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Science Policy Around the Web – October 31, 2017

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By: Michael S. Tennekoon, PhD

20171031_Linkpost

source: pixabay

Forensic DNA testing

Using DNA to Sketch What Victims Look Like; Some Call it Science Fiction

CSI on Steroids”. That is how the latest forensic tool used by law enforcement agencies has been described. It is called phenotyping. But is it all that it promises to be?

Phenotyping is a technique that uses human DNA, from materials such as skin or blood, to predict an individual’s appearance. By analyzing the genetic sequence, scientists can look for genes that code for physical characteristics such as skin color, eye color, geographic ancestry, and many others. This information is then plugged into a computer algorithm to predict an individual’s appearance. Today, dozens of law enforcement agencies from New York to Louisiana use phenotyping for cases where traditional forensics has resulted in no leads.

However, critics argue that this technique is reaching far beyond its means, especially as there is a lack of peer-reviewed research to back up its claims. Indeed, Parabon Nanolabs, one of the pioneering companies that offers phenotyping to law enforcement agencies, has yet to publish the methods underlying its techniques. Furthermore, Dr. Yaniv Erlich, a computer scientist that studies genetics at Columbia University, states that apart from basic predictions like human ancestry, phenotyping of faces is “on the verge of science fiction.”

In addition to concerns about the reliability of phenotyping, there are other ethical and legislative concerns. For example, the New York Civil Liberties Union points out that using ancestry to identify potential suspects in a criminal case will place many innocent people without any connection to the incident under suspicion. Theoretically, this could be used in a similar way to ‘stop and frisk’. These concerns are in addition to the already well-documented susceptibility of DNA testing to human error and bias.

States are still in the process of establishing laws and guidelines to regulate DNA testing, including phenotyping, for use in criminal cases. For example, in New York, one must have authorization from state officials before DNA testing is done.

Ethical issues not withholding, supporters such as Deputy Chief Katranakis, who is the commander of the New York Forensics Investigation Division believe that phenotyping offers more benefits than drawbacks, especially for cases where there are no other alternatives. However, as the use of phenotyping becomes more prevalent, caution must still be urged when weighing the contribution of phenotyping to criminal cases.

(Ashley Southall, The New York Times)

 

 

Research Misconduct

The Cookie Crumbles: A Retracted Study Points to a Larger Truth

Generously, the chances for a PhD student to get a job in academia are less than 15%. Therefore, the pressure to publish has never been higher. Some would argue that, because of this pressure to publish, there is an increased quantity of lower quality research. Perhaps unsurprisingly then, there is a big problem of researchers failing to replicate studies in the social sciences, and there has been a sharp increase in the number of the papers that have been retracted over the past decade.

On Friday, October 20th, another study which appeared to offer a cheap and simple tool for the fight against national obesity has just been retracted as well. The study suggested that simply placing cartoon Elmo stickers on apples could nudge more children to pick an apple over cookies when offered the choice. However, other researchers noted discrepancies with the numbers in the paper, which led to the submission of a replacement article by the original authors. However, the problems continued when it became known that the study was actually performed on children much younger than originally reported (3-5 years old rather than 8-11 years old, as reported). This situation is exacerbated by the fact that these concerns may also have impacted other published reports from the same lab.

Studying ways to change complex eating behaviors in children is no easy task. Children are considered a vulnerable population and there are several additional regulatory requirements for doing work specifically with children. Examples include parental permission, working on school premises, and getting additional approval from Institution Review Boards to name but a few. However, these hurdles are no excuse to bypass scientific rigor. Given the ease by which scientific findings can reach the masses through social media and the press, scientists must take on the responsibility to be extra vigilant to ensure their findings are accurate, or risk losing the public’s trust and ultimately public funding for the wider scientific community.

(Aaron E. Carroll, The New York Times)

 

Climate Change

Fighting Poverty Might Make it Harder to Fight Climate Change

At first glance, the goal of tackling poverty appears noble and completely unrelated to tackling climate change. However, new research shows that eradicating poverty may indeed make it harder to tackle climate change. Why? If extreme poverty is eradicated, people may travel more and increase their energy consumption, thus creating a larger carbon footprint.

Given this potential conflict, researchers from the University of Maryland in College Park modeled what the impact of eradicating poverty would be on climate change. The authors found that eradicating extreme poverty (i.e. increasing income from less than $1.90 a day to between $1.90 and $2.97 a day) would not jeopardize current targets for tackling climate change. However, lifting everyone to the next income level (the global middle-income level defined as living on $2.97-8.44 per day) would have a significant impact (an extra 0.6°C of warming) on climate change.

This leaves the global society in the precarious moral position of deciding what level of poverty is acceptable to ensure the sustainability of the planet. If we not only want to eradicate poverty, but also wish to bring everyone to the middle class, we would need to dedicate almost 7 times more resources than we are currently towards tackling climate change.

