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Posts Tagged ‘Zika virus

Science Policy Around the Web – August 10, 2018

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By: Leopold Kong, PhD


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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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August 10, 2018 at 1:22 pm

Science Policy Around the Web – August 23, 2016

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By: Agila Somasundaram, PhD

Aedes aegypti, by James Gathany (PHIL, CDC) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons


How big, really, is the Zika outbreak in Florida?

On Friday, officials announced that the Zika virus had spread to a second area in Florida, the Miami Beach, a popular tourist destination. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has advised pregnant women to avoid those areas, and in fact, advised pregnant couples concerned about exposure to Zika to “consider postponing nonessential travel to all parts of Miami-Dade county”. Officials note that it will be difficult to limit the spread of the virus in this area because aerial spraying may not work very well around high-rise buildings, and convincing beach-goers to wear long sleeves and pants might be hard. With schools starting today, school officials have distributed mosquito repellant cans to parents, and long-sleeved shirts and pants to students. 37 cases of Zika infection have been reported in the two areas in Miami.

Many scientists are concerned that the outbreak may be larger and more widespread than these numbers. Alessandro Vespignani, a computer scientist at Northeastern University in Boston, who is modeling the spread of Zika, says, “Zika is one of those diseases that is always like an iceberg — you just see the tip.” 4 in 5 people who get the virus don’t have any symptoms, and people who get sick exhibit mild symptoms that could easily be confused with the flu. So only 5 percent of cases get detected, says Vespignani. Models predict that 395 people will be infected with the virus by September 15, in Florida. Only about 80 of them will show symptoms, and about 8 pregnant women are likely to get infected during their first trimester, putting their fetuses at risk for microcephaly, says Ira Longini, a biostatistician at the University of Florid and a collaborator of Vespignani. Zika will likely continue to spread until October or November when the weather becomes cooler. The computer models also predict that Texas might be next. Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, says, “I would not be surprised if we see cases in Texas and Louisiana”, given the recent flooding in Louisiana. Zika virus-carrying mosquitoes breed in stagnant puddles, and there will be a lot of problem getting rid of standing water in flooded areas, says Fauci. (Michaeleen Doucleff, NPR)

Global Health

Debate continues over U.N. role in bringing cholera to Haiti

The 2010 Haiti earthquake claimed over 200,000 lives and injured many more. The cholera outbreak that followed months later resulted in at least 7,000 deaths. Cholera is caused by the bacteria Vibrio cholerae, and is transmitted when faeces from an infected person contaminates drinking water. Many investigations have connected the cholera epidemic in Haiti to sewage leaked from a U.N. base that housed Nepalese peacekeepers. Toilets have been reported to overflow from the base into the nearby stream. In fact, the strain of bacteria in the Haiti epidemic was similar to a strain in Nepal. Even though, for year, the Haitians have been accusing the U.N. for the outbreak, the U.N. has never accepted responsibility. This has led to serious distrust among the Haitians about the U.N. troops. In 2013, a class action suit was brought against the U.N. on behalf of Haitians who were affected by the outbreak. But the U.N. is immune to such legal actions under international law.

Recently, Farhan Haq, spokesperson for U.N. General Secretary Ban Ki-moon, said the U.N. “needs to do much more regarding its own involvement in the initial outbreak.” “What we are doing is trying to see how this can be resolved. How to resolve this? How to do the right thing?” Dr. Louise Ivers, senior health and policy adviser with Partners in Heath (that has treated thousands of cholera patients), said that the U.N. should have acknowledged its role a long time ago. Brian Concannon, the lawyer who brought the class action suit against the U.N., welcomes U.N.’s new statements but is not completely happy. He says the U.N. “clearly did not definitively take responsibility for introducing cholera.” (Jason Beaubien, NPR)

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August 23, 2016 at 8:07 am

Science Policy Around the Web – August 9, 2016

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By: Thaddeus Davenport, Ph.D.

Infectious Diseases

Local Transmission of Zika Virus in Miami

Most of the world became aware of Zika virus earlier this year when doctors in Brazil noticed a correlation between Zika virus infection in pregnant women and microcephaly in their newborn children. Recent articles in the New York Times on July 29th and August 1st report a notable shift in the course of the Zika virus epidemic – local transmission of the virus within the United States. In the last year, there have been over 1600 cases of Zika virus detected in the United States, but nearly all of these were imported infections, in which individuals became infected while traveling in Zika-endemic regions or through sexual transmission of the virus from people traveling outside of the United States. Because the Zika-carrying mosquito species, Aedes Aegypti is resident in parts of the continental United States, many people expected that it was only a matter of time before Zika virus would be transmitted locally within the United States. On July 29th, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Florida State Department of Health reported that Zika virus was transmitted to at least four individuals in the Wynwood neighborhood of Miami. By August 1st, the number of individuals infected in the neighborhood had risen to fourteen, and the CDC issued a travel advisory discouraging pregnant women from traveling to the affected area. Though Congress went to recess last month without passing a bill to provide funding for the fight against Zika virus, perhaps, and hopefully, the news of local Zika transmission will motivate bipartisan action in Congress to fund mosquito control efforts and basic research on this still poorly understood virus. (Pam Belluck, New York Times)

