Category Archives: Science Communications

Articles about the scientific method or topics of interest to the scientific community about the way in which science is conducted and percieved by the public.

Top 5 Science Achievements of 2016

2016 was an odd one lets be honest. All sorts of crazy shenanigans occurred. Although some may view 2016 as one of the worst years on record, it was a great year for science! Lets take a look at some of the most exciting developments of 2016.

Science is a multi-disciplinary field but as a neuroscientist I am a biology snob so have taken a (massive) lean towards breakthroughs in the general field of biology.

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#1 CRISPR gene-editing trial in ‘humans’

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CRISPR stands for Clustered Regularly Inter spaced Short Palindromic Repeats. The natural CRISPR system is a form of prokaryotic immune defence that protects bacteria from foreign genetic elements. The system has been cleverly modified to function as a powerful gene editing tool – allowing specific genes to be added or removed from a genome. It is described as more efficient , precise and flexible than current gene editing technologies.

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The tool has been proposed for use in the farming industry to modify various crop attributes – the technology received the AAA’s choice of ‘breakthrough of the year 2015’.

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The technology could also hold massive therapeutic potential in the treatment of genetic human diseases however in many cases this would require germ-line manipulation (changes that can be passed on to children) of humans, something which has never before been done and comes with myriad ethical and moral concerns.

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CRISPR moved one step closer to a true human trial as a University of Pennsylvania study received ethical approval from the US government’s Recombinant DNA advisory committee.

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Although a small study, it will focus on manipulating T cells with CRISPR in an attempt to remove cancerous attributes. This is mainly being used as a trial to see if CRISPR would be safe in humans. If it is, then in the near future expect to see CRISPR technology used to combat cancer and a multitude of other genetic based diseases.

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This could potentially see the greatest progress in treating human disease since the discovery of anti-biotics!

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#2 Cloning

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Proof that you can clone ‘sexy’

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Not all clones have the widely cited ‘accelerated aging’ problem as seen with the most well known clone of all – Dolly the sheep. This is the conclusion of a recent study. What many people don’t know is that Dolly herself was also cloned leading to four healthy Dolly-clones.  Dolly had degenerative osteoarthritis but her clones only showed very mild symptoms of this disease. These clones have aged and developed fairly  normally so it is possible to clone animals with no clear health issues seen in the ‘offspring’.

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Although human cloning will likely always remain illegal (probably for the best) this breakthrough proves that the technology of somatic cell nuclear transfer, although possessing a very low success rate, can produce a ‘healthy’ clone that ages normally. Whether or not cloning techniques could be applied to the farming industry remains up for debate.

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#3 Robo-surgeon

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A robot has carried out the first autonomous surgery on soft tissue. This surgery was performed on four pigs and involved the stitching together of two parts of the intestines. All four animals recovered with no complications. Although the robot takes longer than human surgeons, the robot it said to be more precise.

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Robot assisted surgery has been around for a good while now but this route into truly autonomous surgical robots is rather exciting and could free up surgeons from basic routine surgeries to focus on the more difficult procedures. Next time you go in for a bit of casual bowel surgery you might find C3-P0 all up in your shit. Literally.

Check out a video of the robot in action!

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#4 ‘Universal’ flu vaccine 

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Traditional flu vaccines have to be crafted every year in accordance with the constant antigenic shifting and mutation of the flu virus. This is why some years the vaccine seems especially effective and other years doesn’t perform as well – it’s a different vaccine to a different sub-type of flu.

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Scientists now believe we can target a different part of the flu virus – a part which ALL flu viruses share. In theory this would allow the development of one vaccine which could target multiple sub types of the virus and may be usable year on year. However, the flu virus is a shifty bastard and is constantly evolving – so whether this proves effective in reality remains to be seen.

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#5 Stem cells boost stroke recovery

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Stem cells are the key to us.  In our very early development we were nothing but a minuscule bundle of stem cells. From this bundle has formed a large multi-cellular, complex organism with countless different types of cells with wildly differing functions. Put very simply (as the full tale is beyond the scope of this article) a stem cell is sort of a ‘generic’ cell which has the potential to become any cell type in the human body.

