Immune attack; CRISPR climax; postdoc plight

Immune molecules could be targets for autism treatments, the battle for CRISPR’s patent may be nearing an end, and a plan to give postdoctoral researchers overtime pay is scuttled.

By Katie Moisse
9 December 2016 | 5 min read
This article is more than five years old.
Neuroscience—and science in general—is constantly evolving, so older articles may contain information or theories that have been reevaluated since their original publication date.
  • The immune system’s role in the brain is a hot topic. A growing number of studies suggest that molecules that defend pregnant women from infection can raise the risk of neuropsychiatric conditions in their children. Some researchers propose blocking the molecules to mitigate the risk. But is this tactic ready for prime time?

    Yes, according to the authors of a new editorial in Neuropsychopharmacology. “The general consensus is that the time has come for the rubber to meet the road.”

    A review in the same journal focuses on the role of the immune system in autism. The review, co-authored by Judy Van de Water, outlines the various ways immune molecules could affect the developing brain.

    Van de Water, professor of internal medicine at the University of California, Davis, is a central character in a Spectrum story entitled “The enemy within,” which explores the role of the immune system in autism risk. She was at the forefront of research implicating the immune system in the brain and behavior — a connection many researchers dismissed at the time.

  • It’s been a year of ups and downs for the universities vying for the rights to CRISPR. On Tuesday, lawyers representing the University of California, Berkeley, and the Broad Institute of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Massachusetts, had their one and only chance to speak to judges on the case, STAT reports.

    The Berkeley legal team argued that its researchers were the first to demonstrate CRISPR’s effects in bacteria, and that any reasonably skilled scientist could have adapted the gene-editing tool for more complex cells. But Broad lawyers cited news interviews with Berkeley scientist Jennifer Doudna saying her team had struggled to adapt CRISPR for use in non-bacterial cells.

    Meanwhile, researchers continue to tweak the technique to tackle complex research problems. Spectrum detailed a few ‘CRISPR hacks’ in late October. One group modified the tool to easily produce neurons from skin cells. Another team used CRISPR to add and remove chemical tags on DNA that regulate gene expression.

    The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office is expected to rule on the contentious patent case early next year.

  • It’s not easy being a postdoctoral researcher. The post is temporary but intense, typically involving long hours of work for minimal pay.

    New rules that were expected to take effect last week would have boosted the salaries of U.S. postdocs by requiring overtime pay for work weeks exceeding 40 hours. But a federal judge has blocked the rules, Nature reports.

    The news is disheartening to postdocs who planned on a holiday pay bump. The Nature article describes one couple — both postdocs — who planned to get pregnant because they would be able to afford childcare. Now their plan is on hold.

    The plight of the postdoc resounded in a Spectrum special report entitled “When lab meets life.” One story highlighted the hard work and luck required to parlay a postdoctoral fellowship into a faculty position, which are few and far between. Another story followed Vanessa Hus Bal, then a postdoc balancing motherhood with preparations for her first faculty job.

  • Trains are a source of fascination for many children. Some children on the spectrum are particularly enthralled by the vehicles’ moving parts and the network of tracks they traverse. This has made Brooklyn’s Transit Museum a destination for families affected by autism, The New York Times reported Tuesday.

    “We must have been here 200 times since he was 4,” Susana Montes, whose 9-year-old son has autism, told the paper. “This is our second home.”

    The museum is the station stop for Subway Sleuths, an after-school program for children with autism. Participants solve subway mysteries and become experts in all things transportation, building social skills en route.

    The program earned a National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award last month — a $10,000 prize bestowed by Michelle Obama.

  • The U.S. Senate passed the 21st Century Cures Act on Wednesday in a 94-to-5 vote. The bill is the first major piece of mental health legislation in a decade, according to Kaiser Health News. President Obama is expected to sign it into law before the new year.

    Earlier this week, Kaiser Health News outlined winners and losers of the bill. Among the winners are pharmaceutical and medical device companies, which will face fewer hurdles in bringing new products to the market. Among the losers are consumer safety groups, because many of those hurdles were meant to guard against unsafe drugs.

  • The Breakthrough Foundation — a philanthropic organization founded by tech giants Sergey Brin of Google, Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook and Anne Wojcicki of 23andMe, among others — doled out $25 million in prizes to scientists and mathematicians on Sunday. Among the winners is Huda Zoghbi, professor of neurology at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas, who won $3 million for her work to uncover the gene mutated in Rett syndrome.

    On the topic of top researchers, a computer program ranked autism researchers Randy Buckner and Chris Frith among the most influential neuroscientists last month, Science reports. The program arrived at its conclusion based on a review of 10 million scientific papers.