Food for Thought: Weekly Wrap-Up

Joachim Müller-Jung in Frankfurter Allgemeines Zeitung (FAZ) this week deals with the ethic implications of non-invasive prenatal diagnosis, describing that a huge number of tests based on fetal DNA entering the mother’s blood stream is ready to enter the market. His recommendation is to start an immediate discussion about which tests should be applied and which ones should not.

Ulrich Bahnsen in Die ZEIT interviews Norbert Donner-Banzhoff, Professor at the University of Marburg’s Department of General Practice, Preventive and Rehabilitative Medicine. Donner-Banzhoff conducted a study published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal CMAJ investigating the influence of pharmaceutical advertising on the drug recommendations made in articles in 11 German journals that focus on medical education. Donner-Banzhoff and his team come to the conclusion that journals financed by advertisement from the pharma industry and given away for free almost exclusively recommended the use of specified drugs, whereas journals financed entirely with subscription fees tended to recommend against the use of the same drugs. In the interview, Donner-Banzhoff suggests that a lot of articles published in the free journals have been written by ghost writers and/or members of the pharmaceutical industry.

Matthew Herper in Forbes this week deals with the latest setback in developing drugs to treat Alzheimer’s Disease (AD). He features the failure of Eli Lilly’s semagacest in a Phase III trial in more than 2,600 patients with mild-to-moderate AD. According to an interim analysis, patients receiving the drug, a gamma secretase blocker, worsened to a statistically significant greater degree than those treated with placebo. In addition, the drug was associated with an increased risk of skin cancer. Herper concludes that there is something fundamentally wrong with current hypotheses on the onset of AD and that the failure of the drug may set AD drug development back by many years (see also akampioneer’s recent comment on Probiodrug’s AD hypothesis).

While William Pentland, also in Forbes, reports a potential biofuel breakthrough in producing isobutanol directly from cellulose by using a microbe thriving in decaying grass, Josh Wolfe, co-founder and managing partner of Lux Capital Management, in Forbes states it is time to realize that investing in biofuels may be foolish. He states that while it is hyped as biotech 2.0, there is in fact a fundamental difference to biotech 1.0 which is often overlooked. While biotech 1.0 drugs and molecules can be protected by IP, biofuels cannot. In addition, the marginal cost of producing IP-protected molecules is really low once you did the discovery and first synthesis work (as compared to your margins) – so you can make big profits. Biofuel molecules however have to compete from the onset with the generic fuels already on the market. Biofuel is a commodity, he states, and instead of going back to an agrarian-based economy we should focus on materials and processing based on high energy density, such as uranium.

Donald G. McNeil jr in The New York Times reports on a panel of independent experts from 24 countries that reviewed the handling of the swine flu by the World Health Organization (WHO) in 2009. The draft report – “posted in an obscure corner of the W.H.O.’s Web site” – criticizes the WHO’s “needlessly complex” definition of a pandemic, its inability to deploy 78 million doses donated by rich nations for use in poor ones and its “clumsy communications”.

Colin Barras in New Scientist writes about the origin of cancer and features recent contributions by astrobiologists. While many researchers think that cancer is triggered by a malfunction of the genes trying to control replication which needs to be limited in multicellular organisms, some astrobiologists think a tumor is switching back to some forms of basic cellular cooperation found in the earliest ancestors of multicellular organisms. The distinction is far from being academic: if cancer is some sort of “living fossil” revived it would have only a limited set of survival strategies. In contrast, contemporary medicine regards a tumor as independently evolving cells with nearly unlimited evolutionary potential to escape treatment strategies. The hypothesis explains the co-ordinated survival strategies of cancer, such as angiogenesis and metastasis, and will be further tested soon by genetic profiling.