Clinical Research

First CRISPR-based clinical trial set to begin this month

The gene-editing technique commonly referred to as CRISPR-Cas9 has received significant attention over the last year because of its impressive potential to target, cut, and modify nearly any sequence of interest within a genome. David Cyranoski reported for Nature News that scientists in China are poised to be the first to use CRISPR-Cas9 technology in a human clinical trial. The trial will enroll individuals with metastatic, non-small cell lung cancer, for whom other treatment options have failed. T cells, immune cells capable of killing infected, cancerous, or otherwise afflicted cells, will be removed from these individuals and modified using CRISPR-Cas9 to delete the gene for a protein called PD-1, which plays a role in downregulating the immune response. It is hoped that removing PD-1 will make the participants’ T cells better able to mount an immune response against cancer cells. As an additional measure of safety, the genome of modified cells will be sequenced in order to confirm that there are no off-target modifications outside of the PD-1 gene that might impact the safety or validity of the study. Initially the trial will test the safety of introducing CRISPR-Cas9-modified cells into ten individuals at three different dosages, while also monitoring the effect of the treatment on cancer progression. A similar trial is set to begin in the United States later this year. These will be important proof-of-concept studies to show that CRISPR-Cas9 can be applied safely and effectively in the treatment of disease. (David Cyranoski, Nature News)

Drug Development – Antibiotic Resistance

New Funding for Antibiotics Development

Bacterial resistance to antibiotics is a significant and emerging threat to public health. Methicillin resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) – a commonly reported and widely feared strain of S. aureus – is one example of a bacterium that was once readily treatable with penicillin and related antibiotics, but which became difficult to treat after acquiring resistance genes. As current antibiotics become less effective against pathogenic bacteria, doctors are running out of tools to treat infections. An important hurdle to addressing the problem of antibiotic resistance is obtaining the funding necessary to support basic research. Unlike drugs to treat chronic health problems, effective antibiotics designed to cure infections of limited duration, are not necessarily a good investment for pharmaceutical companies. Asher Mullard reported for Nature News that CARB-X – Combating Antibiotic Resistant Bacteria Biopharmaceutical Accelerator- a public-private partnership supported primarily by the US government, Wellcome Trust, and the UK-based Centre for Antimicrobial Resistance hopes to provide US $350 million to motivate and accelerate the development of new antibiotics over the next five years. While many biotechnology companies support the initiative, some researchers, including Kim Lewis a researcher at Northeastern University, worry that CARB-X is too heavily focused on drug development instead of the discovery of novel antibacterial compounds. Despite their limitations CARB-X and other similar programs will likely provide valuable incentives for biotechnology and academic researchers to work towards better antibiotics for the common good. (Asher Mullard, Nature News)

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August 9, 2016 at 9:00 am

Science Policy Around the Web – May 17, 2016

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By: Melissa Pegues, Ph.D.

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Zika Virus

WHO’s Zika guidelines don’t include delaying Olympics

With the summer Olympic games slated to begin in Brazil in August, many have expressed concerns about the health risks posed by the recent outbreak of Zika virus in Central and South America. Despite these concerns, the World Health Organization (WHO) released a statement on Thursday making it clear that they are not calling for a cancellation of the Olympic games this summer.

The Zika virus, which is transmitted by mosquitoes, has garnered much attention recently after infection with the virus during pregnancy has been found to cause microcephaly in infants. Microcephaly is a birth defect in which the brain does not develop properly resulting in a smaller than normal head. The virus has also been associated with the development of Guillian-Barre syndrome, a rare form of paralysis.

Although many prominent medical ethicists have publicly called for the postponement or relocation of the games, few athletes have expressed concern over the risks posed by Zika. However, Marcos Espinal, the director of the Zika response of the Pan American Health Organization, has strongly rejected the idea of postponing the games. He cited trends seen from dengue and chikungunya, similar viruses that are also carried by the same Aedes aegypti mosquito, in that infections peak during the summer months and subsequently drop off after the season changes. Furthermore, he noted that the games are occurring in the winter months of August and September when mosquitoes are not so abundant. International Olympic Committee (IOC) director, Richard Budgett, reaffirmed that although the situation is being closely monitored, the IOC is committed to continuing with the Olympic games this summer.

In their statement, WHO urged athletes and anyone traveling to Brazil to attend the Olympic games to take steps to protect against Zika, including wearing insect repellent and clothing that covers as much of the body as possible. The WHO statement also cautions against sexual transmission of the virus and suggested practicing safe sex or abstaining from sex during their stay and for at least four weeks after returning from the epidemic zone. This recommendation contrasts those issued by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) that recommend abstaining from sex for eight weeks after returning, further highlighting how little is known about transmission of the virus. There have been few documented cases of sexual transmission and many questions regarding sexual transmission of the virus remain, including if an asymptomatic infected person can transmit the virus sexually. WHO also recommended that Olympic visitors stay in air-conditioned accommodations and avoid areas where there is increased risk of being bitten by a mosquito such as “impoverished and overcrowded areas in cities and towns with no piped water and poor sanitation.” (Pam Belluck, New York Times)

Genetic Engineering

Secret Harvard meeting on synthetic human genomes incites ethics debate

The ability to modify the genome is rapidly advancing the medical field, but a private meeting of scientists has brought intrigue and concern to the field of genetics. Nearly 150 Scientists gathered at Harvard Medical School last week to discuss how to create a complete genome from scratch. The project has been described as a follow-up to the human genome project, but rather than aiming to read all of the base pairs of the human genome, the goal is to synthesize a “complete human genome.” Although scientists already have the capability to synthesize DNA chemically, significant focus is being given to improving these techniques with the goal to construct complete genomes that could be implanted in cells for research purposes.

