News this Week

Science  01 Jul 2011:
Vol. 333, Issue 6038, pp. 18
1. Around the World

1 - Washington, D.C.
U.S. on Verge of Patent Reform
2 - Hong Kong
Mutated Bacteria Drives Scarlet Fever Outbreak
3 - Coyhaique, Chile
Court Delays Controversial Patagonian Dams
4 - Washington, D.C.
White House Retools Advanced Manufacturing Efforts
5 - Paris
Diabetes Pill Deaths Prompt French Drug Regulation Reform
6 - Munich, London, and Washington, D.C.
Three Funders Launch Open-Access Biology Journal

Washington, D.C.

U.S. on Verge of Patent Reform

A bill to overhaul the U.S. patent system survived a dispute over funding and passed the House of Representatives last week, 304 to 117. The Senate approved a similar bill in March, 95-5. After 6 years of debate, Congress seems ready to make the first big revision of the U.S. patent system in 60 years.

Both the House and Senate would end the U.S. practice of giving priority to the first person who claims to have invented a new technology; instead, the patent would go to the first to file a valid application. This would bring the U.S. system in line with the rest of the world. Those who favor first-to-file—including large technology firms—say that it is objective, efficient, and likely to reduce lawsuits. But small businesses and independent inventors have argued that the change will favor corporations. House and Senate negotiators will get together this month to work out a final bill.

Hong Kong

Mutated Bacteria Drives Scarlet Fever Outbreak

A mutated strain of Streptococcus is apparently behind an outbreak of scarlet fever in Hong Kong that has killed two children and sickened more than 600 people so far this year. Over the past decade, Hong Kong has typically recorded 100 to 200 cases annually with no deaths. Young adults, not usually affected by the disease, are now becoming infected. And neighboring parts of southern China and Macao are also seeing more scarlet fever cases, according to Hong Kong's Department of Health.

University of Hong Kong microbiologist Kwok-Yung Yuen says an analysis of a draft sequence of the genome suggests that the strain acquired greater virulence and drug resistance by picking up one or more genes from bacteria normally found in the human oral and urogenital tracts. He believes the overuse of antibiotics is driving the emergence of drug resistance in these bacteria.

Coyhaique, Chile

An unexpected decision by an appeals court in Puerto Montt, Chile, has put on hold a proposal to build five dams on the Baker and Pascua rivers in the Patagonian region of Aysén. The court agreed on 20 June to examine claims of irregularities in the environmental review of the $3.2 billion Hidro-Aysén project, which was approved by the local government on 9 May. The hydroelectric scheme, backed by the Chilean Colbún and Spanish-Italian Endesa companies, is designed to generate power for central Chile; its reservoirs would flood nearly 6000 hectares of Patagonian land. Long opposed by environmentalists, the project has sparked massive protests throughout Chile since its approval last month. Opponents, including local entrepreneurs, objected that the review of the dams by the Commission for Environmental Assessment and approval by the government violated their constitutional rights. They also said that critical information, such as data on the risk of landslides and tsunamis around reservoirs, had been ignored in the review. The court has allowed 3 months to resolve the appeal. http://scim.ag/chiledams Washington, D.C. White House Retools Advanced Manufacturing Efforts Last week, the Obama Administration gave a shout-out to advanced manufacturing research in an effort to drum up support for an economically important but decidedly unsexy topic. In a visit to Carnegie Mellon University, the president announced that government, academic, and industrial leaders have formed a planned$500 million public-private partnership to oversee a suite of research investments in the field. In listing the sorts of things the partnership would oversee, Obama mentioned a $50-million co-robotics initiative being launched by four federal agencies and a proposed$100-million effort, with the catchy name of the Materials Genome Initiative, to use computing power to improve the discovery, development, and manufacturing of new materials.

The numbers attached to the various efforts are a bit soft. The announced figures represent a combination of money already on the books of various federal agencies, contributions from industry, and spending levels in the president's 2012 budget request that Congress is unlikely to match.

Paris

Diabetes Pill Deaths Prompt French Drug Regulation Reform

French health minister Xavier Bertrand unveiled on 23 June what he described as the most important overhaul of the drug regulation system ever undertaken in France. The overhaul was in part driven by a scandal related to the diabetes drug benfluorex, or Médiator. The drug was on the market for 33 years in France and was taken by 5 million people until November 2009 when new research linking it to heart valve damage prompted its withdrawal from the market. Médiator is estimated to have caused 500 to 2000 deaths in France.

