Science Goes To The Movies In Your Head

The City University of New York continues its series Science Goes to the Movies with two episodes focused on movies with psychological themes.

The fifth episode is available online, and covers the movies Force Majeure and RosewaterForce Majeure is a Swedish film that deals with the aftermath of a decision a father makes out of fear.  Rosewater is based on the memoir of an Iranian-Canadian journalist who was detained and interrogated by Iranian authorities following the 2009 elections in that country.  Ira Flatow joins co-hosts Faith Salie and Dr. Heather Berlin to discuss the effects of fear in Rosewater and how fear can affect people’s judgment.

The sixth episode premieres on CUNY television July 17th, and should be available online by the end of the month.  It will focus on post-traumatic stress through two recent films directed by Clint Eastwood: American Sniper and Gran Torino.  The first film focuses on an solider in Iraq and at home, and the other film chronicles the life of a Korean war veteran decades after his service.  Salie and Berlin will be joined by guests from the Marine Corps and The Headstrong Project, a program at Weill Cornell Medical College aimed at healing veterans.

Just Because The Outbreaks Aren’t In The News…

Recent developments should reinforce the notion that media coverage is not a correlation to the incidence of disease.

While the measles outbreak in California hadn’t been in the news since April, when state officials declared it over, measles wasn’t eliminated from the country.  As of June 26, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention noted 178 cases of measles reported in 2015.  Just 117 of them were connected to the California outbreak (which started in late 2014).  And today Washington state health officials reported a death from measles, the first reported death from the disease in the United States since 2003.  As the disease was once eliminated from the U.S., its reemergence reflects its persistence – and the continued resistance to vaccination.

Unfortunately, the 2014 Ebola outbreak has yet to produce a viable vaccine, and while it has dimmed from American attention, it continues to affect western Africa.  Cases continue in Sierra Leone and Guinea, and re-emerged in Liberia – more than three months after the last reported case.  Meanwhile the person appointed by the Obama Administration to coordinate the nation’s response to Ebola left that position four months ago.

So, just remember that because we’ve stopped paying attention doesn’t mean a problem has been solved.  It just no longer bothers us enough to do something.

National Library Of Medicine Urged To Lead More On Data

Last week National Institutes of Health (NIH) Director Francis Collins approved a report on a new strategic vision for the National Library of Medicine (NLM) (H/T ScienceInsider).  The Director requested the report at the beginning of the year, and it arrives not quite 3 months since the retirement of NLM Director Donald Lindberg, who led the Library since 1984.

NLM is responsible for a number of program related to medicine and health-related data.  PubMed is perhaps the best known outside of the biomedical community, but NLM operates many other health-related databases, physical artifacts and other records.  But the report calls fro NLM to be more of a leader in biomedical information across NIH, the federal government, and internationally.  This will include an expansion of NLM activities in data science and biomedical informatics, and the Library will need to be systematic and considerate in how it expands while continuing to deliver quality service to its many stakeholders.

The report contains specific suggestions about how NLM could expand its offerings and improve its services.  For instance, it suggests that the Big Data to Knowledge program be located in the NLM.  But with the Library needing a new Director, many of these actions will likely wait until that person is on board, and can determine the necessary adjustments to resources and personnel to implement these recommendations.

A Step Towards Standardizing DNA Sequencing

Last month The New York Times reported that the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) has developed a reference standard for use in DNA genetic sequencing.  Specifically, NIST has made available genetic material that can be tested to confirm that a lab would find the known mutations in the proper places when sequencing the reference material.  This would help assure the reliability of the testing at that lab.

By providing this testing standard, labs will be able to better demonstrate the reliability of their tests, which should stimulate demand for the tests, and may make insurance companies more likely to pay for them.  This might help address the concerns agencies like the Food and Drug Administration have had about direct-to-consumer genetic testing – at least where reliability is concerned.

While this is the first NIST reference material for genetic sequencing, it has developed reference materials for other DNA tests and procedures.  Those reference materials, developed by NIST’s Applied Genetics Lab, are usually smaller amounts of DNA, often produced via Polymerase Chain Reaction and targeted to tests looking at specific genetic sequences.

Head Of NIH Extramural Research Departing For Agriculture

Sally Rockey, the deputy director at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) for extramural (not performed by the agency) research, recently announced she would be leaving her post in September (H/T Nature News).  She’s been with the NIH since 2005, and worked at the Department of Agriculture for 19 years before that.

Rockey’s blog, which I hope is archived, is worth reading, not only because she has used it to solicit input on potential new NIH grant initiatives.  I found it a useful place to gain insight on the funding processes faced by biomedical researchers in a way I hadn’t seen before, and in a way that doesn’t seem to be happening (at least as publicly) in other funding agencies.

What’s also interesting about this development is where Rockey is going.  She will become the Director of the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research.  While created in 2014 by Congress, Rockey will become the Foundation’s first director.  The Foundation is a non-profit corporation that will solicit private sector support for agriculture research, and it will have some federal matching funds available. This foundation is distinct from the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, which is part of the Agriculture Department.

I think this foundation, like the Foundation for the National Institutes of Health, are tools that deserve additional consideration in this era of additional financial scrutiny.  I’m looking forward to seeing what Dr. Rockey and her staff can do.

Lab Issues Go Beyond The Really Nasty Bugs

Recently federal labs have come under scrutiny for failing to effectively control the quantities of nasty bugs like anthrax they have in stock.  Unfortunately, that is not the extent of the problems facing National Institutes of Health (NIH) facilities.

The NIH has closed its Pharmaceutical Development Section, which produces pharmaceutical drugs for its clinical trials (H/T Nature News).  After investigating a complaint, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) found the Section failed to comply with standard operating procedures and had serious manufacturing problems.  The problems included finding fungal contamination and insects in manufacturing facilities, and insufficient dress for lab staff.

While the Section is closed, an external expert group will convene to conduct a thorough review.  Participants in clinical trials are being notified about the possible contamination of the drugs being tested, and some are requesting exemptions in order to continue taking the drugs.  The NIH has promised the FDA a corrective action plan by June 19.

Agencies Want Help With Dengue Forecasting

Today the U.S. government announced the beginning of a forecasting project on Dengue Fever.  The Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and the Armed Forces Medical Surveillance Center (AFMSC) have made available datasets on Dengue fever from Puerto Rico and Peru.

This data, when coupled with environmental and climate data from the area and associated climate models, should allow scientists the ability to forecast the emergence of Dengue outbreaks.  Interested parties will have four months (until September 2) to use this data to develop their forecasting models.  An evaluation team will decide on the finalists (up to six teams), who will be invited (on their own dime, regrettably) to appear before the Interagency Pandemic Prediction and Forecasting Science and Technology Working Group of the National Science and Technology Council.

This is not a competition in the now-traditional sense of a short term contest with a cash prize.  Project organizers, according to this description, are looking to publish the evaluations, and all those who submit will have their predictions included.  Team leaders will be invited to receive author credit.

For more detailed information on submission procedures and project rules, consult the Dengue Forecasting Project portion of the Epidemic Prediction Initiative (EPI) website.  The EPI is a product of the Department of Health and Human Services Idea Lab, and is currently in beta.