News at a glance: Testosterone study shakeup, new malaria preventative, and minibrains with ‘eyes’


Testosterone study doesn’t go the distance

A 2017 study that suggested some female runners with naturally higher testosterone levels had a competitive advantage was corrected last week, raising doubts about its use to ban South Africa’s Caster Semenya and others from competing in events including the Tokyo Olympics. The British Journal of Sports Medicine study, which analyzed testosterone levels in elite athletes in the 2011 and 2013 World Athletics Championships, found that women in the top tertile for the hormone performed nearly 3% better than those in the bottom third in the 400-meter event and almost 2% better in the 800-meter event. That prompted a 2018 rule by the International Amateur Athletic Federation (now called World Athletics) that prevents female athletes with naturally high testosterone levels from competing in races from 400 to 1500 meters, unless they take testosterone-reducing drugs. In the 17 August correction, the paper’s authors acknowledged they had found no causal link between high levels of the hormone and enhanced performance. Semenya is challenging her ban, and track and field’s governing body hasn’t said whether it will revise its rule. Other affected athletes have switched to different races, or retired.


CDC sets up outbreak center

In an effort to build on lessons learned during the COVID-19 pandemic and improve public health decision- making, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) last week announced the launch of a new center to forecast outbreaks of infectious diseases and devise more effective strategies when they occur. CDC has recruited top researchers—including Harvard University epidemiologist Marc Lipsitch as director of science—to run the Center for Forecasting and Outbreak Analytics. The facility, billed as “a hub for innovation and research on disease modeling,” will also expand data-sharing networks between researchers and first-line responders. It has up to $500 million in funding from the American Rescue Plan and will begin operations in 2022.

The moment you’ve been waiting for is here.

  • U.S. President Joe Biden, addressing the nation—and vaccine-hesitant Americans—after the Food and Drug Administration granted full approval to the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine on 23 August.

U.S. public backs evolution

A solid majority of U.S. adults now accepts evolution, a shift that researchers attribute to a growth in scientific literacy and a decline in the politicization of the issue. University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, political scientist Jon Miller has been surveying Americans about evolution since 1985 and, in a paper out last week, he documents a steady rise in support since 2007 for the statement “human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals.” For the preceding 2 decades, a series of surveys had revealed a roughly 40% to 40% split, with 20% undecided. But by 2020, that had shifted to 53% in favor and 36% opposed, with 11% agnostic. Miller attributes the change to more people attending college, where most students are required to take at least one science course, as well as to the waning power of evolution as a wedge issue. “There are very few politicians left who play the chimpanzee card,” he says. However, the United States still trails most of the industrialized world, where public acceptance of evolution can top 80%.


HHMI fires MIT biologist

The Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) on 20 August fired prominent biologist David Sabatini after an investigation found that he violated sexual harassment and other workplace policies. Sabatini also resigned from the Whitehead Institute, the nonprofit research organization where his large HHMI-supported lab was located. Whitehead had hired an outside law firm to conduct the probe. Sabatini, who remains a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), co-discovered mTOR, a protein that is a central regulator of cell growth and aging in mammals. MIT said in a statement that its senior administration is reviewing the Whitehead Institute’s findings “and determining next steps in response … up to and including revocation of tenure proceedings.”


McMath-Pierce Solar Telescope
After 55 years of staring at the Sun, the McMath-Pierce Solar Telescope and its 10-story building (above) will soon be transformed, with $4.5 million from the National Science Foundation, into an astronomy outreach center. Visitors to Kitt Peak National Observatory in Arizona will see three solar telescopes and interactive exhibits. And U.S. solar astronomers already have a replacement: the Daniel K. Inouye Solar Telescope, the world’s largest, which opened in Hawaii in 2020.KPNO/NOIRLAB/NSF/AURA/D. SALMAN

Preprint ban under review

More than 600 researchers have signed an open letter demanding that the Australian Research Council (ARC) scrap a new policy that forbids grant applicants from mentioning preprints in their funding proposals. Applicants whose proposals had been automatically rejected took to social media last week to criticize the policy, many noting that they had not been aware of the rule, first introduced in September 2020. Proposals were rejected even if they cited preprints authored by other scientists. Some researchers also said job offers had been rescinded because those offers were dependent on securing ARC grants. An ARC spokesperson has told Science that the agency is reviewing the policy following feedback from the research community.


Preventive combo curbs malaria

Malaria vaccines and antimalarial pills by themselves often fail to prevent the fevers, hospitalization, and death caused by the disease. Now, a randomized, controlled study involving nearly 6000 children in Mali and Burkina Faso shows participants given both interventions during malaria season fared better than those who only received one or the other. Reported this week in The New England Journal of Medicine, the study enrolled children between 5 and 17 months old and followed them for 3 years. Those given both the pills and a vaccine known as RTS,S had about 60% protection against symptomatic disease compared with those who received either intervention alone; the combination’s efficacy was more than 70% for hospitalization or death.


Minibrains grow crude ‘eyes’

lab-grown brain tissue
Two cup-shaped protrusions form rudimentary “eyes” in lab-grown brain tissueGABRIEL ET AL., CELL STEM CELL 28, 1-18, 7 OCTOBER 2021 © 2021 ELSEVIER INC.

In an effort to mimic early eye development, researchers have created tiny orbs of human brain tissue with rudimentary pairs of light-sensitive, eyelike structures in a lab dish. Past studies have re-created a key structure in the eye—the light-receiving retina—by “reprogramming” mature human cells into stem cells and then guiding their development in a specially designed nutrient broth. But in a developing embryo, these early eye structures form from tissue at the front of the brain. Hoping to more faithfully re-create this process, researchers first turned reprogrammed human stem cells into the precursors of neurons typically found in the front of the brain. These cells spontaneously formed clumps of forebrain tissue, each with two cup-shaped protrusions that became electrically active in response to light. The organoids, described last week in Cell Stem Cell, could help scientists better understand the origins of retinal disease.

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