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Week in Review, July 15–19

Bias in preclinical research; medical marijuana for kids; a swath of microbial genomes; plastic ocean habitats; rethinking scientific evaluation

By | July 19, 2013

Animal studies may prime drugs for failure

WIKIMEDIA, RAYSONHOJust as there is a tendency for researchers to publish positive results from clinical trials—relegating negative or neutral results languish to literature limbo—so too is there a bias towards successful preclinical studies in the literature, according to new research. This reporting bias could be one reason for the high failure rate of drugs once they enter clinical trials. The US Food and Drug Administration might reconsider many of the therapies that it’s cleared for human testing if the agency had access to the full suite of data on the drug.

“It’s really important [work] in that it gives another explanation for why treatments that appear to work in animals don’t work in humans,” David Torgerson, director of the York Trials Unit at the University of York in the U.K., told The Scientist. “I’ve personally always thought that animal models are potentially not as good as people might assume, but actually that view could be completely wrong, according to this paper.”

Getting sick kids medical marijuana

WIKIMEDIA, LAURIE AVOCADOIn 18 states and the District of Columbia, the use medical marijuana is legal for qualifying patients. All but 2 of these jurisdictions have OKed the drug for children. But controversy lingers over the drug’s use in minors, and even in places where children can obtain medical marijuana legally, regulatory hurdles can stand between a young patient and relief. That could be changing, however, reported Aimee Swartz this week. Just last month, the New Jersey Legislature passed a bill that, if signed into law by Governor Chris Christie, would put the level of regulatory burden for kids whose doctors have recommended medical cannabis on par with the requirements for adults, as well as legalize ingestible forms of the drug, such as lozenges, which are easier for children to take. “People want access to natural and safer remedies—for themselves and for their children,” said Paul Armentano, deputy of NORML, a non-profit organization that lobbies for the reform of prohibitive marijuana laws.

Of course, many questions remain regarding medical marijuana’s effects on children’s still-developing brains and nervous systems, and not all doctors endorse its use. But those who have prescribed it to their pediatric patients argue that it’s often the least risky option. Other options, such morphine, oxycontin, or powerful antipsychotic drugs, “are much more toxic,” says Dustin Sulak, an osteopathic general practitioner in Falmouth, Maine. “The nice thing about cannabis is that the negative side effects are much less than most other drugs given to children.”

New genomes fill in tree of life

WIKIPEDIA, RACHEL HARRISIn search of microbial diversity, researchers have isolated 9,600 individual cells from nine diverse habitats, including industrial reactors, hot springs, and a gold mine. From these samples, they amplified about a third of the genomes looking for entirely new lineages on the tree of life, then sequenced those genomes completely. In the end, the team had identified and sequenced more than 200 new microbial species belonging to 29 underrepresented or unknown lineages—21 bacterial lineages and 8 archaeal ones.

This genomics tour de force is a boon to phylogenetics, researchers agreed. “[There has been a] strong imperative to fill in the microbial tree of life,” said Philip Hugenholtz from the University of Queensland, one of the study’s leaders. “If you have an incomplete view of evolution—vastly incomplete in the case of microorganisms—you have a vastly incomplete understanding of biology.”

Living in plastic reefs

ZETTLER ET AL, 2013. Ocean plastics are most often publicized when they do something bad—harming whales, seabirds, turtles, and more. But plastic junk that has found its way to the world’s marine ecosystems is also having a less tragic effect: creating new habitat for insects and microbes. Known as the “plastisphere,” bits of plastic floating in the ocean currents can serve as an oasis in the desert that is the low-nutrient ocean. “There’s evidence for predation, symbiosis... everything you see in a normal ecosystem but shrunk down to this tiny sphere of life,” said Linda Amaral-Zettler from the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, who has been collecting debris from the North Atlantic gyre for 25 years. Nevertheless, “we’re concerned about how these pieces are changing the nature of this large body of water,” she added.

Some evidence suggests that the microbes are degrading the plastic.  “If they’re completely breaking it down, that would be good news,” said Amaral-Zettler. “But if not, the plastic is becoming even smaller and available to an even larger range of organisms. We’re still very early in terms of our understanding of what the microbes are doing.”

Be wary of the impact factor

RICHARD NAFTALINNext year, British universities will be evaluated by the new Research Excellence Framework (REF), which will award institutions money based on the research excellence of their tenured professors. But this raises the question of how best to assess research excellence, Richard Naftalin, Emeritus Professor of Physiology at King's College London, writes in an opinion piece for The Scientist. The current REF plan is based on the quality of their research publications, based on journal impact factor, but as Naftalin points out, clinical journals have notably higher impact factors than basic medical science journals, simply because they have a greater readership. “Many more clinicians work in cardiovascular medicine than lab researchers in basic cardiovascular science,” he writes, but this has “little bearing on the scientific excellence of their content.”

This discrepancy will become a major concern in British universities that have both basic medical sciences and clinical science departments, as they will, under REF, be in direct competition for funding. “A good grounding in biological science is essential for both biological and clinical research,” he writes. “However, as the opportunities for basic research dry up, so will this source of well-trained scientists for both basic and clinical science.”

Other news in life science:

Italian Stem Cell Controversy

Italian government officials and scientists clashed last week with a controversial stem cell researcher over details of an upcoming clinical trial.

Cancer Gene Data Released

NCI has made public the largest-ever database of cancer-specific gene variations, paving the way for the development of new drugs and therapies.

Russia Blocks Antarctic Reserves

A Russian delegation vetoes proposals to create several new marine sanctuaries in the seas surrounding Antarctica.

Radiation Therapy Damages Neurons

Cranial irradiation, a common brain cancer treatment, disrupts neural morphology in mice in ways that resemble damage caused by neurodegenerative conditions.

A Big-Nosed Horn-Faced Dino

The discovery of a new species of horned dinosaur supports the idea that similar but separate species evolved on the same landmass thanks to a natural barrier. 

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