However, all hope is not lost. Clean energy, if it becomes cheaper than fossil fuels, would be a viable option for developing nations to use to fuel economic growth and hence would reduce future carbon emissions. There are some encouraging signs that this may be a possibility. In recent years, while the global economy has grown, carbon-dioxide emissions have not followed suit. Amazingly, emissions in the United States, Europe and China have actually fallen—though the amount of carbon-dioxide accumulated in the atmosphere has increased. In the meantime, however, the authors of the current study call for lifestyle changes, such as taking public transportation, living in smaller houses, and eating less meat.

(Allie Wilkinson, Science Magazine)

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October 31, 2017 at 8:43 pm

Science Policy Around the Web – October 27, 2017

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By: Cindo O. Nicholson, Ph.D.

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source: pixabay

The Opioid Crisis

Engulfed in opioid deaths, Ohio turns to science

The state of Ohio has been the most plagued by the opioid scourge in the United States. It suffered the most opioid-related overdoses in 2014, and the number of opioid overdoses have since increased by 32% according to the state’s health officials. The increase in opioid-related overdoses is not due to a lack of effort on Ohio’s part. In fact, the state spent nearly $1 billion on measures like prevention, law enforcement, and treatment, but all to no avail.

In May of this year, the state of Ohio has embraced a new strategy to curb its opioid crisis – technology. The state has passed a request for $20 million to boost the development of new technologies that will stem the tide. While the three-phase, prize-base Ohio initiative is still accepting applications, technologies vying for funding can be broadly grouped into two categories, non-opioid compounds or devices for treating pain and chemical compounds that effectively reduce the withdrawal symptoms of those already gripped by addiction. Non-opioid technologies for pain treatment that are seeking funding include, an implantable mesh of a special polymer, loaded with sufficient doses of non-opioid pain relievers, allowing the controlled delivery of pain medication and a wearable device that uses electric pulses to calm nerves that are sending pain feedback to the brain.

A compound that has already been FDA approved for use in helping recovering addicts manage withdrawal symptoms that could be immediately put to use in Ohio is Probuphine. Probuphine is an implant that consists of a partial opioid receptor agonist buprenorphine linked to a polymer. When worn, the Probuphine implant provides a low dose of the chemical over a six-month period.

These measures are not a “cure-all” as their success will be dependent on patients’ adherence to strict drug regimens. Also, patients will need to resist the urge to discontinue their follow-ups with doctors upon having early success with these interventions. Nevertheless, there is hope that more research and development of effective non-opioid pain therapies and therapies that can minimize the withdrawal symptoms will significantly reduce opioid overdoses in Ohio. The success of this approach in Ohio will serve as model for other states and countries, and show how policies in support of scientific research can benefit communities.

(Alfonso Serrano, Scientific American)

Genomics Policy

The Navajo Nation is considering a new policy to allow genetic research

Tribal leaders of the Navajo Nation are considering put in an end to a fifteen-year moratorium on studying the DNA of its people. The Navajo Nation is an independent Native American territory occupying 71,000 square kilometers (27,413 square miles) of land on portions of Arizona, Utah, and New Mexico. Like many Native American Nations, the Navajo were concerned about the potential for misuse and privacy infringements of genetic research performed by scientists from outside the community. Additionally, in the early 2000s the Navajo Nation’s department of health did not feel they had enough expertise to pursue genetic research and wished to develop their own research policies.

Now, the Navajo Nation will open its first oncology center in Tuba City, Arizona. This will be a major help to Navajo people living on the reservation who currently have to drive hundreds of kilometers to get specialized care. It also has also elicited a reconsideration of the moratorium on genetic research. If the moratorium on genetic research is lifted, it would allow the collection of blood and other tissue samples for further study. The Navajo Nation’s department of health is collaborating with traditional leaders, tribal officials and other delegates to draft a policy that would allow approval of genetic research, and maintain control of DNA samples.

Being able to collect genetic material and maintain them on the reservation would allow research to be conducted on the reservation which now has tribe members that are geneticists, bio-ethicists and other types of medical experts. Lifting the moratorium would allow Navajo scientists and medical experts to research genetic and environmental factors underlying other diseases exhibited by members of the Navajo population.

Ultimately the success of whatever new policy adopted by the Navajo Nation should increase the availability of specialized and personalized care for its people. It would lay the groundwork for regulating the use of genetic material requested from Navajo repositories by scientists outside of the territory. In addition, the success of a new policy for genetic research would serve as a model for other Native American territories seeking to establish their own policies on genetic research.

