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Published: Thu, 23 Mar 2017 00:00:00 -0400

Last Build Date: Thu, 23 Mar 2017 10:36:52 -0400

 



Upset About Budget Cuts to the National Institutes of Health? Blame the National Institutes of Health

Tue, 21 Mar 2017 10:02:00 -0400

Scientists and fans of science are getting all worked up over a proposed 20 percent cut to the budget of the National Institutes of Health. If they're looking for someone to blame for those cuts, they can start by blaming the National Institutes of Health. Seriously. From funding experiments that gave cocaine to quails and rats, to studying the sex habits of hamsters and goldfish, there are few parts of the federal government that have made a better case for budget cut than the NIH. Adrienne LaFrance has a piece at The Atlantic that takes the hysteria over President Donald Trump's first budget proposal to new heights. The budget, which includes a cut of $6 billion to the NIH, has scientists bracing for "a lost generation in American science," according to LaFrance, who says scientists told her that the "consequences of such a dramatic reduction in public spending on science and medicine would be deadly." One of those scientists, Peter Hotez, the dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine, tells LaFrance that the proposed cuts "would bring American biomedical science to a halt and forever shut out a generation of young scientists." Please. Behind all the hysterics is one simple fact. Even if Trump's budget cuts are enacted, as proposed, by Congress (which they won't be), the NIH would be funded at the same level as it was in 2003. That's less than 15 years ago. It's hardly a return to the Dark Ages—heck, that's hardly a return to the pre-iPhone ages—or to the era when smallpox and polio were running rampant. If the generation of young scientists that went to school in the 1990s and early 2000s managed to survive and get funding for research without the NIH at its current levels, then surely the next generation will. Before going any further, though, an important note on Trump's budget. It's terrible. His proposed cuts are not a serious effort at reducing the size of the federal government, but rather a way to pay for a mostly useless wall on the border with Mexico and to feed the Pentagon more money ($52 billion more, to be exact), so the military can flush it down the toilet of endless wars, overpriced weapons systems, and who-knows-what-else because not even government auditors can figure out how the Department of Defense manages to waste so much taxpayer money. The terrible spending decisions in Trump's budget, though, do not make his proposed cuts any less legitimate, and few government agencies have made a better, stronger case for having their own budgets reduced. More than 80 percent of the NIH's annual budget is used to fund research grants, mostly for universities and post-grad students. While there is plenty of good research funded by the NIH, there's also no shortage of examples that make you wonder if they're secretly conducting a study on how many ridiculous, wasteful studies they can fund before Congress or the president cuts their budget. Perhaps the most infamous example of pure WTF research funded by the NIH is the $175,000 grant given to the University of Kentucky to study how cocaine affects the sex drives of Japanese quail. "It's hard to think of a more wasteful use of American taxpayers' money than to give cocaine to quail and studying their sexual habits," deadpanned then-Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Oklahoma) in highlighting the study in his 2011 report on wasteful government spending. There are plenty of other head-scratching examples, like the $509,000 grant used to study how meth-heads responded to text messages using "gay lingo." The NIH spent more than $2.8 million over four years funding a study to determine why "nearly three-quarters of adult lesbians overweight or obese," and why gay men generally are not. More than $600,000 from the NIH helped finance a study on the sex habits of hamsters, and another $3.6 million from the NIH allowed researchers at Bowdoin College to ponder "what makes goldfish feel sexy?" My personal favorite is the 2012 NIH-funded study that determined rats on cocaine prefer listening to jazz music instead of classical. Specifically, they li[...]



