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Posts Tagged ‘opioid abuse

Science Policy Around the Web – June 20, 2017

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By: Eric Cheng, PhD

Source: Flickr, via Creative Commons (CC BY 2.0)

Research Funding

America is Still First in Science, but China Rose Fast as Funding Stalled in U. S. and Other Countries

American scientific groups continue to publish more biomedical research discoveries than groups from any other country, and the United States still leads the world in research and development expenditures. However, American dominance is slowly diminishing as China’s increase in funding on science over the last twenty years are starting to pay off. Chinese biomedical research now ranks fourth in the world for total number of discoveries published in six top-tier journals. This is with China spending three-fourths of the amount of money that the U.S. spent on research and development in 2015. In addition, new discoveries and advances in science are becoming more of a collaborative effort, which include researchers from around the world.

These findings come from research published in The Journal of Clinical Investigation by a group of University of Michigan researchers. The analysis comes at an important time for Congress to think about whether the annual uncertainty of the National Institutes of Health’s(NIH) budget and proposed cuts are in the nation’s best interest over the long-term. Bishr Omary, the senior author of the article commented, “If we continue on the path we’re on, it will be harder to maintain our lead and, even more importantly, we could be disenchanting the next generation of bright and passionate biomedical scientists who see a limited future in pursuing a scientist or physician-investigator career.”

The research was based on data up to 2015. During the current fiscal year of 2017, funding for NIH was proposed to be increased by 2 billion dollars, which is the second year in a row where funding was increased after 12 years of flat budgets. With this increase in funding, Omary hopes that, “our current and future investment in NIH and other federal research support agencies will rise above any branch of government to help our next generation reach their potential and dreams.” (University of Michigan, ScienceDaily)

Opioid Crisis

The Role of Science in Addressing the Opioid Crisis

Opioid addiction is an ongoing public health crisis. Millions of individuals all over the United States suffer from opioid use disorder with millions more suffering from chronic pain. Due to the urgency and scale of this crisis, innovative scientific solutions need to be developed. As part of a government-wide effort to address this crisis, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) is supplementing current research efforts with a public-private collaborative research initiative on pain and opioid abuse.

The Director of NIH, Dr. Francis Collins met with research and development leaders from biopharmaceutical companies in April 2017 to discuss new ways in which  government and industry can work together to address the opioid crisis. Dr. Collins stated how some advances such as improved formulations, opioids with abuse-deterrent properties, longer-acting overdose-reversal drugs, and repurposing of treatments approved for other conditions may be quick. Other advances such as mu-opioid receptor-based agonists, opioid vaccines, and novel overdose-reversal medications may be slower to develop. Overall, the goal for this partnership is to reduce the time typically required to develop new, safe, and effective therapeutics to half the average time. (Nora D. Volkow and Francis S. Collins, New England Journal of Medicine)

Climate Change

France is Offering US Scientists 4-year Grants to Move to the Country and do Research

Following President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw the United States from the Paris climate agreement, France created an initiative that will allow researchers, teachers, and students to apply for a fully financed four-year grant to combat climate change. The website for the initiativesays,

“You will be able to stay in France at least for the duration of the grant, and longer if you are granted a permanent position. There is no restriction on your husband / wife working in France. If you have children, note that French public schools are free, and the tuition fees of universities and ‘grandes écoles’ are very low compared to the American system.”

Since Emmanuel Macron won the French presidential election in May, he has addressed American scientists who feel alienated by the Trump administration. Macron has promised strong funding for climate initiatives. However, some U.S. scientists like David Blockstein of the National Council for Science and the Environment see Macron’s invitation as “both a publicity stunt and a real opportunity.” Although it is not very likely that many U.S. researchers will take up the offer, it does provide a “sharp contrast to an increasingly hostile U.S. political environment for science.” (Chris Weller, Business Insider)

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June 20, 2017 at 1:10 pm

Science Policy Around the Web – April 25, 2017

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By: Eric Cheng, PhD

Photo source: pixabay.com

FDA

FDA Nominee Gottlieb Tackles Vaccines, Trial Design at Hearing

The President’s nominee to head the FDA, Scott Gottlieb, MD, sat before lawmakers for his confirmation hearing before the Senate’s health committee. Gottlieb, a hospitalist and former FDA official, was questioned on many controversial topics on health.  On the topic of vaccines and autism, Gottlieb said, “I think we need to come to the point where we can accept ‘No’ for an answer, and come to the conclusion that there is no causal link between vaccinations and autism.”

