Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • Revolutionary malaria tests have unexpected downsides

    worker taking a drop of blood from a woman

    A health official takes a drop of blood to test a woman for malaria in Lagos in 2016.

    Pius Utomi Ekpei/AFP/Getty Images

    A simple fix to a major public health challenge has turned out to be not so simple after all.

    In the early 2000s, researchers developed rapid diagnostic tests (RDTs) for malaria, a major childhood killer. Simple as a home pregnancy kit, RDTs need just one drop of blood from a finger prick to detect the malaria parasite. They enabled health workers in remote villages in Africa and Asia to accurately and almost instantly diagnose malaria, making them less likely to overuse the new generation of “wonder drugs,” artemisinin-based combination therapies (ACTs), which were in danger of being lost to drug resistance.

    The use of RDTs skyrocketed after the World Health Organization in 2010 recommended that all suspected cases of malaria be confirmed by a test before treatment; roughly 314 million tests were procured in 2014. Together with ACTs, they have transformed malaria treatment in poor countries.

  • CRISPR patent battle in Europe takes a ‘wild’ twist with surprising player

    conceptual illustration of hand replacing part for a DNA molecule

    The European Patent Office has signaled that it intends to grant MilliporeSigma a key CRISPR patent.


    MilliporeSigma, a subsidiary of pharmaceutical giant Merck KGaA of Darmstadt, Germany, has become a new major player in the complicated European patent battles over CRISPR, the revolutionary genome-editing tool.

    The European Patent Office (EPO) on 27 July signaled that it intends to grant a patent to MilliporeSigma, which operates in the United States and Canada, for the use of CRISPR to splice genetic information into eukaryotic cells. Just such a “knock-in” strategy made headlines this week in a controversial experiment that corrected a disease-causing gene in a human embryo. The MilliporeSigma claims explicitly state that “the method does not comprise a process for modifying the germ line genetic identity of a human being.”

    The most high-profile patent battle over the CRISPR technology pits a group led by the University of California (UC) against the Broad Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and its collaborators. In that dispute over filings at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, UC claims its patent covers uses of CRISPR in all types of cells, whereas the Broad says only it deserves patents for the tool’s use in eukaryotes, which is the key marketplace for developing novel human medicines with the technology. “I find it quite fascinating that most people seem to think the patent disputes are between two groups when it’s far more complicated than that,” says Catherine Coombes, a patent attorney with HGF Limited in York, U.K., who has handled some CRISPR-related litigation but is not now involved with what she refers to as “the foundational” intellectual property (IP) at the center of these disputes.

  • Indian scientists taking to streets en masse

    A crowd marching down a street in India

    Scientists on the march in Bengaluru, India, in 2014. Marches in more than 30 cities are planned for next Wednesday.

    Breakthrough Science Society

    NEW DELHI—Inspired by this past April’s global march for science, Indian scientists are gearing up for their own march in more than 30 cities on 9 August, organizers announced today. Their main beefs are anemic science funding and growing religious intolerance.

    India’s science investments are minuscule compared with those of China and South Korea, says Prabir Purkayastha of the nonprofit Delhi Science Forum. One pillar of Indian R&D that’s suffering, he says, is the Indian Institutes of Technology (IIT), a nationwide network of 23 research and teaching institutions. “IITs today have second rate infrastructure compared to what they need and barring a few, there are no institutes in India which have the kind of money required for the next generation of science,” Purkayastha says. He and other march organizers are demanding that the Indian government boost R&D spending as a percentage of gross domestic product from roughly 0.85% in 2016 to 3% of GDP.

  • Discredited gene-editing researcher vows to clear his name

    the building and sky at Hebei University Of Science and Technology

    Hebei University of Science and Technology is grappling with the fallout from the retraction of a prominent paper on gene editing.

    Public Domain

    A Chinese biologist whose team on Wednesday retracted a high-profile paper on a gene-editing technology has vowed to press ahead with experiments that he hopes will vindicate the potential rival to the CRISPR/Cas9 system.

