Food for Thought: Weekly Wrap-Up

Neurobiologist Jörn Niessing in Der Spiegel explains how the human nose is able to differentiate between thousands of different odors. The trick is done by generalization and subsequent separation of the information obtained by the different elements of the olfactory system. Latest insights into the olfactory systems of zebrafish also explain why certain odors smell differently in different concentrations.

Claudia Füßler in Die ZEIT reports about humans contracting malaria in Southeast Asia by infections with Plasmodium knowlesi, a parasite usually infecting egret monkeys (Macaca fascicularis). P. knowlesi is the most rapidly proliferating malaria parasite, doubling its numbers in infected humans every 24 hours. In addition, it can be easily mistaken for P. malaria under the microscope. As a result, prophylaxis is highly recommended when visiting these regions.

Die ZEIT also reports on figures by the WHO demonstrating that  each year about 25,000 people in the EU die from infections with bacteria resistant to antibiotics. The article cites WHO director general Margaret Chan as saying, a “post-antibiotic era” with people dying from common infections just as they did centuries ago is approaching fast. She attributes the spread of multi-resistant pathogens to trifling and unreasonably prescriptions of antibiotics which in addition are still sold as OTC medications in many European countries.

The Economist, too, is dealing with the problem and explains why big pharma has all but abandoned the development of novel antibiotics and why this is a promising ground for biotechnology firms.

Alex Knapp in Forbes introduces a technology beyond antibiotics to combat antibiotic-resistant bacteria and infectious diseases like Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, known as MRSA. IBM and Singapore’s Institute of Bioengineering and Nanotechnology are developing biodegradable nanoparticles that – once in the body – polymerize into structures able to attach to bacterial cell walls and membranes. The interaction is based on the specific electrostatic properties of bacterial cell walls which differ from human blood cells or infected tissue. Subsequently the polymers physically break through the walls and membranes and destroy the bacteria without harming the surrounding human tissue.

Matthew Herper, also in Forbes proclaims the definitive end of the blockbuster drug, and explains why this leads to rising health care costs. For Herper, the end of the blockbuster era will come in November when Lipitor, the last branded drug among the 15 most used medicines in the US, will go off patent.

Helen Coster, also in Forbes, introduces a US startup, D. Light, that sells low-price portable, rechargeable, solar-powered lights. The most advanced model provides up to 12 hours of light and also comes with a cell phone charger. The lights are sold in rural areas and urban slums in more than 30 Asian, South American, and African countries and enable inhabitants to extend their work day and provide kids with more time to study.

The New Scientist reports on the interesting observation in mice that symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease disappear if the mice are made to overexpress HSP70 heat shock protein which re-folds or disposes of proteins involved in the disease.