On the topic of double-blind randomized trials as the “gold standard” for medical treatment research, Gottlieb was more cautious. He believed that there are more “opportunities to modernize how we do clinical trials in ways that aren’t going to sacrifice on the gold standard of safety and effectiveness. Perhaps there are ways to think of clinical trial constructs that don’t require the tight randomization that current clinical trials do.” What this suggests is a push towards more adaptive trials that would allow researchers to review results before a study’s endpoint and would allow changes to treatment groups in a study, which is in contrast to traditional randomized controlled trials.

Another less controversial but popular topic in the hearing was on opioid abuse. Gottlieb believed that opioid abuse is “a public health emergency on the order of Ebola and Zika” and that bolder steps will be needed to address this issue.

The committee will vote on whether to move Gottlieb’s nomination to the Senate floor after the Senate returns in late April from a 2-week recess. (Joyce Frieden, MedPage Today)

Healthcare Policy

Trump Administration Still Plans to Undo Parts of the ACA, Tom Price Testifies

Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price made one thing clear during his testimony to the House appropriations committee: “The administration is still intent on dismantling parts of the Affordable Care Act even if Republicans lack the votes to rewrite it.”

Price discussed how, as the Health and Human Services Secretary, his department could scale back several federal mandates that include “essential benefits” in coverage to make insurance plans cheaper. He did not say if the administration will continue to provide cost-sharing subsidies for insurers, which has been a topic of discussion on items to change in the Affordable Care Act. However, removing subsidies will bring “significant premium increases,” said Michael Adelberg, a health-care principal at FaegreBD Consulting. He predicts that the removal of these subsidies will cause some insurers to drop out while the remaining insurers will seek rate increases to compensate.

Regardless of these discussions, the individual mandate remains in place with Price telling the panel, “So long as the law’s on the books, we at the department are obliged to uphold the law.” (Juliet Eilperin and Mike DeBonis, Washington Post)

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April 25, 2017 at 9:53 am

Science Policy Around the Web – March 7, 2017

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By: Allison Dennis, BS

Synthetic opiates

Opioid Crisis

Keeping up With the Synthetic Opioids

At the center of the opioid crisis is an ever-expanding class of would-be-regulated drugs, exploited for their ability to produce morphine-like effects. Opioids, including morphine, heroin, and oxycodone interact with the opioid receptors found on the surface of our nerve cells to trigger feelings of euphoria, and block pain. Unfortunately, these substances can adversely affect the respiratory rhythm generating area of the central nervous system, resulting in respiratory depression, effectively disrupting the body’s instincts to breathe.

In 2013, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency began to detect in confiscated supplies of heroin the synthetic compound, Fentanyl, which is 50 to 100 times more potent and carries a much higher risk of respiratory depression. The supply was traced to illicit online pharmacies in China, prompting Chinese officials to implement an export ban on fentanyl. Just as medical drug makers audition new compounds through structure-based drug design, illicit drug makers quickly modified the structure of fentanyl to produce furanyl fentanyl, temporarily circumventing the ban. This was followed by the production of the elephant tranquilizer, carfentanil. As of March 1, 2017, China has placed a ban on the sale and manufacture of these compounds along with acrylfentanyl and valeryl fentanyl.

