Tag: Die ZEIT

Food for Thought: Weekly Wrap-Up

Clemens Gleich in Die Welt reports on the development of super batteries able to power a smart phone or notebook for days without re-charging. While some researchers try to improve conventional lithium-ion batteries by modifying the carbon-based anode with silicon, others design lithium-oxygen or fluorine-oxygen batteries. Main challenges are safety, prevention of swelling and maintaining a high capacity.

Britta Verlinden in Die Zeit reports on the discovery that dimethyl fumarate, a standard drug used for the treatment of psoriasis since 1994, may also be used as a pill to treat multiple sclerosis. Preliminary results of a Phase III trial demonstrate its ability to significantly reduce the number of attacks. The drug candidate codenamed BG-12 is being developed by Biogen Idec. The paper raises the concern that BG-12 may be sold as MS medication at €15,000 a year – while based on the price of the same compound for psoriasis, costs would amount to €4,400 per year, which already “is clearly more costly than what might be expected based on the cheap basic material”.

The Economist this week features the discovery of Oxford University scientists that a small marine organism produces a water-resistant, flexible material which has the adhesive characteristics of barnacle glue and the structural properties of spider-silk fibres. Already, spider silk is being used for novel materials. A salt water tolerant silk might open up medical uses for silk where it would come in contact with salty body liquids. The paper also looks into the prospects of stem cell therapies. While Geron’s pulling out of the stem cell business is viewed as bad news for the field, the paper highlights good news coming from a Lancet paper describing how stem cells can be used to repair hearts. The injection of autologous heart stem cells into damaged heart muscles of patients which underwent coronary bypass surgery led to “remarkable” results, improving pumping volume and other parameters.

Linda Geddes in The New Scientist raises hopes that partial wave spectroscopic (PWS) microscopy some day may be used to screen the general population for diseases like cancer, Alzheimer’s Disease or autoimmune diseases. PWS microscopy can detect changes in the chromatin density of cells, and researchers already have shown that cancer patients even in apparently healthy cells have unusual chromatin densities not seen in cancer-free people.

Finally, Alex Knapp in Forbes proclaims the end is in sight: we may be approaching the day where coffee is both rare and expensive. For one, the demand is growing all over the world at an enormous rate, and second, at the same time yields are diminishing because of pests, climate changes and political instabilities. So enjoy your coffee while it lasts!

Food for Thought: Weekly Wrap-Up

Solar cells can become cheap bulk ware, even for developing countries, writes Manfred Lindinger in Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ). He introduces a technology for printing a sheet of zinc oxide, a polymer containing fullerenes and an electrode made from polymers on paper. The technology developed at Technical University Chemnitz can use ordinary printing machines and paper, and the resulting solar paper can be bended and folded. However, the efficiency is still very poor (1.3% at 5 V compared to 10 or more with conventional ones). Life span will amount to a few months. For other approaches to make cheaper solar cells, see this post.

Martina Lenzen-Schulte, also in FAZ, explains how measle viruses leave cells to enter the airway. Today it is known that they do not proliferate in the outer epithelium cells but in lymph nodes. The way back is facilitated by the membrane protein nectin-4, which acts as a transporter carrying the virus through epithelial cells. Lenzen-Schulte also reports that the effect may explain why cancer cells, which often overexpress nectin-4, are vulnerable to measle and other viruses. This might pave a way to develop new oncolytic viruses.

Ernst-Ludwig Winnacker, the nestor of the German biotechnology industry, makes the case for green biotechnology in the weekly Die Zeit. Winnacker criticizes the concept of coexistence that tries to avoid a blending of genetically modified and conventionally bred plants by defining a minimum distance between cultivated areas. In Germany, a farmer cultivating GMOs is liable for every case of cross-breeding, a provision that effectively prohibits GMO cultivation as there is a zero threshold for “contamination”. Winnacker also criticizes the strategy of patenting genetically modified plants instead of protecting them with the traditional plant variety rights that allow for exemptions for the further use of GMOs by breeders and farmers. Green biotechnology, he writes, has – at least in Europe – become the scapegoat for everything that is wrong with modern agriculture, from monoculture to declining biodiversity to the death of bees, although Europe is almost free from GM plants. As 25 years of research into the risk of green biotechnology have not been able to reveal any real danger, Winnacker proposes to amend the German law on genetic engineering and to simply omit the measures restricting the cultivation of GMOs.

Diabetics may soon be able to measure blood sugar without pricking, reports Der Spiegel. A new technology developed by researchers of John’s Hopkins University enables measuring of blood sugar in tear fluid.

