Breaking news and analysis from the world of science policy

  • 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.

  • Poison used in recent attack on Russian spy may soon be banned

    personnel in hazmat suits securing a tent covering a bench in the Maltings shopping centre in Salisbury

    U.K. investigators at the site where Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia were poisoned with a Novichok agent in March 2018.

    Andrew Matthews/Press Association via AP Images

    The poisons were so fearsome that U.S. government scientists were forbidden from publicly uttering their name. Then, in 2018, one of the Novichok compounds was used in an attempt to assassinate a former Russian spy on U.K. soil—spurring the United States and allies to lift the veil of secrecy and mount a drive to outlaw the obscure class of nerve agents, concocted in a Soviet weapons lab during the height of the Cold War. Now, their effort to amend the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) is about to pay off.

    On 9 October, the Executive Council of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), the body that administers the treaty, reviewed a revised proposal from Russia that would bring Novichoks under the treaty’s verification regime, along with a class of potential weapons known as carbamates. If the Russian proposal and a similar one from the United States, Canada, and the Netherlands are approved at a treaty review meeting next month, as expected, they would be the first update to the list of banned chemical weapons since the CWC came into force in 1997. “This is a historic milestone for the treaty,” says Gregory Koblentz, a chemical and biological weapons expert at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia.

    The newfound glasnost on Novichoks, also known as fourth-generation nerve agents, should spur research on their mechanism of action and on countermeasures and treatments. “Fourth-generation agents are now on the list of compounds we can study,” says David Jett, director of the Countermeasures Against Chemical Threats Program at the U.S. National Institutes of Health. The U.S. government limits work on Novichoks to a handful of defense labs, but academic researchers may now partner with these labs as well as conduct computer modeling or other studies that don’t require the chemicals. Such research, Jett hopes, will “provide more information on the toxicity of these threat agents.”

  • Reanalyzing drug trials in depression, chronic pain aims to unearth new data

    illustration of scientists looking through glass into a lab

    Two new projects reanalyzing clinical trial data aim to encourage transparency in clinical research.

    Davide Bonazzi/Salzman Art

    Concerned that reports of clinical trials can exaggerate a treatment’s benefits and downplay its risks, two research groups will sift through data from tests of drugs involving thousands of people with chronic pain or depression. The question for those reanalyzing the data is whether dozens of papers on the trials’ outcomes painted a complete picture, and what details may have gone unmentioned about the drugs’ effects.

    “Bias and spin are incredibly common in the publication of clinical trials,” says Peter Doshi, a health services researcher at the University of Maryland School of Pharmacy in Baltimore and an editor at The BMJ. He and others have long been concerned about how trial results wend their way to doctors and patients, and whether both groups are fully informed when considering a specific medication. So in 2013 Doshi formed RIAT, which stands for Restoring Invisible and Abandoned Trials. It sought to encourage researchers to obtain unpublished clinical trial information, which would include deidentified patient-level data. With those data in hand, the researchers could reanalyze a trial’s results and publish what they found, which may or may not jibe with the original reports.

    In 2017, RIAT received $1.4 million from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation (now called Arnold Ventures), and last year awarded its first grant for clinical trial reanalysis. It provided $150,000 to look at a U.S. government–funded trial of antidepressants in more than 300 teenagers. That trial’s reporting had been criticized in part because some arms of the study were unblinded and because it described outcomes that it didn’t originally set out to analyze—called post hoc analysis. Trial investigators reported that taking Prozac alone or combining it with cognitive-behavioral therapy eased depression, and the combination strategy reduced suicidality. “This trial is much more influential than any other antidepressant trial in kids,” says child psychiatrist Jon Jureidini at Women’s and Children’s Hospital in Adelaide, Australia, who is leading the reanalysis. Jureidini acknowledges that even if his reanalysis turns up something new, changing practice patterns may be tough. “But that has to be our target,” he says.

