Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • Scientists doing basic studies of human brain win longer reprieve from clinical trials reporting rule

    a woman wearing a EEG cap

    Researchers have pushed back against including basic brain studies, such as those that monitor neuronal activity, in a federal database of clinical trials.

    wunkley/Alamy Stock Photo

    U.S. scientists who challenged a new rule that would require them to register their basic studies of the human brain and behavior in a federal database of clinical trials have won another reprieve. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Maryland, says it now understands why some of that kind of research won’t easily fit the format of, and the agency has delayed the reporting requirements for another 2 years.

    The controversy dates back to 2017, when behavioral and cognitive researchers realized that new requirements for registering and reporting results from NIH-funded clinical studies would also cover even basic studies of human subjects, experiments that did not test drugs or other potential treatments. The scientists protested that including such studies would confuse the public and create burdensome, unnecessary paperwork. A year ago, NIH announced it would delay the requirement until September and seek further input.

    The responses prompted NIH staff to examine published papers from scientists conducting basic research. They agreed it would be hard to include some of these studies into the rigid informational format used by—for example, because the authors didn’t specify the outcome they expected before the study began, or they reported results for individuals and not the whole group. In other cases, the authors did several preliminary studies to help them design their experiment.

  • World Bank dedicates $300 million to Ebola response

    Workers prepare to bury an Ebola victim

    Workers prepare to bury a victim of the Ebola virus in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

    JOHN WESSELS/AFP/Getty Images

    The World Bank in Washington, D.C., said today it will contribute $300 million to responding to an ongoing Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). The outbreak has killed more than 1700 people and last week it was declared an international emergency by the World Health Organization (WHO).

    “Together, we must take urgent action to stop the deadly Ebola epidemic that is destroying lives and livelihoods in the Democratic Republic of Congo,” World Bank CEO Kristalina Georgieva said in a statement. The bank’s newly committed money will be provided as grants and credits to intensify the frontline health response in Ebola-affected areas of the DRC. The cash infusion adds to $100 million the organization has provided since the outbreak surfaced in August 2018.

  • A vaunted program for boosting the diversity of U.S. academic scientists is starting to spread

    Alumni spanning 30 years gathered in Baltimore

    Meyerhoff scholars from as far back as the start of the program in 1989 gathered in Baltimore, Maryland, this spring to celebrate the program's 30th anniversary.

    Jim Burger/University of Maryland, Baltimore County

    The audience applauded when Crystal Watkins Johansson revealed she was being promoted to associate professor of neuroscience at Johns Hopkins University and head of the new Sheppard Pratt Memory Clinic in Baltimore, Maryland. And there were cheers for Lola Eniola-Adefeso, a professor of chemical engineering at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, when she described “standing at the top of the academic ladder, working to pull up others like me.”

    In May, the two women had returned to their undergraduate alma mater, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC), to celebrate the 30th anniversary of its Meyerhoff Scholars Program and honor its namesake, Baltimore philanthropist Robert Meyerhoff. The 95-year-old civil engineer, who made his fortune in commercial real estate, is lionized for his $500,000 donation to UMBC that launched what is now widely considered to be the most successful program in the United States for preparing minority students for careers in academic research.

    The data tell an impressive story. Johansson and Eniola-Adefeso, who are both black, are two of 1150 alumni, of whom 71% are black or Hispanic. To date, 312 Meyerhoff scholars have earned Ph.D.s, 59 have joint M.D./Ph.D.s, 141 have been awarded M.D.s, and some 40 now hold tenured or tenure-track positions. An additional 265 have received a master’s degree in a science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) field, and 258 more are now enrolled in graduate or professional school. These scholars represent the “new face of science,” says Michael Summers, a UMBC biology professor and longtime adviser to the program.

  • Q&A: How Ecuador, the world’s largest banana exporter, is defending against a devastating fungus

    Xavier Lazo Guerrero

    Xavier Lazo Guerrero, Ecuador’s agriculture minister, is leading efforts to prevent a deadly fungus from reaching the nation’s banana plantations.

