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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.

cystic fibrosis gene therapy trial results

Cystic fibrosis (CF) is the most common lethal inherited disease in the UK, affecting around 10,000 people nationally and over 90,000 worldwide. Patients’ lungs become filled with thick sticky mucus and they are vulnerable to recurrent chest infections, which eventually destroy the lungs. The cause of CF, mutations in a gene located on chromosome 7, was identified in 1989, opening the door to introducing a normal copy of this gene using gene therapy. The UK Cystic Fibrosis Gene Therapy Consortium, a group of scientists and clinical teams from Imperial College London, the Universities of Oxford and Edinburgh, Royal Brompton & Harefield NHS Foundation Trust and NHS Lothian, have been working together to develop a gene therapy since 2001. read more

the Oxford Martin Safe Carbon Investment Initiative

The G7 recently committed to decarbonise the economy by 2100. Now, a group of leading climate scientists and economists has been formed to examine investments in fossil fuel industries. The Oxford Martin Safe Carbon Investment Initiative aims to provide a robust, evidence-based approach to the divestment question. Work will begin soon to ask what, if any, are the realistic alternatives to divestment? What would a safe fossil fuel investment look like in a world in transition to net zero carbon emissions? What does a company that remains engaged in fossil fuel extraction need to do to reassure its investors and customers that it is acting responsibly, and to ensure that its activities are not committing future taxpayers or shareholders to expensive climate adaptation, mitigation or remediation measures? read more

cochrane review of evidence on stress urinary incontinence surgery / vaginal mesh – effectiveness and side effects

Vaginal mesh surgery for stress urinary incontinence has been in the news over the last couple of years, with questions being asked about its safety, effectiveness and potential side effects. The procedure involves implanting a sling made of artificial mesh under the urethra to support the muscles of the bladder. There have been a number of reports of women suffering pain and injury after surgery, and some suggestion that side-effects may be due to the sling which is made of non-absorbable plastic. This has led to court cases worldwide, with some already under way in the UK, the USA and Canada. In Scotland, the health minister called for hospitals to consider the suspension of mesh operations until more evidence is available. An independent review set up in Scotland in 2014 to review the safety of these operations will publish its findings later this year. read more

publication of the results of the 5 year project to develop for the first time wheat that is genetically engineered to repel aphids

The full results of the controversial GM wheat field trial held by Rothamsted Research in 2012-2013 are published in the scientific journal Scientific Reports. The first year of the trial, labelled by journalists as ‘the whiffy wheat’ trial, caused significant public attention when Take the Flour Back was formed to campaign against the field trial and held a protest at the site. The campaign became a something of a cause célèbre when the Rothamsted Researchers fought back with a YouTube video and petition appealing to activists not to destroy the trial site. In the event the campaigners did not disrupt the research and had no bearing on the performance of the trial or the gathering of results. read more

new report from the Lancet Climate Health Commission

A new report from the Lancet Climate Health Commission has declared climate change a ‘medical emergency’. Its authors state that the threat to human health posed by climate change is so great that it could undermine the last fifty years of gains in development and global health. It also presents new evidence suggesting that the health benefits of mitigation/adaptation – from reducing air pollution to improving diet – represent one of the greatest opportunities to improve global health this century. read more

non-invasive prenatal testing

Non-invasive prenatal testing for disorders such as Down’s syndrome has considerable advantages over invasive methods, not least in that it reduces the risk of miscarriage. But how effective is it? Is it feasible economically? Do parents trust it? How far can it be applied? Can it diagnose disease in the mother as well as the foetus? To whom should it be offered? read more

predicting death – who is at risk of dying in the next five years?

Is it possible to predict who will die within the next five years? Scientists have used UK Biobank data to carry out a systematic comparison of predictors of death in middle-aged to elderly people, and have published their results in the Lancet. They investigated whether measures that can be obtained by simple questionnaires without any need for physical examination could reliably predict risk of death within five years in people aged 40 to 70 years. read more

treating dyslexia – have we been getting it wrong?

