Friday, May 29, 2009

Solutions for the Higher Education Financial Quagmire

This has not been a good year for higher education. Economic downturns traditionally benefit the educational community by providing a surge of displaced workers to fill the classrooms, but the severity of the current economic situation actually has had a negative effect on campuses across the U.S. While people are returning to higher education, the financial mess on Wall Street has crippled the financial backbone of academia. Across the country, state budgets are in crisis.

In my own backyard, for example, the University System of North Carolina experienced a 5.8 percent reduction in funding in 2008-2009, and the North Carolina state budget is facing a $3.4 billion shortfall for 2009-2010. In addition to budget cuts, the General Assembly enacted a 7 percent reversion in the budgets of higher education — the new name for supplemental budget cuts.

On a more individual basis, since this recession directly involves the financial sector, people are having a hard time securing the funding to return to school, and scholarships and grants are reducing their support as their endowments struggle. Somehow, we have become accustomed to this type of news, with many wondering how any good can come out of this situation.

The Bright Side of Budget Woes
The budgetary quagmire facing academia often is viewed as an obstacle to program and curriculum development. But this actually may be the event that finally catalyzes the blending of higher education and industry.

Across academia there always has been a rather small minority that actively has promoted and fostered direct interactions with the corporate world, not just in the form of grants, but in direct collaborations in research activities and the training of skilled workers to satisfy the needs of industry. Even though the current economic woes also are influencing the private sector, the time may be ideal for a revolution in the way that academia and industry (including big pharma) interact.

We are beginning to see that happen already. At Appalachian State, my home institution, the faculty is actively encouraged to develop partnerships with both the private and government sectors. Within the past few years, long-standing ultra-conservative policies regarding copyrights and ownership of patents have been discarded in favor of more liberal policies that promote technology transfer and cooperative agreements with industry.

The Ethics of Industry-Academic Collaborations
We do, however, need to get a handle on the ethics of these new relationships. In countless committees on college campuses, faculty and administrators are questioning whether these new relationships are in the best interests of the students. As is always the case, a few bad cases can upset years of progress. An excellent example of how ethical problems can cause havoc in an academic program is at Harvard Medical School. A March 2 article in The New York Times outlines Harvard's problems with both faculty and administrative personnel receiving financial support for their research from the pharmaceutical industry. In this case, individuals at Harvard are accused of placing their personal interests over those of professional interests. Even though the faculty and administration at Harvard had disclosed that they were working as consultants to private industry, the students' perception was that the faculty was using these relationships to influence the students' views on certain drugs. While the matter is still being debated at Harvard, it does show that potential problems exist.

Of course, the overall issue is one of transparency. Most of us recognize that transparency is the key to an effective workplace. When all issues are on the table and open to discussion, people feel more comfortable with their environment and their leaders. This type of change has been slow to develop on college campuses, where the authoritarian role of professors and administrators resembles a form of medieval caste system. Most institutions, including Harvard, fail the transparency test — but not all. As pointed out in the article, the University of Pennsylvania, Stanford and Columbia have developed more transparent reporting systems and have received high grades for their achievements.

Promoting Collaborations Through Peer Review
There is another solution, and one that is deeply embedded in the scientific process. The scientific community, both academic and private, prides itself on the peer review process. With regards to research, review by one's peers is considered to be the benchmark of ensuring academic integrity.

What is needed in order to ensure that academic-industry relationships are handled ethically is an adaptation of the peer review process in academic-biopharma partnerships. Simply put, faculty must disclose their relationships to a community of peers, including representatives from industry. Since we are dealing with finances, these peer review committees should be inter-institutional, further compelling an environment of transparency in higher education.

This process will ensure that transparency is maintained, and it will promote the interactions of academia and big pharma. Furthermore, it will help encourage the interaction of academia with the biopharma community, which may result in an influx of much-needed capital into an increasingly bankrupt educational system. These are the types of partnerships that higher education, the industry, and even more importantly, the students, desperately need.

This article was first published in BioWorld Perspectives (May 28, 2009 vol 3 #21) by AHC Media and reproduced here by permission.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Fighting HIV Without Traditional Vaccines

Why can't scientists just develop a universal vaccine against HIV and the swine flu? Is it because the biopharm industry wants to make money each year off of a new vaccine?

The answer to the second question is a definite "no", but the answer to the first question is far more complicated....