    Fernando Lagla/Asamblea Nacional del Ecuador (CC BY-SA 2.0)

    Earlier this month, banana growers in Latin America got some worrying news. Officials in Colombia said four plantations had been quarantined after the possible appearance of a banana fungus that has already caused devastating losses in Asia. Fusarium wilt tropical race 4 (TR4) kills the plants by clogging their vascular system.

    The discovery, which hasn’t yet been confirmed, has put countries in the region on high alert. Neighboring Ecuador, for example, is the largest banana exporter in the world, and preventing TR4 from entering the country has become “my No. 1 priority,” says Ecuador’s minister of agriculture and livestock, Xavier Lazo Guerrero, who is based in Quito.

    ScienceInsider recently spoke with Lazo about how Ecuador is responding to the potential threat to one of its most important crops. The interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

  • Budget deal raises hopes for U.S. research agencies

    US capitol building

    A new budget deal between the White House and congressional leaders means U.S. research agencies could receive increases on the order of the 4% to 5% that Democrats have already proposed for next year.

    Yesterday’s agreement, which must be approved by both chambers of Congress, governs spending for fiscal years 2020 and 2021. Under the existing law aimed at reducing the federal deficit, Congress would have had to reduce total discretionary spending in 2020 by $125 billion, or roughly 10%. But the agreement removes that requirement and thus avoids dreaded mandatory across-the-board cuts, called sequestration, that would have been imposed if no such reductions were made.

    “A budget framework for the next 2 years that moves us past the threat of future sequestration is a win for American science,” the Science Coalition, a Washington, D.C.–based lobbying group representing dozens of U.S. research universities, wrote in a statement. “We urge Congress to appropriate the necessary funding to demonstrate America’s commitment to this endeavor.”

  • DRC health minister resigns over Ebola response

    Oly Ilunga Kalenga visits an Ebola treatment center

    Then–Minister of Health Oly Ilunga Kalenga visits an Ebola clinic in Butembo, Democratic Republic of the Congo, in March.

    JOHN WESSELS/AFP/Getty Images

    The outspoken minister of health of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) resigned today, protesting his president’s takeover of the country’s Ebola response. He also asserted that unnamed parties hid information about plans to deploy an experimental vaccine in the DRC, which has battled an Ebola outbreak since August 2018.

    Oly Ilunga Kalenga wrote to DRC President Félix Tshisekedi that, “as a result of your decision to oversee the response to the Ebola epidemic, and because I anticipate that this decision will inevitably lead to a predictable outcry, I submit to you my resignation as Health Minister.”

    Kalenga, 59, who has held the job since January 2017, wrote that Tshisekedi’s decision to remove him from heading the country’s Ebola response was made without his knowledge on 18 July. At the time, Kalenga was supervising the Ebola response in the city of Goma, DRC, where a first Ebola case was diagnosed on 14 July.

  • Mystery surrounds ouster of Chinese researchers from Canadian laboratory

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    Canadian researchers are reacting with puzzlement to the news that a “policy breach” has caused the nation’s only high-containment disease laboratory to bar a prominent Chinese Canadian virologist, her biologist husband, and a number of students from the facility.

    On 5 July, officials at the National Microbiology Laboratory (NML) in Winnipeg, Canada, escorted Xiangguo Qiu, biologist Keding Cheng, and an unknown number of her students from the lab and revoked their access rights, according to Canadian media reports. The Public Health Agency of Canada, which operates the lab, confirmed it had referred an “administrative matter” matter to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, but said it would not provide additional details because of privacy concerns.

    A number of observers have speculated that case involves concerns about the improper transfer of intellectual property to China. (All of the researchers involved are believed to be Asian.) But Frank Plummer, a former scientific director of NML who left in 2015, says the lab isn’t an obvious target for academic or industrial espionage. “There is nothing highly secret there, and all the work gets published in the open literature,” he says. “I don’t know what anyone would hope to gain by spying.”

