Scientists get the green light to resurrect the dead with stem cells


Bioquark, a biotech company based in the United States, has been given the go-ahead to begin research on 20 brain-dead patients, in an attempt to stimulate and regrow neurons and, literally, bring the patients back from the dead.

The technique is new and untested so the study will likely be controversial.  By implanting stem cells in the patient’s brain, in addition to treating the spinal cord with infusions of chemicals and nerve stimulation techniques (both of which have been shown to bring people out of comas), they hope to reboot the brain and jump-start neural activity.

The result could be people coming back to life.

 

There isn’t much evidence that this will work, though there is one well-known neurological researcher and a member of the American Academy of Neurology, Dr. Calixto Machado who is involved with the study as a panel expert.

Bioquark’s CEO, Ira Pastor, said that “to undertake such a complex initiative, we are combining biologic regenerative medicine tools with other existing medical devices typically used for stimulation of the central nervous system, in patients with other severe disorders of consciousness. We hope to see results within the first two to three months.”

He added, “it is a long-term vision of ours that a full recovery in such patients is a possibility, although that is not the focus of this first study.

“It is a bridge to that eventuality.”

Researchers discover a new SARS-like virus that can infect humans


Researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who have been studying the Chinese horseshoe bats have discovered that the bats are carriers of a SARS-like virus, which has the potential of infecting humans with ease. The virus identified by the researchers is called WIV1-CoV and is capable of binding to the same receptors as SARS-CoV. Moreover, it seems to be capable of overcoming the initial barrier and jumping to humans, although the chances of this happening seem slim.

WIV1-CoV

When tested in mice and human cells, the WIV1-CoV virus “readily and efficiently replicated in cultured human airway tissues.” The virus produces flu-like symptoms initially, and then can cause pneumonia, and compromise the body’s immune system. According to the researchers, the virus responds to antibodies developed to treat SARS, but new vaccines would have to be created considering the differences in the viral sequence between the two viruses. Talking about the study, Ralph Baric, Ph.D., professor of epidemiology at UNC’s Gillings School of Global Public Health, the lead researcher, said, “This type of work generates information about novel viruses circulating in animal populations and develops resources to help define the threat these pathogens may pose to human populations.”

 

 

A SARS-like virus found in Chinese horseshoe bats may be poised to infect humans without the need for adaptation, overcoming an initial barrier that could potentially set the stage for an outbreak according to a new study.

Rendering of a virus. (stock image) The newly identified virus, known as WIV1-CoV, could bind to the same receptors as SARS-CoV. Researchers also showed that the virus readily and efficiently replicated in cultured human airway tissues, suggesting an ability to jump directly to humans.

A SARS-like virus found in Chinese horseshoe bats may be poised to infect humans without the need for adaptation, overcoming an initial barrier that could potentially set the stage for an outbreak according to a study at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

The work, led by Ralph Baric, Ph.D., professor of epidemiology at UNC’s Gillings School of Global Public Health, comes on the heels of two recent high-profile outbreaks — Ebola and Zika — for which there are no vaccines. The two outbreaks combined claimed thousands of lives and cost billions in foregone economic growth.

“The capacity of this group of viruses to jump into humans is greater than we originally thought,” said Vineet Menachery, Ph.D., the study’s first author. “While other adaptations may be required to produce an epidemic, several viral strains circulating in bat populations have already overcome the barrier of replication in human cells and suggest reemergence as a distinct possibility.”

Baric and Menachery worked with SARS-like coronavirus sequences isolated from Chinese horseshoe bats, where SARS originated. Based on the sequences, they reconstructed the viruses to evaluate their potential to infect human cells and in mice. They found that the newly identified virus, known as WIV1-CoV, could bind to the same receptors as SARS-CoV. They also showed that the virus readily and efficiently replicated in cultured human airway tissues, suggesting an ability to jump directly to humans.

“To be clear, this virus may never jump to humans, but if it does, WIV1-CoV has the potential to seed a new outbreak with significant consequences for both public health and the global economy,” said Vineet, whose work is reported in the Mar. 13, 2016 online version of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The research team also found that antibodies developed to treat SARS were effective in both human and animal tissue samples against WIV1-CoV, providing a potent treatment option if there were an outbreak. However, the limitation to treat with antibodies is the same as with ZMapp, the antibody approach used for Ebola: producing it at a large enough scale to treat many people. Also, in terms of prevention, existing vaccines against SARS would not provide protection for this new virus due to slight differences in the viral sequence.

SARS, short for severe acute respiratory syndrome, was first seen in an outbreak in 2002 and resulted in 8,000 cases and nearly 800 deaths. Spread through airborne contact, its onset presents symptoms similar to the flu with a dry cough but can accelerate rapidly to pneumonia, filling the lungs with fluid and putting extreme stress on the body’s immune system. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, SARS’ mortality rate can range from less than one percent in patients below 24 years old to more than 50 percent in patients aged 60 and older. Baric and his team believe that WIV1-CoV has the potential to induce similar results with proper adaptation to humans.

“This type of work generates information about novel viruses circulating in animal populations and develops resources to help define the threat these pathogens may pose to human populations,” Baric said. “It’s important to note that it’s not an approach that’s limited to SARS or SARS-like viruses. It can be applied to other emerging pathogens to helping us prepare for the next emergent virus, whether it be MERS, the Zika virus or something we haven’t even heard of yet.”

Is this the world’s most modern family? Man who used to be a woman gives birth to a baby by woman who used to be a man


 

  • Transgender man Fernando Machado fell pregnant by transgender woman
  • Mr Machado – born a woman – gave birth to couple’s first child in June
  • He fell pregnant by Diane Rodriguez – who was born a man – last year
  • The couple have now revealed that they want to expand their brood 

They are the couple who made history last year when the transgender ‘father’ fell pregnant by the trans ‘mother’.

And now, four months after giving birth to their first child, Fernando Machado – who was born a woman – and his partner Diane Rodriguez – who was born a man – have revealed they want to expand their brood.

The new parents, from Ecuador, have opened up about life with their new baby after becoming the first transgender couple to fall pregnant in South America.

