By: Nivedita Sengupta, Ph.D.
Scanning electron micrograph of neutrophil ingesting methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus bacteria. Credit: NIAID. Photo source: Wikimedia Commons
Dual Use Research of Concern (DURC)
U.S. oversight of risky pathogen research could be better, draft report concludes
Gain of function (GOF) mutation studies that manipulate dangerous pathogens to develop treatment and vaccines can pose significant threat to public safety in event of an accidental or intentional release of the modified infectious agent. A recently released report by an expert advisory group, National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) to the U.S. government concludes that though just a small subset of the GOF studies pose such a risk, current policies regulating such studies required further policy supplementation.
The debate on GOF studies came into prominence in 2011 when two research groups reported GOF studies on H5N1 avian influenza virus resulting in a more virulent and readily transferable virus. This led to a controversy over publication of the results and fear of pandemic in case of escape of these agents from the laboratory. In 2014, the U.S. government suspended 18 funded GOF studies involving pathogenic viruses such as influenza and SARS. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) later exempted few of the studies while NSABB and National research council (NRC) continued to review the risks and benefits of such studies. Following the NRC meeting, NIH commissioned an independent firm to evaluate the risk and benefits of such studies.
The report submitted by the firm analyzed the probability of both lab accidents and security breaches and concluded that “only a small fraction of laboratory accidents would result in a loss of containment; of those, only a small fraction would result in a laboratory-acquired infection, and of those, only a fraction would spread throughout the surrounding community (or global population).” It further states that some types of GOF experiments may not pose any security threat. The report also highlights the regulatory gap overseeing this kind of research. There are some regulatory requirements for handling the lethal viruses and bacteria classified as select agents; however GOF studies involving MERS virus and seasonal influenza viruses does not seems to be regulated by any of the current policies.
The draft report also proposes multistep guidelines while making funding decisions on research proposals related to GOF studies. In the initial step, reviewers would evaluate three criteria to determine whether the study needs further special evaluation. Studies requiring further evaluation would have to undergo a seven step review process before making a funding decision. In the final step, all the funded studies would be regularly reviewed by the sponsoring institution and federal funding agencies.
Although the NSABB reports details a thorough risk benefit analysis and recommends a set of policy guidelines for research funding for GOF studies, it is expected to draw extensive comments during the upcoming NSABB meeting. However, some scientists believe that due to the perception of a larger scale benefits of these studies, the recommendations of the report may not lead to stricter policy guidelines. (David Malakoff, ScienceInsider)
Spread of antibiotic-resistance gene does not spell bacterial apocalypse — yet
The worldwide emergence of bacteria resistance to colistin – one of the “last resort” antibiotics – was recently reported in numerous countries. Colistin is one of the few antibiotics which are rarely used in humans as it can cause kidney damage; thus, bacterial resistance due to overuse in humans has not occured. However, mutations conferring colistin resistance have been previously reported in soil bacteria, and most recently it has been identified in plasmids, those small sections of circular DNA which are readily shared among bacteria. The ease of this transfer of plasmids between bacteria has resulted in the emergence of colistin-resistant bacterial species. As colistin is considered as a last resort drug, the appearance of resistant bacterial species has resulted in an outcry in the medical field.
However, not all researchers and physicians are considering this as the worst possible news, since colistin is not the only last resort antibiotic available. They suggest that even with the emergence of colistin-resistant bacteria, the drug can still be used for treatment in conjunction with other antibiotics. Moreover, they state that all antibiotics have a spectrum of activity and thus a larger dose may overcome the apparently resistant bacteria.
Even though the appearance of colistin-resistant bacteria now may not be the end of the antibiotic line, it is only a matter of time before that becomes fact. The last new class of antibiotics, lipopeptides, were discovered in the 1980s and the newest antibacterial compound teixobactin has a long way to go before it can be used beneficially as an antibiotic. Though a lot of antibiotics have been developed in past years, the functional basis of all these drugs are quite similar and thus may not work any better (or prevent resistance from occurring) than each other.
Government incentives for companies that continue to develop new antibiotics are a good thing, so long as bacteria do not quickly develop resistance against these new drugs. So, in addition to the important work of developing new antibiotics, we must also try to use our existing drugs in a better way and try to find a different alternatives to treat bacterial infections. In this regard, current policies for the proper use of antibiotics should be regularly revisited with preventing antibiotic-resistance in mind. This will require further policies which dissuade the misuse of antibiotic in farm animals and agriculture, as well as in hospitals. Furthermore, worldwide cooperation is needed to create global policies to prevent the misuse and overuse of antibiotics in the near future. (Sara Reardon, Nature Trend Watch)
Women in STEM
Why Are There Still So Few Women in Science?
The 2015 Noble prize in physiology or medicine was awarded to Dr. Youyou Tu for her discoveries regarding a novel therapy for malaria. The Noble prizes in Chemistry, Literature, Physics, and Physiology or Medicine were first awarded in 1901 and since then 18 women have received the Noble prize. Current statistics show that approximately 50% of doctoral candidates are women; however, less than 20% of them end up in a tenured research position. So what is the cause of fewer women in science? Clearly it is not the quality of work done by the women, as this has already been substantiated in many ways.
A significant reduction in number of women in science occurs during the postdoctoral years, after receiving PhDs and before reaching tenure. This drop in number of female scientists can be caused by a number of factors. For instance, the most widely accepted issue is trying to balance a career with motherhood. In addition, the current academic system does not make the job easier by demanding long hours at work to earn tenure, leaving little time for anything else. Even after overcoming all these obstacles the accomplishments of a woman is seen with bias and skepticism as mentioned by Dr. Virginia Valian in her book, Why So Slow? The Advancement of Women. Dr. Meg Urry, a professor of physics at Yale, thinks that the accomplishments of women in science are under appreciated in such a way that they themselves lose the confidence to continue further. Some of the other challenges faced by women in science are subtle but unique, and are so overtly ignored that it even escapes notice by women. Some of these challenges are unconscious institutional bias and lack of proper mentoring. A study done in 2012 found that both male and female professors would offer a job to the male applicant, when presented with identical curriculum vitae of two imaginary applicants one male and one female. Moreover, if they did hire the female applicant, her salary was nearly $4,000 lower than male counterpart. This bias is not only limited to the salary and extends even to promotions and office space and professional interactions.
Though there are many policies in science to address these gender imbalances, current circumstances warrant that these policies be re-evaluated. One policy for all may not be the best way to deal with the present situation. Policies should be crafted to attempt to remove any bias in salaries, allocation of research space, and promotions, in addition to raising public awareness regarding importance of women in scientific field. This in turn, might result in motivating women to continue in the scientific field. (Eileen Pollack, The New York Times Magazine)
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