The Top 3 Science Policy Stories of 2006

Nanotech emerges from Pandora's box, DDT the lifesaver, FDA & NCI [heart] HPV vaccine.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007
RELATED TAGS: HEALTH POLICY

27. FDA Approves Vaccine for Cervical Cancer

The cervical cancer vaccine—the second vaccine after the hepatitis B vaccine to target a sexually transmitted disease—debuted this year. In June the Food and Drug Administration approved the vaccine, distributed under the brand name Gardasil, for girls and women ages 9 to 26. The European Union and Australia have also approved the vaccine, and a similar product to be manufactured by GlaxoSmithKline is in the works.

The vaccines work by inducing antibodies to the human papillomavirus, or HPV, which can cause genital warts and cervical cancer. In large clinical trials, the vaccines were more than 99 percent effective in preventing HPV infection. Like most vaccines, however, they are most effective among people who have not yet been exposed to the virus. An American government advisory panel therefore recommended that Gardasil be given routinely to 11- and 12-year-old girls—and in some cases to girls as young as 9.

Every year cervical cancer kills more than 230,000 women worldwide, about 80 percent of them in developing countries. In the United States, the disease claims the lives of roughly 4,000 women each year. Based on a mathematical model, GlaxoSmithKline claims that immunizing every 12-year-old girl with the vaccine would reduce U.S. cases and deaths from cervical cancer by 70 percent. But some conservative groups have opposed the vaccine, saying it might promote sexual activity.

Poor countries also face a more practical obstacle. The full course of the vaccine—three shots over a six-month period—costs about $360. "The biggest issue will be price," says John Schiller, a senior investigator at the National Cancer Institute, who did some of the early work that led to the vaccine's development. "It's the most expensive vaccine we have."

Apoorva Mandavilli


29. DDT is Back

More than 30 years after the use of DDT was abandoned in many countries, the much-maligned pesticide is making a comeback. In September the World Health Organization openly endorsed indoor spraying of DDT, saying it is not only the best weapon against malaria, it is also cheaper and more effective than other insecticides. The announcement followed a similar move in May by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).

One of the reasons for the more aggressive stance is President Bush's Malaria Initiative, launched in 2005 after Congress reproved USAID for spending the lion's share of its budget on operational costs—and less than 8 percent on the insecticides, bed nets, and medicines that would actually save lives. In 2007, USAID plans to spend more than $20 million on indoor spraying—up from less than $1 million spent in 2005.

Many environmental groups support the use of DDT for malaria—but only in the short term. Meanwhile, USAID representatives say that, when used properly, the chemical poses little risk to the environment or to human health. "Until we find that it is hazardous," says Admiral Tim Ziemer, coordinator of the President's Malaria Initiative, "it's unconscionable not to use something that can save lives."

Apoorva Mandavilli


36. Nano Risks Worry Scientists

"Magic Nano" turned out not to be so magical after all. The cleaning product sold by the German company Kleinmann GmbH made headlines when it caused respiratory distress in more than 100 consumers last spring, leading to its swift removal from the market. Although the product didn't contain nanoparticles—the problems were ultimately traced to the formation of a super-thin film—the incident put the concept of nanomaterials (which incorporate particles or components measuring less than 100 nanometers, or about 1/250,000 inch) squarely in the public eye and raised the question of how to harness their potential while addressing their potential risks.

More than 200 consumer products around the world are described as nanotech-based, according to the Woodrow Wilson Center's Project for Emerging Nanotechnologies. On small scales, substances often behave much differently than they do in their familiar forms, and toxicology and safety studies of these products are still in the early stages. "Good science takes time," says Sally Tinkle, assistant to the deputy director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences at the NIH. "We're asking the right questions about our regulatory frameworks, but we do not have enough scientific data yet to know if they need to be changed and, if so, how to change them in a way that would be more effective." Time may be running out, says David Rejeski, director of the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies. "Five or six years ago, this was a story about science. Now it's a story about consumer products," he says. "This is the beginning of a tidal wave of nano-based products."

So far, more effort has been put into promoting the economic potential of nanomaterials than in exploring possible hazards. The Bush administration's 2007 budget request includes $1.2 billion for the National Nanotechnology Initiative but just $44 million for nanotechnology toxicology and safety research. "How many Magic Nano stories have to appear before people get upset and start to lose confidence?" Rejeski says. "The thing that I fear is that we're investing in a $200,000 car, and we've taken out a $10,000 insurance policy."

Sarah Webb

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