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Published: Tue, 17 Jan 2017 00:00:00 -0500

Last Build Date: Tue, 17 Jan 2017 18:50:24 -0500

 



What We Don't Know About Marijuana's Risks and Benefits

Fri, 13 Jan 2017 10:00:00 -0500

The last time the National Academy of Sciences issued a report on marijuana, three states allowed medical use of the drug. Eighteen years later, there are 28 states that recognize marijuana as a medicine, and eight of them also allow recreational use. But as a new NAS report published yesterday shows, there are still big gaps in our knowledge of marijuana's risks and benefits. The 1999 report, commissioned by a drug czar who insisted there was no evidence that marijuana is medically useful, refuted that claim but highlighted the paucity of relevant research. "The accumulated data indicate a potential therapeutic value for cannabinoid drugs, particularly for symptoms such as pain relief, control of nausea and vomiting, and appetite stimulation," it concluded. The new report, which takes into account studies conducted during the last two decades, is less tentative but still finds the evidence for most medical applications inconclusive. "We found conclusive or substantial evidence...for benefit from cannabis or cannabinoids for chronic pain, chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting, and patient-reported symptoms of spasticity associated with multiple sclerosis," the authors say. "For these conditions the effects of cannabinoids are modest; for all other conditions evaluated there is inadequate information to assess their effects." The report notes that investigation of marijuana's medical utility has been constrained by legal and bureaucratic barriers, including continued federal prohibition and the Drug Enforcement Administration's refusal to license more than one producer of cannabis for research. "There are specific regulatory barriers, including the classification of cannabis as a Schedule I substance, that impede the advancement of cannabis and cannabinoid research," the authors say. "It is often difficult for researchers to gain access to the quantity, quality, and type of cannabis product necessary to address specific research questions." Last August the DEA once again refused to reclassify marijuana but agreed to start accepting applications from additional marijuana producers. As state-legal marijuana products proliferate across the country, federal prohibition prevents scientists from investigating their properties: Cannabis concentrate sales doubled in Colorado from 2015 to 2016, reaching $60.5 million in the first quarter of 2016, and yet current federal law prevents chemists from examining the composition of those products as it may relate to safety, neuroscientists from testing the effects of those products on the brain or physiology in animal models, and clinical scientists from conducting research on how these products may help or harm patients. And while between 498,170 and 721,599 units of medical and recreational cannabis edibles were sold per month in Colorado in 2015, federal law also prohibits scientists from testing those products for contaminants, understanding the effects of these products in animal models, or investigating the effects in patient populations. Regarding the potential dangers of these products, the report is mostly reassuring, finding little or no evidence that marijuana impairs the immune system or increases the risk of heart attacks, lung cancer, or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (contrary to the claims of anti-pot activists). Regular pot smoking seems to worsen bronchitis symptoms, and marijuana consumption by pregnant women is associated with lower birth weight, although there is little evidence of a link to pregnancy complications or postnatal health problems. Marijuana use is associated with schizophrenia, suicide, poor academic performance, and abuse of other drugs, but the causal relationships remain murky. The report says "there is limited evidence of a statistical association between sustained abstinence from cannabis use and impairments in the cognitive domains of learning, memory, and attention"—i.e., effects that persist long after people have stopped using marijuana, which remains a subject of much controversy. The report notes that marijuana legalization has [...]



3 Things Congress Got Wrong in its Fetal Tissue Report

Fri, 06 Jan 2017 11:45:00 -0500

(image) This week marks the end of the House of Representatives panel looking into fetal-tissue procurement by U.S. research companies. Using tissue from aborted fetuses for medical research is legal in America, though profiting off the sale of said tissue is illegal. Despite a 15-months-long investigation into Planned Parenthood practices regarding tissue from aborted fetuses, the now-disbanded Select Investigative Panel could not show that the nonprofit health-care conglomerate made a profit off of fetal-tissue provided to researchers.

The panel's final report suggests that fetal-tissue procurement companies DV Biologicas and StemExpress may have violated this no-profit mandate, but the most it said about Planned Parenthood was that one of its hundreds of clinics, Planned Parenthood Gulf Coast, "may have violated both Texas Law and U.S. Law when it sold fetal tissue to the University of Texas" by using an imprecise or unapproved method of determining reimbursement costs. The matter was referred to the Texas Attorney General's Office.

Still, the panel recommended that Planned Parenthood be barred from accepting Medicare patients going forward (a move Republicans have misleadingly described as "defunding" Planned Parenthood) and that the National Institutes of Health stop funding fetal tissue research. "Human fetal tissue research makes a vanishingly small contribution to clinical and research efforts," the panel's final 413-page report states.

But as Science writer Meredith Wadman points out, several key statements used to support the assertion that the impact of fetal-tissue research has been negligent are wholly and demonstrably false.

Wadman, a veteran science journalist with a medical degree from the University of Oxford, dissected three of these false claims yesterday, starting with the statement that "in over 100 years of unrestricted clinical research, human fetal tissue has failed to provide a single medical treatment."

In fact, "several important medicines now on the market were created using fetal tissue," notes Wadman. "Amgen's Enbrel battles rheumatoid arthritis; Genentech's Pulmozyme helps children with cystic fibrosis clear the thick mucus that clogs their lungs; and Nuwiq, made by Octapharma, treats boys and men with hemophilia, a life-threatening bleeding disorder."