    In May 2016, Chunyu Han of Hebei University of Science and Technology in Shijiazhuang, China, and colleagues published a paper in Nature Biotechnology describing a gene-editing system using an enzyme, Argonaute nuclease, from the organism Natronobacterium gregoryi (NgAgo). The technology was hailed on social media as Nobel Prize–worthy work and Han, the paper’s lead author, rose to fame in China. He was elected vice president of Hebei Association for Science and Technology and conferred the title of “most beautiful teacher in Hebei.” That August, Hebei government officials approved a plan to establish a $32 million gene-editing research center at the university. The fate of the center is unclear; Chinese journalists who visited Hebei University of Science and Technology reportedly could not locate the center, and staff said they were unaware of it.

    Han’s star began to fall late last year, when independent labs in China, South Korea, Germany, and the United States began reporting their failures to replicate the paper’s key result. In a 3 August statement, Han’s team acknowledged that “so far there is no second paper showing NgAgo-gDNA can be used for gene-editing.” Last January, a patent on the NgAgo technology that Han and a colleague applied for in 2015 was effectively withdrawn after the duo failed to respond inquiries from China’s State Intellectual Property Office, the office’s online database shows.

  • With planetary protection office up for grabs, scientists rail against limits to Mars exploration

    One of the Viking landers in dry oven

    In the 1970s, the Mars Viking landers were sterilized in purpose-built ovens.


    Since its arrival on Mars in 2012, NASA’s Curiosity rover has zapped and drilled ancient rocks in the hopes of finding evidence for past life. But it may never get a chance to investigate something far more exciting: the possibility that martian microbes exist today. In the coming years, as the rover trundles up the side of Aeolis Mons, it will pass rocks that, seen from orbit, seem to host mysteriously intermittent dark streaks—perhaps marking seasonal water seeps. But NASA’s planetary protection office, charged with keeping earthly microbes from colonizing other bodies, has said it may nix a visit. It fears that Curiosity could contaminate this so-called special region because the rover was not fully sterilized before launch.

    To Alberto Fairén, a planetary scientist at Cornell University, that makes no sense. Sooner or later humans—biped rovers that can’t be sterilized—will set foot on the planet, hopelessly confounding any hope of finding indigenous life, he and several colleagues argue in an op-ed in press this month in the journal Astrobiology. “We need to investigate Mars’s special regions carefully and fully prior to human missions,” he says.

    Bureaucratic changes at NASA could create an opening for his view, which some Curiosity team members share. In July, NASA announced, through a blunt job posting, that the planetary protection office was moving out of its longtime home in the science directorate to NASA’s Office of Safety and Mission Assurance in Washington, D.C., a place more accustomed to translating protocols into engineering practice. Cassie Conley, the planetary protection office’s longtime chief, will face competition to keep her job, and she could be replaced by someone with less strict views on sterilization requirements. Meanwhile, by the end of this year, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine are expected to complete a head-to-toe examination of how the office works and whether it keeps abreast with current science, and later this year NASA is holding a major workshop that could lead to a redefinition of special regions on Mars, the warm and wet areas that are off-limits for all but the most sterile of spacecraft. 

  • Mirror delivered to giant solar telescope despite Native Hawaiian protest

    Kaleikoa Kaeo escorted by police during the protest

    Police remove protest organizer Kaleikoa Kaeo after an attempt to disrupt the delivery of a 4-meter telescope mirror to Haleakalā.

    Bryan Berkowitz

    PUKALANI, HAWAII—Trucks carrying the primary mirror for the world’s largest solar telescope advanced past a line of protesters in the early morning hours on Wednesday, delivering it to the top of Haleakalā, the 3055-meter summit of Maui. Just after 4 a.m. Hawaii time, several people were arrested in a peaceful demonstration that suddenly turned confrontational.

  • After French drug trial tragedy, European Union issues new rules to protect study volunteers

    A logo of the Biotrial laboratory is displayed outside its building

    One subject died and four others suffered from brain damage in a 2016 study run by Biotrial in Rennes, France.

