The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has been looking for the next generation condom. That its motivation is perhaps not what you think demonstrates the need for the competition in the first place – helping prevent sexually transmitted diseases. The Foundation figures we needs a more pleasurable condom in order to get more men to wear them. As the list of grantees suggests, latex has reached the limits of its sensitivity. Should any of the finalists break through with their idea, there is a million dollar payoff waiting.
The Department of Energy started the American Energy Data Challenge at the beginning of the month. In its first contest, the Department was looking for Ideas on the best existing energy data set is, the best energy data set not yet compiled, and best killer app focused on energy. The contest ends today, but the judging starts on Monday. That’s where you can come in. Starting then the public can review submissions. Final selections will be made based on public feedback and the decisions of a panel of experts. Winners can receive up to $1500.
The White House just opened the submission period for the first White House Film Festival. It closes on January 29. The theme of the festival is technology in schools, filmmakers must be in grades K-12, and films must be no loner than 3 minutes. Finalists will have their works displayed on various White House outlets. If I’m not sufficiently persuasive, maybe Bill Nye will be:
Partners in Research is a project at Georgetown University to help fill the growing gap between demand for biomedical research funding and the declining budget dollars available through the National Institutes of Health (H/T The Washington Post). Research scientists at the Center present proposals to a group of donors, who select proposals to fund from their pooled donations.
This certainly resembles the new trend in funding projects, where crowds provide small donations to support existing projects. But it bears a strong resemblance to angel networks or giving circles, which are smaller groups of donors that provide larger amounts per person. Partners in Research is still operating on a small scale. The latest competition was amongst four researchers, of whom two would receive $35,000 grants.
While the funds are needed, there are limitations to the approach. Besides a smaller pool of money, the input of donors does not guarantee that the proposals will have the benefit of outside expert review. The University can review proposals that will be up for competition, but the donors need not be trained in relevant fields of science and medicine. For both reasons, Georgetown focuses grants in this program on seed money for exploring new research areas, bridge funding to assist with funding gaps between traditional grants, and start up funds for new researchers. (Other crowdfunding programs often focus on these kinds of grants.)
With the trend of flat and/or declining traditional funding for research, it would be nice to determine if crowdsourcing can scale large enough to replace some of the traditional investigator grants while maintaining the capacity for outside expert review.
In the November 8 edition of Science Dr. Takashi Kadowaki, Director of the University of Tokyo Hospital, writes about the efforts to establish a new medical science agency in Japan. Dr. Kadowaki is also Director of the Translational Research Initiative at the University.
The agency would model itself after the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and serve as a major component of Prime MInister Abe’s strategy for health and medical research. Even though this strategy reflects a concerted effort to increase health and medical research in Japan, the total budget for this new agency is less than one tenth of the U.S. NIH budget.
The overall research and development budget will not change, meaning that other areas of research will likely face budget cuts. Dr. Kadowaki is concerned that other fields of life science could suffer in this new budget environment, something he considers counterproductive to improving the ability of Japan to translate biomedical research to clinical and pharmaceutical applications.
Another aspect of this new agency is that its strategy arm will be headed by the Prime Minister. While this level of political ownership is unprecedented – certainly in the United States – I can identify at least two downsides. One is the possibility of political micromanagement. The strategy arm of the new agency is separate for an incorporated entity charged with disbursing research funds. Hopefully that can serve to mitigate the risks of micromanagement (and conflicts of interest). Another concern is that this reform effort may stand a decreased chance of surviving after the Prime Minister steps down. (No, he’s not likely to step down any time soon, but he won’t be in the office forever.) Initiatives strongly identified with a particular politician often fall out of favor once the politician falls out of power, and it’s tough to be more strongly identified with a reform effort if that person is in charge of one large part of it.
Dr. Kadowaki’s column suggests the conversation around what the Japanese version of NIH will be is just beginning. I wish Japan all the luck in what seems a daunting task of administrative renewal and reform.
Not that it was really expected, but recent action in the courts suggests that the Myriad Genetics case has not settled the legal standing of patents on testing of genetic sequences.
The new matter involves two companies in a lawsuit over the patenting of a genetic test for Down Syndrome (H/T ScienceInsider). On the 30th, a Federal judge in California invalidated the patent licensed by Sequenom since 2011. The test Sequenom developed and patented is new and different, utilizing a different technique and demonstrating marked increases in efficiency compared to other methods. They were sued by Ariosa Diagnostics for a declaration that a test Ariosa developed did not infringe on Sequenom’s patent.
