Tag: Economist

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

According to a study by researchers from the Center for Regenerative Therapies Dresden (CRTD, Dresden, Germany), it is possible to increase the brain’s pool of brain stem cells by overexpressing cdk4 and cyclinD1 via the introduction of programmed viral vectors. Subsequently, the increased stem cell pool leads to the increased production of neuronal cells, reports Die Welt. The study published in the Journal of Experimental Medicine was conducted in the brains of adult mice and may allow researchers to better understand the function of neuronal stem cells and to develop new therapies to combat neurodegenerative diseases.

Brain cell formation is also boosted by certain antidepressant drugs, reports Jessica Hamzelou in New Scientist. The study conducted at King’s College, London found that antidepressants such as sertraline work by acting on glucocorticoide receptors. However, they activate the receptor in a different way than glucocorticoide hormones.

Hayley Crawford in the New Scientist introduces the world’s first  computerized map of the human brain. This novel Human Brain Atlas developed by the Allen Institute for Brain Research in Seattle (Wash.) is an interactive tool scientists can use to search for data, e.g. all known locations in the brain where targets of a certain drug are expressed.

In Forbes, Parmy Olson reports on Seedcamp, a concept developed in 2007 by Index Ventures partners Saul Klein and Reshma Sohoni. Seedcamps are conferences in which start-ups present their business ideas and have the opportunity to sell a 8-10% equity stake in return for 50,000 Euros and a year-long support program. The conferences are held throughout Europe, but also in India, Singapore and South Africa. The program at present support 38 start-ups and is now expanding to the US.

The Economist reports on Asthmapolis, a US-based company, and its Spiroscout inhaler that comes with a built-in Global Positioning System locator and a wireless link to the internet. Whenever someone uses the inhaler, it broadcasts the location and time to a central computer. Asthmapolis plots and analyses the data, and sends weekly reports to participating patients and their doctors summarizing the observations and making recommendations.  The device allows to identify threats patients are unaware of and helps doctors identify those patients whose asthma is not under proper control.

Roni Caryn Rabin in The New York Times reports on a recent study in more than 800 elderly people. Researchers observed  that older people suffering from mild memory and cognition problems seem to be less likely to develop full-blown Alzheimer’s disease if they receive proper treatment for conditions such as high blood pressure, diabetes and cholesterol.

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

Die Welt this week reports on attempts by researchers from the University of Heidelberg to grow a human heart as a replacement organ. As a matrix, they plan to use the collagen structure of a pig’s heart depleted by all its cells. The structure will be incubated in a bioreactor with the cells of the patient who needs a new heart.

How damaged arteries or wounded skin may be regenerated by a new method, which will be available soon, is described by Wendy Zukermann in New Scientist. The trick is done by turning tropoelastin, a precursor of elastin found in skin and blood vessels, into a flexible fabric by electrospinning. The technology will now be further explored with support by Australian biotech company Elastagen.

Novel insights into how tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC,  exerts its mind-altering and pain-relieving effects revealed that THC binds to different molecular targets on cells to produce the to effects. As Andy Cochlan describes in New Scientist, the pain-relieving effect is caused by THC binding to glycine-receptors, increasing their activity. The typical “high” in contrast is caused by THC binding to the cannabinoid type-1 receptor (CB1). As a result, it may now be possible to create new pain killers.

In the same magazine, Mark Buchanan features a computer model of neural networks supporting the idea that the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease are caused by excessive uncontrolled synchronization of neurons. This makes it more difficult for the brain to end a task or begin a new one. In healthy brains, neurons fire synchronously only in a brief and controlled way.

Gina Kolata in the New York Times features two new, large gene association studies on Alzheimer’s disease that led to the discovery of five novel genes involved in the disease, making onset more likely and/or influencing disease progression. The studies, which are to appear today in Nature Genetics, confirm already existing hypotheses that the onset of AD is linked to inflammatory processes in the brain as well as to blood cholesterol levels.

The Economist introduces a powerful new battery suitable for cars that can be recharged completely in minutes. It is based on Nickel and charging rates are ten to 100 times higher than that of marketed battery. However, the development is still at a very early stage.

Much more advanced is a revolutionary car battery developed by German DBM Energy. The lithium polymer based battery enabled an electrically powered Audi A2 last autumn to drive 600 km from Munich to Berlin without recharging and has now been meticulously tested by the Germany’s Federal Institute for Materials Research and Testing (BAM). Jürgen Rees in Wirtschaftswoche reports that  BAM found the battery to be safe and confirmed the extraordinary cruising range. In the BAM tests, the car drove more than 450 kilometers on a single charge. Media reports had cast doubt about the features and performance of the battery after the test car was destroyed by a fire shortly after the record drive last year.

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