Food for Thought: Weekly Wrap-Up

Clemens Gleich in Die Welt reports on the development of super batteries able to power a smart phone or notebook for days without re-charging. While some researchers try to improve conventional lithium-ion batteries by modifying the carbon-based anode with silicon, others design lithium-oxygen or fluorine-oxygen batteries. Main challenges are safety, prevention of swelling and maintaining a high capacity.

Britta Verlinden in Die Zeit reports on the discovery that dimethyl fumarate, a standard drug used for the treatment of psoriasis since 1994, may also be used as a pill to treat multiple sclerosis. Preliminary results of a Phase III trial demonstrate its ability to significantly reduce the number of attacks. The drug candidate codenamed BG-12 is being developed by Biogen Idec. The paper raises the concern that BG-12 may be sold as MS medication at €15,000 a year – while based on the price of the same compound for psoriasis, costs would amount to €4,400 per year, which already “is clearly more costly than what might be expected based on the cheap basic material”.

The Economist this week features the discovery of Oxford University scientists that a small marine organism produces a water-resistant, flexible material which has the adhesive characteristics of barnacle glue and the structural properties of spider-silk fibres. Already, spider silk is being used for novel materials. A salt water tolerant silk might open up medical uses for silk where it would come in contact with salty body liquids. The paper also looks into the prospects of stem cell therapies. While Geron’s pulling out of the stem cell business is viewed as bad news for the field, the paper highlights good news coming from a Lancet paper describing how stem cells can be used to repair hearts. The injection of autologous heart stem cells into damaged heart muscles of patients which underwent coronary bypass surgery led to “remarkable” results, improving pumping volume and other parameters.

Linda Geddes in The New Scientist raises hopes that partial wave spectroscopic (PWS) microscopy some day may be used to screen the general population for diseases like cancer, Alzheimer’s Disease or autoimmune diseases. PWS microscopy can detect changes in the chromatin density of cells, and researchers already have shown that cancer patients even in apparently healthy cells have unusual chromatin densities not seen in cancer-free people.

Finally, Alex Knapp in Forbes proclaims the end is in sight: we may be approaching the day where coffee is both rare and expensive. For one, the demand is growing all over the world at an enormous rate, and second, at the same time yields are diminishing because of pests, climate changes and political instabilities. So enjoy your coffee while it lasts!