Transgender man Fernando Machado (left) - who was born a woman - gave birth to a baby in June this year, pictured with his partner Diane Rodriguez (right) - who was born a man

Transgender man Fernando Machado (left) – who was born a woman – gave birth to a baby in June this year, pictured with his partner Diane Rodriguez (right) – who was born a man

They have not yet announced the name of the newborn baby – but the 16-week-old is affectionately referred to as Caraote – which means ‘the snail’.

‘We are the same as other families. Even though we might not have the same rights, we’re the same,’ Mr Machado, who gave birth in June, told the BBC.

‘We don’t have a name yet – or rather we do – we are just waiting to announce it.’

Ms Rodriguez, who was born male – as Luis – spoke about how she never thought she would know the joy of being a parent.

The couple who made history last year when Mr Machado (pictured) fell pregnant by his transgender partner 

The couple who made history last year when Mr Machado (pictured) fell pregnant by his transgender partner

Father gives birth in South American transgender family
The new parents, from Ecuador, have opened up about life with their new baby after becoming the first transgender couple to fall pregnant in South America

The new parents, from Ecuador, have opened up about life with their new baby after becoming the first transgender couple to fall pregnant in South America

‘Being a mother was never something I thought I would do because I am a transsexual,’ she said.

‘The law before demanded that to be recognised as a woman you had to be castrated.’

Ms Rodriguez headlines in her native country in 2013, when she became the he first transgender candidate to run for Congress.

She has previously spoken of how she struggled in the wake of coming out to her family, who shunned her and forced her to live on the streets.

Ms Rodriguez has even been abducted several times.

Mr Machado and Mr Rodriguez have revealed they want to expand their brood

Mr Machado and Mr Rodriguez have revealed they want to expand their brood

Mr Machado has also bravely shared pictures of his caesarean scar in an attempt to dispel any prejudice or misconceptions

Mr Machado has also bravely shared pictures of his caesarean scar in an attempt to dispel any prejudice or misconceptions

The couple have kept their fans updated with the pregnancy journey and even shared pictures from the maternity ward when Mr Machado gave birth in June.

‘Guess where we are and that is what we are doing,’ Mr Machado captioned one shot of the couple posed in surgery robes and hair nets at the hospital.

He has also bravely shared pictures of his caesarean scar in an attempt to dispel any prejudice or misconceptions.

They initially announced the news of their pregnancy online, having conceived naturally as either of them have undergone lower-body surgery.

At the time, Ms Rodriguez told Mexican media: ‘This was the wish of both of us and there was nothing biological or legal to stop us, so we decided to do it’

The couple initially announced the news of their pregnancy online, having conceived naturally as either of them have undergone lower-body surgery

The couple initially announced the news of their pregnancy online, having conceived naturally as either of them have undergone lower-body surgery

Ms Rodriguez headlines in her native country in 2013, when she became the he first transgender candidate to run for Congress

Ms Rodriguez headlines in her native country in 2013, when she became the he first transgender candidate to run for Congress

‘We live as man and woman. I’m a transfeminine woman and Fernando is a transmasculine man. The process to get here was complex for each of us.

‘Knowing it’s our right, we decided to add another member to our family. ‘

Mr Machado has also spoken about the moment he found out he was pregnant.

He called his mother and sent her a picture of the pregnant test. She then showed it to a doctor who announced: ‘It’s positive’.

‘I started crying with happiness, fear and dread, all at once. It was the most beautiful moment,’ he said.

‘I had never felt like that before. Wow, at last, I am completely happy.’

 

 

Harvard neuroscientist: Meditation not only reduces stress, here’s how it changes your brain


Sara Lazar, a neuroscientist at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School, was one of the first scientists to take the anecdotal claims about the benefits of meditation and mindfulness and test them in brain scans. What she found surprised her — that meditating can literally change your brain. She explains:

Q: Why did you start looking at meditation and mindfulness and the brain?

Lazar: A friend and I were training for the Boston marathon. I had some running injuries, so I saw a physical therapist who told me to stop running and just stretch. So I started practicing yoga as a form of physical therapy. I started realizing that it was very powerful, that it had some real benefits, so I just got interested in how it worked.

The yoga teacher made all sorts of claims, that yoga would increase your compassion and open your heart. And I’d think, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah, I’m here to stretch.’ But I started noticing that I was calmer. I was better able to handle more difficult situations. I was more compassionate and open hearted, and able to see things from others’ points of view.

I thought, maybe it was just the placebo response. But then I did a literature search of the science, and saw evidence that meditation had been associated with decreased stress, decreased depression, anxiety, pain and insomnia, and an increased quality of life.

At that point, I was doing my PhD in molecular biology. So I just switched and started doing this research as a post-doc.

Q: How did you do the research?

Lazar: The first study looked at long term meditators vs a control group. We found long-term meditators have an increased amount of gray matter in the insula and sensory regions, the auditory and sensory cortex. Which makes sense. When you’re mindful, you’re paying attention to your breathing, to sounds, to the present moment experience, and shutting cognition down. It stands to reason your senses would be enhanced.

We also found they had more gray matter in the frontal cortex, which is associated with working memory and executive decision making.

It’s well-documented that our cortex shrinks as we get older – it’s harder to figure things out and remember things. But in this one region of the prefrontal cortex, 50-year-old meditators had the same amount of gray matter as 25-year-olds.

So the first question was, well, maybe the people with more gray matter in the study had more gray matter before they started meditating. So we did a second study.

We took people who’d never meditated before, and put one group through an eight-week  mindfulness- based stress reduction program.

Q: What did you find?

Lazar: We found differences in brain volume after eight weeks in five different regions in the brains of the two groups. In the group that learned meditation, we found thickening in four regions:

1. The primary difference, we found in the posterior cingulate, which is involved in mind wandering, and self relevance.

2. The left hippocampus, which assists in learning, cognition, memory and emotional regulation.

3.  The temporo parietal junction, or TPJ, which is associated with perspective taking, empathy and compassion.

4. An area of the brain stem called the Pons, where a lot of regulatory neurotransmitters are produced.

The amygdala, the fight or flight part of the brain which is important for anxiety, fear and stress in general. That area got smaller in the group that went through the mindfulness-based stress reduction program.