Equally untrue: the Congressional panel's claim that "none of the nearly 75 vaccine formulations currently licensed in the United States is produced using human fetal tissue."

In reality, "the WI-38 and MRC-5 cell lines, derived from two fetuses that were aborted, respectively, in 1962 in Sweden and in 1966 in the United Kingdom, are used to produce" quite a few vaccines that are licensed and marketed in the U.S., notes Wadman. These include vaccines for rabies, chicken pox, shingles, Hepatitis A, polio, rubella, and the adenovirus, produced by pharmaceutical companies including Merck, GlaxoSmithKline, and Sanofi-Pasteur.

Along these same lines, the report's claim that "human fetal tissue has never been used to make the polio vaccine" is inccorect. Swedish scientists used fetal cells to develop and propagate polio vaccines in the 1950s; Yugoslavia did so in the 1960s; and U.S. polio vaccines made by Pfizer in the 1970s were derived from fetal-cell lines. French pharmaceutical company Sanofi Pasteur still uses polio vaccines derived from cells from an aborted fetus.




No Global Warming Hiatus After All Redux?

Thu, 05 Jan 2017 07:30:00 -0500

A new study bolsters the controversial 2015 study by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) researchers that adjusted sea surface temperatures in an attempt to take account of measurement changes from ships to scientific buoys. After the adjustments were made to the record, the researchers reported: Here we present an updated global surface temperature analysis that reveals that global trends are higher than reported by the IPCC, especially in recent decades, and that the central estimate for the rate of warming during the first 15 years of the 21st century is at least as great as the last half of the 20th century. These results do not support the notion of a "slowdown" in the increase of global surface temperature. The NOAA researchers concluded that the oceans are warming at 0.12 degrees Celsius (0.22 degrees Fahrenheit) per decade since 2000, which is nearly twice as fast as earlier estimates of 0.07 degrees Celsius per decade. This rate is similar the warming that occurred between 1970 and 1999. As I noted at the time: "It could be that everyone else is wrong and the new study is right; but it could be also that it is an exercise in confirmation bias. Only time and more research will tell." Interestingly, a February 2016 article by prominent proponents of man-made climate change in the journal Nature Climate Change essentially contradicted the NOAA study and reported: It has been claimed that the early-2000s global warming slowdown or hiatus, characterized by a reduced rate of global surface warming, has been overstated, lacks sound scientific basis, or is unsupported by observations. The evidence presented here contradicts these claims. As I noted at the time, Nature News reported: An apparent slowing in the rise of global temperatures at the beginning of the twenty-first century, which is not explained by climate models, was referred to as a "hiatus" or a "pause" when first observed several years ago. Climate-change sceptics have used this as evidence that global warming has stopped. But in June last year, a study in Science claimed that the hiatus was just an artefact which vanishes when biases in temperature data are corrected. Now a prominent group of researchers is countering that claim, arguing in Nature Climate Change that even after correcting these biases the slowdown was real. Now comes a new study in Science Advances by the independent group of researchers associated with Berkeley Earth which parses the sea surface data and finds that the adjustments made in the NOAA study are largely correct. The study notes that the modern buoys tend to have a cold bias compared to those made earlier by oceangoing ships. Once this bias is taken into account sea surface temperatures have been rising steadily which suggests that there has been no "hiatus" in global warming. The press release from the University of California, Berkeley notes: The new study, which uses independent data from satellites and robotic floats as well as buoys, concludes that the NOAA results were correct. The paper will be published Jan. 4 in the online, open-access journal Science Advances. "Our results mean that essentially NOAA got it right, that they were not cooking the books," said lead author Zeke Hausfather, a graduate student in UC Berkeley's Energy and Resources Group. ... "Only a small fraction of the ocean measurement data is being used by climate monitoring groups, and they are trying to smush together data from different instruments, which leads to a lot of judgment calls about how you weight one versus the other, and how you adjust for the transition from one to another," Hausfather said. "So we said, 'What if we create a temperature record just from the buoys, or just from the satellites, or just from the Argo floats, so there is no mixing and matching of instruments?'" In each case, using data from only one instrument type – either satellites, buoys or Argo floats – the results matched those of the NOAA group, supporting the case that the oceans war[...]



