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Week in Review: September 16–20

Dealing with anonymous misconduct allegations; efficiently generating iPSCs; distinguishing viral infections from non-viral; imaging tau in vivo

By | September 20, 2013

How journals deal with anonymous tipsters

WIKIMEDIA, FRANCESCO MIRALLES GALUPAn anonymous accusation of publishing foul play from whistleblower “Clare Francis” had the Mayo Clinic’s Michael Sarr chasing down a dead end this summer. Francis had alerted Sarr, who is editor of Surgery, to a potential case of dual publication involving his journal. But after thoroughly examining the papers in question, Sarr found no evidence of misconduct, and was left feeling that Francis had wasted his time.

Increasingly, scientists who wish to point out potential flaws in the published literature are doing so under a veil of anonymity. While Sarr’s experience points out the potential downside to not knowing whether the source is reliable, sometimes the criticisms are founded—leading to rightful corrections and retractions. Virginia Barbour, chair of the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE), which offers advice to journal editors on how to handle misconduct, told The Scientist that whistleblowing “is about . . . trying to make sure the scientific literature is as robust as possible,” and as such, “it shouldn’t matter who it comes from.”

According to Retraction Watch blog co-founder Ivan Oranksy, “more and more journals are realizing the importance of every kind of whistleblower, anonymous or not.”

Tackling iPSC creation inconsistencies

WIKIMEDIA, A. TANAKA ET AL.Researchers from Israel’s Weizmann Institute of Science have identified a single gene that seems to suppress pluripotency, and consequently, proposed in a report this week a way of producing induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) with nearly 100 percent efficiency. Jacob Hanna and his colleagues found that by disabling Mdb3—or working with cells lacking the gene—they could reprogram blood and skin cells from mice, plus human skin cells, with almost complete efficiency and in just one week.

Harvard Medical School’s George Daley, who was not involved in the work, said his team is “eager to try to replicate” the results. The Israeli team has “uncovered and removed a major roadblock to iPSC generation,” added Joseph Ecker from the Salk Institute for Biological Studies.

PCR-based diagnostic IDs viral infections

CDCTaking a different tack from most, Duke University Medical Center’s Aimee Zaas and her colleagues have identified a patient response-based gene expression signature that can distinguish respiratory infections caused by viruses from those of bacterial or fungal origin. The Duke team evaluated the performance of its reverse transcription PCR-based assay on two cohorts of individuals experimentally infected with influenza A H3N2 or the related H1N1. They then validated the test on a set of 102 patients presenting to the emergency department with fever, plus 41 healthy volunteers, identifying influenza and rhinoviruses.

“Looking for host transcriptional patterns indicative of a viral infection versus a non-viral infection . . . is an interesting approach, and totally different from what I do as a clinical virologist,” said McMaster University’s James Mahony, who was not involved in the work.  “If you can detect—instead of the actual viral pathogens—a host response signature . . . it gives you a single test for many different kinds of viral infections,” added Mike Loeffelholz from the University of Texas Medical Branch.

Researchers pointed out, however, that a host-based diagnostic is unlikely to replace traditional, pathogen-centric tests anytime soon. A host-based diagnostic “could be a complementary test that could provide more information on the molecular etiology and likely causes of infection,” said virology expert Charles Chiu from the University of California, San Francisco.

Tracking tau in living humans

NEURON, MARUYAMA ET AL.While scientists have made great strides imaging Alzheimer’s disease-associated amyloid ß in vivo, they’ve had a tougher time doing the same with tau. But this week, a team led by led by Makoto Higuchi at the National Institute of Radiological Sciences in Japan showed that carbon-tagged phenyl/pyridinylbutadienyl-benzothiazoles/benzothiazoliums (PBBs) have a high affinity for intracellular tau, and when combined with positron emission tomography (PET), can be used to image the Alzheimer’s-associated protein in living humans.

PBBs enable “a good, clean representation of tau imaging that seems to recognize intracellular tau in particular,” said Marwan Sabbagh, a neurologist and the director of the Banner Sun Health Research Institute in Sun City, Arizona, who was not involved in the study.

Other news in life science

Prominent Epidemiologist Dies
David Barker, the physician-scientist who connected conditions in the womb and just after birth with chronic health problems in adulthood, has passed away at age 75.

Consent at Last
A working group including members of the Lacks family approves the first projects to use the HeLa genome.

CDC Charts Antibiotic Resistance Threat
The agency estimates that at least 23,000 people in the U.S. die each year as a result of antibiotic-resistant infections.

SIV Vaccine Success
A cytomegalovirus-based vaccine eliminated simian immunodeficiency virus from rhesus macaques, raising hopes of a similarly effective HIV vaccine.

Science with a Sense of Humor
Researchers who studied stargazing dung beetles, opera-loving mice are among recipients of this year’s Ig Nobel Prizes.

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Mettler Toledo
BD Biosciences
BD Biosciences