However the dynamic that has emerged is a global game of whack-a-mole. Cutting off the global supply of fentanyl-derived compounds will require negotiations with individual governments to cooperate in their ban. Willing chemists in Mexico may already be setting up to fill the gap left by the ban in China. As each substance is entering the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency’s radar, the list of designer fentanyls is expanding. The rotating portfolio of synthetic opioids has left local law-enforcement and coroners stumped as to how to test for drugs not-yet-known to their screens, leaving a critical lag in identifying local suppliers. (Eric Niler, Wired Magazine)

Influenza

Keeping up with the Neuraminidases

The H7N9 strain of bird flu may be gaining ground as a global threat to human health. On Monday, the U.S. Department of Agriculture confirmed the presence of a highly pathogenic H7 avian influenza strain in a flock of chickens in Lincoln County, Tennessee. The agency is hurrying to establish the neuraminidase protein type, or “n-type” of the virus. In combination with the H7 hemagglutinin type, an N9 would consign this virus to the class of influenza the WHO has described as “definitely one of the most lethal influenza viruses we have seen so far.”

First detected in China in 2013, the H7N9 strain has been the source of yearly epidemics of human infections. These infections are characterized by severe respiratory illness, which has lead to death in 40% of cases. Over 5 flu seasons, 1222 human cases of H7N9 flu have been confirmed. Most infections have been tied to direct exposure to poultry where the avian strain circulates, indicating that the virus is not currently suited for sustained person-to-person spread. However, the ability of these viruses to recombine, gaining new specificities, keeps public health officials watchful.

Following the first reports of H7N9 infections in humans in 2013, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services amassed a 12 million-dose stockpile of H7N9 specific vaccines. However, the strains selected as the seeds for these vaccines may not adequately protect against the particular H7N9 virus circulating now.  The U.S. CDC is currently evaluating the need to update its vaccine stockpiles in addition to recommending inclusion of H7N9 in next year’s seasonal flu vaccine. Many researchers are hoping to circumvent these concerns with the development of a universal vaccine, protective against all known flu strains. (Helen Branswell, STATnews)

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March 7, 2017 at 9:02 am

Science Policy Around the Web – February 10, 2017

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By: Saurav Seshadri, PhD

Source: pixabay

Sleep

The Purpose of Sleep? To Forget, Scientists Say

Humans spend approximately one third of their lifetime sleeping, yet the purpose of sleep is still largely unknown. A pair of recent studies in the journal Science suggest that a key function of sleep is to give the brain a chance to rewire itself, specifically by cutting down connections between neurons, which naturally scale up during wakefulness, and especially during learning.

In one paper, researchers used 3D electron microscopy to measure the sizes of these connections, called synapses, in mouse brain slices. They found that sleep produced a significant decrease in the size of synapses. Interestingly, this effect was more pronounced in smaller synapses, which were likely strengthened by general information processing while awake, than large ones (~20% of synapses), which may encode more well-established memories. In the other, researchers used two-photon imaging in live mice to observe sleep-induced changes in synapses. They found a similar decrease in synaptic strength, and went on to identify the signaling pathway that caused this effect; blocking this pathway prevented a normal reduction in the scope and magnitude of a learned behavioral response.

These findings underscore the importance of sleep, especially for memory consolidation involved with learning. Studies like these can have far-reaching effects on the public’s perception of sleep, influencing individual habits as well as policy related to education. For example, they suggest that prioritizing sleep when setting school start times (an issue currently under debate in Montgomery County schools) could improve students’ lesson retention and ultimately their test performance. They also point to important cellular and molecular processes that take place during sleep, which could help explain how existing sleep aids adversely affect brain functioning and memory (a public health concern), and ultimately lead to the development of better drugs. (Carl Zimmer, The New York Times)

Drug Policy

Massive Price Hike for Lifesaving Opioid Overdose Antidote

Increased public exposure to the epidemic of opioid abuse, which continues to intensify in the US, has made it increasingly influential in politics, possibly including the recent presidential election.  A crucial tool for communities at the forefront of this public health crisis is naloxone, which can reverse potentially fatal symptoms associated with overdose. The Evzio naloxone auto-injector, produced by Kaleo, is one of two such products approved by the FDA. Kaleo has recently come under fire for increasing the price of Evzio from $690 to $4,500.

