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Posts Tagged ‘vector-borne diseases

Science Policy Around the Web – August 10, 2018

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By: Leopold Kong, PhD


source: pixabay

The Scientific Workforce

Top US biomedical institute settles gender-discrimination lawsuits

In a joint statement on August 7, 2018, senior cancer researchers Katherine Jones and Victoria Ludblad agreed to drop all charges against the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, California for sexual harassment and gender-based discrimination.  The statement reads: “[…] productive conversations have led to a resolution of all claims between these parties that will enable us to put our disagreements behind us.” However, the settlement does not impact similar allegations against Salk by a third plaintiff, molecular biologist Beverly Emerson, whose contract was not renewed in 2018.  Her lawyer said, “Dr. Emerson intends to proceed until justice is fully achieved.”

All three lawsuits were initiated in July 2017, alleging several discriminatory practices at Salk. These include being excluded from retreats and social events with opportunities to network with donors, being assigned smaller lab spaces than male colleagues, being allocated fewer lab staff than male colleagues, and being paid less than male colleagues. The lawsuits also singled out Salk faculty member Inder Verma, a renowned geneticist who also served as the editor-in-chief of the prestigious research journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Lundblad’s suit alleged that Verma made “overtly derogatory comments” about women. Furthermore, in reports going back to 1976, eight women alleged that Verma “grabbed their breasts, pinched their buttocks, forcibly kissed them, propositioned them, and repeatedly commented on their physical attributes in professional settings.”  “It was on everybody’s mouth that he was a harasser,” said molecular and cell biologist Monica Zoppè, who claimed she was forcibly kissed by Verma when she was a postdoctoral scientist in his lab.  Although Verma issued a statement to Nature that he had never used his position to take advantage of others, he resigned from the Salk earlier this year.

“Gender discrimination is everywhere,” says Christine Williams, a sociologist at the University of Texas at Austin. “But what makes the experience unique among scientists is their almost unflappable belief in objectivity and meritocracy.” To change the situation, some universities have become more transparent about salaries, promotions and funding.  In the United Kingdom, Athena SWAN (Scientific Women’s Academic Network) program collects information from over 140 institutions and rank them in terms of how well they attract and advance women. “There has been so much progress,” Nancy Hopkins, a molecular biologist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology told Nature, “but the progress is uneven.”

(Amy Maxmen, Nature)

Vector-borne diseases

Dengue rates plummet in Australian city after release of modified mosquitoes

In 2016, there were over 2000 cases of dengue fever in Australia, reaching a 20-year high. The mosquito that spreads dengue, Aedes aegypti, can also carry the zika virus, and there were 59 confirmed cases of zika in Australia that same year.  When left untreated, dengue fever has a mortality rate of over 20%.  Since October 2014, researchers have been testing a new strategy to combat mosquito-borne diseases in Townsville, Australia.  Over many months, the researchers released around 4 million Aedes aegypti mosquitoes carrying a strain of the Wolbachia bacteria that blocks the transmission of dengue, zika and other disease-causing viruses.  Wolbachia are bacteria that can live inside insect cells, and are estimated to infect more than 60% of all insect species. One strain of Wolbachia is known to have the ability to halve the adult lifespan of Aedes aegypti and stimulate the mosquito’s immune system to make it more effective against disease causing viruses such as dengue. Wolbachia may also compete with disease causing viruses for the limited resources inside the mosquito.  According to the recently posted results in Gates Open Research, in the 44 months after the release of the mosquitoes, there were only 4 locally acquired dengue cases compared with 54 locally acquired cases over the 44 preceding months.  Similar studies with Wolbachia are ongoing in Yogyakarta, Indonesia, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil and Bello and Meddlin, Colombia, where dengue is a major health burden. Earlier this year, Wolbachia carrying Aedes aegypti mosquitoes were released in Vietnam and Pacific islands such as Fiji, Vanuatu and Kiribati.

(Ewen Callaway, Nature)

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Written by sciencepolicyforall

August 10, 2018 at 1:22 pm

Science Policy Around the Web – October 3, 2017

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By: Allison Dennis, B.S.


source: pixabay

Policy Evaluation

How to collect better data on government programs—and improve privacy, too

Of the 11,976 bills that have became law in the US how do we know which have achieved their goals? Of the $3.9 Trillion spent by the federal government in 2016, how much made a measurable impact on society? The Evidence-Based Policymaking Commission Act, which had been introduced in the house by Paul Ryan in April of 2015 and signed into law on March 30, 2016, called for the creation of a federal panel to inventory the vast amounts of data already collected by the federal government and make recommendations for how it could be shaped into effective tools for policymakers. The conclusions drawn by the panel of economic and public policy experts were recently released in a report. Forefront was addressing the security practices that would be necessary to protect sensitive information. As such, rather than propose a consolidated data bank, the commission recommends the use of a secure portal to consolidate data temporarily and as-needed. The report idealizes the Department of Commerce, which oversees the Census Bureau, as the would-be home of the National Secure Data Service.

