Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • Robert F. Kennedy Jr. says a ‘vaccine safety’ commission is still in the works

    Portrait of Robert F. Kennedy Jr.

    Robert F. Kennedy Jr.

    Alex Milan Tracy/Sipa USA (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

    The vocal vaccine critic Robert F. Kennedy Jr. is still talking with President Donald Trump’s administration about establishing a commission to look into vaccine safety, Kennedy said today at a press conference held at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.

    “I have been contacted three times by the administration since [10 January] and they tell me that they are still going forward with a commission,” Kennedy said. Kennedy did not specify who in the administration had contacted him.

    Kennedy was summoned on 10 January to meet with the then–president elect and emerged from Trump Tower in New York City to tell the press that Trump had asked him to head a “vaccine safety and scientific integrity" commission. Within hours a Trump spokesperson qualified Kennedy’s statements, saying the president “is exploring the possibility of forming a commission on Autism … however no decisions have been made.” The spokesperson added that Trump was discussing “all aspects of autism with many groups and individuals.”

  • Gates Foundation strikes deal to allow its researchers to publish in Science journals

    Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation headquarters

    The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation headquarters in Seattle, Washington.

    Marc Smith/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

    An unusual and perhaps precedent-setting deal will enable researchers funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to comply with a foundation requirement that they publish their papers only in free, open-access (OA) journals, but still publish in the Science family of subscription journals, which typically keep content behind a paywall for a year.

    Under the deal, announced yesterday, the foundation will award $100,000 to AAAS (publisher of ScienceInsider) to enable the publisher to make any paper by a Gates Foundation–funded researcher published in 2017 immediately available for free online. The deal covers Science and four sister subscription journals: Science Translational Medicine, Science Signaling, Science Immunology, and Science Robotics. (AAAS also publishes Science Advances, an OA journal.) The arrangement is provisional and will be revisited in 2018.

    The deal is likely to affect only a handful of papers. The five journals published just 12 papers by Gates Foundation–funded researchers in 2015, and seven in 2016, according to an AAAS spokesperson. But it could spur a greater number of submissions and publications from researchers funded by Gates, the spokesperson added. 

  • Round one of CRISPR patent legal battle goes to the Broad Institute

    Sketch of court hearing regarding CRISPR

    University of California attorney Todd Walters addresses the three judges presiding over the CRISPR patent hearing.

    Dana Verkouteren

    The U.S. Patent Trial and Appeal Board ruled today in favor of the Broad Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in the initial legal step of a high stakes battle over who will control the valuable intellectual property linked to CRISPR, the powerful genome-editing tool. The decision may be appealed by the University of California (UC), however, which last year requested the “interference” from the patent board because it contends that a team of scientists it represented invented the technology and that the Broad researchers piggybacked on their discovery.

    The patent board decision declared “Broad has persuaded us that the parties claim patentably distinct subject matter, rebutting the presumption created by declaration of this interference." Jacob Sherkow, an intellectual property attorney at the New York Law School in New York City, says the decision could be “a decisive knock out for the Broad.” He says he now expects UC to take the case to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit.

    Jennifer Doudna, a UC Berkeley structural biologist, also still has a patent pending for the CRISPR invention. UC in May 2012 filed a patent for Doudna, Emmanuelle Charpentier (then of Umeå University in Sweden), and their colleagues for their discovery that CRISPR, an immune system used by bacteria, could serve as a genome-editing tool in any type of cell. But the Doudna/Charpentier team, as they reported in a landmark paper published online by Science on 28 June 2012, at that point had only used CRISPR to cut DNA in test tube studies. In contrast, a team led by the Broad’s Feng Zhang reported in the 3 January 2013 online edition of Science that it had used CRISPR to cut DNA in human cells, opening the door for the tool to be used in medicine.

  • Rare rat-related disease shows up in New York City

    A gray rat viewed face on.

    Liesel Elliott/Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

    The New York Times reports that “New York City is investigating three recent cases — one of them fatal — of a rare disease transmitted through rat urine.” The rare disease is leptospirosis, caused by a bacterium. The news reminded ScienceInsider that leptospirosis was the subject of an award-winning feature by Science's contributing correspondent Warren Cornwall in May 2016.

    As Cornwall reported from Pau da Lima,  a slum on the outskirts of Salvador, Brazil:

    Rats have long been one of the world’s most ubiquitous—and infamous—forms of urban wildlife, synonymous with pestilence and squalor. They’ve attracted only sporadic attention from scientists, however. Much about the secretive city rat—chiefly the Norway rat, Rattus norvegicus—remains a mystery. But as the world’s urban population surges and more people crowd into rat-plagued neighborhoods… the rodents are getting renewed attention from researchers and public health experts. Over the past decade, scientists in a number of cities have launched efforts to better understand rat behavior and evolution, and the role they play in spreading disease.

  • Another Alzheimer's drug flops in pivotal clinical trial

    Alzheimer's infected brain

    The brain of a person with Alzheimer’s (left) is shrunken, compared with a normal brain (right), from nerve cell death, and a new drug has failed to stem such neurodegeneration.

    Alfred Pasieka/Science Source

    Originally published by Endpoints News

    Scratch yet another Phase III Alzheimer’s drug hopeful.

    Merck announced late Tuesday that it is shuttering its EPOCH trial for the BACE inhibitor verubecestat in mild-to-moderate Alzheimer’s after the external data monitoring committee concluded that the drug was a bust, with “virtually” no chance of success. A separate Phase III study in prodromal patients, set to read out in two years, will continue as investigators found no signs of safety issues.

    This is one of Merck’s top late-stage drugs, and news of the failure drove down the pharma giant’s shares in after-market trading by 2.45%.

