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Science Policy Around the Web February 20th, 2020

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By Somayeh Hooshmand, PhD

Image by skeeze from Pixabay 

Researchers Identify States Where Improved Sun Protection Could Prevent the Most Melanomas19)

Rates of new cancer diagnoses continue to increase in the US, and skin cancer is one of the most common. Although many skin cancer cases can be prevented, it greatly affects quality of life, making it a major public health concern. According to a recent study, 91% of all melanomas in the US are caused by too much exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun. However, the rates vary among populations, and are as high as 94% among non-Hispanic whites. This study focused on the non-Hispanic white population at the state level that exhibit higher levels of melanoma and suggested sun protection measures across the states.

While incidence rates for melanoma as a result of exposure to the UV radiation was noticeably high in all states, the District of Columbia had the lowest proportion of melanoma among non‐Hispanic whites —87.6% of all cases and Hawaii had the highest, with 97.3%  of all cases. 

How to protect yourself from UV radiation:

The risk of skin damage increases when you stay in the sun for a long time, especially with a high UV Index and without sufficient sun protection. Dr. Farhad Islami, MD, PhD, said that “The amount of UV exposure you get depends on both the strength of the sun’s rays—measured by the UV Index—and the length of the time your skin is exposed to it”. He said “You can’t change the UV Index, but you can change how long you’re outside and how you protect your skin”. 

You should use sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) of 15 or higher and limit the amount of time you’re in the sun, avoid peak sunlight, wear sunglasses and try to reduce indoor tanning. The authors hope that state- and community-level cancer control programs will result in school-based programs and indoor tanning regulations based on this research findings.

(Amy Maxmem, Nature)

‘Ghost’ DNA In West Africans Complicates Story of Human Origins

The genetic history of people in present-day West Africa indicates an earlier episode of breeding between different groups, leading to introgression of genetic material into modern humans. 

The recent research in human genetics by Sankararaman et al. found “ghost DNA” by analyzing the genomes of 405 West Africans, and suggests that about 50,000 years ago, ancient human procreated with another group of ancient humans or unknown ancestors that scientists so far did not know existed. The understanding so far has been that Homo sapiens, our own species lived alongside other groups that split off at different times from the same genetic family tree. There exists abundant evidence from other parts of the world that early humans had sex with other groups, like Neanderthals (found in people of European and Asian descent today) and Denisovans (found in people from Oceania). They state that the found unusual DNA came from a yet-to-be-discovered group, as it isn’t associated with either Neanderthals or Denisovans. The lack of knowledge about this group led the researchers to term it ‘ghost’ DNA. They think that this occurred due to interbreeding (single event or over an extended period of time) around the same time when Neanderthals were breeding with modern humans elsewhere in the world.

Their findings appear in the journal Science Advances, but there are still many questions about  ‘Ghost’ DNA that remain unanswered. As Sankararaman says, “Are they just randomly floating in our genomes? Do they have any kind of adaptive benefits? Do they have deleterious consequences? Those are all questions which would be fantastic to start thinking about.”

(Merrit Kennedy, NPR)

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February 20, 2020 at 4:28 pm

Science Policy Around the Web February 18th, 2020

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By Silvia Preite, PhD

Image by Konstantin Kolosov from Pixabay 

How science is fighting the new Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19)

The increase in new infections of the novel coronavirus, recently named SARS-CoV-2, COVID-19), is being tightly monitored by the WHO (World Health Organization). Currently there are 71,429 confirmed world-wide cases, and 1772 deaths in China. Scientists around the world are making extensive efforts to fight COVID-19 in multiple ways: 1) utilizing epidemiology to understand how and why the virus is spreading; 2) studying the genetic composition of the virus to learn how it works, survives and spreads across species; 3) conducing biomedical research to find and test effective therapeutics. The development of novel drugs is generally a slow process, usually taking several years to be completed. Therefore, with the urgency of the current epidemic, specific vaccine development and identification and production of viral neutralizing antibodies do not seem useful immediate solutions. 

The scientific community is mainly directing its attention toward the exploration of already developed drugs, such as antivirals, stem cells, and Chinese traditional medicines. Examples of these drugs are an HIV-drug cocktail (lopinavir and ritonavir) and an experimental antiviral called remdesivir. Both options have shown initial promise in animal models infected by related strains of coronaviruses. Other tested treatment includes a malaria drug (chloroquine) and steroids, respectively aimed at killing the virus and reducing inflammation.