However, the meeting has drawn criticism because the organizers of the event asked attendees not to contact the media or post to Twitter during the meeting. Researchers Drew Endy and Laurie Zoloth published an essay questioning the decision to keep the meeting private. In their joint statement they questioned whether the organizers gave full consideration to potential ethical issues by asking “how many Einstein genomes should be made and installed in cells, and who would get to make them?”

George Church, the Harvard geneticist who oversaw the meeting, explained that the project was aimed at creating cells, not people. He further explained that the project is not restricted to the human genome, and that these techniques could be applied to other animals, plants, and microbes. The meeting was originally intended to be open with video streaming and numerous invited journalists, but attendees were asked not to publicly discuss the event since there were also plans to pair the meeting with a peer-reviewed article. Church commented that “there was nothing secret about it” that a video of the meeting will be released with their soon-to-be published peer-reviewed article. (Joel Achenbach, Washington Post)

Federal Science Initiatives

Earth’s microbes get their own White House Initiative

With months left in Obama’s presidency, the White House Office of Science and Technology has announced yet another scientific endeavor, the National Microbiome Initiative (NMI). This latest initiative will join numerous other efforts in the Obama administration’s scientific legacy including: the BRAIN Initiative, the Antibiotic Resistance Solutions Initiative, the Precision Medicine Initiative (PMI), and the Cancer Moonshot Initiative. The human “microbiome” is the collection of microbes that inhabit our bodies, and variations in its composition has been found to correlate with many diseases including autoimmune diseases, diabetes, and obesity.

The NMI however includes many governmental departments to study the microbiome of many ecosystems such as “those that help plants pull nutrients from soil, to those that capture and release carbon dioxide in the ocean.” Because these environments contain many species of bacteria, viruses, and fungi, determining the role of any one species is nearly impossible. Reaching the lofty goals set by this initiative will require better tools to dissect individual species within the microbiome, and to address these shortcomings, the NMI has set forth 3 goals:  supporting interdisciplinary research, developing platform technologies, and expanding the microbiome workforce. To support these goals, the NMI will receive an investment of $121 million dollars from federal 2016 fiscal appropriations and 2017 fiscal proposals, as well as commitments of $400 million dollars from stakeholder and institutions in different sectors. (Kelly Servick, ScienceInsider)

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May 17, 2016 at 9:00 am

Science Policy Around the Web – May 13, 2016

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By: Danielle Friend, Ph.D.

Gene Therapy Treatment

Gene Therapy Effective in Treating Rare Brain Disorder

A recent study has shown promising results using gene therapy to treat andrenoleukodystrophy (ALD), a genetic disorder that occurs in approximately 1 in 18,000 individuals and is caused by a mutation in a gene on the X chromosome. With ALD, individuals lose the myelin sheath that protects and allows brain cells to function properly. Symptoms of ALD begin between the ages of four and ten and include behavioral issues. Symptoms progress with individuals developing blindness, deafness, seizures, loss of muscle control, and dementia, ultimately leading to death. Until now the only treatment for ALD was a bone marrow transplantation that includes problems related to immune rejections and difficulty matching donors.

Researchers at Bluebird Bio have now tested a gene therapy approach in a trial including 17 children with ALD. Blood from the affected children was removed, the blood cells treated with a virus that expressed the normal ALD protein, and the blood was then reinfused into the patients. According to the report, within 6 months, 16 of the 17 patients symptoms had stabilized. Brains scans conducted 2 years after the reinfusion indicate that the myelin loss stopped progressing. Importantly, none of the patients have shown signs that the gene was inserted into an inappropriate location on the genome, causing serious side effects seen with other gene therapies.

Although these results have lead to a possible therapeutic for halting symptoms, the treatment is unable to reverse the damage to the myelin and thus reverse symptoms that have already manifested. However, the hope is that in the future gene therapy to treat ALD could be used as soon as patients are diagnosed, thus ideally preventing the progression and development of the more severe symptoms.

Bluebird Bio will soon be applying for approval from U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), however a long road to treatment of patients in the United States could be ahead. While authorities in Europe have given approval for the use of gene therapy for rare disorders, the FDA has yet to approved a single gene therapy. This hesitancy from the FDA likely stems from previous side effects and the unfortunately death of Jesse Gelsinger resulting from gene therapy treatment. In addition to the development of an effect means for treating ALD, these gene therapy findings also provide hope for gene therapy techniques in safely treating other diseases in the future. (Jocelyn Kaiser, Science)

Zika Virus

Rapid, Cost Efficient Diagnostic for Zika Coming Soon

Until recently the only means for determining if an individual was infected with Zika was to use a technique known as the Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) or antibody detection. Unfortunately the resources to perform these tests are unavailable in many areas. Furthermore, antibodies produced against Zika may cross react with those produced against other similar viruses, thus limiting the specificity of the results. For an example, an individual whom was infected with dengue, when tested using the antibody method, may also test positive for Zika despite never having been infected with Zika. Since the rise in Zika spread there has been an emphasis on the development of a diagnostic test that would allow individuals all over the country (and world) to easily and quickly be tested for the virus.

