Clinical trials are better, faster, cheaper with big data

Clinical trials have never been more in the public eye than in the past year, as the world watched the development of vaccines against covid-19, the disease at the center of the 2020 coronavirus pandemic. Discussions of study phases, efficacy, and side effects dominated the news. The most distinctive feature of the vaccine trials was their speed. Because the vaccines are meant for universal distribution, the study population is, basically, everyone. That unique feature means that recruiting enough people for the trials has not been the obstacle that it commonly is.

“One of the most difficult parts of my job is enrolling patients into studies,” says Nicholas Borys, chief medical officer for Lawrenceville, N.J., biotechnology company Celsion, which develops next-generation chemotherapy and immunotherapy agents for liver and ovarian cancers and certain types of brain tumors. Borys estimates that fewer than 10% of cancer patients are enrolled in clinical trials. “If … Read the rest

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The next Venus missions will tell us about habitable worlds elsewhere

When the DAVINCI+ and VERITAS missions to Venus were given the green light by NASA last week, the scientific community was stunned. Most had expected that NASA, which hadn’t launched a dedicated mission to Venus in 30 years, would be sending at least one mission to the second planet from the sun by the end of the decade. Two missions, however, blew everyone’s mind. 

Maybe NASA anticipated something we’re only just wrapping our heads around: DAVINCI+ and VERITAS will have a tremendous impact not just when it comes to Venus and solar system exploration, but also when it comes to our understanding of habitable, life-bearing worlds outside our solar system itself. 

As our exoplanet discoveries continue to pile up (and we’ve spotted over 11,000 possible exoplanets so far) we need to learn whether an Earth-sized planet is more likely to look like Earth, or more likely to look like Venus. “We don’t know … Read the rest

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The Brood X cicadas are here — and yes, there’s an app for that

A few weeks ago, Michelle Watson woke up to a deafening, steadily oscillating screech. “What the heck is that noise?” she wondered.

She went outside to her yard and saw hundreds of beady-eyed insects enrobed in a thick shell of gold emerging out of the ground and crawling up the trees. What Watson was seeing was the emergence of thousands of Brood X cicadas, part of a billions-strong insect swarm that has lain dormant for 17 years before arising to “scream,” mate— all over about three thunderous weeks.

Watson had spent the past 20 years in Las Vegas, but moved to the Blue Ridge Mountains in Georgia last year. She’d seen social media posts about the cicadas, which emerge once in a generation across a huge swath of the eastern United States, but figured they were just the usual summer bugs that she’d heard her entire life. “I thought, ‘What’s … Read the rest

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Which US vaccine plans actually helped hard-hit communities?

Long before the first covid-19 vaccines went into arms, certain groups in the US felt the impact of the pandemic more severely: those who whose jobs had to be done in person, who were suddenly labeled “essential”; those who were shut out from government assistance; and certain communities of color.

Officials promised that the vaccine drive would be different, and that equity would be a priority. So far about 63% of US adults have gotten at least one covid-19 shot, and President Joe Biden has set a goal of increasing that to 70% by July 4. But many people in hard-hit communities still haven’t received effective communication about vaccines, and they may continue to face practical barriers to getting shots. As a result, their communities are still more severely affected. In Washington, DC, for example, the racial gap in covid-19 cases has grown rather than shrunk since vaccines became widely … Read the rest

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AI still sucks at moderating hate speech

For all of the recent advances in language AI technology, it still struggles with one of the most basic applications. In a new study, scientists tested four of the best AI systems for detecting hate speech and found that all of them struggled in different ways to distinguish toxic and innocuous sentences.

The results are not surprising—creating AI that understands the nuances of natural language is hard. But the way the researchers diagnosed the problem is important. They developed 29 different tests targeting different aspects of hate speech to more precisely pinpoint exactly where each system fails. This makes it easier to understand how to overcome a system’s weaknesses and is already helping one commercial service improve its AI.

The study authors, led by scientists from the University of Oxford and the Alan Turing Institute, interviewed employees across 16 nonprofits who work on online hate. The team used these interviews … Read the rest

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China’s Tiananmen anniversary crackdowns reach far beyond the firewall

The 24-hour vigil started just after 8 a.m. US Eastern Time on June 3—more or less on schedule, and without any major disruptions.