Kaleo cites several justifications for the price hike. Firstly, they offer coupons to patients whose insurance doesn’t cover Evzio. Second, they argue that large insurance companies and government agencies (such as the Veterans Health Administration, which sees a high rate of opioid use) can negotiate prices, while other organizations are currently well funded (thanks to public concern) to absorb the increase. Thirdly, they are expanding their donation supply to allow smaller groups to apply for free devices. However, experts say that the increase is not justified by production costs, and some organizations have been forced to switch to alternative drugs.

News of the decision arrives at a time when the public is particularly sensitive to drug pricing, and have made their concern clear to lawmakers. Negotiation with drug companies over prices has been a prominent campaign issue in recent elections. Public outcry following similar moves by investor Martin Shkreli and Mylan led to hearings by a special congressional committee. Soon after the last election, a bill that would have allowed patients to import cheaper drugs from Canada became a high-profile occasion for posturing in the Senate, where it failed despite overwhelming public support. These stories highlight the often antagonistic relationships between the American public, its government, and the pharmaceutical industry, and illustrate how disruptive drug pricing can directly affect policy. (Shefali Luthra, Scientific American)

Scientists in Politics

Geneticist Launches Bid for US Senate; while Empiricists Around the Country Will March for Science

Donald Trump’s agenda of self-serving lies and denial of evidence has led to unprecedented levels of engagement and activism across the country. The scientific community has been especially impacted by Trump’s brand of broad, allegedly populist anti-intellectualism. Thus, although the empirical facts uncovered by scientific research are inherently apolitical and should be treated as such, scientists are beginning to mobilize to oppose the Trump administration in several ways.

One essential path to policy change is increased representation. With that in mind, evolutionary biologist Dr. Michael Eisen, an HHMI-funded investigator at UC Berkeley and co-founder of the People’s Library of Science (PLOS), recently announced his candidacy for the US Senate in 2018. Dr. Eisen’s platform seems to center on bringing a scientific perspective to Senate proceedings, and working towards comprehensive yet practical solutions to issues such as climate change. More of Dr. Eisen’s views can be found on his twitter feed and blog.

Protests are another way for individuals to make their voices heard by policy makers. The March for Science, which currently has over 350,000 followers on Facebook, will be an opportunity for ‘scientists and science enthusiasts’ to both call for and demonstrate support for the scientific community, and promote solidarity between science and the public. The main march will be held on April 22nd, 2017 in Washington D.C.; satellite marches are scheduled in over 100 additional cities. Organizers hope to maintain the momentum gained by January’s Women’s Marches, which saw historic attendance. (Sara Reardon, Nature News; Lindizi Wessel, ScienceInsider)

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Science Policy Around the Web – August 12, 2016

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By: Danielle Friend, Ph.D.

Photo credit: photo credit: Research Grade Cannabis sativa via photopin (license)

Federal Biomedical Research

The White House plans to make conducting marijuana research easier

Obama is making moves that will make it easier for scientists to access marijuana for research purposes. Currently, the National Institute on Drug Abuse partners with University of Mississippi as the sole source authorized to grow marijuana for scientific research. However, many scientists who would like to study the drug state that because only one institution is authorized to produce the marijuana, researchers often must wait years to obtain it. In order to increase the amount of research grade marijuana available, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) will grant more universities the ability to apply for permission to grow marijuana.

Marijuana is currently approved for medical use in 25 states treat conditions such as Parkinson’s, Crohn’s and Alzheimer’s disease, Tourette’s syndrome, lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, and more. However, although it is approved for medicinal use, it remains unclear how effective marijuana is for treating these diseases, an answer that requires clinical research. Furthermore, whether marijuana impacts the developing brain or causes long-term change in brain function are questions that are simply not known. Increased production of research grade marijuana may allow scientists to answer these questions faster.