  • Update: Twins who were face of controversial rare disease treatment have died

    Hugh and Chris Hempel with their daughters Addi and Cassi

    The Hempel family, pictured when twins Addi (left) and Cassi (second from right), who both had Niemann-Pick type C, were about 11 years old. Chris Hempel (right) says the twins passed away within 27 minutes of each other.


    *Update, 18 July, 4:30 p.m.: The Hempel twins, Addi and Cassi, died on 4 July. They were 15 years old. “They passed away within minutes of each other and we are filled with so much sorrow,” their mother, Chris Hempel, wrote in an email to ScienceInsider.

    She wrote that her daughters had been admitted to Renown Regional Medical Center in Reno, Nevada, on 29 and 30 June, after they developed labored breathing and high temperatures. The cause, it emerged, was an aggressive virus that had invaded their lungs. Although Niemann-Pick type C (NPC) was not on their death reports, “Certainly their underlying NPC disease was a contributing factor,” Hempel wrote. “[T]heir pulmonary systems were already weakened by the NPC.”

    Hempel and her husband, Hugh, pioneered the experimental use of a sugar molecule, 2-hydroxypropyl-β-cyclodextrin, as a treatment for the rare genetic disease, winning a compassionate use approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for its use in the twins. In January 2018, they sued several companies involved in developing a commercial treatment; their allegations include breach of contract, theft of trade secrets, and unjust enrichment. The Hempels’ lawyer on 11 July filed a request for a delay in the proceedings in U.S. District Court in Maryland in order to allow the Hempels time to grieve. But Chris Hempel wrote that they plan to press on “vigorously” with that lawsuit.

  • World Health Organization declares Ebola outbreak an international emergency

    an Ebola victim is put to rest at the Muslim cemetery in Beni, Congo DRC

    An Ebola victim was laid to rest Sunday in Beni in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

    AP Photo/Jerome Delay

    The World Health Organization (WHO) today declared that the Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), which surfaced in August 2018, is an international emergency. The declaration raises the outbreak’s visibility and public health officials hope it will galvanize the international community to fight the spread of the frequently fatal disease.

    “It is time for the world to take notice and redouble our effort,” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said in a statement. “We all owe it to [current] responders … to shoulder more of the burden.”

    As of today, Ebola has infected more than 2500 people in the DRC during the new outbreak, killing more than 1650. By calling the current situation a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC), WHO in Geneva, Switzerland, has placed it in a rare category that includes the 2009 flu pandemic, the Zika epidemic of 2016, and the 2-year Ebola epidemic that killed more than 11,000 people in West Africa before it ended in 2016.

  • Elon Musk’s startup eyes human testing for brain-computer interface

     ultrathin electrodes that thread into the brain

    Neuralink is developing a system of ultrathin electrodes that thread into the brain to read from or stimulate neurons.


    Elon Musk’s high-profile foray into connecting brains to computers, a 2-year-old company called Neuralink, detailed its ambitions and unveiled some initial results at a livestreamed event yesterday before an invitation-only crowd at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco. With thousands watching online, Musk, the entrepreneur behind Tesla and SpaceX, described the firm’s goal of using tiny electrodes implanted in the brain to “cure important diseases” and “achieve a symbiosis with artificial intelligence.”

    Details about those planned applications remain sparse, but Neuralink briefly presented some of its first rodent data from ultrasmall electrodes at the event. And in a seemingly spontaneous answer to a question, Musk revealed that the company has already used its device to allow a monkey to control a computer with its brain. The company aims to implant electrodes into a person paralyzed by spinal cord injury by the end of 2020, he added—and Neuralink’s head neurosurgeon, Matthew MacDougall of California Pacific Medical Center in San Francisco, made a presentation wearing scrubs. But the firm will need clearance from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to perform such an experiment in the United States.

    The first generation of Neuralink’s technology consists of a chip containing neuron-size polymer threads that a surgical robot would stitch into the brain to record electrical signals from neurons and convey them to a wireless device worn behind the ear. In a white paper also released yesterday, the company describes using this system to record from thousands of its electrode “threads” in a living rat.

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