Skip to main content

Spectrum: Autism Research News

April 17th

Marching forward

After months of planning, the March for Science is finally here. The main event takes place Saturday in Washington, D.C., but satellite marches are scheduled around the world.

Many scientists still seem divided on whether to march: Some say marching will send a message to policymakers about the importance of science in society; others fear the event will politicize science.

Although an article in Nature highlights these different perspectives, the editors at Nature recommend that scientists participate in the march.

“Yes it is true that the march blurs the lines between science and politics. But that line is already much fuzzier than some try to argue,” they wrote last week. “It is possible to care about science and scientific thinking while ignoring the political context in which it operates. But it is difficult to do that and demand change at the same time.”

The march’s organizers say they hope the event will be only the first step in a powerful pro-science movement. “We have no intention of stopping after the march,” founder Caroline Weinberg told Undark. “The goal is a lasting organization on a national level, advocating for science in policy, and bringing our partners along. If this doesn’t last post-April 22, it’ll be a massive failure.”

Undark / 12 Apr 2017
Aging workforce

The scientific workforce is aging fast, according to a study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences last week.

Researchers found that the proportion of scientists aged 55 and older increased by about 90 percent between 1993 and 2008. By contrast, the share of all American workers aged 55 and older increased by about 50 percent in the same period.

This is of concern for a couple of reasons, reports The New York Times: Scientists are thought to do their best work when they’re young (although not everyone agrees with this), and the growing proportion of older scientists could crowd out young talent.

The trend is particularly problematic in light of proposed funding cuts that may make it harder for early-career scientists to step onto the academic ladder.

The New York Times / 17 Apr 2017
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences / 11 Apr 2017
Therapy warning

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is urging families to be wary of therapies and products touted as autism treatments.

The agency calls out chelation therapy, hyperbaric oxygen therapy and detoxifying clay baths as procedures that are not backed by evidence, and that can cause serious harm. “The bottom line is this — if it’s an unproven or little known treatment, talk to your health care professional before buying or using these products,” the agency says.

A story by Spectrum last fall, “The seekers,” explored why some families resort to unproven and potentially dangerous therapies.

Food and Drug Administration / 12 Apr 2017
Sounding off

Nate Butkus was 5 years old when he launched his podcast, “The Show About Science.” Since then, he has landed some impressive guests, such as Harvard geneticist Clifford Tabin.

“He has a Ph.D. and everything,” Nate says while introducing Tabin in an episode about evolution.

A story in STAT this week reports that Nate, now 6, has 29 episodes under his belt, covering everything from alligators to extraterrestrials. Earlier this month, he interviewed Kevin Esvelt of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who helped to develop CRISPR.

Nate is “a sort of pure and undiluted incarnation of the awe and wonder that only the luckiest scientists manage to preserve into their professional careers,” Esvelt told STAT. “Listening to him rekindles that sense of astonishment that resides in the heart of everyone [who] ever loved science. Which, because all of us once were young, is just about everyone.”

Speaking of podcasts, be sure to check out our new podcast series, “Spectrum Stories.” The first episode explores the dearth of drugs for autism, with comments from Elizabeth Berry-Kravis and James McPartland.

Novel idea

There’s seemingly no end to the drama surrounding CRISPR.

Two months after a court granted the patent for CRISPR gene editing in mammalian cells to the Broad Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts, lawyers for the University of California, Berkeley have appealed the decision.

There’s also a new kind of CRISPR drama: a novel titled “Change Agent,” by Daniel Suarez. The book is set in 2045, when genome editing is commonplace. “The United Nations has approved a sensible list of gene edits that can be legally used to eliminate specific genetic diseases from human embryos,” Sara Reardon writes in a book review for Nature.

The plot seems plausible enough at first. But then a detective on the hunt for a criminal mastermind gets jabbed with a “change agent” that, through some unfathomable feat of gene editing, transforms his body into that of the mastermind. The detective then has to catch the villain without being mistaken for him, all the while trying to get his own body back.

The novel’s descriptions of CRISPR and other technologies “are clear and mostly accurate,” Reardon writes. “It’s the novel’s plot that — although fast-moving — fails to impress.”

Job news

Making a career move? Send your news to [email protected].

TAGS:   funding, policy, treatments