Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • East London study to explore high disease rates in south Asians

    A new genetics study aims to recruit 100,000 East Londoners with south Asian ancestry.

    A new genetics study aims to recruit 100,000 East Londoners with south Asian ancestry.

    Ibán/Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

    Researchers are hoping to recruit 100,000 Pakistanis and Bangladeshis living in East London in one of the first large, long-term studies to explore links between genetics and health in a poor ethnic community. The study, launched today, is also one of the biggest efforts yet to search for rare individuals who are healthy despite the absence of a specific gene.

    East London is home to many poor immigrants from Pakistan and Bangladesh, and their community suffers high rates of illnesses such as heart disease and diabetes. The East London Genes & Health study will focus on two groups that are left out of most genetic studies, which largely tap those of northern European ancestry. “It’s a big opportunity to improve people’s health and health in East London,” said study co-leader David van Heel of Queen Mary University of London, which announced the study today. Funding of £4 million is coming from the Wellcome Trust and the United Kingdom’s Medical Research Council.

    Researchers also hope to gather information on healthy people who have mutations in both copies of a gene that make it nonfunctional. Such rare individuals could shed light on “what happens when parts of the genetic material are not working,” says study co-leader Richard Trembath. If the missing gene somehow protects against disease, then a drug that targets that gene could treat illness without causing side effects. An example is PCSK9, a gene found to be missing in a “perfectly healthy” woman in Texas that has led to a new class of cholesterol-lowering drugs, van Heel notes.

  • Don’t edit embryos, researchers warn

    A human embryo

    A human embryo


    Scientists should refrain from studies that alter the genome of human embryos, sperm, or egg cells, researchers warn in a commentary published today in Nature.

    In it, they sound the alarm about new genome-editing techniques known as CRISPR and zinc-finger nucleases that make it much easier for scientists to delete, add, or change specific genes. These tools have made it possible to make better animal models of disease and more easily study the role of individual genes. They also hold the promise of correcting gene mutations in patients, whether in blood cells, muscle cells, or tumor cells.

    But scientists have also used the technology to make genetically altered monkeys. And there are rumors that some researchers are trying the same technique on human embryos, MIT Technology Review reports.

    That is unsafe and unethical, say Edward Lanphier and four other researchers in their commentary. Ethically justifiable applications “are moot until it becomes possible to demonstrate safe outcomes and obtain reproducible data over multiple generations,” they write. They call for a moratorium on any experiments that would edit genes in sperm cells, egg cells, or embryos while scientists publicly debate the scientific and ethical consequences of such experiments. The recent discussion of mitochondrial DNA replacement therapy in the United Kingdom could be a model, they suggest.

  • New Ebola drug trial starts in Sierra Leone

    The Ebola treatment center in Kerry Town, Sierra Leone.

    The Ebola treatment center in Kerry Town, Sierra Leone.

    PO (Phot) Carl Osmond/MOD/Wikimedia Commons

    Researchers in Sierra Leone today started a new phase II trial of an experimental drug in Ebola patients. The first participant received an injection of the therapeutic, called TKM-Ebola, this morning at an Ebola treatment unit in Port Loko*. The trial may expand to other sites; the study team hopes to have an answer fast so that it can either move on to another drug or start a phase III study of TKM-Ebola.

    Produced by Tekmira Pharmaceuticals in Burnaby, Canada, TKM-Ebola is made of synthetic, small interfering RNAs packaged into lipid nanoparticles. The RNAs target three of Ebola’s seven genes, blocking the virus’s replication. TKM-Ebola has been shown to work well in monkeys; the efficacy trial in humans is only starting now because there was not enough of the drug available earlier. Also, the RNAs have been adapted to the strain circulating at the moment.

    The study does not have a placebo arm; all patients at the trial site are eligible for the drug, and researchers hope to determine whether it works by comparing them with patients treated elsewhere.

  • Food supply was protected after Fukushima, study finds

    Soon after the Fukushima disaster, local politicians and national movie stars ate cucumbers to demonstrate the safety of local produce. A new study suggests they were right.

    Soon after the Fukushima disaster, local politicians and national movie stars ate cucumbers to demonstrate the safety of local produce. A new study suggests they were right.