Overall, China is currently launching more than 80 clinical trials to test treatments for this coronavirus. To ensure high quality and public trust in the outcomes of these trials, the WHO is working closely with Chinese scientists and authorities to set standards to design, execute, and analyze these studies properly. 

Failing to control the infection could result in the virus becoming endemic, like seasonal influenza infection. Sharing of research results at global levels and adequately designed clinical trials are two essential elements that the medical and scientific community is currently adopting to properly fight the infection. Meanwhile, basic and translational research all over the world is moving forward to search for new drugs that would be useful in the future to combat multiple coronaviruses, including the ones that we haven’t faced yet. 

Written by sciencepolicyforall

February 18, 2020 at 3:57 pm

Science Policy Around the Web November 29th, 2019

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By Maria Disotuar, PhD

Source: Pixneo

To Drive Down Insulin Prices, W.H.O. Will Certify Generic Versions

Without insulin, a person with type 1 diabetes cannot survive, and the cost and accessibility to insulin continues to be a problem for individuals suffering from this incurable autoimmune disease. Diabetes mellitus is a chronic metabolic disease characterized by high blood glucose levels. There are two types of diabetes, Type 1 diabetes results from the loss of pancreatic β-cell function, resulting in an inability to produce insulin, a peptide-based hormone. On the other hand, Type 2 diabetes patients are resistant to insulin. Those suffering from Type 1 diabetes require daily insulin therapy to stay alive, and patients with type 2 diabetes require insulin therapy to maintain a healthy lifestyle. Currently, more than 400 million people worldwide have diabetes and this number is expected to increase in the coming years. The main problem being that there are no generic forms of insulin and the price for current insulin analogs has gone from approximately $20 per vial to $250 per vial depending on the type of insulin. This price increase over the past 20 years has made insulin unaffordable for many individuals particularly for younger generations of Americans struggling to pay student loans. For these individuals, seeing the price of insulin jump from $4.34 to $12. 92 per milliliter has meant rationing the lifesaving drug to the bare minimum – a deadly decision for some.

As a response to the growing demand for insulin and skyrocketing prices, the World Health Organization (WHO) has proposed a two year prequalification pilot project, which will allow pharmaceutical companies to produce generic insulin to be evaluated by WHO for efficacy and affordability. These types of pilot projects have been previously deployed to improve the accessibility of life saving drugs for malaria, HIV, and tuberculosis. These efforts have led to an increase in production and market competition leading to reduced costs for individuals.

Currently, the major producers of insulin, Eli Lilly, Novo Nordisk, and Sanofi have welcomed the prequalification program, vowing to be a part of the solution not the problem. According to WHO, companies in several countries, including China and India, have already expressed interest in the pilot project. This shift in insulin production would allow companies producing insulin domestically to enter the global market. As WHO-certified suppliers, these new competitors could dramatically drive down the price of insulin and improve accessibility on a global scale. Despite this positive global outlook, there are still some hurdles to cross for Americans to obtain these generic insulin products. The main one being that the pharmaceutical market is regulated by the FDA and the review process can be expensive for smaller companies. Nonetheless, Americans are fighting back to reduce the cost of insulin and other life savingdrugs, prompting lawmakers, presidential candidates, and the President to prioritize reduced drug prices for Americans. These mounting pressures will hopefully lead to a faster solution for this life or death situation.

(Donald G. McNeil Jr., The New York Times)

Will Microneedle Patches Be the Future of Birth Control?

In 2018, the The Lancet reported that between 2010 and 2014 44% of all pregnancies in the world were unplanned. Despite medical advances in sexual and reproductive health, new contraceptive methods are needed to expand accessibility and improve reliability for women. In the United States, the establishment of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) and health policies such as the Federal Contraceptive Coverage Guarantee, which requires private health plans to include coverage for contraceptives and sexual health services, has improved family planning for women of reproductive age. Despite the social and economic benefits of improved family planning and enhanced accessibility, conservatives continue to challenge these beneficial health policies. Unfavorable changes to these policies could result in major barriers for women to access some of the most effective, yet pricier forms of contraceptives such as intrauterine devices (IUDs) and implants. Studies show these long-acting forms of birth control are up to 20 times more effective in preventing unintended pregnancies than shorter-acting methods such as the pill or ring. Thus, new long-term contraceptives with reduced cost barriers would be essential in reducing unintended pregnancies and enhancing economic benefits on a global scale.

