Tag: Focus

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

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.

Food for Thought: Weekly Wrap-Up

Rationing medicine already is clinical reality in Germany, reports this week’s Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ). Christina Hucklenbroich features a representative survey among the members of the German Society for Hematology and Oncology (DGHO) about therapeutic decisions in treating cancer patients. According to the survey, 59% of the responding 345 oncologists said that they abstain from treatment options if they think the therapeutic benefit is too small as compared to the cost of treatment. However, 19% responded they even refrain from therapeutic options for cost reasons even if the treatments provide an additional, considerable benefit to the patients.

Michael Feld also in FAZ reports on a study by Pricewaterhouse Coopers and the Darmstadt Economics Research Institute Wifor that Germany will be lacking 56,000 physicians and 140,000 nursing staff by 2020, a situation that will hit the eldery most. The author, a practicing physician, states that the situation is not only caused by lack of money but also by disappearing values like charity, social responsibility and a sense of honor.

Focus magazine this week features a study from the University of Michigan giving rise to concerns that taking dietary supplements and OTC medications to stimulate the immune system can be counterproductive in patients with autoimmune diseases. The study demonstrates in animals that a strong immune response to common cold viruses can exacerbate inflammations and even lead to asthma attacks while the infection with a weaker immune system proceeds without complications.

Die Welt reports about clinical results on a new test for the early detection of Alzheimer’s disease (AD) communicated by the University of Leipzig. The test is based on radiolabeled Florbetaben which is injected into the blood stream. The substance binds to beta-amyloid peptides in the brain, and binding can be assessed using PET imaging. Thereby, AD can be diagnosed up to 15 years before onset of the disease. The paper does not mention, however, that the (preliminary) results are from an international multi-center Phase III trial sponsored by Bayer Schering Pharma that was designed to evaluate the efficacy and safety of florbetaben (BAY 94-9172) developed by the company. PET images are compared to corresponding histo-pathological specimens. Details will be published in the next issue of Lancet Neurology.

Christian Meier, Aitziber Romero and Dino Trescher in Sueddeutsche Zeitung (SZ) maintain that industry is trying to block attempts to regulate nanotechnology products. While the EU Commission prefers to define nanotechnology products by counting the number of particles smaller than 100 nanometers, industry wants a definition by determining the fraction of the particles contributing to the mass of the product. The authors, which claim that nanotech products bear all sorts of unforeseen health and environmental hazards, say that this is an attempt by industry to reduce the number of products defined as being nanotechnology.

The Economist makes a case in how food poisoning by EHEC, salmonella and other dangerous bacteria can be effectively prevented: radiating food. Irony is that it was Germany, the country currently suffering from the worst and most deadly EHEC epidemic ever, that vetoed a proposal by the European Commission to allow radiation for a greater range of food and at higher doses, e.g. for sprouts which caused this year’s epidemic, in 2000. However, the author doubts the epidemic will change the German government’s attitude for fear to upset Germany’s influential Green movement.

Last not least, comics are becoming increasingly popular among biotech companies and researchers. Silver Spring, MD based biotech company United Therapeutics chose to publish its annual report as a comic book, while researchers from the Department of Neurosurgery of Heinrich-Heine-University Düsseldorf published a retrospective study on traumatic brain injuries in comics, analyzing more than 700 head injuries in the Asterix comic books: “Although over half of patients had an initially severe impairment of consciousness after TBI, no permanent deficit could be found. Roman nationality, hypoglossal paresis, lost helmet, and ingestion of the magic potion were significantly correlated with severe initial impairment of consciousness (p ≤ 0.05).”


Food for Thought: Weekly Wrap-Up

Joachim Müller-Jung in Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ) reports on the rapid spread of infections with enterohemorrhagic Escherichia coli (EHEC) in Germany. In about 20-25% of cases, the disease leads to the life-threatening hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS) associated with kidney failure. Jung reports about promising treatment strategies using Soliris eculizumab. The monoclonal antibody by Alexion Pharmaceuticals has been approved in the US and the EU in 2007 for the treatment of paroxysmal nocturnal hemoglobinuria.

Also in FAZ, Nicola von Lutterotti features results from molecular psychiatry studies in children brought up in orphanages and adults suffering from trauma. Results demonstrate that there is a strong association between length of stay in an orphanage and factors like learning ability as well as length of telomers. Adults suffering severe trauma during childhood also have significantly shorter telomers.

In Focus, Monika Preuk reports on instant dental implants for diabetics, osteoporosis patients and smokers. These patients often cannot undergo conventional implantation procedures that need careful planning and complex steps of building bone material, placement of titanium posts and periods of long healing times. The new method involves skewed planting of very long implants into the healthy parts of the jawbones. The method stabilizes the jawbone so that implants can be planted within a day.

Matthew Herper in Forbes introduces the 25 most innovative countries in biology and medicine based on data provided by SciVal analytics, an Elsevier division. The complex analysis is based on publications output, number of citations, etc. Still the US dominates the fields, and papers by US scientists are more likely to be cited by other researchers than those in any country – except the Netherlands and Switzerland.

Andrew Pollack in the New York Times introduces Sherwood L. Gorbach, a researcher who helped to develop Dificid, a novel antibiotic against severe diarrheas. The drug by Optimer Pharmaceuticals has just been approved by FDA for the treatment of Clostridium difficile-associated diarrhea.

The Economist features new attempts to vaccinate people against drug abuse. The challenging task is to develop an effective vaccine against  really small and therefore very flexible molecules. A new trick applied for the design of a metamphetamine vaccine uses computer models to design haptens mimicking various metamphetamine-shapes and using these haptens to generate antibodies. Already it has been possible to generate efficacious metamphetamine-antibodies in mice with this method.

And finally, Die Zeit this week deals with the question whether mosquitos get drunk upon sucking blood from drunk people. The answer to the question is that after the blood meal, the mosquitos have about half the blood alcohol concentration of their victim. However, it is unclear whether they show behavioral deficits thereafter. 😉

1 2