The event, hosted on Zoom and broadcast live on other platforms such as YouTube, was put together by Chinese activists to commemorate the Tiananmen Square Massacre, Beijing’s bloody clampdown on a student-led pro-democracy movement that took place on June 4, 1989.

The fact that it could take place wasn’t certain: organizers were worried that they’d see a repeat of last year, when Zoom, the Californian videoconferencing company, shut down three Tiananmen-related events including theirs after a request from the Chinese government. The company even temporarily suspended the accounts of the coordinators, despite the fact that all of them were located outside of mainland China and four of them were in the US.

Zoom’s actions led to an investigation and lawsuit filed by the Department of Justice in … Read the rest

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Five questions posed by Facebook’s two-year ban on Donald Trump

On Friday, Facebook announced that it would suspend former president Donald Trump from the social network for two years, until at least January 7, 2023, and said he would “only be reinstated if conditions permit.”

The announcement comes in response to recommendations last month from Facebook’s recently created Oversight Board. Facebook had hoped that the board would decide how to handle Trump’s account, but while it upheld the company’s initial decision to ban Trump from the platform for inciting violence on January 6, it punted the long-term decision back to executives in Palo Alto.

The news that Trump would be banned from Facebook for another 19 months was meant to provide some answers on the platform’s relationship with the former president—but instead it leaves many open questions.

Who is this decision supposed to please?

Although the announcement provides some actual rules about how politicians can use Facebook—and some guidance on … Read the rest

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Why the ransomware crisis suddenly feels so relentless

Just weeks after a major American oil pipeline was struck by hackers, a cyberattack hit the world’s largest meat supplier. What next? Will these criminals target hospitals and schools? Will they start going after US cities, governments—and even the military?

In fact, all of these have been hit by ransomware already. While the onslaught we’ve seen in the last month feels new, hackers holding services hostage and demanding payments has been a huge business for years. Dozens of American cities have been disrupted by ransomware, while hospitals were hit by attacks even during the depths of the pandemic. And in 2019, the US military was targeted. But that doesn’t mean what we’re seeing now is just a matter of awareness. So what’s different now?

It’s the result of inaction

You cannot explain the metastasizing of the ransomware crisis without examining years of American inaction. The global ransomware crisis grew to … Read the rest

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NASA is ending its 30-year Venus drought with two new missions

The last time NASA launched a dedicated mission to Venus was in 1989. The Magellan orbiter spent four years studying Venus before it was allowed to crash into the planet’s surface. For almost 30 years, NASA has given Venus the cold shoulder. 

All of that is about to change with a double feature. NASA administrator Bill Nelson announced Wednesday that the agency has selected two new missions to explore Venus: DAVINCI+ and VERITAS. In the words of planetary scientist Paul Byrne of North Carolina State University, “We have gone from a drought to a banquet.”

It’s honestly a bit hard to understand why NASA has not been more bullish about going to back to Venus in such a long time. It’s true that Venus has always been a tough bugger to explore because of its hostile environment. The surface boasts temperatures of up to 471 °C (hot enough to melt … Read the rest

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All together now: the most trustworthy covid-19 model is an ensemble

Earlier this spring, a paper studying covid forecasting appeared on the medRxiv preprint server with an authors’ list running 256 names long.

At the end of the list was Nicholas Reich, a biostatistician and infectious-disease researcher at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. The paper reported results of a massive modeling project that Reich has co-led, with his colleague Evan Ray, since the early days of the pandemic. The project began with their attempts to compare various models online making short-term forecasts about covid-19 trajectories, looking one to four weeks ahead, for infection rates, hospitalizations, and deaths. All used varying data sources and methods and produced vastly divergent forecasts.

“I spent a few nights with forecasts on browsers on multiple screens, trying to make a simple comparison,” says Reich (who is also a puzzler and a juggler). “It was impossible.”

In an effort to standardize an analysis, in April 2020, Reich’s … Read the rest

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