Food for Thought: Weekly Wrap-Up

First signs of future onset of Alzheimer’s disease (AD) can be found already at the age of 14, reports Volker Stollorz in Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung (FAS). Introducing findings by Heiko Braak and Kelly del Tredici from Ulm University, he also points out that AD seems to originate in the Nucleus coeruleus region of the brain stem from which the typical AD clots slowly spread alongside nerve tracts. Stollorz features plans to include members of families with hereditary forms of AD in future clinical trials to test preventive drugs and treatments. Researchers in Germany currently are planning to launch a website and to found a network modeled according to the US “Dominant Inherited Alzheimer Network” (DIAN). Stollorz and his colleague Thomas Liesen also are co-authors of a TV documentary which can be found here for four weeks from July 19, 2011.

Jutta Hoffritz in Die Zeit reports on novel anticoagulants, e.g. Pradaxa by Boehringer Ingelheim, which is already marketed in the US, and similar drugs developed by Bayer Schering, Pfizer and Daiichi Sankyo. The drugs are developed to replace marcumar which carries the risk of severe side effects and is difficult to dose. However, while the new drugs show better efficacy and promise better compliance, Hoffritz cites German medical doctors expressing skepticism because of unknown long term risks and the anticipated high pricing of the drug. Ulrich Schwabe, editor of Arzneiverordnungsreport, a publication known to be very critical about the pharma industry, is quoted with the calculation that treating all eligible patients in Germany with Pradaxa would amount EUR 4.9 billion per year. The calculation is based on the price of the current daily dosis as the drug is already marketed in Germany for the prevention of thrombosis prior to knee and hip replacement surgery.

Christian Heinrich also in Die Zeit features a trend among pharma companies to search for potential applications of their already approved drugs. As an example, he introduces the “Common Mechanism Research” department of Bayer Schering AG, which is systematically studying unusual effects of Bayer compounds to find clues for novel therapeutic applications. Well-known examples of dual use compounds are sildenafil, which was originally developed to treat circulatory disturbance of the heart (now a common drug to treat erectile dysfunction), and aspirin, which was known as a pain killer and only later developed as anti-coagulant.

Christina Hucklenbroich in Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ) reports on the suspicion that recently observed deaths of cattle in Germany may be caused by Clostridium botulinum bacteria. However, she points out the the jury is still out on whether there is a novel zoonosis called chronic botulism as presence of the toxin in minute amounts in the gut of affected animals is difficult to confirm. In addition, the source of the bacteria detected in some animals has not yet been identified.

Also in FAZ, Hildegard Kaulen reports on novel findings how smoking cigarettes suppresses appetite. Researchers from Yale University, she writes, found a hitherto neglected nicotine receptor in the brain, which influences the neuronal circuit involved in appetite regulation. Once nicotine binds to the receptor, the nerve cells start releasing the neurotransmitter POMC which in turn influences nerve cells regulating satiety feelings.

Nicholas Wade in The New York Times reports on efforts by scientists from Harvard Medical School to introduce hundreds of changes in the genome of E. coli bacteria simultaneously, an effort dubbed by a colleague as as “macho molecular biotechnology”. The alteration of 314 sites is just an intermediate step by George M. Church and Farren J. Isaacs to establish a method by which certain stretches of DNA could be changed just the way a word processor searches and replaces certain words in an entire document in one step. The researchers removed a particular stop codon (T-A-G, or “amber”) and replaced it by another (which works just as well). Now they are planning to also remove the gene recognizing the deleted stop codon and subsequently to reintroduce amber and reassign it a new function, e.g. to incorporate a novel amino acid into the bacterium’s proteins.

The Economist announces the world’s first  “World Cell Race” taking place in August. Cells sent in by various research institutions all over the world will compete against each other in the race to move towards a chemoattractant. The scientists thereby hope to identify genes involved in cell mobility which are known to be important drivers in cancer metastasis as well as wound healing and immune responses.

New Scientist recently featured a series of articles dealing with bacteria (“bugs that break all rules”): Caroline Williams introduces multicellular behavior of socializing bacteria, features bugs that hunt in packs, bacteria large enough to be visible with the naked eye and bacteria with backbones and cell compartments.

And finally, Cinthia Briseno in Der Spiegel reports on studies proving that the internet is changing the way we memorize and learn. The ability to rely on the internet seems to encourage people to make less mental notes of facts they are sure to find in the web with a few keystrokes.