The judge’s order, which granted Ariosa’s motion for summary judgment (and rejected Sequenom’s motion), focuses on whether various claims of the underlying patent address eligible subject matter. Specifically, whether or not patenting the uses of paternally-derived cell-free fetal DNA in the test constitutes the patenting of something novel and therefore patent-worthy. The judge was persuaded that the test constituted the application of conventional techniques to a new natural phenomenon, and did not pass the patent-worthy threshold. Relying on the decisions in both the Myriad case and the other recent medical test patenting case, Mayo v. Prometheus, the court found that the only inventive part of the patent was the use of cell-free fetal DNA, and thus not patentable.
This case is only at the District Court level, and Sequenom has stated it will appeal the decision. Ariosa is pleased with the decision, and given the tenor of its press release, would likely meet Sequenom’s ‘vigorous’ defense with vigor of its own. A visit to the Supreme Court in 2016 or so is plausible.
In connection with an upcoming book written with his cardiologist, former Vice President Richard Cheney has been making the rounds. In an interview that will run on 60 Minutes Sunday night, and excerpted by the Associated Press (H/T The Washington Post), Mr. Cheney mentions that they disabled the wireless capabilities of his pacemaker in order to prevent it from being used by terrorists to kill him.
Yes, you read that right, and yes, it appears to have been a plot point on the terrorist melodrama Homeland. It was also used in an episode of the modern-day Sherlock Holmes series Elementary and there are likely other instances of medical devices being hacked in fiction.
But it’s not crazy. The Food and Drug Administration has guidance on how to preserve the cybersecurity of medical devices and networked equipment.
“Recently, the FDA has become aware of cybersecurity vulnerabilities and incidents that could directly impact medical devices or hospital network operations, including:
- Network-connected/configured medical devices infected or disabled by malware;
- The presence of malware on hospital computers, smartphones and tablets, targeting mobile devices using wireless technology to access patient data, monitoring systems, and implanted patient devices;
- Uncontrolled distribution of passwords, disabled passwords, hard-coded passwords for software intended for privileged device access (e.g., to administrative, technical, and maintenance personnel);
- Failure to provide timely security software updates and patches to medical devices and networks and to address related vulnerabilities in older medical device models (legacy devices);
- Security vulnerabilities in off-the-shelf software designed to prevent unauthorized device or network access, such as plain-text or no authentication, hard-coded passwords, documented service accounts in service manuals, and poor coding/SQL injection.
“The FDA is not aware of any patient injuries or deaths associated with these incidents nor do we have any indication that any specific devices or systems in clinical use have been purposely targeted at this time.”
It’s also a focus of computer researchers, as this article from the October 2013 issue of Communications of the Association for Computing Machinery (yes, my employer’s journal) relates.
Main point – the Internet of Things can include things inside your bodies. So ask your medical professionals about protections against biological and computer viruses.
The day after my last post on execution drugs, Missouri Governor Jay Nixon postponed the October 23 execution of a death row inmate. It was to be the first execution using propofol, a commonly used anesthetic produced mainly in Europe. Consistent with manufacturers of other drugs that can be used in executions, European manufacturers of propofol have taken steps to make sure their supplies of the drug are not used to execute prisoners. The U.S. subsidiary of Fresenius Kabi, the company that banned shipments of the drug to a U.S. distributor after it had mistakenly sent propofol to the Missouri Department of Corrections, applauded the move.
While not specifically mentioned in the announcement, presumably the threats of suspended shipments has prompted Governor Nixon to postpone the execution and to find alternative methods to using propofol. The European Union has indicated that it would subject propofol to serious export control if it is used in executions – regardless of where the drug is produced. Certainly this would only effect European supplies of the drug, but they represent the largest share of the U.S. market.
Additionally, there appear to be problems with the new distributor the State of Missouri was using to obtain its propofol. The distributor claims that the drug was obtained domestically, but the manufacturer disputes that it provided the distributor with the drug. The State Department of Corrections apparently has 100 vials of the drug that it can not definitively source. With severe consequences depending on it, finding a different drug seems the only way out for a state not looking to end its death penalty any time soon. I suspect other states considering propofol will also take the kind of pause implemented in the Show Me State.
