3-D printing. Virtual reality. Artificial intelligence. Self-driving cars. Robotic surgery. Gene editing. Higgs boson. The list goes on. These recent breakthroughs are becoming household words (and items), and they are a testament to the rapid expansion of our society’s technological capabilities. In the world of medical research, however, this paradigm has recently shifted towards exploring natural biological systems rather than focusing on the typical research areas of medical devices and drug development.
Inside the walls of hospitals across the country, babies are literally crying out for drugs. The rising rate of opioid use and abuse has dramatically increased the number of infants born with neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS). Characterized by inconsolable crying, seizures, difficulties feeding, sweating, and vomiting, NAS is the result of an infant’s withdrawal from opioids that the child was exposed to in utero. Upon delivery, newborns diagnosed with NAS often require prolonged treatment and spend days, weeks, or even months in a hospital.
If one were to ask what lies within the heart of a person suffering from opioid addiction, a bacterial infection most likely isn’t the first answer that would come to mind. Infective Endocarditis (IE) is an infection of the heart valve and is one of several infectious diseases that intravenous (IV) drug users have an increased risk of acquiring.
How can the chemical structure of codeine, an opiate sold over-the-counter for years in cough medication, differ only slightly from that of a highly-regulated opiate like morphine? And why does this slight change in structure cause our bodies to respond differently to each drug? The answer comes down to the relationship between drug structure and function.
Science and journalism have a delicate relationship. Science needs its message to disseminate through the public; journalists need news to disseminate. But like a group of children playing telephone, the message can become distorted. Mistakes are inevitable because research is messy. This quintessentially human endeavor is a lengthy and ongoing process that takes time to smooth out mistakes and biases. At best, these mistakes fizzle from the news circuit. At worst, they can harm public health.
A major impediment to the scientific endeavor today is a lack of transparency, communication, and public visibility. In 1991, the fields of mathematics, physics, and computer science came up with a partial solution to this problem, arXiv.org, an online repository and forum to store, disperse, and discuss preprints, which are scientific manuscripts and communications prior to peer-review. While there is an increasing recognition of the role preprints play in the future of scientific communication, the life sciences have been indisputably behind the curve. However, this is rapidly changing, and at the forefront of the revolution is Jessica Polka, Ph.D. She is currently a visiting scholar at the Whitehead Institute and director of ASAPbio, a biologist-driven project to promote the productive use of preprints in the life sciences. I recently had the opportunity to speak with her about the rise of preprints in the life sciences.