Astronomers organize to combat satellite interference
The International Astronomical Union (IAU) announced a new center last week to address the burgeoning constellations of satellites that may interfere with ground-based observations. A UN committee also said it would consider the issue—a first step toward international regulations. The constellations, such as SpaceX’s Starlink, aim to provide global broadband access, but the sheer number of satellites—2800 now, potentially rising to 50,000—has alarmed professional and amateur stargazers alike. On 3 February, IAU, which represents professional astronomers, announced the founding of its Center for the Protection of the Dark and Quiet Sky from Satellite Constellation Interference. The center will gather data, sponsor research on making satellites less reflective and removing their trails from images, and lobby for regulation of satellite operators. Meanwhile, following advocacy by IAU and others, the UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space agreed to discuss on 14 February the satellites’ impact on astronomy.
‘Human challenge’ ends safely
Opening an avenue to test new COVID-19 treatments and vaccines, scientists reported last week they had safely infected healthy young volunteers with SARS-CoV-2. In the unprecedented experiment, known as a human challenge trial, research subjects ages 18 to 29 were inoculated with nose drops containing a very low dose of an early strain of the pandemic coronavirus. Eighteen of 34 who were tracked developed confirmed infections, but none resulted in serious illness, the study investigators reported in a preprint on Research Square. Strikingly, symptoms and detectable virus in the throat developed quickly, by an average of 2 days after inoculation. None of the volunteers had contracted or been vaccinated against COVID-19, but they would have received medications to treat any serious illness. The organizers of the human challenge study, at Imperial College London and elsewhere, are preparing to launch a follow-up trial, funded by the Wellcome Trust, with the more contagious and pathogenic Delta variant.
Acquitted professor reinstated
Nearly 5 months after being acquitted of charges he lied to US officials about his ties to China, Anming Hu is again a tenured engineering professor at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. It fired Hu in October 2020, 8 months after his judgment. Hu’s case was the first to go to trial under the Department of Justice’s 2018 China Initiative, which has brought similar charges against some two dozen academics and resulted in the recent conviction of Harvard University chemist Charles Lieber. Last month, university officials agreed to help Hu, a Canadian citizen, with his application for permanent US residency, the final sticking point in Hu’s bid to be reinstated. The university gave Hu, who returned to campus on February 1, $300,000 to resume his research on nanomaterials.
Cancer Moonshot Relaunched
President Joe Biden last week proposed a “reignited” Cancer Moonshot, the research program he led as vice president during former President Barack Obama’s administration—but the lack of a price tag has left research advocates wondering about its trajectory. Those details could be filled in by the administration’s upcoming 2023 budget proposal, expected in March. The new moonshot aims to cut cancer deaths by at least 50% over the next 25 years and to improve support for navigating the medical, financial, and emotional burdens of cancer treatment and survivorship. These actions will “end cancer as we know it,” Biden said. The effort would encourage people to get cancer screenings they missed during the COVID-19 pandemic and support research on vaccines and blood tests that screen for multiple cancers. The original moonshot’s funding, projected at $1.8 billion over 7 years, will end in 2023; it has focused on immunotherapies, pediatric cancer treatments, and data sharing.
CRISPR patent fight heats up
Lawyers for the two sides battling over who invented the genome editor CRISPR traded pointed exchanges at a hearing last week, as one team claimed a key scientist on the other improperly obtained early information on the “guide RNA” molecule that ferries a DNA-cutting enzyme to a target sequence. The lawyer representing the institutions of Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier, who shared the 2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for developing CRISPR, said Feng Zhang of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard was given confidential details on the guide RNA from a collaborator who reviewed the key initial CRISPR paper by Doudna, Charpentier, and colleagues. The lawyer representing the Broad group the information was presented publicly and stressed that Zhang’s team, not Doudna’s and Charpentier’s, was the first to make the guide RNA work inside eukaryotic cells. When the US Patent Trial and Appeal Board will rule is unknown.
