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Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • As lab-grown meat and milk inch closer to U.S. market, industry wonders who will regulate?

    lab-grown meat

    In 2013, researchers from Maastricht University in the Netherlands unveiled a burger made from cultured beef. How the United States would regulate such products is unclear.

    David Parry/PA Wire

    The first hamburger cooked with labmade meat didn’t get rave reviews for taste. But the test tube burger, rolled out to the press in 2013, has helped put a spotlight on the question of how the U.S. government will regulate the emerging field of cellular agriculture, which uses biotechnology instead of animals to make products such as meat, milk, and egg whites.

    So far, none of these synthetic foods has reached the marketplace. But a handful of startup companies in the United States and elsewhere are trying to scale up production. In the San Francisco Bay area in California, entrepreneurs at Memphis Meats hope to have their cell-cultured meatballs, hot dogs, and sausages on store shelves in about 5 years, and those at Perfect Day are targeting the end of 2017 to distribute cow-free dairy products. It’s not clear, however, which government agencies would oversee this potential new food supply.

    Historically, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) regulates meat, poultry, and eggs, whereas the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) oversees safety and security for food additives. FDA also approves so-called biologics, which include products made from human tissues, blood, and cells, and gene therapy techniques. But emerging biotechnologies may blur those lines of oversight, because some of the new foods don’t fit neatly into existing regulatory definitions. “Cellular culture raises a lot of questions,” says Isha Datar, CEO of New Harvest, a New York City–based nonprofit founded to support this nascent industry.

  • Updated: Companies settle gene technology patent fight that was shrouded in mystery

    Two firms are battling over the technology behind this compact nanopore sequencing device made by Oxford Nanopore Technologies.

    Two firms are battling over the technology behind this compact nanopore sequencing device made by Oxford Nanopore Technologies.

    nanoprotech.com

    *Update, 22 August, 2:45 p.m.: Illumina Inc. and Oxford Nanopore Technologies have reached a settlement in this legal battle, according to a U.S. International Trade Commission document released last week. Oxford has agreed not to import or sell any product containing a pore with an amino acid sequence at least 68% similar to Mycobacterium smegmatis porin (Msp)—the protein at the heart of Illumina’s infringement claim—and to destroy any inventory of such products.  The document explicitly states that the restriction doesn’t affect Oxford’s ability to use CsgG, a different pore that the company unveiled shortly after the suit was filed, and which underlies its newest line of sequencers. Whether Oxford ever did rely on Msp is still a mystery.

    Here is our original story from 2 March: 

    The inexpensive and portable approach to DNA analysis known as nanopore sequencing has just begun to take off, but it has already sparked a legal battle between an industry giant and a high-profile upstart. Last week, Illumina, Inc.—which dominates the genetic sequencing industry—sued Oxford Nanopore Technologies, the first company to market a commercial nanopore platform. Illumina claims that Oxford’s two flagship devices infringe on patents that Illumina controls.

    The battle, closely watched by researchers who already rely on Oxford’s products, hinges on the details of a technology that are still secret, and could lead the two firms into a murky corner of patent law.

  • Ministry purge may be a lifeline for embattled Russian Academy of Sciences

    Olga Vasilyeva

    Some scientists see Olga Vasilyeva as an unorthodox choice for science minister.

    TASS/Newscom

    MOSCOW—Continuing a summer of upheavals for Russian science, President Vladimir Putin has fired his science minister and replaced him with a historian who is known for her admiration for Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin.

    The surprise move, announced on 19 August, has left many scientists speechless. But some see it as a ray of hope for the Russian Academy of Sciences (RAS), which is undergoing a painful downsizing that in the coming weeks is expected to see dozens of academy institutes merged and thousands of scientists losing their jobs. The ousted science minister, Dmitry Livanov, was an architect of the reforms who had long pressed for strengthening science in the universities at the academy’s expense.

  • Chemistry group throws out election results after fears of vote rigging

    Vote!