One additional barrier that stands in the way of scientists conducting marijuana research is the fact that marijuana is considered a schedule I drug, meaning it has no recognized medical benefit. Schedule I drugs have the most restrictions and this category also include drugs such as heroin, LSD, ecstasy, methaqualone, and peyote. In order to conduct marijuana research, researchers must first obtain a Schedule I drug license which is often very difficult and time consuming. However, the DEA suggested earlier this year that they may move marijuana to a less restricted category, thus allowing researchers to more easily to the drug. (Catherine Saint Louis and Matt Apuzzo, New York Times)

Stem Cell Research

The National Institutes of Health reconsiders moratorium on human-animal stem cell research

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) announced this month that it is reconsidering the ban on some human-animal stem cell research. For quite some time now, researchers have been transplanting human cells into animals to study things like cancer and tumor formation. However, the specific transplantation of stem cells, cells that have the ability to become many cell types in the body including skin cells, blood cells, into cells that make up the kidneys, brain, has been banned.

Lifting the ban on human stem cell chimera research would allow scientists to conduct experiments like growing human kidneys in pigs, kidneys that could later be given patients waiting a transplant. This advance could significantly decrease the wait time on organ donor lists.

While advances such as growing organs for patients in need of transplants sounds intriguing, several concern regarding the use of human-animal stem cell research still remain. Dr. Paul Knoepfler, a scientist at the University of California, Davis is concerned about ethical issues that may arise when, for instance, human stem cells are injected into an animal’s brain. “There’s no clear dividing line because we lack an understanding of at what point humanization of an animal brain could lead to more human-like thought or consciousness,” he stated. Despite the changes mentioned above, the NIH will still ban funding for research that would result in an animal with human sperm or eggs that would then be bred.

The change to the human-animal stem cell ban is currently in a 30-day public comment period where members of the public can voice concerns and questions regarding the proposed changes prior to change taking place. More information can be found in a blog post written Dr. Carrie Wolinetz, the Associate Director for Science Policy at the NIH. (Gina Kolata, New York Times)

Zika

Phase 1 begins for Zika vaccine

The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) announced this month that it will begin a safety and efficacy clinical trial for a vaccine against the Zika virus. The director of NIAID, Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, M.D. stated “A safe and effective vaccine to prevent Zika virus infection and the devastating birth defects it causes is a public health imperative….NIAID worked expeditiously to ready a vaccine candidate, and results in animal testing have been very encouraging. We are pleased that we are now able to proceed with this initial study in people.”

The first stage of the clinical trial will include approximately 80 volunteers ages 18-35. During this safety and efficacy portion of the trial, healthy volunteers will be randomly divided into one of four study groups. Each participant will receive a vaccination at their first visit, and half of the participants will receive one additional vaccination eight weeks or 12 weeks later. The remaining participants will receive two additional vaccinations. Each participant will receive the same dose at each vaccination. Participants will then return for follow-up visits after the first vaccination so investigators can monitor their health to determine if the vaccine is safe. Investigators will also take blood samples to test the immune response to the vaccine. Findings from these trials are expected to be completed by January of 2017. Should the findings indicate that the vaccine is both safe and effective, NIAID plans to begin more to phase two clinical trials, a phase where the vaccine is given to a larger group of volunteers to further evaluate the vaccines safety and efficacy. This they believe, will begin in early 2017.

The clinical trial for the new vaccine is part of the U.S government’s response to the outbreak of Zika in the Americas. Increased concern about the virus has spread across the United States as the first cases of locally transmitted Zika in Florida and an infant death in Texas associated with the virus have been documented. Although the first phase of the trial began this month. Dr. Fauci said he is concerned about running out of money to launch the larger phase two next year. President Obama asked Congress to approve $1.9 billion in emergency funding for Zika in February, but lawmakers were not able to agree on a funding package, and have since left for their August recess. Without more money, the future trial phases may be delayed. (NIH news release)