Last week, a consortium of researchers including scientists from Harvard, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cornell, Arizona State, and Boston University all led by Dr. James Collins, a synthetic biologist at Harvard announced that they may developed such a test. The new test, which can develop results in two to three hours is not only faster and potentially more accurate than current methods but is also much cheaper and the result can be easily read. The test is paper-based and consists of a series of yellow dots that change to the color purple when placed in contact with Zika virus RNA.

While the test has not yet been tested with human samples, it has successfully detected Zika virus in the blood of infected monkeys. Dr. Francis Collins, the director of the National Institutes of Health stated that they are now working with groups in Colombia and Brazil to test the diagnostic in the field. Additionally the researchers state that they hope the new test will not only reduce future spread of Zika but other possible diseases as well by paving the way for a rapid, low-cost diagnostics. (Donald McNeil Jr., New York Times)

Public Health Policy

Food and Drug Administration Begins Regulating E-Cigarettes

The first piece of legislation aimed at regulating e-cigarettes was issued last week when the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) made the sale of e-cigarettes illegal to those under the age of 18. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, approximately 5.3 percent of middle school and 16 percent of high school students reported using e-cigarettes in the past 30 days, a statistic that has risen in the last couple of years.

While public health experts support the new regulations, they also call for the FDA to do much more, suggesting that increased regulation on advertising for e-cigarettes and the ban of e-cigarette flavors that appeal to children including bubble gum, chocolate, and cotton candy should be put in place. In contrast, the e-cigarette industry and others are concerned that the new regulations will make it harder for consumers to obtain less harmful alternatives to traditional cigarettes. In fact, David Levy, professor in the department of oncology at Georgetown Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center believes that there is strong evidence that e-cigarettes may help addicted individuals stop smoking and the new regulations may be prohibitive for individual who use traditional cigarettes from quitting.

In addition to banning sales for individuals under 18, the new regulations also call for e-cigarette manufactures whose products went on sale after February 15th 2007 to seek approval from the FDA before they begin selling their products. The FDA also states that the new approval requirement will allow the FDA to verify e-cigarette ingredients and evaluate possible health risks. The American Vaping Association stated in response “This is not regulation — it is prohibition,” further emphasizing that submitting an application for approval takes more than 1,700 hours and cost upwards of $1 million. Retailers are also banned from selling e-cigarettes in vending machines that minors have access to and from distributing free e-cigarette samples. The FDA also suggests that they may soon ban e-cigarette flavors that are specifically targeted to children.

No doubt this will not be the last we hear of this battle between the e-cigarette industry and the FDA, Nicopure Labs LLC, a manufacturer of e-cigarette products, announced Tuesday that it has filed a lawsuit in the federal district court in Washington, D.C., challenging the FDA’s regulations. (Laurie McGinley and Brady Dennis, Washington Post)

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May 13, 2016 at 9:00 am

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Zika Update: Current Knowledge and New Directions

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By: Keith Jacobs, Ph.D.

Zika is the newest international viral outbreak alarming physicians, researchers and the general public. The virus, which is related to dengue, yellow fever, and West Nile viruses, was first isolated in 1947 from a rhesus monkey in the Zika forest of Uganda. Very limited research was performed on the virus over the next several decades. Of the limited work that was done – including one researcher even injecting himself (under the generic description of a “human volunteer”) and several others documenting their symptoms from accidental exposure – none of it was able to shed any light on the true nature of the virus. Due to its relative obscurity and mild symptoms, there was not any interest in even studying Zika.

Times have certainly changed, however, as Zika has now been declared a “public health emergency of international concern” by the World Health Organization (WHO) in the wake of a 2015 outbreak in Brazil. Zika is transmitted through the Aedes aegypti mosquito which is endemic to South America, however strong evidence suggests that Zika may be sexually transmitted as well. While mosquitos carrying Zika have not been found in the US, over 300 Americans have contracted Zika through either travel or sexual contact with a partner who has traveled to regions where Zika is endemic. The majority of adult patients infected with Zika fail to show any symptoms, with the minority who do only exhibiting mild, general maladies such as aches, fever and rash (with no deaths reported).

While Zika infection is not a concern for adults, Brazilian physicians have noticed a stark increase in cases on microencephaly (small heads/brains) in newborns concurrent with the recent epidemic. Zika virus has also been found in the brains of affected fetuses. These correlations did not provide enough evidence however to definitively state that Zika infection was causing these deformities. A careful assessment of the reported cases cited in Brazil indicates that the recent increased incidence of microencephaly may be at least partially due to awareness bias and a lack of standardized criteria for defining deformations. In other words, physicians may be simply observing what they are already looking for based off the initial reported correlation.