The change in the amygdala was also correlated to a reduction in stress levels.

Q: So how long does someone have to meditate before they begin to see changes in their brain?

Lazar: Our data shows changes in the brain after just eight weeks.

In a mindfulness-based stress reduction program, our subjects took a weekly class. They were given a recording and told to practice 40 minutes a day at home. And that’s it.

Q: So, 40 minutes a day?

Lazar: Well, it was highly variable in the study. Some people practiced 40 minutes pretty much every day. Some people practiced less. Some only a couple times a week.

In my study, the average was 27 minutes a day. Or about a half hour a day.

There isn’t good data yet about how much someone needs to practice in order to benefit.

Meditation teachers will tell you, though there’s absolutely no scientific basis to this, but anecdotal comments from students suggest that 10 minutes a day could have some subjective benefit. We need to test it out.

We’re just starting a study that will hopefully allow us to assess what the functional significance of these changes are. Studies by other scientists have shown that meditation can help enhance attention and emotion regulation skills. But most were not neuroimaging studies. So now we’re hoping to bring that behavioral and neuroimaging science together.

Q: Given what we know from the science, what would you encourage readers to do?

Lazar: Mindfulness is just like exercise. It’s a form of mental exercise, really. And just as exercise increases health, helps us handle stress better and promotes longevity, meditation purports to confer some of those same benefits.

But, just like exercise, it can’t cure everything. So the idea is, it’s useful as an adjunct therapy. It’s not a standalone. It’s been tried with many, many other disorders, and the results vary tremendously – it impacts some symptoms, but not all. The results are sometimes modest. And it doesn’t work for everybody.

It’s still early days for trying to figure out what it can or can’t do.

Q: So, knowing the limitations, what would you suggest?

Lazar: It does seem to be beneficial for most people. The most important thing, if you’re going to try it, is to find a good teacher. Because it’s simple, but it’s also complex. You have to understand what’s going on in your mind. A good teacher is priceless

Q: Do you meditate? And do you have a teacher?

Lazar: Yes and yes.

Q: What difference has it made in your life?

Lazar: I’ve been doing this for 20 years now, so it’s had a very profound influence on my life. It’s very grounding. It’s reduced stress. It helps me think more clearly. It’s great for interpersonal interactions. I have more empathy and compassion for people.

Q: What’s your own practice?

Lazar: Highly variable. Some days 40 minutes. Some days five minutes. Some days, not at all. It’s a lot like exercise. Exercising three times a week is great. But if all you can do is just a little bit every day, that’s a good thing, too. I’m sure if I practiced more, I’d benefit more. I have no idea if I’m getting brain changes or not. It’s just that this is what works for me right now.

Is science only for the rich?


Around the world, poverty and social background remain huge barriers in scientific careers.

In science, like many other professions, better-off individuals and those educated at elite institutions such as Eton College, UK, are often over-represented.

Last year, Christina Quasney was close to giving up. A biochemistry major at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, Quasney’s background was anything but privileged. Her father runs a small car-repair shop in the tiny community of Millersville, Maryland, and she was the first person in her immediate family to attend university. At the age of 25, she had already spent years struggling to make time both for her classes and the jobs she took to pay for them, yet was still far from finishing her degree. “I started to feel like it was time to stop fighting this losing battle and move on with my life,” she says.

Quasney’s frustrations will sound familiar to millions of students around the world. Researchers like to think that nothing matters in science except the quality of people’s work. But the reality is that wealth and background matter a lot. Too few students from disadvantaged backgrounds make it into science, and those who do often find that they are ill-prepared owing to low-quality early education.

Few countries collect detailed data on socioeconomic status, but the available numbers consistently show that nations are wasting the talents of underprivileged youth who might otherwise be tackling challenges in health, energy, pollution, climate change and a host of other societal issues. And it’s clear that the universal issue of class is far from universal in the way it plays out. Here, Nature looks at eight countries around the world, and their efforts to battle the many problems of class in science.

United States: How the classroom reflects class divide
China: Low pay powers brain drain
United Kingdom: The paths not taken
Japan: Deepening divisions
Brazil: Progressive policy pays off
India: Barriers of language and caste
Kenya: Easy access but limited prospects
Russia: Positive policy, poor productivity

UNITED STATES: How the classroom reflects class divide

By Jane J. Lee
Quasney is lucky by global standards. She lives in an exceedingly rich country that is brimming with educational opportunities and jobs. Yet for students who share her struggles to make ends meet, the US higher-education system can pose one obstacle after another.

“It starts in high school,” says Andrew Campbell, dean of the graduate school at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. Government-supported early education is funded mainly at the state and local level, he notes, and because science courses are the most expensive per student, few schools in the relatively poor districts can afford to offer many of them. Students from these districts therefore end up being less prepared for university-level science than are their wealthier peers, many of whom attended well-appointed private schools.

That also puts the students at a disadvantage in the fiercely competitive applications process: only about 40% of high-school graduates in the lowest-income bracket enrolled in a university in 2013, versus about 68% of those born to families with the highest incomes.

The students who do get in then have to find a way to pay the increasingly steep cost of university. Between 2003 and 2013, undergraduate tuition, fees, room and board rose by an average of 34% at state-supported institutions, and by 25% at private institutions, after adjusting for inflation. The bill at a top university can easily surpass US$60,000 per year. Many students are at least partly supported by their parents, and can also take advantage of scholarships, grants and federal financial aid. Many, like Quasney, work part time.

Nonetheless, some 61% of US students earning bachelor’s degrees graduate with some debt — US$26,900, on average. For those who go on to graduate programmes, tuition is usually paid for by a combination of grants and teaching positions. But if graduate students have to worry about repaying student loans, that can dissuade them from continuing with their scientific training.

Several initiatives are under way around the country to ease the way for science students from disadvantaged backgrounds, among them is the $14-million INCLUDES programme announced earlier this year by the US National Science Foundation. But for students such as Quasney, staying in science can still be a matter of luck.

