Costs of developing new drugs soar

It now costs around $2.6 billion to develop and win marketing approval for a new prescription medicine, according to a new study, up from $800 million joust over a decade ago.

The study by Tufts Center for the Study of Drug Development updates a previous report from 2003.

The estimate is based on information provided by 10 pharmaceutical companies on 106 randomly selected drugs that were first tested in human subjects anywhere in the world from 1995 to 2007.

“Drug development remains a costly undertaking despite ongoing efforts across the full spectrum of pharmaceutical and biotech companies to rein in growing R&D costs,” said Joseph A. DiMasi, director of economic analysis at Tufts CSDD and principal investigator for the study.

“Because the R&D process is marked by substantial technical risks, with expenditures incurred for many development projects that fail to result in a marketed product, our estimate links the costs of unsuccessful projects to those that are successful in obtaining marketing approval from regulatory authorities.”

The rise in drug development costs have been driven mainly by increases in out-of-pocket costs for individual drugs and higher failure rates for drugs tested in human subjects, DiMasi says.

Increased clinical trial complexity, larger clinical trial sizes, higher cost of inputs from the medical sector used for development, greater focus on targeting chronic and degenerative diseases, changes in protocol design to include efforts to gather health technology assessment information, and testing on comparator drugs to accommodate payer demands for comparative effectiveness data, have all contributed to the rising costs.

Forbes magazine last year put the cost even higher – at nearly $5 billion – giving a list of how much new drug development cost at each of 100 companies.

Blu-ray discs can improve solar cell performance

The quasi-random pattern of data on the face of a Blu-ray disc improves light absorption in solar cells. [Credit: iStock]

The quasi-random pattern of data on the face of a Blu-ray disc improves light absorption in solar cells. [Credit: iStock]

Blu-ray discs may hold the key to boosting the performance of solar cells. The high-desity storage media used to store high-definition films, use a pattern of information that also improves light absorption, scientists have found.

"We had a hunch that Blu-ray discs might work for improving solar cells, and, to our delight, we found the existing patterns are already very good," said Jiaxing Huang, a materials chemist and an associate professor of materials science and engineering at Northwestern University in Chicago said.

"It's as if electrical engineers and computer scientists developing the Blu-ray technology have been subconsciously doing our jobs, too."

Scientists already knew that placing texture on the surface of a solar cell scattered light more effectively, increasing a cell's efficiency. But they have been searching for a combination of the most effective texture that is also cost-efficient to manufacture. Blu-ray discs seem to fit the bill.

The discs contain a higher density of data than DVDs or CDs thanks to a quasi-random pattern. The disc's strings of binary code 0s and 1s, embedded as islands and pits are the near-optimal surface texture to improve absorption over the broad spectrum of sunlight, the Northwestern team found.

Huang and his team tested a wide range of movies and television shows stored on Blu-ray discs, including action movies, dramas, documentaries, cartoons and black-and-white content, and found the video content did not matter. All worked equally well.

"We found a random pattern or texture does work better than no pattern, but a Blu-ray disc pattern is best of all," Huang said.

First in-space 3D printing trial a success

The 3D printer, called the Microgravity Science Glovebox Engineering Unit, in a picture taken  in April during flight certification before its launch to the station. [Credit: NASA/Emmett Given]

The 3D printer, called the Microgravity Science Glovebox Engineering Unit, in a picture taken  in April during flight certification before its launch to the station. [Credit: NASA/Emmett Given]

The test of a 3D printer in space, that could create spare parts and tools on site for astronauts, has been a success. 

Cosmos looked at the trials of 3D printing in zero gravity in September, as this mission was getting ready to go.

The test unit on the International Space Station will attempt to make 21 test parts, including tools and facsimiles of the space station’s parts.

The printer works by extruding heated plastic, which then builds layer upon layer to create three-dimensional objects.

The major challenge of operating the machine in zero gravity is getting the layers to stick together, as heat transfers differently in low and zero G from the way it does on Earth.

The company behind the innovation, Made In Space, has come up with a formula that helps the layers adhere, but it is being very secretive about what actually goes into it.

The first object printed on the ISS is a printhead faceplate engraved with names of the organisations that collaborated on the technology – NASA and Made In Space.

The printed objects will be returned to Earth next year for detailed analysis and comparison to the identical ground control samples made on the flight printer before launch.

Testing is the first step toward creating a working "machine shop" in space. This capability may decrease cost and risk on the station, which will be critical when space explorers venture far from Earth.

How dogs take in what people say

Dog maybe taking in much more of human speech than we previously thought, according to new research in Britain.

Victoria Ratcliffe and David Reby of the school of psychology at the University of Sussex, have been investigating how dogs respond to what people say – and how they say it.

When people hear another person talking to them, they respond not only to what is being said, but also to the emotional tone of what is being said. The report in the Cell Press journal Current Biology provides some of the first evidence of how dogs may also differentiate and process the same components of human speech.