The scandal raised questions about the French pharmaceutical industry's closeness to politics and the regulators. The reforms will focus on preventing conflicts of interest in the health service, increasing transparency in decision making on drug approvals, and ensuring that drugs offer real benefits. New drugs would be compared with existing ones and not just placebos.

http://scim.ag/drugreform

Munich, London, and Washington, D.C.

Three Funders Launch Open-Access Biology Journal

Three heavyweight nongovernmental funders of science are launching a free, online biology journal aimed at publishing the very best papers within a few weeks of submission.

The Wellcome Trust in the United Kingdom and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) in the United States are setting up a joint venture with the Max Planck Society in Germany to run the life sciences and biomedical journal. It will “attract the absolute top tier of scientific publications,” said Wellcome Trust Director Mark Walport this week. The journal hopes to review papers within 3 to 4 weeks. “We're not going to go through endless iterations of nitpicking,” Walport said.

The journal will be open access, meaning that articles will be freely available online the moment they are published. Working scientists, not professional editors, will oversee peer review. The new journal will not charge so-called author fees to cover costs, at least at first. Its founders are also considering whether to pay reviewers. The first issue is to be published in summer 2012.

2. Newsmakers

California Stem Cell Agency Picks New Chair

The California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) has elected southern California bond financier Jonathan Thomas to be its next chair. Thomas will succeed Robert Klein, the real estate investor who spearheaded the 2004 ballot initiative to create the publicly funded agency and led it for its first 6 years. Klein's tenure has generated both praise and controversy, and the process of choosing his successor wasn't pretty (Science, 24 December 2010, p. 1742). But last week the CIRM board opened a new chapter, picking Thomas over the only other candidate, Frank Litvack, a cardiologist and medical device entrepreneur, by a vote of 14 to 11.

Critics of Klein wanted a chair who'd be less involved in daily operations. Litvack seemed to agree, saying he'd take a part-time salary and play mainly an oversight role. Thomas, however, insisted the chair is a full-time job. He also emphasized his experience in finance. With California in a prolonged fiscal crisis, CIRM may have to find sources of funding other than the state bonds that have sustained it so far, Thomas told the board before the vote.

By the Numbers

£13,481,250 — Sale price of Pablo Picasso's 1935 painting Jeune Fille Endormie, sold at auction by the University of Sydney on 22 June. The money will go to medical research on obesity, diabetes, and heart disease.

21 — Number of new drugs that entered the global market in 2010, down from 26 in 2009, according to Thomson Reuters' CMR International.

350 million — Adults around the world who have diabetes, according to a study in The Lancet that also found diabetes prevalence rose or remained unchanged in virtually every part of the world over the past 3 decades.

4. Science on the Shuttle

1. Dan Charles*

For 30 years, the shuttle has been the main ticket into space for NASA astronauts. But it has also delivered—and fixed—massive observatories and served as an orbiting laboratory. As the program ends, what is its scientific legacy?

In March 1982, plant biologist Joseph Cowles watched the space shuttle's third launch with particular interest. It carried his own experiment: a suitcase-sized apparatus containing seeds from mung beans, oats, and pine trees. His attempt to see how weightlessness affects a plant's growth was one of the first scientific experiments onboard NASA's new flagship. “How often do you get to participate in the space program?” says Cowles, a former associate dean at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, now retired and living in Blacksburg, Virginia.

Next week, a controversial chapter in space science is scheduled to end with the launch of the space shuttle Atlantis. In the 3 decades since Columbia carried Cowles's payload, NASA's five shuttles have flown 134 missions. Although science was never their primary purpose (see timeline, p. 30), the shuttles served as a singular platform from which to observe Earth and the effects of weightlessness. They also launched a half-dozen major scientific satellites and gave new life to the once-crippled Hubble Space Telescope.

Yet the shuttles' accomplishments are haunted by unfulfilled promises. They have flown much less frequently than originally planned and at an enormous cost: roughly \$1.5 billion per launch, in 2010 dollars. “You couldn't justify those expenditures for science,” says Charles Kennel, chair of the Space Studies Board of the National Research Council.

The shuttle's name conveys its real purpose. “It was a bus. It was supposed to go to a space station,” says Joan Vernikos, former head of research on life sciences at NASA. The station, however, got delayed, so “by the time the shuttle was ready, it had nowhere to go.”

Scientists did their best to fill the void. “The bus was going up there. So let's take advantage of it,” says Robert Naumann, formerly chief of the microgravity division at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama.

Astronomers jumped at the chance to plant a series of “great observatories” in space. Scientists from other disciplines, however, struggled to make good use of their new opportunity. “The onboard experiments—this was a community that had never existed,” says Kennel, who also served as associate administrator of NASA.

