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Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • Q&A: Livestock insurance helps African herders survive droughts

    Andrew Mude

    Andrew Mude, right, at a ceremony for the Norman Borlaug Award.

    Sophia Mbugua

    NAIROBI—A Kenyan economist has won the 2016 Norman Borlaug Award from the World Food Prize for an innovative program that provides pastoralists with livestock insurance.

    Andrew Mude, a senior economist at the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) here, created a program that protects pastoralists against losses from drought, an increasing scourge for nomadic communities in northern Kenya and southern Ethiopia. The index-based insurance uses satellite imagery revealing how much foliage has been lost to calculate the projected impact on the herds. It eliminates the need for an actual census of dead animals. More than 3 million pastoralist households in northern Kenya depend on goats, cows, sheep, and camels, and the high rate of livestock losses during droughts is a major cause of childhood malnutrition. With their households constantly on the move, the payments give families enough money to survive economic downturns without having to sell off their herds. Foreign aid programs from several nations help subsidize the cost of the insurance.

    Mude, 39, says his interest in finding new tools for economic development comes from his parents, who were the first boy and girl from the Marsabit district of northern Kenya to attend high school and who later helped other villagers acquire an education.

  • Panel: Swedish hospital should never have hired 'star surgeon'

    Paolo Macchiarini holding artificial trachea

    Paolo Macchiarini

    STAFFAN LARSSON/KAROLINSKA INSTITUTE

    The Karolinska University Hospital and the Karolinska Institute (KI) in Stockholm ignored warning signs when they hired surgeon Paolo Macchiarini in 2010, an independent panel concluded this week. The investigation was commissioned by the hospital’s director in the wake of an ongoing misconduct scandal surrounding Macchiarini and the artificial tracheae he implanted in three patients at the hospital. Two of the patients died, and a third has been hospitalized since receiving an implant in 2012. “Macchiarini’s transplant activities have damaged clinical research not only at Karolinska University Hospital, but also in Sweden in general,” the panel noted.

    The procedures did not have proper ethical approval, were not based on adequate science, and failed to follow Swedish regulations regarding new medical products, the panel says in its 31 August report. (An English summary is here. The full report in Swedish is here.) The investigation was led by Kjell Asplund, professor emeritus in medicine at Umeå University in Sweden, chairman of the Swedish National Council on Medical Ethics in Stockholm, and former director general of the Swedish National Board of Health and Welfare, also in Stockholm.

    The report highlights mistakes made during Macchiarini’s tenure at the hospital. But it also notes that the hospital terminated Macchiarini’s employment in late 2013, successfully resisting pressure from KI, where Macchiarini remained a senior researcher until March. Whistleblowers raised questions about Macchiarini’s work in 2014, but KI stood by the surgeon, extending his contract even after an independent investigator found that the allegations had merit. He was dismissed after a television documentary in January raised additional questions about the surgeon and his work.

  • Whistleblower sues Duke, claims doctored data helped win $200 million in grants

    Duke University in North Carolina

    Duke University is at the center of a whistleblower lawsuit concerning potential research misconduct.

    Uschools University Images/iStockphoto

    On a Friday in March 2013, a researcher working in the lab of a prominent pulmonary scientist at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, was arrested on charges of embezzlement. The researcher, biologist Erin Potts-Kant, later pled guilty to siphoning more than $25,000 from the Duke University Health System, buying merchandise from Amazon, Walmart, and Target—even faking receipts to legitimize her purchases. A state judge ultimately levied a fine, and sentenced her to probation and community service.

    Then Potts-Kant's troubles got worse. Duke officials took a closer look at her work and didn't like what they saw. Fifteen of her papers, mostly dealing with pulmonary biology, have now been retracted, with many notices citing "unreliable" data. Several others have been modified with either partial retractions, expressions of concern, or corrections. And last month, a U.S. district court unsealed a whistleblower lawsuit filed by a former colleague of Potts-Kant. It accuses the researcher, her former supervisor, and the university of including fraudulent data in applications and reports involving more than 60 grants worth some $200 million. If successful, the suit—brought under the federal False Claims Act (FCA)—could force Duke to return to the government up to three times the amount of any ill-gotten funds, and produce a multimillion-dollar payout to the whistleblower.