Inspiration for the integration of data into policy may need to be distilled from examples outside the federal government. For example, the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation has approached this issue by outlining a largely flexible framework that can be used for the purpose-driven evaluation of “an ongoing or completed intervention, project, policy, program, or partnership.” The focus on a purpose-driven approach allows those closest to the project to define what types of evaluation will be most useful. However, the marked advantage in this approach is the acknowledgement of evaluation criteria early in the project’s implementation.

Evidence that city governments might already be employing in a data-driven approach comes from Boston’s Resilient Strategy, a report which outlines “utilizing new and existing data sources to advance resilience and racial equity across the city.” Following up the report, the Mayor of Boston recently undertook the establishment of the Economic Mobility Lab, which will take a “laboratory” approach to understanding what works in promoting upward economic mobility and security.

However, discussions with the Oversight and Government Reform Committee for the U.S. House of Representatives, which largely veered off topic, revealed that the report would only be a small step towards using scientific evidence to inform policy decisions as a routine practice at the legislative level. Members of the committee seemed focused on how findings of the commission could be used to promote partisan agendas, rooting out fraud or undermining policies thought to be unscientific for example. Until lawmakers begin turning the recommendations of the commission into law, they will go unrealized, prompting Katherine Abraham and Ron Haskins, the former chair and co-chair of the concluded commission, to lead a continuation as part of a new Initiative hosted by the Bipartisan Policy Center.

(Jeffrey Mervis, Science)

Natural Disasters

One More Thing For Puerto Rico To Worry About: Disease-Ridden Mosquitoes

Hurricane winds and rain can destroy mosquito populations. Unfortunately, the haste with which they bounce back may outpace the time taken by their human counterparts to rebuild roofs, reinstall screens, wait in line for gasoline, stock up on clean drinking water, open the windows to catch relief from un-air-conditioned houses. All this time outside increases people’s exposure to mosquitos. Displaced families may gather in shelters or stay with friends, increasing the spread of communicable and disease. Hurricane flooding may immediately increase nuisance mosquito populations, those species that do not carry disease. However populations of Aedes aegypti mosquitos, those that spread Zika, dengue, West Nile, and chikungunya virus, may see surges in population, 2 weeks to 2 months after a hurricane, when adult Aedes aegypti mosquitoes find ample opportunities to lay eggs in stagnant pools of water accumulated during rains.

Following Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Tulane University reported a twofold increase in West Nile virus in affected counties. Following earthquake caused floods in Costa Rica in 1991, a significant outbreak of Malaria was experienced. Luckily, not all flooding conditions or human activities following a disaster result in outbreaks. Last month, the Air Force Reserve was dispatched to begin aerial spray applications of Texas areas affected by Hurricane Harvey to control pest insect populations. Local authorities in Florida have already begun treating areas that have accumulated water since Hurricane Irma with insecticides. However, whether aerial-spray programs will be implemented towards combating the rise of mosquito populations following Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico remains unclear.

The recognition that disparities in normal living conditions are linked to the spread of vector-born diseases has many public health officials worried about the recovery of people in Puerto Rico in contrast with Florida and Texas, all of which share a habitat for the Aedes aegypti mosquito.

(Maggie Koerth-Baker, FiveThirtyEight)

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Written by sciencepolicyforall

October 4, 2017 at 10:55 am

Genetically Modified Animal Vectors to Combat Disease

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By: Sarah L Hawes, PhD

Mosquito larvae: ©ProjectManhattan via Wikimedia Commons

Diseases transmitted through contact with an animal carrier, or “vector,” cause over one million deaths annually, many of these in children under the age of five. More numerous, non-fatal cases incur a variety of symptoms ranging from fevers to lesions to lasting organ damage. Vector-borne disease is most commonly contracted from the bite of an infected arthropod, such as a tick or mosquito. Mosquito-borne Zika made recent, regular headlines following a 2015-2016 surge in birth defects among infants born to women bitten during pregnancy. Other big names in vector-borne disease include Malaria, Dengue, Chagas disease, Leishmaniasis, Rocky Mountain spotted fever and Lyme.

Vaccines do not exist for many of these diseases, and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) Division of Vector-Borne Diseases focuses on “prevention and control strategies that can reach the targeted disease or vector at multiple levels while being mindful of cost-effective delivery that is acceptable to the public, and cognizant of the world’s ecology.” Prevention through reducing human contact with vectors is classically achieved through a combination of physical barriers (i.e. bed nets and clothing), controlling vector habitat near humans (i.e. dumping standing water or mowing tall grass), and reducing vector populations with poisons. For instance, the Presidential Malaria Initiative (PMI), initiated under President Bush in 2005, and expanded under President Obama, reduces vector contact through a complement of educating the public, distributing and encouraging the use of bed nets, and spraying insecticide. Now a 600 million dollar a year program, PMI has been instrumental in preventing several million Malaria-related deaths in the last decade.