In Wirtschaftswoche, Matthias Hohensee introduces US-based 23andme company which offers genetic testing at a rate of $99 plus a flat fee of $9 per month for access to the data. The company, which was criticized for exaggerating the benefits of personal genetic testing, also changed its business model and is now offering its records comprising the data of 125,000 people for research purposes, e.g. to find out why certain hereditary diseases display incomplete penetrance in different carriers of the respective genes.

Theres Lüthi in Neue Zürcher Zeitung (NZZ) reports on clinical studies by Roche and Novartis in people suffering from Down’s or fragile X syndrome in an attempt to improve cognitive abilities.

Alyson Krueger in Forbes reports on a talk on synthetic biology given by Andrew Hessel of Singularity University during the Technonomy 2011 conference. Hessel describes synthetic biology as computer-assisted genetic design that goes from an idea to printing DNA to ultimately booting DNA and forecasts it will render the task of engineering life as straightforward as programming software, or creating a vaccine as simple as Tweeting.

Alex Knapp, also in Forbes, describes a “cyborg yeast” designed by researchers from the University of California at San Francisco and ETH Zurich, Switzerland. In the yeast, the expression of a certain gene can be switched on and off by different shades of red light. The technique may lead to advances in the production of proteins by yeast cultures.

The Economist reports on the first computational pathologist which can can distinguish between grades of breast-cancer cells to provide a more accurate prognosis than a human pathologist can manage.

And finally, scientists found a single gene which can make you appear kinder, reports Catherine de Lange in New Scientist. In experiments conducted at the University of Toronto, people with the so-called GG version of the oxytocin receptor gene were judged to be kinder than those with GA or AA versions. Those with GG variations used significantly more non-verbal empathetic gestures in their storytelling such as smiling and nodding which made them appear kinder.


Food for Thought: Weekly Wrap-Up

Joining the recent denunciation of personalized medicine in Süddeutsche Zeitung (SZ), Der Spiegel this week follows suit. Markus Grill and Veronika Hackenbroch cite Dr. Baerbel Huesing, Coordinator of Business Unit Biotechnology and Life Sciences of Fraunhofer ISI, as saying that the concept of personalized medicine is a “battle cry” of public relations: “Whoever invented it needs to be congratulated.” She added: “It is not a paradigm change. There is not that much in it. However, it is very well suited to justify to Jane Doe the enormous investments made in genomics – similar to the teflon-coated frying pan which was used as an excuse for manned space research.” As an example, Grill and Hackenbroch cite a study from 2009 in colon cancer patients, stating that adding Erbitux to the treatment scheme of patients selected by a concomitant Qiagen test resulted in a survival improvement of 4 months: “Is this a medical breakthrough? Is this what  progress looks like, bought by spending billions?” Instead, Grill and Hackenbroch recommend spending money on better care at home and better palliative treatment. The article ends with a quote from Wolf-Dieter Ludwig, head of the clinic for hematology, oncology and tumor immunology at Robert-Roessle-Klinik in Berlin: “Up to date, the concept of personalized medicine is an empty promise in the first place.”

Harro Albrecht and Sven Stockrahm in Die Zeit feature the suspicion expressed by medical doctors and competent authorities in the EU that the flu vaccine Pandemrix might cause narcolepsy, in particular in children and young adults. Already, EMEA issued a recommendation to use Pandemrix in children and adults under 20 in exceptional cases only. While there were only two reported cases of narcolepsy among children in the US, there were more than 300 in the EU, with 70% of those cases coming from Scandinavia. Narcolepsy is an autoimmune disease, predominantly in humans with a certain genetic modification, and the authors feature the theory that the adjuvant used in the vaccine might have induced the disease in these patients. However, the genetic variant known does not have a bigger frequency in Scandinavia.

Sven Stockrahm, also in Die Zeit, features miniature, flexible electronic devices that stick to the skin by physical means. They can be hid by a tattoo motif and are able to measure and transmit physiological data for medical purposes. One company developing these devices is mc10 Inc. in Cambridge, Mass.

Martina Lenzen-Schulte in Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ) gives an overview on the arrival of maggot therapy as a means to clean wounds, stating it has become standard therapy in many German clinics already. Maggots not only remove dead tissue and eschar, they also kill bacteria. Therefore, they are increasingly being used in infections with bacteria carrying multiple resistance to antibiotics. However, maggot therapy is not yet approved in Germany (in contrast to the US).

