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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.

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

Cochrane review of evidence on vitamin D as a treatment for asthma

The relationship between vitamin D levels and asthma has been a frequent topic of research, and low levels of the vitamin have been linked to an increased risk of asthma attacks in both adults and children. However, the evidence for the potential role of vitamin D in managing asthma symptoms and attacks has not been fully evaluated until now. A new Cochrane Review has investigated whether vitamin D supplements can prevent asthma attacks or improve control of symptoms. The review has evaluated nine trials including both adults and children, and judged the studies included to be of high quality. read more

CBT – does it really work?

Many people are concerned about over-medicalisation and the use of pharmaceutical therapies such as antidepressants. This concern has coincided with a rise in the use of psychological therapies, particularly Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). However, do we know how strong the evidence for CBT actually is? Is it really just talking, or would that even matter as long as it works? Is the evidence only strong for certain disorders and can it cause harm, even when used correctly? read more

long-term impact of traumatic brain injuries in young people

Concerns over the long-term impacts of head injuries have frequently made the news, but the focus has largely been on professional sports players. Researchers have now assessed the long-term impact of traumatic brain injury (TBI) in young people and looked at the effect on early death, educational attainment, welfare requirements and need for psychiatric care. The study, published in PLOS Medicine, involved a large number of Swedish people who recorded a TBI (including concussion) before the age of 25 and compared them to siblings and others who had not had these injuries. read more

impacts of neonicotinoid use on long-term population changes in wild bees in England

Neonicotinoid insecticides have been implicated in the decline of bees, yet the evidence is derived from short-term laboratory studies on honeybees and bumblebees. Scientists from the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology have investigated the long term, large scale impact of neonicotinoids on 62 wild bee species across England and are publishing in Nature Communications on August 16th. read more

new findings on badgers and cattle

As the government prepares to announce the widespread rollout of badger culling, intended to protect cattle from bovine tuberculosis (TB), new research, carried out by the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) and Imperial College London and published in Ecology Letters, has looked into how often badgers and cattle meet. Badgers clearly contribute to the cattle TB problem, but how the disease transmits between the two species has remained a mystery. Using cutting-edge technology to track large numbers of badgers and cattle simultaneously, the team looked into whether and how often badgers came close enough to cattle to transmit TB directly, and whether there may be other means of transmission through contamination of the environment. read more

liquid biopsies for cancer

To give cancer patients the best treatment, doctors need important information about the genetic and molecular make-up of their cancer. Tissue biopsies are often used but they do not always give a comprehensive view of the cancer, they can be invasive, and it may not be possible to repeat them very often. With major changes in the ease and cost of DNA sequencing, scientists are now working on the possibility of ‘fishing’ out genetic material from tumours via the blood in order to get information about the make-up of the patient’s cancer. The aim is for these ‘liquid biopsies’ to give a comprehensive view of the way a cancer progresses, which can help identify which treatments to give, and may spot when the cancer is becoming resistant to its current treatment. The tests can also give valuable information to cancer researchers that could develop treatments in the future. Already some UK patients on clinical trials are being given these liquid biopsies as part of their treatment. read more

Oxitec Ltd and its GM mosquitoes – two visitors from Brazil

Oxitec Ltd, the company that developed a self-limited genetically engineered mosquito, has been working with health authorities in Piracicaba, Brazil, in attempt to reduce the population of the Aedes aegypti mosquito, the species that transmits diseases including dengue, chikungunya and Zika. Dengue has been the main mosquito-transmitted disease affecting Piracicaba. Oxitec’s Head of Field Operations, Dr Andrew McKemey, and Dr Pedro Mello, the Secretary of Health for Piracicaba in Brazil, will be in the UK next week and are available to answer any questions you might have about the science behind the GM mosquito, what stage their current mosquito release programme is at, and what the situation is in Piracicaba. Piracicaba City Hall partnered with Oxitec in March 2015 to use the mosquitoes and that programme is now being extended to a larger area of the city. read more

Nottingham Dollies

Just three weeks after the scientific world marked the 20th anniversary of the birth of Dolly the sheep, new research, carried out by The University of Nottingham and published in Nature Communications, has shown that four clones derived from the same cell line as Dolly reached their 8th birthdays in good health. Nottingham’s Dollies – Debbie, Denise, Dianna and Daisy – have just celebrated their 9th birthdays. They are part of a unique flock of cloned sheep under the care of Professor Kevin Sinclair, an expert in developmental biology, in the School of Biosciences. read more

Zika virus and the Rio Olympics

The 2016 Olympic Games in Rio, Brazil, will begin in early August. The Zika virus outbreak is ongoing in some parts of Brazil (among other countries in the Americas and the Pacific). read more

the future of cancer research – how can we outsmart cancer?

Cancer is the UK’s biggest killer, claiming around 160,000 lives every year. Survival rates have improved enormously in some types of cancer, but patients with other tumour types continue to do very poorly, and once the disease has spread round the body it is still often incurable. Researchers from The Institute of Cancer Research, London, and The Royal Marsden have been working over the last year to identify the biggest challenges we face in treating cancer, and come up with an action plan to overcome them. The ICR will be launching their action plan. read more

pause in Antarctic Peninsula warming

The rapid warming of the Antarctic Peninsula, which occurred from the early-1950s to the late 1990s, has paused. The stabilisation of the ozone hole, changing wind patterns and natural variability were significant in bringing about this change. Together these factors have caused the peninsula, which makes up 1% of the Antarctic, to enter a temporary cooling phase. Temperatures remain higher than measured during the middle of the 20th Century, so glacial retreat is still taking place. Scientists predict that if greenhouse gas concentrations continue to rise at the current rate, temperatures will increase across the Antarctic Peninsula by several degrees Centigrade by the end of this century. read more

annual Home Office statistics on animal research

On Wednesday 20th July the Home Office published its 2015 statistics on animals used in scientific procedures as well as the Animals in Science Regulation Unit (ASRU) annual report. Journalists came along to hear the latest figures from two Home Office officials, along with responses from three leading experts who have a broad overview of animal research and gave their thoughts on the reasons behind any rise or fall in the statistics or issues raised in the report. read more

the NHS weekend effect: what does the evidence say?

The observed ‘weekend effect’ in the NHS, where patients admitted to hospital over the weekend have worse outcomes than patients admitted during the week, has underpinned many rows and debates about how hospital services should be funded and structured. The move towards a ‘seven day NHS’ with equal levels of senior staffing across all days has become a hot political topic, but are the claims about the weekend effect accurate and evidence-based? It is a challenging area to research, but the emerging picture is that the weekend effect is much more complex than it appears. One key group conducting research in this field is the HiSLAC project, which is investigating the impact of specialist-led care on emergency admissions. read more

the science of fertility preservation

A woman from Edinburgh is the first in the UK to give birth following a transplant of her ovary tissue that had been frozen for 10 years. Experts from the University of Edinburgh came to outline the science of fertility preservation for female and male patients with cancer and other diseases where treatment threatens fertility, and gave details of this service that has been developed to help NHS patients to benefit from recent advances. read more

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