DIY Biohacking Can Change The World, If the Government Allows It: New at Reason

Mon, 13 Mar 2017 13:45:00 -0400

src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/9fMN80wkYvM" allowfullscreen="allowfullscreen" width="560" height="340" frameborder="0"> Josiah Zayner is a scientist and entrepreneur who quit his government job in a NASA lab to start The Odin, a synthetic biology company run out of his garage. For $150, anyone can now purchase the cutting-edge "gene editing" tool CRISPR (Clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats) through The Odin's online shop. Zayner champions do-it-yourself "biohacking" as the future of science and often draws comparisons between his work and that of the computer scientists and hackers of the '80s and '90s who eventually become the titans of Silicon Valley. "I think [genetic engineering] is really going to become a consumer industry," says Zayner. "Consumers drive a lot of technological advancement." Biohackers like Zayner, much like their computer hacker forebears, prefer asking for forgiveness rather than permission. And so far, Zayner hasn't had to do either. But the launch of a new product that allows users to engineer fluorescent yeast by inserting a gene from a bio-luminescent jellyfish drew the attention of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) after officials learned that breweries were using the product to create glowing beer. They called up Zayner to discuss potential regulatory pitfalls. Officials on the call, which Zayner recorded and posted on his YouTube channel, sound hesitant to make any hard-and-fast declarations about Zayner's work, but they do clearly express the opinion that the yeast modification constitutes a "food color additive," which is subject to pre-market approval by the agency. They instruct him that he should change the language on his website so that nobody construes the yeast as a food product. Zayner then asks them what will happen if he doesn't change anything, to which one of the officials replies, "Well, there's a number of things that we could do, from a warning letter...to, where, if it got to the point where we would, you know, seize material." They also tell him to keep track of who is buying the yeast kit and suggest that he could face "trouble" if breweries continue to use the product, even if he changes the marketing language. "This is who I'm dealing with, a bunch of bullies," says Zayner. "Bullying people into doing what they want, not for scientific reasons, not for the betterment of the public...just because." Zayner is not the only one in the genetics industry burdened with regulatory uncertainty. Another such case is that of Antony Evans at TAXA, a San Francisco-based synthetic biology company that aims to engineer plants to supplement or replace common household items. They currently have a glowing plant in development, which Evans envisions as an alternative to nighttime lighting, and fragrant moss that could act as an organic air freshener. He's had products jammed up by the FDA and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in the past. "If you're an entrepreneur creating a regulated article, the cost to getting that product to market is extremely high," says Evans. "That's why a lot of entrepreneurs are starting in the edges." Evans believes that it's the pre-market approval process that stymies innovation among small, lean startups, which cannot afford to wait years and spend hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars to take a product to market. The FDA does allow products that only contain substances Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS) to go straight to market, but Zayner and Evans both believe the list of GRAS substances is far too limited and the process for approval needlessly burdensome and time-consuming. "We have no idea how much we are inhibiting [innovation], but we just know that we are because it's almost impossible to launch a plant GMO company." Watch the full video above. Produced by Zach Weissmueller by Alexis Garcia. Camera by Alex Manning and Weissmueller. Music by Jon Luc Hefferman. Subscribe to our YouTube channel. Like us on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter. Subscribe to our podcast at iTunes.[...]



