Issue 512, 08 Mar 2019


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New from the SMC

Expert Reaction: Measles resurgence

Expert Reaction: No vaccine and autism link, even in kids with risk factors for autism 

In The News: SpaceX Dragon docks at International Space Station

New from the SMC global network

Vaccine safety reaffirmed

New study puts vaccine-autism link to bed amid a measles resurgence in New Zealand.

A nationwide study of all Danish children born between 1999 and 2010 has found further evidence the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccination does not increase the risk for autism - even in children with other autism risk factors, or in kids with siblings who have autism. 

Despite several studies over the past 20 years repeating this finding, the vaccine-autism link persists in the anti-vaxxer movement. Andrew Wakefield - author of the now-withdrawn 1998 study which claimed the MMR vaccine caused autism, has continued to push this message, most recently through his film Vaxxed.

Professor Michael Baker from the University of Otago in Wellington told Larry Williams the study was "very reassuring for any parents who are worried about the possible link".
"Scientists are very reluctant to ever say that there's definitive proof about anything, but I think this is about as close as you can get." 

The study was published amidst a measles outbreak in Canterbury, which has 14 confirmed cases as of Thursday. 

Nikki Turner, director of the Immunisation Advisory Centre told the SMC measles have been eliminated from New Zealand and since 2012 all cases stem from people bringing the disease into the country. 

"Most cases are occurring in young adults who were unaware they were not completely immunised when they were young," some of which were from vaccine hesitancy in the 90s, following the Wakefield paper. 

Last week, the Ministry of Health warned travellers to make sure they were immunised against measles following outbreaks overseas in the Philippines and in parts of Europe.

The SMC asked experts to comment on the study and on the rise of measles. 

Quoted: The Spinoff

"Just as previous generations of teenagers challenged their parents to widen their perspective on what’s possible, today’s students are protesting the world’s lack of progress in addressing climate change."

University of Auckland's Professor Richard Easther on the upcoming student strike for climate change.

Second patient HIV-free

A stem-cell treatment has put a patient's HIV into remission for the second time.

The patient received a transplant of stem cells from a donor with a mutation of the gene CCR5 known to be related to HIV infection. Since receiving the treatment, the patient has been in remission for 18 months, report British scientists. However, the researchers caution that it is too early to say the patient has been ‘cured’ of HIV.  

The stem-cells were from a donor with a gene mutation that exists in about 1 per cent of northern Europeans that makes them immune to most forms of HIV. This gene mutation is the same one He Jiankui claimed to replicate using gene editing which led to the birth of the world's first gene-edited babies last year.

Ten years ago, another patient's HIV was sent into remission by a similar treatment, but numerous attempts to replicate it haven't worked until now.

Professor Sharon Lewin from The University of Melbourne told Stuff: "this new case confirms that bone marrow transplantation from a CCR5-negative donor can eliminate residual virus and stop any traces of virus from rebounding".

"Two factors are likely at play - the new bone marrow is resistant to HIV and also the new bone marrow is actively eliminating any HIV-infected cells."

She says the case report shows the original treatment wasn't a fluke, but because stem cell treatment is incredibly expensive, it's impractical to use it to treat the millions of people living with HIV. 

Science policy opens up

Former Prime Minister Helen Clark will launch an independent policy think tank with Auckland University of Technology on March 21.

The mission of the Helen Clark Foundation is to publish evidence-based research that helps create a "more just, sustainable and peaceful society".

The think tank will research a number of economic, social and environmental issues such as drug policy reform and climate change. 'Green hydrogen' - a look at next-generation energy in New Zealand - will be the first research topic tackled by the think tank. 

The Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor, Professor Juliet Gerrard, is also aiming to improve the cooperation between researchers and policymakers. Her office has teamed up with the MacDiarmid Institute to offer six finishing PhD students internships.

The interns will work in her office and examine a range of science issues with policy implications, including renewable energy, artificial intelligence, and the innovation economy.  

2019 Science Media SAVVY

Last week to apply for our April two-day media training workshop in Auckland.

These highly-acclaimed workshops offer researchers first-hand insight into the workings of news and social media, as well as hands-on, practical exercises to improve communication. Our experienced facilitators provide a supportive environment for researchers to consider their work from different perspectives and find new ways to describe the value of their research to the public. 

Ideally suited for researchers with previous media experience seeking further development of their skills, as well as beginners anticipating media interest in their work.

Policy news & developments

Rustlers lassoed: Two new livestock rustling offences have been added to the Crimes Act. 

Marsden Council: Assoc Prof Janet Wilmshurst has been appointed to the Marsden Fund Council for a term of three years. Prof Jarrod Haar and Prof Cynthia White have been re-appointed for the same time period. 

Synthetics Bill: The Misuse of Drugs Amendment Bill was introduced to parliament this week including changes announced last year. ​

Exotic insect found: A larva from a poplar sawfly was found for the first time in NZ - in Dunedin during the gypsy moth surveillance programme.

Kauri dieback consultation: People have two weeks left to have their say as part of a third and final round of consultation on a new kauri dieback national plan.