    (AP Photo/Yomiuri Shimbun, Kaname Yoneyama) JAPAN OUT, MANDATORY CREDIT via Warren Antiola/Flickr/(CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

    TOKYO—On the 4th anniversary of the earthquake and tsunami that triggered meltdowns at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station, there is one bit of reassuring news: A new study concludes that contaminated food was likely kept out of the market.

    "In my honest opinion, the Japanese government did a terrific job to keep their people safe" from contaminated food, says Georg Steinhauser, an environmental radiochemist at Colorado State University,  Fort Collins, who led the study.

    The meltdowns at three reactors and subsequent explosions released massive radioactive plumes. To limit exposure, authorities evacuated more than 150,000 residents. (And many more left the area in fear of the radiation.) Mindful that drinking contaminated milk led to most of the cancers that resulted from the Chernobyl nuclear accident in 1986, the Japanese government also launched a massive effort to check foods for contamination and ban any items exceeding set limits. The limit for most food was initially set at 500 becquerels per kilogram (Bq/kg), and then lowered to 100 Bq/kg a year later. For comparison, the European Union's limit is 1250 Bq/kg.

  • Mediators propose CERN-like organization for Human Brain Project

    Wolfgang Marquardt

    Wolfgang Marquardt

    Jülich Research Center

    The Human Brain Project (HBP) should be remade into an international organization modeled on CERN or the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EPFL) in Heidelberg, says a panel formed to unite the neuroscience community behind the controversial, billion-euro project.

    The panel, commissioned by HBP's board of directors, proposes a series of governance and management changes that include how to avoid potential conflicts of interest. It also comes to the aid of the field of cognitive neuroscience, which HBP management had proposed cutting last year.

    The full report of the panel, chaired by Wolfgang Marquardt, director of the Jülich Research Center in Düren, Germany, has been submitted to HBP's board of directors, and the Jülich center sent a summary to journalists yesterday. Last Friday, the European Commission published a summary of the findings and recommendations of a separate review panel that also advocates a range of reforms.

  • Hollywood hopes to make engineers cool


    Credit: Jelson25/Wikimedia Commons

    TV fans of a certain age may fondly remember MacGyver, a brilliant secret agent who defeated bad guys armed with only a Swiss army knife, a roll of duct tape, and a paper clip or two.

    His astonishing knowledge of practical science made MacGyver (which aired from 1985 to 1992) into an engineering icon. Now Hollywood wants to find a new star engineer—this time, a woman—to take over the airwaves. The “Next MacGyver” competition, sponsored by the United Engineering Foundation, also hopes to inspire young women to become engineers. The contest was announced last month by the U.S. National Academy of Engineering and the University of Southern California’s (USC's) Viterbi School of Engineering, in collaboration with The MacGyver Foundation. The five winners will each receive $5000—and will be paired with an established Hollywood producer to help shepherd the idea into a complete script for a TV pilot. The application deadline is 17 April.

    Crowdsourcing a Hollywood TV show is the latest example of using the power of the mass media to shape career choices.  In the early 1990s, Norman Augustine, the former CEO of Lockheed Martin Corp., suggested in an interview with IEEE that a show called L.A. Engineer could do for engineers what L.A. Law did for lawyers. And then there’s CSI, which made lab-based crime-solving dramatic and sexy—and caused a spike in the number of aspiring forensic scientists.

  • Updated: Islamic State group seeks to erase history in Iraq

    The arches and statues of Hatra in northern Iraq stood for 2000 years, but now may be gone.

    The arches and statues of Hatra in northern Iraq stood for 2000 years, but now may be gone.

    Suzanne Bott

    The ancient city of Hatra fended off two Roman emperors and repulsed a ruler of Persia’s powerful Sassanid dynasty. But late last week, local people near the ornate ruins about 110 kilometers southwest of the Iraqi city of Mosul heard massive explosions that likely marked the demise of the 2000-year-old city and its spectacular, well-preserved sculptures and stone architecture.

