Friday, October 17, 2014

Fox News demonstrates both good and bad ways to cover Ebola

Some news outlets, including Fox, have been wildly spreading fears about Ebola. As an example of both good and bad ways that the media covers science, let’s take a look at a recent clip from Fox News in which they interview Dr. David Sanders about the possibility of Ebola virus mutating to become airborne-transmissible (right now it is only spread by direct contact!)

Their story is titled "Purdue professor says Ebola 'primed' to go airborne.Here is a link to the video.

I’ll start off with the good things:

1) Dr. Sanders did a good job explaining that Ebola is not airborne right now, but there is a "non-zero" probability that Ebola might mutate to infect the lungs and become air transmissible. And this probability increases as more people are infected.
2) The newscasters did a good job of accurately recapping what he was explaining without blowing it out of proportion.

Now for some bad things:

1) Quite obviously, the scare-you-into-clicking-on-it title. First of all, it's completely misleading for the sole purpose of grabbing attention (it got me!). Second of all, it's completely false. I watched it three times and Dr. Sanders never said "primed." So it is blatantly incorrect.
2) They did not include coverage of other scientists that claim the fears of airborne transmission are over-hyped because there are no instances of that ever happening naturally for a virus that infects humans. HIV and hepatitis are both good examples that have infected millions without changing their route of transmission.
3) The way Dr. Sanders describes his published research is a little misleading in the context of this story. It sounds like he describes the research demonstrated Ebola virus can infect the lungs. In fact, the actual study showed that if you take some of the proteins from the surface of Ebola and code them into a completely different virus (in this case a feline lentivirus, similar to HIV), you can infect human airway epithelial cells grown in cell culture. So this research did not use the full Ebola virus, and did not demonstrate this infection in a live animal model. Link to study here:

Some of these negative aspects might be a consequence of the brevity of this story. However, in an information-dense world, people get the news in short snippets, so the media needs to be careful not to compromise accuracy.

Interestingly, on the same network, Shep Smith reported on Ebola with commendable accuracy. He communicated the facts clearly and concisely while criticizing “hysterical” reporting as “irresponsible.” 

I hope future reports from Fox News and the rest of the media follow his tone.

-Mike Allegrezza

Friday, October 3, 2014

At the interface of science and society - a career fostering public interest in science at The Franklin Institute.

Credit: The Franklin Institute
Everybody loves science museums. Their fun and interactive way of presenting science reconnects you with your childhood self, when you were curious, when you wondered, and when you were so amazed that you could only manage to say, “Wow!” But what is it like to work at a science museum?

On Wednesday, we hosted Jayatri Das, PhD, to describe her career engaging the public with science as the Chief Bioscientist at The Franklin Institute. As you would expect, her transition from the lab into the museum was cultivated by a strong interest in outreach and teaching. After receiving her PhD from Princeton, she gained experience as a Christine Mirzayan Science and Technology Policy Fellow developing programs for the Marian Koshland Science Museum in Washington, DC. Following a short post-doctoral appointment, she landed a position with The Franklin Institute, an opportunity that she partly ascribes to fortuitous timing, as PhD level positions at museums are rare.

In her job she embraces a new paradigm for how science should interact with society. The goal is no longer public understanding of science. Rather, she urges we should strive for public engagement with science. “We want to communicate to our visitors that they are part of the conversation on how we use science and technology,” she says.

Science and technology do not exist in a void. Jayatri describes that:

1) Values shape technology
2) Technology affects social relationships
3) Technologies work because they are part of systems.

As an example, consider nanotechnology. This field has opened new possibilities to create quantum computing, high-tech military clothing, flexible inexpensive solar panels, clean energy, simple water filters, and new cancer treatments; even invisibility cloaks and elevators into space have been envisioned. But which of these technologies are developed will depend on the values of those funding the research and the circumstances driving market demand for them. Priorities would be different for a wealthy businesswoman in Japan, a US-trained Iraqi solider, a European who lost a spouse to cancer, and a cotton farmer in India.

As she points out, “Investments [in R&D] are being made by people with values different than most of the world’s population.” Therefore, it is important to challenge people to think globally.

Why are science museums a great place for these conversations? First, they provide trusted and stimulating information. Second, they are a place where people can reflect on science, technology, and the world. And third, they are a place for conversation because many visitors attend in groups.

Part of her job involves designing the many ways that The Franklin Institute engages the public with science, which in addition to interactive exhibits includes public programs, digital media, and partnerships with schools and communities. For instance, she recently led a public discussion about concussions in sports. The all-ages audience was presented with the neuroscience of head trauma and testimony from former Eagles’ linebacker Jeremiah Trotter, and then they discussed what age kids should be allowed to play tackle football.

Because science and technology are so integrated into our lives now, conversations like these are crucial. In order for breakthroughs to be beneficial for society, they have to interact with public attitudes and values. This communication between science and society occurs naturally at science museums, so they offer fulfilling positions for people like Jayatri who are motivated to connect the frontiers of science with casual visitors. 

Interested in volunteering? You can find information here

-Mike Allegrezza

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Bioethics/Policy Discussion - Storage and Weaponization of Biological Agents (Biosafety)

This summer has seen a surge in discussion over biosafety. Should we still be storing smallpox? Is the risk of bioterrorism greater now in the post-genomic era? Should we artificially increase virulence in the lab to be prepared for it possibly occurring in the environment?

On Tuesday the Penn Science Policy Group discussed the issue of biosafety as it relates to potential uses of biological weapons and risks of accidental release of pathogens from research labs.

