Science  22 Feb 2008:
Vol. 319, Issue 5866, pp. 1021

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  1. THREE Q'S


    As a clinician-researcher studying autism at the University of Washington, Seattle, Geraldine Dawson, 56, spent many years helping parents cope with afflicted children. Last month, Dawson became the first science adviser for Autism Speaks, whose $33-million-a-year research budget makes it the largest funder of autism research in the world.

    Q: What's hot in autism research?

    There's so much in genetics. And we're starting to translate some of the findings into animal models. We're understanding brain pathology better. There's strong interest in trying to attract pharma companies, and we're trying to facilitate that by starting a clinical-trials network that will allow us to be nimble.

    Q: What can you offer parents in the near-term?

    Many of these kids suffer from anxiety, seizures, gastrointestinal problems. The clinical-trial network will try to develop drugs for core symptoms. And if we discover more genes and biomarkers, these are going to allow us to pick up kids at risk very early. We still hope that by beginning [behavioral] interventions before age 1, because of brain plasticity, the outcomes will be more positive.

    Q: Many studies have ruled out vaccines as a cause of autism, but some parents demand more research. Do you fund any?

    There are questions that haven't been addressed, such as the impact of having so many vaccines in such a short time for a genetically vulnerable child. We don't see this as the primary focus [for our organization] but one area among many that are important. My role is to listen to all the voices and ultimately design studies to come up with answers.



    SAGGING STOCK. The U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) has lost favor among the U.S. public in the past 2 years, according to a new public opinion survey that asked 2000 adults how they felt about 22 federal agencies. Among the five science agencies included in the survey, NIH showed the biggest decline: 63% of those surveyed held a favorable opinion of the agency, down 6 percentage points since 2005. Despite public concerns about the safety of certain medications on the market, the Food and Drug Administration's rating rose 6 percentage points, to 63%. NIH spokesperson John Burklow says that NIH will continue efforts to educate the public about the value of biomedical research.


    Cancer biologist Inder Verma of the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in San Diego, California, has won a $50,000 prize from the New York City-based Vilcek Foundation to honor foreign-born Americans. Verma, who was born in India and studied at both the University of Lucknow and the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel, before joining Salk in 1974, is being recognized for his contributions to understanding the genetic alterations that cause cancer and developing techniques for gene therapy.

    A geneticist at the University of Pittsburgh has been sentenced to 1 year of unsupervised probation and a $500 fine for shipping microbes to a Buffalo, New York, artist (Science, 9 July 2004, p. 159). Robert Ferrell, 64, pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor in October after sending Steven Kurtz the microbes—Serratia marcescens and Bacillus atrophaeus—for use in an art exhibit. Many scientists were outraged that the U.S. government prosecuted Ferrell, especially because the organisms are normally harmless. “We're very pleased” that the case is over, says Efrem Grail, Ferrell's lawyer. The case against Kurtz is ongoing.



    BRIEF TERM. David Schwartz has resigned as director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), ending a stormy 3-year tenure. The 54-year-old pulmonologist drew criticism for attempting to privatize the institute's journal and shift funds from disease prevention to clinical studies. But a bigger blow came from an inquiry by Congress last year suggesting that he ran afoul of ethics rules when he consulted for law firms and built up a large personal lab. Schwartz claimed that any errors were the result of misunderstandings, but he temporarily stepped down as director in August and took up an advisory role at the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) while the agency reviewed NIEHS management (Science, 24 August 2007, p. 1021).

    His 8 February resignation brings the chapter to a close from his perspective, although NIH's review, which has yet to be completed, is expected to touch on his controversial actions. In an e-mail to his staff, Schwartz explained that NIEHS “would be more successful with new leadership.” In addition, Schwartz wrote that he had “inadvertently disenfranchised segments of our community,” for which “I sincerely apologize.”

    Schwartz will join the National Jewish Medical and Research Center in Denver, Colorado, where he will head a new genetics research center and direct the pulmonary and critical-care division.