Category: Uncategorized

Bear with us…

By Ed Yong | November 28, 2012 4:29 pm

You may have noticed that Discover has had a redesign. This has been accompanied by a migration to new servers, which means that the site is currently loading slowly, if at all, and that comments aren’t working yet.

Apologies for the inconvenience. If you have any complaints, please leave a comme… never mind.



Breaking optimism, reprogramming neurons, gene-borrowing mosses, and more

By Ed Yong | November 13, 2012 9:00 am

I’m taking a small break for a couple of days, but in the meantime, here are some links to news pieces I’ve written for The Scientist over the last month or so, which I’ve been a bit remiss in signposting to.

Disrupting the optimism bias

“Humans tend to embrace good news, while discounting bad news. We overestimate our odds of winning the lottery or living long lives, while underplaying our risk of cancer, divorce, or unemployment. Now, researchers from University College London (UCL) have found a way of removing these rose-tinted glasses, by aiming a magnetic field at a brain region called the left inferior frontal gyrus (IFG).”

Reprogramming new neurons from other brain cells

The majority of the brain doesn’t produce new neurons—we’re born with the set that has to last us throughout our lives.  That’s a problem for people with Parkinson’s and other diseases where neurons are destroyed. But one group of scientists has transformed another type of brain cell – pericytes – into neurons, using just two proteins, in laboratory cells and in mice. Other scientists have accomplished the same feat using skin cells, but the resulting neurons would then have to be transplanted. If you can do the same with brain cells, you could potentially create new neurons right there in the brain.

Have mosses borrowed important genes from other kingdoms of life?

Mosses were some of the earliest land plants, which invaded terra firma half a billion years ago after evolving from green aquatic algae. Were they aided in their invasion by genes borrowed from fungi, bacteria and viruses? A new study certainly thinks so – it documented loads of borrowed genes in the genome of a living moss, which are involved in adaptations for life on land and are shared with other land plants. But many of the people I spoke to for this story were not convinced by the data.

The rough guide to variation in the human genome

“An international consortium of scientists known as the 1000 Genomes Project has published a long-awaited map of variation in the human genome, cataloging the subtle differences that shape our bodies and influence our risk of disease. The results… were derived from the genome sequences of 1,092 volunteers hailing from 14 populations in Europe, East Asia, Africa, and the Americas. They should help scientists more efficiently hunt for the genetic causes of disease, by comparing mutations in a patient’s genome against those seen in his own country or ethnic group.”

Finding the right antibody, cheaply and quickly

“Scientists at the Texas Biomedical Research Institute (TBRI) have created a fast and efficient way of identifying antibodies that recognize bacterial toxins or viral proteins in a few days, using simple equipment found in most facilities around the world.” It’s billed as a way of quickly and efficiently developing tests for potential bioterror agents, but could be a valuable tool for a lot of basic research.


I've got your missing links right here (20 October 2012)

By Ed Yong | October 20, 2012 12:00 pm

Top picks

Beautifully written piece by Ross Andersen on bristlecone pines, whose millennia-old bodies are living almanacs of past climates.

We discovered a rocky Earth-sized world in Alpha Centauri, the star system next door. From that planet, we’d see Earth as a sixth dot in Cassiopeia. Before bursting into flames. Here’s Lee Billings’ great piece on the discovery and why it matters, and his superb feature giving all the background to the project. Nadia Drake also has a great piece on the planet.

An amazing National Geographic investigation on the ivory trade, by Bryan Christy. 1) Religion is heavily responsible. 2) A conservation group really screwed up.

Big, Smart, Green: A Vision for Modern Farming. A great write-up of an intriguing approach

A scorching and spot-on criticism of the failed opportunities in Felix Baumgartner’s not-space jump stunt, by Amy Shira Teitel. And here’s Will Oremus with an even less impressed take. And Leo Hickman answers some key questions

Wonderful, rambling read from Bora Zivkovic on spiders: from Charlotte’s Web to hallucinogens.

The downsides of winning a Nobel prize. Nice piece by Ian Sample.

‘Against animal natures: An anthropologist’s view” on animals as individuals. By Barbara King.