    While inflicting misery on the people of northern Iraq, supporters of the Islamic State group have also attacked one ancient site after another in the past 2 weeks, systematically taking sledgehammers and drills to artifacts. Other reports say that the forces of the group, increasingly known by its Arabic acronym Daesh, are using bulldozers to demolish ancient buildings. By last week the toll included the statues in the Mosul Museum, the classical site of Hatra, and the ancient Assyrian capitals of Nineveh, Nimrud, and Khorsabad, famed for their massive protective deities in the form of human-headed winged bulls. Assur, a 4500-year-old temple-studded Assyrian city where kings and queens were laid to rest for centuries, is likely the next target, say archaeologists, who are desperately trying to piece together the extent of the damage.

    The unprecedented wave of destruction has prompted a small protest today in front of the White House, as well as statements of outrage from archaeologists and museum curators around the world. U.N. officials have said that the events constituted a war crime. “Those barbaric, criminal terrorists are trying to destroy the heritage of mankind and Iraq's civilization,” said Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi. He spoke during a ceremony 28 February in which his government reopened Baghdad’s long-shuttered Iraq Museum as a way of reaffirming the importance of the country’s heritage.

  • Sugar industry shaped NIH agenda on dental research

    A new study finds the sugar industry “deflect[ed] attention” from reducing sugar consumption to prevent cavities.

    A new study finds the sugar industry “deflect[ed] attention” from reducing sugar consumption to prevent cavities.


    The sugar industry convinced the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) that studies that might persuade people to cut back on sugary foods should not be part of a national plan to fight childhood tooth decay, a new study of historical documents argues. The authors say the industry’s activities, which occurred more than 40 years ago, are reminiscent of the tobacco companies’ efforts to minimize the risks of smoking.

    University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), health policy postdoc Cristin Kearns came across the 319 letters, meeting minutes, and other documents dating from 1959 to 1971 in the papers of Roger Adams, an organic chemist at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, who consulted for sugar industry–funded research organizations. Kearns found that sugar companies acknowledged as far back as 1950 that consuming sugar contributed to tooth decay. Yet the industry “adopted a strategy to deflect attention” away from reducing sugar consumption and toward ways of reducing its harms, she and her co-authors write.

    For example, sugar and food companies funded research on a vaccine to prevent tooth decay and on adding an enzyme to foods to break up dental plaque. (A 1968 newspaper article headlined “These monkeys may save your teeth” described a monkey lab that was studying the idea of mixing the enzyme with raw sugar.)

  • USDA halts new research at controversial farm facility

    USDA has halted new research at a controversial farm facility (not pictured).

    USDA has halted new research at a controversial farm facility (not pictured).

    Terinea IT Support/Flickr/Creative Commons

    A controversial U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) facility has been banned from launching new research projects until it takes steps to ensure the welfare of animals in its care, Reuters reports. The announcement, made today by USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack, concerns the agency’s Meat Animal Research Center, which has come under fire for allegedly causing suffering and death while trying to create larger and more fecund farm animals.

  • Square Kilometer Array scales back ambitions for first phase

    Dipole antennas (like wireframe Christmas trees) of the Square Kilometer Array's proposed low-frequency telescope in Australia.

    Dipole antennas (like wireframe Christmas trees) of the Square Kilometer Array's proposed low-frequency telescope in Australia.

    SKA Organisation

    The consortium that will build the world’s biggest radio telescope, the Square Kilometer Array (SKA), today announced the final scope of the first phase of the project, which is due to begin construction in 2018 and be completed by 2023. Although it has had to be scaled back to stay within the available funding, the project will still be able to achieve all of its key scientific goals.

    “You have to make compromises when you are cutting your cloth to the funding you’ve got,” says SKA Director Philip Diamond. “There is a scaling down, but it is still a highly transformational instrument,” says astrophysicist Philip Best of the University of Edinburgh’s Institute for Astronomy in the United Kingdom.

    SKA, funded by 11 countries from around the globe, will be built partly in southern Africa and partly in Australia. The plan is to first build a pilot instrument, which, as well as advancing astronomy itself, will also prove that the principle behind the giant telescope actually works before the construction of phase 2 between 2023 and 2030. The final instrument will have dishes and antennas stretching across most of Africa as well as Australia and will have a total collecting area of a square kilometer.

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