Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • Why the big change to Lilly’s Alzheimer’s trial is not evidence its drug has failed again

    Eli Lilly's corporate headquarters in Indianapolis.

    Eli Lilly's corporate headquarters in Indianapolis.

    Eli Lilly

    When pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly in Indianapolis last week announced a major change to its closely watched clinical trial for the Alzheimer’s drug solanezumab, some in the scientific community and drug development industry cried foul. To critics, the company’s decision to eliminate changes in a person’s daily ability to function as a primary measure of solanezumab’s efficacy and focus solely on a cognitive test seemed like a last-ditch attempt to keep a doomed drug from failing its third trial. Lilly’s stock plunged by nearly 5%, apparently reflecting that sentiment.

    Largely lost in the online “chatter,” however, was that Lilly’s move reflects a growing scientific consensus about how the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease progress, says Dennis Selkoe, a neurologist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, who is not involved in the Lilly trial. “From the point of view of a neurologist who’s seen hundreds of patients, [Lilly’s decision] makes clinical sense,” he says.

    Solanezumab is an antibody designed to bind to and promote the clearance of the β-amyloid protein, which forms plaques around the neurons of people with Alzheimer’s. Not everyone agrees that these plaques are at the root of the disease—a concept called the amyloid hypothesis, of which Selkoe is a major proponent—but fighting them is the foundation of nearly all current efforts in Alzheimer’s drug development. By helping destroy the plaques in people with early stages of Alzheimer’s, Lilly hopes solanezumab can slow the disease’s progression.

  • China finally setting guidelines for treating lab animals

    Mice have become the world’s most used mammal in research.

    Mice have become the world’s most used mammal in research.

    Armin Rodler/Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

    China has released its first national standards governing the treatment of laboratory animals, and scientists hope the guidelines will improve both conditions for animals and China’s prospects for international research collaborations.

    The draft standards were posted last week for public comment and could be implemented by the end of this year. They cover such topics as euthanasia, pain management, transport, and housing. The standards also set requirements for breeding facilities and personnel training. Chinese scientists have said the lack of national regulations has stymied some international collaborations because scientists in other countries can be reluctant to engage in research involving animals if they are not covered by humane protections. In addition, there is growing domestic opposition to the mistreatment of lab animals because of recently documented incidents of abuse.

    The new standards are based on international best practices, says Qin Chuan, professor of veterinary medicine and director of the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences’s Institute of Laboratory Animal Sciences (ILAS) in Beijing. Though China has not had national standards previously, she says, most provinces certify that Chinese labs meet what are essentially globally accepted practices. Qin said national standards are needed bring all labs into line with what is best for the animals.

  • Wild relatives of key crops not protected in gene banks, study finds

    Wild relatives of key crops not protected in gene banks, study finds

    Phaseolus lunatus, a wild relative of the lima bean, is threatened by land use change in Costa Rica.

    Daniel Debouck/CIAT

    The wild, sometimes scraggly cousins of grains and vegetables have a role to play in food security, but urgent action is needed to conserve them, says a new study published today in Nature Plants. The first global survey of the distribution and conservation of 1076 wild relatives of 81 crops finds that more than 95% are insufficiently safeguarded in the world’s gene banks, which store seeds and other plant tissues that can be used for future breeding efforts.

    Some 70% of the wild populations examined by the study, including the relatives of banana, cassava, wheat, and sorghum, are considered high priority for collection; 300 could not be located in any gene bank.

    Crop wild relatives are, in essence, evolutionary experiments. Without coddling from farmers, these hardy plants withstand drought, pests, and disease. As a result, they often evolve valuable traits that plant breeders could use to create varieties able to resist pests or maintain yields in the face of global warming. In the past, virus-resistant wild relatives of sugarcane and rice have helped produce new varieties that averted millions of dollars in losses.

