Tag: Massachusetts Institute of Technology
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.
The human genome of newborns contains an unexpectedly low number of mutations, writes Joachim Müller-Jung in Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ). Contrary to earlier estimates of 100-200 mutations generated in the germ cells of parents, the number is only about 60. Results come from sequencing the entire genomes of two families with one child each. The results have implications for understanding human evolution and genetics.
Sonja Kastilian, also in FAZ, features a preliminary report of IQWiG, Germany’s watchdog agency appraising drugs and treatments for quality and cost effectiveness, on the benefits of HPV testing of women as a screening for ovarian cancer. IQWiG set out to compare DNA tests for HPV with common pap smear tests and reported that the HPV tests leas to an earlier diagnosis and better follow-up examinations, regardlesss of whether it is applied alone or in combination with the conventional test. A final decision on whether the test is to be reimbursed by Germany’s statutory healthcare system is expected for 2012. In 2006, the Joint Federal Committee (G-BA), the body in charge, had voted against reimbursement for cost reasons. Kastilian also points out that HPV vaccination rates at present are below 30% in young women in Germany, in contrast to up to 81% in the UK, Portugal, and Australia. Reason has been an unduly discussion in German media about potential risks, high costs and lack of efficacy.
Uta Neubauer in Neue Zürcher Zeitung (NZZ) reports on novel approaches to use cold plasma to disinfect wounds, hands, and food. A method and device developed by the German Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics has already demonstrated safety and efficacy in treating wounds and disinfecting hands. At present, it is under investigation for the treatment of foods, e.g. food additives and berries.
Sven Titz, also in NZZ, deals with latest insights into the physics of the water surface. Using vibration spectroscopy, physicists of the University of Southern California at Los Angeles found that the surface is made up basically by -OH groups of the water molecules sticking out from the liquid. The discovery will lead to better understanding solubility of molecules in water.
Forbes this week introduces two innovations in optics. Jennifer Hicks writes about the “socialization of the microscope” by a technology that allows the display of microscopic images on an extremely large multitouch screen, just like an oversized iPad. Thereby, groups of students, pathologists or researchers can focus on tiny details by touching, gesturing, and zooming in and out. A video of the microscope at work can be found here.
Californian-based start-up Lytro has unveiled a camera that can take pictures without focusing, writes Tomio Geron in Forbes. Instead, focusing on any point of interest in the photo is done once the image is loaded on a computer. The consumer camera is based on the light field technology invented by Stanford University researchers. The camera is fitted with special lenses and a sensor that captures every ray of light hitting it, regardless of whether it is from the fore- or the background, and records its individual color, intensity and direction. The camera therefore also can be used to generate 3D-pictures. Examples can be found here.
The Economist this week introduces an intelligent drug delivery approach using nanoparticles. It can be used to deliver anti-cancer chemotherapeutic drugs and makes use of the blood-clotting mechanism: first, nano-sized golden rods are injected into the blood stream. They fit into the unusual pores common in capillaries nourishing tumors and thereby mark tumor sites. Once they are in place, the tumor site is treated with laser light bursts. Their energy is absorbed by the gold and converted to heat destroying the capillaries so that the body’s coagulation system is triggered to repair the damage. This is when the second nanoparticles come into play. They carry the chemotherapeutics together with a fibrin-binding protein fragment and are designed to release the drug upon fibrin-binding only. The treatment strategy therefore delivers the drug exactly to the site the coagulation system is active, that is, at the tumor. The method developed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has proven safety and efficacy in mice and will be tested in humans soon.
Researchers from the University of Rochester have come up with just another idea to release drugs on target, the New Scientist reports. They found that nanocarbon tubes containing aqueous solutions can be made to pop open by heating them from the outside with infrared lasers. Patients could be administered nanocontainers carrying drugs to deliver it to a desired target where the drug then is released by laser light.
And finally, Die Welt this week deals with wrinkles and high tech attempts to avoid or get rid of them. Clinical studies in people with an average age of 87 prove that vitamin A1 (retinol) is useful to smooth skin. Also, light from LEDs is able to remove a water film caging the skin’s elastic fibers so that they become rigid. The method is best applied by pre-treating the skin with green tee polyphenols to deactivate free radicals generated by the LEDs. Moreover, scientists from Hamburg-based Skin Investigation and Technology SIT found out that eating one bar of dark chocolate a day also leads to a 34% improvement of skin elasticity after 6 months. Further attempts to eliminate wrinkles are being made by using signaling peptides activating collagen-producing cells and by polymers carrying nanoparticles that are injected between outer and inner skin layers. The resulting films disperse the compression forces within the skin, thereby “ironing” it from inside.
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.
In Germany, science pages were dominated by Japan’s nuclear disaster. Apart from topics such as radioactivity as a threat to human health and the environment, Christiane Hucklenbroich in Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ) deals with an upcoming new definition of autism. Instead of seeing autism as a defined disease category, physicians have come to the conclusion that one should rather use the term “autism spectrum”, comprising several aspects of autism. The medical community also has started focusing on co-morbidity aspects as well as autism-like symptoms in other psychiatric diseases.
Susanne Kutter in Wirtschaftswoche summarizes latest advances in stem cell medicine. Among others, she features a clinical trial conducted at the University of Rostock in which the heart muscle of patients suffering from an infarction is injected with adult stem cells to initiate regeneration of muscle. The trial includes more than 150 patients and will be finished end of 2012. A method already successful has been established in India, where more than 700 people with blindness caused by Vitamin A deficiency regained eyesight after injection of stem cells into the cornea.
Roni Caryn Rabin in The New York Times reports on a Lancet study that pooled data from 58 studies involving more than 220,000 people with a mean age of 58 to find out whether the idea that obese people with an apple shape (carrying the overweight predominantly in the belly) are more at risk for heart disease than overweight people with a pear shape. The answer is: they are not. Overweight matters, but shape does not.
Ferris Jabr in New Scientist introduces a small implantable device developed by researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) that can track tumor growth in the body of cancer patients. The device contains magnetic nanoparticles covered with monoclonal antibodies able to bind cancer-related molecules, e.g. human chorionic gonadotrophin (hCG), a hormone released by testicular and ovarian cancers. The first generation had read-out by MRI scans that detect formation of clusters within the device due to binding of the molecules. However, the researchers now improved detection so that readout can now be done by a hand-held device. The principle can also be adapted to monitor other changes in the body, e.g. silent heart attacks.
For blood transfusion, medical doctors need to carefully choose the right blood group from 29 possible combinations of the AB0, Rhesus, the MNS and other systems. This challenge sometimes needs to complications and logistic problems. The Economist reports on a successful approach by researchers from the University of Montreal to disguise the antigenic proteins from red blood cells. The trick is done by first dressing the fatty surface membrane of the cells and then attaching another cover so that the immune system does not pay attention to the cells. The cover is fully permeable by oxygen and carbon dioxide.
David Whelan in Forbes calls for a psychological study of people investing in biotech stocks, in particular those writing rude comments on articles featuring the ups and downs of stocks. He claims the phenomenon is only seen with articles on biotech stocks.
And finally, David M. Ewalt in Forbes reports about errors in Craig Venter’s first synthetic life form in which Venter inserted DNA composed on a computer. The DNA included quotes from James Joyce and Richard Feynman, however Craig used the Joyce quote without written permission from Joyce’s estate and misquoted Feynman by obtaining the quote from the internet. Craig said he was now going back to the organism to correct the error.