U.S. Asking For Pause In Gain Of Function Research

Ebola is not the only virus on the government’s mind these days.  Earlier today (H/T ScienceInsider) the Office of Science and Technology Policy and the Department of Health and Human Services announced a pause in new funding for gain-of-function research on influenza, SARS and MERS.  Gain-of-function research tries to make existing viruses more pathogenetic or transmissible.  Additionally, the government will encourage those involved in current gain-of-function research to pause said research.

The government has also initiated a deliberation process it intends to complete in the next year.  Both the National Research Council and the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity will work on recommendations that would inform a federal policy on gain-of-function research.

This is not the first time the government has tried to address the matter of gain-of-function research.  However, the current focus on Ebola and the recent problems with lab security of viruses could (and perhaps should) boost the scrutiny of this process.  As ScienceInsider has reported that many groups have been advocating for some kind of pause or deliberative process to think through gain-of-function studies.  But there could be resistance, if the incredulous Tweet included at the end of the piece is any indication.  It is a Tweet, but it mischaracterizes the nature of the pause.  It does not call for a moratorium on deadly pathogen research, but a pause on research that would increase the lethality or ease of spread of certain pathogens.  Unfortunately, the current perceptions of viruses and efforts to stop them make me think that most will not try to properly parse the nature of the proposed pause.

A Means To Sift Through The Ebola Noise – Ebola Deeply

Given the difficulty this country is having in following protocol with Ebola cases, having tools to provide context and to sift through the sensationalism is pretty important.  Thanks to Alexis Madrigal and his Five Intriguing Things list, I found out about Ebola Deeply.

The site is part of a larger digital journalism effort called News Deeply.  The focus is providing digitally curated collections of news, background information and other context.  For instance, with Ebola Deeply you can see a case map (hey, Americans, we currently have less than 0.05 percent of the total cases in this outbreak), glossary, collections of medical reports, stories of survivors, a history of the virus (and attempts to eradicate it), and basics about the virus (which likely need to be repeated…daily).

A side note – actor Jeffrey Wright is one of the advisors for Ebola Deeply.  His other connections with the virus include producing a video on people affected by Ebola as well as his work in Africa connected to his nonprofit.  He is particularly interested in filling in gaps in Western media coverage of the virus, so I’m not surprised to see him involved here.

Last Week Showed A Flurry Of BRAIN Activity

On September 30th the White House hosted a conference on the BRAIN (Brain Research Through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies). A multi-agency public-private initiative started in 2013, BRAIN started with a $100 million commitment between the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the National Science Foundation and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).

One of the announcements from the September 30th event was that more agencies are joining the effort.  The Food and Drug Administration and the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity make five agencies involved in BRAIN, to the tune of $200 million in research and development funding for fiscal year 2015.  NIH announced the first round of its funding, $46 million, at the Conference.  While not a funding agency, the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues presented at the event.  The second volume of their neuroscience report should be ready in the spring of 2015.

Private sector activity was also highlighted at the event, noting the $30 million commitment of the National Photonics Initiative, as well as new efforts from Google, GE, GlaxoSmithKline and Inscopix.  Several universities and foundations announced their new commitments as well, including the University of Texas System, the Simons Foundation, and original foundation partners the Kavli Foundation and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.  The list of participating groups is quite lengthy, you should check out the event’s fact sheet for a complete list and additional details.

An event like this may draw more attention for the governmental activities, but the number of non-governmental parties to the BRAIN Initiative is significant, and worth keeping in mind as time moves forward, and a subsequent Presidential administration may not be as supportive of the governmental end of this project as the current administration is.

Innovation Television Is *Not* Limited To PBS

How We Got To Now starts on PBS next week (October 15), and I’ve already written about it at length.  But there are other new programs to see related to innovation.