  • NSF proposes changes in use of costly rotators for senior positions

    NSF

    NSF

    In June, the head of the National Science Foundation’s (NSF’s) engineering directorate left the agency to return to academia. Next winter the agency will bid adieu to the assistant NSF directors who run its math/physical sciences and geosciences programs. But the departures of Pramod Khargonekar, Fleming Crim, and Roger Wakimoto, respectively, after only a few years at NSF are not some kind of mass protest against government service.

  • China tackles antimicrobial resistance

    Antibiotics for human and animal use are widely available in  China without a prescription, leading to overuse and antimicrobial  resistance.

    Antibiotics for human and animal use are widely available in China without a prescription, leading to overuse and antimicrobial resistance.

    kafka4prez/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

    BEIJING—China, the world’s largest consumer of human and animal antibiotics, has pledged to step up research and development into new antimicrobials and to rein in overuse of existing medicines to counter growing global antimicrobial resistance.

    As part of a national action plan unveiled on 26 August, the Chinese central government said that it would mobilize the efforts of 14 ministries and departments including health, food and drugs, and agriculture. By 2020, the government aims to develop new antimicrobials, make sales of the drugs by prescription only, ramp up surveillance of human and veterinary usage, and increase training and education for both medical professionals and consumers on their proper use. No details were available on funding or new drug development.

  • The world may soon run out of drugs to treat gonorrhea

    <i>Neisseria gonorrhoeae</i> bacterium

    Resistant strains of the Neisseria gonorrhoeae bacterium have spread around the world.

    CDC

    It’s another sign that an era of untreatable bacterial infections is inching closer. Today, the World Health Organization (WHO) released new guidelines for treating gonorrhea that reflect the sobering reality that this sexually transmitted disease is becoming ever more difficult to treat. WHO recommends no longer using quinolones, a class of antibiotics that has become less and less effective. And for the first time, the agency makes suggestions on what to do when none of the standard drugs work.

    Gonorrhea, caused by the bacterium Neisseria gonorrhoeae, infects an estimated 78 million people every year. Although many suffer no symptoms, the bacterium can cause pain in the genitals, rectum, and throat, and can lead to infertility and infections of the brain or the heart if untreated. Current WHO guidelines, written in 2003, recommend treating infections with quinolones, such as ciprofloxacin. But resistant strains of the bacterium have now spread across the globe, says Teodora Wi from WHO’s Department of Reproductive Health and Research in Geneva, Switzerland, making quinolones all but useless. Another class of drugs called cephalosporins should be the first line of defense.

    Many high-income countries changed their guidelines years ago based on their own data. But WHO’s guidelines set a global standard and are particularly important for low-income countries that do not have good surveillance data. "We really wanted countries to remove quinolones as the treatment of choice,” Wi says. "Imagine if African countries invest so much money just to buy quinolones and the bacteria are already resistant.”

  • Deadly Italian quake highlights continuing struggle to communicate risk

    Italy's 'earthquake trial' casts a long shadow over risk communication

    The town of Amatrice, Italy, lies in ruins after last week's earthquake.

    Gregorio Borgia/Associated Press

    ROMEIn the wake of the magnitude-6.0 earthquake that killed at least 290 people in central Italy last week, scientists and government officials here have grappled with a fraught and delicate question: what to tell the public about the risk that another major quake will follow.

    More than 2000 aftershocks in the region around the epicenter, a mountainous area some 100 kilometers northeast of Rome, have caused only minor damage. But more powerful tremors—which could add to the death toll in the days, weeks, or months to come—are possible, the National Commission for the Forecast and Prevention of Major Risks (CGR) cautioned in a report produced on Thursday. The report mentioned that some past earthquakes in Italy were followed by equally strong quakes not much later.

    How to communicate such risks to a jittery population has become a perilous issue for scientists on the commission and officials at Italy's Civil Protection Department (DPC) after the controversy that erupted when a similar earthquake struck in 2009 in the town of L’Aquila, just 40 kilometers south of the epicenter of last week's event. A year after that tremor, Italian prosecutors charged six scientists and a public official with falsely assuring L’Aquila’s residents that a quake was unlikely, just days before it struck and killed 309 people.

  • New leader of NIH’s research watchdog faces staff revolt

    Kathryn Partin

    Kathryn Partin, new head of the Office of Research Integrity, is clashing with staff.

