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SMC Heads Up

SMC Heads Up

Superbugs a global issue - WHO
The World Health Organization (WHO) this week released its first global report on antimicrobial resistance, including resistance to antibiotic drugs.

The report, which also includes information on resistance to medicines for treating other infections such as HIV, malaria, tuberculosis and influenza, provides the most comprehensive picture of drug resistance to date, incorporating data from 114 countries.

The report reveals that antibiotic resistance is no longer a prediction for the future - it is happening right now in every region of the world, and has the potential to affect anyone, of any age, in any country.

Without urgent, coordinated action by many stakeholders, the world is heading for a post-antibiotic era, in which common infections and minor injuries which have been treatable for decades can once again kill.

Data in the report charted the spread and increase of pathogens resistant to drugs such as:

carbapenem antibiotics - used to treat common intestinal bacteria infections
fluoroquinolones - a key treatment for E. coli infections
cephalosporins - the last resort of therapy for gonorrhoea
Antibiotic resistance also causes people to be sick for longer and increases the risk of death. For example, people with MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus) are estimated to be 64% more likely to die than people with a non-resistant form of the infection. Resistance also increases the cost of health care with lengthier stays in hospital and more intensive care required.

New Zealand experts contacted by the SMC agreed with the report's warnings:

Professor Kurt Krause, Director of Webster Centre for Infectious Diseases, University of Otago, commented:

"It's clear that the development and worldwide spread of multi-drug resistant bacterial pathogens is becoming the most urgent crisis in infectious diseases. It threatens to move us into the post-antibiotic era and to change the way we practice medicine. While NZ has been fortunate to avoid the high levels of resistance seen in the most affected areas, it is important that ongoing surveillance continues for these organisms and that clear infection control policies and plans are in place. After all, even the most resistant of organisms are potentially only a plane trip away.

Professor John Fraser, Dean, Faculty of Medical and Health Sciences, University of Auckland, commented:

"The WHO report reveals the antibiotic resistance as a truly global issue. We are fortunate in New Zealand to benefit from a high quality surveillance system but in reality this only slows rather than protects us from the emerging antibiotic resistance. Indeed there is clear evidence that certain practices is this country have rapidly led to our own NZ specific resistant strains, so we are part of the problem and should as much as possible take steps to increase vigilance and to reduce those practices that promote antibiotic selection."

You can read more commentary and a round up of news coverage on the Science Media Centre website.
Policy news and developments

Throat clinics: The Government has announced it will expand the free drop-in sore-throat clinics programme to combat rheumatic fever.

Vaccines: 2014 is New Zealand's third year in a row in which over one million doses of seasonal flu vaccine have been distributed, according to the Ministry of Health.

Rotorua Cleanup: The Government will reallocate $24 million to a new project that encourages land owners in the Lake Rotorua catchment to decrease pollution.

Outbreak co-operation: Australia and New Zealand have agreed to work together to prepare for the unlikely event of a foot-and-mouth disease outbreak in either country.

Animals test 'legal high' law-makers
New psychoactive substances laws require manufacturers to provide evidence that their product poses a 'low risk' to consumers before they can market it. Can they do it without animal testing?

In the debate over the current legal status of novel psychoactive substances, questions have been raised over the ethics of using animal testing to prove the safety of new "legal highs".

Associate Health Minister Peter Dunne has announced he will introduce new legislation next week which will override the transitional interim approvals granted to a number of psychoactive products - effectively banning them.

Following the establishment of regulations later this year, manufacturers will only be able to sell a novel psychoactive product if proven 'low risk' under a testing regime stipulated by the government.

The question of whether such a regime should include testing a substance in animals remains controversial.

Labour has strongly opposed the use of any animal testing. "Labour will not allow these products to be sold again unless they pass a very stringent safety testing regime, and we won't permit animal testing," party leader David Cunliffe said in a media release last week.

The Science Media Centre approached New Zealand experts with the question: 'Would it be possible to show a substance presents a low risk to human health without animal testing?'.
Professor Nick Holford, Department of Pharmacology & Clinical Pharmacology, University of Auckland, responded:

"It is certainly possible to show a substance presents low risk to humans without testing in non-human animals. This would however be on a case by case basis. If a new molecule from a well established and acceptably safe class was proposed for use in humans then it would be reasonable to go directly to humans for further testing of effectiveness and safety."

Dr Malcolm Tingle, Associate Professor in Toxicology, University of Auckland is a member of the (Interim) Psychoactive Substances Expert Advisory Committee. Commenting in a personal capacity he said:

"The Psychoactive Substances Act 2013 details the duty of the advisory committee relating to the use of animals in assessing a low risk of harm. This Act establishes in law that alternatives to animal tests must be used if they exist and are suitable.

"So, do 'alternative' tests exist that have been validated? Yes; the OECD has ~80 guidelines for the testing of chemicals and there are in vitro ('alternative') tests for: genotoxicity (potential for cancer many years later); skin irritation; corrosion; sensitisation; absorption; estrogenic activity; photosensitivity. There are no validated alternatives for systemic toxicity (e.g. toxicity after oral or inhalation exposure) or teratogenesis (harm to an unborn child: not a user by choice!).

