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.

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.”