DIY Biohacking Can Change The World, If the Government Allows It

Mon, 13 Mar 2017 12:00:00 -0400

Josiah Zayner is a scientist and entrepreneur who quit his government job in a NASA lab to start The Odin, a synthetic biology company run out of his garage. For $150, anyone can now purchase the cutting-edge "gene editing" tool CRISPR (Clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats) through The Odin's online shop. Zayner champions do-it-yourself "biohacking" as the future of science and often draws comparisons between his work and that of the computer scientists and hackers of the '80s and '90s who eventually become the titans of Silicon Valley. "I think [genetic engineering] is really going to become a consumer industry," says Zayner. "Consumers drive a lot of technological advancement." Biohackers like Zayner, much like their computer hacker forebears, prefer asking for forgiveness rather than permission. And so far, Zayner hasn't had to do either. But the launch of a new product that allows users to engineer fluorescent yeast by inserting a gene from a bio-luminescent jellyfish drew the attention of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) after officials learned that breweries were using the product to create glowing beer. They called up Zayner to discuss potential regulatory pitfalls. Officials on the call, which Zayner recorded and posted on his YouTube channel, sound hesitant to make any hard-and-fast declarations about Zayner's work, but they do clearly express the opinion that the yeast modification constitutes a "food color additive," which is subject to pre-market approval by the agency. They instruct him that he should change the language on his website so that nobody construes the yeast as a food product. Zayner then asks them what will happen if he doesn't change anything, to which one of the officials replies, "Well, there's a number of things that we could do, from a warning letter...to, where, if it got to the point where we would, you know, seize material." They also tell him to keep track of who is buying the yeast kit and suggest that he could face "trouble" if breweries continue to use the product, even if he changes the marketing language. "This is who I'm dealing with, a bunch of bullies," says Zayner. "Bullying people into doing what they want, not for scientific reasons, not for the betterment of the public...just because." Zayner is not the only one in the genetics industry burdened with regulatory uncertainty. Another such case is that of Antony Evans at TAXA, a San Francisco-based synthetic biology company that aims to engineer plants to supplement or replace common household items. They currently have a glowing plant in development, which Evans envisions as an alternative to nighttime lighting, and fragrant moss that could act as an organic air freshener. He's had products jammed up by the FDA and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in the past. "If you're an entrepreneur creating a regulated article, the cost to getting that product to market is extremely high," says Evans. "That's why a lot of entrepreneurs are starting in the edges." Evans believes that it's the pre-market approval process that stymies innovation among small, lean startups, which cannot afford to wait years and spend hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars to take a product to market. The FDA does allow products that only contain substances Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS) to go straight to market, but Zayner and Evans both believe the list of GRAS substances is far too limited and the process for approval needlessly burdensome and time-consuming. "We have no idea how much we are inhibiting [innovation], but we just know that we are because it's almost impossible to launch a plant GMO company." Watch the full video above. Produced by Zach Weissmueller by Alexis Garcia. Camera by Alex Manning and Weissmueller. Music by Jon Luc Hefferman. Subscribe to our YouTube channel. Like us on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter. Subscribe to our podcast at iTunes.[...]



Jeff Sessions Can't Handle the Truth About Marijuana

Wed, 01 Mar 2017 07:00:00 -0500

Last week White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer suggested that marijuana legalization contributes to opioid abuse. "When you see something like the opioid addiction crisis blossoming in so many states around this country," he said, "the last thing we should be doing is encouraging people" by allowing recreational use of marijuana. As critics such as NORML's Paul Armentano and Washington Post drug policy blogger Christopher Ingraham pointed out, Spicer had things backward: The evidence suggests that loosening marijuana prohibition results in less consumption of opioids. No way, says Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who seems to be planning a crackdown on state-licensed marijuana businesses. During a speech to the National Association of Attorneys General yesterday, Sessions mocked the notion that "marijuana is a cure for opiate abuse": Give me a break. This is the kind of argument that has been made out there. It's just almost a desperate attempt to defend the harmlessness of marijuana or even its benefits. I doubt that's true. Maybe science will prove I'm wrong. But at this point in time, you and I have a responsibility to use our best judgment, that which we've learned over a period of years, and speak truth as best we can. While the evidence that marijuana works as a treatment for opioid abuse is inconclusive, several studies have found an association between medical marijuana laws and reductions in opioid prescriptions, opioid-related deaths, and fatally injured drivers testing positive for opioids. These results make sense to the extent that marijuana can be substituted for narcotics as a way of relieving physical or emotional pain, a switch than can be expected to reduce serious side effects because marijuana is safer. Although Sessions claims he is open to refutation by science, he clearly has not bothered to look at the research. Such incuriosity is consistent with the former Alabama senator's history as a diehard drug warrior who knows lots of things that aren't so. Consider his outrage a few years ago when President Obama publicly conceded that marijuana is less dangerous than alcohol. Although there is plenty of evidence to support that conclusion, it did not jibe with Sessions' anti-pot prejudices, so he could not accept it: I have to tell you, I'm heartbroken to see what the president said just a few days ago. It's stunning to me. I find it beyond comprehension….This is just difficult for me to conceive how the president of the United States could make such a statement as that....Did the president conduct any medical or scientific survey before he waltzed into The New Yorker and opined contrary to the positions of attorneys general and presidents universally prior to that? Sessions tried to rebut Obama's statement about the relative hazards of marijuana and alcohol by declaring that "Lady Gaga says she's addicted to [marijuana] and it is not harmless." Putting aside the merits of treating Lady Gaga as an expert on the effects of marijuana, or of extrapolating from this sample of one to the experiences of cannabis consumers generally, Sessions did not seem to understand that Substance A can be less dangerous than Substance B without being harmless. To say that marijuana is less hazardous than alcohol by several important measures (including impairment of driving ability, the risk of a fatal overdose, and the long-term damage caused by heavy use) is not the same as saying that marijuana is 100 percent safe. Either Sessions does not grasp that basic point, or he is so determined to justify marijuana prohibition that he deliberately obscures it. Is this what he means by "speak[ing] truth as best we can"? Sessions claims supporters of legalization are "desperate" to "defend the harmlessness of marijuana." But it's Sessions who is grasping at straws to defend a policy built on a mountain of lies.[...]