At first, there was little room in the shuttle for science. Cowles's experiment, like many others, was tucked into a small storage locker on the shuttle's middeck, where the crew sleeps. The European Space Agency “came to the rescue,” Vernikos says. Its Spacelab, a set of pressurized, tube-shaped modules, complete with furnaces and glove boxes, fit inside the shuttle's cargo bay.

Although NASA's calls for proposals were always oversubscribed, Kennel says many top biologists were wary of NASA's pitch, with good reason as it turned out: NASA never managed to fly the shuttle at buslike frequency. Instead of 18 to 24 flights each year, the maximum was nine (in 1985, the year before the Challenger orbiter exploded), and the average was fewer than five. “A scientific career can't depend on flights every 3 years. You'll stay an assistant professor a long time that way,” says Raymond Bula, formerly director of the Center for Space Automation and Robotics at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.

Frustration among scientists deepened after Spacelab was lost along with Columbia and its crew in 2003. Experiments were once again relegated to middeck lockers as the bulk of the cargo space was devoted to materials for the international space station. The inability of NASA to keep its promise of frequent research flights “poisoned the relationship between human space flight and the science community,” Kennel says. He says “things are better now” because NASA has decided to support work on the space station until 2020.

Among some scientists, however, antipathy to the shuttle—or any human space flight—runs deep. “It indulged humankind's impractical space fantasies at a cost that retarded genuine progress,” says physicist Robert Park of the University of Maryland, College Park.

Yet even to the end, some scientists have been drawn to the opportunities it offers. A middeck locker on next week's final shuttle flight will carry genetically altered Salmonella bacteria from Arizona State University's (ASU's) Biodesign Institute. Previous experiments showed that Salmonella bacteria became more virulent in space, says ASU microbiologist Cheryl Nickerson, and she's curious to see how bacteria of the new strain, which have been crippled and altered to act as vaccines against another disease, will behave in microgravity. She's also confident that her research will continue, either on the space station or on commercial space vehicles.

• * Dan Charles is a writer in Washington, D.C.

5. Science on the Shuttle

The Highs and Lows of Shuttle Science

1. Dan Charles

The contributions of the shuttle to science have come in many flavors and at an irregular pace. Science has created a timeline of shuttle science missions.

30 Years of Science Missions

For 3 decades, the shuttle has served as NASA's Swiss Army knife. It is capable of performing a remarkable variety of tasks, but it is not always the ideal tool for a particular job.

The above timeline shows that the contributions of the shuttle to science have come in many flavors and at an irregular pace. The timeline oversimplifies the picture, however. During the first 2 decades, many shuttle missions that were devoted to nonscientific tasks also carried small experiments on board. More recently, the shuttle's primary focus has been building the space station, a facility that, among its many purposes, will carry out scientific research.

To tease out the scientific contributions of the shuttle, Science has grouped the program's 134 missions into five categories. (The sixth, and largest, category is those missions with little or no scientific activity.) By frequency, the exploration of microgravity leads the way, with a substantial amount of such research aboard 45 missions. In second place are major observations of Earth or the heavens (12 missions), followed by the launching of large scientific instruments (seven missions), repairs and upgrades to the Hubble telescope (five missions), and research on the effects of the external space environment (three missions).

LAUNCHING SCIENTIFIC INSTRUMENTS

For Charles Kennel, chair of the Space Studies Board at the National Research Council, the shuttle's greatest contribution to science was its “capacity to lift heavy and complex instruments into space.” Three of NASA's four “great observatories”—the Hubble Space Telescope, the Compton Gamma Ray Observatory, and the Chandra X-ray Observatory—soared aloft in the shuttle's cargo bay. (The Spitzer Space Telescope went up in 2003 on a Delta rocket.) So did the Galileo mission to Jupiter, the Magellan spacecraft that mapped Venus, and the European Space Agency's Ulysses mission, which observed the sun from entirely new perspectives, although an additional rocket boosted them into interplanetary space after the shuttle had taken them to low Earth orbit.

All the instruments have led to stunning scientific advances—but all could have been launched on crewless rockets. Other options, however, weren't immediately available. NASA had stopped development of large, expendable rockets in the mistaken belief that the shuttle would prove to be a cheaper route into space. The shuttle is expensive, in part, because it carries people. In addition, it is huge. Its rocket boosters and onboard engines propel 105,000 kg into orbit—but 80,000 kg of that mass is the shuttle orbiter itself, which returns to Earth. There were fewer efficiencies as a result of reusing that orbiter than expected. The shuttle “is not an optimal launch vehicle, and we could have [launched satellites] more cheaply,” says Heinz Stoewer, former managing director of the German Space Agency.

