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Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • Research charities help marry two major South African HIV/tuberculosis institutes

    The Africa Centre for Population Health

    The Africa Centre for Population Health in Somkhele is half of a new major research institute.

    B. Gilbert/Wellcome Trust

    As the International AIDS Conference kicked off in Durban, South Africa, today, two of the nation’s most prominent biomedical research institutions announced that they will marry and combine resources to attack the raging coepidemic of tuberculosis (TB) and HIV in the region. 

    The new Africa Health Research Institute, backed by the deep-pocketed U.K.-based Wellcome Trust and the equally flush U.S.-based Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI), plans to connect basic research to population-level studies and clinical trials. “This is something very strong,” says Bruce Walker, an immunologist at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston who is an HHMI investigator.

    Many fundamental questions remain about why HIV spreads so fiercely in South Africa, which has more people infected with the AIDS virus than any country in the world. South Africa also has a huge burden of TB, caused by a mycobacterium that thrives in an HIV-compromised immune system, and badly needs both better diagnostics to detect cases and more effective treatments to combat widespread multidrug-resistant TB strains. The Africa Health Research Institute promises to attack these overlapping problems—both of which are at their worst in the province of KwaZulu-Natal where the institute resides—with a unique combination of high-powered basic research and biological samples, such as blood or lung tissue, from tens of thousands of people who have carefully documented health histories. “We’ve got significant funding and significant expertise and it really has a huge potential,” says clinical virologist Deenan Pillay, who will head the new institute. “There’s nothing like it as far as I can see anywhere in the world.”

  • Which iconic science centers are also Pokémon GO hot spots?

    Which iconic science centers are also Pokémon GO hotspots?

    S. Gollnow/AP Images

    Pokémon GO, a free-to-play mobile game from the Pokémon Company, has millions of players flocking to locations all over the world to flush out and capture rare Pokémon: digital monsters the franchise has been creating since 1996. The viral sensation recently beat out Twitter for the most active users, and requires players to physically move to neighborhood landmarks to find supplies (Pokéstops), competition grounds (Gyms), and, of course, 151 different Pokémon to catch and collect. Pokémon GO uses the phone’s camera to overlay Pokémon with the real world, and players across the globe have been posting what they’ve found, and where, on social media.

    Along with monuments and statues, some buzzworthy scientific landmarks have made the Pokémon GO circuit.

  • Criminal charges against prominent Italian flu scientist dismissed

    Frustrated by politics—and under investigation—Italian bird flu scientist heads to the United States

    Ilaria Capua says the University of Florida is not at all concerned by her legal troubles at home.

    ilariacapua.eu

    The legal travails of one of Italy's best-known scientists are over. Last week, a judge in Verona dismissed a host of criminal charges against veterinary researcher and former politician Ilaria Capua, including allegations that she deliberately set off avian influenza outbreaks that also caused a human epidemic—a crime that would have been punishable with life imprisonment if proven. Capua was also accused of "criminal conspiracy aimed at corruption," handling stolen goods, and administration of drugs that endanger public health.

    Verona judge Laura Donati concluded that the statute of limitations on most charges had expired at the time the prosecutor requested a trial in 2014, but noted that even if it hadn't, most charges had no merit. The judge criticized police investigators who handled the affair, even suggesting that some of the accusations had been fabricated.

    Capua, who became the head of the One Health Center of Excellence for Research and Training at the University of Florida in Gainesville last month, says she feels "relieved," but also "embittered" because the affair has harmed her credibility. The alleged crimes took place while Capua was director of the Division of Biomedical Science of the Istituto Zooprofilattico Sperimentale delle Venezie, a government lab in Padua, Italy. Capua was also a member of the Chamber of Deputies, one of the two houses of the Italian Parliament, for 3 years.

  • After protest, Canada’s health science funder reverses course on peer-review changes

    James Woodgett

    Jim Woodgett of the Lunenfeld-Tanenbaum Research Institute at Toronto, Canada’s Mount Sinai Hospital has been leading an effort to change how Canada’s leading biomedical research funder does business.

    Courtesy of Sally Szuster

    It seems open revolt has its rewards.

    Canada’s scientific community carved a major notch in its belt Wednesday by successfully forcing Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) President Alain Beaudet into a partial retreat from his controversial introduction of online peer review.

