News this Week

Science  22 Jan 2016:
Vol. 351, Issue 6271, pp. 320

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    News at a glance

    An unfolding clinical trial disaster

    French health minister Marisol Touraine speaks to reporters 15 January about the disastrous clinical trial.


    One person died and five more were hospitalized after a phase I clinical trial in France went horribly wrong. At least three of the patients—all men aged between 28 and 49 years old—may suffer irreversible brain damage if they survive, a doctor treating them said last week; one suffered no symptoms but was hospitalized for observation. The patients were previously healthy volunteers who participated in a study conducted by Rennes-based Biotrial to test the tolerability of a candidate drug produced by Bial, a Portuguese pharmaceutical company. The drug was an inhibitor of fatty acid amide hydrolase (FAAH), an enzyme that breaks down endocannabinoids in the brain. FAAH inhibitors have been proposed as a treatment against chronic pain. The drug had been tested on animals, said French health minister Marisol Touraine at a press conference on 15 January, and France's National Agency for Medicine and Health Products Safety (ANSM) approved the trial last June. Bial says 108 people had received the drug earlier without any serious side effects. The six volunteers, all part of the same trial group, received multiple daily doses of the drug, beginning on 7 January. The first symptoms appeared on 10 January, and the trial was halted the next day. Prosecutors in Rennes have opened an investigation; so have ANSM and another government agency.

    Pikas' cold adaptation a liability with climate change

    Some pikas may be too good at keeping warm.


    Pikas are champs when it comes to keeping warm in cold weather. But this adaptation comes at a cost—they may struggle to cope with climate change. Different species of pikas live at different elevations—anywhere from sea level to 6400 meters high—but all species are sensitive to heat. That has made them a poster child for climate change: Scientists worry whether low-living species can shift upslope rapidly enough and far enough to beat the heat. But these low-altitude pikas—some living at sea level—have another problem, reported graduate student Katherine Solari of Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, last week at the American Society of Naturalists meeting in Pacific Grove, California. Higher altitude pikas have a very efficient protein for harnessing oxygen for energy production. The low-altitude species, however, have a modified version of the protein that likely produces more heat and less energy—which works fine for keeping warm at lower altitudes, but could make it much harder for them to survive as they are forced by global warming to ascend to greater heights.

    Remains of stilt houses paint rich picture of Bronze Age life

    U.K. archaeologists sift through the remains of 3000-year-old stilt houses.


    Almost 3000 years ago, two stilt-supported houses caught fire and plunged into a marsh in what is now Peterborough, U.K. The mud first quenched the flames, then preserved the remains of the homes for centuries. Archaeologists now studying the site say it offers the most complete glimpse yet of the life of people living in the United Kingdom during the Bronze Age. The artifacts they left behind as they fled the fire paint a picture of wealth: jewelry, spears, daggers, food storage jars, glass beads, and textiles; domestic animal bones, including those of sheep, pigs, and cattle, suggest a diet of meat rather than fish, and further support that picture of abundance. First discovered in 2006, the site's exceptional preservation—along with evidence of a rapid evacuation—has drawn comparisons to the famous archaeological site at Pompeii, Italy.

    0.88—Degrees, in Celsius, by which global temperatures in 2015 exceeded the 20th century average, NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced this week. That makes 2015 the hottest year on record—and shatters the record set in 2014 by a full 0.1°C.

    By the numbers

    From Science & Engineering Indicators 2016, released this week by the National Science Foundation. This is the 22nd edition of the biennial report, which covers global trends in science and engineering, and the first to be entirely digital.

    47%—The combined share of global R&D spending in 2013 by the United States (27%) and China (20%); Japan (10%) and Germany (6%) rank a distant third and fourth. Overall spending has doubled since 2003, to $1.67 trillion, with China accounting for one-third of that growth.

    49%—Fraction of first university degrees awarded in science and engineering (S&E) in China in 2012—down from 73% in 2000, reflecting the increasing popularity of the humanities. The proportion of S&E degrees in the United States has stayed at roughly one-third.

    Around the world


    Ebola is back … or never left

    It was a short-lived celebration. Just hours after the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the Ebola outbreak in West Africa over on 14 January, Sierra Leone reported a new case of the disease to WHO. A 22-year-old woman, who died earlier in the week, tested positive for the virus; WHO confirmed the case on 15 January. At least 27 people who came into contact with the woman are at high risk of having been infected with Ebola virus, says Christopher Dye of WHO in Geneva, Switzerland. Those contacts may be given a vaccine produced by Merck that protected people from the deadly virus in a trial in Guinea last year. Even as WHO officials declared the outbreak over last week, they had warned of the risk of flare-ups: Because Ebola virus can persist in some tissues and bodily fluids of survivors for months, there is a danger that they can pass the virus on to others, for instance through un protected sex.

    Whittier, Alaska

    Seabird die-off in Alaska

    Common murres washed up on an Alaskan beach.