The idea of using biological weapons has existed long before cells, viruses, and bacteria were discovered. Around 1,500 B.C.E the Hittites in Asia Minor were deliberately sending diseased victims into enemy lands. In 1972, an international treaty known as the Biological Weapons Convention officially banned the possession and development of biological weapons, but that has not ended bioterrorist attacks. In 1982 a cult in Oregon tried to rig a local election by poisoning voters with salmonella. Anthrax has been released multiple times - in Tokyo in 1993 by a religious group, and in 2001 it was mailed to US congressional members. And recently, an Italian police investigation claims the existence of a major criminal organization run by scientists, veterinarians, and government officials that attempted to spread avian influenza to create a market for a vaccine they illegally produced and sold.
Graphic by Rebecca Rivard

Possibilities for bioterrorism are now being compounded by advances in biological knowledge and the ease of digital information sharing. Which begs the question: should we regulate dual-use research, defined as research that could be used for beneficial or malicious ends? Only in the last few years have funding agencies officially screened proposals for potential dual-use research. After two research groups reported studies in 2012 that enhanced the transmissibility of H5N1 viruses, the US Department of Health and Human Services created a policy for screening dual-use research proposals. These proposals have special requirements, including that researchers submit manuscripts for review prior to publication.

We debated whether censorship of publication was the appropriate measure for dual-use researchers. Some people wondered how the inability to publish research findings would affect researchers’ careers. Ideas were proposed that regulations on dual-use research be set far in advance of publication to avoid a huge waste of time and resources. For instance, scientists wishing to work on research deemed too dangerous to publish should be given the chance to consent to censorship before being funded for the study.

In addition to concerns of bioterrorism, public warnings have been issued over accidental escape of pathogens from research labs, fueled by recent incidents this past summer involving smallpox, anthrax, and influenza.  Some caution that the risks of laboratory escape outweigh the benefits gained from the research.  Scientists Marc Lipsitch and Alison Galvani calculate that ten US labs working with dangerous pathogens for ten years run a 20% chance of a laboratory acquired infection, a situation that could possibly create an outbreak. On July 14, a group of academics called the Cambridge Working Group release a consensus statement that “experiments involving the creation of potential pandemic pathogens should be curtailed until there has been a quantitative, objective and credible assessment of the risks, potential benefits, and opportunities for risk mitigation, as well as comparison against safer experimental approaches.”

In defense of the research is the group Scientists for Science, which contends, “biomedical research on potentially dangerous pathogens can be performed safely and is essential for a comprehensive understanding of microbial disease pathogenesis, prevention and treatment.

Our discussion over this research also demonstrated the divide. Some pointed out that science is inherently unpredictable, so estimating the possible benefits of research is difficult. In other words, the best way to learn about highly pathogenic viruses is to study them directly. Another person mentioned they heard the argument that studying viruses in ferrets (as was done with the controversial influenza experiments in 2012) is safe because those virus strains don’t infect humans. However, Nicholas Evans, a Penn Bioethicist and member of the Cambridge Working Group, said he argued in a recent paper that claiming research on ferrets is safer because it doesn’t infect humans also implies that it has limited scientific merit because it is not relevant to human disease.

There seems to be agreement that research on potentially dangerous and dual-use agents should be looked at more closely than it has been. The debate really centers on how much oversight and what restrictions are placed on research and publications. With both Scientists for Science and the Cambridge Working Group accruing signatures on their statements, it is clear that the middle ground has yet to be found.

-Mike Allegrezza

Monday, May 12, 2014

PSPG hits the streets to explain how genes make us who we are

           With help from the University of Pennsylvania and GAPSA, PSPG was able to run a volunteer booth at the Philly Science Carnival on May 3rd. The carnival was part of the annual 9-day Philly Science Festival which provides informal science educational experiences throughout Philadelphia’s many neighborhoods. The title of the PSPG exhibit was “Who owns your genes?” and featured activities for children and adults alike to educate visitors about how genes make us who we are, what we can and cannot learn from personalized genomics services like 23andMe, and how several biotech companies have attempted to patent specific genes.
           Kids learned how genes act as the instructions for building an organism by drawing alleles for different traits out of a hat and using the genotype to decide how to put together a “monster.” In so doing, they were exposed to the basic principles of genetics (dominant vs. recessive alleles, complete vs. incomplete dominance, and codominance), and they got to leave with a cute pipe-cleaner monster too.
           For our older visitors we presented actual results from a 23andMe single nucleotide polymorphism (SNP) report generously provided by one of our own members (advocacy coordinator Mike Convente). This part of the exhibit walked visitors through the process of sequencing for SNPs, which are single nucleotide bases that vary widely between individuals and can give hints about ancestry, physical traits and possibly diseases, and the implications of bringing these types of tests to the general public. Right now the Food and Drug Administration is trying to figure out how to regulate services like these, which provide genetic information directly to consumers without a qualified middle-man (such as a doctor or geneticist) to explain the complicated results.
           Our exhibit also featured a section entitled “How Myriad Genetics Almost Owned Your Genes” which highlighted the recent Supreme Court case brought against a biotech company that wished to patent two genes (BRCA1 and BRCA2) involved in the development of breast cancer. The genes were discovered at the University of Utah in a lab run by Mark Skolnick, who subsequently founded Myriad Genetics. Myriad went on to develop a high-throughput sequencing assay to test patients for breast cancer susceptibility and eventually obtained patents for both genes. This was controversial for several reasons: 1. These genes exist in nature in every human being and are not an invention; 2. The genes were originally discovered with public funding; and 3. Myriad had a monopoly on testing for BRCA mutations and prevented universities and hospitals from offering the tests. Last year in Association for Molecular Pathology v. Myriad Genetics, several medical associations, doctors and patients sued Myriad to challenge the patents and the Supreme Court decided that patenting naturally occurring genes is unconstitutional (however synthetically-made complementary DNA is still eligible for patenting). It is likely that the patenting of DNA sequences will continue to be an issue in the future considering recent advances in the field of synthetic biology.