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Science Policy Around the Web – September 15, 2017

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By: Liu-Ya Tang, PhD

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source: pixabay

Public Health

A new flavor in cancer research: sugar

Sugar is an important energy source for fueling our body. However, eating too much sugar doesn’t do any good to our health. It can cause obesity or diabetes, both of which are considered risk factors for cancer. Moreover, there is evidence showing that sugar may play a direct role in cancer development/progression. Here’s why.

The first study is about how sugar protects cancer cells from attack by the immune system. The immune system is the safeguard of our body that acts by cleaning out “foreign” invaders or bad cells. When the cell becomes cancerous, it may disguise itself and escape the challenges imposed by the immune system. Dr. Carolyn Bertozzi’s group at Stanford University found that cancer cells have denser sialic acid, a type of sugar, on the cell surface than that on normal cells. This sugary coating makes cancer cells invisible to the immune system, so they can divide freely in the body. To enable the immune system to attack cancer cells, Dr. Bertozzi proposed to strip away the sugary coating by using drugs.

In addition to masking cancer cells, sugar can also directly promote their growth. Glucose, a metabolic product of sugar, is important for not only the growth of normal cells but also for that of cancer cells. One distinct phenotype of cancer cells is uncontrolled cell growth, which may require more glucose. This notion has been supported by a recent study done by Dr. Jung-whan Kim’s group at The University of Texas at Dallas. The researchers found that high levels of a protein called glucose transporter 1 (GLUT1), which is responsible for transporting glucose, is associated with lung squamous cell carcinoma (SqCC). However, they didn’t observe similar results in lung adenocarcinoma (ADC), which indicates that different cancer cells may adopt different mechanism to satisfy their energy needs. They further found that using GLUT1 inhibitor can suppress the tumor growth in a SqCC mouse model, but not the adenocarcinoma mouse model. Their findings will help the development of specific treatment plans for SqCC patients targeting GLUT1.

The American Heart Association recommended that the maximum amount of sugar consumption for women is 25 grams a day and that for man is 36 grams. However, the reality is that in 2015, on average, each American consumed more than 93 grams of sugar a day. Reducing sugar consumption and eating a balanced diet will not only help decrease the high rates of obesity in the US, but also benefit cancer prevention.

(Erin Blakemore, Washington Post and University of Texas at Dallas, ScienceDaily)

Innovative Technology

Stem cells could help Parkinson’s patients get the dopamine they need

Parkinson’s disease (PD) is a chronic degenerative disorder of the central nervous system that mainly affects movement. It is a progressive disease and PD patients can have very severe symptoms such as the inability to walk or talk. The cause of PD is the death of dopamine-producing neurons, as dopamine, a neurotransmitter, is essential for motor neurons to function properly.

Medications and surgery can help alleviate the symptoms of PD, but there is no cure for it. Recently, a study published in Nature brings hope to doctors, PD patients and their families. This study was led by Dr. Jun Takahashi, a stem-cell scientist at Kyoto University in Japan. As the loss of dopamine is the root cause of PD, to implant dopamine-producing cells to the brain of PD patients would be the most effective way to cure PD. Embryonic stem cells have the versatile ability to develop into different organs, but there are always ethical issues around this research. Dr. Takahashi’s group generated induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells derived from both healthy people and those with PD, transformed iPS cells to dopamine-making neurons and implanted the cells into monkeys with neurodegenerative disorders. After two years, the monkeys are still alive and the disorder symptoms are greatly mitigated. Dr. Takahashi hopes to begin a clinical trial by the end of next year.

Ideally and in theory, deriving iPS cells from a patient’s own cells would allow them to avoid taking the immune-suppressing drugs that are usually necessary when introducing non-native tissues. But generating customized iPS cells is expensive and requires a couple months for propagation. A good solution, planned by Dr. Takahashi, is to establish iPS cell lines from healthy people and match them with PD patients by using immune cell biomarkers. This approach will probably be feasible as it has been successfully applied in monkeys.

