He didn’t know it at the time, but when chemist Matthew Todd posted a request for help on The Synaptic Leap, a website devoted to open-source biomedical research, he was sowing the seeds for a rivalry between an open initiative and a contract-research organization hired by the World Health Organization to reach the same goal.
The aim of both projects, run in 2010, was to produce a safer, low-cost version of praziquantel, a treatment for the tropical parasitic infection schistosomiasis. Up until that point, the treatment contained two enantiomers (mirror-image versions of the molecule that have slightly different properties) of praziquantel. One enantiomer has no effect on the parasite, but gives the drug a bitter taste. Eliminating this undesirable form could reduce side effects and help more patients to complete their treatment. The pure drug needed to be affordable. Todd, who is at the University of Sydney in Australia, thought that an open project was the best way to achieve this. “Open is very well-suited for neglected diseases,” he says. “The pay-off of secrecy is not very large.” Continue reading
The hum of Gurumoorthy Sethuraman’s 10-horsepower (7.46 kW) irrigation pumps joins the murmur of nearby rivers in Arayapuram, India. Sethuraman, an experienced and successful farmer, plants alternating crops of rice and pulses each year in the southeast Indian state of Tamil Nadu. This bounty has enabled his family to send several of his grandchildren to study abroad in the United States and United Kingdom. Yet, by law, he and other commercial agriculture enterprise owners are not required to pay the utility that powers the 60 or so wells that irrigate his 15 hectares of land.
Soon, individuals with celiac disease in southern Spain will begin receiving regular allotments of bread. Rather than misguided charity, this will be a clinical trial of a new type of dough made from genetically modified (GM) wheat. The wheat has been altered to be low in gliadins—the portion of gluten proteins that are toxic to people with celiac disease. If successful, the trial could bolster growing research efforts to engineer wheat to be compatible with the immune systems of the ~1% of the global population with celiac disease and the much larger number of people with gluten allergies.
Low-gluten wheat could also open a new front in the battle for GM food acceptability in Europe. If Europeans are ever going to accept a GM food, celiac-safe wheat may be a good candidate. European consumers accounted for over 1.1 ($1.21) billion of nearly 1.9 billion worldwide gluten-free food market, according to market research firm Euromonitor International. Global gluten-free bakery sales are expected to grow at >7% annually, the firm predicts. But because this and other efforts to modify wheat involve inserting genetic elements to silence genes, they are subject to a European regulatory process closely tied to anti-GM politics. And even if such legal barriers to marketing are overcome, marketing such a wheat would require not just farmers, but millers, bakers and consumers to be persuaded that it is worthwhile. Continue reading
Brendan Borrell was feeling low about his career. He had been freelancing for several years and no longer worried about paying the rent. But he wanted more adventure in his work. He wanted to tag along with environmental scientists and advocates at their labs and in the field, tracing the ups and downs of their work. He wanted to apply for ambitious fellowships that would support far-flung reporting. But the deadlines slipped by. He was letting routine assignments crowd out the sort of big stories that had years earlier prompted him to trade field biology for journalism. He was always collecting “string” for future stories. But “it’s easy to collect and collect and collect and never have a chance to step back,” he says.
As the next big fellowship deadline loomed, Borrell drove to a rented cabin in Vermont, toting his mountain bike, laptop, and a few of his leading story ideas. He stayed for a month, telling himself, “I’m gonna write this proposal this year no matter what.” For that month, he went mostly offline. The change in scenery and schedule helped him review old ideas and synthesize them in new ways. Either the mountain biking or the deep thinking paid off: his proposal won him an Alicia Patterson Fellowship and a reporting trip to Uganda.