Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • Surprise patent ruling revives high-stakes dispute over the genome editor CRISPR

    Sketch of court hearing regarding CRISPR

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

    Dana Verkouteren

    The high-profile patent fight over who invented a key feature of the genome editor CRISPR has been resurrected. The 3-year-old battle, which a U.S. appeals court appeared to have put to rest in September 2018, pits parties represented by the University of California (UC) against the Broad Institute of Cambridge, Massachusetts. It revolves around the use of CRISPR, originally derived from a DNA-cutting system used by bacteria, in the more complex cells of eukaryotes, which includes humans, making the contested patents key to the potentially lucrative development of novel medicines. After the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office awarded the Broad Institute several patents for the invention of CRISPR in eukaryotes, UC requested what’s known as an interference based on its own submitted patent. The Patent Trial and Appeal Board (PTAB) ruled against UC in February 2017, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit denied UC’s appeal 1 year later.

    Now, based on new claims—the parts of a patent that dive into the specifics—by UC in April 2018, PTAB has ruled there is a potential interference that needs to be examined. Eldora Ellison, a lead attorney for the UC team who works at Sterne, Kessler, Goldstein & Fox in Washington, D.C., says PTAB ruled in 2017 there was no interference because the UC patent involved far-reaching claims of the CRISPR invention for many systems and the Broad Institute focused only on eukaryotes “What they said is, ‘We’re actually not going to have a fight at this point in time, because we think that these are two different inventions,’” Ellison says. “They kind of kicked the can down the road on who was first to invent the use of CRISPR in eukaryotes.”

    But UC’s new focused claims led PTAB to declare an interference on 24 June.

  • As Ebola outbreak rages, plan to test second vaccine sparks debate

    health worker administers an ebola vaccine

    Merck's Ebola vaccine, in short supply, is given only to people at high risk of infection. 

    REUTERS/James Akena

    When the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) declared its 10th Ebola outbreak in August 2018, it had one weapon that was unavailable during the previous nine: a highly effective vaccine, produced by Merck & Co. Ten months later, health workers have administered some 130,000 doses, yet the epidemic is still raging; it is now the second largest in history, with more than 1500 deaths.

    That’s why experts will gather in Kinshasa on 28 June to discuss a thorny issue: whether, and how, to deploy a second vaccine to supplement the limited supplies of the Merck shot. Fielding it would also provide a rare opportunity to test another vaccine’s effectiveness. But some experts worry a new effort could drain resources from the primary vaccination campaign and complicate efforts to persuade people to get vaccinated. “Having two vaccines ... raises an important potential for confusion and skepticism,” says political scientist Rachel Sweet at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana.

    DRC Minister of Public Health Oly Ilunga Kalenga told Reuters last month that he preferred to stick with one vaccine, so as not to “perturb the population.” The DRC convened this week’s meeting to help him and other officials “make an informed decision,” a government spokesperson says.

  • House panel clarifies how universities would report sexual harassment cases to U.S. funders

    Frank Lucas sitting next to Eddie Bernice Johnson, who is speaking during a committee meeting

    The chairwoman and top Republican, respectively, on the House of Representatives science committee, representatives Eddie Bernice Johnson (D–TX, right) and Frank Lucas (R–OK, left), teamed up on H.R. 36.

    E. Petersen/Science

    New rules from the National Science Foundation (NSF) on reporting sexual harassment by someone with an NSF grant raise questions about due process, university administrators say. Yesterday, a key congressional panel took those concerns to heart by modifying language in a bill that would require the administration to write guidelines applying to half a dozen major federal research agencies.

    The antiharassment legislation (H.R. 36), was approved unanimously by the science committee of the U.S. House of Representatives. The vote wasn’t a surprise, given that its lead sponsors are the chairwoman and ranking member, respectively, of the science committee, representatives Eddie Bernice Johnson (D–TX) and Frank Lucas (R–OK).

    “Too many women have been driven out of STEM [science, technology, engineering, and math] careers due to a culture of harassment and abuse,” Lucas said in his opening statement. “H.R. 36 takes the first steps to addressing that problem.” Johnson said she hopes the bill would promote “meaningful and lasting culture change” on an issue “that has not been addressed in a comprehensive fashion.”

