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SMC Heads-Up: Animal testing, tornadoes, freshwater science

SMC Heads-Up: Animal testing, tornadoes, freshwater science and disaster communication

Issue 210 7 - 13 December

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Animal testing still crucial to science

Controversy over proposed safety testing methods for new "legal highs" erupted this week as it emerged that unregulated, emerging recreational drugs may have to be subject to testing involving animals.

Writing in the Herald, legal commentator Catriona MacLennan

wrote: "dogs shouldn't die so humans can get high" and claimed New Zealand should lead the world by banning animal testing outright.

On Monday, after a report on toxicity assessments for novel psychoactive substances was made public, Associate Health Minister Peter Dunne ruled out use of the median lethal dose (LD50) testing regime for these drugs, citing concerns over animal ethics in this context. But he has left the door open for some form of animal testing of legal highs.

The Australia NZ Council for the Care of Animals in Research and Testing (ANZCCART), told the SMC that phasing out use of animals in testing new treatments and drugs wasn't realistic - yet.

"Experience has taught society that the health and safety of the chemicals we use, as medicines, in food and in our environment, is important," the Council wrote in a statement.

"Errors such as the use of thalidomide, or DDT, teach us that we must learn about the actions of chemicals before we use them on our farms or to treat disease (animal and human). Animals are used in these tests, but a range of other systems are used as well.

"Testing and research begins in vitro or in silico (in a test tube or using computer modelling) before cultures of human, animal or bacterial cells are used. All these systems can tell scientists and regulators a great deal about the likely toxicity of a chemical and how it might act.

"This is the first principle that guides the use of animals in research, teaching and testing - replacement. If replacement options cannot adequately ensure environmental, animal or human safety then the principles of reduction and refinement are used. These three Rs (Replace, Reduce, Refine) underlie all legislation and advocacy for animal use in science and regulation in NZ."

Tornado tribulations for Auckland

Was the devastating tornado that hit Auckland yesterday a freak occurrence, or a symptom of global warming? Scientists are erring on the side of the former, but caution that the latter has not been ruled out.

Three people were killed and a further seven admitted to hospital when a tornado struck west Auckland just after midday yesterday.

In May last year, a tornado strike hit the Auckland suburb of Albany, killing one man - the first such fatality in the area in 20 years.

The role of climate change - or not...

Following from the climate debate following superstorm Sandy in the US, the impact of a warming climate on New Zealand's weather has become a topical issue.

The Science Media Centre contacted weather experts for comment on the how a warming atmosphere may be affecting New Zealand's weather and in particular, the likelihood of tornadoes.

Prof Jim Salinger, at the University of Stanford comments:

"The future of tornadoes is unclear...but indications are that they could be a bit stronger."

"The bottom line is that with a warmer atmosphere there is more water vapour in the atmosphere, so as it condenses into cloud droplets more energy will be released providing more energy for storms. At the same time any precipitation is heavier. This has been seen in recent US tornado seasons."

However Prof James Renwick, Victoria University Wellington, was more circumspect, saying to the SMC:

"These events strike at random from time to time, but they are very localised and sporadic and are not obviously tied to trends in the large-scale climate. At this stage, we have no indication that tornado occurrences will become more or less frequent in future."

You can read further expert commentary collected by the SMC here.

On the science radar...

LCD contact lens, smartphone seismographs, cancer breath, old dinosaurs (potentially), literally golden hair and better lightbulbs.

Scientists call for action on water

Freshwater scientists meeting in Dunedin this week spoke out about the need for action on cleaning up New Zealand's waterways.

The quality of New Zealand's water ways has been a high profile issue of late and the conference struck at the core of the current public debate.

The conference theme, 'Beyond the Limits', aimed to "provoke debate and discussion about the capacity of freshwater ecosystems in New Zealand and elsewhere to cope with current and future intensification of land use."

The Science Media Centre held and online media briefing for journalists Monday morning, featuring several conference speakers discussing freshwater issues and research presented at the meeting.

Prof David Hamilton from the University of Waikato called for a limits-based approach to freshwater management, as recommended by the Land & Water Forum. He warned that failure to act would lead to serious environmental damage, loss of ecosystem services and international credibility.

"We now run a serious risk of imposing a burden or environmental debt of future generations that could severely constrain their opportunities - both in a competitive sense and from a viewpoint of enjoying and appreciating the unique New Zealand environment," Prof Hamilton said.

Dr Mike Joy, Massey University, spoke about the reality of New Zealand environmental record and the need to drastically reduce the impact of intensive land use on our waterways.

"We have reached a tipping point and we cant keep doing what we are doing," Dr Joy said.

You can view the full briefing and read a round up of conference media coverage on the Science Media Centre website.

