Link Round-Up: 25th November, 2016

Happy Thanksgiving to all readers!

Concerns Over Cybersecurity
Hacking and cybersecurity have been high profile issues of late but especially this week, with a report that Hilary Clinton’s electoral defeat may have been the work of hackers. Deeper analyses of these claims suggest otherwise, however. Unfortunately, not all cybersecurity concerns are groundless: the U.S. Navy has confirmed that hackers gained access to sensitive personal information, including Social Security numbers, of over 130 thousand current and former sailors. Private individuals should be particularly wary this weekend: a recent report by Kaspersky Lab provides further support for the proposition that, as Black Friday becomes increasingly digital, consumers and retailers are at greater risk of cyberattack.

Speculation Continues Over Trump and Brexit
Apropos of the Presidency, Donald Trump has announced several more of his intended cabinet appointments, perhaps the most significant of which was his choice of former Alabama senator Jeff Sessions as Attorney General. Mr. Sessions has previously been nominated for the federal district bench, but was rejected by the (predominately Republican) Senate Judiciary Committee for his perceived racism.
Many wonder about the consequences of a Trump administration on all aspects of American life, and science and technology have been no exception. Just today, Science published two commentaries on what Mr. Trump’s presidency could mean for science, and Scientific American posted a special report on the subject. Biotechblog has kept a detailed account of news and commentary on the probable impact on biotech and pharma. Widespread attention has been paid to the likely effects on medicine (particularly abortion) and on environmental regulation; the latter is unlikely to be affected by Mr. Trump’s recent promise to keep an open mind on climate change. Finally, intellectual property laws are of particular importance to many scientists, but the President-Elect’s views on the subject remain unknown.
Across the Pond, the United Kingdom has responded to much speculation over the effects of Brexit on science and industry, especially pharmaceuticals. Parliament’s influential Science and Technology Committee has released a report on the implications for scientific research, stressing the need for certainty and recommending inter alia that the Government commit to permitting EU scientists to remain in Britain. On the plus side, Her Majesty’s Government’s recently promised to invest £2 billion in science and research. The Chancellor’s Autumn Statement did not promise increased funding for healthcare, however, although this is widely regarded as necessary.

FTC Requires Clarification in Homeopathy Sales
Many scientists and physicians, including the NIH, believe that there is little evidence for the medical efficacy of homeopathic remedies; this position was greatly strengthened last year, by a large-scale analysis carried out by Australia’s National Health and Medical Research Council. The Federal Trade Commission recently joined those willing to act upon this belief – for example, clinical commissioning groups in the United Kingdom – by issuing a policy statement holding homeopathic drugs to the same standards as other products making such claims: that is, requiring scientific evidence for any health benefits. Effectively, homeopathic products must communicate that there is no scientific evidence that the product provides any health benefits, and that any claims otherwise are based on widely rejected ideas developed during the 18th Century. The policy statement may be read here.

Oral Arguments
The Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, by far the most influential court for American patent law, will resume oral arguments on December 5th. Perhaps more important for the role of science in the law, however, will be an argument before the Supreme Court this Tuesday: Moore v. Texas, in which the Court must consider the role of scientific evidence in criminal justice.
States may not execute the intellectually disabled, unlike the (competent) mentally ill; in determining who is considered intellectually disabled, states are required to base decisions on the framework employed by the medical community. There is little guidance as to what this entails, however, resulting in selective and outdated use of professional standards; this case presents an egregious example, with the court upholding a standard from 1992 – based, at least in part, on the character Lennie from John Steinbeck’s classic novel Of Mice and Men – despite recent changes in diagnosis of intellectual disabilities. The key issue in Moore is whether states must adhere to current medical standards in this determination. A victory for Bobby James Moore would not only save his life, but increase the role of scientific understanding in legal decisions of life and death.

Trial for Alzheimer’s Drug is Ineffective
A widely publicized clinical trial for solanezumaub, a drug aimed at treating Alzheimer’s disease, showed insufficient benefit to justify marketing the drug. Scientists differ as to what this means for the hypothesis underlying the drug, namely, that Alzheimer’s is caused primarily by build-up of amyloid-beta protein. Alternative hypotheses (some or all of which may play a role, as may amyloid-beta) include that deposits of a protein called tau are the major cause, that reduced expression of the RGS2 gene is required, and that elevated level of C1q lead to unnecessary synapse pruning. Regardless, Alzheimer’s and similar conditions are likely to become increasingly prevalent as populations become older, and continued research into effective treatments is necessary.

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