    At an all-day meeting in Ottawa with roughly 50 practicing scientists, convened at the behest of federal Health Minister Jane Philpott to quell an uprising over CIHR grantsmaking reforms, Beaudet agreed to the introduction of a “hybrid” peer-review system. It will use online review to cull roughly 60% of grants from consideration, with the surviving 40% of proposals subject to face-to-face peer review to determine actual competition winners.

  • Can social media help prevent opioid abuse?

    Hands on keyboard

    Ramberto Cumagun (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

    Can a social media strategy that has helped gay men combat HIV now help curb the abuse of powerful opioid drugs? That’s the question a team of researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), is asking in a pilot study highlighted by White House officials last week.

    The Harnessing Online Peer Education (HOPE) intervention is just one of more than 200 research projects the Obama administration spotlighted on 6 July, as it announced new actions to tackle the rising opioid epidemic in the United States. Along with the research projects, the administration seeks to better educate opioid prescribers, strengthen prescription drug monitoring, and enable safe disposal of unneeded drugs.

    The HOPE intervention, led by psychologist Sean Young, Ph.D., associate professor of family medicine and executive director of the University of California Institute for Prediction Technology, aims to harness the immense power of social media to improve public health. Instead of a taking a clinical approach to reducing opioid abuse, which often involves prescribing alternative medications such as naloxone, the study seeks to change behavior. For the 12-week, $170,000 pilot project, which is funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and will begin later this month, Young’s team plans to recruit about 60 patients from the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center who are experiencing chronic pain, are on long-term opioid therapy, and have reported other behaviors—such as drug or alcohol abuse—that put them at high risk of addiction. The researchers will ask each participant to log into a private Facebook group, where they can share posts, comments, pictures, and private messages among themselves, as well as with the eight peer role models who are also on long-term opioid therapy. The peer role models are expected to share tips and the successes and challenges they’ve experienced in managing their pain.

  • U.K. science campaign group sets up shop in Brussels

    U.K. science campaign group sets up shop in Brussels

    Sense about Science encourages the public to ask for the evidence behind policy decisions.

    Sense about Science

    The United Kingdom's influence on E.U. policy may be about to drop dramatically, but one U.K. lobby group is only just getting started in Brussels. Sense about Science, a London-based group that seeks to increase public understanding of science and promote evidence-based policy, has just created a Brussels offshoot that will "monitor the use and abuse of scientific evidence in EU policy."

    In the United Kingdom, Sense about Science has forcefully weighed in on contentious issues such as genetically modified organisms, the health risk of chemicals, alternative medicine, vaccination, "detox diets," and libel laws. The group has produced a series of reports, manages a database of thousands of experts willing to speak to the press, and issues an annual award, the John Maddox Prize, for "individuals who promote sound science and evidence on a matter of public interest, facing difficulty or hostility in doing so."

    The Brussels branch has a director, Sofie Vanthournout, and a Twitter account, but no website; the campaign will officially launch at the EuroScience Open Forum, a major science and policy meeting in Manchester, U.K., on 26 July. After that, Vanthournout hopes to start organizing workshops for young scientists who want to learn how to interact with the media, the public, and E.U. policymakers; she also plans to produce a guide to explain to scientists how Brussels works. "An important step in this is that scientists get more involved in E.U. policy," she says. The new branch will encourage E.U. citizens to ask for evidence behind policy decisions.

  • Australia has conquered AIDS, but not HIV

    Australia has conquered AIDS, but not HIV

    Antiretroviral drugs have cut AIDS deaths in Australia, though public education efforts haven’t eliminated HIV transmission.

    Nathan Makan (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

    Australia’s AIDS epidemic is over, and the country could virtually eliminate HIV infections by 2020, according to an announcement released today by a team of researchers and community experts ahead of the 21st International AIDS Conference, set to begin next Sunday in Durban, South Africa.

    “The AIDS public health threat has morphed into an HIV prevention challenge,” says medical epidemiologist Andrew Grulich, head of the HIV Epidemiology and Prevention Program at the Kirby Institute for infection and immunity in society, which leads Australia’s national surveillance of HIV/AIDS and is based at the University of New South Wales (UNSW) in Sydney.