    David Vincent/ASSOCIATED PRESS

    The European Medicines Agency (EMA) has issued new, stricter rules for studies that test drugs in people for the first time. They aim to better protect participants in such first-in-human studies—often healthy volunteers who receive a financial reward.

    The guideline, which was issued on 25 July, will take effect in February 2018. It comes in the wake of a tragedy in a French drug study last year that led to the death of one man and serious neurological damage in four others. But some say the revision isn't going for enough.

    The new guideline emphasizes that drug developers must perform comprehensive preclinical tests of a new compound, including how it binds to its target and whether it has so-called off-target effects; experts argue such studies fell short for the French study. EMA also provides more detailed guidance on dosing and how to monitor subjects' safety. Trial sponsors need to have strategies to minimize risks at every step and have to deal with adverse events timely and adequately.

  • European gravitational wave detector back in action

    Interior of one of the Virgo arms

    One of the vacuum tubes in Virgo’s 3-kilometer arms where lasers keep watch for gravitational waves. 

    Cyril Frésillon/Virgo/CNRS Photothèque

    Virgo, Europe’s premier gravitational wave detector, today joined forces with the two detectors of its U.S. counterpart, the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO), in the hunt for ripples in space-time following a €24 million upgrade. In March, the two observatories were meant to begin joint observations—which allow researchers to pinpoint the locations of sources of cosmic waves, such as merging black holes, more accurately. But problems with fragile glass-fiber suspensions for Virgo’s mirrors delayed its startup. Engineers were forced to temporarily install wire suspensions, reducing Virgo’s sensitivity; it will now take a supporting role during the last few weeks of LIGO’s current observing run.

    Gravitational waves are created by cosmic catastrophes such as a pair of black holes locked in a death spiral before finally merging in a burst of energy. The ripples spread out across the universe, causing space to be minutely squeezed and stretched as the wave passes by. Detectors such as LIGO and Virgo detect the tiny changes, amounting to about 1/100,000 of a nanometer or the width of an atomic nucleus, by comparing the length of a pair of 4-kilometer-long arms with lasers to extreme accuracy. (Virgo’s arms are 3 kilometers long.)

    In 2015, after a decades-long quest to find the waves, LIGO finally succeeded, registering the tremor of two black holes that merged in the distant universe some 1.3 billion years ago. LIGO had only recently completed a 5-year, $205 million upgrade of its detectors. It bagged another pair of merging black holes before the end of 2015. These direct observations tantalized astronomers because, with only two detectors, it was impossible to narrow down the location of the sources so that conventional telescopes could learn more about them. For accurate location, they needed a third detector. 

  • University of Tokyo probe says chromosome team doctored images

    People walking around the University of Tokyo, Komaba campus

    University of Tokyo


    After a nearly year-long investigation into anonymous allegations of data and image falsification in numerous papers, a University of Tokyo committee today announced it had confirmed that one research group falsified images and graphs in five papers. The panel cleared five other research groups of wrongdoing.

    The panel's judgment "is very severe," says Yoshinori Watanabe, leader of a team that studies chromosome dynamics at the university's Institute of Molecular and Cellular Biosciences. He previously acknowledged having departed from best practice in handling images, but maintains that the problems the panel cited in his group’s publications had no impact on the papers' conclusions.

    The committee, headed by Hiroaki Aihara, a physicist and University of Tokyo vice president, recommended holding off on disciplinary measures pending a review of additional published papers.

  • Trump donated $100,000 for a science camp. What should it look like?

    Children experimenting at STEM camp

    Campers practice their skills at the See Blue STEM Camp at the University of Kentucky in Lexington.

    University of Kentucky See Blue STEM Camp

    The U.S. Department of Education announced last week that President Donald Trump will donate $100,000 from his salary to the agency to support a summer camp for students focused on science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM).

    “We want to encourage as many children as possible to explore STEM fields, in the hope that many develop a passion for these fields,” Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos said at a 26 July White House press briefing where she accepted the gift.

    But the White House and the department released no details about the planned camp, leaving many STEM professionals uncertain about what the Trump administration has in mind. But in interviews with ScienceInsider, they offered DeVos and Trump some unsolicited tips for running a successful camp.

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