ScienceInsider

Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • A ‘rediscovered’ drug against sleeping sickness gets the green light

    Health workers screen for human African trypanosomiasis in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

    Neil Brandvold/DNDi

    A powerful new treatment for human African trypanosomiasis, better known as sleeping sickness, received a stamp of approval today from the European Medicines Agency (EMA) in London, clearing the way for countries affected by the disease to approve its use. That could soon improve the lives of thousands of patients in West and Central Africa where sleeping sickness, caused by a parasite that is transmitted by the tsetse fly, not only causes severe disruption in sleep patterns but also aggression, psychosis, and, ultimately, death.

    “It’s a great victory for people in Africa with sleeping sickness, but it is also a victory for” the Drugs for Neglected Diseases Initiative (DNDi), the nonprofit organization that rediscovered the drug and is shepherding it to approval, says Peter Hotez, a tropical disease expert at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas. “It’s a great validation of DNDi’s approach.”

    Health officials reported 1447 cases of human African trypanosomiasis to the World Health Organization (WHO) last year, but the true number of cases is widely believed to be much higher. As recently as 10 years ago, the main treatment for human African trypanosomiasis was the arsenic-based drug melarsoprol, which killed 5% of those treated with it. Current treatments with drugs named eflornithine and nifurtimox aren’t deadly, but they involve a complicated series of infusions and pills that have to be administered in a hospital; they also require patients to undergo painful lumbar punctures in order to check whether the parasite is present in the spinal fluid. All of that puts the treatments out of reach for many patients in the countries where most of the cases occur: the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Central African Republic, Guinea, and Chad.

  • STEM candidates elected to U.S. House prepare for their new jobs

    Representative-elect Joe Cunningham (D–SC) arrives in Washington, D.C., with his wife and infant son for an orientation for newly elected members.

    Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP Photo

    They’ve won their elections and are headed to Washington, D.C. Their next challenge is using their expertise to make Congress work better.

    Among the more than 100 newly elected members of the U.S. House of Representatives are six who touted their backgrounds in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields and medicine on the campaign trail. All Democrats, they helped their party seize control of the 435-seat House for the first time since 2010. At the same time, they promised constituents they would reach across the aisle to get things done—something they will have many chances to do with Republicans maintaining their grip on the Senate and Republican President Donald Trump in the White House.

    Fresh off their electoral victories, the new STEM members talked with Science last week about national issues that also affect the scientific community. Topics included whether scientific facilities should be part of any upgrading of the country’s infrastructure, how to provide accessible and affordable health care, and how the billions spent on political campaigns limit who can run for office. They also described their preferences for committee assignments, which are determined by party leaders, and their thoughts on being part of the largest Democratic gain in the House since the 1974 post-Watergate class.

  • Is ride-sharing killing people? Yes, study suggests, but critics are doubtful

    Ride-sharing services have boomed in many urban areas. Researchers are debating their costs and benefits.

    Alberto Grosescu/Alamy Stock Photo

    Has the boom in ride-sharing services such as Uber and Lyft led to an increase in traffic deaths in U.S. cities?

    That is the provocative question a trio of economists tackles in a recent study. It concludes that the arrival of ride-sharing was associated with a 2% to 3% increase in the number of car occupants and pedestrians killed in accidents between 2011 and 2016.

    Some researchers are skeptical of the finding, however, and say other factors might be involved. And ride-sharing companies are bashing the study, calling it flawed.

  • High-profile ocean warming paper to get a correction

    The ocean stores much of the warming caused by the buildup of greenhouse gases.

    Daniel Ramirez/Flickr

    Originally published by E&E News

    Scientists behind a major study on ocean warming this month are acknowledging errors in their calculations and say conclusions are not as certain as first reported.

    The research, published in the journal Nature, said oceans are warming much faster than previously estimated and are taking up more energy than projected by the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) [Climatewire, Nov. 1].

  • With Democrats in control of U.S. House, science panel gets fresh start

    Kim Schrier, a pediatrician, played up her technical training in a winning congressional campaign.

    AP PHOTO/Elaine Thompson

    The results of last week’s divisive midterm elections, with Democrats reclaiming control of the U.S. House of Representatives and Republicans likely strengthening their hold on the Senate, have allowed both parties to claim victory. U.S. scientists are also experiencing mixed emotions.

