Research

Clive Cookson

My story in yesterday’s FT about the astonishing increase in China’s research output in recent years has stirred up a lively response through emails to me and on discussion groups such as Chinapol.

The most interesting question is whether the soaring output of scientific papers – a 64-fold increase since 1981 and five-fold rise since 1998 – has been matched by an improvement in quality.

Many people with experience of Chinese research seem to doubt it. Some people talk about shoddy, repetitive papers that just scrapes through the peer review process but will never inspire anyone.

A recent article in the journal Nature looked at one adverse effect of the relentless pressure in Chinese universities to publish more papers in “high-impact” journals: an apparent rise in academic fraud and plagiarism, as researchers cut corners and lowered their ethical standards.

By Joseph Milton, FT science intern

Lord Drayson, science minister, may consider restructuring one of the government’s largest science and technology funding agencies after it was forced to withdraw 25 per cent of its studentships and fellowships following budget cuts.

In 2010-11 the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) will have to survive on £20m less than the current year’s budget, and it has also been hit hard by currency fluctuations.

The devaluation of the pound has meant that subscriptions to international organisations, such as the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) and the European Southern Observatory (ESO), account for a much larger proportion of the STFC’s budget for next year – around 50 per cent of the total. But the council feels that membership of these organisations is worth the money spent.

The results for other areas funded by the STFC will include the 25 per cent cut in funding for researchers, and the end of a number of science projects based in the UK.

Nuclear physics was hit particularly hard, but astronomy, particle physics and space science will also have to absorb cuts. The STFC proposed “managed withdrawals” from a number of existing scientific ventures.

Scientists were dismayed by the news. Paddy Regan, a nuclear physicist at the University of Surrey, said the cuts “have the potential to kill off the UK skills base in nuclear physics…To have this at a time when the UK is discussing a nuclear new build programme… is almost comical.”

The STFC is a strangely structured beast. It was formed in 2007 through a merger of two other research councils which dealt with particle physics and astronomy, and also took responsibility for nuclear physics from a third council.

It is responsible for funding research students and fellows in these areas, as well as maintaining UK scientific facilities such as ISIS – a pulsed neutron and muon source – and the Central Laser Facility, both in Oxfordshire, and for paying subscription charges for memberships of international organisations.

Because the value of the pound is completely beyond the control of the council, and because it is understandably keen to retain membership of international organisations, devaluation will inevitably lead to the areas it can control, such as studentships, losing out disproportionately.

Lord Drayson said that he was keen to find a way round the cuts in a press release issued today in response to the STFC budget announcements, but he is very unlikely to be able to come up with any more money.

Instead he seems to be proposing a restructuring: “There are real tensions in having international science projects, large scientific facilities and UK grant giving roles within a single research council,” he says, and adds, “I will work urgently with the STFC and the wider research community to find a better solution by the end of February 2010.”

That suggests that the STFC’s days, at least in its current form, may be numbered.

By Joseph Milton, FT science intern

Simulations run by a team at the University of Bristol suggest that the melting of the Greenland ice sheet could be prevented by reflecting sunlight from the earth’s surface, a geoengineering technique.

Geoengineering offers radical solutions to climate change, involving large-scale alterations to the environment, directly affecting the climate. Discussion of these potentially risky procedures is increasingly common as many scientists reach the conclusion that CO2 emission reduction targets are not being met, and are unlikely to be. The Royal Society recently invited a panel of scientists to look into the subject and produce a report: Geoengineering the climate: science, governance and uncertainty.

The research at Bristol, led by Peter Irvine and published today in Environmental Research Letters, found that the temperature of the planet could be reduced to pre-industrial levels, saving the ice sheet, by reflecting 4.2 per cent of incident sunlight back into space.

But reflecting such a high percentage of sunlight, while doing nothing to reduce atmospheric CO2 levels, could reduce rainfall and change weather patterns, so the team also investigated reflecting 2.5 per cent of sunlight. They found this reduced the undesired side effects, but still cooled the planet enough to avoid the collapse of the ice sheet.

