Tag: biofuel

Food for Thought: Weekly Wrap-Up

There is hope for hepatitis C patients, writes Nicola von Lutterotti in Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ). She reports on four studies looking into the efficacy of Boceprevir (by Merck & Co). and Telaprevir (by Vertex Pharmaceuticals), which received approval recently in the US. Both drugs inhibit the NS3 serine protease, an enzyme necessary for the multiplication of the virus. When used in addition to standard therapy the new medications improved response from 40% to 70% in previously untreated patients an from 25% to 88% in relapsing patients. Moreover, 33% of patients not or only poorly responding to standard treatment responded to the new combination.

Thomas Jüngling in Die Welt reports on “sollectors”, a revolutionary lighting system developed by Siemens subsidiary Osram. The devices affixed at the outside of buildings bundle sunlight by a lens system and route it through fiber optic polymers directly into the interior of the building. If sunlight is not sufficient, the system adds light from LEDs which can be modulated to provide a greater portion of red in the morning and evening and more blue during the day. Jüngling also introduces other systems to direct sunlight into buildings developed by Interferenz Daylight from Bingen, Germany, and Swiss Heliobus.

Die Welt also reports on the identification of one of the key genes involved in anxiety. The gene spotted by a team of scientists from the German universities of Münster (Universitätsklinikum UKM), Hamburg and Würzburg encodes for the neuropeptide S receptor. If the gene is switched off, mice become very anxious. If the scientists administered neuropeptide S, the animals lost anxiety. The researchers are now looking for mutations of the gene in families with members treated for phobias, panic attacks and other anxiety disorders.

Daniel Lingenhöhl in Handelsblatt reports on the discovery of a microbe expressing a cellulase enzyme able to catalyze breakdown of cellulose even at 109°C. The enzyme variant codenamed EBI-244 may be useful for the industrial-scale production of biofuel.

Michael Odenwald in Focus reports on biofuel produced from algae in a pilot plant of Bio Fuel Systems in Spain. The company is cultivating sea algae, which are fed with CO2 from flue gas of a cement plant and produce oil (“blue petroleum”). According to the article, the daily average output is 5 barrels of 159 liters each per hectare which amounts to more than 290,000 liter of algal oil per hectare and year. The output can be used to produce benzine, diesel, kerosine, and plastics.

Is the global clean energy industry set for a major crash? Devon Swezey in Forbes thinks it is – for a simple reason: clean energy, he writes, is still much more expensive and much less reliable than fossil, and subsidies to make clean energy artificially cheaper will have to be cut down dramatically by the governments because of budget problems.

The Economist introduces zoobotics, a new field creating animal-like robots that climb, crawl, swim and even fly like their natural counterparts. The field is getting more and more sophisticated,  thanks to recent advantages in electronics, miniaturization, new materials and zoology. It is hoped that these artificial animals will be able to perform tasks in dangerous environments.

In Wired, Maryn McKenna gives a stunning account of Germany’s EHEC epidemic that now has been traced back to originate from a single shipment of fenugreek seeds that left the Egyptian port of Damietta on November 24, 2009. As this shipment was 15,000 kg and has been broken up to distributers across Europe, which in turn also split it into multiple lots, McKenna forecasts that the the epidemic will be far from over – even if it turns out that the Egyptian source of the outbreak had a one-time, and not an ongoing contamination problem.

Andy Coghlan in New Scientist this week features a breakthrough achieved at Sweden’s Karolinska University Hospital where surgeons successfully transplanted the world’s first synthetic windpipe into a cancer patient whose own windpipe had to be removed. The transplant is made from novel polymeric nanocomposite material developed at the University College London which has millions of tiny holes so that living cells can grow in it. The windpipe was coated prior to the operation with mesenchymal stem cells derived from the patient’s bone marrow. The operation may mark the beginning of a new era of “off-the-shelf” organs for transplantation, Coghlan writes.

