From Bench to Ringside: The Presidential Debate

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Last night, Obama and McCain confronted each other in the final Presidential debate. A flagging economy and two wars have left little room in the two campaigns for discussion of science, policy, and human research. Yet last night’s debate touched on two themes: embryonic stem cell (hES) research, and biomedical research funding.


Obama accused McCain of opposing embryonic stem cell research. From what I can tell, McCain actually supported the use of embryonic tissue for research and opposed Bush’s ban and vetoes. But the logic of McCain’s attacks on Obama, of late, are that personal associations tell us something about who a person is and where they stand. And McCain pals around with embryo research opponents like his running mate.

Contrast the two candidates’ statements on hES research from Sciencedebate 2008– a group that invited McCain and Obama to declare positions on various science policy issues. McCain stated “While I support federal funding for embryonic stem cell research, I believe clear lines should be drawn….”  The remainder of his response qualifies his support.  On his own website, McCain stops short of declaring support–or opposition– for hES research, and talks more about what he would oppose than what he would support.  Obama’s support is more full-throated at Sciencedebate 2008: “As president, I will lift the current administration’s ban on federal funding of research on embryonic stem cell lines… embryonic stem cells remain the ‘gold standard,’ and studies of all types of stem cells should continue in parallel for the foreseeable future.”

Elsewhere at Sciencedebate 2008, Obama’s campaign singled out gene transfer in a statement on genetics: “As a result [of safety issues involving ‘gene therapy’], the NIH established the Recombinant DNA Advisory Committee…. Until we are equipped to ascertain the safety of such methods, I will continue to support the activities and recommendations of the Recombinant DNA Advisory Committee.” [Note: Harold Varmus chairs a science advisory committee for the Obama campaign. Varmus reorganized RAC when he was the director of the NIH under the Clinton administration]

What about research– specifically translational research?  Just as they do for Joe the plumber, both candidates support NIH research. According to a report in Science (“Scientists Strive for a Seat at the Table of Each Campaign,” Jeffrey Mervis, 26 Sept), Obama pledged to double the NIH budget in five years. Elsewhere, his campaign said 10 years. Maybe the latter figure is inflation adjusted? Obama’s statement on Science and Innovation singles out “rapid translation of medical research.”

I am not aware of any clear statements on translational research from McCain, though he favors greater funding for NIH, and based on his debate and website, he seems to have a soft spot for autism research. As on other issues, McCain is less willing to commit to a timetable on NIH budget doubling. (photo credit: Thomas Hawk, Wordle of McCain and Obama convention speeches, 2008)

BibTeX

@Manual{stream2008-129,
    title = {From Bench to Ringside: The Presidential Debate},
    journal = {STREAM research},
    author = {Jonathan Kimmelman},
    address = {Montreal, Canada},
    date = 2008,
    month = oct,
    day = 16,
    url = {http://www.translationalethics.com/2008/10/16/from-bench-to-ringside-the-presidential-debate/}
}

MLA

Jonathan Kimmelman. "From Bench to Ringside: The Presidential Debate" Web blog post. STREAM research. 16 Oct 2008. Web. 22 Oct 2021. <http://www.translationalethics.com/2008/10/16/from-bench-to-ringside-the-presidential-debate/>

APA

Jonathan Kimmelman. (2008, Oct 16). From Bench to Ringside: The Presidential Debate [Web log post]. Retrieved from http://www.translationalethics.com/2008/10/16/from-bench-to-ringside-the-presidential-debate/


The Long and Winding Road(map)

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The research team led by John Ioannidis has, for my (evaporating) money, done some of the most interesting work looking at the “epidemiology” of translational research: how often are high profile genetic linkage studies refuted? (answer: usually); to what degree are translational studies biased? (answer: a lot); how often are major scientific findings translated into clinical applications? (answer: rarely).


Now, Ioannidis’s teamm (led by Despina Contopoulos-Ioannidis) at University of Ioannina in Ioannina, Greece, has a new report in Science (September 5) looking at “The Life Cycle of Translational Research for Medical Interventions.” Here is what they did.

First, they created a pool of important medical interventions, defining “importance” on the basis of 1000 or more citations in the scientific literature for any study that claims an intervention was effective between 1990 and 2004. From this, they identified 32 “important” interventions. Next, they looked at the lag in time between publication of the “1000 cited article” and various milestones in development: the first article suggesting the intervention was effective; the first article about human use; the first article describing the compound’s isolation.

They found that the median lag between initial discovery of an intervention and publication of a highly cited article claiming efficacy was 24 years. They also found a much longer lag for interventions that, though claimed effective, were subsequently shown to be ineffective in other studies (e.g. Vitamin E for the prevention of heart disease).

The article is dense, as is probably my description of it. I worry that, by depending on a “1000 citation count,” lots of important translational discoveries are excluded, making this study biased towards applications used against high profile or highly prevalent diseases.  In other words, their search strategy is likely to emphasize the high profile of specific diseases rather than the high profile of specific interventions. So, for example, many of the most important “successes” in translational research are excluded from their list.  Bone marrow transplantation didn’t make the cut. Nor did any important monoclonal antibodies used in cancer.  Nor did recombinant protein products. Nor did any gene tests.

The authors conclude by saying that 1- don’t expect major new medical uses from drugs that have been sitting around for a long time; 2- translation tends to be faster when research involves multidisciplinary collaboration involving basic and clinical researchers. I expect we’ll see more elaboration from this team on the latter point in the years to come (photo credit: romeo66, 2008).

BibTeX

@Manual{stream2008-136,
    title = {The Long and Winding Road(map)},
    journal = {STREAM research},
    author = {Jonathan Kimmelman},
    address = {Montreal, Canada},
    date = 2008,
    month = sep,
    day = 18,
    url = {http://www.translationalethics.com/2008/09/18/the-long-and-winding-roadmap/}
}

MLA

Jonathan Kimmelman. "The Long and Winding Road(map)" Web blog post. STREAM research. 18 Sep 2008. Web. 22 Oct 2021. <http://www.translationalethics.com/2008/09/18/the-long-and-winding-roadmap/>

APA

Jonathan Kimmelman. (2008, Sep 18). The Long and Winding Road(map) [Web log post]. Retrieved from http://www.translationalethics.com/2008/09/18/the-long-and-winding-roadmap/


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