Legal marijuana and cannabis research, Google X health project, Retraction Watch, regulating genetic research

Legalizing cannabis in order to legalize cannabis research?

The New York Times has been running a series of editorials and commentaries and blog posts backing legal marijuana.  Even although it’s been clear for some time that’s where we’re headed, the Times‘s endorsement is a landmark event, especially viewed in conjunction with the New England Journal of Medicine review of cannabis’s effects that I wrote about here a couple weeks ago.

Congress will of course be slow to change the anti-pot federal laws, but legalization activity in the states has been so rapid and dramatic that federal laws are fading into irrelevance, at least with respect to penalizing users–especially since the Justice Department has foresworn enforcement. Nearly half the states have made medical marijuana legal, and New York has just joined that bunch. And Colorado and Washington are now wrestling with the introduction of legal recreational pot

This is good news for a number of reasons, especially criminal justice, but as I have observed here before, the US is now launched remarkably casually on a vast experiment with several scary scientific unknowns. We are likely to learn a lot about cannabis in the next several years, much of it the hard way through unpleasant experience.

That’s because there are severe constraints on serious cannabis research, in particular research into its medical applications. Vikas Bajaj described the many barriers the government puts in the way of marijuana research at the Times‘s Taking Note blog. There’s no reason to think that those roadblocks will be removed any time soon. Will a substantial increase in research have to wait on federal legalization or even after? Yikes. That is likely to be several years at least.

One of the best posts I’ve seen on medical marijuana is a roundup by David Gorski at Science-Based Medicine. (Gorski also blogs as Orac at Respectful Insolence, and sometimes crossposts there.) The Science-Based Medicine post calls medical marijuana the new herbalism, with many of the same failings as other herbal medicine. The post has drawn well over 200 comments so far. It is Part 1 of a promised 3; he plans additional posts on marijuana therapy for autism and cancer.

In Part 1 he examines the evidence for efficacy against chronic pain, appetite and nausea, and IBD, plus–as is the case with other herbal meds–the difficulty of getting standardized doses or even being sure that the pot being sold as a particular strain really is.  Gorski also notes that the small amount of medical research on pot has not used the delivery system employed by most users: smoking. “If one were to come up with a delivery method for an effective herb, one would be hard pressed to come up with a worse method than burning it and inhaling it.”

In its current state, he argues, medical marijuana is just another form of herbal medicine. “I believe that marijuana should be legalized, regulated, and taxed, just like alcohol and tobacco. If marijuana is going to be approved for use as medicine rather than for recreational use, however, the standards of evidence it must meet should be no different than any other drug, and for the vast majority of indications for which it’s touted medical cannabis doesn’t even come close to meeting that standard.”

Amen to that. But getting to acceptable standards of evidence on cannabis effects, medical and otherwise, is going to be a long, hard slog. Especially if the work must wait upon federal legislation.

Credit: NMA.tv via Mashable

Credit: NMA.tv via Mashable

Google X’s new Baseline Study on health

Google X, often said to be Google’s top secret innovation lab, announced its big new longitudinal health study exclusively in an open-access piece in the Wall Street Journal. The WSJ trumpeted the Baseline Study as a “moonshot”, a term often applied to other Google X projects too, and called it the “most ambitious and difficult science project ever.”

It appears that’s hyperbole at best. Baseline has left a lot of technology commentators underwhelmed.

The Baseline Study plans to follow thousands of people, investigating their genomes, their body chemistry, and miscellaneous other measurements. The aim is to try to define good health, according to Jocelyn Kaiser at Science Insider. She also notes, though, that the project is not really so radical. “Many groups are amassing DNA and biological samples from large groups of people, both healthy and diseased, and tracking their outcomes. It is also routine in such longitudinal health studies to gather detailed medical data from volunteers and keep their information anonymous, as Google X says it will do.”

Genomic entrepreneur Craig Venter sniffed that Baseline was “a baby step, a much smaller version of what we are doing.” By “we” he means the new company he announced last year, Human Longevity, which plans to sequence a million genomes by 2020 while also collecting “just about everything that can be measured about a person, without cutting them open,” he told Antonio Regalado at TechReview.

Regalado was also dismissive in a separate piece, quoting derogatory tweets and pointing out that the résumé of the guy hired to run Baseline includes a role as co-founder of an expensive health spa near Malibu. (He also served as chief scientific officer at a giant clinical testing lab, which Regalado does not point out.) Regalado regards Google X and its various recently announced glam projects as chiefly a Google publicity tool.

If so, a successful one, even if you only count the WSJ’s glowing review. At Ars Technica, Ron Amadeo described the WSJ piece and offered speculations on the other Google X projects (which include, for example, Google Glass and self-driving cars.) The Google X brand stirs in nerd journos a powerful Need to Know.

Not on the Google X project list is Calico, to be devoted to studying aging and related diseases, which Google formed last year as a separate company. Amadeo’s conclusion about Calico: “Google basically wants to stop you from dying.”

Blaine Price, who studies the relation between mobile tracking apps and privacy, says at the Conversation that the Baseline plan to track healthy people could be medically valuable. But he is concerned about privacy and warns against “data-collection-creep.”

At Re/code, staffer James Temple declares that he’d be happy to volunteer for Baseline. But in what I guess you could call a Re/tort, Dan Munro says, among other objections, that he doesn’t trust Google with his data.

All hail Retraction Watch

There are lots of good science blogs, but I wonder how many of them make a difference. One that unquestionably does is Retraction Watch, run by Adam Marcus and Ivan Oransky, which daily brings us astonishing (and depressing) news, to be found nowhere else, of malfeasance in science.

This week Knight Science Journalism Tracker Paul Raeburn spotted a piece in the Washington Post‘s Morning Mix; here’s the link, but I’m not sure this post is open-access. It recounts the duo’s adventures with disclosing scientific bad behavior. Raeburn points out that there’s plenty of material there for follow-up by other science journalists.

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Let’s regulate gene editing and gene drives!

Last week I wrote here about the likely prodigious impact that the new gene-editing techniques, notably the one called CRISPR, are likely to have on how scientists will be able to revise and remodel any old genome more easily and cheaply than ever before. Not to mention entire species and ecosystems, using procedures known as gene drives.

In my Tuesday column for the Genetic Literacy Project, I expanded on those possibilities and gave myself the great pleasure of calling for regulation of gene editing and gene drive applications. I’d like to pretend that was brave of me, espousing increased regulation of science. But the truth is that oversight of what they’re up to was first proposed by the scientists doing the work, in an open-access paper in Science.

My take is that if the people closest to this research announce in a major journal that they think it needs supervision, the rest of us ought to pay attention and make that happen. ASAP.

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