An Epidemic of Bad Epidemiology

Fri, 23 Dec 2016 13:30:00 -0500

Getting Risk Right: Understanding the Science of Elusive Health Risks, by Geoffrey Kabat, Columbia University Press, 248 pp., $35.00 Eating bacon and ham four times a week could make asthma symptoms worse. Drinking hot coffee and tea may cause cancer of the esophagus. South Africa's minister of health warns that doggy-style sex is a major cause of stroke and cancer in men. And those claims are just drawn from the health headlines this week. The media inundate us daily with studies that seem show modern life is increasingly risky. Most of those stories must be false, given that life expectancy for American men and women respectively has risen from 71.8 and 78.8 years in 1990 to 76.3 and 81.1 years now. Apparently, we are suffering through an epidemic of bad epidemiology. When it comes to separating the wheat of good public health research from the chaff of studies that are mediocre or just plain bad, Albert Einstein College of Medicine epidemiologist Geoffrey Kabat is a national treasure. "Most research findings are false or exaggerated, and the more dramatic the result, the less likely it is to be true," he declares in his excellent new book Getting Risk Right. Kabat's earlier book, the superb Hyping Health Risks, thoroughly dismantled the prevalent medical myths that man-made chemicals, electromagnetic fields, radon, and passive smoking were significant causes of such illnesses as cancer and heart disease. His new book shows how scientific research, particularly epidemiology, so often goes wrong—and, importantly, how hard it is for it to go right. Kabat first reminds readers that finding a correlation between phenomena X and Y does not mean that X causes Y. Nevertheless many researchers are happy to overinterpret such findings to suggest causation. "If researchers can slip into this way of interpreting and presenting results of their studies," observes Kabat, "it becomes easier to understand how journalists, regulators, activists of various stripes, self-appointed health gurus, promoters of health-related foods and products, and the public can make the unwarranted leap that the study being reported provides evidence of a causal relationship and therefore is worthy of our interest." From there he moves to some principles that must be kept in mind when evaluating studies. First and foremost is the toxicological maxim that the dose makes the poison. The more exposure to a toxin, the greater the harm. Potency matters greatly too. Often very sensitive assays show that two different compounds can bind to same receptors in the body, but what really matters biologically is how avidly and how strongly one binds compared to the other. Another principle: Do not confuse hazard, a potential source of harm, with risk, the likelihood that exposure to the hazard will cause harm. Consider bacon. The influential International Agency for Research on Cancer declared bacon a hazard for cancer last year, but the agency does not make risk assessments. Eating two slices of bacon per day is calculated to increase your lifetime risk of colorectal cancer from 5 to 6 percent. Put that way, I suspect most people would continue to enjoy cured pork products. Kabat also argues that an editorial bias skews the scientific literature toward publishing positive results suggesting harms. Such findings, he notes, get more attention from other researchers, regulators, journalists, and activists. Ever since Rachel Carson's 1962 book Silent Spring wrongly linked cancer to exposures to trace amounts of pesticides, the American public has been primed to blame external causes rather than personal behaviors for their health problems. Unfortunately, as Kabat notes, the existence of an alarmed and sensitized public is all too useful to scientists and regulators. He quotes an honest but incautious remark in the air pollution researcher Robert Phalen's testimony to the California Air Resources Board: "It benefits us personally to have the public be afraid, even if these risks are trivi[...]



An Epidemic of Bad Epidemiology: New at Reason

Fri, 23 Dec 2016 13:30:00 -0500

(image) Eating bacon and ham four times a week could make asthma symptoms worse. Drinking hot coffee and tea may cause cancer of the esophagus. South Africa's minister of health warns that doggy-style sex is a major cause of stroke and cancer in men. And those claims are just drawn from the health headlines this week.

The media inundate us daily with studies that seem show modern life is increasingly risky. Most of those stories must be false, given that life expectancy for American men and women respectively has risen from 71.8 and 78.8 years in 1990 to 76.3 and 81.1 years now. Apparently, we are suffering through an epidemic of bad epidemiology.

When it comes to separating the wheat of good public health research from the chaff of studies that are mediocre or just plain bad, Albert Einstein College of Medicine epidemiologist and author of the new book Getting Risk Right, Geoffrey Kabat, is a national treasure.




Sugar Wars: Junk Food, Junk Science, or Both?

Tue, 20 Dec 2016 17:00:00 -0500

Is eating too much sugar bad for you? And what's too much? As it happens average American per capita consumption of caloric sweeteners like refined cane sugar and high-fructose corn syrup is down from 111 grams per day in 1999 to 94 grams per day today. However, 94 grams per day adds up to over 75 pounds of sugar per year per person. Nearly 80 percent of the sugar we consume is found in candy, snack foods, and sweetened beverages, and is not inherent in the fruits and vegetables we also eat. A year ago, the government recommended that Americans get no more than 10 percent of their daily calories from added sugars. In 2,000 calorie per day standard diet, that would mean eating fewer than 200 calories in the form of sugar. Current consumption of 94 grams of sugar translates to 358 calories per day. (The U.S. Department of Agriculture has a different calculation in which per person annual consumption of caloric sweeteners peaked at 153.1 pounds in 1999 and fell to only 131.1 pounds in 2014.) In September my colleague Elizabeth Nolan Brown reported on the recent study in the Journal of the American Medical Association that revealed that the drafter of the U.S. dietary goals was bribed by Big Sugar to demonize fat in the 1950s and 1960s. In this way, the sugar lobby managed to take the nutritional focus off of their own product as possibly delterious to good health. As Brown noted, "And this demonization of fat actually helped increase U.S. sugar consumption, as health conscious Americans replaced morning eggs and sausage with carbs like bagels, or turned to low-fat and fat-free offerings where added sugar helped fill the taste void." Now Big Sugar strikes back? A new study (paywalled) just published in The Annals of Internal Medicine (AIM), purporting to review the dietary guidelines relating to the consumption of sugar issued since 1995 by various countries and international health agencies, finds that they do "not meet criteria for trustworthy recommendations and are based on low-quality evidence." The authors consequently conclude that "at present, there seems to be no reliable evidence indicating that any of the recommended daily caloric thresholds for sugar intake are strongly associated with negative health effects." The Annals of Internal Medicine also published a companion editorial strongly critiquing the main article. First, the authors of the critique point out that the funders of the study are associated with sweetened beverage and candy manufacturers. In addition, they assert that including standards in the study that were devised in 20 years ago is misleading since scientific understanding of the role of sugar in metabolism and diet has advanced. Finally they further argue that applying the AGREE II clinical practice evaluation instrument is inappropriate for gauging the risk of consumption of added sugars at a population level. In fact, as Americans consumed more calories, including more calories from added sugars, per capita the rates of obesity and Type 2 Diabetes soared. As my colleague Brown astutely observed: A report published last fall found that government nutrition rules have been and are still based more on money and politics than sound science. The latest update to federal dietary guidelines still cautions against saturated fat and sodium. Members of the committee that developed these guidelines have accepted funding from industry groups, such as the Tree Nut Council, and food companies such as Unilever. ... Funding good nutrition research is expensive, and we shouldn't automatically look at industry-funded studies or researchers who accept food-industry funding as suspect. But let's not pretend like this sugar scandal is simply a relic of the bad old days of non-disclosure and undue influence. There continues to be every bit as much reason to look skeptically at government dietary advice today as there was in the 20th Century. In any case, it would be well to ta[...]