But what if a potentially safer, cheaper and more effective solution to reduce human-vector contact exists in the release of Genetically Modified (GM) vector species? Imagine a mosquito engineered to include a new or altered gene to confer disease resistance, sterility, or to otherwise impede disease transmission to humans. Release of GM mosquitos could drastically reduce the need for pesticides, which may be harmful to humans, toxic to off-target species, and have led to pesticide-resistance in heavily-sprayed areas. Health and efficacy aside, it is impossible to overturn or poison every leaf cupping rainwater where mosquitos breed. GM mosquitos could reach and “treat” the same pockets of water as their non-GM counterparts. However, an insect designed to pass on disease resistance to future generations would mean persistence of genetic modifications in the wild, which is worrisome given the possibility of unintended direct effects or further mutation. An elegant alternative is the release of GM vector animals producing non-viable offspring – and this is exactly what biotech company Oxitec has done with mosquitos.

Oxitec’s OX513A mosquitos express a gene that interferes with critical cellular functions in the mosquitos, but this gene is suppressed in captivity by administering the antibiotic tetracycline in the mosquitos’ diet. Release of thousands of non-biting OX513A males into the wild results in a local generation of larvae which, in the absence of tetracycline, die before reaching adulthood. Release of OX513A has proven successful at controlling mosquito populations in several countries since 2009, rapidly reducing local numbers by roughly 90%. Oxitec’s OX513A line may indeed be a safe and effective tool. But who is charged with making this call for OX513A and, moreover for future variations in GM vector release?

Policy governing use of genetically modified organisms must keep pace with globally available biotechnology. Regulatory procedures for the use of GM vector release are determined by country, and there is a high degree of international policy alignment. The Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety is a treaty involving 170 nations currently (the US not included) that governs transport of “living modified organisms resulting from modern biotechnology” with potential to impact environmental or human health. The World Health Organization (WHO) and the Foundation for the National Institutes of Health (FNIH) published the 2014 guidelines for evaluating safety and efficacy of GM mosquitos.

Within the US, the 2017 Update to the Coordinated Framework for the Regulation of Biotechnology was published this January in response to a solicitation by the Executive Office of the President for a cohesive report from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and US Department of Agriculture (USDA). Separately, biotech industry has been given fresh guidance on whether to seek FDA or EPA approval (in brief):  if your GM product is designed to reduce disease load or spread, including vector population reduction, it requires New Animal Drug approval by FDA; if it is designed to reduce pest population but is un-related to disease, it requires Pesticide Product approval by EPA under the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act.

Thus, for a biotech company to release GM mosquitos in the US with the intent of curbing the spread of mosquito-borne disease, they must first gain FDA approval. Oxitec gained federal approval to release OX513A in a Florida suburb in August 2015 because of FDA’s “final environmental assessment (EA) and finding of no significant impact (FONSI).” These FDA assessments determined that the Florida ecosystem would not be harmed by eliminating the targeted, invasive Aedes aegypti mosquito. In addition, they affirmed that no method exists for the modified gene carried by OX513A to impact humans or other species. Risks were determined to be negligible, and include the accidental release of a few, disease-free OX513A females. For a human bitten by a rare GM female, there is zero risk of transgene transfer. There is no difference in saliva allergens, and therefore the response to a bite, from GM and non-GM mosquitos. In addition, as many as 3% of OX513A offspring manage to survive to adulthood, presumably by spawning in tetracycline-treated water for livestock. These few surviving offspring will not become a long-term problem because their survival is not a heritable loop-hole; it is instead analogous to a lucky few mosquitos avoiding contact with poison.

Solid scientific understanding of the nature of genetic modifications is key to the creation of good policy surrounding the creation and use of GMOs. In an updated draft of Guidelines For Industry 187 (GFI 187), the FDA advises industry seeking New Animal Drug Approval to include a molecular description of the intentional genetic alteration in animals, method for alteration, description of introduction to the animal, and whether the alteration is stable over time/across generations if heritable, and environmental and food safety assessments. Newer genomic DNA editing techniques such as CRISPR offer improved control over the location, and thus, the effect of genetic revisions. In light of this, the FDA is soliciting feedback from the public on the GFI 187 draft until April 19th, 2017, in part to determine whether certain types of genetic alteration in animals might represent no risk to humans or animals, and thus merit reduced federal regulation.

Following federal clearance, the decision on whether to release GM vectors rests with local government. Currently, lack of agreement among Florida voters has delayed the release of OX315A mosquitos. Similar to when GM mosquito release was first proposed in Florida following a 2009-2010 Dengue outbreak, voter concern today hinges on the perception that GM technology is “unproven and unnatural.” This illustrates both a healthy sense of skepticism in our voters, and the critical need to improve scientific education and outreach in stride with biotechnology and policy. Until we achieve better public understanding of GM organisms, including how they are created, controlled, and vetted, we may miss out on real opportunities to safely and rapidly advance public health.

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Written by sciencepolicyforall

February 16, 2017 at 9:46 am