Still, “no launch is simple,” says Henry Hertzfeld of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., and the shuttle has managed to deliver the goods. In fact, using a crewless launch vehicle might have left astronomers with a crippled view of high-energy radiation from pulsars and of nova and supernova explosions: When the Compton Gamma Ray Observatory emerged from the shuttle's cargo bay in 1991, its high-gain antenna refused to extend properly. After two long spacewalks and a vigorous tug on the antenna, two astronauts succeeded in fixing the problem.

The embarrassment of faulty optics on the Hubble Space Telescope eventually led to what some consider the shuttle's most spectacular accomplishment.

Hubble's fuzzy vision came to light soon after the telescope's launch in 1990. Three years later, astronauts hauled the telescope back into the shuttle's cargo bay and installed its new “corrective lenses.” They did so in the near-vacuum and weightlessness of space, while moving every 90 minutes from sunlight into Earth's night and back again.

With confidence born of that success, NASA kept improving the telescope. In 1997, the shuttle delivered new instruments that allowed Hubble to view infrared light. Two years later, in an emergency repair, astronauts replaced the telescope's failing gyroscopes. Subsequent missions, the most recent in 2009, brought entirely new observing instruments, control systems, and solar panels. All of these upgrades dramatically increased the telescope's power.

Astronaut John Grunsfeld flew on the last three of those missions, earning him the title “Chief Hubble Repairman.” Grunsfeld, now deputy director of the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Maryland, says these missions “recreated” the telescope and represent the space shuttle's greatest single contribution to science: “Far and away, the Hubble servicing missions top the list.”

Critics of crewed space flight point out that NASA could have built and launched an entirely new space telescope for the price of the repair missions. But Grunsfeld says that's unrealistic; it would have taken longer to build and launch a second-generation Hubble, for one thing, and there's no guarantee the project would have been completed.

Shuttle astronauts also carried out another, less famous, repair in 1984. NASA's Solar Maximum satellite, which had been monitoring flares and other solar activity since 1980, had lost the ability to point its instruments accurately, rendering some of them useless. Astronauts managed to capture the satellite (on their fourth attempt) and installed a new control system. The rejuvenated “Solarmax” carried on for another 5 years.

SCIENCE ONBOARD: MICROGRAVITY

The space shuttle opened a door into a world in which the effects of gravity almost completely disappear. In fact, because this realm, dubbed microgravity, was so new to human exploration, it was hard at first to know what experiments were worth doing. “Early on, we just mixed things together and threw it up there,” says Robert Naumann, former chief of microgravity research at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama.

One group of students launched a colony of honey bees into orbit to see if the insects still created honeycombs. (They did.) Fish, however, lost their orientation and started to tumble in the water, face over fin.

The sheer variety of microgravity research on the shuttle is impressive. In 1999, NASA found that microgravity experiments on Spacelab (first flown on the shuttle in 1983 and reconfigured to fit the requirements of each additional microgravity mission until 2003) had led to more than 1000 journal articles in the fields of biotechnology, materials science, fluid dynamics, and combustion. Scientists tried to create better metal alloys, on the theory that materials with different densities would be less likely to separate in the absence of gravity. Others grew protein crystals, thinking that weightlessness would allow such crystals to grow larger and with a more consistent structure. Combustion researchers found that hot gases don't rise but rather produce flames in the shape of a sphere.

But researchers also discovered the shuttle's limitations as a laboratory of weightlessness. For one thing, “we never got true zero gravity,” says Joseph Cowles, a retired biologist from the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in Blacksburg, whose experiments flew on several early shuttle missions. The shuttle's frequent maneuvers, the movements of astronauts, and of course launch and reentry all subjected these experiments to gravitylike forces.

Just creating an apparatus that could work on the shuttle was a complicated job in itself. “This turned out to be quite an experience in hardware development,” Cowles says. His own experiment with plant seedlings produced equivocal results because the minigreenhouse on the shuttle didn't control light or carbon dioxide very well. (The equipment was greatly improved on later shuttle missions.) In addition, a 2-week flight wasn't really long enough to study effects on relatively slow-growing plants.

Scientists studying the behavior of fluids on the shuttle were startled to find that convective flows persisted, even when the apparent force of gravity was 1000 times weaker than on Earth. And materials scientists discovered that other forces, such as intermolecular cohesion, came to the fore and drove different materials apart. “In space, there was still massive separation,” Naumann says.

Arriving at an overall evaluation of all this work has been difficult and contentious. In 1998, a group assembled by the American Society for Cell Biology asserted that the protein-crystal work on the shuttle had made “no serious contribution” to the field. Two years later, a National Research Council study concluded that those experiments had made “incremental” improvements and that the research remained promising enough to continue on the space station. However, the same report acknowledged that “one cannot point to a single case where space-based crystallization efforts produced a crucial discovery leading to a landmark scientific result.”