One evening last year, she says, Michael Summers, a structural biologist at the university, happened to have dinner at the restaurant where she was hosting and waiting tables. That chance encounter led Quasney to join Summers’ laboratory in January, and it was a revelation. Before, she had felt that some of her professors had forgotten what it was like to be a struggling student. Summers’ lab is the exact opposite, she says. “There’s no judgements and he doesn’t discriminate.”

Her experiences have helped her to understand what she can expect when she applies to graduate school and pursues a career in research. “I’m gonna go for it,” she says. “Go big or go home.”

CHINA: Low pay powers brain drain

By David Cyranoski
It is no accident that China currently produces more science PhDs than any country in the world. To combat large-scale poverty, especially in the interior provinces, the communist government in Beijing is trying to make education equally available to everyone.

To help the poor, for example, Beijing sets tuition fees low and forbids raising them. Just 5,000 yuan (US$750) per year is enough for entry into premier institutions such as Tsinghua University in Beijing. And for those unable to come up with that sum, the country has national scholarship programmes, including tax-free loans and free admission.

Meanwhile, to help integrate China’s 55 ethnic minorities, which are also often poor, most provinces give bonus points to minority students who take the Gaokao: a university entrance examination that is the most important threshold to pass on the way to an academic career. A quota system ensures that students from remote regions such as Xinjiang and Tibet are represented at elite schools. China even has 12 universities that are dedicated to minorities.

Beneath the surface, however, the reality of Chinese science often falls short of its egalitarian ideals. Children of senior government leaders and private business owners account for a disproportionate share of enrolment in the top universities. And students hesitate to take on the work-intensive career of a scientist when easier, and usually more lucrative, careers await them in business. According to Hepeng Jia, a journalist who writes about science-policy issues in China, this is especially true for good students from rich families.

“Chinese science often falls short of its egalitarian ideals.”

As a result, says Jia, scientists usually come from poorer families, get less support from home and work under a heavier financial burden. The situation is exacerbated by the low salaries, he says. The average across all scientific ranks is just 6,000 yuan per month, or about one-fifth of the salary of a newly hired US faculty member. Things are especially tough for postdoctoral researchers or junior-level researchers “who can hardly feed their families if working in bigger cities”, says Jia. This leads many scientists to use part of their grants for personal expenses. That forces them to make ends meet by applying for more grants, which requires them to get involved in many different projects and publish numerous papers, which in turn makes it hard to maintain the quality of their work.

Many Chinese researchers escape that trap by seeking positions overseas. Thousands of postdoctoral researchers will go abroad in 2016 with funding from the China Scholarship Council, and many more will find sponsors abroad to fund them. But China has also been able to lure some of the most prominent of these researchers back home. Cao Kai, a researcher at the Science and Technology Talent Center of the science ministry in Beijing, released a survey in April that found one such returning scientist was rewarded with a stunningly high annual salary of 800,000 yuan.

But that is not the norm, Kai says. It was just one extreme case he and his colleagues raised to convince “the government to raise the salary of professors at public universities”. That, he says, would go a long way to attracting and retaining talent in science, regardless of social background.

UNITED KINGDOM: The paths not taken

By Elizabeth Gibney
For the most part, science in the United Kingdom is egalitarian — for those who have already made it their career. A 2016 study found that, unlike in law or finance, researchers from lower-income backgrounds are paid no less than their more advantaged peers (D. Laurison and S. Friedman Am. Soc. Rev. 81, 668–695; 2016).

But getting into science is different. The same study found that only 15% of scientists come from working-class households, which comprise 35% of the general population (see ‘Elite careers’). Another found that, over the past 25 years, 44% of UK-born Nobel-prizewinning scientists had gone to fee-paying schools, which educate 7% of the UK population (P. Kirby Leading People 2016 The Sutton Trust, 2016). “There’s a class barrier to the professions,” says Katherine Mathieson, chief executive of the British Science Association, “but it’s more extreme for science.”

Source: Laurison, D. & Friedman, S. Am. Soc. Rev. 81, 668–695 (2016)

One hurdle is aspirational. In an ongoing, 10-year study, a group from King’s College London found that most English 10–14 year olds find science interesting. But those from working-class backgrounds rarely saw it as a career — perhaps because they seldom encountered people in science-related jobs (ASPIRES: Young People’s Science and Career Aspirations, Age 10–14 King’s College London, 2013).

To tackle this, the King’s team is working with London schools on a pilot programme to show children aged 11 to 15 how science fits into everyday life — by examining the chemicals in food, for example — and how science skills are relevant in a range of jobs. Early results are promising, and the team plans to expand the programme next year.

“There’s a class barrier to the professions, but it’s more extreme for science.”

Another barrier could be that UK students who are interested in a science career often need to abandon other subjects at the age of 16. “People from lower-income backgrounds who are unaware of the range of possible science careers might see it as a high-risk gamble,” says Mathieson.

A third issue is the effect of a sudden trebling of annual university fees to £9,000 (US$12,000) in 2012. “I suspect that fees could be a massive deterrent to those who grow up in families that have to worry about the basic level of income,” says Mathieson.

The danger, she adds, is that a failure to represent all backgrounds will not only squander talent, but increasingly isolate science from society. That disconnect was apparent in the Brexit referendum in June, when more than half of the public voted to leave the European Union, compared with around one in ten researchers. “That diverging world view is a real problem,” says Mathieson, “both for the quality of research and for scientists’ place in society.”

JAPAN: Deepening divisions

By David Cyranoski
In Japan, inequalities in wealth and status do not reach the extremes found in China and India. Nonetheless, graduate education and academic research have become less attractive options over the past decade, especially for the underprivileged. Some warn that this could make research a preserve of the wealthy — with grave social costs.“It is an emerging issue in Japan,” says Yuko Ito, who researches science policy at the Japan Science and Technology Agency in Tokyo, a major science funder.

A big part of the problem is the rise in tuition fees: even at the relatively inexpensive national universities, the ¥86,000 (US$840) in entrance and first-year tuition fees students paid in 1975 would make little dent in the ¥817,800 they’ve been paying since 2005. In addition, thanks to Japan’s long economic contraction, parents are chipping in 19% less for living costs on average than they did a decade ago.

