Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • A powerful tuberculosis drug gets a deep price cut

    a TB patient with an implanted tube draining his lung

    A price cut of a powerful drug that prevents tuberculosis could help thwart disease in some of the 10 million people, such as this man in Dhaka, who become ill with the disease each year.

    Probal Rashid/LightRocket via Getty Images

    A 66% price slash of a little used but powerful drug that prevents tuberculosis (TB) could help stave off the deadly lung disease in millions of people around the world.

    Sanofi, a pharmaceutical company based in Paris, announced today it will sell the drug rifapentine at the steeply discounted price. The full course of preventive treatment with the drug will drop from $45 to $15. “This is a huge step forward,” says Gavin Churchyard, CEO of the Aurum Institute in Johannesburg, South Africa, a nonprofit that does TB and HIV care and research in several sub-Saharan African countries. “It’s such a momentous change.”

    The World Health Organization estimates that about 25% of the people in the world are infected with Mycobacterium tuberculosis, and although most will never transmit the bacteria or fall ill because of the infection, up to 15% will progress from “latent” to “active” disease. People with latent M. tuberculosis infections who are coinfected with HIV are more than 20 times as likely to develop TB. TB accounts for 1.5 million deaths globally each year, more than any other infectious disease; it is the No. 1 cause of death in South Africa, which is home to nearly 20% of the world’s 38 million HIV-infected people.

  • Unrest in Chile prompts cancellation of U.N. climate conference

    antigovernment protesters run from police spraying water cannons

    Protesters flee from police spraying water cannons in Santiago on 29 October.

    AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd

    Originally published by E&E News

    Chilean President Sebastián Piñera announced this morning that Chile would not host the United Nations (UN) climate talks that were set to begin in Santiago on 2 December.

    UN climate chief Patricia Espinosa released a statement this morning stating, “I was informed of the decision by the government of Chile not to host COP25 in view of the difficult situation that the country is undergoing.” She added, “We are currently exploring alternative hosting options.”

  • Ph.D.–turned–policy insider takes over world’s largest science society

    Sudip Parikh

    Sudip Parikh

    DIA Global

    Sudip Parikh has helped shape U.S. science policy as a staffer on a powerful congressional spending panel. He’s been a senior health care executive for a large nonprofit organization that manages several federal research facilities. And in January 2020, the 46-year-old structural biologist will become the new CEO of AAAS (which publishes Science) as the 171-year-old association pursues its mission to advance science and serve society.

    “It’s a marvelous organization, and I’m super excited to become a part of it,” Parikh says. “I think every scientist has a place in their heart for AAAS. My goal is to turn those warming feelings into a valuable engagement with AAAS that will help us move forward.”

    Parikh is now a senior vice president at the Drug Information Association (DIA), a Washington, D.C.–based nonprofit whose 12,000 members share a common interest in drug development. He spent 8 years as part of the Senate appropriations committee before joining Battelle in 2009.

  • Hong Kong student protesters demand more support from their universities

    University students protesting

    Students forced their way into the administrative offices of the Chinese University of Hong Kong on 3 October, demanding to speak to university President Rocky Tuan.

    MOHD RASFAN/AFP/Getty Images

    Student protesters in Hong Kong, China, are forcing local universities to consider their roles in the ongoing standoff between citizens demanding greater democratic representation and the city’s authorities. And the continuing disturbances may be starting to have an impact on faculty recruitment and retention.

    In the latest example of campus friction, on 22 October, a group of University of Hong Kong (HKU) students delivered a petition—now signed online by more than 3000 individuals—calling on university President Xiang Zhang to issue a statement condemning police brutality, bar police searches on campus, provide legal and financial support to arrested students, and hold a forum to listen to students’ concerns. They gave a deadline of 28 October.

    Late yesterday evening, Zhang sent a brief, four-paragraph email to all students, staff, and alumni. “I am against any form of violence by any party,” Zhang writes. He goes on to explain that a student support team established in July is providing legal advice, counseling, and other support to those in need. The letter links to an explanation of the university’s policies covering police entry onto campus. And he closes by writing: “We have held discussions with students at various occasions in different manners and will continue to do so.”