Will Storr investigates the mysterious deaths of young men in Central America from a strange kidney disease.

Fantastic piece: “On Men Who Think Street Harassment Would Be Awesome”

An excellent piece on the badger culls, by Geoff Brumfiel.

The amazing winners of the Natural History Museum’s Wildlife Photography Competition show that a stag can shoot down cars with laser antlers, and that penguins propel themselves with farts. More winners here.

Gonzo geoengineer gets media hype. Craig McClain calms it right down.

“I’ll be your visionary; you do the things I come up with.” The Onion’s TED talks parodies are. Just. So. Good.

Great piece on how to write evocatively from field reporting. Also: “I had an orangutan eat my tapes once, and I was really glad I had my notes then.” Journos, take note. And take notes.

What goes on in the mind of a troll? Great piece by Becca Rosen, on the Violentacrez affair. And Lili Loofbourow has an excellent piece on Reddit and “free speech”

Take the time to read all of Virginia Hughes’ reporting on autism from the Society for Neuroscience meeting. 15 pieces in FIVE DAYS?!

It’s been raining under my eyes. Conservationists rescue a baby elephant from a well

Microscopic Beast Caught Hitchhiking on Mayfly with prehensile antennae. Amazing fossil!



Why do elephants have hair? To keep cool.

“Traumatic memories can be manipulated in sleeping mice to reduce their fearful responses during waking hours.”

Nearly 15% of African presidents are scientists/engineers. “The road to democracy is being bridged by technocracy.”

Condition makes man’s scalp look like surface of brain

Habitat loss may be to blame for an apparent spate of violent attacks by chimpanzees on human in DRC

Blood from young mice can reverse some effects of ageing. But here’s a big media-training tip, scientists. Do not say stuff like in the last 2 paras here; you are inviting trouble

Moon-forming impact theory rescued. Theia lives! (Or not, as the case may be).

When it comes to microbes, pillowcases are statistically indistinguishable from toilet seats

Asshat professor complains that there aren’t enough hot women at a science conference. His godawful blog might explain some of this perspective.

Three Domains, One Zoom. New PLOS phylogeny explorer

Foot-long harvestman discovered in cave. It preys upon rulers

How do people draw opposite conclusions about climate change from the same temperature data? This GIF explains

Apparently montane cloud forests are like Disney forests, where everything is great and trees catch you when you fall

Skipping breakfast primes brain to seek high-calorie food. Solution: eat constantly. Amirite?

Cost to Prevent All Future Extinctions: $11/Person?

Person signs up for brain donation programme. They die. Now what? These people

Amateur astronomers find a planet in a four-star system

Aw, lookit da widdle baby scorpions

Craig Venter wants to put a sequencer on Mars. “Perhaps the real fear is that an army of genetically engineered Craig Venters would come back to take over the planet.” Oh, you joke.

Research about a singing fish. By Dr Bass.

Science for Girls, or as we like to call it, “Science”. Tania Bronwe on her on-again, off-again love affair w/ science

Robot wheelchair climbs steps and elevates over obstacles! AWESOME.

Athene Donald on celebrating the historical + continuing contributions of women in science

Modern-day alchemy: getting one element to behave like another so we don’t run out

Predator X is finally named, and it’s a little funkei. Also Hurum exaggerated. I AM SHOCKED.

Lovely video on the BBC website in honour of Ada Lovelace Day.

Why are humans so afraid? Featuring giant, carnivorous kangaroos

GM mouse created to detect landmines. Except they don’t know how it will practically do that.

TEDx pulls down a notoriously wacky pseudoscience talk.

Seed shrimp thought extinct has been living in cave for 40 mil. years

Self-proclaimed stem cell pioneer admits lies but maintains pathbreaking procedure. This story just gets more and more bizarre

UM NO NOM: UN warns of looming food crisis in 2013

“The research builds on a long series of marshmallow-related studies that began at Stanford in the late 1960s”

Boy with genetic marker for cystic fibrosis – but not the disease – ordered to change schools. Ridiculous.

The night sky is part of our nature and the astronomical imaging is a form of nature photography.”

