October 5, 2022

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Epicurean Science & Tech

News at a glance: Poaching Russian scientists, criticizing Raoult’s institute, and a Tencent gift | Science

8 min read
ASTRONOMY

NASA grounds airborne telescope over cost concerns

NASA and its partner the German Space Agency said last week they will shut down the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA, above), a 2.5-meter telescope mounted in a Boeing 747 that flies above infrared-absorbing layers of the atmosphere. Working since 2014 to observe planets, star-forming regions, and nearby galaxies, SOFIA discovered water on the sunlit surface of the Moon in 2020. But astronomers said its high operating cost—$85 million annually, close to that of the Hubble Space Telescope—was not justified by its scientific output. The 2021 decadal survey in astrophysics, a high-level community report, recommended its termination. Defenders say it is the only instrument that can observe at far-infrared wavelengths. Congress has thwarted NASA’s previous attempts to ax SOFIA.

CLINICAL TRIALS

COVID-19 pills fail at prevention

Pfizer’s antiviral pill combination fails to prevent infection among household contacts of patients with COVID-19, a clinical trial has found. Paxlovid, a mix of two drugs, nirmatrelvir and ritonavir, is prescribed to COVID-19 patients with risk factors such as older age and obesity that place them at higher risk of hospitalization or death. Now, Pfizer has tested it in nearly 3000 household contacts of people who tested positive for the coronavirus. The trial found that when adults who had an infected household member took the drug for either 5 or 10 days, they were 32% or 37% less likely than those on a placebo to later test positive themselves—but the differences between the groups were not statistically significant, the company said, and could have resulted from chance. Some antivirals, such as those for HIV, have worked as preventives.

BIOMEDICINE

Diabetes compound cuts weight

An experimental diabetes drug used to also treat obesity helped people lose up to 22.5% of their body weight over 16 months, according to unpublished data released last week by the drug’s manufacturer. In a press release, Eli Lilly & Company said about 630 people who gave themselves a weekly, 15-milligram injection of the drug, tirzepatide, lost 23 kilograms on average. Others taking lower doses lost less weight, and those receiving a placebo lost only 2 kilograms. Tirzepatide, developed for people with type 2 diabetes, mimics two gut hormones—glucagon-like peptide-1 (GLP-1) and gastric inhibitory polypeptide—that curb appetite and slow stomach emptying, which helps people eat less. Another GLP-1–mimicking drug, Novo Nordisk’s semaglutide (Wegovy), approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in June 2021, helped people lose 15% of their body weight over a similar period. Some specialists have called the two drugs important alternatives to bariatric surgery for obesity. One unknown is whether health insurers will cover the drugs; Wegovy’s list price is $1350 a month.

It would be a huge shame for science and the public if this disappeared into the basement of an oligarch.

  • Paleontologist Stephen Brusatte,
  • in The New York Times, about the first-ever auction on 12 May of a Deinonychus velociraptor fossil. He fears a private buyer might refuse to allow study or public display.
DIVERSITY

Fund minority schools, panel says

Black colleges need more money, not just kind words, from the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD), an expert panel says. Historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) received just 0.4% of DOD’s $6.6 billion annual budget for basic research in 2019, according to a 28 April report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. “There is a clear disconnect between the expressed encouragement by Congress and DOD to increase participation of [minority-serving institutions] in defense-funded research and the resources allocated,” the report says. It notes that NASA and the Department of Energy give HBCUs a much bigger slice—0.9%—of their research budgets. This year, Congress appropriated $100 million, double DOD’s request, for a program that targets institutions enrolling large numbers of underrepresented students. The report says DOD officials should be asking for at least that amount each year for the program.

WAR

A bid to recruit Russian scientists

A U.S. proposal to poach Russian researchers opposed to the invasion of Ukraine is receiving mixed reviews. Last week, Bloomberg and other media outlets reported that President Joe Biden’s administration, as part of a request to Congress for $33 billion in spending on Ukraine, is seeking to ease visa requirements for the next 4 years for Russian scientists in high-tech fields such as artificial intelligence, quantum physics, and semiconductors. Some administration officials compare the concept to Operation Paperclip, a clandestine U.S. effort after World War II that spirited more than 1600 researchers—many of them rocket scientists—out of Germany before the Soviet Union could absorb them. The overall spending measure has drawn bipartisan support in Congress. But, “It’s really crazy” that the new proposal is being discussed openly beforehand, says Gerson Sher, an independent consultant and expert on Russian science engagement. Russia, he notes, could now move to cloister top scientists or otherwise restrict them from traveling abroad.