Public Health

New steps for reducing the Opioid Epidemic

President Obama signed new legislation into law in late July aimed at mitigating the growing opioid epidemic in the United States. The growing concerns regarding opioid abuse have risen from data indicating that deaths associated with prescription opioids have increased by 16% while death associated with heroin have increased by 28% since 2013. Even more strikingly, deaths associated with synthetic opioids like fentanyl and tramadol have increased by 79% between 2013 and 2014 alone. In fact, deaths associated with heroin, prescription drugs, and opioid pain relievers surpassed death associated with car accidents as the leading cause of injury-related deaths. Given these statistics, opioid abuse has been a hot topic across party lines. Early on in the primaries for both democrat and republican nominations, Hillary Clinton discussed the priority of developing legislation to end the epidemic while other candidates including Jeb Bush, John Kasich, Chris Christie, and Carly Fiorina all expressed interest supporting such legislation.

The new billed also known as the Comprehensive Addiction Recovery Act of 2016 or S.524 and H.R 953 had received strong support across party lines. The Senate version of the bill passed 92 to 2 and the House version received co-support from 53 Democrats and 21 Republicans.

The new bill uses several approaches to help reduce opioid use and addiction by:

  • Increasing the availability of naloxone, a drug used to prevent deaths associated with opioid overdose. Plans including providing naloxone to law enforcement and other first responders.
  • Improving methods for monitoring opioid prescriptions. In fact, the CDC released new guidelines earlier this year for the prescription of opioids. This part of the bill will help states better track where prescriptions are going and who is prescribing them. Better monitoring will also help prevent current opioid users from receiving more drug than is need for pain relief.
  • Providing increased resources to treat individuals with addiction rather then implementing punishment or incarceration.

Although President Obama supports the new bill, he suggested it will hopefully be the first step among many to combat the epidemic. “This legislation includes some modest steps to address the opioid epidemic,” the president said in a statement. “Given the scope of this crisis, some action is better than none.” (CJ Arlotta, Forbes)

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August 12, 2016 at 12:00 pm

Science Policy Around the Web – April 20, 2016

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By: Kimberly Leblanc, Ph.D.

photo credit: Alex E. Proimos via photo pin cc

Mental Health

Investing in treatment for depression and anxiety leads to four-fold return – UN report

According to a new study led by the United Nations health agency, published last week in The Lancet Psychiatry, every one dollar invested in scaling up treatment for anxiety and depression leads to a return of four dollars in better health and ability to work. The study estimates, for the first time, both the health and economic benefits of investing in treatment of the most common forms of mental illness globally, and provides a strong argument for greater investment in mental health services in countries of all income levels. Depression and anxiety disorders cost the global economy $1 trillion each year, and the prevalence of these disorders is increasing. Between 1990 and 2013, the number of people suffering from depression and/or anxiety increased by nearly 50 per cent, from 416 million to 615 million. Close to 10 per cent of the world’s po pulation is affected, and mental disorders account for 30 per cent of the global non-fatal disease burden.

The new study calculated treatment costs and health outcomes in 36 low-, middle- and high-income countries for the 15 years from 2016-2030. The estimated costs of scaling up treatment, primarily psychosocial counselling and antidepressant medication, amounted to $147 billion. Yet the returns far outweigh the costs. A five per cent improvement in labour force participation and productivity is valued at $399 billion, and improved health adds another $310 billion in returns. However, current investment in mental health services is far lower than what is needed. According to WHO’s Mental Health Atlas 2014 survey, governments spend on average three per cent of their health budgets on mental health, ranging from less than one per cent in low-income countries to five per cent in high-income countries. “We know that treatment of depression and anxiety makes good sense for health and well being; this new study confirms that it makes sound economic sense too,” said World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General Margaret Chan in a press release jointly issued with the World Bank Group. “We must now find ways to make sure that access to mental health services becomes a reality for all men, women and children, wherever they live.” (UN News Centre)

Substance Abuse

Surgeon General uses bully pulpit to combat opioid crisis

Surgeon General Vivek Murthy has recently made prescription opioid abuse a top priority, taking part in the CDC opioid summit alongside President Obama a few weeks ago and laying out his vision for addressing the painkiller crisis at a health journalism conference earlier this month. The Surgeon General’s office will release a major report this year on substance use, addiction and health — covering topics including opioids, heroin and other substances. Murthy plans to send a letter to every single provider in the country — anyone with access to a prescription pad, including doctors, nurse practitioners, dentists — helping them understand the risks and benefit of opioids and educating them about safer practices. He also wants to help expand access to treatment for people who have a dependency or substance abuse disorder. The Obama administration has already begun this, as have several state governments. But some of it still has to be funded, and there’s also a big educational component.

