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Headlines: May 21, 2010

by Meg Larkin


            In research news today, J. Craig Venter has synthesized an entire bacterial genome and used it to take over another cell.  Researchers hope this latest accomplishment may help pave the way for new creation of vaccines and biofuels.  Exxon Mobil has already agreed to pay Dr. Venter’s company up to $600 million to generate biofuels from algae.  Others in the scientific community have cautioned that Dr. Venter’s accomplishment is more of a technical feat than a true scientific break through, and some environmental groups have denounced the synthetic genome.  President Obama has asked the White House Bioethics committee to study the issues raised by Dr. Venter’s accomplishment.

            In other research news, results of several studies have been announced in anticipation of the upcoming annual meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncology.  The studies include a potential way to test for ovarian cancer, a finding that yoga may help cancer survivors sleep better, and a study that found certain types of drugs may help to keep cancer in remission longer.  The study on longer cancer treatment involves maintenance therapy, which aims to make cancer a chronic condition.  Researchers found that patients who continued on certain types of anti-cancer drugs had a significantly lower chance of recurrence.  This finding must be balanced against the high costs and the side effects of the drugs.

            In another research community development, the NIH has announced new rules for funding disclosure among researchers.  Researchers who take more than $5,000 from drug companies must disclose those payments to the university they work for, and the university must make that information available on the Internet.  The regulations only apply to institutions receiving NIH funding, but this includes a very large number of research institutions in the United States.  Previously, researchers had to disclose payments of above $10,000 to their institution, and the institution was not required to publicize that information.

            In other regulatory news, the House Energy and Commerce Committee has launched an investigation into direct-to-consumer marketed DNA tests.  Subjects of the investigation include Pathway Geonomics Corp., which made the controversial test that was going to be sold in Walgreens Pharmacies.  While Walgreens has delayed offering the tests, the House investigation has continued.  23&Me, another genetic testing company told the Washington Post that they are cooperating with the investigation, while Pathway Geonomics declined to comment.

            Finally, new research from England has found that statins may increase patients’ risk of developing cataracts and kidney trouble.  Statins are currently top-selling drugs for the world’s major pharmaceutical companies, and generate about $35.3 billion in annual revenue worldwide.  According to the Boston Globe, For every 10,000 people taking a statin, there were about 271 fewer cases of heart disease, 8 fewer cases of esophageal cancer, 307 extra patients with cataracts, 23 additional patients with acute kidney failure, and 74 extra patients with liver dysfunction, researchers estimated.”  Furthermore, researchers could not confirm some of the purported off label benefits of the medications.


Meg Larkin is a law student at Boston University.  Please feel free to email her with any questions, comments, suggestions or concerns.


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