    BACE drugs essentially seek to interfere in the process that creates amyloid beta, a toxic protein often found in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients. As the top amyloid beta drugs like bapineuzumab and solanezumab — which sought to extract existing amyloid beta loads — ground their way to repeated failures, developers in the field turned increasingly to BACE therapies as an alternative mechanism that could provide the key to slowing this disease down.

  • Drop in foreign applicants worries U.S. engineering schools

    A large crowd of Chinese students attend a 2015 education fair in Beijing.

    Chinese students learn about U.S. universities at a 2015 education fair in Beijing.

    Han jitao/Imaginechina via AP images

    Amid the uncertainty over U.S. immigration policy, one fact is sending a chill through U.S. higher education: Some U.S. graduate programs in engineering, Science has learned, are seeing a sharp drop this year in the number of applications from international students.

    University administrators worry that the declines, as much as 30% from 2016 levels in some programs, reflect heightened fears among foreign-born students that the United States is tightening its borders. A continued downturn, officials say, could threaten U.S. global leadership in science and engineering by shrinking the pool of talent available to carry out academic research. It could also hinder innovation in industry, given that most foreign-born engineering students take jobs with U.S. companies after graduation.

    “It’s a precipitous drop,” says Philippe Fauchet, dean of engineering at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, of the 18% decline his department has seen in international graduate applications as last month’s deadlines passed. “Your first thought is, ‘Is it just us?’” adds Tim Anderson, engineering dean at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, where international applications for the electrical and computer engineering departments fell 30% this year. But after speaking with other deans, Anderson believes “it’s a pattern.” 

  • Pasteur president forced to retire

    Christian Bréchot

    "Obviously, I'm disappointed," says Christian Bréchot, "but I respect the board's decision." 

    Seba/ZUMA Press/Newscom

    "Will you still need me, will you still feed me, when I'm 64?" The Beatles once asked. In the case of Christian Bréchot, the 64-year-old president of the Pasteur Institute in Paris, the answer is in: nope. Capping an 8-month crisis at the institute, Pasteur's board of directors has decided not to change the strict age limit for its top job, denying Bréchot the extension he was hoping for.

    The decision was taken on 24 January and explained to Pasteur staff yesterday in an internal memo obtained by ScienceInsider. In it, the board announces that Bréchot will step down after his 4-year stint ends on 30 September 2017, and says that the search for a successor is on.

    "Obviously, I'm disappointed," Bréchot says, "but I respect the board's decision." Nevertheless, he says, the age limit is "ridiculous."

  • Elsevier journals are back online at 60 German institutions that had lost access

    The Göttingen State and University Library

    The Göttingen State and University Library, one of Germany’s largest, lost online access to Elsevier journals.

    Georg-August-University Göttingen

    BERLIN—Scientists across Germany can again read and download the latest papers from Cell and The Lancet—as well as thousands of other journals published by the Dutch company Elsevier—after being blocked for more than a month.

    Thousands of researchers lost online access to the journals on 1 January amid a dispute between the publishing giant and a consortium of German universities, technical schools, research institutes, and libraries.  But yesterday, Elsevier released a statement saying that it would restore access to the institutions “while good faith discussions about a nationwide contract carry on.” The move “reflects our support for German research and our expectation that an agreement can be reached,” Elsevier says. (Staff at the University of Münster, one of the affected institutions, received the statement in a universitywide email this morning.)

  • U.S. panel gives yellow light to human embryo editing

    Four-cell embryo

    A new report says that editing the DNA of a human embryo (above) could be ethically acceptable.

    Dr. Yorgos Nikas/Science Source

    Editing the DNA of a human embryo to prevent a disease in a baby could be ethically allowable one day—but only in rare circumstances and with safeguards in place, says a widely anticipated report released today.

    The report from an international committee convened by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences (NAS) and the National Academy of Medicine in Washington, D.C., concludes that such a clinical trial “might be permitted, but only following much more research” on risks and benefits, and “only for compelling reasons and under strict oversight.” Those situations could be limited to couples who both have a serious genetic disease and for whom embryo editing is “really the last reasonable option” if they want to have a healthy biological child, says committee co-chair Alta Charo, a bioethicist at the University of Wisconsin in Madison.

    Some researchers are pleased with the report, saying it is consistent with previous conclusions that safely altering the DNA of human eggs, sperm, or early embryos—known as germline editing—to create a baby could be possible eventually. “They have closed the door to the vast majority of germline applications and left it open for a very small, well-defined subset. That’s not unreasonable in my opinion,” says genome researcher Eric Lander of the Broad Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Lander was among the organizers of an international summit at NAS in December 2015 who called for more discussion before proceeding with embryo editing.

  • Debate erupts over plan to create another online destination for biology preprints

    Shelves with scientific journals

    Publishing their papers in journals, such as these lining a library's shelves, is still the goal of most biologists, but more and more are depositing early versions, or preprints, in online repositories.


    A plan to create a new repository for biomedical and biology preprints has earned the endorsement of nearly a dozen major science funders, including government agencies, major foundations, and research charities. But it also has sparked a debate about whether an existing preprint repository,, should be the natural home for such material.

    Although it has no confirmed funding for the effort, the nonprofit group ASAPbio today announced a request for applications to build what it calls a “Central Service” for preprints (papers that have not yet been accepted by a journal or undergone peer review).  Together with the U.S. National Institutes of Health, the European Research Council, the United Kingdom’s Medical Research Council, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and Wellcome Trust research charities, and other science funders, ASAPbio released a consensus set of principles and requirements for the proposed repository. For example, the repository must have a scientist-led independent governing board, the groups say, and be free for those submitting and reading preprints.

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