  • It could take 118 years for female computer scientists to match publishing rates of male colleagues

    conceptual illustration of women wearing lab coats and a ball and chain
    Robert Neubecker

    It could be well into the 21st century before female computer scientists annually publish as many research articles as their male counterparts, an analysis published today concludes. If current trends in publishing continue, women in biomedical research are likely to reach parity sooner, possibly by 2050. 

    The study, which appears on the preprint service arXiv, used a large data set and statistical methods to estimate the portion of papers published by women in those fields, yielding a measure of progress in efforts to eliminate historical patterns of gender inequality. “Although gender balance is improving, progress is slower than we had hoped,” write Oren Etzioni and co-authors at the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence in Seattle, Washington.

    Using a tool called Semantic Scholar, developed by the institute, the researchers examined nearly 3 million journal and conference papers in computer science published between 1970 and 2018. They also analyzed more than 11 million biomedical papers that appeared during that period in the 1000 most-cited journals in the Medline database maintained by the U.S. National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland.

  • What big ideas will shape U.S. science over the next decade? Here are some contenders

    A teenager sits in front of a video game he designed

    Konrad Gomez-Haibach has proposed a video game that uses artificial intelligence to bring together players and scientists.

    Maria Gomez

    Konrad Gomez-Haibach is only 15. But he’s vying, alongside more than two dozen college professors and science professionals, for a chance to help define the National Science Foundation’s (NSF’s) research agenda for the next decade through its 2026 Big Idea Machine competition.

    His idea, an “open world” video game designed to build problem-solving skills and connect players with researchers using artificial intelligence (AI), is up against 32 other diverse projects that the Alexandria, Virginia–based group might fund. Gomez-Haibach, who lists his career goals as “future scientist, actor, and dog trainer,” was hesitant to submit a video game to NSF because, in his experience, “being called a gamer was not a compliment.” He estimates he spends 2 to 3 hours gaming online most days. His current favorite, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, centers on a mission to reconnect a family in a grim fantasy world.

    Getting even 1% of the U.S gamer population below the age of 35 to play his game would yield roughly “1 million new participants in science,” says Gomez-Haibach, who lives in western Massachusetts and attends the online University of Nebraska High School. “It has the potential to help scientists figure out ideas to real-world problems much more easily due to human gamer creativity.”

  • Hong Kong researchers forge ties with mainland China even as protesters fight for autonomy

    Protests in Hong Kong

    Two million people, one-quarter of Hong Kong, China’s residents, joined protests against an extradition bill.

    The Asahi Shimbun/Getty Images

    After a series of massive protests by Hong Kong’s residents, including many academics, the leaders of the semiautonomous Chinese city last week shelved controversial legislation that would have allowed people there to be extradited to mainland China. But even as that battle to preserve independence continues, Hong Kong’s researchers are forging closer ties with the mainland.

    Those links will be strengthened this year, with several new cross-border funding programs set to make their first awards. And although many researchers welcome the new opportunities for funding and collaboration, some worry they could give Beijing greater influence over Hong Kong’s research agenda.

    The tension arises from Hong Kong’s special political status. In 1997, China regained control of the former U.K colony under a “one country, two systems” policy that gives Hong Kong’s 7.4 million residents a greater say in their economic and political affairs. Academic efforts have thrived under the arrangement. The city now hosts nearly 30,000 researchers, creating a per capita ratio triple that found on China’s mainland, according to United Nations statistics. Hong Kong’s research spending has risen from just 0.4% of its gross domestic product in 1998 to 0.8% in 2017. Several of the city’s universities are among the top 50 in the world, according to this year’s Times Higher Education rankings.

  • Men need not apply: university set to open jobs just to women

    a female engineer examining wires

    Women account for just one-third of all researchers in the European Union.

    Hero Images/Getty Images

    A Dutch engineering university is taking radical action to increase its share of female academics by opening job vacancies to women only.

    Starting on 1 July, the Eindhoven University of Technology (TUE) in the Netherlands will not allow men to apply for permanent academic jobs for the first 6 months of the recruitment process under a new fellowship program. If no suitable applicant has been found within that time, men can then apply, but the selection committee will still have to nominate at least one candidate of each gender.

    “We have been talking about [gender balance] for ages,” says TUE President Robert-Jan Smits. “All kinds of soft measures are taken and lip service is paid to it. But the stats still look awful.” Currently, 29% of TUE’s assistant professors are women; at the associate and full professor level, about 15% are women. With this program, TUE wants to reach 50% of women for assistant and associate professors, and 35% for full professors.