Cancer Kid Puts Ovary on Ice. 15 Years Later, She Becomes a Mom. Good Job Everyone.

Thu, 15 Dec 2016 14:30:00 -0500

(image) On Tuesday, a baby was born. NBD. Happens all the time.

This baby, though, is the first person ever made with an egg from an ovary that had been removed from the mother when she was pre-pubescent.

As a 9-year-old child, the BBC reports, Moaza Al Matrooshi had aggressive chemotherapy followed by a bone marrow transplant from her brother to treat a potentially fatal blood disorder, which did a number on her remaining ovary—so much so that as a young adult she had started to go into early menopause.

So doctors fetched her ovarysicle from cryopreservation, where it had been chillin' in some liquid nitrogen at minus 196C for 15 years. They sliced off four slivers of tissue and implanted them into the busted ovary, plus one more into the side of her uterus.

And darned if she didn't start ovulating. To maximize the odds of success, docs plucked those eggs out (they got eight) mixed them with her husband's sperm in a petri dish to produce embryos (they got three) and implanted two of those embryos via IVF. Thirty-eight weeks later, give or take, one baby was born.

Al Matrooshi hails from Dubai, her ovary was frozen in Leeds, her cancer was treated in London, and the thawed tissue was implanted in Denmark. Then back to London for the baby's birth at the American-operated Portland private hospital.*

The fertility math and medical geography sound almost unbelievable, and indeed when the ovary was initially frozen this scenario was pure science fiction; Al Matrooshi's own mother suggested saving the ovary as a crazy long shot.

But this baby's not a miracle. He's the product of a bunch of individuals' inspiration and hard work and risk-taking and study and travel and pain and a crapton of money. All the factors came together now the world gets a real live bonus human. Well done, everybody.

Al Matrooshi has another embryo on ice, technically the twin of her newborn son, and is already thinking about kid number two.

*Edited to clarify a confusing geographical reference to Portland.




EPA's New Fracking Report and Regulatory Science

Wed, 14 Dec 2016 13:30:00 -0500

The Environmental Protection Agency just released its final report, Hydraulic Fracturing for Oil and Gas: Impacts from the Hydraulic Fracturing Water Cycle on Drinking Water Resources in the United States. The New York Times' headline on the article about the new report declared that EPA says that "fracking can contaminate drinking water." Similarly, the Washington Post ran its article about the report with a headline saying that the EPA had changed its stand on fracking and that the agency now "says it can harm drinking water in 'some circumstances.'" Well, yes. Mistakes can and will be made in the pursuit of any industrial activity. But the new report provides precious little evidence that fracking has actually caused much harm to drinking water supplies in the United States. As the Post notes, the new EPA report does change the agency's stand with regard to the overall safety of hydraulic fracking to obtain natural gas and oil from its preliminary 2015 report that "did not find evidence that these mechanisms have led to widespread, systemic impacts on drinking water resources." Howls of protest by anti-fracking activists greeted this benign conclusion and they urged the agency to change its findings. Agencies rarely make findings that go against the aims of their constituencies, and so one can be forgiven for suspecting that the new report stresses uncertainties as a way to mollify activists who need to keep the public alarmed about the alleged dangers of fracking. So delving into the report, what does the EPA find with regard to fracking? First, most of the instances and speculations cited in the EPA report are applicable to all oil and gas wells, not just to wells created by means of fracking. These include harms caused by spills, leaks due to faulty well casings, and inadequate treatment and disposal of fluids and water that flow from wells. Focusing chiefly on the process of fracking itself—creating cracks by injecting pressurized fluids into shale rocks as a way to release trapped oil and natural gas—the EPA report looks at four pathways by which fracking specifically could contaminate drinking water supplies. Most of the agency's findings are couched in conditional language. They include the possibility that fluids and natural gas could migrate via fracked cracks that might extend directly into drinking water aquifers; because well casings for horizontal drilling might be less able to withstand the high fracking pressures they may be more likely to leak allowing contaminants to migrate; migration might occur when a fracked well "communicates" with a nearby previously drilled well that is not able to withstand the additional pressures from newly released natural gas; and fracked cracks might intersect with natural faults allowing contaminants to migrate into drinking water supplies. The EPA cites the results of lots of computer models that find that migration of fluids and natural gas by these four pathways is possible. However, given the fact that by some estimates as many as 35,000 fracked oil and gas wells are drilled each year in the United States, it is astonishing how few examples of actual contamination and other harms are identified in the EPA report. Nevertheless, the report limply observes: The limited amount of available information also hinders our ability to evaluate how frequently drinking water impacts are occurring, the probability that these impacts occur, or to what extent they are tied to specific well construction, operation, and maintenance practices. This also significantly limits our ability to evaluate the aggregate potential for hydraulic fracturing operations to affect drinking water resources or to identify the potential cause of drinking water contamination in areas where hydraulic fracturing occurs. The absence of this information greatly limits the ability to make quantitative statements ab[...]