#METOO

Biologist accused of sexual misconduct drops NYU job quest

Protestors hold signs at NYU
ABBY WILSON/WSN

Cancer biologist David Sabatini, dogged by controversy since Science reported that he was in job talks with New York University’s Grossman School of Medicine, withdrew this week from consideration for a position at the medical school. Sabatini had recently been forced out of jobs at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for breaching its consensual relationships policy and the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research for sexual harassment. The Howard Hughes Medical Institute also fired him last year for violating workplace policies. In a 3 May statement, Sabatini decried “false, distorted, and preposterous allegations about me” in news reports and on social media, adding that his withdrawal was meant to reduce “enormous pressure” on the medical school. Its top administrators emailed faculty members and students on 3 May that the school and Sabatini “have reached the conclusion that it will not be possible for him to become a member of our faculty.” Last week, hundreds of trainees protested outside the medical school (above), and hundreds of its faculty, students, alumni, and others signed letters of protest. Forty-five anonymous former Sabatini lab members said they signed a letter supporting him.

RESEARCH MISCONDUCT

Probe knocks Raoult institute

France’s drug regulatory agency has found “serious ethical breaches” in past clinical trials at the institute led by controversial microbiologist Didier Raoult, who became notorious for promoting hydroxychloroquine as a COVID-19 drug despite a lack of evidence. The National Agency for the Safety of Medicines and Health Products (ANSM) investigated two trials at the Hospital Institute of Marseille Mediterranean Infection (IHU), which Raoult leads, one on children’s infections with the bacterium Tropheryma whipplei, the other on illnesses contracted by French medical students while abroad. ANSM’s draft report, published on 27 April, documents “critical” and “major” problems in consent and ethical approval procedures in both studies and says Raoult submitted a falsified ethical approval document in the course of the investigation. ANSM has referred its findings to Marseille authorities for possible criminal prosecution. The report is another step in Raoult’s fall from grace, following a reprimand last year from the French Medical Council for his hydroxychloroquine advocacy. ANSM’s investigation will continue to scrutinize further trials, alongside investigations by other French authorities. In a statement to Science, Raoult said IHU followed ethical procedures and that the investigation may be an attempt to undermine his credibility, given his role as a witness in an investigation into the government’s COVID-19 management.

BIOLOGY

UC campus buys Venter building

The nonprofit research center founded by renowned geneticist Craig Venter has sold its laboratory building in San Diego, California, to the University of California, San Diego (UCSD), for $25 million. The transaction occurred in January, and the J. Craig Venter Institute (JCVI) announced it last week. The sale allows JCVI to operate rent-free there for 5 years; the institute also retains a separate location in Rockville, Maryland. Many of JCVI’s scientists already held joint appointments at UCSD, and JCVI is considering a follow-up deal to transfer some of its research programs to the university, the institute said in a press release. The sale came after JCVI’s revenue had dropped by nearly half from 2018 to 2019, to $23.8 million, according to its federal tax filing for 2019. Selling the building “was an opportunity to free up resources to continue the important research programs that Craig and JCVI are doing and want to do,” a spokesperson said. JCVI was created in 2006 from the merger of the Institute for Genomic Research, which Venter founded in 1992, and other Venter-backed research organizations. Among JCVI’s genetics accomplishments is creating the first cell with a completely synthetic genome. Before that, Venter played a key role in sequencing the human genome.

In Focus

light microscopy image of flower of Arabidopsis thaliana
The flower of Arabidopsis thaliana, a popular model organism in plant biology, was the top winner of the Olympus Image of the Year Award 2021, which honors light microscopy, announced last week. The flower, about 3 millimeters in diameter, was stained with aniline blue dye; under fluorescent light, six anthers containing pollen appear yellow-green. The image was taken by Jan Martinek, a Ph.D. student in plant biology at Charles University in Prague. JAN MARTINEK/OLYMPUS IMAGE OF THE YEAR AWARD 2021
NUCLEAR PHYSICS

New font of exotic nuclei opens

The U.S. Department of Energy this week officially opened the Facility for Rare Isotope Beams (FRIB) at Michigan State University. Researchers hope to use it to improve understanding of how heavier elements are forged in stellar explosions, among other topics. The $730 million linear accelerator can generate beams of any atomic nucleus from hydrogen to uranium. Physicists fire the beam through a graphite target to break the nuclei into lighter, exotic ones rich in neutrons. FRIB may produce 1000 kinds of nuclei never before observed.

FUNDING

China tech giant boosts research

Tencent, the Chinese social media, e-commerce, and video game conglomerate, will put up $1.5 billion over 10 years to support basic research in biology, math, medicine, and physics in that country, Chinese media reported last week. The New Cornerstone Researcher Project is expected to allow up to 300 researchers to freely pursue their scientific interests. The new fund is one of several Tencent philanthropic efforts responding to government calls for successful high-tech companies to share their prosperity with society. Private and corporate philanthropy has been growing in China but the focus has long been on education and poverty alleviation, although the COVID-19 crisis prompted donations for research on vaccines and antiviral drugs. Tencent’s move aligns with a government drive to boost support for basic research from 6% of the country’s total R&D spending in 2021 to 8% by 2025. The fund will begin accepting applications for grants later this year.

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