science funding


The 9 Billion People Problem: Rod Wing on Plant Genomics

By 2050, there will be 9 billion people on the planet. What will they eat?

This is the question that led Rod Wing, Director of the Arizona Genomics Institute, into the field of plant genomics. What has been accomplished so far in the mission to come up with some super green crops?  And how does Rod see anti-GMO sentiment and the recent trend toward gluten free diets factoring in? 

After answering these questions, he dives into a discussion on which sequencing instruments he has used for plant work. Unsurprisingly, Rod prefers the PacBio long reads even though the cost is much higher than with short read technology. Rod refers to most of the genomes done on Illumina sequencers as GAS genomes, or Gene Assembled Space.

“I call them GAS genomes because they’re full of hot hair. They’re not complete genomes,” he says.

Finishing out the show, Rod tells about a new partnership with the Chinese, $9 Billion for 9 Billion People.

Gene and Tonic: Boxing for Cancer, Dubious Correlations, and When Should a Researcher Retire

 

In a keynote talk this week for the online Genetics and Genomics conference, computational biology whiz, John Quackenbush, listed some pretty wild correlations found by a Harvard Business School student when he mixed some large data sets.  For example, U.S. spending on science, space, and technology corresponds directly with suicides by hanging, strangulation and suffocation.  We never would have guessed it without the help of big data.

In an L.A. Times article entitled, Why whole genome testing hurts more than it helps, two authors argue that the number of possible connections and patterns in analyzing the three billion bases in the human genome is just "astronomical" and most of the time quite irrelevant to patient care.  They offer more examples of dubious correlations coming from big data seets.  In one study done on 5 million Ontario patients, Canadian statisticians looked for the correlation between astrological signs and hospital diagnoses and found -- are you ready for this? --  "Leos were significantly more likely to be admitted for digestive tract bleeding and Sagittarians were significantly more likely to be admitted for upper-arm fractures.”

Are these spurious correlations the reason that Quackenbush has taken up boxing?  It's the old fashioned methodology:  bang some new relevant correlations into the head.

And finally, we reluctantly come up with several reasons why aging scientists should retire.  There is no mandatory retirement age in the U.S. and younger researchers are understandably feeling neglected by the NIH.  Numbers show that NIH funding awarded to researchers over 65 has doubled since 1998.  And a new plan by the NIH to come up with "emeritus" grants encouraging researchers to wind things down just isn't taking off.  

What to do, what to do?  Enjoy our weekly wrap on life science news.

 

Gene and Tonic: Sexism in Science, How to Spend an NIH Budget Increase, How Not to Spend It

Janitors have had a terribly busy time this week cleaning up all those jaws that were dropped on floors of research labs everywhere around the country.

Have you heard about this latest sexism scandal?

Two female co-authors of a scientific paper submitted their work to PLOS -- you know, the open access journal.   You won’t believe what they heard back from the lone peer reviewer.  They were told to go find “one or two male biologists” to be co-authors on the paper to increase its chances of being published.

Ouch!!!  That hurts.  Not only the co-authors but the rest of us.

Well, hold on, it gets worse.  This chauvinist reviewer went on to say that “it might well be that on average men publish in better journals . . . perhaps simply because men, perhaps, on average, work more hours per week than women, due to marginally better health and stamina.”

What, a marginal ouch?  Better health and stamina?

Then the two female co-authors decided to stop playing that video game, got their scarves, and went across the street to a cafe and ordered each a double latte.

Right?  I mean, what’s the name of the video game, Doing Science Circa 1850?

"No," the lead female author says sitting down to her double latte.  "The game is called, Anti-Civilization;  Hang Out with a Primitive Tribe in Africa."

Now, last week we reported how former Congressman Newt Gingrich is calling for the  doubling of the NIH Budget.  Well this week, the bipartisan 21st Century Cures Initiative jumped in the game, calling for an increase to the NIH budget.  $1.5 billion per year over the next five years.  Well, we still like Newt’s suggestion.  It’s bold.  And let’s be positive.  Let’s say we get the budget doubled.  Now we got the problem of spending it.  Right?  Be careful what you wish for.

Since we’re absolutely sure that the NIH will come to Mendelspod for suggestions on how to spend the increase, we thought we should at least start getting prepared.

So we went online and posted a chat asking for suggestions from researchers how to spend the additional funds. 

Would you like to hear a few of the responses?

Garbage In, Garbage Out - obviously the commentors are using pseudonyms -- from Phoenix, AZ, writes: “Write off half of it to waste. Because that’s the way it is. Over 50% of scientific research is non-reproducible.”

OK.  We’re being taken seriously here.

Live to One Thousand from Cambridge, England, writes:  “Spend all of the additional funding on aging research.  We’ve tried the sniper method.  Let’s just move in the troops.”

