Science

News at a glance: An apology for ‘conversion therapies,’ Long Covid, and a narrowing racial gap in NIH grants

DIVERSITY

Groups regret ‘homosexuality’ views

Two scientific societies this month disavowed their past involvement in practices and public statements that deemed “homosexuality” a treatable disorder—a mistaken notion that has harmed LGBTQI+ people. Decades ago, some members and former presidents of the Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies helped create, study, and use “conversion therapies” for sexual and gender minorities. In a statement, the group apologized for its members’ involvement with these practices and accepted responsibility for harm caused. Conversion therapy—whose practitioners attempt to change a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity—has been proven ineffective and is associated with an increased risk of suicide attempts. The association encouraged its members to speak out against these practices in U.S. states that still haven’t banned them. And for this year’s Pride Month, in June, the New York Academy of Medicine (NYAM) formally disowned and apologized for a 1964 report that incorrectly concluded that homosexuality was a “treatable illness.” NYAM’s president called the long delay in issuing the disavowal “shameful.”

BIOMEDICINE

Racial gap in NIH funding narrows

The success rate for Black scientists seeking research grants from the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) has risen sharply the past 2 years, narrowing but not eliminating a gap with white scientists, agency officials said last week. In the 2021 fiscal year, a Black applicant’s odds of receiving at least one new R01, NIH’s standard research grant, was 24.4%, or 2.2 percentage points lower than for a white applicant. That compares with a disparity of about 7 to 9 percentage points annually from 2013 to 2019. A 2011 study identifying the funding gap led NIH to expand training and mentoring for Black researchers; advocates have also urged the agency to fund Black scientists’ applications that just miss the quality score cutoff for funding. Another new effort could help further close the gap: This month, several NIH institutes launched an R01 program for new investigators from diverse backgrounds, limited to research in neuroscience, drug abuse, and mental health. NIH defines “diverse” broadly, to include for example disabled scientists and those from impoverished backgrounds. Agency officials noted that NIH cannot make funding decisions on the basis of race, gender, or ethnicity.

PUBLIC HEALTH

Long Covid grows less likely

People were less than half as likely to develop Long Covid after being infected with the Omicron variant of SARS-CoV-2 than the earlier Delta variant, according to a large epidemiological study. Researchers at King’s College London analyzed data from the COVID Symptom Study, a longitudinal study in which initially healthy participants voluntarily log symptoms and COVID-19 test results on a smartphone app. Those with symptoms 4 weeks or more after a positive polymerase chain reaction test for the virus, even if they were initially asymptomatic, were classified as having Long Covid. Among 41,361 vaccinated people infected between June and November 2021, when Delta was predominant, 10.8% reported Long Covid symptoms, such as fatigue, shortness of breath, or brain fog, the group reported in The Lancet last week. Of 56,003 infected between late December 2021 and early March, when Omicron was predominant, 4.5% reported symptoms more than 1 month later. But the Omicron surge in the United Kingdom was so large, peaking in late March at an estimated 350,000 symptomatic cases per day, that it helped drive large numbers of new Long Covid cases despite the reduction in risk.

We don’t want to get to a point where we say based on your brain chart, you’re not qualified for a job.

  • Neuroethicist Laura Cabrera
  • in STAT, on ways that new reference charts describing brain development, published in Nature, could fuel discrimination if misused.
COVID-19

U.S. backs shots for very young

U.S. regulators have given a long-awaited thumbs up to start vaccinating nearly 20 million of the country’s youngest children against COVID-19. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on 18 June recommended all children 6 months through 5 years old be inoculated; a day earlier, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) had acted on a unanimous 15 June recommendation by external advisers and authorized the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines for preschool children. The Moderna vaccine for children requires two doses; the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, three. FDA authorized the Pfizer vaccine for children 6 months to 4 years old; it was already authorized for 5-year-olds. The agency authorized the Moderna shot for children 6 months to 17 years old. CDC data through April list COVID-19 as the fifth leading cause of death in children 1 to 4 years old and the fourth leading cause in infants. The United States will become the first country to give COVID-19 vaccines to children as young as 6 months old, according to a White House statement.

FUNDING

Teams tackle cancer challenges

Four multi-institutional teams will receive $25 million each over 5 years to explore vexing questions in cancer after their research proposals were selected for funding from the Cancer Grand Challenges, a U.K.-U.S. collaboration. The charity Cancer Research UK started a similar program with awards in 2017 and 2019, then partnered with the U.S. National Cancer Institute for the latest round, announced last week. The multidisciplinary teams led by U.S. and European researchers will study using immune cells to treat solid tumors in children; the biology of DNA found outside a cancer cell’s chromosomes; how cells that develop mutations turn cancerous; and cachexia, a muscle wasting disease common in cancer patients.

RESEARCH SECURITY

Ex-professor gets 1 year in prison

Simon Ang, a former engineering professor at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, was sentenced last week to 366 days in prison for lying to the FBI about his status as an inventor. Ang is one of two dozen academic scientists who have been prosecuted under the government’s 3-year-old China Initiative. In January he pleaded guilty to the felony charge after the U.S. government agreed to drop its allegations that he had hidden ties to China on federal grant applications. His sentence, which could be shortened, begins on 20 July. Ang was also fined $5500.

In Focus

Agar images of planets
Tiny cells meet large planets: Sarah Adkins-Jablonsky created an image of the Solar System by using ink and growing different colored strains of soil bacteria, including the antibiotic producer Streptomyces, on a growth medium. The title, Ode to Kate Rubins, honors a biologist who was the first astronaut to sequence DNA in space. The work was displayed last week at the annual meeting of the American Society for Microbiology.AMERICAN SOCIETY FOR MICROBIOLOGY/SARAH ADKINS-JABLONSKY
INNOVATION

Web conferencing spurs novelty

Research teams have produced a larger number of innovative ideas even as they spread out across countries and institutions, and the progress may be driven by online collaboration platforms such as Zoom, a study has found. The share of all teams that are geographically dispersed has grown for decades. But until 2010, analysts recorded a decline in disruptive new ideas from dispersed researchers, likely because they pursued more incremental research and their scattering caused members to “silo” and sapped their creativity. But the slide has reversed since Slack, Microsoft Teams, and other platforms debuted in the past decade, researchers from the University of Oxford report in a recent working paper that analyzes journal articles by more than 10 million research teams in 11 academic fields from 1961 to 2020. (Teams that changed members were counted more than once.) Although in-person chats remain important for scientific creativity, an embrace of online tools has complemented those interactions, the authors say, and the COVID-19 pandemic may have accelerated this trend.

DRUG DEVELOPMENT

Drug for Alzheimer’s amyloid fails

A decadelong clinical trial aiming to prevent cognitive decline in a Colombian family genetically predisposed to Alzheimer’s disease has ended in failure, its sponsor, Roche, announced last week. The results are another blow to hopes that drugs removing the sticky brain protein beta-amyloid before symptoms emerge might slow the disease. The trial tested a drug called crenezumab, which—like many other amyloid-targeting antibodies—has already failed to show benefits in large trials of people with mild, early signs of disease. Researchers enrolled 252 extended family members, two-thirds of whom have a mutation, in a gene called PSEN1, that typically causes people to develop Alzheimer’s symptoms in their mid-40s. Crenezumab didn’t prevent or slow cognitive decline compared with a placebo, Roche subsidiary Genentech announced in a 15 June press release.

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