“No one knows exactly what [%] of medicines are fake, ill-made, stolen or diverted. But bad pharma is a global problem”

More wrong-headed unscientific decisions by Italian courts, the latest in a long-running series of dodgy legal applications of weak science – this time, mobile phones and cancer.

Scorchio! Roasting Triassic heat exterminated tropical life

The reprogrammed stem cells that made Nobel news last wk reveal a bizarre trait of Parkinson’s cells

“Gary Farlow can make art out of arteries.” Amazing glass medical models

The Urine Wheel – a 16thC tool for diagnosing diseases based on the “color, smell, and taste of the patient’s urine”


Critter in a coffee cup. These are great. Also: how to really freak out your friends.

Stoat jumps for joy, or is dropped from great height?

You like time-lapse videos of the night sky, right? Course you do.

Every part of this insect looks like it contains another terrifying/adorable insect

Wonderful time-lapse film of Space Shuttle Endeavour’s final journey. Love the road signs!

“There is no telling where I may apply, if you turn me down.”

This is the most useful list in the world

Heh. Mitt Romney’s tax plan.

This seemingly small explosion on the sun is 100,000 miles tall

XKCD on lightning strikes (Don’t stare directly into the bolt)

Until 1996, no Democrat incumbent w/o combat experience had beaten someone whose first name was worth more in Scrabble. XKCD on silly election claims.

Oh dear, Jasmin H, aged 14, I have some interesting things to tell you about ducks

Ah, the Onion. “Obama Excited To Participate In First Debate”

This is what happens when the cladists win. (No explanation for the spider though)

Oh, just a Space Shuttle, going for a donut

Not a good thing to include on proof copies of books.

A science blog called “Lies From the Pit of Hell.”

“The Sound of Cylons


Possibly a huge conflict of interest re: Nobel Literature prize

Sergei Udaltsov, Russian Dissident, Live Tweets His Detention

Google’s Ngram Viewer just got an upgrade. Here’s @bgzimmer on what’s new

“What is the difference between a columnist and a blogger?” My take: only one of them STILL gets sh*t from curmudgeonly journalists.

This is a pretty gorgeous (and RAM-sucking) way of presenting a feature.

Newsweek ends its print run, goes entirely digital. Maybe that “Heaven is real” cover was a desperate plea? And the Telegraph screws up the story.

Twitter blocks neo-Nazi account in Germany. And only Germany. Becca Rosen discusses implications.

The Assange extradition conspiracy explained. Chilling when you lay it all out…

Man quadruples productivity by hiring a woman to slap him every time he checks Facebook.

“Bum beef” not what I thought. List of prison slang.

Excellent point-by-point dissection of an op/ed about “pro-life lefties”, and another good comment piece on the topic by Naomi McAuliffe

Wow, the Internet really is a series of tubes. Painted in Google colours. A look inside Google’s data centres


Happy Ada Lovelace Day – a celebration of women science writers

By Ed Yong | October 16, 2012 6:51 am


It’s Ada Lovelace Day, in which people round the world celebrate the legacy of a legendary woman by “sharing stories of women— whether engineers, scientists, technologists or mathematicians — who have inspired you to become who you are today”.

I’m taking a slightly different tack. I’m sharing the names of women who tell stories – science writers whose work I admire. (If anyone’s wondering, here’s the intensely scientific method I used to compile the list: I sat down, wrote names, and stopped when I got to 15) Each name is accompanied with a brief reason why I think they’re awesome and some links to past work. And as I’ve said before, this is not a list of top female science writers; this is an all-female list of top science writers.

Helen Pearson is the last person who’ll tell you this, but she’s one of the most accomplished feature writers around. Check out this profile of protein-resurrector Joe Thornton or this award-winning story about the study of a lifetime or this classic day-in-the-life piece about Bob Langer. A masterclass in longform right there.

Megan Garber from the Atlantic captures the aesthetic of the modern online blogger-columnist better than anyone else I know. She uses the daily news as a launch pad for wonderfully witty and insightful commentary. And more than anyone else I know, Megan can take something already quite joyous like this Ode to Joy flashmob and make it even more joyous by just bloody talking about it.