Wow, this is a serious chat.  But hold on, a third person, Don’t Leave us Behind, out of San Diego, CA, writes:

Are you sure, Live to One Thousand?  Aging research?  I think we should take the additional $30 billion and fund Alzheimer’s research.  You see, Nature is now asking us, are you sure you want to live longer?

Oh, and there’s one more here that just came in.  It’s the author of the book called, From Buddhism to Big Dataism: Keeping up with the Newest Religions.  And this author writes:  "You might as well write the check now, NIH.  Just make it out to the newest God on the Block, Big Data.  

These online chats.  They’re just too serious.

Now with all this talk of increasing the research budget, Francis Collins, the Director at NIH, immediately put out a notice about what he won’t fund.  OK, he’s showing congress that he’s a good accountant.  So what will the NIH not fund?  Editing the human germline in embryos.

Now this is the only one he’s announced so far, but we heard that there are more.  Did you want to hear about a couple?

OK, here’s one.  This is something that the NIH will just not fund, no matter what.  The proposal came in to do brain scans of all the presidential contenders and make the data openly available online for all the voters to see.

And here’s a whole category of projects to study why people are gay.   What’s wrong with that?  It turns out a Supreme Court Justice told the NIH that such studies are a gross overreach of the executive branch.  That the direction of American society should not be up to scientists, but instead up to nine aging lawyers.  "Besides," this justice said to the NIH, "we have the better costumes.  White lab coats? Ha!"

 

Biotech’s Gentleman Lawyer: Alan Mendelson

Guest: Alan Mendelson, Partner, Latham & Watkins

Bio and Contact Info

Alan Mendelson, a partner at Latham & Watkins, is the first service provider--as opposed to a scientist, entrepreneur, or venture capitalist--to receive one of BayBio’s prestigious Pantheon Lifetime Achievement Awards. We talk to him a month before the awards ceremony which will be held in San Francisco on December 11th, 2014.

Alan’s career took off back in the early 80’s when he incorporated one of the few new biotech companies coming on to the scene. The company: Amgen. Alan gives a great deal of credit to his “mentor”, George Rathman, the legendary first CEO of Amgen who inspired a generation of biotech entrepreneurs.

In the early 2000’s, Alan was one of the first to see signs of the Silicon Valley dot com bust which led to him leave his long time firm, Cooley and Associates, to join Latham & Watkins. In today's wide ranging interview, he shares this and other stories from his career as well as his thoughts on the current biotech marketplace.

“The award means a lot to me,” he says, "it’s been thirty-four years since I first incorporated Amgen. Working with biotech and life science companies, I can’t tell you how satisfying it is to feel that in a small way, I've helped improve the human condition. I’ve had cancer patients tell me that I saved their lives because I worked with Amgen. . . and this is, frankly, why I don’t want to retire.”

Chapters: (Advance the marker)

1:17 The “gentleman lawyer”

5:20 If they’re passing out cookies, take one

10:25 Importance of the Jobs Act

16:12 The Cooley “divorce”

25:34 What does this award mean to you?

Advertisement:

Sponsor: Today’s show is brought to you by the 11th Annual BayBio Pantheon Ceremony, presenting the 2014 DiNA Awards on December 5 in San Francisco. The Pantheon Awards Ceremony is a celebration of the contributions and achievements of the Bay Area, a moment to pause and reflect on the industry’s legacy over three decades.

What a Physicist Can Tell Us about Cancer

Guest:

Paul Davies, Principal Investigator, Center for the Convergence of Physical Science and Cancer Biology, ASU Bio and Contact Info

Listen (4:05) The phone call

Listen (3:39) Too focused on a cure

Listen (8:21) What is your theory about cancer?

Listen (4:55) Evolutionary roots of cancer can suggest new therapies

Listen (3:31) Is your message taking root?

Listen (5:21) We must have new ideas

Paul Davies has had a full career as a theoretical physicist. He’s the author of some popular books, most notably, God and the New Physics. In 2007 Paul received a call from someone he’d never heard of before, Anna Barker, then the Deputy Director of the NCI. She wanted to recruit him to the War on Cancer.

“Anna said that she felt that physicists had been very successful in their own sphere. They figured out how the atom works and how the universe works. What about figuring out how cancer works. My reply was that I didn’t know anything about cancer. And she said, 'that’s fine.’”

In today’s interview Paul explains the theory he has developed by following cancer back to its evolutionary roots.

“Cancer is a reversion, or throwback, or rewinding of the evolutionary clock at high speed,” he says.

And therefore, looking at the conditions of life and of the earth at the time cancer developed, Paul argues, can offer new ways of developing treatment. Paul says that we’ve been too focused on “the C word” or a cure. He thinks that rather, we should look at ways to be able to delay cancer.

Is his message taking root? Join us as we probe an entire new way of looking at cancer.