  • WHO unexpectedly declines, again, to call Ebola outbreak a global emergency

    women washing their hands on the Uganda DRC border

    A woman at the border of the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Uganda washes her hands with chlorinated water, one of the measures used to stop the spread of Ebola.

    Ronald Kabuubi/AP Photo

    In a controversial decision, the World Health Organization (WHO) has again decided not to declare Africa’s latest Ebola outbreak, which has killed more than 1400 people and just crossed into a new country, a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC). “It was the view of the committee that the outbreak is a health emergency in the Democratic Republic of Congo [DRC] and the region, but it does not meet all [the PHEIC] criteria,” Preben Aavitsland, acting chair of an expert committee convened by WHO, said at a press conference on Friday evening in Geneva, Switzerland.

    The committee gathered for the third time after news emerged this week that the virus had spread from the DRC to neighboring Uganda, so far killing two people there—a 5-year-old boy and his grandmother—who had crossed the border. Many infectious disease experts and public officials had expected, and called for, WHO to declare a PHEIC when Ebola broke out of the DRC. “I’m baffled and deeply troubled by this decision,” Lawrence Gostin, director of the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., tells ScienceInsider. “The status quo is no longer tenable. It is time to sound a global alert.”

    Gostin and others say declaring a PHEIC would focus global attention on the ongoing health crisis. More than 2400 people have been sickened since the outbreak started in August 2018—the largest outbreak of Ebola other than when it ravaged West Africa 5 years ago. “If I look back to a similar time in West Africa in 2014, prime ministers and presidents were talking about Ebola,” says infectious disease researcher Jeremy Farrar, who runs the Wellcome Trust in London. “Frankly, that has not happened in this outbreak.”

  • NIH should ask both institutions and investigators to report sexual harassment findings, advisory group says

    National Institutes of Health headquarters building
    Lydia Polimeni/National Institutes of Health

    To combat sexual harassment in biomedical research, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) should ask grant applicants directly whether they have been found guilty of sexual harassment and require institutions to tell NIH about any such findings, as well as investigations. Those recommendations were released today by a working group advising NIH about how to bolster its policies in this hot-button area.

    The group also urged NIH to help victims of sexual harassment rebuild their careers, and it called for the Bethesda, Maryland–based agency to give trainees more independence from their mentors. NIH Director Francis Collins welcomed the advice. “I’m happy the recommendations are quite bold,” he said after a presentation to his Advisory Committee to the Director (ACD). But, he added, much remains to be fleshed out, including what legal constraints the agency faces in following through.

    Mounting concerns about sexual harassment in science have prompted research agencies to examine their policies. The National Science Foundation (NSF) last fall began to require that institutions report when a principal investigator (PI) has been found guilty of sexual harassment. But although NIH has expressed concern, apologized to victims, and added a new way to report allegations, it has held off on new policies—instead appointing a working group that in February began to explore possible changes.

  • Russian geneticist answers challenges to his plan to make gene-edited babies

    In vitro fertilization

    A Russian biologist wants to use the in vitro fertilization clinic he works at to create more gene-edited babies.

    CC STUDIO/Science Source

    In a bold rejection of the widespread sentiment—and regulations in many countries—that no one should alter the genome of a human embryo and transfer it to a woman, Russian geneticist Denis Rebrikov last week went public with his plans to become the second researcher to cross this red line. “We can’t stop progress with words on paper,” Rebrikov told ScienceInsider yesterday, when asked about international efforts to ban such research.

    Rebrikov, who is at the Kulakov National Medical Research Center of Obstetrics, Gynecology and Perinatology in Moscow, does not yet have Russian approval to do the experiment. But, as Nature first reported on 10 June, he would like to use the genome editor CRISPR to modify the CCR5 gene in embryos so they would be highly resistant to infection with HIV.

    This is the strategy that Chinese researcher He Jiankui attempted in a widely condemned experiment that led to the birth of twin girls. Jiankui, who did not publicly discuss his trial until news stories revealed details of it in November 2018, triggered an international push to step up oversight of human embryo studies that create heritable, DNA changes. Concerns about this so-called “germline editing” have led some prominent scientists to call for a moratorium. An expert committee at the World Health Organization and, separately, an international commission organized by academies of sciences have been convened to wrestle with the thorny question about how to create a framework that will responsibly move germline editing from the lab to the clinic.

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