Food for Thought: Weekly Wrap-Up

In Germany, science pages were dominated by Japan’s nuclear disaster. Apart from topics such as radioactivity as a threat to human health and the environment, Christiane Hucklenbroich in Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ) deals with an upcoming new definition of autism. Instead of seeing autism as a defined disease category, physicians have come to the conclusion that one should rather use the term “autism spectrum”, comprising several aspects of autism. The medical community also has started focusing on co-morbidity aspects as well as autism-like symptoms in other psychiatric diseases.

Susanne Kutter in Wirtschaftswoche summarizes latest advances in stem cell medicine. Among others, she features a clinical trial conducted at the University of Rostock in which the heart muscle of patients suffering from an infarction is injected with adult stem cells to initiate regeneration of muscle. The trial includes more than 150 patients and will be finished end of 2012. A method already successful has been established in India, where more than 700 people with blindness caused by Vitamin A deficiency regained eyesight after injection of stem cells into the cornea.

Roni Caryn Rabin in The New York Times reports on a Lancet study that pooled data from 58 studies involving more than 220,000 people with a mean age of 58 to find out whether the idea that obese people with an apple shape (carrying the overweight predominantly in the belly) are more at risk for heart disease than overweight people with a pear shape. The answer is: they are not. Overweight matters, but shape does not.

Ferris Jabr in New Scientist introduces a small implantable device developed by researchers from the  Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) that can track tumor growth in the body of cancer patients. The device contains magnetic nanoparticles covered with monoclonal antibodies able to bind cancer-related molecules, e.g. human chorionic gonadotrophin (hCG), a hormone released by testicular and ovarian cancers. The first generation had read-out by MRI scans that detect formation of clusters within the device due to binding of the molecules. However, the researchers now improved detection so that readout can now be done by a hand-held device. The principle can also be adapted to monitor other changes in the body, e.g. silent heart attacks.

For blood transfusion, medical doctors need to carefully choose the right blood group from 29 possible combinations of the AB0, Rhesus, the MNS and other systems. This challenge sometimes needs to complications and logistic problems. The Economist reports on a successful approach by researchers from the University of Montreal to disguise the antigenic proteins from red blood cells. The trick is done by first dressing the fatty surface membrane of the cells and then attaching another cover so that the immune system does not pay attention to the cells. The cover is fully permeable by oxygen and carbon dioxide.

David Whelan in Forbes calls for a psychological study of people investing in biotech stocks, in particular those writing rude comments on articles featuring the ups and downs of stocks. He claims the phenomenon is only seen with articles on biotech stocks.

And finally, David M. Ewalt in Forbes reports about errors in Craig Venter’s first synthetic life form in which Venter inserted DNA composed on a computer. The DNA included quotes from James Joyce and Richard Feynman, however Craig used the Joyce quote without written permission from Joyce’s estate and misquoted Feynman by obtaining the quote from the internet. Craig said he was now going back to the organism to correct the error.