Tag: Der Spiegel

Food for Thought: Weekly Wrap-Up

Neurobiologist Jörn Niessing in Der Spiegel explains how the human nose is able to differentiate between thousands of different odors. The trick is done by generalization and subsequent separation of the information obtained by the different elements of the olfactory system. Latest insights into the olfactory systems of zebrafish also explain why certain odors smell differently in different concentrations.

Claudia Füßler in Die ZEIT reports about humans contracting malaria in Southeast Asia by infections with Plasmodium knowlesi, a parasite usually infecting egret monkeys (Macaca fascicularis). P. knowlesi is the most rapidly proliferating malaria parasite, doubling its numbers in infected humans every 24 hours. In addition, it can be easily mistaken for P. malaria under the microscope. As a result, prophylaxis is highly recommended when visiting these regions.

Die ZEIT also reports on figures by the WHO demonstrating that  each year about 25,000 people in the EU die from infections with bacteria resistant to antibiotics. The article cites WHO director general Margaret Chan as saying, a “post-antibiotic era” with people dying from common infections just as they did centuries ago is approaching fast. She attributes the spread of multi-resistant pathogens to trifling and unreasonably prescriptions of antibiotics which in addition are still sold as OTC medications in many European countries.

The Economist, too, is dealing with the problem and explains why big pharma has all but abandoned the development of novel antibiotics and why this is a promising ground for biotechnology firms.

Alex Knapp in Forbes introduces a technology beyond antibiotics to combat antibiotic-resistant bacteria and infectious diseases like Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, known as MRSA. IBM and Singapore’s Institute of Bioengineering and Nanotechnology are developing biodegradable nanoparticles that – once in the body – polymerize into structures able to attach to bacterial cell walls and membranes. The interaction is based on the specific electrostatic properties of bacterial cell walls which differ from human blood cells or infected tissue. Subsequently the polymers physically break through the walls and membranes and destroy the bacteria without harming the surrounding human tissue.

Matthew Herper, also in Forbes proclaims the definitive end of the blockbuster drug, and explains why this leads to rising health care costs. For Herper, the end of the blockbuster era will come in November when Lipitor, the last branded drug among the 15 most used medicines in the US, will go off patent.

Helen Coster, also in Forbes, introduces a US startup, D. Light, that sells low-price portable, rechargeable, solar-powered lights. The most advanced model provides up to 12 hours of light and also comes with a cell phone charger. The lights are sold in rural areas and urban slums in more than 30 Asian, South American, and African countries and enable inhabitants to extend their work day and provide kids with more time to study.

The New Scientist reports on the interesting observation in mice that symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease disappear if the mice are made to overexpress HSP70 heat shock protein which re-folds or disposes of proteins involved in the disease.


Food for Thought: Weekly Wrap-Up

Joachim Müller-Jung in Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung deals with the importance of high quality tissue for the development of personalized cancer therapies. He quotes Catheryn Compton, Director of the NCI’s Office of Biorepositories and Biospecimen Research (OBBR), as saying that billions of dollars have been wasted in the past because researchers developing biomarkers supposed to be predicitive of cancer and responses to therapies relied on tissue samples that were utterly useless:  tissue had been subject to careless handling and storage, and patient histories, data on origin and sampling procedure were missing, so that results were not reproducible. Müller-Jung features Hamburg-based Indivumed as the first and only ISO9001:2008 certified biobank in the world which offers cancer patient tissue and related technical and medical data derived in a standardized procedure accompanied by a detailed protocol.

Jef Akst in The Scientist reports on a new biomarker that can tell at early stages of liver and rare endocrine cancer whether a patient is likely to develop metastases. The biomarker, a protein called CPE-delta N, was able to predict the occurrence of metastases with greater than 90% accuracy, and using the associated RNA as a biomarker, the accuracy was even greater. Preliminary findings suggest it may also be applied to other cancer types.

In the same magazine, Megan Scudellari reports on findings that human cells reprogrammed into multipoint stem cells (so-called induced pluripotent stem cells, or iPS) have hotspots in their genome that are not completely re-programmed. The article raises the question whether iPS are really suited to replace embryonic stem cells.

Detecting volatile substances is the topic of several papers. In New Scientist, Jessica Hamzelou reports on attempts by various research groups to accelerate diagnosis in the operation theater by combining electrosurgery with NMR spectroscopy. The smoke emanating from the cut tissue is directed to a NMR spectrometer which analyses on the spot whether the surgeon is cutting healthy or cancer tissue.

Also in New ScientistArlene Weintraub reports on the Israeli start-up BioExplorers which claims that trained mice are better at detecting explosives than currently used devices and methods. As soon as the mice sniff traces of any of 8 explosives, they flee to a side chamber of their cage as if they are smelling a cat. Scientists from Colorado State University have taught tobacco and mouse-ear cress plants a similar trick – exposed to vapors from TNT, the plants change color. The trick is done by reengineering a certain receptor, reports Ferris Jabr. German Spiegel features a publication by Japanese scientists from Kyushu University who trained a dog to sniff out early-stage colon cancer with a success rate of 90%. The researchers now try to find out which chemicals the dog reacts to.