  • Say again? NSF massages grant titles with eye on critics in Congress


    Kevin Spencer/Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

    Embarrassed by a relative handful of research grants that legislators have mocked in part because of their titles, the National Science Foundation (NSF) in Arlington, Virginia, promised Congress in 2014 that it would do a better job of describing the projects it funds. Since then, NSF program officers have been paying more attention to the titles that researchers submit with their grant proposals. And that additional scrutiny is paying off.

    Projects funded in 2015 are more than twice as likely to sport new titles as those funded in 2012, according to a new analysis by an internal NSF working group. The changes have also made the research easier to understand, says NSF’s James Hamos, who is heading up the project.

    NSF started by looking at the thousands of research grants it made in fiscal year 2012. By the time a proposal has been funded, some 10% bore titles that were substantively different than what the scientist had submitted with his or her proposal. (Roughly one in five proposals is funded.) The agency’s metric was a change of more than 10 characters in the title. When it did the same analysis of grants awarded in 2015, the tally of altered titles jumped to 24%.

  • As SeaWorld stops breeding orcas, what are the impacts for research?

    Killer whale Tilikum watches his trainers at SeaWorld in Orlando, Florida.

    Killer whale Tilikum watches his trainers at SeaWorld in Orlando, Florida.

    P.Ebenhack/Associated Press

    SeaWorld announced today that it will end orca breeding at all of its marine parks and phase out its killer whale shows. The move comes after years of pressure by animal rights and animal welfare advocates, including some scientists who have argued that these animals shouldn’t be kept in captivity.

    “I’m thrilled and very, very proud of the stance that SeaWorld is taking,” says biopsychologist Lori Marino, the executive director of The Kimmela Center for Animal Advocacy in Kanab, Utah, which aims to inject more science into the animal advocacy movement. “They are clearly evolving as an organization.” But Kelly Jaakkola, the director of research at the Dolphin Research Center in Grassy Key, Florida, calls the move a “surprise” and says it could hinder researchers’ ability to learn more about orcas. “I don’t think it was a science-based decision.”

    Animal advocates, including People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), have long pressured SeaWorld to free its whales and dolphins, a group collectively known as cetaceans. PETA even filed a lawsuit in 2011 arguing that orcas were “slaves” under the 13th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Then came the popular 2013 documentary Blackfish, which cast a pall on captivity by focusing on a SeaWorld orca named Tilikum that had killed several people. (Tilikum is now seriously ill.)

  • Opposition stalls U.S. Senate bill aimed at blocking GMO food labels


    Supporters of a state bill to require labels identifying foods made with genetically modified organisms rally in Connecticut in 2013.

    Connecticut State Democrats/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

    Democrats in the U.S. Senate yesterday blocked a mostly Republican-led effort to bar states from requiring labels for foods made with genetically modified organisms (GMOs). On a 48 to 49 vote, the bill—which would have instead set up a federal, voluntary GMO labeling system—fell well short of the 60 votes needed to clear a key procedural barrier.

    The defeat of S. 2609, sponsored by Senator Pat Roberts (R–KS), brings the steadily progressing GOP-led push for a nationally uniform labeling system to a halt, at least for now. The House of Representatives had approved its own bill, H.R. 1599—which also would have blocked state GMO-labeling requirements and set up a federal GMO-free certification program—with mostly Republican votes last summer. The congressional push has been fueled in part by a growing number of state laws, including Vermont’s first-in-the-nation law, requiring GMO labeling.

  • Top Republican relents on dictating spending for each NSF directorate

    Representative John Culberson (R–TX) huddles in 2015 with Charles Elachi (left) and Sam Thurman of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, during the attempted launch of a satellite that measures soil moisture.

    Representative John Culberson (R–TX) huddles in 2015 with Charles Elachi (right) and Sam Thurman of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, during the attempted launch of a satellite that measures soil moisture.

    NASA SMAP/T. Wynne

    Representative John Culberson (R–TX) says he’s seen the light and no longer wants to specify funding levels for individual research directorates at the National Science Foundation (NSF).