This leaves students increasingly dependent on ‘scholarships’ — which in Japan are mainly loans that need to be paid back. Half of all graduate students have taken out loans, and one-quarter owe more than ¥5 million. “Many students just can’t come up with the tuition and living costs to become researchers,” says Koichi Sumikura, a professor of science policy at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies in Tokyo.

Even for those who make it through university on loans, jobs that would make the debt worthwhile are far from guaranteed. In their prime years, between the ages of 30 and 60, one-third of university graduates earns less than ¥3 million per year. “In these conditions,” says Ito, “one would hesitate to follow an academic career.”

The social divide in higher education already shows. A crucial step to becoming a researcher is to enter a powerful institution such as the University of Tokyo, where the average income of a student’s family is twice the national average. “If this situation continues,” Ito says, “science will become something that only the rich will hold an interest in, and research will grow distant from solving current social problems.”

The government has taken stock of the issue. A government plan for ‘investment in the future’, announced on 2 August, promises to increase funding for scholarships that need not be repaid as well as to boost the availability of tax-free student loans.

But the government has yet to take up a more specific examination of the relationship between success as a researcher and economic factors, says Sumikura. “That will be an important topic in the future,” he says.

BRAZIL: Progressive policy pays off

By Jeff Tollefson
In Brazil, inequalities in wealth are extreme by almost every measure — including education. The government-run schools are so bad that they are avoided by all but the poorest families. As recently as 2014, just 57% of the country’s 19-year-olds had completed high school.

And yet there are signs of progress, especially in science, technology, engineering and medicine. In 2011, for example, Brazil created Science Without Borders, a programme to send tens of thousands of high-achieving university and graduate students to study abroad. Because students from wealthier families have by far the best primary and secondary education, they might have been expected to dominate the selection process. But by the end of the first phase this year, more than half of the 73,353 participants had come from low-income families.

“These statistics really caught us all by surprise,” says Carlos Nobre, a climate scientist who formerly headed of one of the public foundations that fund Science Without Borders.

In São Paulo, meanwhile, the medical school at the prestigious University of Campinas (UNICAMP) gives preference to admitting gifted students from government-run schools. The programme started in 2004 after research suggested that out of those with similar test scores prior to admittance, predominantly poor government-school students tended to perform better at UNICAMP than did their counterparts from private schools. The former comprised 68% of this year’s entering class.

Carlos Henrique de Brito Cruz, who launched the UNICAMP initiative when he was the university rector, suspects that part of the answer is quite simple. “These students had more obstacles to overcome,” he says. “And when you put them in an environment where the obstacles are more or less the same, they tend to realize more of their potential.”

Brazil may also be seeing the fruits of the government’s effort to improve scientific literacy and push more students into science careers, which gained momentum after the inauguration of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva as president in 2003. A division at the federal Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation focuses entirely on ‘social inclusion’, with programmes to improve public schools and promote research in fields that affect local communities, such as nutrition and sustainability.

The poor quality of secondary education remains a substantial problem that could take a generation or more to address, experts say. Nonetheless, existing initiatives could be boosting the quality of government schools enough for ambitious students to excel, says Nobre. The next question, he says, is whether these students will be able to bolster innovation in Brazilian science. “Now that they are coming into the market, we will have to start evaluating very quickly what happened to these students.”

INDIA: Barriers of language and caste

By T. V. Padma
Despite the renown of technology hubs such as Bangalore and universities such as the multicampus Indian Institute of Technology, vast numbers of talented students in India never get to realize their full potential owing to poor rural schools, language barriers and the caste system. Especially outside the cities, higher education — including science — largely remains a privilege of the rich, the politically powerful and the upper castes.

India’s national census does not collect data on caste, rural or gender representation in science, nor do the country’s science departments. Nonetheless, says Gautam Desiraju, a chemist at the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore, it is clear that rural Indian students are hampered by a lack of good science teachers and lab facilities, and are unaware of opportunities to enter mainstream science (see www.nature.com/indiascience). The barriers are even higher for rural girls, who are discouraged from pursuing higher studies or jobs, and for girls from poor urban families, who are expected to take jobs to contribute to their dowries.

Nature special:Science in India

Many rural students are also hampered by their poor English, the language that schools often use to explain science. “Teachers from elite colleges and interview and selection committees are often biased against such students,” says immunologist Indira Nath, at the Indian National Science Academy in New Delhi.

Caste — the hereditary class system of Hindu society — is officially not an issue. India’s constitution and courts have mandated that up to half of the places in education and employment must be reserved for people from historically discriminated-against classes. However, a clause excludes several of India’s top science centres from this requirement. And in reality there is an “unintentional, subtle or hidden discrimination against students from reserved categories, right from high school to college levels”, says Shri Krishna Joshi, a scientist emeritus at the National Physical Laboratory in New Delhi. Teachers do not encourage them as much as they do students from upper castes. As a result, he says, “poor students from reserved categories in turn often have psychological barriers and believe they cannot compete with the others”.

Still, says Desiraju, there are signs of progress. For a long time, Indian officials assumed that all they had to do was set up centres of scientific excellence and the effects on education would simply trickle down to the masses. “But now,” he says, “agencies are beginning to adopt a more bottom-up approach” that seeks to find talented people at the lowest economic levels.

At the University of Delhi South Campus, geneticist Tapasya Srivastava sees the effects of that shift. “Competitiveness for higher science education is increasing across all caste-based categories and gaps are dissolving,” she says.

“Talented young researchers are getting admissions based on their merit alone and not because of the constitutional provision,” agrees Desiraju. But there is much still to be done, he says. “Finding the right talented girl or boy in a small town or village in India is often like finding a needle in a haystack.”

KENYA: Easy access but poor prospects

By Linda Nordling

Francesco Cocco/Contrasto/eyevine

Poor students from Kenya are often interested in science, but struggle to make it a career.

