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Spectrum: Autism Research News

March 20th

March madness

The March for Science is fast approaching, with events planned for 22 April in Washington, D.C., and more than 400 other cities worldwide. But deep-seated tensions within the scientific community are breaking down the event’s once unified purpose, STAT reports.

The march was billed as a call to arms for all those who favor fact over fiction — an opportunity for science advocates to protest President Donald Trump’s anti-evidence views on issues such as climate change and vaccine safety.

Some researchers say the march should promote the importance of science in society; others say it should call attention to the dearth of women and minority groups in science. The organizers of the march have failed to adequately define the event’s purpose, and are drawing criticism for not addressing diversity issues in science.

Some scientists have decided to boycott the march. Others are working to make sure everyone is represented.

“I was not going to carry the banner of an institution [of science] that continues to treat me as if I don’t belong there,” Stephani Page, who recently joined the march steering committee, told STAT. Page has a Ph.D. in biophysics and biochemistry, and created the Twitter hashtag #BlackandSTEM.

Catastrophic cuts

This week, President Trump proposed big budget cuts to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the principal funder of biomedical research in the United States.

In a proposal titled “America First: A Budget Blueprint to Make America Great Again,” Trump announced plans to cut NIH funding by 20 percent. But critics say the funding slash will not put America first.

“It would erode America’s leadership in medical research; and it would diminish opportunities to discover new ways to prevent and treat diseases,” former NIH director Harold Varmus wrote in an op-ed for The New York Times on Wednesday.

Varmus says the proposed cuts, and the concern from researchers, reflect a disagreement between two ideologies that runs deeper than political party affiliations.

“It is about a more fundamental divide, between those who believe in evidence as a basis for life-altering and nation-defining decisions and those who adhere unflinchingly to dogma,” he wrote. “It is about a conception of national leadership that connects our economic success and our security to the generation of knowledge, and to the arts and sciences, not just to our military strength.”

The New York Times / 22 Mar 2017
Embryo ethics

A decades-old rule governing research on human embryos needs a revamp, according to an editorial published Tuesday in eLife.

The rule bars researchers from studying human embryos that are more than two weeks old. It originated in 1979, shortly after the birth of Louise Brown — the first ‘test tube baby.’ It was based on the fact that embryos develop a band of cells that have begun to transform into specific tissues after 14 days in culture.

At the time, 14 days seemed like an appropriate cutoff for embryo research, particularly because researchers could not maintain embryos in culture beyond that anyway. But technological advances have made the 14-day cutoff moot, according to the editorial, written by Harvard geneticist George Church and his colleagues, one of whom is a bioethicist.

In particular, it might be possible to synthesize an embryo that looks as if it is at least 14 days old, without actually going through early development. The prospect of engineering an embryo from scratch makes the idea that it becomes ‘human’ at a certain age an outdated notion.

The researchers propose a new rule that cuts off experiments on human embryos at the point that they develop certain features, rather than at a particular point in time.

Troubling trial

A blog in Discover last week highlighted a sketchy stem-cell trial for autism published in an obscure journal.

Researchers in India treated 10 children with autism with stem cells isolated from the fluid inside their bones. They injected the cells into the children’s spinal canal under general anesthesia.

They reported a slight improvement in autism features, but with no control group, it’s impossible to rule out the placebo effect. The children also received other forms of treatment during the trial.

The study makes no mention of ethics approval for the trial, which is surprising given the risks associated with such an invasive procedure. It turns out that the lead investigator, Prasad Koka, is editor-in chief of the Journal of Stem Cells, where the study was published. In fact, Koka is an author on all five studies in the journal’s latest issue, Discover reports.

Code ready

Researchers are finding themselves ill-equipped to handle the huge amounts of data emerging from increasingly complex studies. User-friendly software such as Microsoft Excel is no longer up to this task. So some are going back to school to learn how to code, according to an article in Wired.

By learning to code, researchers can automate their analyses. Some universities now require people in science programs to take a coding class. But those who have already graduated need to find a way to get up to speed.

The Wired piece features Arpiar Saunders, a postdoctoral researcher in Steve McCarroll’s lab at Harvard University. Saunders found an expert to help him with coding when he started his postdoc.

“I realized that just the way he held his laptop was completely different from me,” Saunders, who is in his early 30s, joked to the magazine. “I type like an old person. These kids, they interact with their computers in a completely different way.”

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TAGS:   autism, funding, policy