Sebastian Matthes in Wirtschaftswoche interviews Jackie Fenn, analyst at Gartner and co-author of Gartner’s Hype Cycle Report. Fenn forecasts computers with the ability to understand spoken questions and to put out spoken answers as well as printing of organs and arteries.

Roland Fischer in Neue Zürcher Zeitung (NZZ) looks back at 50 years of the influential Science Citation Index SCI. Originally founded to make the identification of relevant scientific papers easier, it soon became a tool for sociologists of science and led to the birth of scientometry as a new discipline. However, SCI also was used to take quantity for quality, measuring quality of science as number of citations, and it is a well-known episode that in the UK funding of clinical research was cut because preclinical research generates more citations. While this controversy is still ongoing, the taking of quantity for quality is already spilling over into search engines, Fischer describes.

Alex Knapp in Forbes describes a novel approach to broad spectrum antivirals. It is based on a bi-specific drug: one arm binds to double-stranded RNA which is specific for viruses. Once bound, a second arm triggers a mechanism that leads to the destruction of the cell it is in. The experimental drug named DRACO has been successful at eliminating cells infected by 15 different viruses from the common cold to polio in vitro and in vivo (mice).

Food for Thought: Weekly Wrap-Up

Does Germany need more than 500 cancer centers? After attending a meeting of representatives from 10 university cancer centers and the National Center for Tumor Diseases (NCT), Rainer Flöhl in Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ) is skeptical. While the university cancer centers are similar to the successful Comprehensive Cancer Centers in the US – linking basic and clinical research (which is called “translational research” nowadays), they do not yet provide nationwide cancer care. Therefore, the German Cancer Society supported the adding of further centers: “clinical oncology centers” and “organ centers”. At present, Flöhl writes, the landscape is dominated by organ centers (e.g., 200 each for breast and colon cancer), however they lack a multidisciplinary approach and are hampered by poor documentation standards and poor financing. As a result, patients do not get optimum treatment and many cancer centers may have to close sooner or later.

In Die Zeit, Gianna-Carina Grün is dealing with the aftermaths of the German EHEC epidemic. Not only modern sequencing technology but also a collection of strains played a crucial role in the rapid identification of the EHEC strain. However, Europe does not have comprehensive collections of microbial strains – building such databases is tedious and does not provide for scientific glory in terms of publications and inventions. Grün explains that not lack of funding, but structural deficits in academic and public institutions have prohibited the building of valuable databases so far.

Gert Antes, director of the German Cochrane Center in Freiburg, in Süddeutsche Zeitung (SZ) introduces the Cochrane library which meanwhile lists 600,000 randomized, controlled clinical studies from all over the world. He also features efforts by the US, Canada and various European countries to provide patients and health care professionals with reliable information distilled from the library. Germany, Antes states, does not invest in any attempts to turn research results into practice and to find what really works in health care. He is also disappointed by the German government´s plans to cut funding of clinical research. Antes’ conclusion: “Germany has never had a role as trailblazer in patient-oriented research, and now it seems it is heralding the end of it.”

Ulrike Gebhardt in Neue Zürcher Zeitung (NZZ) provides an overview on how immune cells cooperate with cancer cells. As an example, she mentions M2 macrophages which are tricked by a tumor so that they mistake it for a wound. As a result, they start a support program to direct blood vessels and nutrients into the area. In addition, they support cancer cells in forming metastases. The findings, Gebhardt states, may lead to novel ways to cure cancer and to prevent metastasis.

Farhad Manjoo in The New York Times (NYT) introduces the latest health-related Apps and gadgets to monitor activities and body functions such as heart rate, blood pressure and temperature. Joshua Brustein, also in NYT, introduces the latest internet startup prone to change our way of life: Taskrabbit, a market where busy people can hire others to help them with everyday tasks such as picking up groceries, making reservations and assembling IKEA furniture.

Finally, for people who always wanted to know whether they are descendants of Tut Ankh Amon, Swiss iGenea offers an answer. Turn in a swab of your DNA, and if your genes are the closest match to the pharao’s DNA, you get your money back. iGenea’s regular business is genealogical DNA analysis, and the company promises to provide its customers with insights about origins and migrations of their ancestors and information on whether they stem from ancient tribes suchs as vikings, celts or jews. However, as Matthias Glaubrecht explains at length in Die Welt, it is far from being clear that iGenea has obtained the mummy’s full DNA profile, let alone that the DNA derived from the mummy is indeed DNA from the pharaoh and not a contamination. In addition, as Eva Zimmerhof writes in Focus, preliminary tests demonstrate that about 45% of German, 50% off Swiss, and up to 80% of Spanish males are descendants of Tut Ankh Amon.

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