To address this issue, researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology and University of Michigan in partnership with Family Health International (FHI) – a non profit human development organization, have developed a long-acting contraceptive administered by a patch containing biodegradable microneedles. The patch is placed on the surface of the skin and the microneedles painlessly come into contact withinterstitial fluid resulting in the formation of carbon dioxide bubbles, which allow the microneedles to detach from the patch within 1 minute of application. The needles themselves do not introduce a new contraceptive hormone, rather they provide levonorgestrel (LNG), which is regularly used in IUDs and has been deemed as safe and efficacious. After dissociation from the patch the needles slowly release LNG into the bloodstream. 

Thus far, the pharmacokinetics of the patches has been tested on rats and a placebo version has been tested in humans to test the separation process between the patch and the needles. The in vivo animal studies indicate the patch is able to maintain LNG concentrations at acceptable levels for more than one month and the placebo patch was well tolerated among study participants with only 10% reporting transient pain or redness at the site of patch application. Lastly, the researchers analyzed conceptions and acceptability of this new contraceptive method among American, Indian, and Nigerian women compared to oral contraceptives and monthly contraceptive injections administered by a physician. The results indicate women overwhelmingly preferred the microneedle patch method over the daily pill (90%) or monthly injections (100%). The researchers expect the patch to be simple to mass produce and a low-cost contraceptive option, which will reduce cost barriers and improve accessibility for women. Although the results of the study are promising, additional studies will have to be completed to address some of its limitations. Future studies will have to increase the number of animals used in the study and the number of human participants. Additionally, the release profile for LNG will likely need to be extended beyond 1-month to truly address the need for new long-acting forms of contraceptives. Finally, clinical trials will have to be completed to test the efficacy and general reliability of this method at reducing unintended pregnancies. If the microneedle patch is approved, it would be the first self-administered long-term birth control to enter the market, which could ultimately lead to enhanced accessibility for women with limited access to health care.

(Claire Bugos, Smisothian) 

Science Policy Around the Web November 15th, 2019

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By Mohor Sengupta PhD

Image by David Mark from Pixabay

Rollout of Johnson & Johnson Ebola vaccine begins in Congo

To the African countries reeling with the second deadliest Ebola outbreak in history, two back-to-back launches of new vaccines may be a beacon of hope. On Tuesday this week, Merck’s vaccine Ervebo was pre-qualified by the WHO, meaning that it was declared safe for use. This occurred merely 48 hours after the European Commission granted conditional marketing authorization for the vaccine. The speed of this decision-making sheds light on the gravity of the situation at hand. 

The current outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo has killed more than 2,200 people. The previous Ebola outbreak, and the deadliest in living memory, rocked West Africa in 2013-16, claiming 11,300 lives. 

In addition to Ervebo, a new vaccine produced by Johnson & Johnson was approved yesterday. It passed several clinical trials, however it will now be tested for the first time in a real world setting in the village of Goma, on the Rwandan border with DRC. It will be administered to 50,000 people. 

The new vaccine by Johnson & Johnson is aimed at complementing Ervebo. While the later requires a single shot, the Johnson & Johnson vaccine will require two shots spaced at 8 weeks. Ervebo is being used as “ring-vaccination”, a strategy in which close contacts of Ebola-infected individuals will be vaccinated.  

(Reporting by Fiston Mahamba; Writing by Hereward Holland; Editing by Anna Pujol-Mazzini and Mark PotterReuters)

Written by sciencepolicyforall

November 15, 2019 at 4:35 pm

Science Policy Around the Web – April 26, 2019

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By: Mary Weston, Ph.D.

