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Week in Review: April 1-5

Living fossils not so fossilized; Canadian gov’t threatens scientists’ freedom to speak and publish; gene therapy for sensory disorders; an unusual theory of cancer; clues for an HIV vaccine

By | April 5, 2013

“Living fossil” is a misnomer

Triops longicaudatusWIKIPEDIA, STEVE JURVETSONA handful of recent studies suggest that the term “living fossil” is inaccurate and misleading. Most recently, a genetic analysis of tadpole shrimp suggests that despite the animals’ strikingly similar appearance to their Triassic ancestors—with a shield-shaped body ending in a forked pair of filaments—they are, in fact, genetically quite distinct. Other examples of “living fossils” proven to be evolving at the same rate as, or even faster than, organisms that haven’t received the fallacious title include coelacanths, cycads, and tuataras, all of which were recently shown to differ significantly from their prehistoric relatives.

“I would favor retiring the term ‘living fossil’ altogether as it is generally misleading,” Africa Gomez at the University of Hull told The Scientist.

On the muzzling of Canadian scientists

SCIENCEUNCENSORED.CAHeather Douglas, the Waterloo Chair in Science and Society in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, argues in this opinion piece that the Canadian government’s rules requiring government scientists to get approval before speaking to the media are impinging on the public’s freedom of information. Even worse, she says, scientists’ freedom to publish is being undermined. “Despite denials by officials, there is evidence that Canadian government scientists are being required to get approval before submitting papers for publication,” she writes—“and that approval is as much about political ideology as about evidential soundness.”

Gene therapy for your senses

STOCK.XCHNG, DJEYEWATERAfter a long and sordid history, the gene therapy field has finally started to break its way into the clinic, with the first treatment approved in Europe last November. One area where the technique has been particularly successful is in treating blindness, with several therapies in clinical trials. But it turns out that gene therapy is also proving its worth in a variety of other sensory disorders, including deafness and anosmia, though these therapies are still being tested in animal models. Gene therapies for pain management, with the goal of avoiding opioid tolerance and dry mouth,  have entered early-phase human trials.

Curious views on cancer

Robert AustinROBERT AUSTINPrinceton University’s Robert Austin, who runs one of 12 physical science oncology centers launched by the National Institutes for Health in 2009, believes that cancer is a natural consequence of our rapid evolution and that the disease might act as a form of global population control, possibly serving to increase species fitness. The Scientist spoke with Austin about his unorthodox views, including his idea to maintain cancer by feeding tumors, rather than trying to eliminate it.

Roadmap to an HIV Vaccine

HIV virionsCDCTracking the evolution of a single HIV infection—and the resulting antibodies produced by the patient—researchers have uncovered clues about the development of broadly neutralizing antibodies, capable of blocking many strains of HIV but produced by only about 20 percent of HIV-positive people. The researchers hope that by understanding what antigens drive the development of these important antibodies, they can recreate the process in a vaccine that could be widely beneficial to all HIV patients.

And other news in life science:

Obama Unveils Brain Project

Starting in 2014, the federally funded initiative will seek to develop new technologies capable of mapping the activity in the human brain.

Researcher Steals Cancer Data?

A Chinese researcher in Wisconsin is accused of taking an experimental anti-cancer compound and research data to a university in China.  

Canada Investigates Scientist Muzzling

The Canadian information commissioner will investigate mounting claims that the government is stifling communication between federal scientists and the press.

Mysterious Avian Influenza in China

Two people have died and five have fallen ill from the H7N9 virus.

Novartis Linked to Retracted Papers?

A Japanese newspaper claims that the pharma giant funded flawed research that revealed extra health benefits for one of its top-selling drugs.

NIH Warned About Lobbying

A congressman raises concerns that some grants may violate restrictions on federal spending for lobbying. 

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