Food for Thought: Weekly Wrap-Up

Hildegard Kaulen in Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ) reports from the 61st Lindau Meeting of Nobel Laureates on the need for novel antibiotics. She features the talk of Thomas A. Steitz from Yale University on ribosomes and novel antibiotics. Steitz in 2009 received the chemistry nobel prize for the structure determination of ribosomes together with Ada Yonath and Venkatraman Ramakrishnan. This discovery has led to novel insights on antibiotics binding to these cellular organelles – an important prerequisite for the design of novel antibiotics as bacterial ribosomes still are the most important targets for antibiotics. Among others, the scientists learned that the larger the contact area of ribosomes and an antibiotic, the more mutations are necessary to evade the binding and anti-microbial activity of the compound. Steitz therefore recommends linking antibiotics. He also co-founded a company, Rib-X Pharmaceuticals, which is designing novel antibiotics by structure-based design. Its most advanced compound successfully completed a Phase II study this year.

Richard Friebe, also in FAZ, reports on a breakthrough in synthetic biology accomplished by a team of German, French and Dutch scientists and published in Angewandte Chemie. Other than Craig Venter, who rebuilt an organism by chemically synthesizing its DNA, the group designed a partially artificial organism. Using automated selection, the researchers transformed an E. coli strain unable to synthesize thymine nucleotides into an organism incorporating the artificial thymine analogue 5-chlorouracil instead of thymine into its entire DNA. The goal of the project was to demonstrate that it is possible to develop a generic technology for evolving the chemical constitution of microbial populations by using the simplest possible algorithms. Members of the team recently co-founded Heurisko USA Inc.

Die Welt reports on novel insights into the medical role of Helicobacter pylori, a bacterium living in the human stomach and known for its ability to cause gastritis, gastric ulcer and stomach cancer. Christian Taube from the University of Mainz and colleagues from Zurich University recently published findings that early infections with Helicobacter can protect against allergic asthma. In newborn mice, an early infection impaired maturation of dendritic cells in the lung and increased enrichment of regulatory T cells responsible for oppressing asthma. Resistance is lost once Helicobacter is eradicated with antibiotics. The researchers therefore think that the increase of allergic asthma may be caused by today’s widespread use of antibiotics.

Type 2 diabetes can be cured by a strict diet, reports Christina Berndt in Süddeutsche Zeitung (SZ). In a UK study comprising 11 type 2 diabetics, in 7 of the patients insulin production normalized and the liver started to respond to the hormone properly after they were put on a strict 600 kcal diet for 8 weeks. The cure even worked in patients suffering from diabetes for 4 years and the effects were lasting, provided the patients did not overeat subsequently.

William Pentland in Forbes writes that the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is a driving force behind a new effort to harness biology as a manufacturing platform. The “Living Foundries” program is designed to fund projects that enable on-demand manufacturing capabilities for the production of advanced materials and devices. “Key to success,” DARPA writes, “will be the democratization of the biological design and manufacturing process, breaking open the field to those outside the biological sciences.” As examples, DARPA mentions next-generation DNA synthesis and assembly technologies, modular genetic parts and systems, and cell-based fabrication systems.

In a Forbes interview conducted by Alex Howard,  Charlie Quinn, director of data integration technology at the Benaroya Research Institute, talks about the necessity of new tools and strategies to cope with today’s data deluge. Quinn, who is dealing with genomics, maintains that it is not only about novel technologies but also about cultural changes to create greater value by sharing data and establishing open source and even open data projects, sharing data much earlier than it is done now. Thereby, novel ideas can be spread earlier. “What we’ve been doing is going around and trying to convince people that we understand they have to keep data private up to a certain point, but let’s try and release as much data as we can as early as we can.”