In addition to Dr. Takahashi, there are other scientists conducting stem-cell research on PD. Dr. Jeanne Loring, working at Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, California, prefers to transplant iPS-derived neurons made from a patient’s own cells. She hopes to start a clinical trial in 2019. Another stem-cell expert from the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City, Dr. Lorenz Studer, is working on a trial that will use neurons derived from embryonic stem cells. Although there are still issues in this field, all the efforts will ultimately lead to a better treatment for PD patients. (Ewen Callaway, Nature News)

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September 15, 2017 at 4:05 pm

Science Policy Around the Web – August 15, 2017

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By: Liu-Ya Tang, PhD

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Picture Source: pixabay

Public Health

Obesity and Depression, Entwined or Not?

It might seem that obesity and depression are not related since they are diseases from different parts of the body; however, health care practitioners have observed that these two diseases have a close relationship. The development of obesity and depression can be a vicious cycle, one favoring the other. Extra weight brings anxieties to obese people, which can cause poor self-image and social isolation. These are known contributors to depression. On the other hand, people experiencing depression tend to overeat and avoid exercising. According to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 43 percent of people with depression are obese, compared with 36.5 percent of the general population. People with obesity have a higher risk to develop depression, and vice versa, according to one 2010 study.

Both obesity and depression are chronic diseases that are hard to treat, placing a big burden on the health care system. Obesity rates in the United States are among the highest in the world. Obesity alone costs almost $150 billion per year in direct expenses, and this number is estimated to increase about $1.24 billion each year till the year 2030. The cost of treating depression is even higher, which is more than $200 billion every year. So it is urgent to find ways to treat both diseases more effectively if they are bidirecitonally comorbid.

When depression and obesity coincide, the combination of physical and mental health interventions becomes important, which has been supported by several studies. Researchers from the University of Texas-Southwestern found that patients’ depression were alleviated when they did weekly exercise sessions, which were prescribed by physicians. Another study from Duke University found that the rate of depression in obese women was decreased by 50 percent simply by helping them control their weight. The combinatorial treatment has been adopted. Dr. Sue McElroy, a psychiatrist in Mason, Ohio, screens patients for weight and BMI, and treats obesity and depression together. She tailors her prescription, as some antidepressants can cause weight gain. Her “self-taught” method was welcomed by her patients. However, this is not a general practice in treating patients with both symptoms. To benefit patients’ health and reduce cost for curing obesity and depression, the whole health care system needs a change.

(Shefali Luthra, Kaiser Health News)

 

The ACA

What do people and health-policy experts think about repealing the ACA?

Since March, the Trump administration has strived to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act (ACA), but the Senate rejected this repeal, as 3 republican senators voted “no” last month. How do people feel about repealing the ACA? What do most people say the Trump administration should do after the Senate failed to repeal? There were two reports about it.

The first one was about a survey conducted Aug. 1-6 by the Kaiser Family Foundation, which capture the opinions of 1,211 adults. Their analysis found that a majority of people (78 percent) think that the government should make the ACA work better. Grouping this majority by Political Party ID, reveales 95 percent are Democrats, 80 percent re independents and 52 percent are Republicans. Even 51 percent of President Trump’s supporters think both parties should work together to improve the health law.

The second report said that a coalition of liberal and conservative health-policy leaders is making suggestions for how to strengthen the existing ACA law, aligned with a favorable view in the public. The nine group members are from think tanks, universities and advocacy groups, who can be influential in health-policy formation of the government. The coalition was founded when it appeared that the Republican-controlled Congress would pass a repeal of the ACA without a replacement plan. It took the group eight months to come up with a five-point set of principles. It says that the government should continue providing subsidies to insurers that extend plans to 7 million lower-income customers and strong incentives for Americans to carry health insurance. The latter will help the cost of expensive care be shared by a stable insurance pool with healthy customers. They also urge the government to bring health plans to about two dozen counties, which would be left providerless in the ACA marketplace for 2018. The group said they intend to present their idea to Republican and Democratic lawmakers. “We are trying to model bipartisanship so incremental steps can be taken,” said by Ron Pollack, chairman emeritus of the liberal consumer-health lobby Families USA.

