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briefings

The Science Media Centre is not restricted to reacting to the headlines, and has helped scientists to more proactively set the agenda by bringing new science or evidence to journalists. This comes from our regular briefings, which take a variety of forms and cover a wide range of topics. Many are background briefings introducing journalists to the best experts and science on controversial issues like nuclear waste, nanotechnology, emerging diseases, or animal research, for example. They may also be news briefings where the SMC works with scientists to give the national media a new story on developments within science, whether it’s a report on climate change, a paper on stem cells being published in a leading journal, or science funding cuts in the latest budget. In addition, the SMC encourages leading experts to ‘speak out’ to the media about developments they believe may pose a threat to scientific research – not something science has been renowned for.

Could overcooking some foods cause cancer?

Acrylamide is a chemical that is created naturally when many foods, particularly starchy foods like potatoes and bread, are cooked for long periods at high temperatures, such as when baking, frying, grilling, toasting and roasting. read more

Antibiotics in farming

Future dangers of antimicrobial resistance are widely acknowledged, with farming practices often blamed for the rise in resistance to common antibiotics in human diseases. read more

Climate change and the Trump presidency

Donald Trump has said that no-one really knows whether climate change is real. Scientists tend to disagree. But what will the new presidency have in store for the US approach to climate change? read more

Global overfishing: what is the world’s true catch?

Two leading marine biologists, Prof Daniel Pauly and Dr Dirk Zeller from the University of British Columbia’s Sea Around Us project, published findings last year that challenged fundamental assumptions about global fisheries. read more

the facts about antidepressants

Antidepressants are a constant source of controversy. Concerns are raised that these drugs are not safe, that the side-effects are being overlooked, that they are being over-prescribed and are part of a trend of over-medicalisation. read more

alzheimer’s treatments – what now?

Following the failure of the recent solanezumab trial the question now is where does Alzheimer’s research go from here? We have brought together four top experts to discuss:

Is the solanezumab trial a complete failure? Can we learn anything from it?

Is this the end for the amyloid hypothesis? Could we be going about this all wrong? Is Tau the answer?

What other drugs are in the pipeline? Do the solanezumab results lower our hopes for their success?

Are there other non-drug therapies on the horizon that might offer success?

Will we not progress until we get better at detecting and diagnosing this disease?

Do we think we will ever find a treatment? Is our only hope to reduce lifestyle risks as much as possible? read more

nice draft guideline on outdoor air pollution and health

Air pollution has been in and out of the headlines recently due to the diesel emissions scandal and proposed Heathrow airport expansion. We’ve heard that the UK has been exceeding EU limits for nitrogen oxide emissions, and we’ve heard estimates of the numbers of people in the UK whose deaths are partly attributable to particulate air pollution.

NICE are publishing a draft guideline on road-traffic-related air pollution. The guideline aims to improve air quality and therefore prevent illnesses and deaths related to air pollution. The draft guideline will outline recommendations to government and local authorities.

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report of fourth hfea independent science review panel on mitochondrial donation

After Parliament voted overwhelmingly in favour of allowing mitochondrial donation last year the UK regulatory process for this new treatment has moved on. The Newcastle based scientists ready to offer the treatment have answered more of the scientific questions raised and the HFEA commissioned a fourth independent science panel to review this and other research. Meanwhile stories emerge of babies being born around the world with the same technique but under very different regulatory oversight.

Now this incredible treatment takes a very significant step closer to the clinic as the science review panel delivers its fourth and possibly final report on the state of the science and makes recommendations as to whether it is safe and effective in order to proceed to treating patients.

read more

The Science of Polling

The pollsters got it wrong in the general election, the Brexit vote and now the US election leading some commentators to declare election polls as dead. So what is going on? Did the polls get it wrong because of innate weaknesses in polling or is something else going on here that can’t be fixed by pollsters? Is polling finished or can it be reformed for a new world? What, if anything, would society lose if we say goodbye to poll. read more

UK Energy Policy

The UK energy system is going through a period of rapid change. The implications of the vote to leave the EU and subsequent changes within government are largely unknown. Uncertainties about the future of the energy system were already high; these changes have compounded them. The UK Energy Research Centre has produced an evidence-based commentary – addressing heat, transport, electricity, gas, and other major components of the energy system – which aims to take stock of UK energy policy ahead of the Autumn Statement, the Industrial Strategy and the Emissions Reduction Plan, and make recommendations for action by government. read more

GM wheat for increased yield

Scientists from Rothamsted Research, the University of Essex and Lancaster University provided an update on a new research project with GM wheat plants that have been engineered to carry out photosynthesis more efficiently. This trait has the potential for increased yields. read more