  • White House to host closed-door summit on U.S. research enterprise

    the White House at night

    You’ll need an invitation to attend, but on 5 November the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) will host a 1-day meeting in Washington, D.C., to discuss a host of hot-button issues affecting the U.S. research community.

    Several dozen university and industry leaders from across the country have been summoned by OSTP Director Kelvin Droegemeier to advise an internal committee he leads that is trying to harmonize research policies across all federal agencies. The impact of foreign collaborations on national security will probably be uppermost on the minds of attendees, some of them still reeling from aggressive efforts by the National Institutes of Health to enforce existing rules that require NIH-funded scientists to disclose all foreign sources of support. But the Joint Committee on the Research Environment (JCORE) is also tackling three other long-running challenges: how to combat sexual harassment in the workplace, how to reduce the administrative burden on grantees, and how to strengthen scientific integrity.

    Droegemeier won Senate confirmation in January, filling a post vacant for the first 2 years of the Trump administration. In May, he appended JCORE to the government’s long-running in-house coordinating body, the National Science and Technology Council, and gave it the mandate to oversee policy deliberations on all four topics. Its four subcommittees have been meeting regularly, and the summit will be the first chance for outsiders to add their 2 cents.

  • NSF tallies 16 cases of alleged harassment by grantees in first year of new rules

    NSF headquarters

    The National Science Foundation’s headquarters in Alexandria, Virginia

    Maria Barnes/National Science Foundation

    It’s been 1 year since the National Science Foundation (NSF) implemented a new policy governing when universities must tell it about possible sexual harassment by grantees. Despite adopting a narrow definition of who is covered, agency officials say they are surprised by how many notifications—16 to date—they have received.

    The rules apply only to researchers who received an award after 22 October 2018 or a recent amendment to an earlier award, and kick in only when an institution takes what is called an “administrative action.” That could range from monitoring someone’s behavior to banning the alleged perpetrator from campus. Institutions must also notify NSF of the final decision in a harassment investigation involving an NSF grantee, the end of a process that can drag on for years.

    If followed by institutions, the notification rules should reduce the chances that the agency is blindsided by media reports of current grantees who are found guilty of harassment. But the rules will not create a database of all sexual harassment investigations at NSF-funded institutions, nor was that NSF’s intention. Rather, the rule addresses NSF’s obligation to ensure a “safe and secure” research environment at places where it is spending money.

  • German university finds ‘severe’ misconduct by researcher who promoted questionable cancer blood test

    Christof Sohn with Sarah Schott working in a laboratory

    In a press release, Christof Sohn (right) promoted a questionable breast cancer blood test as “revolutionary.”

    Heidelberg University

    A university commission announced this week it had found evidence of “extensive and severe scientific misconduct” by Christof Sohn, director of the women’s clinic at Heidelberg University Hospital in Germany and the lead researcher behind a highly publicized but questionable blood test designed to detect breast cancer.

    The hospital has been rocked for months by the scandal, which has led to ongoing criminal proceedings. The hospital intended to release the results of an external investigation into the scandal at a press conference on 22 October, the same day that Heidelberg University released the report from its commission for good scientific practice. But that day, after a petition from Sohn, a local court ordered the cancelation of the press conference to protect the rights of and presumption of innocence for Sohn, who reportedly has been suspended from teaching and research for 3 months and faces a university disciplinary inquiry. Following the court’s decision, the university also removed its commission’s report from its website. Prosecutors in Mannheim, Germany, declined to name suspects in their ongoing inquiries concerning economic crimes.

    The affair began in February, when Sohn promoted the blood-based liquid biopsy test as a “new, revolutionary option” in a press release that appeared on the websites of both the hospital and HeiScreen GmbH, a spin-off company. The institutions claimed the test, which looks for 15 biomarkers that reflect cancer-related genetic processes, has a sensitivity of 80% to 90% for some groups of women with breast cancer. (Sensitivity reflects the proportion of women with cancer that is correctly identified.)