    William A. Cotton/CSU Photography

    The Office of Research Integrity (ORI) in Rockville, Maryland, which guards against misconduct in biomedical research, usually attracts attention with its findings, not its internal workings. But 2 years ago, its director, David Wright, quit in a public huff, complaining that ORI was hobbled by a dysfunctional federal bureaucracy. Now, his successor is encountering her own rough waters, Science has learned.

    Kathryn Partin, who took the helm of ORI in December 2015, has launched a top-to-bottom review of the office, which has been criticized for moving too slowly and meting out sanctions that lack teeth. She has also brought in an investigator from the National Science Foundation (NSF) as her acting deputy director, a possible sign that she wishes to expand ORI's powers to mirror those of the research integrity division within NSF's Office of Inspector General, which can issue subpoenas, for example (see table, below). But in one of several letters of protest to Partin's superiors at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), many of ORI's investigative staff recently expressed "profound concern about the tone and direction" she has taken. They contend that Partin does not fully understand ORI's regulatory constraints and is unjustifiably seeking to replace ORI's two division directors, whose departure, they write, would be a "disaster." John Dahlberg, who before retiring last year was ORI's deputy director, says that his former office "seems to be falling apart."

  • As lab-grown meat and milk inch closer to U.S. market, industry wonders who will regulate?

    lab-grown meat

    In 2013, researchers from Maastricht University in the Netherlands unveiled a burger made from cultured beef. How the United States would regulate such products is unclear.

    David Parry/PA Wire

    The first hamburger cooked with labmade meat didn’t get rave reviews for taste. But the test tube burger, rolled out to the press in 2013, has helped put a spotlight on the question of how the U.S. government will regulate the emerging field of cellular agriculture, which uses biotechnology instead of animals to make products such as meat, milk, and egg whites.

    So far, none of these synthetic foods has reached the marketplace. But a handful of startup companies in the United States and elsewhere are trying to scale up production. In the San Francisco Bay area in California, entrepreneurs at Memphis Meats hope to have their cell-cultured meatballs, hot dogs, and sausages on store shelves in about 5 years, and those at Perfect Day are targeting the end of 2017 to distribute cow-free dairy products. It’s not clear, however, which government agencies would oversee this potential new food supply.

    Historically, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) regulates meat, poultry, and eggs, whereas the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) oversees safety and security for food additives. FDA also approves so-called biologics, which include products made from human tissues, blood, and cells, and gene therapy techniques. But emerging biotechnologies may blur those lines of oversight, because some of the new foods don’t fit neatly into existing regulatory definitions. “Cellular culture raises a lot of questions,” says Isha Datar, CEO of New Harvest, a New York City–based nonprofit founded to support this nascent industry.

  • Updated: Companies settle gene technology patent fight that was shrouded in mystery

    Two firms are battling over the technology behind this compact nanopore sequencing device made by Oxford Nanopore Technologies.

    Two firms are battling over the technology behind this compact nanopore sequencing device made by Oxford Nanopore Technologies.

    nanoprotech.com

    *Update, 22 August, 2:45 p.m.: Illumina Inc. and Oxford Nanopore Technologies have reached a settlement in this legal battle, according to a U.S. International Trade Commission document released last week. Oxford has agreed not to import or sell any product containing a pore with an amino acid sequence at least 68% similar to Mycobacterium smegmatis porin (Msp)—the protein at the heart of Illumina’s infringement claim—and to destroy any inventory of such products.  The document explicitly states that the restriction doesn’t affect Oxford’s ability to use CsgG, a different pore that the company unveiled shortly after the suit was filed, and which underlies its newest line of sequencers. Whether Oxford ever did rely on Msp is still a mystery.

    Here is our original story from 2 March: 

    The inexpensive and portable approach to DNA analysis known as nanopore sequencing has just begun to take off, but it has already sparked a legal battle between an industry giant and a high-profile upstart. Last week, Illumina, Inc.—which dominates the genetic sequencing industry—sued Oxford Nanopore Technologies, the first company to market a commercial nanopore platform. Illumina claims that Oxford’s two flagship devices infringe on patents that Illumina controls.

    The battle, closely watched by researchers who already rely on Oxford’s products, hinges on the details of a technology that are still secret, and could lead the two firms into a murky corner of patent law.

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