Can Genetically Modified Mosquitoes Save The World From Zika?: New at Reason

Fri, 02 Dec 2016 14:15:00 -0500

src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/4Jow8GFUx0c" allowfullscreen="allowfullscreen" class="mp4downloader_embedButtonInitialized mp4downloader_tagChecked" width="560" height="340" frameborder="0"> Download Video as MP4 Every Wednesday and Friday, members of the Clovis Mosquito Abatement team pick up a box from the post office, shipped to them from a lab in Kentucky. Inside that box are 20 tubes, each containing 1,000 male mosquitoes infected with a bacterium called Wolbachia that will render the eggs of any female they mate with infertile. Project manager Steve Mulligan says it took a little explaining to persuade residents of a neighborhood in Clovis, Calif., to allow them to dump 40,000 mosquitoes in their front yards every week. "It is unusual," says Mulligan. "The idea of releasing mosquitoes to control mosquitoes, that is thinking a little outside of the box." But in the age of Zika virus, which has spread from South America to parts of Florida and even to Central California, people are open to new ideas to eliminate a species of mosquito that is responsible for millions of human deaths around the world. While the residents of Clovis have been open to the audacious experiment of releasing bacteria-laden insects into their neighborhoods, other proposals have stoked far more controversy. A company called Oxitec engineered a mosquito in a laboratory to produce similar infertility effects to the Wolbachia infection method. But because this approach involves genetic modification as opposed to bacterial infection, Florida Keys residents formed a resistance movement to the GM mosquito. "We don't want to be guinea pigs," says one Florida Keys resident at a town hall meant to field concerns about the mosquito release. But with so many lives on the line, scientists like Zachary Adelman at Texas A&M questions the morality of opposition to genetically modified mosquitoes and has harsh words for those invoking the precautionary principle to halt the release of genetically modified organisms into the environment. "While you're waiting, and while you're being 'precautionary,' tens of thousands of people—children—are going to die of hemorraghic fever from things like Dengue, or thousands of children will be born with microcephaly because of Zika," says Adelman. Adelman and his team have modified the genomes of mosquitoes with the cutting-edge gene-editing technology CRISPR. When the transgenic mosquitoes mate with non-modified mosquitoes, the off-spring will almost all be male. "We can link it with the so-called 'gene drive' where the gene would be inherited beyond 50 percent, at these super rates, where almost all the progeny would carry this gene... And eventually, the mosquitoes would run into a problem. They would run out of females, and then there would be no more eggs, and then that would be that for them," says Adelman. One common objections that Adelman encounters is that wiping out a species of mosquitoes could have unintended consequences on our ecosystem. But he points out the particular mosquito he's targeting, Aedes Aegypti, is only native to certain parts of Africa and has spread across the planet only with human colonization. "There are no species that are dependent on it, that must eat it to survice," says Adelman. The Clovis release program concluded in mid-October, and scientists are still collecting data on the population effects. The trial release in the Florida Keys was approved by public referendum, but the Keys Mosquito District now has to seek FDA approval. Adelman says his CRISPR-modified mosquitoes still need further study in the lab before they're ready to be released into the wild. Watch the full video above. Produced by Zach Weissmueller. Graphics by Joshua Swain. Camera by Alex Manning and Weissmueller. Music by Kai Engel and Jared C. Balogh. Subscribe to our YouTube channel. Like us o[...]



Can Genetically Modified Mosquitoes Save The World From Zika?

