The Trump Administration Recently Canceled a Human Fetal Tissue Research Contract, and Here We Go Again
On Monday, September 24th, the Trump Administration canceled a human fetal tissue research contract that had been brokered by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) with a company called Advanced Bioscience Resources on the grounds that “serious regulatory, moral, and ethical considerations” needed to be investigated. The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) further stated that it would determine if “adequate alternatives exist to the use of human fetal tissue in HHS funded research and will ensure that efforts to develop such alternatives are funded and accelerated.”
The debate over how to ethically utilize embryonic stem cells for the discovery and development of new therapeutics for difficult-to-treat medical conditions dogged prior presidents and has now morphed into the fetal tissue controversy that the current administration has engaged.
Cancer can develop in a variety of different organs, with each type of cancer presenting different signatures detectable via individual specialized methods. Cancer researchers have long sought to discover a way to detect multiple forms of cancer (over 100 in all) with a single test. Recently, scientists at a Silicon Valley healthcare company called GRAIL have succeeded in such a breakthrough, producing a blood test that can recognize 10 unique types of cancer with varying degrees of certainty.
In general, cancer is a unique disease in that a person’s immune system cannot recognize the key players, which are a person’s own cells turned against them. Since the immune system is designed to distinguish between “self” and “non-self,” cancer cells frequently slip through. Thus, scientists have expended significant time and resources to identify markers on cancer cells that are distinctive relative to normal healthy cells, which would aid in the detection of cancer.
Before a potential drug is tested on humans, it must first undergo animal testing. The problem is, 30 percent of drugs that are used successfully on animals are toxic to humans. Another 60 percent of drugs that that work on animals fail to have any efficacy on humans.
An untold number of drugs that could be toxic or ineffective on animals could actually be helpful to humans, but we have no way of knowing it. Humans and mice, rabbits, dogs, and primates have many things in common, but in the end, we are simply different animals. Which means drug testing on non-human animals has limited value. Fortunately, scientists have come up with a better plan — based on computers.
Scientific publishing is a tough business. But it can also be a lucrative one, which is why even the esteemed pages of science journals may not always be above the fray. While many legitimate publications dutifully peer-review and edit the work they receive, pirates abound. These so-called predatory journals focus more on the money than the science, and for a researcher desperate to publish, a few hundred dollars and an easy peer-review process might seem too good to pass up.
The controversy has gained increasing attention over the past few years, thanks in large part to sneaky scientists like “BioTrekkie,” also known, to a few journals at least, as Lewis Zimmerman. The anonymous biologist is a pretty big Star Trek fan (if you couldn’t tell from the pseudonym), and he decided to test out whether some of the most notorious predatory journals were as well. The paper he submitted described an “experiment” that would be familiar to anyone who has seen Star Trek: Voyager Episode 32, “Threshold,” in which Lt. Thomas Paris makes an effort to finally break warp 10 speed.
Each year, the epidemiology community keeps a close eye on the flu, a virus that is famous for mutating and changing in its severity and ability to spread. This year is an especially auspicious year for contemplating influenza: 100 years ago, the Spanish Flu outbreak of 1918 killed millions of people around the world. Studying these viruses can alert the medical and scientific communities in time to stop such an outbreak from devastating humanity again.
However, studying viruses can be a tricky business. In 2014, University of Wisconsin flu experts created a “mutant” version of the 1918 flu virus, and discovered that strains of the original 1918 version still exist in the environment. Since even the strictest lab protocols can’t promise that such a virus won’t escape, this development sparked debate which prompted the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to issue a moratorium on continued studies on infectious diseases. Scientists argued that if we don’t study viruses, we won’t understand how to combat them when they inevitably occur in human and agricultural populations.
Deep in the forests of Brazil, a fungus known as Ophiocordyceps unilateralis is taking over the brains of carpenter ants and directing them to other parts of the forest that the fungus finds more hospitable.
"This so-called zombie or brain-manipulating fungus alters the behavior of the ant host, causing it to die in an exposed position, typically clinging onto and biting into the adaxial surface of shrub leaves," said the authors of a study published in the journal Plos ONE in 2011, which introduced the world to the concept of zombie ants.
An overwhelming number of cancer deaths are caused by “metastasis” –– the process of tumor cells spreading the disease throughout the body. In a new study published in the journal Nature Communications, researchers have identified a specific biochemical process that allows this cell-spreading behavior to occur. They’ve also found that two existing drugs used together may block that process, and slow the spread of the disease.