Eat More Peppers, Live Longer; Eat More Grilled Meat, Die Sooner

Wed, 25 Jan 2017 14:45:00 -0500

(image) I just happened to come across two newspaper stories this week about the two new nutritional epidemiological studies purporting to find a health correlation between the consumption of two foods: hot peppers and grilled meats. The Washington Post story's headline declared, "Barbecued and smoked meat tied to risk of death from breast cancer." The New York Times article was titled, "Eat Peppers, Live Longer?"

According to the Post, "A higher intake of barbecued, smoked or grilled meat before diagnosis was also associated with 23 percent higher odds of death from all causes, the study found. Of the three cooking options, smoking may be the worst. Routinely eating smoked beef, lamb and pork was tied to a 17 percent greater risk of death from all causes...." The Times reported, "After controlling for age, sex, smoking, blood pressure, cholesterol, diabetes and other characteristics, they found that those who reported eating hot peppers had a 13 percent reduced risk for dying early."

What interested me was the difference in the way that the findings were interpreted with regard to how readers might consider changing their diets. In the Reuters story on which the Post article was based, a researcher argues that "the findings suggest women should pay attention to how they cook their food to minimize their exposure to carcinogenic chemicals." In other words, eating less grilled meat might boost your chances of living longer by 23 percent over those who continue to indulge themselves with tasty charred steaks, burgers, and sausages.

On the other hand, when asked if people seeking to live longer should eat more hot peppers, the co-author on that study observed, "The evidence isn't strong enough to make me change my diet." What? Evidently, a 13 percent reduced risk of early mortality is not enough to advise people to chomp on more habaneros.

Here's my point: I suspect that most readers will find the grilled meat story more alarming than the hot pepper one even though the risks of death posed by the nutritional habits studied in each are roughly equivalent. Why? The grilled meat story is framed as a loss whereas the hot pepper one is cast as a gain. Behavioral psychologists have long found that people fear losses more than they anticipate gains.

In any case, the hot pepper guy is entirely right: Don't change your diet based on iffy observational studies like these. With regard to pepper and barbecued meats: I say eat and enjoy both, preferably together.




Is President Trump a 'Climate Menace'?