The state of the climate

This time last year, climate scientists came to the SMC to brief journalists ahead of the Paris negotiations. As the next COP meeting in Marrakesh approaches, those same scientists talked about the latest in climate science. What do the most recent observations show and has anything significantly changed? What trajectory are we on, and is the policy response in step with the science? What are scientists expecting to happen to temperatures and the earth’s response to greenhouse gases? And are we moving fast enough with clean energy technologies? read more

Testing a ‘controversial’ treatment for CFS/ME in children

In England up to two in 100 children have Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS/ME), the illness means they are unable to go to school or do other activities for more than three months. In fact 1% of secondary school children miss a day a week or more because of it. Unfortunately controversy rages around the illness and the treatment. Most children will recover if they receive specialist treatment; however, there is very limited specialist care in the UK and approximately 90% of children live too far away to receive the treatment they need. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) is known to be effective for children and a very successful trial in the Netherlands showed it can be delivered over the internet, meaning children can be helped wherever they live. However, we do not know if the results can be replicated in the UK so researchers, amidst rising tension from some people who do not support treatments such as CBT or Graded Exercise Therapy, are now starting a large clinical trial to test whether this treatment would work in the UK and should be available on the NHS. read more

A treatment for autism

Autism is a severe developmental disorder that affects 1 in 100 children. The core difficulties in social communication, which can mean children not even being able to communicate verbally, and the rigid and repetitive behaviours usually have a profound effect on development into adulthood and result in estimated £1-1.5 million lifetime societal costs per child. Despite many claims and previous research, there has to date been no treatment for the condition that has succeeded in improving these core developmental symptoms over the long-term. Now, however, researchers are reporting the long-term results of an intervention with families early in development that may begin to change our expectations. read more

Higher Education and Research Bill

There are some things that the scientific community are generally agreed on. That we need a stronger voice for science in government, most especially after Brexit, that what government spends on science is still too low (0.49% of GDP compared to the EU average of 0.67%) and that decisions about what research is conducted need to be free from government interference. But is the new U.K. Higher Education and Research Bill going to deliver all these goals? Unusually the scientific community is divided with Paul Nurse and the Royal Society believing that the bill presents the best chance of achieving some of the changes desperately needed, while others think it poses new risks. A strongly worded leader in Nature this week called on scientists to oppose the bill on the grounds that it opens the door to political interference and called on the scientific community to address the issues in public as well as negotiating behind closed doors. read more

Childhood cancer incidence around Dounreay and Sellafield

Childhood leukaemia is rare, affecting approximately 500 children every year in the UK. There have been numerous studies and reports on the possible risks of childhood leukaemia in the vicinity of nuclear installations and there are acknowledged historical clusters of childhood leukaemia around both Sellafield and Dounreay nuclear sites. Recent reports of raised thyroid cancer incidence following reactor accidents in other countries have led to increased interest in the possible consequences of the 1957 Windscale fire. The Committee on Medical Aspects of Radiation in the Environment (COMARE) is publishing its 17th report, ‘Further consideration of the incidence of cancers around the nuclear installations at Sellafield and Dounreay’ – a comprehensive review of the incidence of leukaemia, non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL) and other cancers among young people around the Sellafield and Dounreay nuclear installations, updating its previous work. COMARE is a Department of Health Expert Committee providing independent advice to all government departments and agencies. read more

Genome editing: an ethical review. Preliminary findings from the Nuffield Council on Bioethics

Genome editing techniques such as the CRISPR-Cas9 system are transforming biological research and hold the key for our expectations and ambitions for addressing global challenges such as food and energy production and disease prevention. The Nuffield Council on Bioethics is publishing the first findings of its programme of work looking at the recent and potential impact of advances in genome editing. The Council’s review identifies, defines and prioritises the ethical issues and questions that genome editing gives rise to in relation to its possible applications including in human reproduction, biomedicine and agriculture. read more

making embryos from a non-egg cell

In a discovery that challenges two centuries of received biological wisdom, scientists at the University of Bath have for the first time used sperm to fertilise non-egg cells – resulting in live mammalian births. Eggs can be tricked into developing into an embryo without fertilisation, but the embryos, called parthenogenotes, die after a few days. Scientists at Bath have developed a method of injecting mouse parthenogenotes with sperm so that they can go on in many cases to become healthy pups. read more

interpreting the evidence on the risks and benefits of statins

The public row about statins has had an impact on patient attitudes and the take up of the drugs, but patients, doctors and the wider public are still left confused about the absolute harms and benefits of statins. A major review, published in The Lancet, brings together all evidence to date on statins to clarify what the risks and benefits are in order to help doctors, patients and the wider public make informed decisions about their use. read more

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