"Would it be possible to show a substance presents a low risk to human health without animal testing? If we accept that a limited battery of the biological end points above is sufficient -- for example, genotoxicity (but not cancer, for which there are no in vitro alternatives), irritation and photosensitivity -- then YES, we may avoid animal testing.

"If, however, we accept that low risk of harm should also cover systemic toxicity and teratogenesis, then the answer is NO.

"Will that always be the case? Possibly, but if a new alternative test becomes available that is suitable, under the existing legislation, it must be used and any animal data for that endpoint becomes redundant."

You can read further commentary on the Science media Centre website.

Quoted: New Zealand Herald

"Personally, I'm devastated that after all these years of fighting the good fight, to find that reason and science lost over money and ulterior motives. It's sad to see that non-profit organisations are bullied and over-ridden by corporate greed and unjust laws."

Dr Ingrid Visser of the Orca Research Trust on the captivity of Morgan the Orca in a Dutch theme park.
The Friday video...
Experimenting with Biochip Implants
Experimenting with
Biochip Implants

Sciblogs highlights

Some of the highlights from this week's Sciblogs posts:

Future war & peace - Robert Hickson reflect on the history of armed conflict and how it could help us predict future wars.

Reducing cardiovascular disease deaths from overweight & obesity - Tony Blakely looks at the options for addressing the issue of weight and heart disease.
Public Health Expert

Life as we know it could end in ten years if we don't start taking drastic action - A world without antibiotics is a scary place, writes Siouxsie Wiles.
Infectious Thoughts

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Handy media desk guide for scientists
The Science Media Centre is proud to present Desk Guide for Scientists: Working with Media, a 28 page booklet packed with tips and tools for scientists keen to work with the media to communicate their science.

Helping journalists do a better job of covering science is at the core of what we do. But we have found that the key to quality media reporting on science is the ability of scientists to communicate effectively.

From preparing your messages and working with your comms team to engaging in social media and blogging, the Desk Guide lays out what our experience shows work. The Desk Guide features input from New Zealand's leading science communicators, journalists and communications experts.

Read a digital copy of the Desk Guide here or order some free copies to share with your colleagues.

New From the SMC

Experts respond:

Antibiotic resistance: Read expert commentary on the WHO's new report antimicrobial resistance.

Animal testing: Experts offer insight on the animal testing debate around novel psychoactive substances.

In the News:

Superbugs in the news: read media coverage of the WHO antimicrobial resistance global report.
Research highlights
Some of the research papers making headlines this week.

Geographic origins in your DNA: Researchers in the global Genographic Project --including a New Zealander -- have for the first time shown success in tracing modern humans to their place of origin based entirely on their genes. The team has created a genetic algorithm that can accurately predict 83% of worldwide individuals' country of origin, and, in some populations, to within 50km of their home village.
Nature Communications

Oceans full of rubbish: A large-scale seafloor survey off the coast of Europe has found widespread presence of bottles, plastic bags, fishing nets, and other types of human litter at all sample locations, with plastics accounting for the largest proportion of litter. The scientists analysed nearly 600 seafloor transects over 10 years, and found litter at all depths, including as far 2000 kilometers away from land. One of the survey's authors says, "Most of the deep sea remains unexplored by humans, and these are our first visits to many of these sites, but we were shocked to find that our rubbish has got there before us."

How fibre makes you eat less: Molecules released from digested fibre in the gut suppress appetite by acting on an area of the brain known to regulate hunger, reports a study in mice. The research shows how a product of fibre fermentation in the gut accumulates and is converted in nerve cells in the hypothalamus of a mouse brain and that administration of either fibre or its fermentation product to mice acutely reduces food intake and induces a pattern of neuronal activity in the brain that is consistent with appetite suppression.
Nature Communications

Should we destroy the last stocks of smallpox? An international group of scientists argue that the last remaining stock of smallpox virus in the world should not be destroyed because crucial scientific questions remain unanswered and important public health goals unmet. The World Health Assembly (WHA), the governing body of the World Health Organization, is expected to decide at its upcoming meeting whether the last known remaining live strains of the virus should be destroyed.
PLOS Pathogens
Upcoming sci-tech events
For these and more upcoming events, and more details about them, visit the SMC's Events Calendar.

Early Career Researcher Conference - 5-6 May, Wellington.
Ultra-Cool Quantum Physics - Prof Blair Blakie inaugural professorial lecture - 6 May, Dunedin.
Hazardous Substances Conference - Held by the EPA and WorkSafe NZ - 8-9 May, Wellington.
Intimate realities and historical context in suicide studies: New Zealand, 1900-2000 - Lecture from Prof John Weaver (Canada) - 8 May, Wellington.
Security in Mobile Devices - Gibbons 2014 lecture from Dr Giovanni Russello - 8 May, Auckland.


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