Maryn McKenna is like a living arrow, fired straight into the heart of the “blogging isn’t journalism” meme. On her blog Superbug, she regularly delivers some of the best journalism around on the subjects of infectious disease and agriculture. See her coverage of the recent NIH superbug, her piece on a childhood pertussis vaccine, and her detailed investigation into the link between chickens, antibiotics, and 8 million urinary tract infections every year.

Rebecca Rosen absolutely excels at finding beautiful stories, and then writing beautifully about them. See her pieces on Voyager I’s prolonged exit from our solar system, what a trip into space does for the religious experience, and a deaf man hears music for the first time.

Kate Clancy tackles the topic of female reproduction with the great writing and clear science that it deserves but rarely receives. See these posts about Todd Akin’s claims, or the myth of menstrual toxins. And Kate gets extra kudos for acting as a role model for other female scientists and bloggers.

Maggie Koerth-Baker is Boing Boing’s science editor and a columnist at the New York Times, which should tell you something about the blend of wit and authority at play here. See this amazing piece on prion diseases (which doubles as an op/ed on live-tweeting conferences), this one on how science museums are failing, and this brave, personal piece on abortions. And the hilarious Twitter stream.

Alice Bell has yet to say something about science communication or policy that I disagree with. Her writings on these topics are compassionate, deeply considered, and razor-sharp. See this piece on why the fridge got its hum, and specifically listen to her podcast on science literacy.

Virginia Hughes is the journalist who neuroscientists trust to get things right. Because she does. See her recent feature on the neuroscience of resilience, and this feature on the ecosystem of the body that made it into the Best American Science Writing anthology. And everything she writes on Last Word on Nothing is worth reading.

Deborah Blum makes narrative writing looks effortless, and is having immense fun playing around with storytelling on her blog. Have a look at these posts on the mysterious deaths of two sisters in Thailand, a student death in a UCLA lab, and on condors being poisoned by lead

Jennifer Ouellette, whose funny, lively writing enlivens pretty much anything, from serious stuff (Why can’t we travel faster than light?) to… er… less serious stuff (a paean to the science of yodelling).

SciCurious is a master of funny, analytical blogging. Her posts where she picks apart papers area joy to read, deeply educational, and a great insight into what a paper looks like through the lens of a sceptical scientist. See this one on anorexia and obesity, and on mimetic desires. And Friday Weird Science is a consistent delight.

Emily Willingham is the last person I’d want to read my terrible opinion piece, if I chose to write one. Behold these eviscerations on autism and whipworm, and the broken DNA of older dads, on her blog, and also the generally great science writing elsewhere like this one about children in a mother’s mind.

Kerri Smith has been described as the “complete journalist” – awesome at words, pictures, video and audio. See, for example, this profile of dino-hunter Xing Xu, but also the great stream of Nature features on daydreaming, the future of fMRI and more.

Erika Check Hayden nails genetics reporting every single time – textbook example of how to cover a beat really well. See this feature on informed consent, post on what Steve Jobs’s death tells us about the limits of sequencing, or more generally, her continuing reporting for Nature.

Barbara King has been blogging up at storm over at NPR, with loads of thoughtful, fascinating posts on animal behaviour and all things anthropological. See these posts on captive killer whales, the death of a gorilla, or misleading bird “funerals” for starters.

I really could go on. Okay, I will. Here are the next 25 people I wrote down.

Read More


Will we ever… predict earthquakes?

By Ed Yong | September 24, 2012 9:00 am

Here’s the 11th piece from my BBC column

On Friday, 11 March 2011, an earthquake struck the oceans near Tohoku, a region on Japan’s east coast. With a magnitude of 9.0, it was among the five most powerful earthquakes ever recorded, strong enough to shift the entire planet by several inches along its axis. It triggered a tsunami that killed thousands of people and wrecked the Fukushima-Daiichi nuclear power plant.

A quake that large shouldn’t have happened at Tohoku, at least not to the best of Japanese scientists’ knowledge. The hazard maps they had drawn up predicted that big earthquakes would strike in one of three zones to the south of the country – Tokai, Tonankai, and Nankai. No earthquake has hit these regions since 1975, while several have occurred in “low-probability” zones, such as Tohoku.

