Why worms live longer — Scientists have known for some time that drastically reducing calorie intake appears to help animals from worms to rats live far longer than they ordinarily would. Now researchers have identified a gene that appears to play a major role in regulating that sort of life extension. Writing in Nature, a Salk Institute team describes how it identified a roundworm gene called pha-4 that seems to play a crucial role in diet-related lifespan increase. (Their technique was simple: After limiting their search to just 15 genes in the roundworm genome, the scientists methodically deactivated each one to see what effect it had on calorie-restricted lifespan, and found that worms lacking functioning pha-4 lived no longer no matter what their diet.)
The work, of course, is preliminary in almost every respect. Scientists don’t know exactly what role pha-4 may play in life extension, although they have some initial theories, and they don’t know what other genes might also be involved in the process. Humans also don’t have pha-4 genes, although we do possess three other similar genes, so it’s at least conceivable that it might one day be possible to take a drug that stimulates one of them to produce some sort of life-extension response. Someday, that is. Don’t hold your breath in the meantime.
Biotech IPOs continue to suck wind — Perlegen Sciences, an Affymetrix spinoff I mentioned a few days ago for their contribution to the international HapMap project, is the latest victim of investors’ lack of interest in biotech IPOs. Perlegen withdrew its IPO filing Monday (hat tip: VentureWire), citing now-familiar “market conditions.” The only twist here is that Perlegen also noted a reimbursement problem related to a government contract and said it was taking the opportunity to “enhance and strengthen” its financial controls related to contracting.
When — and where — scientists attack — Although scientists often like to refer to “the literature” as a sort of sacred repository of knowledge, the unfortunate and seldom-mentioned fact is that many research papers are full of errors. Many are inadvertent — often enough, the result of honest slipups, findings overtaken by later discoveries, or incorrect interpretations of data. Other problems may be the result of fraud or plagiarism. Or, as George Lundberg, a former editor of the Journal of the American Medical Association, puts it:
Science grinds slowly. Truth is illusory. It is rare for any one study or article to establish long-lasting fact. That is just the way science is. But, apart from the normal back and forth-ing of studies and observations that eventually become established as reliable wisdom, all medical and science journals make messes.
Given space constraints in traditional journals, however, researchers’ ability to formally address, challenge and correct each other has generally been limited. So to that end, Lundberg and the journal he now edits, Medscape General Medicine (published by a unit of WebMD), are opening their pages as a “neutral place” for such disputes to be aired, regardless of where the original findings appeared. Lundberg again:
We now “welcome letters relating to unresolved publication issues in other medical journals, especially those involving the prior publication of conflicted results and interpretations not yet resolved by either retraction, correction or clarification.” We thus gingerly open this Pandora’s box of other journals’ turf, and await learning whether any envisioned pent-up effluence will be a trickle or turn into a flood. Watch with us and see. We believe that this will serve the public interest.
It will be fascinating to see if this catches on, but in the meantime it’s heartening to see Lundberg — who was fired from JAMA after running a brief report during the height of the Clinton impeachment hearings that asserted Americans have widely diverging views on what “having sex” actually means — still upsetting applecarts.