The researchers were interested in whether dogs processed human speech in the left or right hemisphere of their brain.

Previous research into how dogs responded to the vocalisation sounds of other dogs indicated that dogs have hemispheric biases in the way they process this information.

"Our results suggest that the processing of speech components in the dog's brain is divided between the two hemispheres in a way that is actually very similar to the way it is separated in the human brain," Reby says. The results are published in Current Biology.

The researchers emphasised the results do not mean dogs understand human language.  But in Ratcliffe's words it does show our dogs are paying attention "not only to who we are and how we say things, but also to what we say".

Study warns of dangers of teen sleeping pill prescriptions

Teens who are prescribed anxiety drugs or sleeping tablets are 12 times more likely to illegally abuse them later than those not given the medication, researchers have found.

The study by the University of Michigan School of Nursing found that nearly 9% of the 2,745 adolescent study participants had received a prescription for anxiety or sleep medications during their lifetime.

"I recognise the importance of these medications in treating anxiety and sleep problems," said the study's lead author Carol Boyd, Professor of Nursing. "However, the number of adolescents prescribed these medications and the number misusing them is disturbing for several reasons."

She warned of the dangers of the drugs when mixed with illicit narcotics and alcohol, using actor Heath Ledger as a cautionary tale.

"What happened to Heath Ledger could happen to any teen who is misusing these medications," Boyd said.

The study included students from five Detroit-area schools grouped into three categories: those never prescribed anxiety or sleep medications; those prescribed those medications within the three-year study period; and those previously prescribed those medications but not during the study period.

White students were twice as likely as black students to use other people's medications, and females older than 15 and teens who had prescriptions for longer periods of time were more likely to abuse them, the study found.

It's the first longitudinal study to determine whether teens' recent medical use of anxiety or sleep medications is associated with later taking somebody else's prescription medication illegally, either for self-treatment or recreational use.

Supercomputer simulates the magnetic field loops on the Sun

A visualisation of the magnetic field loops in a portion of the Sun, with colours representing magnetic field strength from weak (blue) to strong (red) [Credit: Robert Stein, Michigan State University; Timothy Sandstrom, NASA/Ames]

A visualisation of the magnetic field loops in a portion of the Sun, with colours representing magnetic field strength from weak (blue) to strong (red) [Credit: Robert Stein, Michigan State University; Timothy Sandstrom, NASA/Ames]

Researchers at NASA and its university partners have come up with a simulation of how magnetic fields may emerge from beneath the surface of the Sun, heat its outer atmosphere and produce sunspots and flares.

The magnetic fields influence the solar wind — the stream of particles that blows continuously from the Sun’s atmosphere through the solar system.

But how they actually behave has remained elusive. Now researchers are using high-fidelity computer simulations better to understand them. 

The above visualisation shows magnetic field loops in a portion of the Sun, with colours representing magnetic field strength from weak (blue) to strong (red). The simulation was run on the Pleiades supercomputer at the NASA Advanced Supercomputing facility at NASA's Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California. 

Robot submarine shows Antarctic sea ice thicker than believed

The AUV SeaBED robot under the Antarctic sea ice. [Credit: WHOI]  

The AUV SeaBED robot under the Antarctic sea ice. [Credit: WHOI]


Scientists have been able to take accurate measurements of the thickness of Antarctic sea ice for the first time, using an underwater robot to map it in high resolution and 3D.

The work is a breakthrough in understanding the changing ice patterns in the light of climate change.

Initial findings show the ice is much thicker than previously thought and ranges from 1.4 to 5.5 metres up to 16 metres.

The ice was also "deformed", where slabs had crashed together, forging new thicker formations.

"We also find that, on average, 76% of the ice volume is deformed ice," the study, published in Nature Geoscience, said. "Our surveys indicate that the floes are much thicker and more deformed than reported by most drilling and ship-based measurements of Antarctic sea ice."

The scientists used the Autonomous Underwater Vehicle (AUV) known as SeaBED, which was fitted with a unique upward-looking sonar that could measure and map the underside of sea ice floes. It operated at a depth of 20 to 30 metres and was driven in a lawnmower pattern. These lines of data were merged to form high-resolution 3D bathymetric surveys of the underside of the ice.

The yellow SeaBED robot, which is approximately two meters long and weighs nearly 200 kilograms, has a twin-hull design that gives the robot enhanced stability for low-speed photographic surveys.

The SeaBED AUV being deployed in the Antarctic. [Credit: Hanu Singh, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution]

The SeaBED AUV being deployed in the Antarctic. [Credit: Hanu Singh, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution]

"Putting an AUV together to map the underside of sea ice is challenging from a software, navigation and acoustic communications standpoint," says Hanumant Singh, an engineering scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) whose lab designed, built and operated the AUV.

"SeaBED's manoeuvrability and stability made it ideal for this application where we were doing detailed floe-scale mapping and deploying, as well as recovering in close-packed ice conditions. It would have been tough to do many of the missions we did, especially under the conditions we encountered, with some of the larger vehicles."