  • Deadly typhoon forces Japan to face its vulnerability to increasingly powerful storms

    satellite image of Typhoon Hagibis with an atmospheric river circled.
    Kazuhisa Tsuboki

    Typhoon Hagibis, which pummeled Japan earlier this month and caused widespread flooding that killed at least 80, is leading the country to face some tough questions. The disaster has shown that the levees built up over decades along virtually all of Japan’s major rivers may not provide protection from the increasingly powerful storms expected to accompany climate change. Even while construction crews are working to plug the numerous breeches in river embankments, experts and government officials are debating how to prepare for future storms.

    Last week, the land and infrastructure ministry announced it was forming a panel of experts to study the embankment failures and recommend remediation options. But experts are also calling for more attention to evacuation planning and long-term measures to encourage people to move off lowlands susceptible to flooding.

    Hagibis originated in the tropical latitudes of the western North Pacific Ocean in early October and underwent a period of rapid intensification with 10-minute sustained winds of 195 kilometers per hour as it tracked north and west toward Japan. The winds had diminished significantly by the time Hagibis made landfall on 12 October. Instead of high winds, however, Hagibis brought unusually sustained rainfall, apparently thanks to an accompanying weather phenomenon called an atmospheric river. Still imperfectly understood, atmospheric rivers are narrow channels of concentrated moisture in the atmosphere that sometimes form in association with midlatitude cyclones.

  • Alzheimer’s drug resurrected, as company claims clinical benefits

    beta-amyloid plaques in the brain

    In a surprise move, Biogen says it will press for U.S. approval to sell an Alzheimer’s drug candidate targeting toxic beta-amyloid (brown).


    Biogen stunned investors and scientists alike today, announcing it will resurrect an Alzheimer’s drug it had declared a failure in March; the company plans in early 2020 to ask the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for marketing approval of aducanumab, an antibody designed to bind and eliminate the protein beta-amyloid in the brain.

    As STAT reports, Biogen says the about-face came after it assessed clinical trial data from a larger number of patients than it first analyzed. Whereas an initial “futility” analysis of data from two late-stage clinical trials found that the drug failed to meaningfully slow progression of early Alzheimer’s disease, the company now concludes that, due primarily to the responses of people on  the higher of two doses of the antibody, the drug did significantly slow people’s cognitive decline and their functional decline, meaning their ability to cope with activities of daily living.

    Biogen’s first analysis used data from 1748 patients who had completed 18 months on a low dose or a high dose of the drug; the new analysis, whose underlying data are not yet publicly available nor described in a journal article, included 2066 such patients.

  • U.K. science minister says DARPA-like agency is in the works

    Chris Skidmore

    U.K. science minister Chris Skidmore says a new U.K. funding agency, modeled after the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, would have minimal bureaucracy.

    David Mirzoeff/PA Images via Getty Images

    The U.K. government is working to establish a “blue sky” funding agency similar to the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, U.K. science minister Chris Skidmore told the Science and Technology Select Committee of Parliament’s House of Commons today.

    The idea was unveiled last week in the Queen’s Speech, in which Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s new government announced its legislative plans, but details about the agency are scarce. Skidmore told the Parliament committee that this new agency would sit outside UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), the main government funding agency, to have the independence to focus on cutting-edge projects. He said it would “distinguish itself from the traditional grant-led application processes” by having minimal bureaucracy and core leaders who see the projects through.

    Committee Chair Norman Lamb pressed Skidmore on whether the new funding body would be under the control of the government. Skidmore didn’t answer directly, but said it could be aligned with government missions, such as the U.K. goal of reaching net zero carbon emissions by 2050. “We would still want the blue skies discovery-led approach” to be emphasized, Skidmore said. Skidmore said full details would be available early next year.

  • Trump names seven to revived presidential science advisory panel

    The White House

    The White House

    The White House

    Thirty-three months after taking office, President Donald Trump has chosen a group of business leaders to advise him on science and technology policy.

    The White House today announced the first seven of an expected group of 16 members of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST). Only one is an academic—Birgitta Whaley, a chemistry professor at the University of California, Berkeley, who leads its center on quantum information and computation science—although five of the appointees hold Ph.D.s. And only one has worked for the federal government: Sharon Hrynkow, a neurobiologist and chief scientific officer for a biotech startup, spent nearly 2 decades at the Department of State and the Fogarty International Center of the National Institutes of Health, including 2 years as its acting director in the mid-2000s.