The problem is that HIV, and in fact many viruses, do not play fair. Viruses, although not technically "alive", evolve over time. One way that viruses evolve is by changing the protein structure of their outer protein coat. This protein coat is responsible for the majority of the properties of a virus - for example what species and types of cell in infects. In viruses, the evolutionary rate of change is higher than that of living organisms, for several reasons, including the fact that viruses lack DNA repair mechanisms. This means that they accumulate mutations faster, and often these mutations change the outer structure of the virus. Since vaccines are prepared using purified outer proteins of a virus, you can see how as viruses evolve they make previous vaccines ineffective. Such is often the case in the flu vaccine, where the yearly vaccines are prepared from the previous year's flu viruses. Vaccines for HIV has so far met limited success, and epidemiologists balk at the idea of putting a vaccine on the market which would make people think that they are safe. Furthermore, HIV belongs to a class of viruses called the retroviruses, an especially nasty sub-set of viruses that accumulate mutations faster than most.

Vaccines, when introduced into the body, cause the immune system to target specific cells and proteins for destruction. This is called the specific immune response, and one of the ways that it works is to produce antibodies against the invading virus. Unfortunately, we all do not generate the same antibodies, meaning that a vaccine in one person might not have the same result as in another. Coupled with the high mutation rates of viruses, this causes real problems in developing a population-wide vaccine for highly mutable viruses.

But what if we could bypass the whole antibody-generation step and instead introduce virus-specific antibodies into the body. These antibodies could be designed to target a specific type of virus, and would actively recruit the cells of our immune system to destroy the virus before it caused significant damage. This type of procedure has just been reported for HIV-type infections in primates, and the initial results suggest that it might hold promise. And not only for HIV, but also for viruses such as H1H1 (swine flu) and H5N1 (avian flu). Both of these are now in the human population, and the development of an effective vaccine against them both is not soon forthcoming, so adding a new technique to our anti-viral arsenal is well advised.

For more information - see Jon Cohen's article in ScienceNow
"Designer Antibodies Derail Monkey AIDS Virus"

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Say Goodbye to the Printed Textbook....

I remember distinctly lugging a backpack of textbooks across the frozen tundra of Michigan State University in January. On many occasions, the weight of the backpack was enough to send me skidding out of control on the ice. I hated dragging those books around, but my professors all told me that I had to have a copy of the textbook in class every day (still not really sure why on that one!).

Electronic textbooks have been around for a while, and while the technology has improved immensely from the days of simple pdf files to the newer, more interactive, formats, all have required a computer to access, making the portability of these texts still a little of a hassle. The release of the new e-Readers, such as Amazon's Kindle and Sony's Reader, have created a new interest in downloadable eBooks. For half the price of a printed book, and the ability to download the material without being connected to a computer, these devices have already proven their worth to an increasing audience of book fans.

The major drawback of these devices has been that they are black and white. This simple fact has inhibited the use of the e-Readers for science textbooks, which rely heavily on the use of color graphics. However, E-Ink, the company that makes the electronic paper that powers the e-Readers, has recently announced that it is preparing to launch a color-version of its e-paper. If so, then the door is finally open for the offering of college science textbooks on the e-Readers.

Despite the fact that professors say that a textbook is invaluable, most educators know that students do not read the book and prefer to get their information from electronic sources. Given the size of some textbooks (400+ pages is the norm for an intro biology text), and its lack of interactivity, there can be little doubt as to why student's overall despise textbooks. This generation of students is looking for alternatives, and E-Ink's improvement of the e-paper may be exactly what spells the final demise of the textbook.

The professors will grumble (they always do), but the reality is that once publishers start offering e-Reader versions of their textbooks, we will finally see the beginning of the end of the printed textbook. As a professor and lifelong student, I for one will be glad to see it happen.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

New Evidence for the RNA World

Every instructor of an introductory biology class is faced with a dilema to present to their class. While we know that DNA is the genetic material of all living organisms (except some viruses - but most do not consider them as "living"), it appears to have been absent from the early Earth. So what was the original genetic material? And, more importantly, do we have any evidence to support this hypothesis?

Before we look at the alternatives, was wasn't DNA the original genetic material on the planet? One main reason, of course, is its complexity, and the fact that DNA requires a host of proteins and enzymes to assemble and copy itself. These enzymes are encoded within the DNA, so that leaves us with a "chicken and egg" scenario. The DNA molecule itself lacks any catalytic abilities - meaning that it does not conduct any chemical reactions. It is like the hard-drive of your computer - pretty much useless without a host of assistants to get the information in and out.