Japan isn’t alone. The incredibly destructive earthquakes that hit Wenchuan, China in 2008 and Christchurch, New Zealand in 2010 and 2011 all happened in areas deemed to be “relatively safe”. These events remind us that earthquake prediction teeters precariously between the overly vague and overly precise. At one extreme, we can calculate the odds that big earthquakes will strike broad geographic areas over years or decades – that’s called forecasting. At the other extreme, early warning systems can relay news of the first tremors to people some distance away, giving them seconds to brace themselves. But the ultimate goal – accurately specifying the time, location and magnitude of a future earthquake – is extremely difficult.

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Ancient flower lives only on two Spanish cliffs, and uses ants to survive

By Ed Yong | September 12, 2012 5:00 pm

This story begins with a cliff-hanger. On the Spanish side of the Pyrenees mountains, around 850 metres above sea level, two adjacent cliff faces hold the entire population of Borderea chouardiione of the world’s rarest plants. It’s a small herb that grows into crevices in the rock. Its leaves are heart-shaped and its flowers green and unassuming. There are around 10,000 individuals here, all growing on a square kilometre of vertical rock.

Now, Maria Garcia form the Spanish National Research Council has discovered the plant’s survival strategy, which involves three different species of ants. Through these multiple partnerships, B.chouardii quite literally clings to existence.

Read More


New paper stirs more debate about whether adult ovaries can make new eggs

By Ed Yong | July 9, 2012 5:00 pm

Any study that claims to overturn long-held dogmas is going to run headlong into controversy. Take, for example, a stream of recent papers which apparently showed that adult ovaries contain stem cells capable of producing eggs.

If that’s true, it’s a really big deal. For decades, the textbooks have said that women are born with their lifetime supply of eggs, which slowly dwindle away and are never replaced. If adult ovaries do indeed have stem cells that can regenerate new eggs, that has big implications for fertility treatments, and when a woman could potentially have children.

But wait! A new study, which used a different technique to isolate these ovarian stem cells in mice, found that they don’t divide, and never produce actual eggs. Maybe the textbooks are fine as they are?

But WAIT! This study, far more than many of the others I cover, has divided opinion. Obviously, the authors think that it deals a critical blow to the idea of egg-making adult stem cells. And obviously, one of the people behind the stem cell discovery thinks that the new experiments aren’t very good. I also contacted four other scientists who work on ovarian biology and their views differ considerably.

I’ve written about this story for The Scientist so head over there for the details, and the grounds for the disagreement.

Image from RWJMS IVF Laboratory

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Meet the paralysed woman who commandeered a robotic arm

By Ed Yong | May 18, 2012 9:00 am

Cathy Hutchinson has been trapped in her frozen body for 14 years, after a stroke disconnected her brain from her spinal column. Recently, however, she commanded a robot arm to bring a thermos of coffee to her lips. This story has been all over the news, but for the ultimate telling of the tale, you need to read Jessica Benko’s amazing story over at The Atavist.

I reviewed it for Download the Universe – a review site for science e-books, where a bunch of us writer types are having tremendous fun writing about writing for the sheer joy of it. A sample of the review follows to whet your appetite. Go buy the e-book. You can thank me later. And do read the review too.

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Ready, set, trial: why pandemics catch us out and how to prepare for them

By Ed Yong | May 14, 2012 9:00 am

When we think about preparing for pandemics, we think about vaccines, stockpiles of drugs, and surveillance. We rarely think about research. This oversight means that when big epidemics hit, like the swine flu pandemic of 2009, scientists lose valuable chances to find more about these illnesses. A new consortium is out to change that. I wrote about their work, and the problem of slow clinical research in a new feature for the BMJ, which I’m reprinting here.


While viruses are fast and adaptable, clinical research is lumbering and cumbersome. Epidemics tend to arrive with little warning, spread quickly, and end abruptly. By contrast, clinical trials can take months to plan. Forms must be designed to record the right data and ethical approval must be sought. By the time would-be researchers can vault over these obstacles the epidemic is history.