Fri, 02 Dec 2016 12:39:00 -0500

Every Wednesday and Friday, members of the Clovis Mosquito Abatement team pick up a box from the post office, shipped to them from a lab in Kentucky. Inside that box are 20 tubes, each containing 1,000 male mosquitoes infected with a bacterium called Wolbachia that will render the eggs of any female they mate with infertile. Project manager Steve Mulligan says it took a little explaining to persuade residents of a neighborhood in Clovis, Calif., to allow them to dump 40,000 mosquitoes in their front yards every week. "It is unusual," says Mulligan. "The idea of releasing mosquitoes to control mosquitoes, that is thinking a little outside of the box." But in the age of Zika virus, which has spread from South America to parts of Florida and even to Central California, people are open to new ideas to eliminate a species of mosquito that is responsible for millions of human deaths around the world. While the residents of Clovis have been open to the audacious experiment of releasing bacteria-laden insects into their neighborhoods, other proposals have stoked far more controversy. A company called Oxitec engineered a mosquito in a laboratory to produce similar infertility effects to the Wolbachia infection method. But because this approach involves genetic modification as opposed to bacterial infection, Florida Keys residents formed a resistance movement to the GM mosquito. "We don't want to be guinea pigs," says one Florida Keys resident at a town hall meant to field concerns about the mosquito release. But with so many lives on the line, scientists like Zachary Adelman at Texas A&M questions the morality of opposition to genetically modified mosquitoes and has harsh words for those invoking the precautionary principle to halt the release of genetically modified organisms into the environment. "While you're waiting, and while you're being 'precautionary,' tens of thousands of people—children—are going to die of hemorraghic fever from things like Dengue, or thousands of children will be born with microcephaly because of Zika," says Adelman. Adelman and his team have modified the genomes of mosquitoes with the cutting-edge gene-editing technology CRISPR. When the transgenic mosquitoes mate with non-modified mosquitoes, the off-spring will almost all be male. "We can link it with the so-called 'gene drive' where the gene would be inherited beyond 50 percent, at these super rates, where almost all the progeny would carry this gene... And eventually, the mosquitoes would run into a problem. They would run out of females, and then there would be no more eggs, and then that would be that for them," says Adelman. One common objections that Adelman encounters is that wiping out a species of mosquitoes could have unintended consequences on our ecosystem. But he points out the particular mosquito he's targeting, Aedes Aegypti, is only native to certain parts of Africa and has spread across the planet only with human colonization. "There are no species that are dependent on it, that must eat it to survice," says Adelman. The Clovis release program concluded in mid-October, and scientists are still collecting data on the population effects. The trial release in the Florida Keys was approved by public referendum, but the Keys Mosquito District now has to seek FDA approval. Adelman says his CRISPR-modified mosquitoes still need further study in the lab before they're ready to be released into the wild. Watch the full video above. Produced by Zach Weissmueller. Graphics by Joshua Swain. Camera by Alex Manning and Weissmueller. Music by Kai Engel and Jared C. Balogh. Subscribe to our YouTube channel. Like us on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter. Subscribe to our podcast at iTunes.[...]



Two New Studies Find Psilocybin Relieves Cancer Patients' Anxiety and Depression

Thu, 01 Dec 2016 08:45:00 -0500

Two studies published today in the journal Psychopharmacology indicate that a single dose of psilocybin, the main active ingredient in "magic mushrooms," has large and lasting effects on anxiety and depression in cancer patients. The research, which is consistent with earlier studies suggesting the psychological benefits of psilocybin and LSD for people who are gravely ill, is an important step in the medical and legal rehabilitation of a drug that has been banned since 1970. Both studies used a randomized, double-blind, crossover design in which subjects either took psilocybin in the first session and a placebo in the second or vice versa. To help maintain the mystery of who got what when, both studies used active placebos: niacin in one case and a low dose of psilocybin in the other. One study, conducted by researchers at New York University, involved 29 patients who received either psilocybin or niacin in conjunction with psychotherapy. "For each of the six primary outcome measures," NYU psychiatrist Stephen Ross and his co-authors report, "there were significant differences between the experimental and control groups (prior to the crossover at 7 weeks post-dose 1) with the psilocybin group (compared to the active control) demonstrating immediate, substantial, and sustained (up to 7 weeks post-dosing) clinical benefits in terms of reduction of anxiety and depression symptoms. The magnitude of differences between the psilocybin and control groups...was large across the primary outcome measures, assessed at 1 day/2 weeks/6 weeks/7 weeks post-dose 1." These improvements persisted for at least six-and-a-half months after the psilocybin dose, when the final follow-up was completed. "Single moderate-dose psilocybin, in conjunction with psychotherapy, produced rapid, robust, and sustained clinical benefits in terms of reduction of anxiety and depression in patients with life-threatening cancer," Ross et al. write. "This pharmacological finding is novel in psychiatry in terms of a single dose of a medication leading to immediate anti-depressant and anxiolytic effects with enduring...clinical benefits." The researchers conclude that "the psilocybin-induced mystical experience mediated the anxiolytic and anti-depressant effects of psilocybin," since the intensity of that experience was correlated with the magnitude of the effects. "It is unclear from the data whether the sustained benefits in clinical outcomes were due to psilocybin alone or some interactive effect of psilocybin plus the targeted psychotherapy," Ross et al. say. "Future research would be necessary to separate out the various therapeutic contributions of psilocybin versus psychotherapy." But the other psilocybin study reported in Psychopharmacology today, which was conducted by researchers at Johns Hopkins University and involved 51 cancer patients, shows that the psychedelic can have similar effects without psychotherapy. Johns Hopkins psychiatrist Roland Griffiths and his colleagues used a design similar to the NUY study's (two sessions, one with a high dose of psilocybin and one with a very low dose) but skipped the psychotherapy. "When administered under psychologically supportive, double-blind conditions, a single dose of psilocybin produced substantial and enduring decreases in depressed mood and anxiety along with increases in quality of life and decreases in death anxiety in patients with a life-threatening cancer diagnosis," Griffiths et al. report. "Ratings by patients themselves, clinicians, and community observers suggested these effects endured at least 6 months. The overall rate of clinical response at 6 months on clinician-rated depression and anxiety was 78% and 83%, respectively." These striking results inspired fear as well as hope. In an interview with The New York Times, Wi[...]



