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Spectrum: Autism Research News

April 3rd

Preprint peek-a-boo

More and more biologists are posting their papers on preprint servers, making their findings public before they’ve been through the drawn-out process of peer review.

Not all journal publishers welcomed this new culture of openness at first, but most got on board eventually. One of the last holdouts was Cell Press, which this week announced its own preprint server, called Sneak Peek.

Sneak Peek is reserved for papers under review for publication in Cell Press journals, according to a statement from the publisher. You must register with Cell Press to see the preprints. By contrast, the biggest biology preprint server, bioRxiv, does not require registration or stipulate that a preprint must be under review for publication.

Cell Press
Vexing vacancy

President Donald Trump has yet to name a science advisor, a post filled by every commander in chief since Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Some have interpreted the vacancy as an indication of Trump’s priorities — specifically, that science isn’t one of them.

“The impression this leaves is that Trump isn’t interested in science and that scientific matters are a low priority at the White House,” computer scientist Vinton G. Cerf, vice president of Google, told The New York Times.

If he had a science advisor, Trump might not have proposed massive cuts to research funds, rolled back climate regulations and appointed people with industry ties to lead industry-regulating agencies, suggests an op-ed in STAT by John Holdren, former science advisor to Barack Obama.

“While scientific insights won’t be the only factors the president considers in any given decision, it would be foolish for him to make policy or take action without having the relevant scientific facts,” writes Holdren, professor of environmental policy at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, who served as science advisor during Obama’s two terms.

The New York Times / 30 Mar 2017
Drug decision

Scott Gottlieb, Trump’s pick to lead the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), vowed in his confirmation hearing this week to maintain the agency’s high safety standards while streamlining the drug approvals process.

“I know what’s at stake here,” he told the Senate panel, according to STAT. “People’s lives are literally on the line when it comes to the decisions FDA makes, its oversight, and its enforcement of Congress’s laws.”

By most accounts, Gottlieb did well at the hearing. Some Democrats pressed him on his ability to avoid conflicts of interest — he has invested in and consulted for drug companies. Particularly concerning are his connections to companies that make opioids. Gottlieb has promised to sever his pharma ties and recuse himself from issues relating to drug companies for a year. He also said during the hearing that he is ready to take “dramatic action” to curb the opioid crisis, according to STAT.

CRISPR catch

The gene-editing tool CRISPR has revolutionized the field of genetics. The new technique has also called some old findings into question, according to an article in Nature this week.

The article centers on a gene thought to play a role in cell proliferation. Pre-CRISPR studies suggested that disabling the gene, called MELK, could thwart cancer, leading researchers to test the approach in people who have cancer. But new work using CRISPR suggests those early studies may have been wrong.

Jason Sheltzer, a cancer biologist at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York, found that disabling MELK with CRISPR has no effect on cell proliferation after all. He published the finding last month in eLife.

The findings highlight the limitations of old gene-editing tools. One technique, called RNA interference, uses short pieces of RNA to silence gene expression. But it can have off-target effects.

CRISPR isn’t perfect, either. But the study highlights the need to revisit past findings with new and improved tools.

Late-life twist

Most people with autism were diagnosed as children. But growing awareness of the condition is leading more adults to recognize autism in themselves.

Laura James was diagnosed with autism in her 40s after having an “explosive meltdown” at a hospital where she was undergoing tests for a different condition, CNN reported this week. A nurse who witnessed the incident told her, “Don’t worry, we see a lot of autistic people here,” James recalled to CNN. “I just assumed she was muddling me up with another patient.”

But then she read about autism online and recognized aspects of it in herself. She compared the moment to the end of “The Sixth Sense,” in which Bruce Willis has a pretty huge revelation (we won’t spoil it here, other than to say the term ‘plot twist’ is an understatement).

“Suddenly, you think, that’s why I did that, or that’s why that happened,” she told CNN. “I felt different and I didn’t know why. Now I know why and it’s very reassuring.”

Spectrum explored the impact of getting an autism diagnosis in adulthood in a 2015 story, “The missing generation.”

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