And finally, Der Spiegel reports on recent findings that the taste of fatty food triggers the production of endocannabinoids in the gut. As a result, it triggers ravenous appetite for this food. The reason: fat is a rare, but necessary food source in nature, so consuming fat has been decisive for survival. Scientist now hope to discover a way of blocking the specific endocannabinoid receptors in the gut as a means to block adephagia.

Food for Thought: Weekly Wrap-Up

Joachim Müller-Jung in Frankfurter Allgemeines Zeitung (FAZ) this week deals with the ethic implications of non-invasive prenatal diagnosis, describing that a huge number of tests based on fetal DNA entering the mother’s blood stream is ready to enter the market. His recommendation is to start an immediate discussion about which tests should be applied and which ones should not.

Ulrich Bahnsen in Die ZEIT interviews Norbert Donner-Banzhoff, Professor at the University of Marburg’s Department of General Practice, Preventive and Rehabilitative Medicine. Donner-Banzhoff conducted a study published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal CMAJ investigating the influence of pharmaceutical advertising on the drug recommendations made in articles in 11 German journals that focus on medical education. Donner-Banzhoff and his team come to the conclusion that journals financed by advertisement from the pharma industry and given away for free almost exclusively recommended the use of specified drugs, whereas journals financed entirely with subscription fees tended to recommend against the use of the same drugs. In the interview, Donner-Banzhoff suggests that a lot of articles published in the free journals have been written by ghost writers and/or members of the pharmaceutical industry.

Matthew Herper in Forbes this week deals with the latest setback in developing drugs to treat Alzheimer’s Disease (AD). He features the failure of Eli Lilly’s semagacest in a Phase III trial in more than 2,600 patients with mild-to-moderate AD. According to an interim analysis, patients receiving the drug, a gamma secretase blocker, worsened to a statistically significant greater degree than those treated with placebo. In addition, the drug was associated with an increased risk of skin cancer. Herper concludes that there is something fundamentally wrong with current hypotheses on the onset of AD and that the failure of the drug may set AD drug development back by many years (see also akampioneer’s recent comment on Probiodrug’s AD hypothesis).

While William Pentland, also in Forbes, reports a potential biofuel breakthrough in producing isobutanol directly from cellulose by using a microbe thriving in decaying grass, Josh Wolfe, co-founder and managing partner of Lux Capital Management, in Forbes states it is time to realize that investing in biofuels may be foolish. He states that while it is hyped as biotech 2.0, there is in fact a fundamental difference to biotech 1.0 which is often overlooked. While biotech 1.0 drugs and molecules can be protected by IP, biofuels cannot. In addition, the marginal cost of producing IP-protected molecules is really low once you did the discovery and first synthesis work (as compared to your margins) – so you can make big profits. Biofuel molecules however have to compete from the onset with the generic fuels already on the market. Biofuel is a commodity, he states, and instead of going back to an agrarian-based economy we should focus on materials and processing based on high energy density, such as uranium.

Donald G. McNeil jr in The New York Times reports on a panel of independent experts from 24 countries that reviewed the handling of the swine flu by the World Health Organization (WHO) in 2009. The draft report – “posted in an obscure corner of the W.H.O.’s Web site” – criticizes the WHO’s “needlessly complex” definition of a pandemic, its inability to deploy 78 million doses donated by rich nations for use in poor ones and its “clumsy communications”.

Colin Barras in New Scientist writes about the origin of cancer and features recent contributions by astrobiologists. While many researchers think that cancer is triggered by a malfunction of the genes trying to control replication which needs to be limited in multicellular organisms, some astrobiologists think a tumor is switching back to some forms of basic cellular cooperation found in the earliest ancestors of multicellular organisms. The distinction is far from being academic: if cancer is some sort of “living fossil” revived it would have only a limited set of survival strategies. In contrast, contemporary medicine regards a tumor as independently evolving cells with nearly unlimited evolutionary potential to escape treatment strategies. The hypothesis explains the co-ordinated survival strategies of cancer, such as angiogenesis and metastasis, and will be further tested soon by genetic profiling.