FDA Approves Final Stage of MDMA Drug Trials

Wed, 30 Nov 2016 08:15:00 -0500

(image) More than three decades after the Drug Enforcement Administration banned MDMA, federal regulators have approved research that could make the compound legally available as a psychotherapeutic catalyst by 2021. The New York Times reports that researchers studying MDMA as a treatment for posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) yesterday received permission from the Food and Drug Administration for Phase 3 clinical trials, the final step before approval of a new medicine.

The Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), which is sponsoring the research, funded six Phase 2 studies involving a total of 130 subjects. Hundreds of subjects will participate in the next phase.

In one Phase 2 study, scores on the Clinician-Administered PTSD Scale fell by almost two-thirds, on average, among 19 subjects who underwent MDMA-assisted psychotherapy. A follow-up study found that the improvements generally persisted an average of almost four years later.

"It changed my life," an Iraq and Afghanistan veteran who participated in one of the Phase 2 trials told the Times. "It allowed me to see my trauma without fear or hesitation and finally process things and move forward." Another subject, a firefighter traumatized by "years of responding to gory accidents," said MDMA-assisted psychotherapy "gave me my life back."

The psychotherapeutic potential of MDMA, which enhances empathy, reduces fear, and encourages openness, was apparent back in the late 1970s and early '80s, when the drug gained a following among psychiatrists. But once it was dubbed Ecstasy and became popular as a party drug, its fate was sealed. Like marijuana, LSD, and psilocybin, it has only recently re-emerged as a subject of legitimate medical research.

Reason TV covers the MAPS-sponsored MDMA research:

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Liberals Don't Really F**king Love Science

Mon, 21 Nov 2016 15:25:00 -0500

Democrats tend to fondly think of themselves as being members of "the party of science." As evidence that the Republicans are "anti-science" they point to Republican skepticism about man-made climate change and the efforts by some local bible-believing conservatives to have creationism taught in public school biology classes. But as I have reported, there is plenty of anti-science to go around, especially if science is seen as telling partisans something that they don't want to believe. Unfortunately when science intersects with public policy, it is all too often confirmation bias all the way down. Over at the City Journal, John Tierney, a contributing science columnist for the New York Times, has written a terrific article, "The Real War on Science," which he makes the case that "the Left has done far more than the Right to set back progress." Tierney correctly observes lots of leftwing partisans forget that science is applied skepticism and instead treat "science" as a collection of dogmas. What dogmas? "The Left's zeal to find new reasons to regulate has led to pseudoscientific scaremongering about "Frankenfoods," transfats, BPA in plastic, mobile phones, electronic cigarettes, power lines, fracking, and nuclear energy," summarizes Tierney. And let's not forget Rachel Carson's thoroughly debunked claim that exposure to trace amounts of synthetic chemicals is a major cause of cancer or the assertion the current average consumption of salt is a major cause of cardiovascular disease. Tierney is correct when he writes: [T]he fundamental problem with the Left is what Friedrich Hayek called the fatal conceit: the delusion that experts are wise enough to redesign society. Conservatives distrust central planners, preferring to rely on traditional institutions that protect individuals' "natural rights" against the power of the state. Leftists have much more confidence in experts and the state. Engels argued for "scientific socialism," a redesign of society supposedly based on the scientific method. Communist intellectuals planned to mold the New Soviet Man. Progressives yearned for a society guided by impartial agencies unconstrained by old-fashioned politics and religion. Herbert Croly, founder of the New Republic and a leading light of progressivism, predicted that a "better future would derive from the beneficent activities of expert social engineers who would bring to the service of social ideals all the technical resources which research could discover." This was all very flattering to scientists, one reason that so many of them leaned left. The Right cited scientific work when useful, but it didn't enlist science to remake society—it still preferred guidance from traditional moralists and clerics. The Left saw scientists as the new high priests, offering them prestige, money, and power. The power too often corrupted. Over and over, scientists yielded to the temptation to exaggerate their expertise and moral authority, sometimes for horrendous purposes. Among the horrendous purposes cited by Tierney was the widespread support by leftists of eugenics in the first half of the 20th century. Tierney also describes how the social sciences have evolved into a Leftwing intellectual monoculture that deleteriously and comprehensively distorts the findings of social psychology, political science, anthropology, and sociology. For example, he notes that leftwingers think that genetic causes are just fine when it comes to explaining homosexuality, but totally taboo when differences between the sexes are discussed. Tierney additionally delves into the confirmation biases that are rife in the debate over man-made climate change and how dissent from global warming dogma is treated by political leftists as damnab[...]