(Sara Reardon, Nature)

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October 27, 2017 at 5:05 pm

Science Policy Around the Web – August 11, 2017

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By: Saurav Seshadri, PhD

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source: FDA

Health information privacy

Finding the legal line between voluntary disclosure and doctor-patient confidentiality

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has suffered a setback in its efforts to protect private health information from what they see as unjust and unauthorized access by the government. Last week, a court in Utah ruled that federal agents are free to collect sensitive prescription records without a warrant. The concept of ‘third party doctrine’, which states that individuals lose their expectation of privacy when information is disclosed voluntarily (in this case, to a physician or pharmacist), played a key role in the court’s reasoning. This position contradicts common-sense expectations of doctor-patient confidentiality, as well as the spirit of the Health Information Privacy and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA), which pledges that ‘your health information cannot be used for purposes not directly related to your care without your permission’.

The details of the case are as follows. Like almost every state, Utah monitors the prescription and distribution of controlled substances, ostensibly to prevent drug abuse and overdose, and archives this information in a database. Utah began requiring a probable cause warrant to access the database after an incident of police misconduct in 2015, but since then, DEA agents have been circumventing this rule by using administrative subpoenas to pull any record they feel is relevant to an investigation, without judicial oversight. When Utah stopped complying on the grounds that this practice violates state law and the Fourth Amendment, the DEA challenged the state in court and won.

The decision is disappointing, considering the ACLU won a similar suit in Oregon in 2014. However, there is hope that it may be revisited soon: United States vs. Carpenter will use the context of cell phone data to question the validity of the third party doctrine, which, if successful, would have clear implications for this case. Carpenter will be argued by the ACLU before the Supreme Court this fall.

(Brett Max Kaufman, ACLU)

 

International science policy

Indian scientists get their day to speak out

Though hundreds of international sites participated in the March for Science earlier this year, major cities in India were conspicuous by their absence. On Wednesday, a series of public demonstrations finally gave the Indian scientific community an opportunity to add their voices to this global movement. The marches, organized by the Breakthrough Science Society, saw modest but encouraging turnout, despite reports of scientists being instructed not to attend.

India is the largest source of immigrant scientists and engineers in the US, but it lags behind its regional peers in numbers of top-tier scientific publications. Part of the reason for this discrepancy is a lack of government support for scientific institutions and funding agencies. While the Indian Department of Science and Technology has received substantial boosts in funding in recent years, budgets are still far short what scientific department heads say they need. One of the march’s core demands was for the government to increase investment in R&D from ~0.8% to 3% of GDP, in line with other developed Asian countries.

The other main goal of the march was to counteract rising levels of pseudoscience and religious intolerance of science in Indian culture. Organizers point out that violent incidents motivated by superstition still occur regularly, and cite ‘confrontational chauvinism’ regarding science by high-ranking officials. While this toxic blend of anti-science sentiment and nationalism is not unique to India, the country is unusual in that its constitution explicitly includes developing a scientific temperament as a ‘Fundamental Duty’ of its citizens. Ultimately, as in the US, the extent to which such events will truly promote rational discourse and evidence-based policy remains to be seen.

(Sanjay Kumar, Science)

 

Marijuana legalization/Opioid crisis

Hands-off/Hands-on approaches to the war on drugs

Initial recommendations from two separate commissions on drug policy set up by the Trump administration have yielded unexpected results. First, the Task Force on Crime Reduction and Public Safety has urged officials to continue the Obama administration’s hands-off stance on enforcing federal anti-marijuana laws. This is a surprising outcome, considering the Task Force was created by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, and was expected to support a crackdown on state-level legalization: Sessions has blamed marijuana for increased violent crime, and recently notified several pot-tolerant states that they will face increased scrutiny from his Justice Department. Though the report’s suggestions are not binding and several methods to discourage legalization still exist (such as raiding dispensaries or suing state governments), given the overwhelming public support for legal marijuana and Sessions’ increasingly tenuous political position, it appears unlikely that any significant changes in enforcement policy are on the way.

The second report comes from the President’s Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis. The death toll and burden to society of opioid addiction have increased dramatically in recent years, and the commission offers several constructive, bipartisan solutions that echo those advocated by public health and drug policy experts. However, Trump has already signaled his disinterest in these suggestions, ignoring the commission’s ‘urgent’ request to ‘declare a national emergency under either the Public Health Service Act or the Stafford Act‘ in order to divert more resources into fighting opioid abuse. Trump routinely exploited the opioid epidemic for political points while on the campaign trail, often using it to justify ‘tough-on-crime’ proposals such as a Mexican border wall, mandatory minimum sentencing, and property seizure. The report does not recommend any of these measures, instead encouraging expanded drug treatment under Medicaid, which would have been gutted by the GOP’s attempted repeal of the Affordable Care Act. Failure to effect change in opioid-afflicted communities, which strongly supported Trump in 2016, could be politically costly for him in 2020; but steadily climbing rates of addiction mean that this timeline would be too late for many.

(Daniel Politi, Slate, and Christopher Ingraham, The Washington Post)

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August 11, 2017 at 5:54 pm

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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Written by sciencepolicyforall

June 20, 2017 at 1:10 pm