As the Zika story began to spread, an alternative explanation for the explosion of microencephaly surfaced. A group of Argentinian doctors argued that it is not the Zika virus but instead the larvicide pyriproxyfen that is responsible for the increased risk of microencephaly. Ironically, pyriproxyfen is added to water in order to control the spread of the very mosquito that carries Zika and other viruses. This report cited a recommendation by the nonprofit Brazilian public health organization the Brazilian Association for Collective Health (BACH) that criticized the use of pyroxifen and warned against its potential environmental and neurotoxic effects. To add to the controversy, pyriproxyfen is manufactured by a Japanese company that is very loosely connected to the agricultural corporation Monsanto, a popular enemy of environmentalists due to its corporate practices concerning the sale of genetically modified crops. Following these assertions, BACH curiously backed off their initial claims and decried the misinterpretation of their statement. In addition to the increasingly strong data connecting Zika infection with fetal brain abnormalities, there is no evidence to support a link between microencephaly and larvicides, and these claims have been disparaged by numerous authorities including the Brazil Ministry of Health:

“Unlike the relationship between the Zika virus and microcephaly, which has had its confirmation attested in tests that indicated the presence of the virus in samples of blood, tissue and amniotic fluid, the association between the use of pyriproxyfen and microcephaly has no scientific basis.”

A case study reported in late March provided the strongest connection to date between maternal Zika infection and fetal brain abnormalities. A woman was infected with Zika 11 weeks into her pregnancy, after which uterine imaging demonstrated a progressive reduction in fetal head size and eventually abnormal gross morphology of the brain. The pregnancy was eventually terminated, and autopsy confirmed large viral loads in the fetal brain and placenta with lower amounts present in other fetal tissues as well. Zika also remained present in the mother for up to 10 weeks following infection. Finally, on April 13th the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) officially declared that the preponderance of evidence supports a causal link relationship between Zika and birth defects.

Prior to this case, physicians believed that Zika only remained active in the body for a week following infection. Likely due to this study, the Centers for Disease Control now recommends that women wait at least 8 weeks after exhibiting symptoms before trying to conceive, or up to 6 months when a male sexual partner has contracted the disease. The absence of any strong symptoms in adults along with the long duration required for viral clearance may thus contribute to Zika’s danger, as pregnant and soon-to-be-pregnant women may be infected without having any knowledge of their exposure. The true risk of Zika, its potential effect on fetal neural development, can therefore be a hidden danger.

While severe birth defects are the most common and perhaps the most threatening aspect of Zika infection, the dangers of Zika are not restricted to pregnant women. Recently, more severe consequences of Zika exposure have been identified in adults. A study published in late February identified a causal link between Zika infection and diagnosis with Guillain-Barré Syndrome. Guillain-Barré syndrome is an auto-immune neurological disease that affects the peripheral (external from brain/spinal cord) nervous system, resulting in potentially severe muscle weakness. Guillain-Barré is often preceded by infection, especially from viral pathogens such as the related dengue fever virus. Systemic infection with these viruses induces an overactive immune system leading to persistent inflammation, and Zika likely acts through this same mechanism.

By leaving its host alive and utilizing abundant mosquitos as a carrier, Zika is likely more contagious than Ebola (which only spreads through direct contact between bodily fluids). The virus therefore has the potential to spread rapidly over a wide range, and without overt visible symptoms it may be difficult to track its true reach. In contrast with Ebola however, where local African culture and poor infrastructure promoted the spread of the disease, the Americas have much better public health resources and preparation. Additionally, a great deal of research is already underway working towards both improved understanding and treatment of Zika. Published studies have described the cell biology of Zika infection, the Food and Drug Administration in the US is reviewing diagnostic tests, and international efforts have already made progress on a vaccine. While the Zika outbreak is somewhat under control, the virus is not likely to go away any time soon. Hopefully the sum of these efforts will neutralize Zika before it becomes an even more significant international public health issue.

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April 14, 2016 at 1:00 pm

Science Policy Around the Web – April 12, 2016

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By: Amy Kullas, Ph.D.

A representation of the surface of the Zika virus is shown. A team led by Purdue University researchers is the first to determine the structure of the Zika virus, which reveals insights critical to the development of effective antiviral treatments and vaccines. (Purdue University image/courtesy of Kuhn and Rossmann research groups)

Funding the ongoing Zika pandemic

Shifting funds for Zika is a good start, but more money is still needed

Last week, the White House made the decision to redirect $589 million in unspent federal funds, previously allocated for an Ebola response, to cover costs associated with fighting and researching Zika. The White House is still advocating for additional funding for both the ongoing Zika pandemic and to replenish the money that was moved away from Ebola. Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), informed ScienceInsider that ~$50 million of the reallocated funds will go to NIAID to fund Zika research. None of the redirected funds will come out of the money that NIAID had previously received for research on Ebola, as the vast majority of those funds have already been spent. Further, Fauci warns “That’s not enough to last me very long. We can start the work, but we can’t finish what we need to do.”

Dr. Anne Schuchat, principal deputy director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention revealed in a press conference on April 12, “Everything we know about this virus seems to be scarier than we initially thought.”