This explains why, during the 2009 A/H1N1 influenza pandemic, virtually no patients were enrolled in a randomised controlled trial designed to identify the best ways of treating the infection. Such trials are the gold standard of medicine and the best way of getting rigorous evidence for a treatment’s effectiveness. During the pandemic millions of people were treated with the front line drug oseltamivir (Tamiflu). But the only evidence that oseltamivir actually saved lives came from retrospective observational studies, with all the biases they entail. To this date, serious questions remain about the drug’s effectiveness. “A Tamiflu trial during the last pandemic would have resolved all the controversy over whether it works or not,” says Mike Clarke, Director of the UK Cochrane Centre. In the UK people could request doses of the drug through an NHS hotline. “On the first day of that system, 5000 people received Tamiflu. On that day alone, you could have conducted the biggest trial in the world ever,” says Carl Heneghan from the University of Oxford.Tamiflu’s relatives, zanamivir and peramivir, are similarly mysterious. Are they actually effective against the pandemic strain? What are their ideal doses? Should a high loading dose be used at the start of treatment? Can they be used in combination? Are they suitable for the groups who seem to experience the most severe infections, such as obese people, pregnant women, infants, or those with other diseases? We do not know the answers to these questions, and our ignorance is all the more galling because the virus infected between 11 and 21% of the world’s population.

The same questions dog the many other treatments that doctors turned to during the pandemic, such as steroid hormones, immunoglobulin antibodies, and transfusions of plasma from patients who had fought off the virus. Several thousand patients had such severe problems with their hearts and lungs that doctors had to divert their blood out of their bodies and perfuse it with oxygen by machine—a last ditch treatment known as extracorporeal membrane oxygenation. Each measure has at least one report claiming that it is effective, but these reports are always based on small non-randomised studies. Randomised controlled trials were nowhere to be seen.

“Disgrace is too strong a word, but it’s a shame that we don’t know the answers to these questions after this disease has been through not just poor countries but ours,” says Jeremy Farrar, professor of tropical medicine at Oxford University, who studies infectious diseases in Vietnam. “So much of the world’s population saw this virus.”

These problems are not restricted to pandemic flu: the same barriers have held back our knowledge of other infections. If severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) sprang up today, doctors would still ask questions about whether to give patients steroids, immunoglobulins, or ribavirin. And with the sluggish speed of clinical research, they would neither have the answers, nor be in a position to get them. “Let’s say they announce cases of SARS in Vietnam today,” says Piero Olliaro from the World Health Organization, “can we start doing a study? No. Our response is very poor.”

“We don’t ever make the progress we should,” says Farrar. “If a patient comes in tonight with Nipah virus, we can’t look at research done five years ago and say, ‘Look, we should treat this individual in this way.’ Those people would be subject to all sorts of bizarre treatments and we don’t know if they’d work or not.”

Some scientists have had enough. Farrar and others have joined forces to create a global alliance called the International Severe Acute Respiratory Infection Consortium (ISARIC), which will ensure that scientists can carry out effective clinical research during future epidemics. Formally announced in December 2011, ISARIC already includes between 50 and 60 research networks across six continents, and it is still growing. Its supporters include a who’s who of big medical funding agencies: the Wellcome Trust, the UK Medical Research Council, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Institut National de la Santé et de la Recherche Médicale (Inserm), the Li Ka Shing–University of Oxford Global Health Programme, and the Singapore Ministry of Health.

ISARIC’s goal is to set up relationships, protocols, and strategies during this peacetime period, so that researchers can hit the ground running when the next major infection emerges. When people talk about preparing for epidemics they usually refer to monitoring potential threats or stockpiling drugs and vaccines. ISARIC will deal with the crucial missing element: it will prepare to study epidemics as they happen. Everything from personnel to ethical approval will be readied beforehand, so that when the time comes research can progress at the pace of the virus.

Perhaps the most striking aspect of ISARIC is that it is only now being set up. The last pandemic was preceded by decades of concern about flu, but the preparation focused on epidemiology, modelling, and public health approaches. There was plenty of time to prepare ready made trials, but none was set up. Heneghan thinks that this complacency was partly driven by an inflated sense of certainty about treatments, despite a weak evidence base. “Some people still think we should just use existing treatments when we have influenza, and that’s just what we do,” he says.

