News in a nutshell

This week’s news includes the surprising new role of the public sector in drug development, the conclusion of a misconduct case, more residual effects of Chernobyl, the new science gender gap, a second attempt at a non-peer-reviewed journal, and the remarkable re-evolution of frog’s teeth.

New trend in drug development

Credit: Tom Varco, Wikimedia Commons

The divide between public and private research in new drug discovery may be disappearing. Federally funded researchers no longer stick to early basic science while pharmaceutical companies perform the bulk of the applied research and drug development. Instead, over the past 40 years, 153 new drugs and vaccines have been produced by public sector research institutes, according to a new study in the New England Journal of Medicine, more than half of which were to treat or prevent cancer and infectious diseases.

“This study helps justify sustained federal support for the [National Institutes of Health],” Jon Retzlaff, managing director of science policy and government affairs at the American Association for Cancer Research told HealthDay.

Misconduct case concluded

The Office of Research Integrity has found Meleik Goodwill, a former postdoc at Wadsworth Center, a research laboratory at the New York State Department of Health, guilty of research misconduct. Goodwill fabricated data for growth curves and used unrelated western blot images in a 2007 Journal of Neuroimmunology article, which was subsequently retracted in 2008, according to the ORI report published in the Federal Register last Thursday (February 10). Goodwill will still be allowed participate in Public Health Service-supported research but only with an ORI-approved supervisory plan to ensure the integrity of her work over the next three years.

Bird brains

Twenty-five years later, the effects of radiation following the nuclear disaster at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Ukraine are still being uncovered. Birds living near the site of the accident have on average 5 percent smaller brains than non-exposed counterparts, according to research published this month in PLoS One. The smaller brains likely result in reduced cognitive ability, Timothy Mousseau, senior author on the paper and part of the Chernobyl Research Initiative at the University of South Carolina, told Newswise.

“These findings point to broad-scale neurological effects of chronic exposure to low-dose radiation,” Mousseau said. Similar defects have been identified in humans, but at higher contamination levels, the authors reported.

The new gender gap

Overt discrimination against females in math-intensive fields is largely over, but other factors still lead to a shortage of women in fields like physics, computer science, and engineering, according to a new analysis in PNAS this month. In an study of 20 years of data, Cornell psychologists found that female researchers are not overtly discriminated against when competing alongside equally qualified male counterparts. Instead, women today lag behind males in professional advancement in the sciences because of family-career trade-offs and societal expectations. For example, “a woman who has young children is still expected to come up for tenure 5–6 years after she starts her job,” Wendy Williams, a psychologist at Cornell University and author of the study, told Nature. “It creates a virtually insurmountable obstacle.”

Scientific match making

No more lonely nights for grant proposals seeking funding: The National Health Council, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit, unveiled a Match.com for grants and funding last week — a database to hook up rejected, but well-scoring, NIH projects with potential funders. Researchers with a proposal the NIH deemed worthy of peer review but failed to fund can post their abstract and contact information for no cost, reports ScienceInsider. Then patient advocacy groups like the American Cancer Society and the Alzheimer’s Association can browse the projects.

The database is “good news on the where-am-I-going-to-get-my-grant-funded-in-today’s-economy front,” writes NIH extramural researcher chief Sally Rockey on her blog.

New non-peer reviewed journal

A new journal has stepped forward to fill the shoes of Medical Hypotheses, Elsevier’s first non-peer-reviewed journal and the subject of much criticism after the journal published an article by notorious AIDS denialist Peter Duesburg of the University of California, Berkeley. Less than a year later, Elsevier insisted that a traditional peer-review system be adopted and essentially fired editor-in-chief Bruce Charlton who refused to institute the changes.

Hypotheses in the Life Sciences, a new effort at non-peer reviewed publication to present challenging ideas in biology, published by the University of Buckingham Press, put out its first issue this month. “We’re trying to steer a middle course [between] completely autonomous editorial choice and a more conventional peer review system,” the journal’s founding editor William Bains told The Scientist in July. “Papers will be reviewed by an Editorial Board of eminent life science researchers,” Bains, a former member of the Medical Hypotheses‘s editorial board, wrote in an announcement about the journal’s first issue, including Charlton and Aubrey de Grey, a famous British gerontologist, and will rely on “external peer reviewers as needed.”

Frog re-evolution

Credit: Edwin Wilson, Wikimedia Commons

More than 230 million years ago, frogs lost the teeth on their lower jaw. But now one plucky species has gotten them back. A species of frog found in Colombia and Ecuador, Gastrotheca guentheri, re-evolved bottom teeth within the past 20 million years — after they had been lost for over 200 million years.

The finding, published this month in Evolution, contradicts an old evolutionary theory called “Dollo’s law,” which suggests that a lost complex trait will not re-evolve, author John Wiens, a professor at Stony Brook University, noted in a press release.

Related stories:

  • Medical Hypotheses’s replacement?
    [14th November 2010]
  • Opinion: How to prevent fraud
    [7th October 2010]
  • Are women better PIs?
    [8th June 2010]
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    2 comments

    1. Tom Hennessy says:

      Quote: Goodwill will still be allowed participate in Public Health Service-supported research
      Answer: She entered this field of research fully aware the research deals with life and death matters. Falsifying research in life and death matters should be the equivalent of attempted murder. Simply allowing one of her pals at work to ‘review her work occasionally’ is a slap in the face of all those people with integrity. She should be bounced so far away from research the next time she sees a petri dish she would be a very old woman. Imho.

    2. Beverly says:

      Considering the increasing level of competition for limited grant money, a person who has been found guilty of data fabrication should not be eligible to receive government grants in the future – ever. There are plenty of excellent research proposals by honest investigators that fail to be funded simply because there is not enough money. Why should these researchers have to compete with someone who has shown herself to lack the basic integrity expected of any scientist?