The Bristol team suggest sunlight could be deflected using geoengineering techniques known as solar radiation management. One option is the use of space reflectors – trillions of tiny reflective particles at the Lagrange point, the point in space at which the Earth and the Sun’s gravitational fields cancel each other out.

Professor Peter Cox at the University of Reading, who worked on the Royal Society report, says it might work: “It would be like just turning the sun down a bit.” But obviously there are technical considerations. As Professor Joanna Haigh of Imperial College, another of the report’s authors, points out: “The costs and the timescales involved would be absolutely enormous.” Neither thinks this technique is feasible in the near future.

Another option suggested by the Bristol team involves the addition of sulphate particles to the atmosphere, where they would reflect solar radiation. Prof. Cox says this is more difficult to rule out than he had imagined before the report was written, but Prof. Haigh is less convinced: “Who knows what the knock-on effects would be?” she says.

Solar radiation management is one of two broad categories of geoengineering techniques. The second is carbon dioxide removal, recently suggested as a possible complement to mitigation actions by Rajendra Pachauri, head of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Removing CO2 from the atmosphere would be a better long-term solution to global warming, as it would tackle not just global temperatures but other problems associated with high levels of greenhouse gases too, such as ocean acidification. But it would be very slow to affect the climate. On the other hand, the effects of reflecting sunlight could be seen within a few years.

Peter Irvine stressed that geoengineering should only be regarded as an emergency response: “It is no substitute for reductions in the emission of CO2,” he said.

Clive Cookson

The big feature I’ve most enjoyed writing for the FT so far this year is in today’s paper. Please take a look.

It’s about synthetic biology, which is emerging as a really hot field of research.

The most eye-catching project in synbio is what I’ve called biology’s “Frankenstein moment”: Craig Venter’s attempt to create a microbe from scratch, using lab chemicals. (Sorry Craig, I know you won’t relish that phrase.)

More significant are the efforts to re-engineer existing organisms, for applications from biofuels to medicine.

And, to accompany the article, my FT graphics colleagues have constructed an excellent illustration to show how synthetic biology works.

Clive Cookson

The controversial all-in-one polypill – a cocktail of drugs to fight heart disease – has come through its biggest clinical trial so far with flying colours.

Two thousand middle-aged and elderly people in India took part in the trial. The results, published online by the Lancet, show that a polypill with five active ingredients works almost as well as the sum of its individual components. And the combination causes no unexpected side-effects.

Salim Yusuf of McMaster University in Canada and his Indian colleagues, who organised the trial, estimate that middle-aged people could roughly halve the chance of suffering a “cardiovascular event” – heart attack or stroke – by taking polypills regularly. For those at high risk, the benefits would be greater.

The polypill used in the Indian study contains a statin (simvastatin) to reduce cholesterol, aspirin to thin the blood and three antihypertensives (atenolol, ramipril and thiazide) to lower blood pressure. It is similar to the polypill originally advocated by two UK professors, Malcolm Law and Nick Wald, in the British Medical Journal in 2003.

Although there is nothing to stop a doctor prescribing the five polypill ingredients individually to patients, there is a strong psychological obstacle to taking so many pills at once every day. Much better to swallow them as a single capsule.

All the ingredients are off-patent, cheap and easy to produce. Indeed Indian generic drug companies are already gearing up to manufacture polypills.

Some experts have been concerned that adverse reactions between the ingredients might seriously reduce their effectiveness or even lead to new side-effects. The Indian study has allayed most of these fears, though more clinical evidence will be required before GPs – and regulators such as the US Food and Drug Administration – are convinced of the merits of the polypill. Issues such as dosing also need to be resolved.

A Lancet commentary by Christopher Cannon of Harvard Medical School, accompanying the research paper, raises another question: “Would the availability of a single magic bullet for the prevention of heart disease lead people to abandon exercise and appropriate diet? Would this make two of the major root causes of heart disease worse?” The medical profession would need to make sure that the answer is No.

Clive Cookson

This week is the 20th anniversary of what would have been the greatest scoop of my journalistic career – if it had been true. Sadly it is remembered mainly as a classic “bad science” story.