“Some people just don’t think into the future enough,” says Clarke. “It’s very surprising that we haven’t got off the shelf trials for major incidents that you know are going to happen.” Farrar adds, “I think nobody thought of [doing this]. If they did, they probably concluded that funding agencies would not fund something that was designed for an uncommon event that would occur at [an] unpredictable time in the future.”

If such reticence once existed this is now changing. In the UK, the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) put out a call for research proposals in the spring of 2009, as the pandemic was emerging. Despite a fast turnaround, those studies only started after the main waves of infection had passed. Fast was not fast enough. So in October 2011 the NIHR agreed to fund eight projects, including several clinical studies, which will be activated if another pandemic reaches the UK. Steve Goodacre from the University of Sheffield, who chaired the meeting that funded these proposals , says, “You’d get ethics and regulatory approval, pilot the project, develop data collection forms, set up everything ready to go, and put it on hold until a pandemic happened.” At that point full funding would be released, and the pre-cocked starting pistol would fire. Clarke is involved with one of the funded trials, which will assess the use of low dose steroids as treatments for pandemic flu. “It’s ready to go when someone says start,” he says. “The UK may be ahead of the game here.”

ISARIC, which is collaborating with many of the investigators funded by the NIHR, will extend the same principles worldwide. Its first seeds were planted in November 2010, three months after the H1N1 pandemic had officially come to an end. In its aftermath several biomedical funding organisations, including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Wellcome Trust, Institut Pasteur, and the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, gathered in Bethesda, Maryland to discuss gaps in research on influenza and other respiratory diseases. The problem of slow research response stood out.

The Wellcome Trust followed up with a meeting to discuss the problem in February 2011. Representatives from 20 clinical networks gathered in London, along with funding agencies, and public health workers from WHO, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and more. They all recognised the same problem and agreed to work together to solve it. “There was a dramatic, enthusiastic endorsement,” recalls Fred Hayden from the Wellcome Trust. “There was a lot of commitment even then.” ISARIC was born.

The consortium has since grown in size, and there are currently no restrictions as to the number of networks that can join. ISARIC has won two years of funding, amounting to around £500<thin>000, to set their ambitious plans in motion. But, despite the enthusiasm around the consortium, its members recognise that speeding up the pace of clinical research is a significant challenge.

Even the simple business of recording a patient’s details becomes tricky. You need to decide how to diagnose someone as a case so that you end up with the right sample. You need to work out the criteria on which to include or exclude a patient from a trial. You must decide what research questions to ask so that you know what information to record. Creating these case record forms already takes a lot of time, and there’s more still to be done.

Once a research plan has been nailed down it can take months to get funding and ethical approval, at a time when responses are needed in hours and days. For example, in one review of cancer trials it took an average of 621 days to recruit the first patient after funding had been agreed. The recent H1N1 pandemic came and went in less time. “That might be okay for hypertension or diabetes in a developing country, but for a rapidly developing problem, we have to concertina that,” says Farrar.

In ISARIC’s vision clinicians would develop these research protocols ahead of time and secure ethical and administrative approval. When a crisis hits, these plans could be fed through a fast tracked system that allows research to start immediately. Farrar likens this system to the rapid response approaches already used by public health authorities. “If there was an outbreak of salmonella in America tomorrow, there’ll be a really good, well-organised response from the CDC,” he says. “They won’t spend six months discussing a protocol and putting together a case record form. They go to a shelf and take off how they investigated it the last time.”

Researchers also need to work from the same playbook, even if they hail from different regions or countries. If everyone records the same data then local information becomes globally useful. “In an outbreak, you may only be able to study 20 patients in Vietnam, 30 patients in China, and 30 in Africa,” says Farrar. “We need to make sure that we standardise these things so that ultimately, we can bring all of that research together.” As the infections spread data would accumulate.

