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Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • Papers Trail: Researchers Track Fate of Duplicate and Retracted Scientific Studies

    Eternal vigilance? Scientific publishers have faced the question of what to do with problematic papers since the publication of one of the first technical journals by the United Kingdom’s Royal Society in 1666.

    Wikimedia/Royal Society

    CHICAGO, ILLINOIS—This week, the International Congress on Peer Review and Biomedical Publication here is drawing researchers from around the world to discuss ways to “improve the quality and credibility of scientific peer review and publication.” Participants are also presenting new finds of the state of scientific publishing. ScienceInsider is attending and will be covering some of the more intriguing presentations. Today: a look at what happens to discredited and duplicate papers that are supposed to be retracted.

    Retracted Papers Sometimes Aren’t

    Two years ago, German anesthesiologist Joachim Boldt was found guilty of scientific misconduct. Eighteen journals pledged to retract a record 88 papers by Boldt that they’d published. What happened next?

  • Europe Proposes New Effort on Invasive Species

    Looming menace. Giant hogweed causes about €1 million a year of health problems in Germany.

    U.Schmidt/Wikimedia

    The European Commission today announced a new proposal to deal with invasive species that are causing problems for member nations. Under the regulation, which must be approved by the Parliament and Council, risk assessments and scientific advice would be used to create a list of 50 targeted species. The ban would prevent their importation and sale, and nations would have to look for accidental arrivals. If a banned species is already established, all countries would need to keep it under control or try to eradicate it.

    Some 12,000 alien organisms have been detected in Europe, and between 10% and 15% are thought to be invasive, causing as much as €12 billion per year of damage to agriculture, infrastructure, and health. (A somewhat dizzying video produced for the commission lays out the extent of the problem with invasive species, including time lapse photography that shows voracious insects gobbling plants.)

    The European Union already has several laws designed to protect valuable animals and plants from invasive threats. But the plant health law doesn't prohibit herbivorous invaders, for example, while the animal health law doesn't offer protection from aliens that might outcompete native animals. "It's been largely patchwork until now," says Joe Hennon, spokesman for the comission. "We needed something at E.U. level that would fill the gaps."

  • Brain Signaling, Cochlear Implant Researchers Win Lasker Prizes

    Winners. Lasker award winners Richard Scheller (left) and Thomas Südhof, who worked on brain cell signaling.

    The Albert and Mary Lasker Foundation

    Two pioneers in the study of neural signaling and three researchers responsible for modern cochlear implants are winners of The Albert and Mary Lasker Foundation’s annual prize, announced today. The prestigious award honoring contributions in the medical sciences is often seen as a hint at future Nobel contenders. The prizes for basic and clinical research each carry a $250,000 honorarium.

    Richard Scheller of the biotech company Genentech and Thomas Südhof of Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, got their basic research Laskers for discovering the mechanisms behind rapid the release of neurotransmitters—the brain’s chemical messengers—into the space between neurons. This process underlies all communication among brain cells, and yet it was “a black box” before Scheller and Südhof’s work, says their colleague Robert Malenka, a synaptic physiologist at Stanford.

  • Indian Parliament Comes Down Hard on Cervical Cancer Trial

    NEW DELHI—In another sharp blow for researchers hoping to conduct clinical trials in India, a parliamentary panel has excoriated a U.S. nonprofit and its Indian partner for alleged ethical violations in a trial of a vaccine to protect against cervical cancer caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV). The panel’s report “will have a freezing effect on all clinical research,” predicts epidemiologist Ramanan Laxminarayan, vice president for research at the Public Health Foundation of India in New Delhi.

    HPV infection is a leading cause of cervical cancer; each year, nearly 73,000 women in India die from the disease—about one-quarter of the global disease burden. A vaccine against the virus has been available in the United States since 2006. Hoping to broaden the vaccine’s use in the developing world, the Program for Appropriate Technology in Health (PATH), a nonprofit based in Seattle, in 2009 launched a $3.6 million HPV trial, funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, in 24,777 adolescent girls in Andhra Pradesh and Gujarat states. PATH conducted what it calls similar “post licensure demonstration projects” in Uganda, Peru, and Vietnam. But several months into the Indian trial, the government pulled the plug after news outlets reported the deaths of seven girls.

    State investigations absolved the trial’s managers—PATH and the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) in New Delhi—of responsibility in the deaths. Five were evidently unrelated to the vaccine: One girl drowned in a quarry; another died from a snake bite; two committed suicide by ingesting pesticides; and one died from complications of malaria. The causes of death for the other two girls were less certain: one possibly from pyrexia, or high fever, and a second from a suspected cerebral hemorrhage. Government investigators concluded that pyrexia was “very unlikely” to be related to the vaccine, and likewise they considered a link between stroke and the vaccine as “unlikely.” ICMR’s director general, microbiologist Vishwa Mohan Katoch, categorically rejects a connection: “Based on the enquiry, it is certain that causality of the seven deaths was not at all related to the HPV vaccine,” he insists. Other experts say that in the absence of autopsies, it is impossible to pinpoint the actual cause of death.

  • Fate of Spanish Neutron Facility Up in the Air

    BARCELONA, SPAIN—Plans to build a particle accelerator and neutron source in Spain’s Basque Country have come to a sudden halt. The governing board of the European Spallation Source (ESS)-Bilbao has removed the project’s scientific director, Javier Bermejo, a neutron scattering researcher at the Institute for the Structure of Matter in Madrid, and did not renew the contract of ESS-Bilbao’s executive director, retiring physicist Joan Bordas. In a statement, the board said the facility needs “an analysis and new impetus.” The moves appear to mark another turning point in a long-standing debate over whether ESS-Bilbao should be a freestanding facility primarily serving Spain, or mostly an R&D test bed serving a Europe-wide spallation source set to be built in Sweden.

