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April 18, 2017


Welcome to the Genomics in Society Digest

Genomics in Society: Genomics and its related Ethical, Economic, Environmental, Legal and Social aspects.
This news digest is published by Genomics in Society at Genome Alberta. Feel free to forward to your colleagues.

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Canada’s fundamental science review

While there were other stories that popped up frequently in our monitoring over the last 2 weeks there is one that deserves our full attention, and that is the report commissioned by the Federal Government and that could chart the course for science funding in Canada for the next few years.

Perhaps more widely known as the Naylor Report (after Chair, David Naylor) the review was set in motion in June of 2016 by Canada’s Minister of Science, Kirsty Duncan. In general the current Liberal government supports basic science, but wanted the review to make sure that funding was being distributed efficiently, determine if that research managed to meet the needs of scientists, and how it aligned with Canada’s strategic goals.

The 280 page report makes a variety of recommendations and one of the consistent observations is that federal research needs more co-ordination and better funding if Canada is to keep up, or get ahead, of other countries. The Globe & Mail goes so far as to say we risk a “lost generation’ of young scientists. Canada has fallen from seventh to ninth in total research output and the Ottawa Citizen keyed in on the report’s suggestion that this drop corresponds to a “flat-lining” of federal research support (the report’s authors quite like the term ‘flat line’).

Apart from the recommendation for new money, much of the media headlines were about the report’s suggestions for a new approach to funding. Headlines emphasizing “new thinking” and “system overhaul” keyed on that part of the report but not if it means more bureaucracy said Globe columnist Barrie McKenna. Paul Wells has been going through the report for Maclean’s magazine and thinks it has some recommendations that will make the current government uncomfortable and that the report could be filed away and forgotten. Most reaction we have seen so far however shares a similar message to this Toronto Star Editorial - Ottawa should act on new science-policy report.

Various institutions weighed in after the report was released including Universities Canada which saw potential in the report’s recommendations and the U15 Group of Canadian Research Universities which stuck to the safe route of welcoming and applauding the report. The Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences offered a little more substance in a media release which seemed to key on the diversity recommendations for funding. Research Canada saw the report as a chance to “reinvigorate Canadian research” and HealthCareCAN which represents hospitals and healthcare organizations in Canada, said that “science is back”. Most of the organizations and institutions we monitored such as the University of Lethbridge also added that they would be studying the report in detail over the coming weeks.

While the Fundamental Science Review was setup by the Federal Government it was still an arms length exercise, so the Government was obliged to respond and that came in a statement from the Honourable Kirsty Duncan, Minister of Science.

As more scientists, pundits, and armchair politicians have time to read the entire report in detail we’ll be working to bring you more reactions and predictions.

White Plains woman who dreamt up genetic counseling

This article appeared as part of Women’s History Month in March and is about Melissa Richter who founded the first U.S. graduate degree program in genetic counselling in 1969. She died from breast cancer 5 years after creating the program.
Source: USA Today Network

Women and children: Medical research needs YOU!

Young people are not just a smaller version of an adult, and individual metabolisms and hormones vary depending on sex and age. Yet data sets for medical research tend to be heavily represented by white males. The Women and Children’s Health Research Institute at the University of Alberta is working to improve the mix of participants across age and sex to help address the problem.
Source: Research2Reality

MPs call for fairer science reporting and policy making

A report on Science communication and engagement from the UK House of Commons Science and Technology Committee was released during the last week in March. The report acknowledges the public’s interest in science but says, “further efforts are needed to change the long-standing cultural biases that pervade science”. The report comes after a 12 month inquiry and suggests that scientists need to be more involved in the communication process, but need their efforts to be recognized and not considered as a volunteer or extra-curricular activity.
Source: UK Parliament

Is the media landscape changing faster than science communication can keep up?