To ISARIC’s researchers, it is crucial that such data be stored in a freely available repository. The open access movement has been very successful in promoting free access to the end results of research, such as data and publications. But Farrar says that the same principles should apply to the materials that make research possible in the first place. “If you faced an outbreak of encephalitis in Outer Mongolia, you could go to an open access website and say, ‘This group in Vietnam have done lots of studies on encephalitis, and here are their case record form, inclusion criteria, and consent sheet.’ That might save you months of effort.”

People also have to be ready for the chaos that epidemics sow. “Things become significantly more difficult,” says Olliaro. “There’s disruption, panic, and a lot of media attention.” Clinics are flooded with patients, and clinicians face extra burdens on top of their already busy schedules. They barely have time to do regular work, much less carry out additional research. As the epidemic continues clinicians could fall ill themselves, compounding any shortness of staff. If clinics are to cope they need specialists who are trained to carry out research in the event of an epidemic. “You need an intervention squad,” says Olliaro. “They’re ready to go but don’t know when they’ll be called upon. In the mean time, they’re doing routine hospital work.”

Such systems would be impossible to create in the middle of a crisis: they need to be put in place in the breathing space between epidemics. For ISARIC, this does not mean just making plans and forms, but creating trust and connections between its international members. Hayden recalls that during the London meeting when the idea for a consortium was first mooted, “a lot of these groups didn’t even know what each other were doing.” Farrar says, “Ultimately, what drives science is still relationships. The time to build trust is now, outside of the pandemic setting. Then, when you have a crisis, you can be on the phone to someone in Indonesia and they trust you because you’ve worked together and you didn’t steal their samples.”

With their initial burst of funding, the ISARIC members have set up a secretariat and four working groups to advance their agenda. The first working group is tasked with designing clinical trials that can begin now, but that can also adapt and continue in the event of an epidemic. The second group will collect and standardise the clinical data we already have on H1N1 and other emerging infections. The third will develop protocols for studying the basic biology of infections with epidemic potential, such as how they affect their hosts, what makes some people more susceptible than others, and how they might react to known drugs. The fourth group will map all the barriers to a rapid clinical response, and create an open access hub that is loaded with pre-approved plans and documents to be deployed in a crisis.

Within the next two years, ISARIC hopes to build up enough momentum to secure more funds for the research they devise and to sustain the collaboration in the years ahead. Their ambitions are large, but Steven Webb from the Royal Perth Hospital, Australia thinks that they need to move quickly. “There’s a window of opportunity for funding,” he says. “People tend to remember the last great threat to public health and, at the moment, attention has been drawn to infectious diseases because of the last pandemic. We look to capitalise on that window of opportunity before it closes.”

Image by Eneas de Troya

Carl Zimmer and me and mutant flu and feathery dinosaurs, oh my!

By Ed Yong | May 4, 2012 4:59 pm

Carl’s already explained this really well so I’m going to hand it over to him:

Ed Yong and I may live on either side of the Atlantic, but our minds are in the same place: that strange realm where fungi take over the minds of ants, where dinosaurs sprout feathers, and where ducks shatter glass with their genitals. In other words, Earth.

We don’t get to see each other in person more than once a year, if that, but we always have a good time when we do. Which is why I’m looking forward to having an online conversation with Ed on May 14. And you’re invited.

This event is brought to you by Shindig, a new company that’s set up a web site for video chat events. The design of the site is quite elegant: the speakers appear on the top of the event page, where everyone can watch them talk. Audience members appear in their own screens on the page as well, and when speakers ask for questions, they can hit a “raise hand” button. The audience member asking a question then zooms up to the top of the screen, where he or she can have a conversation with the speaker. (You’ll obviously need a video camera and mic on your computer to take advantage of this feature.)

There are lots of things for us to talk about, such as the controversy over manmade strains of bird flu. But we’ll be happy to talk about other things biological that are on your minds, too. So bring your questions (or offer some suggestions in the comment thread below.)

We will be talking on Monday May 14 from 5 to 6 pm ET. To join us, please RSVP at this eventbrite page. The talk is free, of course, but after you RSVP you’ll then get instructions for logging into the Shindig page on May 14.

This is 100% experimental, but I expect it to be fun.


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