    ESS-Bilbao was formally launched in 2009, after Spain lost a bid to host the European Spallation Source, a $2.4 billion, high-power neutron facility that is anticipated to be fully operational in Lund, Sweden, by 2025. Soon after European research ministers selected Sweden to host the ESS, the Spanish and Swedish science ministers signed a memorandum of understanding pledging that “Spain and Sweden would work together, and that there would be a significant presence in Bilbao,” says Colin Carlile, who led the Swedish bid and was director-general of ESS until last February. The Spanish Ministry of Science and Innovation committed $240 million to developing a facility in Bilbao that would provide components and serve as a technology test bed for the Lund accelerator, in exchange for a 10% share in the ownership of ESS.

  • Melanoma Cancer Vaccine Fails

    In a cancer vaccine setback, the drug giant GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) announced yesterday that an immunotherapy it had been testing in a phase III trial had flopped. The company is holding out hope, however, that some patients with a certain genetic signature will still be helped, and the trial is continuing.

    The treatment “did not significantly extend disease-free survival … when compared to placebo” in volunteers with melanoma, the London-based company stated bluntly in its press release. Called MAGE-A3, the vaccine targets proteins by the same name that are expressed on tumor cells in a subset of patients. It’s supposed to stimulate the immune system to destroy those cells.

    The likely problem with MAGE-A3 is one that a myriad of other cancer vaccines have not been able to overcome, says Steven Rosenberg, an immunotherapist and chief of the surgery branch at the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, Maryland: It couldn’t prevent immune reactions that dampen the vaccine’s ability to mount a successful attack on tumors. “I thought there was a very tiny chance that this MAGE vaccine would have any impact,” Rosenberg says, “because no vaccine like it has been effective.”

  • Chilean Union Leader Speaks on ALMA Strike

    High spot. The ALMA radio observatory in Chile from the air.

    Clem & Adri Bacri-Normier (wingsforscience.com)/ESO

    For 2 weeks now, observing at the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) in Chile, the world’s largest radio telescope, has been at a standstill as a result of an ongoing strike by the 195-member ALMA workers union. Several rounds of negotiations between the union—which represents the observatory’s technical, administrative, and support staff members—and managers have failed, despite mediation by a Chilean government agency.

    The president of the union, Victor Gonzalez, says that even though the union has climbed down from most of its demands, a pending issue is management’s refusal to pay workers for the days that they’ve been striking. An ALMA spokesperson says management is not ready to discuss the matter with the media. But Gonzalez offered his take to ScienceInsider this morning. These excerpts from the interview have been edited for clarity.

    Q: What is the latest situation at ALMA?

  • In Battle Over EPA Subpoena, Privacy Remains Sticking Point

    Murky issue. EPA officials say they can’t give Congress data associated with studies of air pollution and health because it contains personal information, but a senior Republican disagrees.

    Wikimedia

    At an impasse over privacy issues surrounding decades-old health records, U.S. Representative Lamar Smith (R-TX) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) are fighting the battle over data transparency one research paper at a time. A recent exchange of letters by the two sides is highlighting just how complex the issue of releasing government-funded health data can become.

    Smith, the senior Republican on the House of Representatives science committee, issued a controversial subpoena to EPA on 1 August for all the raw data from a number of federally funded studies linking air pollution to disease. He says that congressional staff members and independent researchers should be able to review the data, which underpin a number of far-reaching federal regulations. Critics of the subpoena, including the panel’s Democrats, say the studies have already undergone rigorous scrutiny and that releasing the data would breach confidentiality pledges.

    In its 19 August response to the subpoena, EPA submitted a letter and a collection of documents. These didn’t include raw data from either of the two major studies in question—one known as the Harvard Six Cities Study and the other by the American Cancer Society (ACS). Both were conducted in the 1990s. But the letter, obtained from the committee by ScienceInsider, describes EPA’s efforts to obtain and turn over data from several more recent follow-up studies, also requested in the subpoena. 

  • NIH Studies Explore Promise of Sequencing Babies’ Genomes

    Adding value. NIH wants to know how genome sequencing could go beyond existing newborn screening tests.

    U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt Eric T. Sheler/Wikimedia Commons

    In a few years, all new parents may go home from the hospital with not just a bundle of joy, but with something else—the complete sequence of their baby’s DNA. A new research program funded at $25 million over 5 years by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) will explore the promise—and ethical challenges—of sequencing every newborn’s genome.

    The pilot projects build on decades-old state screening programs that take a drop of blood from nearly every newborn’s heel and test it for biochemical markers for several rare disorders. With some diseases, diagnosing a child at birth can help doctors prevent irreversible damage—phenylketonuria, a metabolic disorder that can be controlled with diet, is one example.

    Newborn screening programs sometimes miss cases or turn up false positives, however. And they look for only a few dozen diseases, not all 7000 or so known or suspected diseases caused by defects in a single gene. “We can see the potential value of looking at an infant’s genome to examine all of the genes or perhaps a particularly informative subset of them at the beginning of life,” said Alan Guttmacher, director of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD), during a call with reporters today. Ever-cheaper sequencing is making this more feasible: An entire genome now costs $5000, and decoding just protein-coding DNA—the 1% of the genome known as the exome—can be done for $1000, compared with several hundred dollars to test for a single genetic mutation.

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