More haemophilia treatments: Pharmac has announced two new extended half-life treatments for haemophilia will be funded for the first time from May 1.

This week on the NZ Conversation.

How a new breast cancer biomarker could help patients identify best treatment options
Dong-Xu Liu, Auckland University of Technology

Should online users be bound by their privacy agreements? 
Samuel Becher, Victoria University of Wellington

Why a proposed capital gains tax could mean tax cuts for most New Zealanders
Alison Pavlovich, Massey University

New Zealand’s proposed capital gains tax could nudge taxpayers to invest in art instead of property​
Jonathan Barrett, Victoria University of Wellington

Māori and Pasifika leaders report racism in government health advisory groups​
Heather CameAuckland University of Technology; Maria Haenga-Collins, Auckland University of Technology; Tim McCreanor, Massey University

Overworked and underpaid: the revival of strikes in New Zealand​
Toby Boraman, Massey University

See more NZ-authored Conversation articles.

What we've been reading

With an abundance of news stories to possibly read, watch and listen to, it can be hard to find the gems. Here we highlight some of the stories that caught our attention this week.

Wellington ratepayers foot bill for pseudo-science
Newsroom's Farah Hancock broke the story on Tuesday that a Downer contractor working on a Wellington City Council project used two copper rods to tell him where pipes lay - instead of modern electronic equipment.

Bottom trawling for fish causing 'permanent damage' to deep sea forests
Bottom trawling is the most common method of fishing internationally, but little is known about its long-term impact on the array of plant, fish and invertebrate life on the seabed. Stuff national correspondent Charlie Mitchell investigates.

How I ID - and the Births, Deaths and Marriages Bill
Trans actor and theatre director Adam Rohe details his journey as a transgender person, and counters some arguments defending proposed changes to the Births Deaths and Marriages Bill - which would make it easier for people to change their gender on their birth certificate.

When the rules are different for Māori
Emma Espiner struggles to appreciate a system that allows a dangerous highway right outside her ancestral marae, but would have completely different rules for a childcare centre, conference facility or a retirement village.

The Opioid Chronicles
Tony Wall's four-pronged series talks to victims of opioid addiction and looks at the black market, the pain of withdrawal, and the struggle to get a possible antidote into communities.

New from Sciblogs - NZ's science blog network

Some of the highlights from this week's Sciblogs posts:
From the mists of time: the enduring mystery of the adzebills

Enigmatic as they may be, adzebills are also birds shrouded in mystery writes Nic Rawlence. New research shed light on their ancient heritage.
Lost Worlds, Vanished Lives
Open Source Period

Almost a year on from reviewing a lab-study on the prevalence of toxic shock syndrome from menstrual cups, Siouxsie Wiles gives an update on how the lack of research in the area led her to devise a research project and apply for funding.
Infectious Thoughts
Why it’s important to have Māori-led capacity in genomics research

Dr Phillip Wilcox from Genomics Aotearoa delves into why genomics research needs more Māori involved - and how we can make that happen.
Guest Work
Autism revisited: genetics, environment, not vaccines

With yet more research showing vaccines don't cause autism out this week, Grant Jacobs looks at what does cause autism: namely genetics and possibly environmental factors.
Code for life

Upcoming events

Please see the SMC Events Calendar for more events and details.
  • Brain awareness month: This month there are 17 brain-related events across New Zealand. Next week has events in Queenstown, Tauranga, Nelson, Hamilton, AucklandWellington and Dunedin.

  • Women in Data Science: 9 March, Wellington. This one-day conference provides an opportunity to hear about the latest data science-related research and applications.

  • Coastal ecology lab open day: 9 March, Wellington. Join the Victoria University of Wellington Coastal Ecology Lab team to learn about their marine biology research.

  • Neuroplasticity: 11 March, Dunedin. Jumping on the Brain Month bandwagon, Australasian experts discuss the brain's ability to reorganise itself as we age.
  • Taiātea: 11 March, Auckland. Late night at the museum dives into threats to our marine environments and what we can do to combat them. 
  • PM's Science Prizes: 12 March, Wellington. The Prime Minister's Science Prizes (worth $1m total) will be awarded at Parliament next Tuesday. 
  • History of your Brain: 12 March, Dunedin. Four researchers look at how the brain develops from a single cell into the command centre for the whole body. 
  • Biological clocks: 12 March, Albany. Aneta Stefanoska will discuss technological advances in the monitoring of a variety of biological clocks and ways of modelling them mathematically.
  • Story Collider: 12 March, Wellington. Five storytellers tell stories about science live on stage, hosted by SMC Director Dacia Herbulock and Motu's Ceridwyn Roberts.
  • Ocean Detectives: 14 March, Lower Hutt. Cawthron scientist Heni Unwin explains what we know about tracking plastic in the ocean.
  • Blockchain & Digital Identity: 14 March, Wellington. Industry representatives discuss privacy and data and the role it plays in blockchain and digital identity.
  • Automating Inequality: 15 March, Auckland. Virginia Eubanks speaks about how data mining, policy algorithms, and predictive risk models are increasingly affecting vulnerable people in society – the poor and working-class.

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