In Kenya, where around 40% of the population lives on less than US$1.25 a day, class matters surprisingly little for who makes it into science. As one of Africa’s fast-growing ‘lion’ economies, the country has seen university enrolment more than double since 2011, reaching more than 500,000 last year. The government subsidizes tuition fees for poor secondary-school students who get good grades in science, and there are loans available to help them with living expenses.

At the postgraduate level, however, the lack of opportunities in Kenya means that many science hopefuls have to do part of their training abroad. “The problem for me wasn’t getting into science, it was staying in,” says Anne Makena, a Kenyan from a lower-class background with an undergraduate degree in biochemistry from Moi University in Eldoret. She now has a Rhodes scholarship to finish her PhD in chemical biology at the University of Oxford, UK.

“Class matters surprisingly little for who makes it into science.”

For those staying at home, the surest path to a research career is to get a job with foreign-funded organizations such as the International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology (ICIPE) in Nairobi, or the partnership between the Kenya Medical Research Institute (KEMRI) and the UK Wellcome Trust. But competition is fierce, and it can take years to get accepted. This is when graduates from a poorer background are more likely to give up, says Makena. They are drawn by lucrative private-sector salaries and mindful of the need to contribute financially to their families, whereas wealthier students can afford to wait.

Another source of uncertainty is Kenyan universities’ struggle to secure enough operating funds from the government. The shortfall has led vice-chancellors in the country’s public universities to propose up to a five-fold rise in tuition fees for resource-intensive courses, including science. If this happens and government subsidies do not keep pace, poorer students might forego science courses for cheaper degrees.

That would be a pity, says Baldwyn Torto, head of behavioural and chemical ecology at ICIPE, because Kenyan students from modest backgrounds make excellent scientists in his experience. “You find kids from poorer families performing equally well, if not better, than kids from wealthier families,” he says.

RUSSIA: Positive policy, poor productivity

By Quirin Schiermeier
Following the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991, Russia was quickly given over to untamed capitalism and increasing inequity. Yet the country retained its socialist ideals in education: even now, Russia produces a large share of its science students and researchers from low- and middle-income backgrounds.

“There is a national consensus in Russia regarding the value of equal opportunities in education for the modernization of our country,” says Dmitry Peskov, who directs the young professionals division of the Moscow-based Agency for Strategic Initiatives, which promotes economic innovation in Russia. The country hosts some 3,000 universities and higher learning institutes, and about half of its secondary-school graduates go on to attend them. The average among all Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development countries is about 35%.

In peripheral regions such as the Urals or Siberia, where local governments are keen to develop scientific and engineering capacity, teachers identify talented students as early as ages 4 to 6. If they continue to show promise, they are encouraged to enrol at local universities, whose tuition-free programmes may focus on local needs such as agricultural technology.

Children who demonstrate exceptional skills in science, art, sports or even chess may earn admission to the Sirius educational centre in Sochi on the Black Sea. This centre, backed by Russian president Vladimir Putin, was set up after the 2014 Winter Olympics to help Russia’s most gifted youths develop their talent with support from leading scientists and professionals.

Since December 2015, prospective students who succeed in local or national science competitions and maths Olympiads can also hope to secure a presidential grant worth 20,000 roubles (US$307) per month. These grants allow hundreds of students from lower social backgrounds to study at the nation’s top universities on the sole condition that they will stay in Russia for at least five years after graduation.

But despite such efforts, Russia’s science output remains relatively low. One reason, Peskov says, is the Russian science community’s isolation. For all their skills and social diversity, Russian researchers tend to speak poor English and are underrepresented in international meetings and collaborations. Uncertainty over the Russian government’s future support of science adds to the problem. “Lucrative jobs in finance, business administration or industry are much more popular among well-trained young Russians than is a risky academic career,” he notes.

Tardigrade protein helps human DNA withstand radiation


Experiments show that the tardigrade’s resilience can be transferred to cultures of human cells.

Water bears are renowned for their ability to withstand extreme conditions.

Tardigrades, or water bears, are pudgy, microscopic animals that look like a cross between a caterpillar and a naked mole rat. These aquatic invertebrates are consummate survivors, capable of withstanding a host of extremes, including near total dehydration and the insults of space.

Now, a paper1 published on 20 September in Nature Communications pinpoints the source of yet another tardigrade superpower: a protective protein that provides resistance to damaging X-rays. And researchers were able to transfer that resistance to human cells.

“Tolerance against X-ray is thought to be a side-product of [the] animal’s adaption to severe dehydration,” says lead study author Takekazu Kunieda, a molecular biologist at the University of Tokyo. According to Kunieda, severe dehydration wreaks havoc on the molecules in living things. It can even tear apart DNA, much like X-rays can.

The researchers wanted to know how tardigrades protected themselves against such harsh conditions. So Kunieda and his colleagues began by sequencing the genome of Ramazzottius varieornatus, a species that is particularly stress tolerant. It’s easier to study processes within the tardigrade’s cells when the animal’s genome is inserted into mammalian cells, says Kunieda. So researchers manipulated cultures of human cells to produce pieces of the water bear’s inner machinery to determine which parts were actually giving the animals their resistance.

Eventually, Kunieda and his colleagues discovered that a protein known as Dsup prevented the animal’s DNA from breaking under the stress of radiation and desiccation. And they also found that the tardigrade-tinged human cells were able to suppress X-ray induced damage by about 40%.

Genomic treasure trove

“Protection and repair of DNA is a fundamental component of all cells and a central aspect in many human diseases, including cancer and ageing,” says Ingemar Jönsson, an evolutionary ecologist who studies tardigrades at Kristianstad University in Sweden.

This makes the new paper’s findings “highly interesting for medicine”, says Jönsson. It opens up the possibility of improving the stress resistance of human cells, which could one day benefit people undergoing radiation therapies.

Kunieda adds that these findings may one day protect workers from radiation in nuclear facilities or possibly help us to grow crops in extreme environments, such as the ones found on Mars.

Bob Goldstein, a biologist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who helped to sequence the genome of another tardigrade species2, says the research is exciting and clever. He also thinks that the study’s authors are correct in predicting that this is probably just the first of many such discoveries.

“The tardigrade is resistant to a lot of different kinds of extremes,” says Goldstein. And this means that the animals must have many different ways of protecting themselves.