In February, the Obama administration had requested almost $2 billion to help thwart the Zika virus and its transmission. Unfortunately, the Republican-controlled Congress failed to act on this emergency funding request. White house officials are nevertheless still trying to persuade Congress to pass the emergency Zika funding. Fauci bleakly predicts, “If we don’t get all of the Zika money, that is when things start getting hurt,” alluding to the possibility of having to further shift critical NIAID funds away from ongoing malaria, influenza, and tuberculosis research. (Puneet Kollipara, ScienceInsider)

Mental Health

Solutions to mental health impairments require global collaboration

Globally, almost 1/3 of people will suffer from a mood, anxiety, or substance-use issue during their lifetime. In fact, these disorders are one of the leading causes of disability. The resources to assist people facing these problems are not only inadequate in the United States, but around the world as well. There are some countries in Africa, where people are extremely underserved leaving them particularly vulnerable because these countries have the fewest resources for mental-health care as they only one psychiatrist for the entire country. In fact, there are only 9 mental health providers per 100,000 people worldwide.

Importantly, support for mental health does not lack political backing. Both the World Health Organization and the World Bank will coorperate to broaden global efforts in mental health. This past September, mental health was included in the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals. Since 2011, new investments (estimated at ~$80 million US) have been made by the three largest funders of mental-health research in low- and middle-income countries: the US National Institute of Mental Health, Grand Challenges Canada, and the UK Department for International Development. Recently, research has focused on efficacy, effectiveness and implementation in the low- and middle-income countries. These local research teams often work or consult with colleagues in rich countries. Researchers, clinicians, and caregivers must unite to all work together because “when it comes to mental health, all countries are developing.” (Pamela Y. Collins & Shekhar Saxena, Nature Comment)

Vaccine shortage and Global Health

Dangerous shortage of yellow fever vaccine

Four. There are only four facilities worldwide that produce yellow fever vaccines: the Pasteur Institute, two government facilities in Russia and Brazil, and a French vaccine company Sanofi Pasteur. Unfortunately, their combined efforts have been failing the world’s demands and the ongoing outbreak in Angola only further emphasizes the escalating shortage. Jack Woodall, formerly of the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization, warns “another major outbreak…could be impossible to control.” He admits that this potential is something that he’s deeply concerned about.

Yellow fever is an acute viral hemorrhagic disease transmitted by infected mosquitoes. The ‘yellow’ in the name refers to the jaundice that affects some patients. Without treatment, up to half of severely affected people will die. Annually, there are an estimated 60,000-80,000 deaths attributed to yellow fever globally. There is no specific treatment for yellow fever, leaving vaccination the most important preventative measure.

When a yellow fever outbreak occurs in an urban setting, like the one in Angola, it is often relentless as the mosquitoes can easily transmit the virus person to person. William Perea, of the World Health Organization’s (WHO’s) Control of Epidemic Diseases department, stated that Angola has confirmed 490 cases and almost 200 deaths, the actual numbers could be 10 fold higher. Since February, a large vaccine initiative has been underway, reaching 6 million of Luanda’s estimated 7.5 million residents. Currently, yellow fever has stretched into 6 of the 18 provinces in the country. The global emergency yellow fever vaccine stockpile has been left empty, unlikely to be replenished anytime soon. (Kai Kupferschmidt, ScienceInsider)

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April 12, 2016 at 12:00 pm

Science Policy Around the Web – March 8, 2016

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By: Swapna Mohan, DVM, Ph.D.

Kris Krüg via Photo Pin cc

Public Health Surveillance

Mystery cancers are cropping up in children in aftermath of Fukushima

After the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant accident in 2011 in Japan, a swift and efficient evacuation and containment plan ensured that human suffering was kept at a minimum. This included beginning a more thorough population surveillance for thyroid problems in Fukushima citizens under the age of 18. However, this thyroid screening for children and teens in the months that followed showed an unexpectedly high rate of thyroid related cancers. Anti-nuclear power activists concluded that it is the result of inhaled and ingested radioactivity from the Fukushima incident. However, scientists unequivocally disagree and stress that a majority of cases of thyroid abnormalities have not resulted from radiation exposure. Others indicate that it might be a result of overdiagnosis on the part of public health officials.  Since there are no baseline data from before the incident, it is impossible to verify whether this high report of cases is a direct result of radiation or are just indicative of a high number of thyroid carcinomas in children. Epidemiologists point out the error in comparing the results of this screening (where they used advanced devices to detect even unnoticeable abnormalities) to more traditional clinical screenings (where participants have already detected lumps or symptoms). In order to get a better idea of the baseline of thyroid abnormalities, scientists screened approximately 5000 children from other areas of Japan in comparable age groups. The data did not reveal a significant difference in the rate of thyroid abnormalities in the unexposed populations. This demonstrates that thyroid abnormalities in children is higher than previously thought and must be kept in mind when considering options such as complete or partial thyroidectomy. (Dennis Normile, Science News)

