BIG STEPS IN GENOME SEQUENCING
The much-vaunted medical benefits of sequencing the human genome have recently received some vindication in clinical trials of the anti-cancer drug PLX4032. The dramatic potential of the drug for shrinking skin-cancer tumours was reported in August, and is confirmed by a recent paper in Nature.
But the real excitement stems from the approach: the drug was developed to target a specific carcinogenic mutation of a gene called BRAF, involved in cell growth. The problem is that there are several dangerous mutations of BRAF alone, and thousands of other genetic mutations that also cause cancer. But the new results show that targeting a particular mutation can be highly effective, hitting only those cancer cells that possess it instead of employing the scattergun attack of current cancer chemotherapies. If many mutant-specific drugs come online, rapid gene profiling of patients could enable them to be given precisely the right treatment, without the debilitating side-effects. That, however, will require the development of an awful lot of new drugs (see my article on p62).
Meanwhile, the announcement of the wheat genome might seem less thrilling, but drought and floods have devastated wheat yields in both Russia and China. Russia, one of the world’s biggest producers, has imposed an export ban that has sent wheat prices soaring, threatening the food security of millions. The riots in Mozambique over bread prices in early September, in which six people died, may be just a taste of what is to come.
This is why the wheat genome sequence is one of the most important so far, and why public access to the data which has been granted by the researchers, led by Neil Hall at Liverpool University, is valuable and commendable. The genetic information should point to shortcuts for breeding a new strain of hardier varieties, as well as identifying the specific genes that might be engineered to improve wheat’s resistance to drought and disease.
CLIMATE CHANGE HOT SEAT
There are good arguments for reforming the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)—and especially for improving the efficiency and transparency of its review process. A recent assessment by the InterAcademy Council, representing all the world’s major science academies, concluded as much, while stressing that the IPCC’s scientific conclusions are reliable and that it has generally worked well (see Randolph Kent, opposite). But should its chair, Rajendra Pachauri, stay? He has been pilloried for errors that led to unjustified forecasts about melting of the Himalayan glaciers—a bad mistake, but negligible in the grand scheme of things. Pachauri has also been unjustly smeared over alleged conflicts of interest. But there is nothing here to warrant his resignation.
Yet his leadership during the IPCC’s recent tribulations has not been inspiring, and all leaders grow stale eventually. A change could bring fresh vigour and restore confidence. The problem is that so much distrust has been whipped up by climate sceptics that it would now be impossible for Pachauri to step down without appearing to validate their criticisms. A reformed IPCC would be welcome, but there will be no winners.
STEM-CELL RESEARCH FROZEN
President Obama’s restoration of federal funding for embryonic stem-cell research in the US was never likely to be plain sailing, but no one could have foreseen the oddness of the latest obstacle. The injunction issued by a judge in the District of Columbia in August against such funding arises from a case brought by two stem-cell scientists. James Sherley and Theresa Deisher work on adult stem cells, already approved for use, and say that this is scientifically and ethically superior to research on embryonic cells.
By reinterpreting the meaning of legislation banning funding for research involving the creation and destruction of embryos, Judge Royce Lamberth has effectively frozen it overnight, plunging work in progress into limbo and ensuring chaos months or years down the line. That a maverick ruling can have this effect is chilling. The US department of justice has appealed against it.