So many cell types just from ONE type of stem cell!

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Their proposed use in therapy and disease treatment has therefore been on the cards for decades. One of the most logical ways in which they could be used is to replace damaged tissues. The initial idea was that if stem cells are introduced to an area in the body they will begin to ‘mimic’ surrounding tissue by turning from stem cells into the local cell type – they know what cell to turn into based on local cell signalling from resident cells. Recently, a study, with truly remarkable results,has highlighted once again the therapeutic potential of stem cells.

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The risk of stroke, brain cell death due to lack of blood, is greatly increased in smokers, those with high blood pressure,  the obese and diabetics . Stroke deaths number in the millions every year. Although strokes are survivable (any extremely varied), only about a half of stroke victims will still be living following the event. A group from the Stanford University of Medicine injected modified human stem cells directly into the brains of chronic stroke patients. The results were remarkable with all patients showing healing for an extended period of time, far longer than usually expected following a stroke. One of the most usual observations here was that a number of wheelechair-bound patients (due to stroke induced brain damage) were gradually able to walk freely again! incredible!

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If this doesn’t show the potential applications and therapeutic potential of human stem cells, I don’t know what does. Check out the full report in more detail here.

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Well there you have it! My top 5 pick.

Here’s to hoping 2017 produces even more scientific advancements that can improve our lives for the better.

 

Communicating Science to the Public

The (wo)man in the white lab coat. A pop culture symbol. A mad scientist. Big Pharma. Curing disease. Animal testing. Ethics. Morality.

Lots of things spring to mind when picturing a researcher at work in the laboratory. Some people understand that what we do pushes the limit of human understanding and is hopefully for the betterment of mankind. Others think we are toying with gods work, are nefarious in our plans and don’t give a toss about animals of any sort. Science is neither good nor bad but can be used for either.

It varies largely on the country we look at. Germany, for example, has a high scientific literacy rate among the general population in comparison to the UK. A greater emphasis is placed on the importance of basic scientific thinking throughout primary and secondary education.

Communicating science to the public is always important but especially so in countries where the scientific process is not as well understood or taught.

This category will contain hot topic articles about issues regarding scientific breakthroughs and methods which are often misunderstood, challenged by the vocal minority for the wrong reasons or misrepresented by the media

As an added note: please don’t obtain your scientific updates through tabloid papers – the stories are almost always twisted or completely farcical. The Scientist and New Scientist are both great sources of bite-size science updates from multiple research areas. 

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Why is it important

 

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ratbotcomics.com

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Huge amounts of scientific funding come from the public purse. I myself am funded by the BBSRC (Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council) which is the largest UK public funder of bioscience.

In an age of such rapid scientific and technological advancement we risk widening the gap between scientists and the public.

Considering millions of pounds from the taxpayer fund UK research, it is only right that the public be informed directly regarding new breakthroughs as well as future directions for specific areas of research. The public should be observers of research and not left in the dark.

The majority of policy makers and people in positions of power that can change the regulation of science are themselves not scientists. It is extremely important that a clear relationship based on transparency is maintained between scientists and non-scientists so that policy makers, who often succumb to the will of misinformed members of the public, do not bombard researchers with suffocating new regulations that harm research in this country.

Regulation and tight control when handled correctly is a good thing. All studies must have ethical approval. We can’t just perform studies for the sake of it. There must be a clear, reasoned argument for doing so. Anyone performing studies on animals, for example, has intensive training in surgical techniques, animal husbandry and behaviour and everything else to minimise animal use and suffering (this is a topic I will be covering at a later date including the importance of the Three Rs – Replacement, Reduction and Refinement). This can only be a good thing. Animal welfare is put first. Collecting data comes second. Any good in vivo scientist will tell you this.