Quoted: Science Media Centre

"It is not reasonable, yet, to replace animal testing in NZ or anywhere else. But, there is huge support to achieve this goal.

"...The overall rate of mortality of animals being used in research is decreasing year on year and this highlights the continuing uptake of alternatives to animal testing by scientists and teachers".

Australia NZ Council for the Care of Animals in Research and Testing (ANZCCART)

New from the SMC

Reflections on Science:

100% Joy: Columnist Dave Armstrong muses on the the environmental criticisms levelled at the government by ecologist Dr Mike Joy.

Animal testing: CYAD spokesman Kevin Tamati offers his views on animal testing.

Briefings:

Focus on fresh water: Listen back to a media briefing from Freshwater Science Society's annual conference.

In the news:

Profiling Sir Peter: Writing for Fairfax NZ News, Anthony Hubbard profiles Prof Sir Peter Gluckman, the Prime Minister's Chief Science Advisor.

Sciblogs highlights

Some of the highlights from this week's posts:

2° be or not 2° be: the choices we face - The heat is on for action to prevent climate change.

Hot Topic

Pesky varmints - Wayne Linklater looks at the pest control problems and solutions discussed at a recent DoC workshop.

Polit-ecol Science

Peer J pulls of a hatrick - Fabiana Kubke takes us on walkthrough of the innovative new publishing system, PeerJ.

Building blogs of science

The TPP - what does it mean for science? What do the current trade negotiations hold in store for science? Peter Griffin investigates.

Griffin's gadgets

Animal testing back in the news - Siouxsie Wiles pulls apart the latest controversy of safety testing of recreational highs.

Infectious thoughts

Research highlights

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

Unfaithful faces: Women can make accurate judgements of unfaithfulness from the faces of unfamiliar men, according to a new study. It seems women, but not men, used facial masculinity as a valid cue, with more masculine-looking men both perceived as, and actually more likely to have been, the type to cheat on their partner.

Biology Letters

Sperm quality decline: New research shows that the concentration and quality of sperm in men's semen has been in steady decline since 1989 in France. With over 26,600 men involved, it is probably the largest studied sample in the world and although the results cannot be extrapolated to other countries, it does support other studies from other countries.

Human Reproduction

Smokey hangovers: People who like to smoke when they drink may be at greater risk of suffering a hangover the next morning, according to an eight week study of US college students. Researchers found that students were more likely to report hangover symptoms after a heavy drinking episode if they smoked more heavily on the day they drank. "At the same number of drinks, people who smoke more that day are more likely to have a hangover and have more intense hangovers," said the researchers.

Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs

Cigarette butt nest bonus: In tough city life you have to make do with what you have got. As such, many urban birds incorporate used cigarette butts into their nest. Now, a new study from Mexico City has found that these butts may offer unexpected advantage - they repel parasites. Researchers found that the more butts included in a nest, the less parasitic mites could be found. Previous research has noted cigarette butts in New Zealand bird nests.

Biology Letters

Sneaky soup tricks hunger: The memory of having eaten a large meal can make people feel less hungry hours after the meal. Researchers showed volunteers either a small or large portion of soup just before lunch, and then manipulated the amount of soup they actually consumed by means of a covert pump that could refill or empty a soup bowl without the eater noticing. Two to three hours after lunch, volunteers who had been shown a larger portion of soup reported significantly less hunger than those who had seen the smaller portion.

PLoS ONE

Policy updates

Some of the policy highlights from this week:

Subantarctic reserves: Three marine reserves will be created under the Subantarctic Islands Marine Reserves Bill, which had its first reading in Parliament this week. The bill establishes reserves around Antipodes Island, the Bounty Islands and Campbell Island.

Science funding: Applications have been invited for $52.8 million of Government research funding in the 2013 science investment round. Researchers have until early April 2013 to submit proposals, which will then be peer reviewed and assessed by independent expert panels.

Legal high expert committee: Associate Health Minister Peter Dunne announced this week that he will establish an independent expert committee early next year to set the approval standards legal highs will need to meet.

Callaghan Innovation: The Callaghan Innovation Bill, which establishes a new high-tech HQ for manufacturing and services firms, this week passed its third and final reading in Parliament.

Upcoming sci-tech events

12th International Conference on Frontiers of Polymers and Advanced Materials (12th ICFPAM) - 8-13 December, Auckland.

Life in a nine dimensional universe: New Zealanders' access to licensed and publically funded pharmaceuticals - seminar by Rajan Ragupathy - 10 December, Dunedin.

Science and Public Perceptions - lecture from Prof Damon Teagle (Southampton University) - 11 December, Hamilton.

The Public Square - panel discussion on current affairs - 11 December, Dunedin and streamed live via the Internet.

For these and more upcoming events, and more details about them, visit the SMC's Events Calendar.

ENDS

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