“We are really just at the beginning of exploring the genetic treasure that the tardigrade genome represents,” says Jönsson.

Worldwide brain-mapping project sparks excitement — and concern


Worries include how to coordinate research programmes and resources from different countries.

Two heads are better than one: an idea that a new global brain initiative hopes to take advantage of.

In recent years, brain-mapping initiatives have been popping up around the world. They have different goals and areas of expertise, but now researchers will attempt to apply their collective knowledge in a global push to more fully understand the brain.

Thomas Shannon, US Under Secretary of State, announced the launch of the International Brain Initiative on 19 September at a meeting that accompanied the United Nations’ General Assembly in New York City.

Details — including which US agency will spearhead the programme and who will pay for it — are still up in the air. However, researchers held a separate, but concurrent, meeting hosted by the US National Science Foundation at Rockefeller University to discuss which aspects of the programmes already in existence could be aligned under the global initiative. The reaction was a mixture of concerns over the fact that attempting to align projects could siphon money and attention from existing initiatives in other countries, and anticipation over the possibilities for advancing our knowledge about the brain.“I thought the most exciting moment in my scientific career was when the president announced the BRAIN Initiative in 2013,” says Cori Bargmann, a neuroscientist at the Rockefeller University in New York City and one of the main architects of the US Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative. “But this was better.”

A wealth of ideas

One of several goals for the initiative is the creation of universal brain-mapping tools. Promising experimental tools exist, but labs make their own variations in-house and also tend to run experiments in their own ways. This makes it harder for different teams to collaborate or exchange information. At the Rockefeller meeting, physicist Michael Roukes at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena noted that the industrial revolution only took off once factories with interchangeable components began replacing companies that had one-off machines. “We’re still in the neuroscience craft era,” he says. “Everyone has their secret sauce.”

Another idea proposed at the meeting is the creation of an International Brain Observatory, with tools such as powerful microscopes and supercomputing resources that scientists from around the world could access — similar to the way that astronomers share telescope time. “If you just give people the basic tools, they’ll do better science,” says Alan Evans, a neurologist at McGill University in Montreal, Canada.

Scientists cheered the idea of a virtual, cloud-based data-sharing resource, analogous to the GenBank genomics resource. It can be difficult to align data as each neurology lab has a preferred method of collecting, formatting and analysing their data sets. But Joshua Vogelstein, a neuroscientist at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, proposes a virtual International Brain Station that could automatically convert data from human brain scans or animal gene expression into standardized formats that would allow more people to analyse them.

Different priorities

But many attendees worried that marshalling the numerous proposals under one umbrella could backfire. Existing brain-research programmes have different priorities: Japan and China, for instance, are investing heavily in primate research, whereas the United States tends to avoid it for ethical reasons. The European Union’s flagship Human Brain Project (HBP) is focused on understanding the basic science of how the brain works, whereas Canada is mainly interested in creating technologies that can be applied to medicine.

Other concerns expressed at the US-led Rockefeller meeting, intended to marshal support and ideas for the new International Brain Initiative, felt that some attendees were ignoring existing resources. Canada’s nine-year-old CBRAIN programme serves as a clearinghouse for data and methods, and is already used by neuroscientists in 22 countries and the HBP. But Evans says that it is similar to the International Brain Station proposed at the Rockefeller meeting. “It’s like, let’s reinvent the wheel,” he says.

Others worry that the supposedly global initiative would exclude developing countries. “If the only way to do international is for each country to put in $300 million, that will not be international,” says Sandhya Koushika of the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research in Mumbai, India.

Although smaller countries cannot afford to map a marmoset brain, as Japan is doing, Koushika says that they could contribute to resources with patients, model organisms and efforts to design more affordable technologies.

Bargmann says that the point of the Rockefeller meeting was to get a sense of the kinds of programmes already out there, and notes that future meetings will be more focused once they know who will participate.

Overall, scientists are hopeful that this new global initiative will enable them to take brain mapping to the next level. Because several brain research projects have been around for a while, it’s easier to compare their strengths and weaknesses and begin to talk pragmatically about what we need to align them, says Christoph Ebell, executive director of the HBP.  “I think it is the right moment.”

Artificial sweeteners linked to obesity and metabolic disorders


A joint team headed by Eran Segal and Eran Elinav of the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot led a study that found links between the use of sugar substitutes such as saccharine and obesity. It is also the first study to suggest that sweeteners cause metabolic disorders when they are exposed to the gut microbiome—the diverse community of bacteria in the human intestines.

The researchers studied the effects of sweetener consumption on mice and found that the mice became glucose intolerant. To check whether the sweeteners were affecting the murine microbiome, the researchers used antibiotics to kill the gut bacteria, which reversed the metabolic changes, suggesting that artificial sweeteners were making microbiome unhealthy. The researchers then studied the effect of sweeteners on healthy human volunteers. While some became glucose intolerant and showed susceptibility to metabolic diseases, others did not. This indicates that generic use of sweeteners should be avoided. However, more research is required to draw any firm conclusions.

 

Soft drinks are just some of the many products that use artificial sweeteners.

The artificial sweeteners that are widely seen as a way to combat obesity and diabetes could, in part, be contributing to the global epidemic of these conditions.

Sugar substitutes such as saccharin might aggravate these metabolic disorders by acting on bacteria in the human gut, according to a study published by Nature this week (J. Suez et al. Nature http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/nature13793; 2014). Smaller studies have previously purported to show an association between the use of artificial sweeteners and the occurrence of metabolic disorders. This is the first work to suggest that sweeteners might be exacerbating metabolic disease, and that this might happen through the gut microbiome, the diverse community of bacteria in the human intestines. “It’s counter-intuitive — no one expected it because it never occurred to them to look,” says Martin Blaser, a microbiologist at New York University.

The findings could cause a headache for the food industry. According to BCC Research, a market-research company in Wellesley, Massachusetts, the market for artificial sweeteners is booming. And regulatory agencies, which track the safety of food additives, including artificial sweeteners, have not flagged such a link to metabolic disorders. In response to the latest findings, Stephen Pagani, a spokesman for the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) in Parma, Italy, says that, as with all new data, the agency “will decide in due course whether they should be brought to the attention of panel experts for review”.

