Food for Thought: Weekly Wrap-Up

In Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ), Manfred Lindinger reports on progress in designing intelligent materials. Physicists of Technical University Hamburg-Harburg succeeded in designing gold- and platinum-based materials that can be switched between hard and brittle or soft and elastic, just by applying different voltages. The trick is done by etching pores and channels into the material which subsequently are filled with perchloric acid.

Martina Lenzen-Schulte, also in FAZ, deals with the surprising finding that a screening test for ovarian cancer increases the number cases detected but at the same time does not improve survival. The test based on the CA-125 tumor marker was investigated in the PLCO longitudinal analysis comprising more than 75,000 women aged between 55 and 74 years, who were diagnosed as cancer-free at the beginning of the study. Half of them was tested once a year with the CA-125 test. While more women were diagnosed with ovarian cancer in the CA-125 test group, the outcome did not improve – in part, because the test did not detect the cancer early enough. Moreover, it resulted in a high number of false positives, and these patients were put at unnecessary risk of bleeding, infections, colon injuries and blood loss due to attempts to confirm the diagnosis via biopsies.

In Forbes, Matthew Herper features an interview with David Urdal, the now retiring CSO of Dendreon, who pioneered Provenge, the prostate cancer vaccine approved by the FDA last year as the first anti-cancer vaccine ever. Urdal in detail explains why the company did not specify overall survival as primary endpoint but choose to follow every patient for three years instead. While the FDA first ok’ed the approach and the FDA advisory committee recommended approval in 2007, the FDA did not approve it: in the committee, cell therapists were in favor of Provenge while the oncologists had doubts. The drug was approved only after another study, the famous IMPACT study, had been finished. Urdal maintains that this turned out to be very positive for Provenge: the study revealed new insights about progression in asymptomatic patients and demonstrated that the method to measure disease progression just by counting the time to the next progression event was inadequate. Urdal states that the FDA may have been right to reject Provenge in the first place: “I think if you follow the sentiments within the clinical community I think there was a sense of, okay, if it’s approved I’d probably prescribe it, but geez, it’s a small study, overall survival wasn’t the primary endpoint, there wasn’t a sense of enthusiasm for it, and I think in the end of course the IMPACT study results came back and this completely vindicated the results from the earlier trials.”

William Pentland, also in Forbes, introduces a new battery architecture invented by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology MIT. The semi-solid flow cell basically runs on “sludge”, combining the structure of so-called flow batteries, where the electrolytes are replaced from outside once they are consumed with the favorable energy potential of lithium-ion batteries. Pentland says the new design may have the potential of a game-changer, in particular in combination with electric cars and smart grids.

Todd Woody, also in Forbes, describes buildings that clean up after itself via panels coated with titanium dioxide particles that serve as photocatalysts. Once illuminated by the sun, the particles start destroying dirt on the panel’s surface and, as a side effect, can also clear the surrounding air from nitrogen oxide. The company selling the panels claims they can cut a building’s maintenance costs by a third to half.

The Economist this week makes a case for using personalized medicine approaches in clinical trials earlier. In most cases, the Economist writes, oncologists “base their treatment on where in the body a tumour has sprung up, rather than on which molecular aberrations have caused it”, adding that the same is true for recruiting volunteers for clinical trials, in particular Phase I.

Drawing conclusions from this year’s ASCO (American Society of Clinical Oncology) meeting, the Economist argues it may be much better to match the genetic profiles of patients to the drug being tested, rather than looking for the organs affected. The magazine introduces a study  by Apostolia-Maria Tsimberidou of the University of Texas’s MD Anderson Cancer Centre, in which the author selected volunteers with late-stage cancer across various organs whose tumors were caused by a single, known mutation. 175 volunteers were administered a targeted therapy in a low-dose, Phase I setting while 116 received traditional therapy. In the targeted therapy group, 29% responded, while in the untargeted therapy group there were only 5% responders.

Mark Brown in Wired reports on Harvard University researchers who created the first living laser, a human embryonic kidney cell that was genetically engineered to produce a visible laser beam. The cell producing green fluorescent protein was put between two mirrors and when the team ran pulses of blue light through the cell, it began to emit green light. When bouncing between the mirrors, certain wavelengths were preferentially amplified until a visible laser beam was created for a few nanoseconds. The cell was left unharmed. At present, researchers foresee applications in cell biology research.

Last not least, Herbert Renz-Polster in Der Spiegel this week answers crucial questions on why  kids like jelly babies buth not salad and Brussels sprouts and how they can be made to eat healthy. The answer: it’s the evolution stupid! It is more advisable to eat fat in order to survive the next famine, to eat hastily (who knows when the next rival appears) and it is also wise to avoid eating the unknown (maybe it’s poison). The simple advice: be patient, keep offering the healthy stuff and play while having a meal. That way, kids even learn to like seal fat, whale blubber and roasted locusts.