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SMC Heads-Up: Daisy's tale, a decade of the UK SMC, Vit D

SMC Heads-Up: Daisy's tale, a decade of the UK SMC, spotlight on Vitamin D

Issue 201 5-11 October

Daisy offers allergy hopes
New Zealand scientists have genetically engineered a cow to produce milk lacking beta-lactoglobulin, a protein to which some people are allergic.

The cow, called Daisy, lives on a research farm near Hamilton, blissfully unaware of her sudden rise to fame this week, following the publication of a research article in the journal PNAS.

Researchers from Agresearch and the University of Waikato used RNA interference, a process that stops target genes from producing proteins, to stop Daisy from producing the whey protein beta-lactoglobulin (BLG) in her milk.

Interestingly, Daisy has no tail, a fact that has not been missed in the extensive international media coverage. The researchers themselves are unsure if the tailess-ness was a consequence of the cloning process or simply a coincidence - sometimes cow are just born without a tail. They did note that if Daisy can breed, her offspring and their tails (or lack thereof) will shed more light on the phenomena.

While Daisy has been the focus of media coverage, less attention has been paid to the extensive research that led to Daisy's genesis. The scientists spent years testing the BLG inhibition system, first in single cells, and then in a mouse model before finally moving to cows. The six-page condensed article in the prestigious PNAS journal barely does the study justice. A more accurate summary can be found in first author Anower Jabed's PhD thesis, which clocks in at a more weighty 214 pages on how microRNA molecules were developed and used to stop the production of BLG.

Getting to the bottom of BLG

The protein removed from Daisy's milk has a history of triggering allergies. It is estimated 2-6% of infants and children are allergic to cow's milk and BLG is assumed to be main the main culprit.

Allergic reactions to BLG made the mainstream news in 2009 when several children had severe reactions, including anaphylactic shock, to Wh2ole - a new protein-enriched water drink launched by Fonterra. Researchers found that the BLG concentration of Wh2ole was around 3g/l - three times that of cow's milk, leading them to call the drink a 'hyperallergenic product'.

Assoc Prof Rohan Ameratunga, one of the immunologists who investigated Wh2ole, was impressed by Daisy's BLG-free milk, telling the SMC, "[the researchers] should be congratulated for their innovative technology".

He also noted there were other allergenic proteins in milk and "the absence of BLG would therefore not be a guarantee patients with cow's milk allergy could consume this product safely."

Allergy concerns aside, the researchers expect it will be years, perhaps even decades, before milk from cows like Daisy would be considered for commercialisation.

You can read more commentary on the research and an extensive round up of media coverage on the SMC site.
A decade on... the UK SMC turns 10
Our colleagues at the UK Science Media Centre played host this week to hundreds of journalists, scientists and international groups interested in starting a SMC as they celebrated the Centre's 10th anniversary in London.

Fiona Fox
The UK SMC under the leadership of Fiona Fox has become an indispensable resource for the UK media over the last decade and in the process influenced the tone of media coverage of science-related issues around the world.

A review booklet issued by the SMC to mark its first decade in business highlights the major issues the Centre has been involved in, from Climategate and the Fukushima nuclear incident to the debates over animal testing and the use in research of embryos comprising human and animal material.

As the Centre turns 10 it is stronger than ever. Hosted by the Wellcome Trust and with a staff of nine, it is also at the centre of a growing international network of SMCs that collaborate, share expertise and assist the media when science issues need independent, evidence-based analysis.

Take courage

In a blog post reflecting on the SMC's progress, Fox urged scientists to "take courage", pointing out that it is precisely when science-related issues become politicised and polarised that the public needs scientists the most.

"Having amassed plenty of data from the front line over 10 years, the SMC is something of a scientific experiment itself," she said.

"The findings overwhelmingly demonstrate that engaging proactively with the media improves the way science is covered. The risks of not doing so remain all too real."

NZ Science Media Centre senior media advisor Dacia Herbulock is in London this week for the SMC UK's big birthday bash and met with numerous groups from Europe and one form the US who are considering setting up SMCs in their own countries.

"It's been amazing. The same need to assist the media when complex scientific issues are in the spotlight has been identified all over the world and the more extensive the SMC network gets, the greater our ability to make a difference is," she said.

A recent innovation of the UK SMC is its "Before the Headline" service, which gives statistical analyses of new research paper which are made available to journalists as they are writing up their stories.

SMC NZ manager Peter Griffin paid tribute to the phenomenal output of the SMC over the last decade and the tireless devotion of Fiona Fox, who has never shied away from controversial science or voicing her opinion of how it should be covered.

"What has been pioneered in the UK has had an impact on how we operate the NZ SMC and we feel incredibly lucky to have been able to work with Fiona and her team over the last few years as well as the other SMCs".

OUTPUT: the SMC UK's impressive track record

On the science radar...
Music-writing microbes, fanged herbivore dinosaurs, gold-producing bacteria and the space harpoon.
Vitamin D no help against colds
New research has ended speculation that vitamin D supplements could ward off the common cold.

Previous studies have hinted at an association between low vitamin D levels and upper respirator tract infections, but until now no research had conclusively determined if vitamin D supplements would prevent infections.

A new study from Otago University, published in JAMA this week, followed over over 300 Cantabrians given monthly doses of either a placebo or a vitamin D supplement. After 18 months of monitoring, they found no significant differences between the groups in terms of incidence or severity of respiratory tract infections.
The researchers concluded that the high doses of vitamin D used in the study "did not reduce the incidence or severity of URTIs in healthy, predominantly European adults with near-normal vitamin D levels". However the study noted that very few of the participants were vitamin D deficient, and that individuals lacking vitamin D may benefit more from supplements than those who had normal levels.