For some time scientists have recognized that a second form of nucleic acid, RNA, is the solution to these problems. RNA is a much simpler molecule. It is usually short and only consists of a single-strand of nucleotides. More importantly, RNA molecules can themselves act an enzymes. This type of RNA is called a ribozyme, and its activity appears to solve many of hurdles faced by the early genetic material. The fact that RNA may have been the earliest form of genetic material is called the RNA world hypothesis.

There has been only been one real problem with the RNA world hypothesis. How did the individual components, called nucleotides, of the RNA molecule self-assemble. Many explanations have been proposed, but finally, due to the activities of a group of researchers at the University of Manchester, we are one step closer to understanding. Dr John Sutherland, a chemist has demonstrated a series of chemcial reactions that can occur naturally to form the nucleotides of RNA. This could be a very important advance in the life sciences - previously we have known how to form the nucleotides synthetically (i.e, in a lab), but not under natural conditions.

Now here is where we can link astrobiology (also called exobiology) and genetics together. We are currently exploring Mars for life, and will soon we taking a good look at both Europa and Titan (moons of Jupiter and Saturn, respectively). While it is useful to look for life as we know it - what would be more interesting would be to tart to look for proto-life, molecules that are self-assembling and replicating. Using Sutherland's data, we should be taking a good look at these locations of evidence of RNA-building blocks. By doing so we can understand more about how life first evolved on our planet.

For more on Sutherland's discoveries - see the NY Times article by Nicolas Wade - "Chemist Shows How RNA Can Be The Starting Point for Life"

Sunday, May 3, 2009

The Swine Flu "Pandemic"

Welcome to the new world of medical sensationalism. The recent "outbreak" of the H1N1 virus, aka "swine flu" has provided some of the major news networks with the ultimate story. Scare the public and increase ratings, it worked with terrorism, and now it appears to be working with the swine flu pandemic. From pictures of Dr. Gupta, CNN's medical authority, wearing a worried look and a face mask, to Vice-President Biden's gaff about why all Americans should cease flying immediately, the American people are being fed misinformation on H1N1 at an alarming rate. And they are scared. Airline stocks are plummeting, people are avoiding pork, and sales of surgical masks are increasing exponentially. In Vermont, the National Gaurd is escorting deliveries of anti-viral medicines to hospitals. And, of course, the religious crazies are out predicting the "end of days".

Every day we are reminded of the swine flu death toll. For example, on today's CNN page (May 3, 2009), there is a headline article stating that "Confirmed Cases of H1N1 Virus Approach 900". It is important to realize that 900 deaths, while seemingly significant, really is not. Cancer kills over 440,000 Americans per year, or about 1200 a day. Over 9000 Americans, 24 each day, die from contaminants in the food that we eat. In fact, 900 deaths worldwide represents about 0.00013% of the world's population. This is a nasty little virus, with some interesting genetics (see tomorrow's post!), but it is not yet a global killer. And due to some rather quick work by scientists, we already know more about this virus than most.

So why the panic? Mostly because people do not understand the jargon of the people who study infectious diseases. Yes, there is a pandemic... but it is important to recognize what the word pandemic really means. An epidemic is an outbreak of a disease in a localized population, while a pandemic simply means that the epidemic has moved into neighboring populations. In today's world, most epidemics, and all flu outbreaks, go pandemic quickly. A pandemic is not Armageddon, it is simply a widespread outbreak of a disease.

Some people will say that the news networks are just keeping people informed. But the reality is that this bout of swine flu is going to fade rather quickly as summer progresses, and with this fading will be the attention of the American people. But, unfortunately, the virus will be back, and it could return with a vengeance. But due to the actions of the news networks, we are now in the "boy who cried wolf" syndrome. When this virus, or one of its close relatives returns, most people will ignore the advice to get a vaccine, thinking that this is just another "news story", and not a real threat. After all, they have already survived the "threats" from avian and swine flu, how bad can it get? The answer is, very bad indeed. Viruses are patient little objects, and a few seasons of low activity often preclude a true outbreak in a population. H1N1 may not be bad this year, but if it mutates over the summer, we could have problems next year if we don't prepare now by planning ahead and funding the agencies that work to protect us from infectious outbreaks.

For more, quality, information, stop watching the infomercials known as the nightly news, and check out real sources such as the CDC. Take prudent precautions, the same as you would take during any high-disease season. Wash your hands frequently, especially when you have been in public spaces, and see your doctor if you develop flu-like symptoms. But lets stop the panic and sensationalism, and instead use our brains to think.