Food for Thought: Weekly Wrap-up

Die Welt this week reports on attempts by researchers from the University of Heidelberg to grow a human heart as a replacement organ. As a matrix, they plan to use the collagen structure of a pig’s heart depleted by all its cells. The structure will be incubated in a bioreactor with the cells of the patient who needs a new heart.

How damaged arteries or wounded skin may be regenerated by a new method, which will be available soon, is described by Wendy Zukermann in New Scientist. The trick is done by turning tropoelastin, a precursor of elastin found in skin and blood vessels, into a flexible fabric by electrospinning. The technology will now be further explored with support by Australian biotech company Elastagen.

Novel insights into how tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC,  exerts its mind-altering and pain-relieving effects revealed that THC binds to different molecular targets on cells to produce the to effects. As Andy Cochlan describes in New Scientist, the pain-relieving effect is caused by THC binding to glycine-receptors, increasing their activity. The typical “high” in contrast is caused by THC binding to the cannabinoid type-1 receptor (CB1). As a result, it may now be possible to create new pain killers.

In the same magazine, Mark Buchanan features a computer model of neural networks supporting the idea that the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease are caused by excessive uncontrolled synchronization of neurons. This makes it more difficult for the brain to end a task or begin a new one. In healthy brains, neurons fire synchronously only in a brief and controlled way.

Gina Kolata in the New York Times features two new, large gene association studies on Alzheimer’s disease that led to the discovery of five novel genes involved in the disease, making onset more likely and/or influencing disease progression. The studies, which are to appear today in Nature Genetics, confirm already existing hypotheses that the onset of AD is linked to inflammatory processes in the brain as well as to blood cholesterol levels.

The Economist introduces a powerful new battery suitable for cars that can be recharged completely in minutes. It is based on Nickel and charging rates are ten to 100 times higher than that of marketed battery. However, the development is still at a very early stage.

Much more advanced is a revolutionary car battery developed by German DBM Energy. The lithium polymer based battery enabled an electrically powered Audi A2 last autumn to drive 600 km from Munich to Berlin without recharging and has now been meticulously tested by the Germany’s Federal Institute for Materials Research and Testing (BAM). Jürgen Rees in Wirtschaftswoche reports that  BAM found the battery to be safe and confirmed the extraordinary cruising range. In the BAM tests, the car drove more than 450 kilometers on a single charge. Media reports had cast doubt about the features and performance of the battery after the test car was destroyed by a fire shortly after the record drive last year.