Dyslexia affects around 375,000 children in the UK and can have a lifelong impact on learning. Patients and parents naturally want the best treatments possible and many turn to coloured cards and lenses which are thought to reduce visual stress. Many practitioners offer specialist eye treatments and therapies. However, there is growing evidence that this entire industry is founded on unsupported research. Experts have now used comprehensive eye tests with thousands of children to test the role of vision in dyslexia. Based on these results and those of previous work, the researchers want charities, practitioners and support groups to reflect the latest evidence. read more

paracetamol use in pregnancy and testosterone levels in unborn boys

Paracetamol is the most common pain and fever relief medicine used by pregnant women, but previous observational studies have suggested a possible link between prolonged use during pregnancy and reproductive issues in young boys. Researchers from the University of Edinburgh have investigated the effects of paracetamol use on levels of testosterone in foetuses in a series of experiments using mice with human tissue grafts. read more

the El Niño Southern Oscillation

El Niño takes place in the Pacific Ocean and has the power to affect weather patterns around the world; an especially intense El Niño event is thought to be partly responsible for the famously high surface temperatures of 1998. Scientists are in broad agreement that an El Niño this year is underway, but its effects are notoriously hard to predict. read more

the long-term impacts of childhood bullying

Traditionally childhood bullying has been seen by many as a common and almost inevitable part of growing up, with lasting consequences fortunately happening rarely. However, there has been growing evidence of long-term impacts that can last far into adulthood. Now researchers have assessed whether there are not only psychological impacts, but also physical ones – specifically in relation to obesity and inflammation. read more

clinical research with children: ethical issues

Without well-conducted medical research with children, our understanding of childhood disorders and evidence base for treatments will remain limited. The benefits of research can be seen in areas such as childhood leukemia, but overall, health research with children lags behind that with adults. In everyday practice, doctors still need to prescribe medicines that are often only tested in adults. Despite this, researchers and parents are worried about asking children to take part in research because of ethical and practical concerns. Following a two year inquiry, which has heard from hundreds of children and parents, the Nuffield Council on Bioethics is publishing its report, ‘Children and clinical research: ethical issues’. read more

gene editing of human embryos

As some in science circles have been predicting, gene-editing techniques which are already widely used in plants and animals have now been applied to human embryos. In what is thought to be a world first, Chinese scientists used CRISPR/Cas9 to modify the DNA of human embryos, thereby attracting global headlines about science fiction becoming science fact, as well as warnings about slippery slopes and designer babies. read more

climate scientists’ statement for Earth Day

The Earth League, a group of world-leading research institutions, launched their Earth Statement on Earth Day, April 22 2015. The statement summarises recent climate science, particularly regarding risk and tipping points and outlines the key features of a climate agreement in Paris in December this year to meet the 2 degree target agreed by nations. It calls on the UN negotiators to step up their ambition to ensure an equitable and science-based global climate agreement in Paris, and will describe eight essential elements of a global climate deal from the scientists’ perspective. read more

e-cigarettes – do they help cut down or quit smoking?

Evidence of the effectiveness of e-cigarettes as smoking cessation or reduction aids is still limited. Two new studies investigate whether frequency of use and type of e-cigarette affect whether users either cut down or stop smoking cigarettes. How do the results of these two surveys (one to be published in the journal Addiction, and the other in Nicotine & Tobacco Research) fit in with other evidence? read more

sexual offending and heritability

In the wake of many high profile stories of sex offences in the news, there has been much speculation and debate around what factors contribute to the likelihood of individuals committing sexual crimes. Previously, much of the research in this area has focused on environmental factors such as deprived childhoods and alcohol use, rather than possible genetic influences. In a large population study using data from Sweden, researchers from the University of Oxford and the Karolinska Institutet have investigated the genetic impact on the risk of sexual offending by looking at the close male relatives of convicted sexual offenders. read more

very sick children: treatment at any cost?

Doctors dealing with end of life care for children and young people will be issued with new guidance by the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH), setting out when it can be considered no longer in the best interests of the child to prolong life at all costs. In the 10 years since the last version of the guidance was published, babies born at 22-25 weeks have better chances of survival and palliative care for children has become more widely available. But for some newborns, or children who have suffered serious infectious disease or catastrophic injury, very difficult decisions need to be taken by medics about how to act in that child’s best interests. read more

launch of East London community genome sequencing project

Bangladeshi and Pakistani people in East London have some of the highest rates of poor health in the UK and are disproportionately affected by diabetes, heart disease and other conditions. Experts from Queen Mary University of London are launching a large-scale medical research study – called East London Genes & Health – which aims to improve the health of these local communities by gathering information, for the first time, about their genetic makeup. read more

the latest evidence on HRT and cardiovascular health

Hormone replacement therapy has long been a controversial subject, with different studies demonstrating complex benefits and risks associated with women taking HRT. The latest review into the evidence has been published in the Cochrane Library. The new evidence on HRT now suggests different benefits and risks according to the age of women, or how long since their menopause that they started treatment. This review adds a few more pieces to a complicated jigsaw of evidence relating to the use of HRT to treat symptoms of the menopause helping to inform women about their HRT choices. read more

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