Global Health

A Zika breakthrough: Scientists detail how virus can attack fetal brain

The mechanism by which the Zika virus causes microcephaly in newborns has been described by scientists at Johns Hopkins University, Florida State University and Emory University. With lab grown stem cells, the researchers were able to demonstrate that the virus invades the brain cortex, killing the rapidly dividing stem cells there. This reduction in stem cell numbers in the cortex causes the brain to be malformed and underdeveloped. The study, published in Cell Stem Cell, is the first piece of evidence that conclusively ties Zika infections to microcephaly and developmental defects in newborns. Zika virus, known to induce only mild symptoms in adults, has been linked to an unprecedented increase in cases of microcephaly in babies born in Brazil last year. However, the link between the two had been so far, inconclusive. There was an alternate theory that the incidence of microcephaly could be caused by pesticide and use. This study showed the propensity that the virus has to neural stem cells over other cell types (such as fetal kidney cells or undifferentiated stem cells). The researchers observed that the virus used the rapidly dividing neural stem cells to replicate their numbers and in the end, this leaves the cells depleted and unable to grow properly. Scientists believe that getting a better insight into the pathogenicity of the virus on neural cells is essential for developing preventative and therapeutic measures to fight the disease. (Lena H. Sun and Brady Dennis, Washington Post)

STEM diversity

NSF makes a new bid to boost diversity

To understand why women and certain minorities are underrepresented in the science filed, the National Science Foundation (NSF) has launched an initiative aimed at increasing diversity in the scientific community. The 5-year, $75 million program named INCLUDES (Inclusion across the Nation of Communities of Learners of Underrepresented Discoverers in Engineering and Science) targets proposals for scaling up involvement of underrepresented groups in science education and STEM fields. The proposals solicited for this initiative are required to outline an effective strategy for broadening participation by working with industry, state governments, schools and nonprofit organizations. While NSF has over the years, funded several similar initiatives aimed at increasing diversity, this one is expected to test out novel ideas and approaches. The initial response to this program has been largely positive, with commentators calling it “a bold new initiative” and having high expectations on its potential to strengthen the participation of underrepresented groups in science. (Jeffrey Mervis, Science)

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March 8, 2016 at 9:00 am

Zika and Ebola: two different viruses with shared lessons

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By: Rachel Zamoiski, Ph.D., MPH

Photo source: An Ebola isolation unit via

Zika virus has been all over the news lately, but it hasn’t been that long since a different virus was making headlines all over the world: Ebola. The Ebola epidemic of Western Africa, which began in 2014 and ended in January 2016, has resulted in over 28,000 Ebola diagnoses and over 11,000 deaths. While the seemingly near-constant news updates on Zika may remind us of the media coverage of Ebola, the two diseases are very different from each other. However, there are still lessons to be learned from the Ebola outbreak that can be applied to how we deal with this potential Zika epidemic.

The illnesses caused by Ebola and Zika are very different from each other. With Ebola, the main concern is the disease itself. Ebola is often fatal, especially in settings without good infrastructure or advanced medicine. The symptoms of Ebola are severe and can involve severe vomiting and diarrhea, as well as uncontrolled bleeding. Ebola is transmitted by contact with the body fluids of an infected person, even after the patient has died. In contrast, the symptoms of Zika are mild. It’s uncertain exactly how Zika is spread, but the primary route of transmission of Zika appears to be via mosquitoes and not direct contact with infected individuals, although other routes of transmission may be possible, as limited reports have emerged of sexual transmission. In addition, recent reports state that scientists have found active virus in saliva and urine, although it is not known if those fluids could transmit the virus. The actual symptoms caused by Zika virus is not particularly concerning when compared to Ebola. While the symptoms of the disease caused by Ebola and its high case-fatality rate were the main concerns of the Ebola outbreak, the greatest concern with Zika is the possible effect on fetuses when pregnant women are infected.

An article in Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report from January 29, 2016 describes a “possible association” between Zika and microcephaly in babies born to mothers infected during pregnancy. The authors report an increase in cases of microcephaly, defined as a head circumference greater than two standard deviations below the mean, adjusted for gestational age and sex. The babies with microcephaly were born to mothers who either lived in or had visited areas with current Zika outbreaks. The article states that pregnant women should try to avoid contact with mosquitoes, while also noting that “further studies are needed to confirm the association of microcephaly with Zika virus infection.” While the link between Zika and microcephaly is still not well understood, it still seems prudent to advise pregnant women to avoid contact with the virus, out of an abundance of caution.

While it is important to be cautious and not expose people to unnecessary risk, even when the risk is uncertain, it’s also true that an overabundance of caution is not always a good idea. With Ebola, there were efforts to quarantine health workers returning from West Africa even when they posed no threat to public health. These efforts were made largely by politicians, and not by people with medical or scientific expertise, who instead recommended routine monitoring but not quarantine in asymptomatic individuals, as patients needed to be symptomatic in order to transmit the virus to others. This is in contrast with the well-known case of Typhoid Mary, a woman working as a cook who was forcibly quarantined because she was infecting people with typhoid even though she was not sick herself, and was unwilling to stop working as a cook. In situations like that of Ebola, not only does forced quarantine punish people for performing work that should be celebrated and honored, but it also potentially discourages healthcare workers from traveling to disease-ridden areas by stigmatizing them and treating them like prisoners unwelcome in their own country.

Less is known about Zika than about Ebola. With Zika, we don’t really know how infectious it is, or exactly how it’s transmitted. But what lessons are there to be learned from Ebola, to guide our response to Zika?

It’s important to take emerging infectious diseases seriously. One of the downsides of having such effective vaccines against formerly-common illnesses like measles and mumps is that we can forget how powerful and widespread viruses can be. The Ebola outbreak reminded us that viruses still have the potential to infect and kill many thousands of people, both far away and close to home.

