coke attempted to mislead the consumer, as of November 30th 2015, GEBN had been shut down and the home page for the public-private partnership website states “Effective immediately, GEBN is discontinuing operations due to resource limitations. We appreciate the commitment to energy balance that the membership has demonstrated since our inception, and encourage members to continue pursuing the mission “to connect and engage multi-disciplinary scientists and other experts around the globe dedicated to applying and advancing the science of energy balance to achieve healthier living.” In addition, Coca-Cola’s chief science and health officer and cofounder of the GEBN, Rhona D. Applebaum, stepped down from her position. The University of Colorado also stated in November that they will be returning a $1 million grant received from Coca-Cola. The returned money, Coca-Cola states, will be donated to the Boys and Girls Club of America. The American Academy of Pediatrics and the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics have both stated that their relationship with Cocoa-Cola has been severed.

This situation emphasizes how scientific funding from private sources with an agenda can be of concern to both science and public health. In fact, a recent publication in PLOS Medicine suggested that science funded by large soda companies such as Coca-Cola or the American Beverage Association are five times more likely to report no link between sugary drink consumption and weight gain compared to science that does not have a financial conflict of interest. Increased transparency regarding scientific and advocacy funding could be one way in which consumers would be better protected from misguided information in the future. Scientists and medical professionals are already required to declare financial conflicts of interest, however media coverage of privately funded research findings should emphasize the potential bias. Furthermore, public health organizations and advocacy programs, such as the GEBN, must be required to fully disclose funding sources.

Written by sciencepolicyforall

January 20, 2016 at 9:00 am

Science Policy Around the Web – June 16, 2015

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By: Danielle Friend, Ph.D.

Health Policy

A Bill to Fight Obesity

A bill titled “Treat and Reduce Obesity Act of 2015” was recently sponsored by Erik Paulsen (R-MN) and would amend title XVIII (Medicare) of the Social Security Act in an attempt to treat and prevent obesity in America. The bills states that “According to the Centers for Disease Control, about 34 percent of adults aged 65 and over were obese in the period of 2009 through 2012, representing almost 15 million people”. The bill also brings up the important point that obesity also “increases the risk for chronic diseases and conditions, including high blood pressure, heart disease, certain cancers, arthritis, mental illness, lipid disorders, sleep apnea, and type 2 diabetes”. Importantly, “the direct and indirect cost of obesity is more than $450 billion annually” and that “a Medicare beneficiary with obesity costs $1,964 more than a normal-weight beneficiary”. The bill would attempt to reduce obesity rates and lower the financial costs to society by allowing the Social Security Act to cover intensive behavioral therapy for obesity. In addition, the amendment will also allow Social Security to cover pharmaceuticals used to treat obesity or for weight loss management.

Data and Biomedical Research

National Library of Medicine urged to take on broader role

Originally established in 1836 as a small collection of medical books and journal housed in the Office of the Surgeon General of the army, the National Library of Medicine (NLM) has now grown into the world’s largest biomedical library. Consisting of an extensive collection of both paper and digital sources, the NLM also runs GenBank, MedlinePlus, and ClinicalTrials.gov. This year, Francis Collins, the director of the National Institutes of Health, organized a working group to determine the new vision of the NLM. Although the working group determined that the current programs run by the NLM should stay in place, the working group also decided that the NLM should expand its role as a leader in sharing biomedical data. The working group suggests that the NLM should coordinate data science programs and run the Big Data to Knowledge (BD2K) initiative at the NIH. Other main points of the report include continuing to serving as a leader through gathering and sharing biomedical research, supporting data sharing, research reproducibility, and transparent analysis. The NLM is also encouraged to support education in biomedical informatics, data science and library science. The complete report on the future vision of NLM can be found here. (Jocelyn Kaiser, ScienceInsider)

Therapies of the Future

Researchers discover genes associated with resistance to spongiform encephalopathies

Authors of a recent paper published in Nature have discovered a human genetic variant that lends resistance to certain individuals against some types of spongiform encephalopathies. Spongiform encephalopathies are currently most visible in the public mind as “mad cow”disease and the human variant Creutzfeldt–Jakob disease (vCJD). These currently incurable encephalopathies are caused when abnormal prion proteins (PrP) spread throughout the brain, damaging tissue and ultimately leading to death. Researchers of the recent paper entitled “A naturally occurring variant of the human prion protein completely prevents prion disease” found that a variant of PrP found in certain individuals gave mice resistance to developing one kind of spongiform encephalopathy, Kuru, when exposed to diseased prions. Researchers have hopes that understanding how this genetic variant prevents the propagation of PrP may lead to future medical treatments possibly through the inhibition PrP during spongiform encephalopathies. (Glen Telling, Nature News and Views)

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June 16, 2015 at 9:00 am

Science Policy Around the Web – March 6, 2014

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By: Kaitlin Morabito

photo credit: subarcticmike via photopin cc

photo credit: subarcticmike via photopin cc

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

Giant virus resurrected from 30,000-year-old ice – Scientists from Aix-Marseille University in France discovered an ancient giant virus, dubbed Pithovirus sibericum, frozen in Siberian permafrost. Since the known giant viruses, Mimivirus and Pandoraviruses, infect ameobae, the group incubated permafrost samples with amoebae and watched for cell death.  Within these dying amoebae, the scientists, lead by Jean-Michel Claveria and Chantal Abergel, could visualize the virus within the walls of the amoebae via microscope.  Despite similarities with the other giant viruses in host, size, and shape, Pithovirus sibericum has very different properties including mechanism of replication and a much smaller genome.  As global temperatures rise and glaciers melt, the virome in the frozen environment may potentially have an impact on human health. (Ed Yong)

Rare gene protects against Type 2 Diabetes even in obese people – A mutation in one allele of a gene, known as ZnT8, has been shown to mitigate Type 2 diabetes even among the overweight and obese.  The gene was initially identified in a studying comparing 758 people on either end of the weight, age, and risk spectrum.  Of these 758 people, only 2 people in the high-risk group with diabetes had this mutation.  To confirm these results, the researchers added 18,000 people to their study and found an additional 31 obese individuals who were seemingly protected from diabetes.  The findings were further authenticated using bioinformatics.  Interestingly, the mutation of the gene has the opposite result in mice, causing Type 2 diabetes.  Researchers are now focuses on developing drugs which targets the ZnT8 gene. (Gina Kolata)

U.S. Army agriculture development teams – To help combat counterinsurgency in Afghanistan, the United States Army National Guard has deployed Agriculture Development Teams (ADT) made up of environmental scientists, engineers, and professors, who tackle projects aimed at improving agriculture and agricultural education in rural Afghanistan.  An example of militarized aid, this program is focused on small scale, local efforts to engender a good rapport with the United States Army and Afghan government in rural areas where counterinsurgency is problematic.  These projects not only involve endeavors such as delayed-action dams, but are also highly education focused, so the locals and universities can continue to reap benefits after the ADTs leave.  (Alexander Stewart)

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Written by sciencepolicyforall

March 6, 2014 at 2:37 pm