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News / Spotted

Immune attack; CRISPR climax; postdoc plight

by  /  9 December 2016

WEEK OF
December 5th

Immune attack

The immune system’s role in the brain is a hot topic. A growing number of studies suggest that molecules that defend pregnant women from infection can raise the risk of neuropsychiatric conditions in their children. Some researchers propose blocking the molecules to mitigate the risk. But is this tactic ready for prime time?

Yes, according to the authors of a new editorial in Neuropsychopharmacology. “The general consensus is that the time has come for the rubber to meet the road.”

A review in the same journal focuses on the role of the immune system in autism. The review, co-authored by Judy Van de Water, outlines the various ways immune molecules could affect the developing brain.

Van de Water, professor of internal medicine at the University of California, Davis, is a central character in a Spectrum story entitled “The enemy within,” which explores the role of the immune system in autism risk. She was at the forefront of research implicating the immune system in the brain and behavior — a connection many researchers dismissed at the time.

Sources
Neuropsychopharmacology / 21 Sep 2016

The role of the immune system in autism spectrum disorder

CRISPR climax

It’s been a year of ups and downs for the universities vying for the rights to CRISPR. On Tuesday, lawyers representing the University of California, Berkeley, and the Broad Institute of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Massachusetts, had their one and only chance to speak to judges on the case, STAT reports.

The Berkeley legal team argued that its researchers were the first to demonstrate CRISPR’s effects in bacteria, and that any reasonably skilled scientist could have adapted the gene-editing tool for more complex cells. But Broad lawyers cited news interviews with Berkeley scientist Jennifer Doudna saying her team had struggled to adapt CRISPR for use in non-bacterial cells.

Meanwhile, researchers continue to tweak the technique to tackle complex research problems. Spectrum detailed a few ‘CRISPR hacks’ in late October. One group modified the tool to easily produce neurons from skin cells. Another team used CRISPR to add and remove chemical tags on DNA that regulate gene expression.

The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office is expected to rule on the contentious patent case early next year.

Postdoc plight

It’s not easy being a postdoctoral researcher. The post is temporary but intense, typically involving long hours of work for minimal pay.

New rules that were expected to take effect last week would have boosted the salaries of U.S. postdocs by requiring overtime pay for work weeks exceeding 40 hours. But a federal judge has blocked the rules, Nature reports.

The news is disheartening to postdocs who planned on a holiday pay bump. The Nature article describes one couple — both postdocs — who planned to get pregnant because they would be able to afford childcare. Now their plan is on hold.

The plight of the postdoc resounded in a Spectrum special report entitled “When lab meets life.” One story highlighted the hard work and luck required to parlay a postdoctoral fellowship into a faculty position, which are few and far between. Another story followed Vanessa Hus Bal, then a postdoc balancing motherhood with preparations for her first faculty job.

Subway sleuths

Trains are a source of fascination for many children. Some children on the spectrum are particularly enthralled by the vehicles’ moving parts and the network of tracks they traverse. This has made Brooklyn’s Transit Museum a destination for families affected by autism, The New York Times reported Tuesday.

“We must have been here 200 times since he was 4,” Susana Montes, whose 9-year-old son has autism, told the paper. “This is our second home.”

The museum is the station stop for Subway Sleuths, an after-school program for children with autism. Participants solve subway mysteries and become experts in all things transportation, building social skills en route.

The program earned a National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award last month — a $10,000 prize bestowed by Michelle Obama.

Sources

Crafting cures

The U.S. Senate passed the 21st Century Cures Act on Wednesday in a 94-to-5 vote. The bill is the first major piece of mental health legislation in a decade, according to Kaiser Health News. President Obama is expected to sign it into law before the new year.

Earlier this week, Kaiser Health News outlined winners and losers of the bill. Among the winners are pharmaceutical and medical device companies, which will face fewer hurdles in bringing new products to the market. Among the losers are consumer safety groups, because many of those hurdles were meant to guard against unsafe drugs.

Breakthrough award

The Breakthrough Foundation — a philanthropic organization founded by tech giants Sergey Brin of Google, Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook and Anne Wojcicki of 23andMe, among others — doled out $25 million in prizes to scientists and mathematicians on Sunday. Among the winners is Huda Zoghbi, professor of neurology at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas, who won $3 million for her work to uncover the gene mutated in Rett syndrome.

On the topic of top researchers, a computer program ranked autism researchers Randy Buckner and Chris Frith among the most influential neuroscientists last month, Science reports. The program arrived at its conclusion based on a review of 10 million scientific papers.

Sources
Breakthrough Prize / 04 Dec 2016

Breakthrough prize marks 5th anniversary


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