Source: Pixabay

World’s first malaria vaccine to go to 360,000 African children

On Tuesday, the World Health Organization (WHO) announced the launch of a large-scale pilot of the first malaria vaccine ever developed. 360,000 children under 2 years old will be vaccinated per year across three African countries (Malawi started vaccinating this week and Ghana and Kenya will began in the next couple weeks). The combined effort could immunize up to one million children by 2023. Children under five years old are at the most risk for life-threatening complications from malaria and more than 250,000 children in Africa die from the disease every year. 

The vaccine was developed by GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) and the PATH Malaria Vaccine Initiative (MVI) with support from the Gates Foundation. Data from clinical trials indicates it only provides partial protection, preventing around 40% of malaria cases. Thus, the vaccine is meant to complement existing solutions to preventing malaria ( e.g.bed nets, insecticide, and rapid diagnosis and treatment of the disease).  

Malaria is a parasitic infection that is transmitted via a bite from the female Anopheles mosquito. While the disease is preventable and treatable, an estimated 435,000 people die from it each year. The newly developed vaccine protects against P. falciparum, the most prevalent malaria strain found in sub-Saharan Africa.

The vaccine, known as RTS,S or Mosquirix, has taken decades to develop. It is given in four doses: 3 doses provided between the first five and nine months of age and the last delivered around the 2ndbirthday. While this is a big step, some malaria researchers are questioning the implementation of this vaccine when other, more effective vaccines are currently in clinical trials. However, even 40% efficacy will be very helpful in combating this devastating disease.

(Katie Hunt, CNN)

Drug Distributor And Former Execs Face First Criminal Charges In Opioid Crisis

For the first time, federal criminal charges were brought against a pharmaceutical distributer for its role in perpetuating the US’s deadly opioid crisis. Rochester Drug Co-Operative (RDC), the 6th largest distributor in the US, was charged with conspiring to distribute controlled narcotics (fentanyl and oxycodone), defrauding the United States government, and willingly failing to file suspicious order reports. Separate individual charges were also brought against two of their former executives.

Distributors connect drug makers to pharmacies and they are charged with monitoring drug distribution to ensure there is no abuse. However, this monitoring seems ineffectual at best. In one extreme example, an investigation by the Charleston Gazette Mail reported that a single pharmacy in the small town of Kermit, West Virginia (population 392) received 9 million hydrocodone pills over a two year period from out of state drug companies. 

In the RDC case, the US attorney in Manhattan, Geoffrey S. Berman, argues that greed has been the primary motivator for this abuse. Prosecutors said that RDC’s executives ignored warning signs and distributed tens of millions of fentanyl products and oxycodone pills to pharmacies they knew were distributing drugs illegally, resulting in massive profits. RDC has effectively admitted to violating federal narcotics laws and has agreed to pay a $20 million fine and will be supervised by an independent monitor over the next five years.

More than 700,000 people have died from drug overdoses over the last 20 years, the majority of which have been attributed to opioids, and some estimates predict hundreds of thousands more could die in the next decade due to opioid overdoses alone. 

Addiction treatment is underfunded in the US and the White House Council of Economic Advisers estimated that the crisis cost $500 billion in economic losses in 2015 alone. Hundreds of lawsuits across the country have been filed against opioid makers, producers, and distributors in hopes of holding them accountable, preventing misbehavior in the future, and receiving money to offset the costs of the crisis on the public. 

(Richard Gonzales, NPR)


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Written by sciencepolicyforall

April 26, 2019 at 9:30 am

Science Policy Around the Web – February 5, 2019

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By: Neetu Gulati, Ph.D.

Source: Pixabay

Macedonia name change paves way for science cooperation with Greece

Greece and the Republic of Macedonia have been at odds for decades over the name of the latter country. After the dissolution of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s, the nation known colloquially as Macedonia was founded. However, because a region in northern Greece shares a name with the republic, Greece has disputed the country’s name, and tried to bar its entry to international organizations such as NATO and the UN. The Prespa Agreement, ratified by the Republic of Macedonia on January 11, 2019 and Greece on January 25, 2019, is set to relieve tensions by changing the disputed country name to ‘The Republic of North Macedonia,’ and the short name of ‘North Macedonia.’

The Prespa Agreement not only ends the political stand-off between the two nations, but also opens the door for strategic partnerships in many ventures, including science. While some people opposed the Agreement, scientists in both nations welcomed the change, commenting that political tensions and bureaucratic procedures will hopefully no longer hinder collaboration. “Science is done by people, and many people were affected by the mutually negative spirit among the two countries that prevailed in the past years,” commented Ioanna Chouvarda, a Greek scientist.

