Minnesota Public Radio (MPR) host Mike Mulcahy interviewed two experts yesterday about this year's unusually strong — and deadly — outbreak of influenza. Patsy Stinchfield of Children's Minnesota focused on steps to prevent the illness. Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy (CIDRAP), a Consortium member, outlined the challenges to developing effective vaccines. Osterholm co-authored a New York Times op ed in January, with Mark Olshaker, sounding the alarm on our lack of preparedness for a flu pandemic. They write: "A worldwide influenza pandemic is literally the worst-case scenario in public health — yet far from an unthinkable occurrence. Unless we make changes, the question is not if but when it will come."
A major paper just published in Cell Host & Microbe sheds light on a question that has puzzled scientists for years: while we know fecal microbiota transplantation (FMT) works for people suffering from recurrent Clostridium difficile infection, how exactly does it work? The research team behind the paper includes Consortium collaborators Alexander Khoruts and Michael J. Sadowsky, the director of the Biotechnology Institute, a Consortium member center. They used clinical experiments and statistical modeling to uncover the "rules" for how donor bacteria grafts itself to existing gut microbes in the host. One of the outcomes of the research is Strain Finder, a method to predict which types of bacteria will best colonize a microbiome being treated via FMT. In addition to its implications for the treatment of C. diff, the study findings may also help with therapies for metabolic syndrome as well as other common conditions. Prof. Khoruts gave a lecture on The Evolving Human Microbiome that was moderated by Michael J. Sadowsky; it's been viewed thousands of times because it provides a coherent overview of this fascinating subject; you can view it here. More recently, Martin J. Blaser spoke about the effects of antibiotics on the human microbiome; you can view his lecture here.
Two University of Minnesota professors have co-authored a major nutrition policy paper on behalf of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP).
Today, Martin J. Blaser of New York University's School of Medicine spoke to a standing-room-only crowd on "The Dark Side of Antibiotics." Prof. Blaser provided an overview of what we've learned about changes to the human microbiome over the past 70+ years. His talk focused on obesity, diabetes, asthma and other harms that appear to be linked to the aggressive use of antibiotics. Prof. Blaser also outlined research indicating that microbiome characteristics can be passed from mother to child, leading to ever more limited microbiotic diversity over generations. He looked at global differences in the human microbiome related to the number of antibiotics prescribed, and discussed the more judicious use of these drugs in countries like Sweden, where antibiotics are prescribed less frequently but health measures are still strong. Finally, he described some possible approaches to microbiome restoration. James R. Johnson, an infectious disease specialist, provided a commentary in which he discussed the various ways antibiotics have been viewed by medical professionals since coming into wide usage in the early 1940s. Prof. Johnson offered a clinical perspective on the challenges of limiting their use. A video of the entire talk can be viewed here.
Every year, the Consortium sponsors leading national programs, undertakes cross-disciplinary research and provides grants to support scholarship on the societal implications of the life sciences. We also connect our 19 member centers and affiliate faculty with national and international collaborators to create a vibrant community of thinkers and policymakers. To stay up to date on our offerings and news, sign up for our email list. And don't forget to follow us on Facebook and Twitter!
Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) have the potential to help prevent the spread of diseases and increase both crop yields and nutritional value, but according to an article in Science Alert, "There's a big problem. . . . When you release altered species out into the wild, how can you prevent them from breeding with untweaked organisms living in their natural environment, and producing hybrid offspring that scientists can't control or regulate?" Synthetic biologist Maciej Maselko of the BioTechnology Institute, a Consortium member, is leading a team to solve this problem. Prof. Maselko's researchers have used the gene editing tool CRISPR-Cas9 to alter yeast microbes so they're genetically incompatible and incapable of mating with their non-GMO counterparts. They call this approach "synthetic incompatability," and it's a technique that could be used in a multitude of ways, including to curb invasive carp or increase the production of medicines derived from plants. Read the entire article here.
How can we harness the big social, technological, and infrastructural changes arising in cities for the greatest good? A new National Science Foundation (NSF) report led by Anu Ramaswami outlines a long-term research agenda that uses a much larger urban systems perspective than is currently in place. Among the paradigm changes it recommends are taking rural-urban trade into account; considering the impacts of the sharing economy, automation and renewable energy; and asking how massive new urbanization expected in Africa and Asia will influence global environments. Ramaswami is the Director of the Center for Science, Technology, and Environmental Policy, a Consortium member. Read more about the report here.
Two recently published articles, one written by Consortium Chair Susan M. Wolf and the other by LawSeqSM Working Group member Barbara J. Evans, grapple with important issues in genetic research ethics. The Wolf article, "The Continuing Evolution of Ethical Standards for Genomic Sequencing in Clinical Care: Restoring Patient Choice," outlines the complexities of setting policy to guide the management of incidental or secondary findings. She argues that the leading professional society for medical geneticists in the US, the American College of Medical Genetics and Genomics (ACMG), needs to change their current guideline to reflect empirically-based research on patient preferences regarding informed consent. In her commentary "HIPAA’s Individual Right of Access to Genomic Data: Reconciling Safety and Civil Rights," Prof. Evans applies the lens of civil rights law to a patient's right to view their own laboratory test results. Wolf and Evans are two of the most eminent legal scholars working on genomics research ethics; they were among the co-authors of the influential paper "Return of Genomic Results to Research Participants: The Floor, the Ceiling, and the Choices In Between."
Jeffrey Kahn, Director of the Berman Institute of Bioethics at Johns Hopkins University, joined Minnesota Public Radio host Kerri Miller today to discuss innovations in gene editing and the consequences that must be considered as it moves into clinical application. New tools like CRISPR are much more targeted than past gene therapies; molecular biology now allows the precoding of both the material and the location affected by genetic change. This raises thorny ethical questions: could these techniques go beyond curing diseases to creating genetic enhancements that could make someone stronger or faster? Could gene editing be used to advance eugenics, by making it possible to change someone's skin color? Will the benefits be widely available, or only help the wealthy and powerful? What does it mean to disabled if we have the ability to wipe out conditions like Down syndrome? Rapid advancements in gene therapy and the development of technologies that are more powerful than originally expected means carefully considered policy and clinical approaches must be put in place. Listen to the whole conversation here. Before joining Johns Hopkins, Prof. Kahn was Director of the Center for Bioethics at University of Minnesota.
A brain stimulation device just approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) was developed as part of a multi-site clinical study led by University of Minnesota medical researchers and partly funded by the MnDRIVE program. According to Twin Cities Business, neurology department chair Dr. Jerrold Vitek and his research team successfully implanted the first non-trial patient with the Vercise system at the University of Minnesota Medical Center in December. The device is manufactured by Boston Scientific, and has been hailed as “one the most innovative neuromodulation technologies available today.” Deep brain stimulation is used to reduce the involuntary shaking and stiffness that are among the symptoms of Parkinson's disease. MnDRIVE – Minnesota’s Discovery, Research, and InnoVation Economy – is a partnership between the University and the State of Minnesota that aligns areas of research strength with the state’s key and emerging industries. One of of MnDRIVE's areas of focus is the treatment of brain conditions; the others are robotics, global food and the environment.