To prevent the potential collapse of health insurance market, the Senate is planning a bipartisan hearing on health care in September. In the House, a group of around 40 Republicans and Democrats known as the Problem Solvers Caucus aims to making urgent fixes to the ACA law. On September 27th, insurers will sign contracts with the federal government over what insurance plans to sell on the marketplace for 2018, which pushes Congress to come up with a solution before then.

(Phil Galewitz, Kaiser Health News, and Amy Goldstein, The Washington Post)

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August 15, 2017 at 6:27 pm

Science Policy Around the Web – March 14, 2017

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By: Liz Spehalski, PhD

Affordable Care Act

ACA Replacement Bill Released by House

Last Monday, House Republicans released their plan to repeal and replace former President Obama’s Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA), also known as Obamacare. The American Health Care Act (AHCA), a more conservative vision for the nation’s health care system, was created as a collaboration between the White House and the Senate Republicans. The Republican Party has been critical of the ACA because of the large role that it created for the federal government in health care, such as the need for the IRS to verify eligible people for financial help and federally mandating the public to have health insurance.

The AHCA will maintain some of the popular features of the ACA, such as allowing young adults to stay on their parent’s health care plans until the age of 26, banning lifetime coverage caps, and maintaining the ban on discrimination against people with pre-existing conditions. It also temporarily maintains the expansion of Medicaid to cover millions of low income Americans through January 1, 2020.

Instead of the individual mandate, a fine penalizing Americans for failing to have health insurance, the new bill would try to encourage people to sustain coverage by allowing insurers to impose a 30 % fine to those who have a gap between plans. The AHCA also changes the structure of tax credits given to those who want to buy insurance. Under the ACA, people who earn less than 200 percent of the poverty line get the highest subsidies. The Republican plan would instead give tax credits based mostly on age. The AHCA will also cut off federal funds to Planned Parenthood through Medicaid and other government programs for one year.

While Republicans did not offer any estimate of how much their plan would cost, or how many people would gain or lose insurance coverage, the Congressional Budget Office released its estimate yesterday, raising concerns. Two key House committees swiftly approved the bill, but uncertainty surrounds how this bill will fare in Congress, as some conservatives are concerned that it does not go far enough to remove government from health care, while others are concerned about their constituents losing coverage due to the loss of Medicaid expansion. No Democrats are expected to support the bill. (

Obesity

Fewer Overweight Americans Trying to Lose Weight

A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association this week found that the percentage of Americans trying to lose weight is declining. In 1990, when researchers asked overweight Americans if they were trying to lose weight, 56% responded yes, while that number decreased to 49% in 2014. Researchers analyzed US government health surveys from 1988 through 2014 which involved in-person physical exams and health- related questions including whether the participants had tried to lose weight within the last year. The study included over 27,000 adults ages 20-59, and weight status was determined using body mass index (BMI).

The explanation behind this trend seems to be the shift in public perception over dieting and overweight people. “Socially accepted normal body weight is shifting toward heavier weight. As more people around us are getting heavier, we simply believe we are fine, and no need to do anything with it,” said lead author Dr. Jian Zhang, a public health researcher at Georgia Southern University. The authors of the study also discuss other possible reasons for this data, such as primary care physicians not discussing weight issues with their patients.

Though the decline of 7% may seem low, this number could represent up to seven million Americans, as more than two thirds of adults are considered to be overweight or obese, according to recent NIH statistics. Scientists say this is concerning because obesity increases the risk of a host of diseases such as heart disease, diabetes, cancer, liver disease, osteoarthritis, and stroke. However, “There’s a possible good news story in this,” says Janet Tomiyama, a psychologist at UCLA who studies eating behavior and weight stigma. “We’re not going to shame people into health,” Tomiyama says, “a lot of research shows that having a healthy body image is what leads to better health outcomes. Maybe people are taking the focus off the number on the scale, and going more towards focusing on their health.” The CDC’s current  obesity prevention efforts focus on policy and environmental strategies that target the affordability of healthy eating and active living, noting that fad diets can be unhealthy and tend to fail over the long term. (Allison Aubrey, NPR)

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March 14, 2017 at 10:00 am

Science Policy Around the Web – February 21, 2017

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By: Rachel Smallwood, PhD

Obesity

Should We Treat Obesity Like a Contagious Disease?