Airline ends monkey flights
Kenya Airways has agreed to stop shipping monkeys for research after a truck carrying 100 longtailed macaques the company had flown from Mauritius to New York City’s John F. Kennedy International Airport crashed in Pennsylvania while en route to a quarantine facility. Three of the animals reportedly escaped and were later euthanized; others sat in crates on the road for hours. In a 27 January email to People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) obtained by science, Kenya Airways Chair Michael Joseph wrote that he was “horrified” by the accident and that “transport of any wild animals will no longer take place by Kenya Airways” after the current contract for the macaques ends on 28 February. PETA Senior Vice President Kathy Guillermo says another company could jump in to ship monkeys from Mauritius, one of the world’s top suppliers of macaques for research.
US OKs some Iran nuclear work
Key areas of civilian nuclear cooperation with Iran are back on the table as world powers seek to revive a lapsed nuclear arms control deal. On 4 February, the US Department of State waived sanctions on several projects, including reconfiguring uranium centrifuges at Iran’s underground Fordow enrichment site to produce isotopes used in medicine. Under the 2015 agreement, the United States and other nations granted Iran relief from economic sanctions in exchange for curtailing uranium enrichment and plutonium production. Then-President Donald Trump’s administration pulled out of the deal in 2018, and 1 year later Iran ramped up enrichment and other promised activities. The new sanctions waivers allow China, Russia, and other countries to resume technical discussions on redesigning the Arak heavy water reactor to limit plutonium accumulation in spent fuel, providing uranium fuel for the Tehran Research Reactor, and eventually converting Fordow to an international physics research center .
Archeology makes amends
Recent discoveries suggest the first people arrived in the Americas at least 23,000 years ago, much earlier than researchers thought only a decade ago. But too often, scientists have not respected their living descendants, say paleogeneticist Jennifer Raff of the University of Kansas, Lawrence—whose book Origin: A Genetic History of the Americas was published this week—and archaeologist Joe Watkins, a member of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma who is the immediate past president of the Society for American Archaeology. (A longer version of this interview is at https://scim.ag/3rJJMPT.)
Q: In your work on the peopling of the Americas, why has genetics been both vital and controversial?
Joe Watkins: Genetics has helped us figure out some of the basic questions.
Jennifer Raff: There are major gaps geographically and temporally in the genetic record. I am hopeful as we work in this space in a more ethical way, we can start to recover more genomes. [But] that’s really up to the tribes. I don’t think we’re going to learn the whole picture unless this work is done to build relationships.
Q: Can scientists do better?
JR: In the last few years, there have been increasing requirements for [community] engagement as part of ethics statements and increasing scrutiny as part of grant proposals.
JW: [Efforts] to create ethical guidelines for the field … may be faltering, but it’s progress—at least there are steps.
Q: How do you address ancient DNA research, which destroys small amounts of human remains?
JW: [By] bringing in the social and historical concerns of American Indians and understanding the reasons they often feel the way that they do. Too often archaeology and genetics and many of the sciences have jumped in and said, “We need your dead ancestors to give you access to your history.” … We are within the generation that will repair those relationships.
JR: There are scientists who will say, “If we just hit them with enough data, they’ll come around to our way of thinking.” But there are other ways to view things, and we should be respectful of these traditional knowledges about history.
New Zealand, Australia ease travel
Two countries that have long stuck with very strict pandemic-related travel restrictions will both let more people in, despite the threat from Omicron. New Zealand will start to allow citizens and permanent residents coming from Australia to enter the country on 27 February and will gradually open to other groups, including international students; it plans to fully reopen its borders in October. In late 2021, Australia had already cracked the door to admit students, some foreign workers, family members of those living in Australia, and tourists from Japan and South Korea; starting on 21 February, it will welcome travelers from all countries. Arrivals in both countries will have to be fully vaccinated; New Zealand will also require them to self-isolate for 10 days. The travel ban has served New Zealand particularly well; the country has seen only about 50 COVID-19 deaths so far. (Australia has had about 4200.) Officials say high vaccination rates—94% in both New Zealand and Australia—and a growing number of people boosted, allow them to loosen the reins.