  • Argentine scientists rally behind favorite in Sunday’s presidential election

    Presidential candidate Alberto Fernandez

    Alberto Fernández

    Natacha Pisarenko/AP Photo

    Thousands of Argentine scientists are hoping the man expected to be the country’s next president will reverse deep cuts to research imposed by the conservative government of President Mauricio Macri. But the first priority for Alberto Fernández, the front-runner in Sunday’s election, will almost certainly be Argentina’s crumbling economy. And it’s not clear when—or how effectively—the concerns of scientists will be addressed.

    Fernández, a 60-year-old lawyer and political insider, worked for former President Nestor Kirchner and, for a short time, under Cristina Fernández de Kirchner after she succeeded her husband in 2007. Despite a decadeslong rift between Fernández and Cristina Kirchner, she is now his running mate, and the presidential candidate is expected to continue her brand of populism, whose roots go back almost 70 years to the rule of Juan Peron. Polls show Fernández leading Macri by a wide margin; Fernández will gain the presidency if he captures more than 45% of the vote in a six-person field, or wins 40% of the vote and leads by at least 10 percentage points.

    Kirchner won the support of many scientists by creating Argentina’s first Ministry of Science. She also increased the number of student scholarships and pledged to create more jobs within the National Scientific and Technical Research Council (CONICET). Elected in November 2015, Macri eliminated the science ministry and cut new CONICET jobs to less than one-third the level that Kirchner had targeted by this year. Other cuts have left research labs struggling to cover basic services such as routine maintenance and the cost of electricity and security.

  • Some of NIH’s chimpanzees will not retire to a sanctuary as planned

    a chimpanzee eating watermelon

    A chimpanzee munches on a watermelon at Chimp Haven.

    Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor via Getty Images

    The U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) will not be retiring all of its chimpanzees to a sanctuary, as it originally pledged to do, agency head Francis Collins announced today. Nearly four dozen chimps at a biomedical primate facility in New Mexico will remain there because they are too old and sick to move, he said, although scientific studies of them have ended. Some federally owned or supported chimpanzees at other biomedical primate facilities may also not be retired to sanctuaries.

    “Some of these animals are quite old and very frail. It was just going to be too unsafe to move all of them,” says NIH Deputy Director James Anderson, whose division oversees the NIH Chimpanzee Management Program. “We’re not going to take the risk.”

    Chimp Haven in Keithville, Louisiana, the national chimpanzee sanctuary where the animals were supposed to be retired, laments the decision. “We’re disappointed,” says Stephen Ross, the sanctuary’s board chair. “We believe that every chimpanzee should have the opportunity to live out the rest of their life in a sanctuary, and we’re concerned this decision will set a precedent for other chimps still waiting to be retired.”

  • NIH and Gates Foundation lay out ambitious plan to bring gene-based treatments for HIV and sickle cell disease to Africa

    a doctor inspecting the eyes of a child in a hospital bed

    A new $200 million collaboration aims to speed development of genetic cures for people in Africa with sickle cell disease (above) and, separately, HIV infection.

    JUNIOR D. KANNAH/AFP/Getty Images

    Two major U.S. biomedical research funders plan to each put at least $100 million over 4 years toward bringing cutting-edge, gene-based treatments to a part of the world that often struggles to provide access to even basic medicines: sub-Saharan Africa. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation today announced the unusual collaboration to launch clinical trials for gene-based cures for HIV and sickle cell disease within the region in the coming decade.

    The ambitious goal is to steer clear of expensive, logistically impractical strategies that require stem cell transplantation, and instead develop simpler, affordable ways of delivering genes or gene-editing drugs that can cure these diseases. “Yes, this is audacious,” NIH Director Francis Collins said during a press teleconference this morning on the project. “But if we don’t put our best minds, resources, and visions together right now, we would not live up to our mandate to bring the best science to those who are suffering.”

    After decades of work and setbacks, the traditional gene therapy approach of delivering DNA into the body to replace a defective gene or boost a protein’s production is now reaching the clinic for several diseases, including inherited blindness, neuromuscular disease, and leukemia. Animal studies and some clinical trials have suggested that two diseases prevalent in Africa, HIV and sickle cell disease, can be treated by gene therapies or newer genome-editing tools such as CRISPR.

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