According to some, the most pathbreaking research on the shuttle has been investigations into the effect of gravity—or its absence—on biological systems, from humans to microbes. Joan Vernikos, formerly director of life sciences research at NASA, says those experiments showed that gravity has surprisingly profound effects. “Muscle synthesis stops immediately when you go into space,” she says. There's a “tremendous increase” in bone loss—up to 5% per month—if astronauts don't engage in exercises that simulate gravity.

Weightlessness also appears to affect the nervous system and behavior, she says. Mice born in weightlessness, with no sense of up or down, failed to develop a normal “righting reflex” and didn't gain it fully even after they returned to Earth.

These insights, according to Vernikos, still haven't been fully recognized by the wider scientific community. “Go to any medical textbook, and the term ‘gravity’ does not appear, to this day,” she says.

Vernikos's biggest regret is “not having the opportunity to fly a few more” flights that could have deepened that understanding. The fledgling community of microgravity researchers fell on hard times when NASA decided to devote most shuttle missions to building the space station.

OBSERVING EARTH

From the beginning, the space shuttle was also a platform from which to look back at humanity's home. On its second flight, crew members took film footage of lightning storms, and another instrument monitored the color of the oceans in search of areas with a lot of photoplankton.

Such efforts intensified during the 1990s as part of NASA's Mission to Planet Earth. A set of instruments called the Atmospheric Laboratory for Applications and Science flew several times in the shuttle's payload bay, observing Earth's atmosphere from that vantage point. Even so, says Kennel, who oversaw Mission to Planet Earth as NASA's associate administrator, the shuttle “never served as a very good platform for highly precise instruments.” Free-flying satellites offered much “cleaner” observing conditions.

An important exception was a series of radar observations of Earth, culminating in 2000 with the Shuttle Radar Topography Mission. Instruments aboard that mission created the most complete topographical map of Earth's surface. “It could only be done on the shuttle,” Kennel says, because the radar was heavy and demanded a lot of power, and the data it produced would have overwhelmed satellite-to-Earth communication links.

Kennel is convinced that the shuttle's low-tech observations of Earth remain its most important legacy, even for earth scientists. The arresting photographs that the astronauts took, he says, “serve as a humanized document of the Earth and how it has changed. That's tremendously important.”

EXPERIENCING SPACE

No space vehicle except the shuttle could haul experiments into space, leave them there for a while, and then bring them back to Earth for careful study. The first experiment to test that capability was the Long Duration Exposure Facility (LDEF), a 10,000-kg cylinder, three stories tall, with 86 flat trays covering its surface. Various materials or sensors were placed into those trays to find out how they would survive the stresses of space.

The Challenger orbiter released LDEF into orbit in 1984. For the next 5½ years, it circled the globe, exposed to extreme heat and cold, ionizing radiation, meteoroids and space debris, and reactive oxygen. In January 1990, another shuttle mission brought it back to Earth. NASA's first glance at the massive cylinder “put a panic into the Hubble people,” says William Kinard, a scientist at NASA's Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, who led the LDEF mission.

“Hubble was ready to launch,” he recalls, and “it depended on silver-coated Teflon” to reflect the sun's heat. But a sample of that material mounted on LDEF had turned white. Hasty experiments, however, determined that this white Teflon worked just as well as the original silver version, and the Hubble mission proceeded.

The most useful insights from LDEF, Kinard says, were the “synergistic effects” of long exposure to space. Models on Earth could predict how well materials would survive the impact of a particle of dust, for instance, but the effect was completely different after those materials had been exposed to radiation and heat for a few years.

In 1992, the shuttle Atlantis released a similar long-duration experiment, called the European Retrievable Carrier, which stayed in orbit for about a year. More sophisticated than LDEF, the European satellite had its own solar power supply and held a variety of automated materials science experiments. Like LDEF, the European vehicle bore the record of collisions with tiny space particles—small craters on metal walls and holes in Teflon-coated fiberglass blankets. The frequency of such encounters strengthened concerns about the risks posed by such micrometeoroids, as well as by space debris released by human exploration.

Along with hazards, however, the environment of space possessed one potentially valuable quality: a vacuum. A free-flying experiment called the Wake Shield Facility, first deployed from the shuttle in 1994, grew thin films of semiconducting material in vacuum conditions much better than could be achieved on Earth. “It was a very successful experiment,” Naumann says. But it never led to any commercial applications: “Technology on Earth has overtaken this.”