    Thousands of dead common murres, an abundant Arctic cliff-dwelling bird, have washed up on the beaches of Prince William Sound this month. The birds appear emaciated, according to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service scientists, but the exact cause of their starvation is unclear. Warmer surface waters in the North Pacific—perhaps as a result of a combination of global warming and this year's intense El Niño weather pattern—may have reduced stocks of the birds' forage fish or possibly driven them deeper to where the birds can't access them. Strong storms in the North Pacific this winter may have also prevented already weakened birds from foraging. Murres, which weigh about 1 kilogram, must eat about half their body weight each day. Last August and September, and again in late December, large numbers of mal nourished common murres also turned up on northern California beaches.


    Zika virus prompts travel alert

    The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has warned pregnant women to avoid travel to countries in which Zika virus is circulating. That list is growing, with local transmission reported in 18 countries in Latin America and the Caribbean by 18 January. Zika virus, which in adults usually causes only mild symptoms, has infected as many as 1.5 million people in Brazil in the last year. It is strongly suspected of causing a surge in birth defects in the country; more than 3500 babies born in the last 6 months have been diagnosed with microcephaly, a disorder in which the brain fails to develop properly. On 15 January, health officials in Hawaii announced that a baby born in an Oahu hospital had been diagnosed with the disorder. The baby's mother was living in Brazil during the early part of her pregnancy and was likely infected there.

    Bethesda, Maryland

    U.S. genome centers' next phase

    The U.S. National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI) plans to sequence up to 200,000 human genomes in search of genes that influence a person's risk of common diseases such as heart disease, autism, and diabetes. On 14 January, NHGRI announced the latest phase of its genome sequencing program, which will award $240 million over 4 years to three long-running sequencing centers—the Broad Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts; Washington University in St. Louis in Missouri; and Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas—and a newcomer, the New York Genome Center in New York City. The institute is also renewing its $40 million, 4-year Centers for Mendelian Genomics program, in which five institutions will seek genes underlying rare inherited disorders.

    Cambridge, U.K.

    No more whaling reviews

    Thirty-two scientists are calling for an end to the International Whaling Commission's (IWC's) current program for reviewing “scientific whaling” proposals. In a letter to the editor in this week's issue of Nature, the researchers, who are members of IWC's scientific committee, argue that Japan has ignored the committee's latest recommendations to employ nonlethal methods to collect whale tissue, and instead “is proceeding to kill whales under a self-determined quota.” Continuing to review Japan's whaling program, the scientists say, “is a waste of time,” and IWC should develop a new method that scientists respect and member countries will abide by. Japanese whalers are now in the Southern Ocean and targeting 333 minke whales.

    Vandenberg Air Force Base, California

    Jason-3 rises into orbit

    On 17 January, the Jason-3 radar altimetry satellite blasted into orbit atop a SpaceX rocket. Jason-3 will measure changes in the height of the ocean surface to aid in studies of ocean currents, wind speeds, and climate change. It is the fourth in a series of missions that, since 1992, have seen a 7-centimeter rise in global sea level, at a rate of 3 millimeters per year. The $364 million mission is headed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), but has been built and managed by NASA. Significant contributions were made to the mission by the French space agency CNES and NOAA's European counterpart, EUMETSAT.


    SARS hero to be new Taiwan VP

    Epidemiologist Chen Chien-Jen, who helped end Taiwan's SARS outbreak in 2003 after taking over as head of the Department of Health in the middle of the crisis, is now set to become the country's next vice president. Chen, 64, was on the winning Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) ticket in elections on 16 January. Educated at National Taiwan University in Taipei and Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, Chen first garnered scientific attention for work on arsenic that led to the revision of international health standards for exposure. Last fall, he resigned as vice president of Academia Sinica, the island's national research labs, to enter politics. Chen and his presidential running mate, Tsai Ing-Wen, take office in May. One challenge for the new team will be continuing to expand scientific ties with the mainland despite DPP's advocacy of independence for the island, which China considers a breakaway province.


    Tracing Anglo-Saxon heritage

    Waves of Anglo-Saxons, Germanic tribes from Europe's North Sea coast, arrived in the eastern United Kingdom between 400 C.E. and 650 C.E. There, they met an already diverse population, including indigenous British people and migrants from the far-flung reaches of the Roman Empire. Modern British genomes are mostly a mix of these populations, but researchers have puzzled over just how much the Anglo-Saxons contributed because of the small genetic differences between European groups. Now, researchers have sequenced the whole genomes of 10 skeletons buried near Cambridge, U.K., between about 100 B.C.E. and 800 C.E. Three of these people lived before the Anglo-Saxons arrived, whereas the other seven were Anglo-Saxons, as reported in Nature Communications. By comparing rare genetic variants in both groups and in modern day British people, researchers conclude that, on average, about 38% of British ancestry comes from Anglo-Saxons, and that Anglo-Saxons themselves were genetically similar to modern Danish and Dutch people.