    Many are pleased with what they expect to be a more data-driven approach to science policy under the new Democratic chair of the House science committee. But they also face the sobering reality that, by Science’s count, only seven of the 49 House candidates with technical backgrounds were victorious. And environmental activists are chagrined by the defeat of a proposed tax on carbon emissions in Washington and an Arizona initiative to increase that state’s reliance on renewable energy, although Nevada voters took a first step toward adopting a similar policy.

    In the House, Democrats picked up nearly 40 seats. That outcome gives them control of the 435-seat body for the first time since 2010, meaning they will appoint committee chairs and decide which bills get a vote.

  • Science restored: Eddie Bernice Johnson prepares to chair key panel in U.S. House of Representatives

    Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson (D–TX) is in line to lead the House of Representatives science committee.

    BILL CLARK/CQ ROLL CALL/NEWSCOM

    After 8 years in the political wilderness, Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson (D–TX) is relishing the chance to “restore the credibility” of the science committee in the U.S. House of Representatives. With Democrats winning control of the House, Johnson is in line to move from ranking member to chair of the panel when the 116th Congress convenes in January 2019. And she says ending the committee’s ideologically driven fights over climate change, management of the National Science Foundation (NSF), and other research topics is high on her agenda.

    She feels that the polarizing 6-year tenure of Representative Lamar Smith (R–TX), the current science panel chair who is retiring, was an anomaly for the typically low-key panel she joined as a new member in 1993. She is hoping her Republican colleagues take a less partisan approach to the committee’s business now that Democrats are in charge and Smith is out of the picture.

    Trained as a psychiatric nurse, the 82-year-old Johnson served for more than a decade in the Texas legislature before coming to Washington, D.C. She spoke with ScienceInsider on 9 November from her Dallas district about a range of topics, including climate policy under U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration, gender discrimination in science, and how the need for members to raise money influences the committee’s roster. The conversation has been edited for clarity and brevity.

  • Killing badgers not enough to defeat costly tuberculosis in cattle, U.K. report finds

    a badger at night

    European badgers can spread tuberculosis to cattle, but killing the animals to prevent outbreaks has led to controversy.

    mike lane/Alamy Stock Photo

    One of the most contentious wildlife management debates in the United Kingdom is whether badgers must be killed in order the slow the spread of tuberculosis (TB) in cattle, a disease that costs farmers and taxpayers about £120 million a year. Farmers insist the culling is necessary, because badgers can spread the disease to cattle. Wildlife advocates counter that the practice is inhumane and can make the problem worse.

    A new review of the issue, released today, reaffirms that badgers are partly responsible, but urges farmers to do more to protect their herds and prevent inadvertent spread of the disease. “It is wrong to put all the blame on wildlife,” said population biologist Charles Godfray of the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom, an author of the review. “This is a disease that needs action on all fronts.”

    Bovine TB is the “most pressing animal health problem in the U.K.,” according to the review. The strain that infects cattle is killed by pasteurizing milk, but sick animals produce less milk and lower quality meat. Infected animals are typically killed. The disease been particularly difficult to control in the United Kingdom and is getting worse, in part because badgers are also susceptible. The bacteria can spread between cattle and badgers that live near farms. In 2014, the U.K. government launched a 25-year strategy to eradicate the disease with a combination of testing, controls on cattle movements, and a controversial plan to kill badgers. The justification for the culling comes from a large randomized trial that took place between 1998 and 2005. It found that culling can reduce the number of TB cases in cattle, but only if at least 70% of the badgers around a farm are killed. Killing fewer can disrupt the social structure of badger communities, causing some to travel farther away and potentially spread the disease.

  • Drug for rare disease disappoints in key trial

    The Hempel family, pictured when twins Addi (left) and Cassi (second from right), who both have Niemann-Pick type C, were about 11 years old. Chris Hempel (right) says the twins, now 14, have been helped by spinal injections of cyclodextrin.

    HUGH AND CHRIS HEMPEL

    A treatment for Niemann-Pick type C (NPC), an extremely rare and ultimately fatal neurodegenerative disease, performed no differently than placebo in a pivotal trial in 56 children and youths, its corporate sponsor announced on Tuesday. Perplexingly, though, the disease did not progress in either the treatment or placebo groups during the 1-year study, the company said. Normally, the condition, a result of impaired cholesterol metabolism, inexorably worsens, causing loss of balance, difficulty swallowing, seizures, and cognitive disabilities.