Lead researcher Dr David Murdoch said in an Otago media release the research "is the first study to convincingly show that vitamin D does not prevent colds in healthy adults. However, it is important to note that very few people in our study had extremely low levels of vitamin D at the beginning. So, our findings may not apply to these people and to children who should now be the focus of further research.''

You can find examples of local and internation media coverage on the Science Media Centre website.
Sciblogger nabbed by PLoS
She's been a steady contributor to Sciblogs on her pet subjects of neuroscience and Open Access since 2009. Now Dr Fabiana Kubke has expanded her blogging activity to the Public Library of Science blog platform.

Fabiana this week joined the Mind the Brain stable of scientists blogging at PLoS and will deliver regular blogs on the world of neuroscience.

Her first post features what could well be one of the first recorded artist's impressions of nerve tissue from the brain, examined under a microscope in 1675.

Check out her PLoS blog over the next few weeks for more fascinating posts and keep an eye on Sciblogs, where Fabiana will still be blogging on matters closer to home.

Quoted: Business Desk

"The subtleties of science are lost on a public used to having debate defined in black and white terms by an increasingly tabloid media."

Jonathan Underhill, Business Journalist

New from the SMC

Experts respond:

Vitamin no defence against colds: A new study from the University of Otago, Christchurch, has ended speculation that vitamin D supplements may help prevent people from catching the common cold.

Daisy the GM cow: Experts respond to news that New Zealand scientists have genetically engineered a cow to produce milk lacking beta-lactoglobulin, a protein to which some people are allergic.

GM Maize study 'inadequate': The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has criticised a controversial French study linking herbicide resistant GM maize and cancer in rats. Experts respond.

Stem cell eggs: Experts discuss the implications of a study which created viable mouse eggs from stem cells, hinting at fertility solutions in humans.

In the news:

Daisy goes global: Check out an extensive round-up of local and global coverage of Daisy the GM cow.

Norovirus: Two north island hospitals are on alert following norovirus infections among patients and staff.

Reflections on Science:

UK SMC 10 years old: To celebrate its 10th anniversary, the UK SMC has launched a swish new website and in an anniversary blog post Fiona Fox, Director of the UK SMC, reflects on the last 10 years.

Sciblogs highlights

Some of the highlights from this week's posts:

More fraud behind paper retractions than you might have thought - Amiee Whitcroft looks at new research into scientists' bad behaviour.

Heresthetics and the alcohol purchase age - The way parliament voted on the three options on the split drinking age bill highlights some interesting points about political maniputation, writes Eric Crampton.
Dismal Science

Vitamin D does not reduce colds - Grant Jacobs breaks down new kiwi research examining how vitamin D affects the incidence and severity of the common cold.
Code for Life

Research highlights

Please note: hyperlinks point, where possible, to the relevant abstract or paper.

Dying for a tan: Indoor tanning increases the risks of developing non-melanoma skin cancer (known as basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma), particularly among those exposed before the age of 25, according to a new study analysing all available data from previous studies. An accompanying editorial calls for the introduction of a "tan tax" on indoor tanning salons in Europe, similar to the current situation in the US.

Desire to be thin fits into genes: A new twin study suggest genetics may make some women more vulnerable to the pressure of being thin. US researchers surveyed over 300 female twins, aged 12-22. Identical twins who share 100 percent of their genes were compared with fraternal twins who share 50 percent. Researchers then estimated that half of the reason women differ in their idealization of thinness can be explained by differences in their genetic make-up.
International Journal of Eating Disorders

Neonatal genome sequencing speeds diagnosis: Quick and accurate diagnosis is most critical in acute care situations, as in a neonatal intensive care unit (NICU), where medical decision-making is made in hours not weeks. US researchers have shown that a genome sequencing system, STAT-Seq is capable of diagnosing rare genetic disease in neonatal patients in just 50 hours
Science Translational Medicine

Transparent technology: Researchers have developed a transparent, flexible non-volatile memory device made with both conventional and novel electronic materials. This device could be useful to develop fully integrated transparent electronics with added memory functionality. The device, which allows 90% of visible light to pass through it, based on graphene low cost electrical contacts and uses silica as the memory element.
Nature Communications

Creating an earthquake in the lab: Researchers have built an apparatus that can simulate certain aspects of a large-magnitude earthquake, shedding light on the process by which a rock surface slips along a fault. Using a spinning flywheel which collides with a disc of sample rock , scientists can create 'experimental faults' that are loaded by energy densities that are comparable to those of earthquakes of magnitudes 4 to 8 and provide insights in fault dynamics.

Policy updates

Some of the policy highlights from this week:

Cyber policy: Communications and Information Technology Minister Amy Adams leaves today for a cyber policy conference in Budapest which will focus building a resilient global digital environment.

Oil and gas: Development study has been commissioned to look at the potential for and benefits of developing an oil and gas industry on the North Island's East Coast. The study is a joint initiative between the MBIE and regional economic development agency Business Hawke's Bay.

Fishing limits: The Ministry for Primary Industries has approved changes to some fishing catch limits and management controls, to ensure fish stocks are being managed within sustainable limits. The decisions follow an annual scientific stock assessment and fisheries management review.

Upcoming sci-tech events

Wellington Rocks! Earthquake briefings for Wellington residents - a joint project from GNS Science and the Wellington City Council - At various locations throughout Wellington, September - October.
Paper 2.0 - Making smart paper from plastic molecules How unexpected discoveries lead to new technologies - 2012 Royal Society of New Zealand Distinguished Speaker, Sir Richard Friend FRS - October 10, Christchurch; 11 , Auckland; 12, Hamilton.
For these and more upcoming events, and more details about them, visit the SMC's Events Calendar.


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