General Note – Given the government shutdown, any and all links to government websites will redirect to a totally useless site until further notice.
Emily Willingham at Forbes has two articles about autism that demonstrate how common assumptions about diseases can obscure their full complexity. For a disease that has shifted in terms of its definition, I shouldn’t have been surprised to learn of cases of autism that weren’t the ‘typical’ young males (though males are still a significant majority of cases).
As Willingham explains, autism presents itself differently in girls than it does in boys. But because most of the research population for autism has been boys, their symptoms have driven the diagnostic criteria. This would seem to double down on the difficulty of making sure autistic girls (and women) find effective therapy.
When discussing the older autistic population, I think more about history. Not only the history of diagnosing autism (which post-dates its existence), but the likelihood that most of the older population that has autism was likely ignored or hidden, rather than treated. In both instances Willingham describes, there’s a lack of historical perspective that likely isn’t unique to this disease or the policies designed in response.
When I’ve posted about trends in antibiotic resistant bugs, it’s usually to join the chorus who argue that antibiotics are overused. But this item from Gregory Daniel at the Brookings Institution helped remind me that matters of antibiotic demand are not the only economic forces at play.
Daniels uses a recent Centers for Disease Control (CDC) report on antibiotic resistance to outline several proposals for addressing the challenges facing antibiotic drug development. The CDC report identifies 18 different bacteria that pose varying levels of threat due to their resistance to certain antibiotics. Daniels focuses on two major thrusts – adjustments to the drug development process and changes in the business model. Both were address during a February 2013 Brookings workshop on the topic. The first is familiar to many who have followed drug development policy, and the second was new to me.
But, frankly, I should have seen it. I’ve noted at length about how production capacity for a variety of minerals, drugs and elements dried up over the last few decades. Similar forces appear to have been at play for antibiotics. Whether swayed by excessive development costs, or what was falsely seen as a limitless future for certain antibiotics, I don’t know. But we have yet another item that we are ill-equipped to manage when it comes time to either make more, or make a necessary substitute. Advances in technology have, perhaps perversely, made us worse in certain respects, about managing resources (or at least their supply chains).
Updates on two recent posts involving the National Institutes of Health (NIH)
Yesterday the NIH released recommendations on the BRAIN (Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies) Initiative (H/T Nature News) NIH has asked for $110 million for Fiscal Year 2014 for the project (budget cuts and pending government shutdown aside). The Advisory Committee to the Director released an interim report outlining a strategy for NIH to follow in working toward the aggressive goals of the project. It encourages a focus on technology development, at least at first. It also outlines several research themes and areas of emphasis for the NIH portions of the BRAIN Initiative.
NIH has also approved the first research projects involving the HeLa cell line following the establishment of a working group to review requests to access the genome. Four requests were approved and for two others the working group requested additional information. As conditions of access, the researchers must acknowledge the contributions of Henrietta Lacks (the HeLa of the cell line name) and must disclose any plans for commercial products or other intellectual property developed from their work.
Tomorrow is another meeting of the President’s Council of Advisers on Science and Technology (PCAST) in Washington. The public portion of the meeting will from nine to noon Eastern time. As usual, there will be a webcast (access via the PCAST website), which will be archived following the meeting.
Per the current agenda, this meeting will have three briefings and a public comment period. It’s a rare PCAST meeting where there are no updates on pending reports, but that may not be covered in the formal agenda. All of the scheduled speakers are government officials. Chief Technology Officer Todd Park and Chief Information Officer Steve Van Roekel will discuss the President’s Management Agenda (perhaps connected to the recently announced open data policy). The head of the Centers for Disease Control will speak on anti-microbial resistance, and several federal staffers will discuss the preservation of environmental capital. The last item was the subject of a July 2011 PCAST report, so this briefing may be a follow-up discussion about the report recommendations.
But this is not the only Presidential Council of scientific advisers busy of late. Check out this Tweet from the Chief Scientific Adviser to the European Union’s President:
The President’s Science and Technology Advisory Council is the EU edition of the U.S. PCAST. Formed earlier this year, it has met twice, primarily focused on organisational matters. There is a mention in the agenda for the second meeting about position papers for the Council as well as the ‘current debate on public acceptance of science.’ Let’s see if that is the focus of the report Dr. Glover suggested is coming soon.