Tag: Der Spiegel

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.

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

In Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ), Manfred Lindinger reports on progress in designing intelligent materials. Physicists of Technical University Hamburg-Harburg succeeded in designing gold- and platinum-based materials that can be switched between hard and brittle or soft and elastic, just by applying different voltages. The trick is done by etching pores and channels into the material which subsequently are filled with perchloric acid.

Martina Lenzen-Schulte, also in FAZ, deals with the surprising finding that a screening test for ovarian cancer increases the number cases detected but at the same time does not improve survival. The test based on the CA-125 tumor marker was investigated in the PLCO longitudinal analysis comprising more than 75,000 women aged between 55 and 74 years, who were diagnosed as cancer-free at the beginning of the study. Half of them was tested once a year with the CA-125 test. While more women were diagnosed with ovarian cancer in the CA-125 test group, the outcome did not improve – in part, because the test did not detect the cancer early enough. Moreover, it resulted in a high number of false positives, and these patients were put at unnecessary risk of bleeding, infections, colon injuries and blood loss due to attempts to confirm the diagnosis via biopsies.

In Forbes, Matthew Herper features an interview with David Urdal, the now retiring CSO of Dendreon, who pioneered Provenge, the prostate cancer vaccine approved by the FDA last year as the first anti-cancer vaccine ever. Urdal in detail explains why the company did not specify overall survival as primary endpoint but choose to follow every patient for three years instead. While the FDA first ok’ed the approach and the FDA advisory committee recommended approval in 2007, the FDA did not approve it: in the committee, cell therapists were in favor of Provenge while the oncologists had doubts. The drug was approved only after another study, the famous IMPACT study, had been finished. Urdal maintains that this turned out to be very positive for Provenge: the study revealed new insights about progression in asymptomatic patients and demonstrated that the method to measure disease progression just by counting the time to the next progression event was inadequate. Urdal states that the FDA may have been right to reject Provenge in the first place: “I think if you follow the sentiments within the clinical community I think there was a sense of, okay, if it’s approved I’d probably prescribe it, but geez, it’s a small study, overall survival wasn’t the primary endpoint, there wasn’t a sense of enthusiasm for it, and I think in the end of course the IMPACT study results came back and this completely vindicated the results from the earlier trials.”

William Pentland, also in Forbes, introduces a new battery architecture invented by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology MIT. The semi-solid flow cell basically runs on “sludge”, combining the structure of so-called flow batteries, where the electrolytes are replaced from outside once they are consumed with the favorable energy potential of lithium-ion batteries. Pentland says the new design may have the potential of a game-changer, in particular in combination with electric cars and smart grids.

Todd Woody, also in Forbes, describes buildings that clean up after itself via panels coated with titanium dioxide particles that serve as photocatalysts. Once illuminated by the sun, the particles start destroying dirt on the panel’s surface and, as a side effect, can also clear the surrounding air from nitrogen oxide. The company selling the panels claims they can cut a building’s maintenance costs by a third to half.

The Economist this week makes a case for using personalized medicine approaches in clinical trials earlier. In most cases, the Economist writes, oncologists “base their treatment on where in the body a tumour has sprung up, rather than on which molecular aberrations have caused it”, adding that the same is true for recruiting volunteers for clinical trials, in particular Phase I.

Drawing conclusions from this year’s ASCO (American Society of Clinical Oncology) meeting, the Economist argues it may be much better to match the genetic profiles of patients to the drug being tested, rather than looking for the organs affected. The magazine introduces a study  by Apostolia-Maria Tsimberidou of the University of Texas’s MD Anderson Cancer Centre, in which the author selected volunteers with late-stage cancer across various organs whose tumors were caused by a single, known mutation. 175 volunteers were administered a targeted therapy in a low-dose, Phase I setting while 116 received traditional therapy. In the targeted therapy group, 29% responded, while in the untargeted therapy group there were only 5% responders.

Mark Brown in Wired reports on Harvard University researchers who created the first living laser, a human embryonic kidney cell that was genetically engineered to produce a visible laser beam. The cell producing green fluorescent protein was put between two mirrors and when the team ran pulses of blue light through the cell, it began to emit green light. When bouncing between the mirrors, certain wavelengths were preferentially amplified until a visible laser beam was created for a few nanoseconds. The cell was left unharmed. At present, researchers foresee applications in cell biology research.

Last not least, Herbert Renz-Polster in Der Spiegel this week answers crucial questions on why  kids like jelly babies buth not salad and Brussels sprouts and how they can be made to eat healthy. The answer: it’s the evolution stupid! It is more advisable to eat fat in order to survive the next famine, to eat hastily (who knows when the next rival appears) and it is also wise to avoid eating the unknown (maybe it’s poison). The simple advice: be patient, keep offering the healthy stuff and play while having a meal. That way, kids even learn to like seal fat, whale blubber and roasted locusts.

Food for Thought: Weekly Wrap-Up

Can bioplastics, which is derived from renewable resources and biodegradable, become an alternative to conventional plastics made from mineral oil? Not yet, writes Nina Weber in Der SPIEGEL. Cultivation of raw material needs pesticides and fertilizers and the predominant bioplastics used to date is made from polylactic acid (PLA), which is biodegradable only at high temperatures. The prospects may become better – but only if PLA can be derived from plant remains and if enough PLA is on the market so that recycling is profitable.

Gardiner Harris in The New York Times reports on flaws in a widely cited lung cancer study involving more than 50,000 patients. The study’s conclusion that  80% of lung cancer deaths could be prevented through wide use of CT scans made the headlines in 2006. Now it seems that the researchers are unable to locate 90% of the consent forms so that  a confidential report evaluating the study on behalf of the lead study center recommend that the trial be stopped already in 2008. The study is still ongoing.

The New Scientist reports on findings that the malaria parasite Plasmodium falciparum can be killed by kinase inhibitors, common anti-cancer drugs. In in-vitro experiments at Lausanne Federal Polytechnic in Switzerland researchers exposed malaria-infected liver and blood cells to kinase inhibitors and observed that some of these compounds selectively killed the parasite, but not the cells.

Also in New Scientist, Ahmed Zewail, who won the Nobel prize in chemistry in 1999, claims that the Middle East is ripe for a scientific revolution.  At present, he states, Arab, Persian, and Turkish scientists as a group are underperforming as compared to colleagues in the West or Far East. Zewail thinks that the recent revolutions will open the door to improve on literacy, women’s participation and education and bear the chance to remove red tape and allow freedom of thought. He calls on partnering with Muslim countries to establish centers of excellence in science and technology.

Finally, Alex Knapp in Forbes introduces Justin, an impressive humanoid robot made in Germany by DLR, the German aerospace agency. So far, this incredible piece of German hard- and software engineering is used to catch two balls at once while making coffee. the akampioneer very much hopes he will learn better tricks to avoid the “invented in Germany, marketed elsewhere” pitfall.

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