A team led by Eran Elinav of the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel, fed mice various sweeteners — saccharin, sucralose and aspartame — and found that after 11 weeks, the animals displayed glucose intolerance, a marker of propensity for metabolic disorders.

To simulate the real-world situation of people with varying risks of these diseases, the team fed some mice a normal diet, and some a high-fat diet, and spiked their water either with glucose alone, or with glucose and one of the sweeteners, saccharin. The mice fed saccharin developed a marked glucose intolerance compared to those fed only glucose. But when the animals were given antibiotics to kill their gut bacteria, glucose intolerance was prevented. And when the researchers transplanted faeces from the glucose-intolerant saccharin-fed mice into the guts of mice bred to have sterile intestines, those mice also became glucose intolerant, indicating that saccharin was causing the microbiome to become unhealthy.

Elinav’s team also used data from an on­going clinical nutrition study that has recruited nearly 400 people in Israel. The researchers noted a correlation between clinical signs of metabolic disorder — such as increasing weight or decreasing efficiency of glucose metabolism — and consumption of artificial sweeteners.

But “this is a bit chicken-and-egg”, says Elinav. “If you are putting on weight, you are more likely to turn to diet food. It doesn’t necessarily mean the diet food caused you to put on weight.”

So his team recruited seven lean and healthy volunteers, who did not normally use artificial sweeteners, for a small prospective study. The recruits consumed the maximum acceptable daily dose of artificial sweeteners for a week. Four became glucose intolerant, and their gut microbiomes shifted towards a balance already known to be associated with susceptibility to metabolic diseases, but the other three seemed to be resistant to saccharin’s effects. “This underlines the importance of personalized nutrition — not everyone is the same,” says Elinav.

He does not yet propose a mechanism for the effect of artificial sweeteners on the micro­biome. But, says Blaser, understanding how these compounds work on some species in the gut might “inspire us in developing new therapeutic approaches to metabolic disease”.

Yolanda Sanz, a nutritionist and vice-chair of the EFSA’s panel on dietetic products, nutrition and allergies, says that it is too soon to draw firm conclusions. Metabolic disorders have many causes, she points out, and the study is very small.

Stephen Hawking warns against seeking out aliens in new film


Beware responding to signals from far off stars, physicist tells viewers in Stephen Hawking’s Favorite Places – a virtual journey across the cosmos

Stephen Hawking takes viewers to five significant locations across the cosmos in the online film.
Stephen Hawking takes viewers to five significant locations across the cosmos in the online film. Photograph: Stephen Hawkin favorite places“We come in peace” might be the traditional opening gambit for aliens in science fiction, but we should be wary about beaming back a response to any advanced life-forms in real life, Stephen Hawking has warned.

Our first contact from an advanced civilisation could be equivalent to when Native Americans first encountered Christopher Columbus and things “didn’t turn out so well”, he cautioned.

The comments are made in an online film, Stephen Hawking’s Favorite Places, in which the theoretical physicist takes viewers on his own CGI spacecraft (the SS Hawking) to five significant locations across the cosmos.

On arriving at Gliese 832c, a planet 16 light years away, Hawking reflects: “As I grow older I am more convinced than ever that we are not alone. After a lifetime of wondering, I am helping to lead a new global effort to find out. The Breakthrough Listen project will scan the nearest million stars for signs of life, but I know just the place to start looking. One day we might receive a signal from a planet like Gliese 832c, but we should be wary of answering back.”

It is not the first time Hawking has warned about the prospect of hostile aliens. Launching the Breakthrough Listen project, which will scan the nearest million stars for signs of life, last year he suggested that any civilisation reading our messages could be billions of years ahead of humans. “If so they will be vastly more powerful and may not see us as any more valuable than we see bacteria,” he said.

Stephen Hawking’s CGI spacecraft, the SS Hawking.
Stephen Hawking’s CGI spacecraft, the SS Hawking. 

The 25-minute film, which appears on the platform CuriosityStream, starts at the Big Bang, which has been the focus of much of Hawking’s career. Viewers are also taken deep into a super-massive black hole, Sagittarius A*, where Hawking explains his theory of matter, and to Saturn, which Hawking calls “the most spectacular destination in the Solar System.”

Finally, Hawking returns to Earth to Santa Barbara where he talks nostalgically of his early career at Cal Tech and times spent on the sunny California coast with his young family.

“My goal is simple: complete understanding of the universe,” Hawking said. “It’s always been a dream of mine to explore the universe.”

Responding to aliens is a really, really bad idea – Stephen Hawking


Physicist Stephen Hawking © Lucas Jackson
Stephen Hawking has advised us earthlings to be extremely wary about answering any signals from aliens when they eventually come calling.

Hawking made the comments during his new online show ‘Stephen Hawking’s Favourite Places’. In the programme, the renowned astrophysicist ‘visits’ the potentially habitable Gliese 832c, a planet located some 16 light-years from Earth.

“As I grow older I am more convinced than ever that we are not alone,” says Hawking.

Hawking believes there could very well be life on Gliese, but imagines a meeting between the two civilizations as something that would resemble Christopher Columbus meeting Native Americans, saying, “that didn’t turn out so well.”

“One day we might receive a signal from a planet like this, but we should be wary of answering back,” he cautions.

 

In the program, Hawking references ‘The Breakthrough Listening Project’, a 10-year $100 million initiative, which has Hawking on board, and funded by Russian Billionaire Yuri Milner.

“After a lifetime of wondering, I am helping to lead a new global effort to find out,” Hawking said of the initiative.

The project is the biggest alien-hunting exercise ever undertaken and plans on using the world’s most sensitive radio telescopes to listen in on 10 times the amount of sky than similar enterprises have achieved in the past.

But don’t start packing your bags just yet. On Gilese, a year lasts only 36 days, the atmosphere is thick with fog “or worse”, and one side is constantly facing its sun.

Stellar map with Gliese 832 in the lower left © phl.upr.edu

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