    Culberson, who chairs the spending subcommittee in the House of Representatives that controls NSF’s budget, made his comments after a hearing yesterday on NSF’s 2017 budget request. It followed a strong plea from NSF Director France Córdova to let the agency build a portfolio based on the most exciting research across all fields. If Culberson’s change of heart is real, it would be a significant victory for the U.S. research community, which has accused him and other congressional Republicans of asserting their own research priorities above those set jointly by the agency and working scientists.

    In particular, Culberson has pushed NSF to boost spending on four of its six research directorates—biology, computing, engineering, and mathematics and physical sciences—while trimming its investments in the social and geosciences. He’s done so in tandem with Representative Lamar Smith (R–TX), the chairman of the House science committee, which sets policy for NSF. Last year, for example, Culberson’s spending panel adopted a formula that would have required NSF to allocate 70% of its research dollars on the four favored directorates. By fencing off other programs, it also would have led to deep cuts in the other two directorates.

  • U.S. and China cooperate to thwart nuclear smuggling

    U.S. and China cooperate to thwart nuclear smuggling

    U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz.

    U.S. Embassy New Delhi/Flickr (CC BY-ND 2.0)

    The United States and China are deepening nuclear security cooperation, with new technical collaborations and the expected participation of Chinese President Xi Jinping  at the 2016 Nuclear Security Summit in Washington, D.C., later this month, Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz said Thursday. Moniz also addressed U.S. work with China on implementing the recent Iran nuclear pact.

    Moniz met with reporters in Beijing between talks with Chinese counterparts on nuclear security and climate change. The agency signed an agreement this week to broaden an established program through which the United States provides China with training and technology to detect “illicit movements, smuggling of nuclear materials and logical sources.” The two powers share an interest in preventing global smuggling of nuclear materials, he said, and have taken tangible steps to work together in combatting the threat.

    “My discussions up until now have certainly reinforced the importance of those relationships and the shared interest in extending them going forward,” Moniz said.

  • U.S. agencies need better data to protect bees, watchdog says

    U.S. agencies need better data to protect bees, watchdog says

    Marisa Lubeck, USGS

    Federal agencies need to patch some scientific holes in their ongoing efforts to protect struggling bee populations, according to the nonpartisan watchdog agency of Congress. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) lacks a plan for monitoring populations of certain non–honey bee species, a new Government Accountability Office (GAO) audit argues. And the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) needs to collect data on pesticide mixtures to more accurately assess the risks bees face from the chemicals, GAO says.

    Although USDA and EPA have taken “numerous actions to protect the health of honey bees and other species of bees,” beekeepers “continue to report rates of colony losses that they say are not economically sustainable,” the GAO audit says. “Finding solutions to address the wide range of factors that may affect bee health …will be a complex undertaking that may take many years and require advances in science and changes in agricultural and land use practices.”

    The 11 March report highlights potential vulnerabilities in how the federal government is acting on recommendations unveiled last May by a multiagency task force convened by President Barack Obama. That task force called “for action, but the GAO report calls for monitored, responsible action,” wrote entomologist Marla Spivak of the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, in an email. “I’m happy to see this … report and hope it is heeded.”

  • NSF picks Battelle to run NEON

    Instrumented towers and other facilities at NEON sites across the United States will collect a wide assortment of environmental information.

    Instrumented towers and other facilities at NEON sites across the United States will collect a wide assortment of environmental information.

    NEON Inc.

    The National Science Foundation (NSF) has chosen the Battelle Memorial Institute to run its troubled National Ecological Observatories Network (NEON).

    NEON, a $432 million project, is currently under construction in 20 ecologically distinct zones across the United States, from Alaska to Puerto Rico. Last August NSF revealed that the project was facing an $80 million budget overrun and more than a year delay, and in December 2015 it pulled the plug on the current contractor, NEON Inc., a nonprofit organization based in Boulder, Colorado, that was created expressly to build and operate NEON.

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