Cold fusion made its first public appearance on the front page of the FT on March 23, 1989, ahead of a press conference at the University of Utah at which two chemists, Martin Fleischmann and Stan Pons, were to announce a sensational discovery. They had created a potentially unlimited source of clean energy, by carrying out controlled nuclear fusion – the reaction that powers the sun and the H-bomb – in a simple electrochemical cell.

Not surprisingly, cold fusion aroused enormous media interest. And, despite widespread scepticism, physics and chemistry labs around the world raced to repeat the Fleischmann-Pons experiment. After all, the pair were not scientific charlatans but chemistry professors with respectable academic backgrounds.

Scientists and journalists gradually lost interest, as others failed to obtain evidence of nuclear reactions in their laboratories. Within a year cold fusion was generally regarded as a sad mistake.

Even now, however, cold fusion retains a small band of believers. Some of them are reporting positive results this week at a symposium organised by the American Chemical Society to coincide with the 20th anniversary of the original announcement. (The phenomenon has been renamed “low energy nuclear reactions” or LENR.) For instance, chemists at the US Navy Space and Naval Warfare Systems Centre in San Diego presented evidence of tracks left in a special plastic by neutrons originating in an electrochemical cell similar to the one used by Fleischmann and Pons.

Such results suggest that it may indeed be possible to induce a low level of nuclear fusion in an ordinary chemistry lab. But, if fusion is to become a serious energy source later this century, most scientists believe big special facilities will be needed, such as the $10bn ITER reactor to be built through an international collaboration at Cadarache in southern France.

Clive Cookson

Sometimes in science, persistence is rewarded. For more than 30 years Mark Pepys, professor of medicine at University College London, has concentrated on research into amyloidosis, an incurable disease that causes organ failure in tens of thousands of people a year worldwide.

Amyloidosis is caused by the build up of abnormal “amyloid” proteins in body tissues. Prof Pepys has long believed that the key to understanding the disease is a related blood protein called SAP, which sticks to amyloid fibres and stops enzymes removing them.

The FT has covered his work several times. My predecessor David Fishlock described in 1990 Prof Pepys’s discovery of a way to image SAP and amyloid fibres. I wrote in 1995 and 2002 about progress in developing a drug called CPHPC, which aimed to clear the destructive amyloid deposits from patients by removing the protective SAP from their blood.

Prof Pepys was working then in collaboration with Roche. But the Swiss pharmaceutical giant eventually pulled out.

“While we had promising early results [with CPHPC] they were not enough to benefit patients with advanced disease,” he says. “Something more dramatic is needed.”

That something turns out to a combination of CPHPC with an antibody – a molecular guidance system designed to seek out amyloid deposits in vital organs.

Now Prof Pepys has reached an agreement with another big pharmaceutical group, UK-based GlaxoSmithKline, to collaborate on producing a treatment for amyloidosis based on the CPHPC-antibody combination.

Although the details of this week’s deal are confidential, Prof Pepys says GSK will spend many millions of pounds working with UCL scientists, to convert their successful animal tests into an antibody-based drug for human use.

Mike Owen, GSK’s head of biopharmaceutical research, said it was realistic to aim for clinical trials within two years.

Symptoms of amyloidosis are very variable because the heart, kidneys, liver and almost any other organ can be affected. Every year 500 to 1,000 new cases are diagnosed in the UK, mainly in middle-aged and older people; their prognosis is poor.

Although amyloidosis is a rare disease, there are enough sufferers – an estimated 80,000 in the industrialised world – to bring in considerable revenues from an effective drug.

Prof Pepys points out that antibody-based medicines can sell for tens of thousands of pounds per patient, particularly if they treat a previously untreatable disease.

While staff at GSK’s research centre in Stevenage will look after the clinical development of the new medicine, “Prof Pepys will remain closely involved in the project,” says Pauline Williams, the company’s head of academic liaison. “It was critical for him to feel that he was not handing everything over to us.”

The world of research

The science blog is no longer updated but it remains open as an archive.

Clive Cookson, the FT's science editor, picks out the research that everyone should know about, in fields from astronomy to zoology. He also discusses key policy issues, from R&D funding to science education. He'll cover the weird and wonderful, as well as the serious side of science.

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