Fri, 20 Jan 2017 13:30:00 -0500

"Donald Trump is a climate menace, no doubt about it," asserts Greenpeace U.K. spokesperson John Sauven. "President-elect Donald Trump threatens our environment and we vow to fight him every step of the way," declares Kate Colwell from Friends of the Earth. The Union of Concerned Scientists Research Director Gretchen Goldman warns, "It is hard to imagine a Trump administration where science won't be politicized." It is the case that in a 2014 tweet Trump notoriously asked, "Is our country still spending money on the GLOBAL WARMING HOAX?" In 2012, Trump tweeted that the concept of global warming had been created by the Chinese to make American manufacturing noncompetitive. During the presidential campaign, he vowed that he would "cancel" the Paris Agreement on climate change. Being his usual consistently inconsistent self, Trump claimed during a Fox News interview last year that the Chinese tweet was a "joke," and he told The New York Times after the election that he would keep an "open mind" about the Paris Agreement. Yet none of Trump's cabinet picks seem to agree that man-made climate change is hoax. In the hearings for various cabinet nominees, Democrats have sought valiantly to unmask them as "climate change deniers." So far, not one has questioned the scientific reality of man-made global warming. On the other hand, they have tended not to be as alarmed as their interlocutors, and/or have failed to endorse the climate policies that Democrats prefer. Take Scott Pruitt. The Oklahoma attorney-general, nominated to run the Environmental Protection Agency, stated flatly: "I do not believe that climate change is a hoax." He added, "Science tells us the climate is changing and human activity in some manner impacts that change. The ability to measure and pursue the degree and the extent of that impact and what to do about it are subject to continuing debate and dialogue." Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) was particularly annoyed that Pruitt pointed to uncertainties about the future course of warming. But those uncertainties are real. The latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) argues that warming will continue unless GHG emissions are curbed, but it also notes that "the projected size of those changes cannot be precisely predicted." IPCC further observed that "some underlying physical processes are not yet completely understood, making them difficult to model." Pruitt is one of the 27 state attorneys-general that are challenging the legality of President Obama's Clean Power Plan (CPP), which would require electric utilities to cut their emissions of carbon dioxide by 30 percent below their 2005 levels by 2030. The Supreme Court stayed the implementation of the CPP last February, which indicates that Pruitt and his fellow attorneys-general have substantial legal grounds to challenge that EPA regulation. In November, the eco-modernist think tank the Breakthrough Institute released a study that suggested that the U.S. could well speed up its GHG reduction trends if the CPP was abandoned. Other nominees asked about their views on climate change include former ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson (nominated to run the State Department), Montana Rep. Ryan Zinke (Interior Department); Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions (Justice Department); businessman Wilbur Ross (Commerce Department); and former Texas governor Rick Perry (Energy Department). Tillerson testified, "I came to the decision a few years ago that the risk of climate change does exist and the consequences could be serious enough that it warrants action." Zinke similarly declared that he does not believe climate change is "hoax." Sessions offered, "I don't deny that we have global warming. In fact, the theory of it always struck me as plausible, and it's the question of how much is happening and what the reaction would be to it." Ross would head the department in charge of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration t[...]



Cancer Research Reproducibility Study: Science Still Broken?

Thu, 19 Jan 2017 15:05:00 -0500

(image) Experimental replication is a hallmark of the scientific method. The idea is that scientific findings can be considered accurate if any researcher using the same procedures gets the same results. However, that is not what is happening today, as I reported in my article, "Broken Science." For example, in a 2012 study in Nature researchers replicated the findings of only six out of 53 (11 percent) landmark published preclinical cancer studies. In 2011, researchers at Bayer Healthcare reported that they could not replicate 43 of the 67 published preclinical studies that the company had been relying on to develop cancer and cardiovascular treatments and diagnostics.

To address this problem, the Center for Open Science launched the Reproducibilty Project to assess the replicability of research in various disciplines. The first effort focused on trying to reproduce the results of 100 psychology studies. As reported in Science in 2015, just 39 of the studies were successfully replicated. The Open Science Center turned its attention to cancer biology research. The first results of attempts to replicate the findings in five different cancer studies are out, and they are complicated. The researchers were able to essentially reproduce the findings in two studies. The results in two others were not interpretable due to technical problems, and one failed replication. Interestingly, other labs report being able to replicate the results in the study whose results could not be reproduced by researchers working with the Open Science Center.

In trying to reproduce the findings of another one of the studies that reported identifying mutations that boosted the proliferation of melanoma cells, the replicating researchers actually found that the control mice without the mutated cancer cells died faster than the ones with the mutated melanoma. They speculate that the different results might hinge on changes in cell culture or further unidentified mutations in the cancer cells used in the replication experiment. And, of course, it may be that the replication studies are flawed rather than that the original ones are. Only more studies would enable researchers to figure out which is which.

"Science, the pride of modernity, our one source of objective knowledge, is in deep trouble," writes Daniel Sarewitz, a professor at Arizona State University's School for Future Innovation and Society, in his 2016 essay "Saving Science" in The New Atlantis. The pervasive lack of robust reproducibility is confirming Sarewitz' conclusion.




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, me[...]



3 Things Congress Got Wrong in its Fetal Tissue Report

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

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[...]



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 incautiou[...]



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 an[...]



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 identif[...]