Tag: IBM

Food for Thought: Weekly Wrap-Up

Andreas Sentker in Die ZEIT takes up the issue of rising eco-terrorism in Germany directed against field trials of genetically modified plants. These plants are an easy target as trial sites have to be disclosed to the public in registers following legislation initiated by the former red-green coalition in Germany. While in the past years opponents of genetically modified plants only targeted the plants they dub as “Gen-Dreck”, violence is now also directed against security firms and guards watching the fields. Last week, a masked gang assaulted security guards, looted their mobile phones and destroyed different plants of research projects from the University of Rostock. The plants were carrying genes for the production of biopolymers and for a vaccine against viral diseases.

In Süddeutsche Zeitung (SZ), Hanno Charisius introduces efforts to create artificial leaves mimicking photosynthesis to create hydrogen which can be used as fuel or energy source. Daniel Nocera from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) is just using the principle: water molecules are split using electrical current produced by solar cells – an ages-old principle. Noceras new twist, however, is the use of a mix of cobalt and phosphate as a catalyst. The mix is accumulating at the electrodes, but after a while it is crumbling and thereby regenerating. The reaction is not the most effective one, but prototypes are already running for months without efficiency drop. First machines will now be installed in India for tests in realistic  conditions; the goal is to meet the daily power demand of an Indian family by using just 4 liters of water and sunlight. Nocera is now trying to combine his catalyst with solar cells to a single device.

Katrin Blawat, also in SZ, in a somewhat pessimistic article deals with the many failures to develop a drug to combat Alzheimer’s disease. Given that there are neither cures nor effective therapies to prevent or delay the onset of AD, she cautions against tests for early diagnosis.

Another negative outlook is given by Werner Bartens in the same paper. Bartens deals with personalized medicine, calling the concept a “set phrase” invented to disguise that personalized medicine is a mere “PR strategy by the pharma industry and stakeholders from academia” invented to lay a smoke screen on the failure to develop new blockbuster drugs. For Bartens, the “niche buster concept” is “science fiction” allowing the pharma industry to obtain approval without any proof of patient benefit. As an example, Bartens interestingly mentions the introduction of personalized cancer drugs of which only a fraction of the patients is benefitting.

In contrast, Ronald D. Gerste in Neue Zürcher Zeitung (NZZ) writes about how cancer patients have profited from targeted therapies, e.g. in terms of decreasing cancer mortality and improved survival. Gerste features a trial by the MD Anderson Center in Houston/Texas in which 460 cancer patients underwent detailed molecular genetic analysis. Subsequently, they were treated by a matching therapy addressing the most promising molecular mechanism. Without applying any experimental drugs, this procedure increased survival from 9 to 13.4 months on average.

Also in NZZ, Stefan Betschon makes the case for better science communication, introducing an article by Dirk Helbing and Stefano Bialetti on “how to create an innovation accelerator“. They propose to improve the academic publication system by publishing articles ahead of peer review finalization and call for review by crowd sourcing. Rejected publications should also be made public, alongside with comments.

The Economist this week casts doubt on whether the goal to eradicate polio by the end of 2012 can be met. The disease is still endemic in four countries (Afghanistan, Pakistan, India and Nigeria), however re-emerged in African and Asian countries in recent years. Reasons are political (war, refugees, etc.), socioeconomic (poor sanitation) and medical (vaccines needs cold chain, virus can hide in asymptomatic carriers) factors.

Another article in The Economist deals with epigenetics findings by a German research group from the University of Konstanz. The team found that stress during pregnancy (abuse, violence, famine, death of a relative etc.) can lead to a change in the DNA methylation patterns of the unborn child, e.g. of the gene coding for glucocorticoid receptors which relay signals from stress hormones in the blood to cells of the brain regions controlling behavior. The findings may explain why children of stressed mothers show higher-than-normal rates of psychological and behavioral disorders and may lead to insights about how and when interventions are possible and promising.

Andrew Pollack in the New York Times features discussions on changing the rules for research in human subjects. The US government claims that changes are needed in the light of genomics studies using patients’ DNA samples, the use of the Internet and a growing reliance on studies that take place at many sites at once. Among the proposed changes are adding informed consent rules to donors of blood, DNA or tissue samples and allowing a single institutional review board for multiple-site clinical studies.

And finally, for all of us struggling daily with the touchscreen keyboards of our iPads and iPhones, IBM comes with a solution: a keyboard that morphs to fit an individual’s finger anatomy and typing style. Paul Marks in Wired dug out an IBM patent describing keyboards in which buttons are automatically resized, reshaped and repositioned according to the users typing style.


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.