    JaulaDeArdilla/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

    Members of the Society of Biological Inorganic Chemistry (SBIC) are reacting with puzzlement and shock after learning that the results of a recent online leadership election have been thrown out because of voting irregularities—raising concerns over possible manipulation.  

    Counting revealed far more votes than there are members of the organization, according to an internal newsletter sent to SBIC members last week. One candidate received four times the number of votes as there are members of the group, it noted. (SBIC’s total membership was not available as this item went to press.)

    The cause of the flawed voting isn’t clear, but “the results appear to have been manipulated,” Michael Hannon, president-elect of SBIC and the chair of chemical biology at the University of Birmingham in the United Kingdom, wrote in the 9 August newsletter.  “As you might imagine we are all quite shocked by this,” and the “executive officers have concluded (with a heavy heart) that since we can have no confidence in the ‘results’ there will have to be another ballot.”

  • Q&A: Amazon ‘tipping point’ may be closer than we think, Thomas Lovejoy says

    Thomas Lovejoy

    U.S. Science Envoy Thomas Lovejoy hopes to use science to help preserve the Amazon, even in the face of new development.

    Slobodan Randjelovic

    The Amazon faces a new wave of exploitation, as Brazil, Peru, and other Amazonian countries look to the vast expanse of forests and rivers to supply expanding energy and natural resource needs. Hundreds of infrastructure projects—dams, roads, railroads, pipelines, and more—are planned. But the deforestation that usually accompanies such projects threatens biodiversity as well as the Amazon’s role as the world’s largest terrestrial carbon sink, says biologist Thomas Lovejoy of George Mason University, Fairfax, in Virginia.

    Lovejoy is one of five new U.S. science envoys appointed by the U.S. Department of State and the White House to promote scientific collaboration between the United States and other countries. He plans to use his new role to encourage efforts to understand the Amazon’s climate dynamics and help prevent deforestation from tipping the region from carbon sink to net carbon emitter. He recently spoke with Science in Lima. This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

  • Astronomy’s next big space telescope could threaten the field, panel warns

    WFIRST

    A new report cautions NASA about controlling the cost of the Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope, scheduled for launch in 2025.

    NASA Goddard

    U.S. astronomers are wary that their next big space telescope, a mission to study cosmic acceleration and exoplanets, could balloon in cost and scope just like the budget-busting $8 billion James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). So says a National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine panel tasked with taking the temperature of the field midway between “decadal surveys”—the regular reports in which astronomers list their funding priorities for the next 10 years. Given the recent success in detecting gravitational waves, the panel also says the United States should rejoin a partnership with the European Space Agency (ESA) to build the Laser Interferometer Space Antenna (LISA), a mission to study gravitational waves in space.

    “The community very much wants to see LISA go forward,” says panel chair Jacqueline Hewitt, an astronomer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. “The partnership [with ESA] dissolved, but it will have to be rebuilt,” she says.

    Overall, the panel was pleased with progress made on a variety of scientific fronts, particularly in the study of exoplanets and gravitational waves. But they worried that stagnant budgets at the field’s main funding agencies—the National Science Foundation (NSF) and NASA—along with pressure from overspending on large projects like the JWST are threatening many of astronomers’ most sought-after projects. “Budgets have been different from what we assumed” in 2010, she adds.

  • U.K. scientists get a bit of Brexit relief, at least for grant proposals

    U.K. flag

    Anecdotal reports have suggested that collaborators in other countries are wary of including U.K. scientists in EU grant proposals.

    Simon Goldsworthy/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

    In a move welcomed by scientists, the U.K. government has announced it will guarantee funding for research grants awarded by the European Union between now and an eventual Brexit. The decision could boost confidence for international collaborations that apply to Horizon 2020, the European Union’s main competitive grants program.

    The decision provides “much-needed reassurance to researchers in the UK and across Europe that the UK is still in the game as a reliable player in research funding bids,” Sarah Main of the Campaign for Science and Engineering, an advocacy group based in London, said in a statement. “This is a great first step." Other research advocates said the move fell short of the full assurances that scientists need.

