Food for Thought: Weekly Wrap-Up

Die Welt this week reports on plans by BayerCropScience, a division of Bayer AG, to develop new, heat- and drought-resistant wheat varieties. To accomplish this goal, BayerCropScience will refrain from introducing novel genes into the wheat genome for fear of protests in Europe. However, the company is cooperating, among others, with Israel-based Evogene to also develop genetically engineered crops for other markets.

Michael Simm in Focus features the latest accomplishments of synthetic biology in which researchers control artificially introduced networks of genes in cells and tissue. As an example, scientists from the Department of Biosystems Science and Engineering (D-BSSE) in Basle, Switzerland, have inserted genes for hormone production into cells. By adding genetic control elements that can be switched on by irradiation with blue light these genes can be controlled from outside. As an example, the researchers in vitro introduced a genetic network for the production of insulin into human tissue which subsequently was micro encapsulated and transplanted to the skin of diabetic mice. After a meal, blue light is applied to switch on insulin production in order to normalize blood sugar levels. The model works well so that the researchers are thinking about clinical trials. Already, the use of light to switch on genes has led to the new scientific discipline of optogenetics which is exploring light-controlled genes and cells to treat diseases such as Parkinson’s or epilepsy. D-BSSE researchers also developed cells carrying a network of genes that is able to normalize uric acid levels in gout patients.

Siegfried Hofmann in Handelsblatt is introducing various therapeutic approaches of biopharmaceutical companies in a series entitled “future lab 2020.” Topics range from personalized medicine to stem cell therapies to novel immune therapies.

David Shaywitz in Forbes provides a thoughtful article explaining why Silicon Valley failed to make a dent in the healthcare space: “most tech-savvy entrepreneurs lack an in-depth appreciation for the complexity of medicine in general, and the nuances of the doctor-patient dynamic they are confidently trying to influence or replace.” He goes on to say that management of high-tech companies needs to understand the science: “When a science-driven business is led by leaders who don’t even know what they don’t know, and who actually believe that the crisp powerpoint slides that bubble up for their review actually and adequately represent the science involved – then you risk making some very ignorant decisions.”

The New Scientist this week features a story on how cancer cells can be poisoned with  2-deoxyglucose. The sugar dislodges a protein protecting a suicide switch which subsequently can be triggered by ABT-263 navitoclax, a molecule under development at Genentech. The magazine also reports on a call for proposals by DARPA, the US military’s research arm, to develop small interfering RNA (siRNA) to fight bacteria. DARPA is seeking ideas for adaptable nanoparticles that can be reprogrammed “on the fly” by loading up specific siRNA to deal with outbreaks among troops.

And finally, the Economist features people pioneering the backyard generation of fuel to power their diesel cars. The recipe starts with collecting used kitchen oil, which after some filtering is broken down into esters and glycerol by adding sodium hydroxide and methanol and heating. Glycerol is drained away and the remainder is washed with water to get rid of impurities. Removing residual water and moisture is done with an aquarium bubbler. The resulting biodiesel, the article states, can be used in diesel cars without any modification. Already, British company Oilybits is selling devices to produce 120 liter batches of biodiesel in a more professional way.