Disseminating prescribing guidelines, as the CDC recently did, is a first step. But much of the work that Murthy sees ahead involves changing deeply-rooted attitudes. Prescriber patterns are part of that. But so is making health care professionals and the public understand that substance abuse isn’t a moral failing but a chronic medical disorder and that people who become addicted to medicine prescribed by their doctors aren’t “weak” or “bad” or “criminal,” no matter where they come from.

The drug problem is complicated, as is the solution. Physicians need to be retrained to think twice — or three or four times — before writing that first opioid prescription, he said. The medical community has to reexamine — and more thoroughly research — its entire approach to relieving pain, both chronic and acute. And people who are already addicted, who are at risk of overdose and death, need expanded access to treatment, particularly medication-assisted treatment. An Obama appointee whose pro-Obamacare political advocacy had riled some Republicans and whose frank talk about gun violence had alienated the NRA, Murthy now has bipartisan support and works closely with many Republicans who had earlier been skeptical of him. The opioid crisis, he said, isn’t picking sides. (Joanne Kenen, Politico)

The Future of Space Exploration

Is The New $100-Million “Starshot” For Real?

Last week, billionaire Yuri Millner, along with physicist Stephen Hawking and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, announced a $100 million dollar project called Breakthrough Starshot. The goal is to launch a gram-sized spacecraft, or nanocraft, to the nearest star, Alpha Centuri.  The nanocraft,or StarChip, will be packed with cameras, thrusters, and navigation and communications equipment—the kinds of things Silicon Valley is good at making tiny and sticking on chips. Once in space, the craft will be propelled by light rather than combustion, courtesy of a thin, perhaps three-foot-wide (one-meter-wide) laser sail attached to each chip. The sail is hit by a carefully aimed laser to push it up to speed; two decades later, the chip and sail arrive at Alpha Centauri. Then the chip beams data back to Earth at the speed of light, giving scientists insight into another solar system just a quarter of a century after the mission was launched. (Watch an animation of the plan here).

Instead of sending just one tiny spacecraft, the idea is to send hundreds or thousands — so many could be lost along the way, without the mission’s being useless. The Starshot team still has a long list of challenges, including potential impacts with space debris, taking in-focus pictures while moving at 20% of the speed of light, and the delay in receiving the pictures, since it will take more than four years for those photos to get back here. Ultimately, launching something like the StarChip will be a multibillion-dollar enterprise, but the team sees it as the first step on the path to the future of humanity. As Stephen Hawking said, “The limit that confronts us now is the great void between us and the stars. But now we can transcend it. With light beams, light sails and the lightest spacecraft ever built, we can launch a mission to Alpha Centauri within a generation.” (Nadia Drake, National Geographic).

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Written by sciencepolicyforall

April 20, 2016 at 9:00 am

Science Policy Around the Web – January 26, 2016

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By: Danielle Friend, Ph.D.

CTE Research

Debate over chronic traumatic encephalopathy research funding

In response to growing concerns regarding the long-term health consequences of repeated head injuries like those sustained by football players in the National Football League (NFL), the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has awarded almost $16 million to science researchers working on projects that will address this issue. Specifically, much of this money will go towards investigating chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a neurodegenerative disease that has been linked to repeated head trauma. Currently, the only means for studying CTE is to examine brain tissue postmortem, however there is a clear need for the ability to diagnose and treat individuals while they are still alive. Some of the focus of the research will be to develop ways in which CTE can be diagnosed and studied while patients are still living.