    Grulich adds that Australia “compares favorably" to a handful of countries such as Denmark that have reined in HIV infections and effectively eliminated AIDS deaths. A paper in The Lancet Infectious Diseases last May reported that the HIV infection rate among Danish gay men is only 0.14% a year, or one in 700. That rate approaches the one per 1000 incidence rate the World Health Organization has set as the threshold for eventually eliminating the HIV epidemic. Although 1000 Australians are diagnosed with HIV every year, effective and accessible therapies mean that few people progress to AIDS, according to the announcement from Grulich and his colleagues at five organizations. Along with the Kirby Institute, participating bodies are the Australian Federation of AIDS Organisations, the Peter Doherty Institute, Pacific Friends of The Global Fund, and the National Association of People with HIV Australia (NAPWHA).

  • Major funders launch international repository of cutting-edge cancer models

    An organoid grown from colon cancer cells

    An organoid grown from colon cancer cells.

    Hubrecht Institute

    For decades, cancer biologists have relied on so-called lines of cancer cells for their experiments. But these cultured cells often bear little resemblance to the tumor they came from. That’s because a piece of tumor tissue dropped into a petri dish doesn’t just start growing. Instead, researchers pull out a few cells in the tumor that happen to replicate well—often cells that don’t need the surrounding normal cells that nurture tumors inside the body. And the genetic makeup of cell lines can change over the years they multiply in labs. No wonder, then, that an experimental drug that kills a colon cancer cell line won’t necessarily help a patient with colon cancer.

    Now, several U.S. and European funding agencies want to change that. Today, they’re launching the Human Cancer Models Initiative (HCMI), which aims to give the research community tumor cells that behave more like actual human tumors. The project involves four groups: the U.S. National Cancer Institute (NCI) in Bethesda, Maryland; Cancer Research UK in London; the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute in Hinxton, U.K.; and the nonprofit Hubrecht Organoid Technology in Utrecht, the Netherlands, which was founded by Hans Clevers, a cancer researcher at the Hubrecht Institute.

    The project will draw on new insights into how to make the mixture of cells from a human tumor grow outside the body. For example, Clevers adds certain growth factors and a gellike matrix to get cells isolated from a particular organ to grow into a similar miniorgan, or organoid. Others use a special bed of mouse cells to coax cells from tumors into growing. When samples of such cells were treated with known cancer drugs, they responded in a way that was remarkably similar to that of mice with tumors grown from these same cells.

  • House panel is generous to new federal STEM program

    House panel is generous to new federal STEM program

    Girl Scouts from Oklahoma try out Google Glass during the 2014 White House Science Fair.

    A. Gemignani/NASA

    The prospects for federal support of science in schools across the United States took a turn for the better this week as a key congressional panel weighed in on the annual budget process.

    At issue is the fate of the Student Support and Academic Enrichment Grants (SSAEG). It’s part of the 2015 law governing elementary and secondary education that replaced the long-reviled No Child Left Behind Act. The Every Student Succeeds Act authorizes the SSAEG program at $1.65 billion, with the money to be distributed to each state through block grants. But last month the Senate appropriations panel allocated only $300 million, less than 20% of the enacted level and $200 million below what the Obama administration had requested in its 2017 budget request to Congress. 

  • U.S. Senate passes GM food labeling bill

    A 2013 demonstration in favor of labeling GMO foods in California.

    Steve Rhodes/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

    The U.S. Senate has passed, by a vote of 63 to 30, a bill that would create a national standard for labeling food made with genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Yesterday’s vote marks a win for food companies, farm groups, and biotech firms, which have been pushing the federal government to set a single national standard in hopes of heading off a patchwork of state labeling laws, such as one that went into effect in Vermont on 1 July. But GMO critics say the bill fails to adequately protect consumers who want to know if a product contains GM ingredients.

    Senator Patrick Leahy (D–VT) spoke against the bill during yesterday’s debate, describing it as “a farce of a proposal.” He argued that “with the swift speed with which the proponents of this bill have moved, with no committee process, no debate or amendment process, we will not be able to ensure the language in this bill does exactly what they say that it does. Just take their word for it.”

    But Senator Joe Donnelly (D–IN), who supported the bill, said it was a reasonable measure. “It will provide fair and objective information without stigmatizing foods that are completely safe,” he said on the Senate floor. “After months of discussion, we have found a sensible proposal that will bring the right information into our homes and to grocery stores in a responsible way.”

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