Innovation Nation is a new program in the CBS Network’s Dream Team. Hosted by Mo Rocca, and Alie Ward, the program airs weekends on CBS stations, and is available online.  It premiered the weekend of September 27.  The Henry Ford (the parent organization of The Henry Ford Museum) is the named sponsor.  Here’s a trailer:

Host of Dirty Jobs and champion of the skilled trades Mike Rowe has a new program premiering October 8.  Somebody’s Gotta Do It will seem very familiar to fans of Dirty Jobs, though the focus is not exclusively on ‘dirty’ jobs and the people who work them.  Regrettably, CNN’s video from the program, at least prior to the series premiere is awkward to access (at least for me).  Watch Rowe promote the program here:

The program may air on CNN outside of the United States, but I cannot confirm that at the time.

Last, but not least, there’s a webseries from a medical historian.

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Ebola Comes To U.S. Shores; Will Panic Follow?

Earlier today the first case of Ebola diagnosed in the United States was reported.  Discovered in Dallas, the affected patient had been traveling in West Africa and was not exhibiting symptoms on return to the United States earlier this month.  The patient is presently in what the hospital describes as “strict isolation.”

As the National Institutes of Health and Centers for Disease Control have treated people in the United States who had been infected in Africa, this case is not the first connected to this outbreak that U.S. facilities have dealt with.  The key factor for containing the spread of the disease is not only isolation of the patient, but tracking and monitoring of those who have interacted with that patient since entering the country.

That said, I am concerned about panic.  The threat of Ebola was used in recent political squabbling over immigration, and others advocated for not transferring infected assistance workers to the United States.  I’d be really surprised if this diagnosis was not the source of some overreaction in some quarters.

The United States is in a much better position than the African nations currently suffering from the outbreak and the associated strains on its limited medical infrastructure.  The relevant federal agencies have been preparing to deal with Ebola, and can transfer methods used in Africa to a United States context with a very, very small fraction of the thousands of cases currently in Africa.

It won’t be easy, but the U.S. has the tools, the people, and the infrastructure to contain Ebola.

Latest PCAST Report Tied To Executive Actions

Earlier this month the President’s Council of Advisers on Science and Technology (PCAST) released a report on antibiotic resistance.  President Obama asked for the report in 2013 to make practical recommendations for combating the rise of antibiotic resistance which has been keenly felt over the last decade.  The report offers three major recommendations for addressing the threat:

  • Increasing the surveillance of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. 
  • Improving the longevity of current antibiotics.
  • Increasing the rate at which new antibiotics and other treatments are developed and implemented

The second and third recommendations are as much about using antibiotics as they are about addressing concerns over resistance.  You can refine existing antibiotics to increase their shelf life and effectiveness, but it’s as meaningful to be more judicious with the use of these drugs.  They are very effective tools, but they lose this effectiveness with overuse.  By increasing the use of other treatments and otherwise trying not to hit every bug with large doses of antibiotics, we can hopefully stave off the rise of resistant bacteria.

Like with many things the United States developed over the course of the 20th century, antibiotic use and infrastructure could benefit from new investments and research.  It’s hard to see this getting much positive attention in the current climate.  After all, Congress has been less than speedy in opening the purse for fighting Ebola.

The report was released in conjunction with other Executive Branch actions.

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New Ebola Projections Should Give You Pause

The World Health Organization (WHO) and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) have each released new studies of the current Ebola outbreak in Africa (H/T ScienceInsider).  The current totals related to the outbreak are over 5800 infected, with more than 2800 dead.  The current outbreak has affected more people than all of the previous reported outbreaks combined.

The new reports suggest things could well get a lot worse, making me think there’s a non-trivial chance this outbreak may not go away.  Of course, I am not a virologist.  But given how little attention the outbreak is getting outside of Africa, I’m not optimistic.

The WHO projections were published in the New England Journal of Medicine.  I encourage you to read them in detail, but this language in the summary should stop you cold.

“These data indicate that without drastic improvements in control measures, the numbers of cases of and deaths from [Ebola virus disease] are expected to continue increasing from hundreds to thousands per week in the coming months.”

Control measures, including procedures for tracing the infected, controlling their contact with uninfected populations, and sufficient medical infrastructure, are not currently sufficient to handle the need, certainly while production in therapeutic medicines and vaccines is ramping up to address the outbreak.  The American response to the outbreak is good, but if not backed up by sufficient resources, it may not be enough. Continue reading