Not everyone recognizes a reliable source for information versus one that is designed to garner clicks and hits. As the nature of media is constantly shifting around us, getting the right information into the right hands is a challenge. This article looks at the opportunities and challenges that come with the increase in the number of tools and channels available to get the word out.
Source: Centre for Brain Health

Farmers may have been accidentally making GMOs for millennia

The agricultural practice of grafting one part of a plant on to another plant so it fuses and grows as one has been going on for a long time and can even occur naturally. New research says the 2 plants may actually be swapping some of their genome. Is that genetic modification? If so then GMOs have been around for a few centuries.
Source: New Scientist

Gene therapy: What personalized medicine means for you

It isn’t a silver bullet yet, but precision treatment of certain types of cancer are already being used and first person stories like this one, leave the general public hoping for more.
Source: CNET Magazine

Brendan Frey and his company Deep Genomics is featured in the CNET story but he was also featured in a recent Globe & Mail article - “His unborn child’s genetic problem launched his business”. He was already involved in deep machine learning, but after problems during his wife’s pregnancy he realised he could bring that experience to the field of genomics.
Source: Globe & Mail

Stem cells offer hope for autism

25 children took part in a Duke University study to see whether a transfusion of their own umbilical cord blood containing rare stem cells could help treat their autism. This first person story and video indicates some promising results but there is still a lot of work to be done.
Source: CNN

The findings of medical research are disseminated too slowly

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has said that research supported by the Foundation must be freely available to everyone when the work is published. The move is significant but it won’t necessarily speed up the publishing process and it is still just one Foundation trying to break a couple of hundred years of science publishing tradition.
Source: The Economist

WATCH: New research shows stem cells may help stroke recovery

Stem cell therapy may help people recover from a stroke but as with all stem cell therapy research it isn’t as straightforward as the headline makes it look.
Source: Global News

A.I. vs MD

What happens when diagnosis is automated? Siddhartha Mukherjee digs deep into AI assisted diagnosis in this story from the New Yorker Magazine and in a good interview with Charlie Rose on PBS. While Artificial intelligence can learn to spot disease, it isn’t ready to tell us the ‘why’.
Source: New Yorker Magazine

Medicine after the Holocaust

“You hardly ever hear the term eugenics used today, but you probably know the term medical genetics” says Sheldon Rubenfeld. He is a professor at Baylor College of Medicine and will be leading a group of doctors and researchers to Nuremberg to honour the 70th anniversary of the Nuremberg Code which outlined the rules and medical ethics surrounding research experiments on humans. He thinks there is a slippery slope between eugenics and genetics.
Source: Texas Medical Center

How grad students can help diversity Alberta’s economy

Genome Alberta has 3 employees who came out of the Masters of Biomedical Technology Program at the University of Calgary and we are looking forward to having a summer MBT student join us shortly. Derrick Rancourt is a professor at the U of C Cumming School of Medicine and he thinks the kind of training and encouragement these graduate students receive can help Alberta’s elusive desire to “diversity the economy”.
Source: Troy Media

The odd, awful downfall of the school librarian of the year

As you start to read this story you might dismiss it as being about someone who you think should be in jail. Read on, because it wasn’t until after his death that there was a diagnosis which put his behaviour into perspective.
Source: Washington Post

Stem cell clinics are ruining people's lives

In our last issue we pointed you to several stories about bogus stem cell therapies highlighted by 3 women who left a Florida clinic worse off than when they went in. Science moves carefully but the business of offering cures for people desperate for help moves much faster.
Source: Vice - Tonic

Feature: Gene Editing News Up arrow

Genetic details of controversial 'three-parent baby' revealed

There are still questions surrounding the baby boy conceived with DNA from 3 people. Apart from ethical issues, there have been other questions about the science. A new paper has provided more details, but the long term health of the child may never be known because the parents do not want to be part of an ongoing study.
Source: Nature

CRISPR studies muddy results of older gene research

New technology applied to old research is yielding some confusing results in the lab. In some cases it means back to the basics.
Source: Nature

BIO answers FAQs on human genome editing

The Biotechnology Innovation Organization has put together a primer on gene editing. It is compiled by Dave Thomas a former researcher at the J. Craig Venter Institute, and now Senior Director of Industry Research and Analysis at BIO in Washington, DC. The organization is keeping the site updated and even if you are an experienced researcher in the area, you’ll find the bite-sized answers are a good guide to helping you answer other people’s questions that might come your way.
Source: BIOtechNow

She’s hellbent on solving the organ shortage with ‘designer pigs.’ Just don’t keep her waiting

31 year old Luhan Yang wants to put CRISPR to work creating pig organs that can be used in humans. A shortage of organs for transplants is an ongoing problem in the West but in Luhan’s home country of China it is especially critical and she wants to help solve the problem. With geneticist George Church she co-founded eGenesis a biotech company that has raised $38 million to make pig to human transplants a reality. Meanwhile, Smithfield Foods, known for being a leading producer of pork, is branching out into a whole new field. The company sees the potential in pig-human transplants and is making investments and partnerships to position themselves to cash in as the technology becomes practical and accepted.
Source: STAT News & New York Times