Many are hopeful that the name change will positively impact scientific and diplomatic ties between the two nations. A spokesperson for the Republic of Macedonia’s science ministry commented that they hope the agreement will lead to more formal scientific and technological cooperation between the two nations. Greek Alternate Minister for Research & Innovation Costas Fotakis commented, “scientific diplomacy is an effective tool that can strengthen the relations between Greece and North Macedonia, as well as the Western Balkans in general. This agreement is very timely, especially considering that several research themes are of mutual interest in both countries.” 

(Julianna Photopoulos, Nature)

The modern tragedy of fake cancer cures

The news media can sometimes sensationalize and overclaim the results of scientific advances. This is especially dangerous when results have yet to be vetted by the peer-review process, as was the case when the Dan Aridor, chairman of a small biotechnology company in Israel claimed, “we believe we will offer in a year’s time a complete cure for cancer.” The story, published by the Jerusalem Post, made bold and likely unattainable claims that the new technology would have no side-effects, be less expensive than current therapies, and be “effective from day one.” However, the new treatment has so far only been tested in a single study in mice. Furthermore, it has not yet been published and therefore has not been scrutinized or validated by other scientists in the field of cancer research. 

The claims made by Aridor may just his optimism and faith in his product, but if taken at face value they are completely unbelievable. For one thing, the original article points out that the company has not yet started clinical trials, which would take years to complete, negating the hope of a cure within a year’s time. But even those clinical trials are not likely to succeed. The odds that a cancer therapy will successfully pass clinical trials is 3-5%, according to data from MIT and the Biotechnology Industry Organization. However, even the hurdle of getting from animal studies to clinical trials is not to be overlooked, which can easily take over five years.

Cancer therapies are still worth the investment of time and money. Successful drugs like Keytruda have made a large impact on those suffering from the cancer. However, therapies do not perform the same in every patient, and ‘cancer’ is not just one disease. Often, proper dosing of cancer therapies involves a balance between the effectiveness of the treatment and the harm of the side effects. Thus, it is unlikely that a single treatment will cure all cancers without a hitch, as boldly claimed by Aridor. It is much more realistic that some treatments will work for particular types of cancers more effectively than others, with limited side effects. Speaking more conservatively about the new treatment, the CEO of the company, Ilan Morad, commented that while the company believes their therapy will cure cancer, “we still have a long way to go.”

(Matthew Herper, STAT)

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February 5, 2019 at 12:22 pm

Science Policy Around the Web – February 1, 2019

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By: Caroline Duncombe, B.S.

Source: Pixabay

How old emails hold new clues to Coca-Cola and CDC’s controversial relationship

The mission of the Centers for Diseases Control and Prevention (CDC) is to protect America from health, safety, and security threat. Yet, private emails obtained through the Freedom of Information Act reveal that a Coca-Cola Company’s influence over the federal agency refutes such a mission. Email correspondences between top CDC officials and Coca-Cola employees exposed how the soda giant tried to push the World Health Organization (WHO) to emphasize exercise over diet as the solution to the obesity epidemic via CDC’s influencing power.

            Within the 295 pages of communications from 86 emails was a request by former Coca-Cola senior vice president Alex Malaspina that WHO “should not only consider sugary foods as the only cause of obesity but consider also the lifestyle changes that have been occurring throughout the universe.” Other uncovered emails revealed that the former CDC director of Division for Heart and Disease, Barbara Bowman, gave advice to a Coca-Cola executive on potential contacts that have influence over WHO’s regional office and then director-general Dr. Margaret Chan.

            Though Coca-Cola enacted a policy in 2015 to disclose on its website its funding portfolio for scientific research and partnerships. There is little to no federal oversight over sugar and beverage industries. This is a startling fact when considering the extent of the obesity epidemic in America and the significant role that sugary drinks play in augmenting such an epidemic. After the revelation of the relationship between Coca-Cola and the CDC, discussions have increased on restricting direct contact between federal agencies and soda giants. 

(Jacqueline Howard, CNN)

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Written by sciencepolicyforall

February 1, 2019 at 4:24 pm