    The drug, VTS-270, a doughnut-shaped sugar molecule called a cyclodextrin, “did not show a statistically significant separation from placebo,” Steven Romano, Mallinckrodt Pharmaceuticals’s executive vice present and chief scientific officer told investors on a conference call on Tuesday. “But importantly, neither did [patients in the active or placebo arms of the trial] show disease progression as would have been anticipated in the neurodegenerative condition over 52 weeks of observation.” The drug was given by spinal injection into the cerebrospinal fluid, which circulates to the brain.

    The news—and the way Mallinckrodt, which has its U.S. headquarters in St. Louis, Missouri, delivered it—came as a shock to families in the NPC community, who learned of it when investors began to tweet about it. (The company did email a letter to NPC disease groups on Tuesday. Mallinckrodt, whose stock is publicly traded, added in a statement emailed to Science that securities laws prevented the company from notifying patients sooner.)

  • Open-access plan draws online protest

    Open-access journals’ article processing charges are often paid by research organizations’ libraries.

    pidjoe/iStock

    Hundreds of scientists are pushing back against Plan S, a plan to crack down on scholarly journals’ paywalls, launched 2 months ago by 11 national research funders in Europe. In an open letter published on 5 November, about 800 signatories say they support open access (OA)—making papers available free to all readers online—but condemn Plan S as “too risky for science.”

    The letter slams the plan’s decision to stop paying for researchers to publish in so-called “hybrid” journals of scientific societies such as the American Chemical Society. Hybrid publications earn revenue from both reader subscription fees and article processing charges (APCs) paid by authors who want to make their papers immediately accessible. “Effectively Plan S would block access to exactly those journals that work with a valuable and rigorous peer-review system of high quality,” the letter says.

    Robert-Jan Smits, OA envoy for the European Commission in Brussels and one of the architects of Plan S, says he has “enormous respect” for the work of learned societies, but no tolerance for some journals’ “sometimes outrageous” subscription fees. Hybrid journals were meant as a step to help subscription journals move toward full OA, he says, but they have endured as profitmaking ventures that rely on public funding, without a clear exit in sight.

  • Hospital’s suspension of evidence-based medicine expert sparks new controversy

    SCANPIX DENMARK/REUTERS/Newscom

    The researcher at the center of a controversy roiling Cochrane, an international network of doctors and researchers, headquartered in London, that promotes evidence-based medicine, has been suspended as head of the Nordic Cochrane Centre in Copenhagen. Peter Gøtzsche, who was a founding member of Cochrane in 1993, has attracted attention for his outspoken critiques of pharmaceutical companies—and sometimes of Cochrane itself. In September, Cochrane’s governing board voted to remove him for “a consistent pattern of disruptive and inappropriate behaviours.” That decision led four other board members to resign in protest. Two weeks later, Gøtzsche said he would withdraw the Nordic Cochrane Centre from the international organization.

    That was unacceptable to the board, however. In an interview with Science last month, Cochrane co-chair Marguerite Koster, a senior manager at Kaiser Permanente, said Cochrane CEO Mark Wilson would try to convince the Rigshospitalet in Copenhagen and the Danish government, which funds the Nordic Cochrane Center, to keep the center within the collaboration. Because he’s been ousted as a member, “Peter Gøtzsche no longer is the director of the Nordic Cochrane Center,” she argued. The board also took control of the website for the center and removed Gøtzsche’s statements about the case from it; he has since posted updates about the fight on his own website.

    It’s unclear whether Cochrane’s lobbying has had any effect, but yesterday, the Rigshospitalet, which hosts the Nordic Cochrane Centre, announced it had suspended Gøtzsche. “We're striving to ensure that the Nordic Cochrane Centre continues as part of the international Cochrane Collaboration,” Deputy Chief Executive Per Jørgensen said in a statement. A spokesperson told Science the hospital would not give any further reasons for the suspension. Assistant Director Karsten Juhl Jørgensen has been appointed as acting head of the center, and the hospital has asked the University of Copenhagen to take over supervision of its graduate students.

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