Podcast brought to you by: Chempetitive Group - "We love science. We love marketing. We love the idea of combining the two to make great things happen for your marketing communications."

NIH Goes Lean with Steve Blank

Guest: Steve Blank, Author, Entrepreneur, Educator

Bio and Contact Info

Chapters: (Advance the marker)

Intro

0:59 What are you up to with the NIH?

4:39 The scientific method for entrepreneurship

8:14 Do scientists resist learning about business?

10:50 "I’m from the U.S. Government, and we need your help!"

17:55 Have you had to adapt your approach for the life sciences?

23:33 What is good for investor returns is not necessarily good for the country

27:33 You were supposed to be retired. What happened?

Steve Blank is a serial entrepreneur who has been teaching his trade at Stanford for some years now. We’ve had some of his student entrepreneurs as guests at Mendelspod.

Steve comes from the world of high tech and always told his students that his approach, dubbed the Lean LaunchPad, doesn’t apply to the life sciences. Until last year.

In a course at UCSF that began in October of 2013, Steve began adapting his ideas for startups in the areas of therapeutics, devices, and diagnostics.

After the class was over, Steve says in today’s interview, he got a call that went, “Hi, you don’t know me. I’m from the US Government, and we need your help.”

Steve is an avid blogger, and customarily puts out summaries of his teaching experiences. It turns out some folks at the National Science Foundation were reading all of his blogs about the UCSF class. They persuaded Steve to bring the class to government and see if he couldn’t help grant recipients have better results in business.

Steve laments that we’ve had no formal mechanism for teaching scientists how to turn research into commercial products.

"Essentially, in giving out these SBIR and STTR grants, we were giving out cars without requiring drivers’ ed. And we are surprised that the cars keep crashing!” he says.

Now, the NIH wants in on the training. This fall Steve will begin a pilot program called I-Corps, or Innovation Corps Team Training Program, to aid in the commercialization of new products and services from SBIR and STTR award projects.

How has Steve adapted his training program for the life sciences? And what resistance is he encountering from scientists? And hey, wait a minute, isn’t Steve supposed to be retired after selling off his eighth and last company for $329M—what happened?

Filmed at his ranch in Pescadero, California, today’s interview catches Steve relaxed and eager to share what he’s learned over the years.

Podcast brought to you by: Chempetitive Group - "We love science. We love marketing. We love the idea of combining the two to make great things happen for your marketing communications."

The Basic Biology Lab Goes into the Cloud: Brian Frezza, Emerald Therapeutics

Guest: Brian Frezza, Co-Founder, Co-CEO, Emerald Therapeutics

Bio and Contact Info

Chapters: (Advance the marker)

0:50 What is the Emerald Cloud Lab?

4:16 Does this impact the scientific method?

10:00 Pulling the labor, not the scientist out

14:20 Much more data detail

19:52 A chance to improve reproducibility

24:06 The tools are slowing us down

We knew it was coming. Everything else has been going that direction--that virtual realm that offers humanity such hope, affectionately referred to as The Cloud.

Brian Frezza is a young entrepreneur quite fresh out of grad school. Brian and his co-founder, D.J. Kleinbaum, went to Carnegie Mellon and Stanford. They liked to think about the big picture when they were in school. What could we do, what product, what company could we work on that would drastically--not just incrementally--change the world of drug and diagnostic discovery? they'd ask themselves.

Four years into their commercial adventure, they've released what they think will make that big change--to use the popular term, be a disruption.

"The Emerald Cloud Lab--think of it as a remote laboratory that you're controlling via the internet, as if you were standing in front of the instruments themselves when you run your experiments," says Brian at the outset of today's interview.

Brian carries on with a cool evenness, but this is quite a mouthful. What? A scientist can have access to a full laboratory to run one of about forty experiments without having to invest in the equipment, space, and labor?

Brian says the biggest challenge to putting a lab in the cloud, no doubt, was in coding the language for the automation. This is automation on a scale we've never seen before.

Presenting The Emerald Cloud Lab.

Editor's note to our audience: As a scientist what is your view of this? Is this the best thing ever, or is it too giant a step? Does this degrade the scientific method or better enable it? Please give your feedback in the comment section below.

Podcast brought to you by: Chempetitive Group - "We love science. We love marketing. We love the idea of combining the two to make great things happen for your marketing communications."

State of Biotech Turns to State of Disbelief with Fraud Allegations against Steve Burrill

Earlier today Nathan Vardi at Forbes broke the news that one of biotech’s most notable investors, Steve Burrill, was ousted from his own company’s fund and has been sued for fraud by a former managing partner.   The news hit the biotech community like a major earthquake, particularly in the Bay Area where Steve has been advising and funding bitoech companies since the the founding of Cetus and Genentech. 



New to Mendelspod?

We advance life science research, connecting people and ideas.
Register here to receive our newsletter.

or skip signup