Researchers are modeling obesity from a public health perspective as a contagious disease. There are many factors associated with obesity, including genetics, low levels of physical activity, and high caloric intake. An earlier study examined the effects of different social factors on an individual’s risk of being obese; it found that people with obese friends and family were at an increased risk for obesity, and this trend was influenced by how close the relationships were.

In this model of the prevalence of obesity, the researchers included a factor to represent obesity as a “social contagion”, reflecting those previous findings and indicating a potential increased risk and increased prevalence due to transmission from one person to another. This mechanism is assumed to be related to people adopting the behaviors of those close to them; notably, activity levels and type and quantity of food consumed. The model predicts obesity rates in populations with terms associated with the genetic contribution to obesity, the mother’s non-genetic contribution to her offspring, and the prevalence of obesity. Essentially, the more obese individuals there are in a society, the more likely it is for someone to know and interact with an obese person.

The models indicate that obesity prevalence plateaus around 35-40% without an intervention. The model is still fairly primitive, but the researchers hope that in future it could provide insight into the effects of potential interventions. For example, is it better to target an intervention to individuals who are already obese, or should the reach of the intervention be more broad and target the population as a whole? When the models reach a level of complexity comparable to the existing factors for obesity, they can be a powerful tool in preventing and addressing the epidemic. (Kelly Servick, Science Magazine)

Autism

Brain Scans Spot Early Signs of Autism in High-Risk Babies

A study recently published in Nature showed that alterations in brain development in children who go on to be diagnosed with autism precede behavioral symptoms. High-risk infants’ brains were scanned with MRI at 6, 12, and 24 months. It was determined that the infants who were subsequently diagnosed with autism had a faster rate of brain volume growth between 12 and 24 months. Additionally, between 6 and 12 months, these infants had a faster rate of growth in the surface area of folds on the brain, called the cortical surface.

Taking these findings, the research team used a machine learning approach called a deep-learning neural network to make a model to predict whether an infant would be diagnosed with autism based on their MRIs from 6 and 12 months. This model was tested in a larger set of infants, and the model correctly predicted 30 out of 37 infants who went on to be diagnosed (true positives), and it incorrectly predicted that 4 infants would be diagnosed with autism out of the 142 who were not later diagnosed (false positives). These results are much more robust than behavior-based predictions from this same age range.

More work needs to be done to replicate the results in a larger sample. Additionally, all of the participants were high-risk infants, meaning they had a sibling who was diagnosed with autism, so the results are not necessarily generalizable to the rest of the population. Further studies need to be done in the general population to determine if these same patterns are observable, but that would require an even larger sample due to the lower risk. However, the early detection of symptoms and prediction of diagnosis are potentially valuable tools, especially considering another recent publication showed that early intervention in children with autism affects the severity of symptoms years down the road. (Ewen Callaway, Nature News)

Science Funding

Ebola Funding Surge Hides Falling Investment in Other Neglected Diseases

Funding totals from 2015 reveal a trending decrease in funding for neglected diseases, excluding Ebola and other viral hemorrhagic fevers. Neglected diseases are diseases that primarily affect developing companies, thus providing little incentive for private research and development by commercial entities; the other diseases include malaria, tuberculosis, and HIV/AIDS. Given the recent surge of funding for Ebola research, the analysis firm, Policy Cures Research, decided to separate it from the other neglected diseases in its analysis to observe funding patterns independent from the epidemic that dominated the news and international concerns. Funding was tracked from private, public, and philanthropic sources.

The funding for Ebola research has primarily gone to development of a vaccine, and over a third of the funds were provided by industry. For the other diseases, the decline in overall funding is mostly represented by a decline in funding from public entities, primarily comprised of the governments of large, developed countries. Those countries accounted for 97% of the research funding for neglected diseases in 2015, so any significant change in that funding category would affect the overall funding amounts. However, there was also a slight decline in philanthropic funding. When including Ebola with the others, funding of neglected diseases was actually at its highest in the past ten years. It is not known whether money was funneled from the other diseases to Ebola research, or if this decline is indicative of less research spending in general. (Erin Ross, Nature News)

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February 21, 2017 at 10:03 am

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