Co-author Dr Guy Williams from Institute of Antarctic and Marine Science said the imaging "provides a richness of new information about the structure of sea ice and the processes that created it. This is key to advancing our models particularly in showing the differences between Arctic and Antarctic sea ice".

Europa as you have never seen it before

NASA has a reprocessed a stunning image of the frozen surface of Jupiter’s icy moon Europa, previously only seen as a low-resolution mosaic. 

The image was taken by the Galileo spacecraft in the late 1990s. 

NASA assembled all the mosaic of images into a colour view of the surface that approximates how Europa would appear to the human eye.

The scene shows the stunning diversity of Europa’s surface geology. Long, linear cracks and ridges crisscross the surface, interrupted by regions of disrupted terrain where the surface ice crust has been broken up and re-frozen into new patterns.
Colour variations across the surface are associated with differences in geologic feature type and location.
For example, areas that appear blue or white contain relatively pure water ice, while reddish and brownish areas include non-ice components in higher concentrations.
The polar regions, visible at the left and right of this view, are noticeably bluer than the more equatorial latitudes, which look more white. This colour variation is thought to be due to differences in ice grain size in the two locations.  Images taken through near-infrared, green and violet filters have been combined to produce this view. 


How to make robots more like humans

Julienne Greer wants to help engineers design more authentically human robots.

Julienne Greer wants to help engineers design more authentically human robots.

Actor, producer and director Julienne Greer is  helping engineers build more emotionally responsive robots.

Greer is a theatre arts lecturer at the University of Arlington, Texas. "I truly believe (robots) will one day be a part of our normal, day-to-day lives," she says. "With that in mind, don't we want the people who design this technology to also consider how human beings express feelings and interact with one another?"

Robo, a robot who can play the trumpet and walk, designed by Toyota. 

Robo, a robot who can play the trumpet and walk, designed by Toyota. 

Greer, who is a trained method actor, has led scientists and engineers through simple method exercises - such as drinking a beverage - to enhance their sensory awareness. Such exercises "opens the imagination to the cognitive work our senses do all day, every day, to connect us to our world," Greer says. 

Part of her work involves categorising behaviours and gestures and understanding how these gestures create emotions in humans. Robot engineers may be able to apply these principles when programming robots.

Greer is also developing a data-capturing test to find out how humans respond to robots in a variety of circumstances.

"Performance, connection and authenticity are the gold standard that should be hoped for in the creation of the relationship between humans and robots," she says.

Movie adds insult to injury in the Turing story

Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing in the Imitation Game.

Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing in the Imitation Game.

Some disturbing news is emerging about the upcoming film The Imitation Game, about the life of the brilliant mathematician, cryptanalyst and pioneering computer scientist, Alan Turing.

Despite his brilliant performance at Bletchley Park, Britain's code-breaking HQ – Winston Churchill said that Turing made the single biggest contribution to Allied victory – was later treated appallingly by the British establishment.

He was prosecuted in 1952 for then-illegal homosexual acts and accepted chemical castration as an alternative to prison. Two years later, and two weeks before his 42nd birthday, he was found dead from cyanide poisoning. 

It has long been thought he committed suicide, although recently some doubts have been raised about that.

Whatever the truth, it is unarguable that his treatment at the hands of the authorities was disgusting. 

So much so, that even the British Government recognised it as such. In 2009, following a long campaign, then-prime minister Gordon Brown made an official public apology for "the appalling way he was treated" and Turing was posthumously pardoned the following year.

Now, a film about his life, The Imitation Game, has apparently decided that this patriotic, brilliant man didn't suffer enough, and has decided to brand him a traitor.

According to The Guardian, the movie insinuates that he agreed not to unmask a Soviet spy in order to keep his sexuality a secret. Guardian reviewer Alex von Tunzelmann writes:

The Imitation Game puts John Cairncross, a Soviet spy and possible “Fifth Man” of the Cambridge spy ring, on Turing’s cryptography team. Cairncross was at Bletchley Park, but he was in a different unit from Turing. As Turing’s biographer Andrew Hodges, on whose book this film is based, has said, it is “ludicrous” to imagine that two people working separately at Bletchley would even have met. Security was far too tight to allow it. In his own autobiography, Cairncross wrote: “The rigid separation of the different units made contact with other staff members almost impossible, so I never got to know anyone apart from my direct operational colleagues.” In the film, Turing works out that Cairncross is a spy; but Cairncross threatens to expose his sexuality. “If you tell him my secret, I’ll tell him yours,” he says.

In fact, according to Von Tunzelmann, the rest of the film is littered with historical inaccuracies and silliness, even if not as defamatory as the claim that Turing was a traitor.

Historically, The Imitation Game is as much of a garbled mess as a heap of unbroken code. For its appalling suggestion that Alan Turing might have covered up for a Soviet spy, it must be sent straight to the bottom of the class.