Ben Coxworth in Gizmag reports on blood clots made visible by nanoparticles. Each particle, developed by Dr. Dipanjan Pan at the Washington University School of Medicine  in St. Louis, Missouri, contains a million atoms of bismuth  and molecules binding to fibrin, a key component of blood clots, at the outside. Bismuth is a toxic heavy metal, which can be detected by a spectral CT scanner. In contrast to regular CT scanners, this new type of scanner is capable of displaying detailed objects or metal in color. Coxworth concludes that “not only could the technology be used to locate blood clots, but it could possibly even treat their cause – ruptures in artery walls. If the nanoparticles contained some sort of healing agent, then once they attached to the fibrin in a blood clot, they could set about sealing any weak spots.”

Food for Thought: Weekly Wrap-Up

MacGregor Campbell reports in the New Scientist that DNA can stretch to nearly twice its length without breaking and explains how this feature can lead to the development of new drugs to fight cancer. Ferris Jabr in the same magazine reports about the first discovery of a virus infecting nematode Caenorhabdis elegans, a workhorse of developmental biology. The discovery will now enable biologists to study virus-host interactions in this model organism.

The Economist introduces a technology developed by Planar Energy (Orlando, Florida) which turns rechargeable batteries into thin, solid devices by printing lithium-ion batteries onto sheets of metal or plastic. The magazine quotes the company by saying the cells will be more reliable than conventional lithium-ion cells, will be able to store two to three times more energy in the same weight and will last for tens of thousands of recharging cycles. They could also be made for a third of the cost. The trick is done by using a ceramic electrolyte which can be printed and appears solid while it allows free passage to lithium ions.

Matthew Herper in Forbes reports on PerkinElmer’s entry into the DNA sequencing market by creating a service business. Researchers can send in DNA for sequencing by PerkinElmer and subsequently access and analyze the genetic data in a computer cloud. Focus will be on human exam sequencing. Matthew also features a video interview with Mischa Angrist, author of “Here is a Human Being: At the dawn of personal genomics” about what it means to look at one’s own sequence data and whether these data should be private or be available for science.

Also in Forbes, Robert Langreth introduces research by William DeGrado, of the University of Pennsylvania trying to breath new life in peptide drugs to fight infectious diseases. DeGrado uses supercomputer simulation to create antibiotics that mimic natural ones but are far simpler to produce and more stable. The first drug designed by DeGrado, PMX-30063 by PolyMedix to treat staphylococcus skin infections is now in clinical trials.

The New York Times also deals with infectious diseases. Sindya N. Bhanoo outlines efforts of researchers from seven countries to analyze how a single strain of Streptococcus pneumoniae bacteria has morphed over 30 years and spread across the world, as a result of evolutionary pressure by antibiotics and vaccines. Within three decades, the strain turned over about 75% of its genome by recombination and mutation. The study appeared in Science.

German papers feature two stories on drugs that surprisingly show efficacy in indications they have not been developed for: Cinthia Briseno in Der Spiegel reports on a study featured in Science on cancer drug Taxol paclitaxel which is able to stimulate the growth of nerve fibers that have been cut in two. The researchers are now planning clinical studies in paraplegics. Nicola von Lutterotti in Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung reports a Lancet Neurology study on Prozac fluxetin which is able support the recovery from palsy in stroke patients.

Food for Thought: Simply Obscene

In a recent article (“Simply Obscene”) the influential German news magazine “Der Spiegel” (20/2010, May 17, 2010) stated the pharma industry was using “with the unscrupulousness of a stock jobber” a loophole in Germany’s highly regulated health care system to charge extremely high prices for basically useless cancer medications. In particular, the article featured Yondelis by Pharma Mar, Nexavar by Bayer, Hycamtin and Tyverb by GlaxoSmithKline, Erbitux by Merck KGaA, Sutent by Pfizer, Iressa by AstraZeneca, Avastin, Xeloda, Mab-Thera and Herceptin by Roche and Alimta by Lilly as examples for cancer drugs providing only marginal survival benefits at enormous costs and stated this was “lawful looting of the health care system”.  The only exception according to the authors of the article was Novartis’ Gleevec.

This week, the Competence Network Malignant Lymphomas published an open “letter to the editor”  (only available in German) stating that in the case of lymphoma therapy the authors of the article had done “obviously sloppy work”: “Therapy costs of lymphocyte-specific antibody Rituximab [MabThera] amount to €24,000, not €134,000 per year. Several independent studies have demonstrated that overall survival in both follicular and diffuse large B cell lymphoma is prolonged on average by several years (!), in fact without substantial side effects.” Der Spiegel had stated extension of survival in these two indications was “not proven”.

The letter also said that administrative costs for studies to optimize therapies had increased by a a factor of 10 in the last couple of years due to legal requirements.

The article of Spiegel magazine is available online in German, however without the tables featuring treatment costs and extension of survival for the drugs mentioned.

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