Bad Food Data and Science Still Make for Bad Food Policy

Sat, 29 Oct 2016 08:00:00 -0400

A new study in the journal Current Problems in Cardiology by researcher Edward Archer, Ph.D. and several colleagues has pointed to serious flaws in the data the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) relies on to calculate the average number of calories that are present in the American diet. The researchers looked at the number of calories the USDA says Americans consume and compared them with the number of calories people generally need to stay alive. Using data from 1971-2010, the researchers found that if the USDA data were correct, then a reference person (a hypothetical American established using algorithmic analysis of the data) would have lost nearly eighty pounds between 1971-1980 and also gained more than 215 lbs. between 1988-2010. While such weight fluctuations aren't impossible, they're a rare occurrence at most. If it were simply the case that the USDA compiled bad data, then there'd be little reason to express alarm. But it turns out the USDA uses these flawed data to inform and set federal dietary policy. It's not just the data that's rotten. The laws and policies that are based on that data are inherently rotten, too. The new research builds upon previous research by Archer, including a study published in the Mayo Clinic Proceedings last year, which found—as I wrote at the time—that the federal dietary guidelines "and the research used to support that work... is so off base as to be scientifically useless." The new study doubles down on Archer's earlier work. "These results demonstrate that the USDA's caloric data are meaningless and should not be used to inform public policy," Archer told me this week by email. Besides poking fatal holes in the federal dietary guidelines, Archer's research shows more broadly the perils of relying on bad data to inform law and policy. Those who develop federal dietary guidelines are hardly alone in relying on incomplete, wayward, contradictory, or inconclusive data as the foundation for various food laws and policies. In fact, the push to adopt laws that seem to contravene what data tells us about those laws—namely, that they are uniformly bad ideas—continues headlong. One recent example— menu calorie labeling—illustrates this point. A new study by NYU researchers reports that menu calorie labeling is a totally ineffective tool for helping consumers make lower-calorie food choices. That's just piling on. The fact that menu labeling doesn't achieve its goals is nothing new. The data don't support it, yet mandatory calorie labeling is coming to chain restaurants, vending machines, and movie theaters (and, likely, grocery stores and pizza parlors) in every state in the land in mere months. Data supporting soda taxes as a tool to combat obesity is virtually nonexistent. Yet cities proceed to adopt them. The FDA's own data on the likely impact of the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), as I detail in my new book, Biting the Hands that Feed Us: How Fewer, Smarter Laws Would Make Our Food System More Sustainable, shows these bad rules clearly aren't worth their enormous cost. [T]he FDA's own estimates predict these rules could—if implemented to absolute perfection—reduce foodborne illnesses by a maximum of 1.23 million cases. That would represent just a 2.6 percent reduction in total foodborne illness cases. Again, this is the FDA's own best-case scenario for the impact of these two key rules. Relying on bad data to justify food and dietary laws is as absurd, indefensible, and unscientific as it sounds. If we can't trust the government to base those food laws and policies that call for science on actual, you know, science, then maybe that's evidence the government should have far less power to craft those laws a[...]



Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump: Who Will Be *Worse*? Is Gary Johnson a "Buffoon"? New Reason Podcast

Fri, 28 Oct 2016 10:00:00 -0400

On the latest Reason podcast, Nick Gillespie and Reason magazine editor in chief Katherine Mangu-Ward are joined by Andrew Ferguson, a staffer at The Weekly Standard and author of a series of best-selling books ranging from Land of Lincoln to Crazy U. The choice between leading presidential candidates Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton has been likened to having to decide between being shot and being poisoned, contracting different sorts of STDs, or electing a giant douche versus a turd sandwich. So which is it? And how do we feel about Gary Johnson, the Libertarian candidate who is polling at historically high numbers yet still manages to disappoint somehow? (Here's a clue: One of us calls him a "buffoon," another is unimpressed but less caustic, and a third says nice things). While Donald Trump has been rising slightly in the poll, does his likely defeat portend a conservative and Republican crackup that will force the right to rethink a process and set of positions that has kept them out of the White House since George W. Bush left with historically high disapproval numbers? Mangu-Ward discusses her lead piece in the new issue of Reason (currently available only to subscribers), in which she praises American free-speech laws and traditions even as they permit all sorts of crazy talk to flourish: There's something heartening, however, to be found in the deep awfulness of [Donald Trump's] public statements over the years: the fact that he remains a free man despite uttering them. Because in quite a few otherwise civilized countries, a good deal of what leaves the GOP presidential nominee's mouth on the topic of Muslims, women, and Mexicans could land him in jail. And Ferguson explains his description of Tom Wolfe as "America's greatest living essayist" and his new book, The Kingdom of Speech, as doing to uncritical evolutionary scientists what previous tomes did to artists and architects. It's a lively, fast-paced, and intermittently nasty conversation. Listen by clicking below. Produced by Ian Keyser. src="https://w.soundcloud.com/player/?url=https%3A//api.soundcloud.com/tracks/290387564&auto_play=false&hide_related=false&show_comments=true&show_user=true&show_reposts=false&visual=true" width="100%" height="450" frameborder="0"> Don't miss a single Reason podcast or video! Subscribe, rate, and review! Subscribe to our audio podcast at iTunes. Follow us at Soundcloud. Subscribe to our video podcast at iTunes. Subscribe to our YouTube channel. Like us on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter.[...]