Papers & Features Up arrow

DNA methylation signatures in peripheral blood strongly predict all-cause mortality

Zhang Y, et al, Nature Communications (2017) doi:10.1038/ncomms14617

A new study by Brenner et al has confirmed that DNA methylation, a key epigenetic indicator, can predict an individual’s mortality risk. Methylation (addition of methyl labels in the DNA) play a key role in the epigenetic regulation of gene activity. Life style and environmental factors such as diet or smoking, in turn influence methylation.
Source: Nature Communications

Delivering effective science communication: Advice from a professional science communicator

Illingworth, S. Science Direct (2017) doi: 10.1016/j.semcdb.2017.04.002

Science communication is becoming ever more prevalent, with more and more scientists expected to not only communicate their research to a wider public, but to do so in an innovative and engaging manner. Given the other commitments that researchers and academics are required to fulfil as part of their workload models, it is unfair to be expect them to also instantly produce effective science communication events and activities. However, by thinking carefully about what it is that needs to be communicated, and why this is being done, it is possible to develop high-quality activities that are of benefit to both the audience and the communicator(s).
Source: Science Direct

Psychiatric genomics and mental health treatment: Setting the ethical agenda

Kong C, et al. American Journal of Bioethics (2017) DOI: 10.1080/15265161.2017.1284915

Realizing the benefits of translating psychiatric genomics research into mental health care is not straightforward. The translation process gives rise to ethical challenges that are distinctive from challenges posed within psychiatric genomics research itself, or that form part of the delivery of clinical psychiatric genetics services.
Source: American Journal of Bioethics

Events Up arrow

Visit Genome Alberta's extensive Events Calendar on our website at GenomeAlberta.ca. Connect With Us to sign up for our newsletters and see the Calendar of Events.

Alberta's Annual Technology Celebration

AccelerateAB is the province’s annual flagship event and this year, it will be held in Calgary. Produced by The A100 and local community partners, the event brings together entrepreneurs, investors, key leaders, and supporters from across the province.

In addition, there will be a half-day round-table mentorship program that will provide startups with the opportunity to receive validation and support from some of Alberta’s most influential entrepreneurs.

When: April 19, 2017
Where: BMO Centre, Stampede Park, Calgary, Alberta

Check out AccelerateAB for more information

Infectious Disease Genomic Epidemiology Workshop

With increasing adoption of Next Generation Sequencing technologies to infectious disease surveillance and outbreak investigations, genomic epidemiology (combining pathogen genomics data with epidemiological investigations to track the spread of infectious diseases) is poised to change the practices of public health and infection controls and provides unprecedented amount of data for pathogen evolution studies.

When: May 1 - 3, 2017
Where: Vancouver BC

Registration & workshop info can be found here.

Genomics and Society: Expanding the ELSI Universe

This 4th ELSI Congress is the latest in a series of major conferences for researchers and others interested in the ethical, legal and social implications (ELSI) of genomic research. With keynote speakers, plenary panels, workshops, and a wide range of paper, panel, and poster presentations, the Congress will provide an opportunity for scholars to reflect on current research and to envision future directions for ELSI research.

When: June 5-7, 2017
Where: Jackson Laboratory for Genomic Medicine campus, UConn Health, Farmington, Connecticut

More information and registration available on the conference website.

Integrative Molecular Epidemiology Workshop: Bridging Cancer Biology and Precision Medicine

This workshop is designed to accelerate the training of the next generation of cancer researchers who must be well-skilled in the integration of biology and epidemiology in studies of etiology and outcome. In addition to molecular epidemiologists, we invite applications from geneticists, statisticians, bioinformaticians, molecular biologists, and others.

When: July 10-14, 2017
Where: Westin Copley Place, Boston Massachusetts

Details and registration information available at the workshop website.

American Society of Human Genetics Annual Meeting

The 67th Annual Meeting of the American Society of Human Genetics is the largest human genetics meeting and exposition in the world. This year’s meeting is expected to attract over 6,500 scientific attendees, plus almost 250 exhibiting companies. The meeting provides a forum for the presentation and discussion of cutting-edge science in all areas of human genetics.

When: October 17 - 21, 2017
Where: Orange County Convention Center, Orlando Florida

More info & registration is available at the meeting website.

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