While there is an obvious need to fund research focusing on CTE, funding for these projects does not come without controversy. For a number of years, the NFL criticized researchers for raising alarms about the dangers of repeated head trauma in football players. In 2012 the NFL granted the NIH $30 million in an “unrestricted” agreement for CTE research. However, it was recently reported that while the funds from the NFL will support research on traumatic brain injury, the money will not be used to fund studies focusing on CTE. The NIH has made statement indicating that this decision was not made by the NFL; however, ESPN reported the NFL funding will not support CTE studies because a portion of the money was awarded to Dr. Robert Stein at Boston University, a researcher who has who has publicly criticized the NFL for its negligence surrounding CTE. In 2014 Dr. Stein filed a declaration opposing the NFL’s lawsuit settlement with thousands of former players and accused the NFL of hiding the link between football and CTE. Both the NIH and the NFL argue that ESPN’s report is inaccurate. What does not appear to be under debate is whether the CTE research will be funded at all, the NIH has promised to fund the studies with other federal funds. (Ken Belson, New York Times)

Medical devices and drug policy

New devices may help with the opioid abuse epidemic

Opioid abuse is currently a significant public health concern in the United States. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention each day 44 people die from prescription opioid overdoses and rates are among the highest on record. Additionally, in 2013 it was estimated that 2 million Americans over the age of 12 had either abused or were dependent upon opioid painkillers.

In a move to possibly decrease overdose and abuse rates, an advisory panel at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) earlier this year voted 12 to 5 to recommend approval for a new medical device that avoids the need for prescription opioids in pill form. The new device, known as Probuphine and developed by Braeburn Pharmaceuticals, is a small rod the size of a matchstick that can be implanted into a patient’s arm. The rod dispenses daily doses of a common painkiller known as buprenorphine. Importantly, Probuphine allows for the delivery of buprenorphine for months at a time. In addition to possibly serving as a safer means to deliver painkillers to patents, the new device may also serve as a means to treat those with opioid addiction. For example, an addict could be implanted with the device and receive daily does of buprenorphine for several months as the individual weans themselves off other opioids. Although an opioid itself, buprenorphine has been shown to help individuals overcome withdraw from other opioids. The device would also make it easier for individuals to manage their addiction by decreasing the number of trips to reach treatment and the implant may also help curb the illegal sale and use of buprenorphine.

Although the FDA recommended approval, others remain skeptical. Although buprenorphine can help addicts decrease and eventually stop their use of other opioids, buprenorphine can be addictive on its own. In fact, emergency room visits for buprenorphine related incidents have been on the rise. Additionally, other concerns include the need that opioid addicts have to adjust their does of buprenorphine over the course of recovery, usually starting with high doses and decreasing their dose over time. (Sabrina Tavernise, New York Times)

Astronomy discoveries

Nine Planets Again?

Two astronomers, Konstatin Batygin, professor of planetary science and Mike Brown, professor of planetary astronomy at the California Institute of technology, announced last week that they had evidence that there may be a ninth planet in our solar system. The new planet is believed to be the size of Neptune and to take approximately 15,000 earth years to orbit the sun. Although the planet has not been observed directly, Batygin and Brown inferred its existence based on gravitational pull of the planet on six small objects beyond Pluto. In their recent publication entitled “Evidence for a Distant Giant Planet in the Solar System” in the Astronomical Journal, Batygin and Brown present detailed evidence and arguments for the existence of the new planet. Based on their calculations, the two astronomers suggest that the planet is at least the size of Earth, but likely much bigger. Furthermore, their work suggests that the new planet is somewhere between 20 to 100 billion miles from Earth. Brown is not new to finding novel planets-like bodies, in fact in 2005 Brown identified Eris which was a big as Pluto. This identification raised questions about what should be considered a planet, and in response the International Astronomical Union decided that Eris should not be considered a planet. Pluto also lost its planetary status. The race is now on for the first scientist to directly observe our possible new ninth planet. (Eric Hand, ScienceMag)

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Written by sciencepolicyforall

January 26, 2016 at 9:00 am