    Ever since the United Kingdom voted in a June referendum to leave the European Union, scientists have worried about the future of research funding provided by the European Union, as well as Brexit's impact on workforce mobility and on the United Kingdom's voice in international science policy. Many of these issues will be decided in international negotiations after the U.K. government officially begins the process of leaving the European Union, which won’t happen until next year at the earliest.

  • Candidate cancer drug suspected after death of three patients at an alternative medicine clinic

    Prosecutors say their investigation suggests that Ross's patients were given 3-Bromopyruvate.

    Prosecutors say their investigation suggests that Ross's patients were given 3-Bromopyruvate.

    Alexei Cruglicov/iStockphoto

    A new type of cancer drug developed at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, but not yet tested in clinical trials may have triggered the deaths of three patients who were undergoing an alternative cancer treatment by a nonmedical practitioner in Germany. Germany has many such practitioners, and the field is loosely regulated. The public prosecutor in Germany is now investigating whether the case constitutes involuntary manslaughter.

    The drug in question, 3-Bromopyruvate (3BP), has been hailed by some researchers as a potential breakthrough, but so far the only human data about its efficacy and safety are anecdotal. Many scientists say the drug should not be administered to patients except in carefully controlled experimental settings. If the link to the three deaths is confirmed, that could cloud 3BP's commercial prospects.

    German police took action on 4 August after two patients from the Netherlands and one from Belgium died shortly after undergoing treatment at the Biological Cancer Centre, run by alternative practitioner Klaus Ross in the town of Brüggen, Germany, 50 kilometers west of Düsseldorf. Two other patients had to be treated for life-threatening conditions, the prosecutor's office said in a press release today. Police in Germany, the Netherlands, and Belgium have urged other patients treated at the center to contact local health authorities; at least 26 have done so. Media reports suggest that cancer patients often sought Ross's help after they ran out of conventional therapy options, or to avoid aggressive chemotherapy. He offered a 10-week “basic therapy” against cancer for €9900 ($11,057).

  • DEA verdict on marijuana research draws mixed reaction

    Marijuana cultivated at the University of Mississippi

    Marijuana cultivated at the University of Mississippi for research purposes.

    Robert Jordan/Associated Press

    Frustrating those wishing to study its medical potential, marijuana will remain a Schedule I substance, the most tightly regulated class of drugs in the United States. The announcement today by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) keeps marijuana in the same class as heroin, LSD, and other potentially dangerous or highly addictive drugs and comes as a disappointment to U.S. researchers who have argued that looser restrictions are needed to facilitate studies on whether cannabis can treat conditions ranging from chronic pain to brain tumors to childhood epilepsy.

    There was a glimmer of good news for those scientists in the DEA announcement, though. The administration will amend a policy that had restricted them to a single source of marijuana for research studies, a federally-funded farm at the University of Mississippi.

    DEA’s decision not to reschedule marijuana presents a Catch-22. By ruling that there is not enough evidence of “currently accepted medical use”—a key distinction between the highly restrictive Schedule I classification and the less restrictive Schedule II—the administration essentially makes it harder to gather such evidence.

  • Chemists to get preprint server of their own

    Chemists to get preprint server of their own

    Nordroden/iStockphoto

    Call it a chain reaction. Following the leads of the physics, mathematics, economics, and biology communities, the American Chemical Society (ACS) announced yesterday that it will start a preprint server for chemistry papers, tentatively titled ChemRxiv.

    The site will be modeled after arXiv, the decades-old server that's provided a home for preliminary research in physics, mathematics, and computer science, and bioRxiv, begun 3 years ago by Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press, which does the same for biology. It will be the first preprint server begun by a professional scientific society, groups that have historically been concerned about the impact of free preprint servers on the revenue they derive from traditional journal publishing. ACS is chemistry's dominant professional organization and one of its leading publishers.

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