Included in the threat of infectious diseases is the widespread fear caused by the perception of a seemingly unstoppable deadly virus. This understandably scared many people and undoubtedly contributed to the unscientific overreaction by many politicians. This underscores the need for good communication in the management and control of infectious diseases. If a politician announced plans to forcibly quarantine cancer patients, there would be widespread outcry and ridicule, because the general public understands cancer well enough to know that quarantine is not an effective method of preventing cancer. The same should be true for new public health concerns as well.

Finally, good data are paramount in understanding and implementing effective methods to prevent and disrupt transmission. Our efforts should focus on collecting good data, clarifying the risks of Zika, and better understanding how it is transmitted, as well as how it’s not transmitted.

With Zika, we should be cautious, and take precautions to avoid the virus even when we don’t fully understand its effects. At the same time, our response to this public health crisis, as well as others in the future, should be based on good data, and not politics or scare tactics.

Written by sciencepolicyforall

February 17, 2016 at 9:00 am

Science Policy Around the Web – February 16, 2016

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By: Julia Shaw, Ph.D.

Photo Credit: Kara Wall

The Environment

NYC waters are teeming with plastic particles, study finds

A recent study, conducted by the environmental group NY/NJ Baykeeper, has concluded that the waters around New York City are a “soup of plastic.” Inspired by a similar study of the Great Lakes, NY/NY Baykeeper collected water samples from the East River, the Hudson River in New York Harbor area, and the Passaic River and Raritan Bay in New Jersey and analyzed them for their plastic content. This study found an average of 256,322 plastic particles per square kilometer, with approximately 165 million plastic bits floating in the Harbor area. Plastic microbeads used in exfoliating skin care products contributed tens of millions of particles alone. The Microbead-Free Waters Act of 2015, which goes into effect in July 2017, will require companies to cease selling microbead products. Carcinogenic chemicals can also adhere to plastic particles, and be ingested by fish and shellfish mistaking the particles for food. As a result, city and state officials are advising women who are or may become pregnant and children to avoid eating seafood caught in the waters around New York City. A spokeswoman for the mayor said reducing plastics and other waste is a priority for the administration, which is working to put in place a ban on plastic-foam food containers as well as engaging in a public awareness campaign encouraging the use of reusable bags, mugs, and bottles in place of disposables. (Karen Matthews,

Global Health

Zika Virus Test is ‘Weeks, Not Years’ Away, WHO Says

Though first discovered almost 70 years ago in Uganda in 1947, the Zika virus has not been well-studied. However, the latest outbreak of Zika in Latin America is about to change that. On February 1st the World Health Organization (WHO) declared Zika virus a global public heath emergency. Zika virus is related to other mosquito-vectored viruses including those that cause dengue, yellow fever, and West Nile, but no test specific for Zika is commercially available. However, ten companies have developed assays to either directly detect viral particles in the blood or to detect specific antibodies raised against the virus. According to the W.H.O. assistant director general for health systems and innovation, Dr. Marie-Paule Kieny, these assays bode well for the first commercial tests being available in a matter of weeks following independent validation and regulatory approval. Symptoms of infection include fever, rash, joint pain, and red eyes, yet the most startling consequences are an apparent link to the neurological disorders microcephaly and Guillain-Barre syndrome in babies born to women exposed to the virus while pregnant. The government of El Salvador has advised women to delay any pregnancies until 2018, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the WHO are recommending pregnant women avoid travel to areas where the virus is actively circulating. Because the virus also appears capable of sexual transmission, the WHO further advises couples living in endemic areas to use condoms. Two early vaccine candidates, one from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) and another from an Indian pharmaceutical company, Bharat Biotech, are being developed, yet Dr. Kieny cautions that “vaccines are still at least 18 months away from large-scale trials.” (Sewell Chan with contributions from Donald G. McNeil Jr., The New York Times)

Biomedical Ethics

Karolinska Institute vice-chancellor resigns in wake of Macchiarini scandal

Anders Hamsten, vice-chancellor of Stockholm’s Karolinska Institute (KI) has stepped down amidst ongoing controversy surrounding the work of surgeon Paolo Macchiarinini, a visiting professor at KI from 2010 through October 2015. A recent documentary that aired on Swedish public television re-ignited interest in the case, which involved the implantation of artificial trachea into eight patients, six of whom have since died. While originally hailed as a great success for regenerative medicine, questions have been raised concerning the accuracy of Macchiarini’s published papers describing the effectiveness of the technique. Hamsten led an investigation into Macchiarini’s work last year following the submission of whistleblower reports detailing suspected research misconduct by the surgeon, however, Hamsten cleared Macchiarini of all charges. In November, KI awarded Macchiarini a new 1-year contract. In a recent article published in the Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter, Hamsen reversed his opinion stating, “[I]t seems very likely that my decision in this case was wrong. I realize it will be difficult for me to continue working as Vice Chancellor of Sweden’s most successful university with credibility and effectiveness.” The Macchiarini misconduct case is set to be reopened and responsibility for the inquiry transferred to the Central Ethical Review Board of Sweden. (Gretchen Vogel, ScienceInsider)

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February 16, 2016 at 9:00 am