Unfortunately, and quite surprisingly, public trust in scientists is decreasing and this is shaping policy makers attitudes towards the negative. We are now seeing more regulations put in place that will actively harm research efforts without providing any clear benefits. There needs to be a balance between regulation and scientific freedom. Too much weight on either side and massive problems can arise.

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What happens when we don’t communicate

 

Public trust in science falls and pseudoscience permeates the public mindset which influences policy makers.

.The world at the moment is an odd place. Humans have never lived longer. Cancer survival rates are better than they have ever been. Diseases that used to ravage and kill are now under control or all but vanquished. All of this is due to scientific advancement.

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workamajig.com

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Why then do we have large parts of the population denying evolution, claiming vaccines do not prevent disease, denying that climate change is a human-driven process and that animal use in research does nothing for the benefit of humans or other animals. Increasingly, we are seeing pseudoscientifc ways of thinking permeating the discussion. It’s against this anti-science backdrop that we now have vocal groups challenging the validity of the science and ethics of animal research – the basis of almost all medical advancements in the last 100 years.

Clearly there has been a collapse in communication (or perhaps it was never fully established). Worryingly this sort of thinking isn’t restricted to general members of the public but also pervades policy makers. The people who decide what we research, how we do it and how much money we can have to achieve this.

Some of their view points are truly shocking for people with such responsibility – most of these examples come from the USA.

Back in 2012 U.S Rep Paul Brown produced a laughable rant at Liberty Baptist Church:

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.“God’s word is true. I’ve come to understand that. All that stuff I was taught about evolution, embryology, Big Bang theory, all that is lies straight from the pit of hell. There’s a lot of scientific data that I found out as a scientist that actually show that this is really a young Earth. I believe that the Earth is about 9,000 years old”

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Now I don’t know about you but considering this man sits on the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, it’s a little bit worrying. I’m all for religious freedom – believe what you want to believe but at some point you have to look at the cold hard facts. There is no evidence at all that the earth is 9,000 years old but overwhelming evidence that it is much MUCH older. Religion and science do not have to be mutually exclusive but people like this make that hard to believe.

Worse still, on that same committee, the science committee,  these sort of view points are widespread.

The committee chair, Ralph Hall,  believes global warming and global freezing are the same thing and that neither are linked to human activity because god controls it. 

In a shocking misunderstanding of what a ‘green house gas’ is, republican Dana Rohrabacher suggests cutting down the rain forests will halt green house gas emissions. Considering rain forests absorb a third of all man made emissions, cutting them down would be a catastrophically bad idea. Again, this man is on the House Science Committee. How?! How has this happened. This pseudoscientific outspokenness seems to be more pronounced in America than the UK but these sort of individuals still reside here – they may not think trees produce green houses gasses but they still aren’t aware of the daily workings of a lab or how we conduct our studies.

There needs to be a balance between regulation and scientific freedom. Too much weight on either side and problems can arise. The people who determine this balance need not be scientists (at least some should be) but the more they understand the scientific process and the more scientifically educated they are the better and the easier this balance can be maintained. We cannot allow a situation to arise where more and more individuals (like those discussed above) sit on science regulation boards.

Most importantly of all- as these policy makers are influenced hugely by the public perception of science, the public needs to be closer to what we do and actively engaged with.

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So how do we communicate?

 

The good news is that some individuals in positions of power know the importance of science communication and have asked scientists directly to take responsibility. John Porter, a former Republican congressman, told an audience at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) meeting that…

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 “… if the public and policymakers never hear your voices, never see science, never understand its methods, the chance of it being high on the list of national priorities will be very low … You can sit on your fingers or you can go outside your comfort zone and get into the game and make a difference for science … Science needs you. Your country needs you. America (*cough* UK *cough*) needs you fighting for science!”

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This is an excerpt from a brilliant article in Cell addressing Animal Research in Neuroscience and how we can better inform the public of it’s necessity.

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We can engage the public in a variety of forums: Open public seminars, webinars, website (like this one) and university open days to name just a few.

This is an opening to the Science Communication Section. Check this space soon for further articles. The next article will be looking at the use of animals in research.

-Science Guy