    The other members named today are:

  • NSF shakes up its earthquake research

    a man looking down a fissure created by an earthquake

    A local resident inspects a fissure in the earth after a 6.4-magnitude earthquake near Ridgecrest, California, in July.

    Mario Tama/Getty Images

    The U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) is shifting the foundations of its earthquake research, forcing a longtime center to compete for its continued existence while mandating that a single contractor, rather than two, manage its two large facilities for studying Earth’s shape and vibration. The agency announced the changes late last week in a meeting of its geoscience advisory committee at its headquarters in Washington, D.C.

    For 3 decades, NSF has supported—without competition—the Southern California Earthquake Center (SCEC) at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, including a $9 million award covering 2017 to 2022. SCEC started as one of the agency’s science and technology centers in 1991. Funding for such centers typically expires after a set period, but SCEC was so successful that NSF, along with the U.S. Geological Survey, kept it alive for several decades. However, it is now time to see whether research on fundamental earthquake processes could be better served by another center—or multiple centers, said Margaret Benoit, an NSF program director for earth science, at the 18 October meeting.

    The news came as a surprise when NSF broke it recently, says Greg Beroza, a seismologist at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, and SCEC co-director. “But it’s not dire news. In a way, I kind of welcome it.” The competition will give SCEC the incentive to reimagine the full scope of what the earthquake center can be, and that can only be for the best, he says. NSF expects to hold the competition next year, Benoit said.

  • NASA must rework planetary protection plans, panel advises

    One of the Viking landers in dry oven

    In the 1970s, the Mars Viking landers were sterilized in purpose-built ovens.


    NASA rules that govern the potential spread of earthly microbes to other planets—and the potential return of alien life back to Earth—are often anachronistic and require broad rethinking, according to a report released today by an independent agency advisory panel.

    Planetary protection, as such efforts are known, remains a worthy goal, the report emphasizes. But many of the ways it is implemented, which date back to rules conceived at the beginning of the space age, have driven costly and sometimes questionable efforts, and do not make sense given current scientific knowledge, says Alan Stern, a planetary scientist from the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado, who led the 12-member panel reviewing NASA’s efforts. “We want to move from this 1960s–70s point of view that all of Mars was treated one way.” Planetary surfaces are more nuanced than that, he says.

    Concerns over planetary protection have often seen NASA make great efforts to prevent microbes from going to space. Its martian robots are assembled in cleanrooms, with many components baked in ovens or doused in chemicals. Famously, its Viking landers for Mars in the 1970s were baked in purpose-built ovens. But these protections have often been costly and, in the view of some scientists, overly burdensome.

  • Scientific integrity bill advances in U.S. House with bipartisan support

     Frank Lucas and Eddie Bernice Johnson

    The Democratic chairwoman and top Republican on the House of Representatives science committee, Representatives Eddie Bernice Johnson (TX, right) and Frank Lucas (OK), brokered a compromise on science integrity.

    E. Petersen/Science

    Despite their failure to attract a single Republican co-sponsor, Democrats in Congress have long insisted that a bill to strengthen scientific integrity across U.S. government agencies takes a bipartisan stance and is not a veiled attack on the Trump administration’s attitude toward science. That claim of bipartisanship took a big step forward today as the science committee of the U.S. House of Representatives tweaked the bill to satisfy key Republicans on the panel.

    By a vote of 25 to six, the committee voted to advance the legislation (H.R. 1709), which would require some two dozen federal research agencies to develop and follow clear principles designed to protect scientists and the research they carry out from political influence. Several agencies have adopted such policies following a 2010 executive order from then-President Barack Obama. The bill, if enacted, would transform that presidential directive into a law that would also require training on the topic and direct agencies on how to monitor any alleged violations.

    Nobody opposes the idea of allowing federal scientists to pursue important research, publish the results, and discuss their findings at scientific conferences and with the public. But politics enters into the equation when defending scientific integrity is seen as interfering with the legitimate right of any administration to carry out its policies.

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