Tag: New Scientist

Food for Thought: Weekly Wrap-Up

The EHEC epidemic in Germany with 4,300 patients and 50 deaths has changed the way public health institutions will deal with future epidemics, writes Christina Hucklenbroich in Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ). She cites microbiologists involved in the rapid sequencing of the EHEC strain who think that the epidemic gave birth to the new discipline of “prospective genomic epidemiology”. To date, sequencing has been performed retrospectively only. However, using the novel Ion Torrent PGM HGS platform, scientists from the University of Münster were able to sequence the EHEC strain responsible for the outbreak within 62 hours. The scientists now think of a software generating a plain language report interpreting the genome and analyzing for toxins and antibiotics resistances of the germ in question so that immediate therapeutic and prophylactic consequences are possible.

Gas, electricity and hydrogen from algae are in the focus of a story by Susanne Kutter in Wirtschaftswoche. She features Sven Kerzenmacher and Johannes Gescher from the University of Freiburg and their efforts to produce electrical current directly from bacteria. The technology is based on the Shewanella bacterium which can transfer electrons generated by breakdown of sugar or other nutrients from the cell surface to conductive materials. Shewanella lives in fresh-, brack- and seawater and thrives on organic waste. The researchers are now trying to design a Shewanella-based mini-powerplant the size of a refrigerator which is able to produce 5-10 Watts of electricity per day – sufficient to meet the demand of a four-person household. Among others, Kutter also features a dual-chamber solar module developed by researchers from Leipzig, Karlsruhe and Bremen. In the first chamber, algae are forced by an excess of oxygen to produce hydrocarbons (“photorespiration”). The hydrocarbons enter the second chamber via a membrane and are used by bacteria to produce methane under anaerobic conditions. Readers interested in learning more about Shewanella may find regular updates on Shewanella Blogger.

While algae seem to be an ideal biofuel replacement for gasoline in the first place, it has turned out that the economics is a problem, writes Erica Gies in Forbes. Gies revisits former biofuel-from-algae startups that are now turning to more profitable products, using “green” chemistry to replace petrochemicals or unsustainable bio-based oils.

Also in Forbes, Matthew Herper deals with an op-ed in Nature Reviews Drug Discovery by John L. LaMattina, ex-CEO of Pfizer, Inc. LaMattina writes the pharma’s M&A activities have had a “devastating” effect of research and development efforts which will impact the industry over the next decade. The comment is all the more telling as LaMattina was pivotal in Pfizer’s acquisitions of Warner-Lambert, Pharmacia, Wyeth and many other companies. LaMattina summarizes that the consolidation by M&A led to fewer companies pursuing novel ideas and disruptions in research processes. Friction is caused, among others, by the need to streamline computer systems, procedures to track side-effects and others. Usually, a merger delays the start of any new research project by nine months. LaMattina’s comment can be accessed here.

Brandon Keim in Wired explains that most genetic differences in people are not caused by mutations but by variations in the genome’s architecture. At present, sequencing is designed to identify SNPs and as every sequencing method is breaking down the DNA in smaller pieces most genomic studies a blind to larger variations. First sequencing studies looking at larger DNA pieces now revealed that individuals seem to be distinguished less by their SNPs than by their structural variations, i.e. wholesale duplications and reversals, or unexpected additions and omissions of long DNA sequences.

Finally, Catherine de Lange in the New Scientist features the first car plugging into the driver’s brain to cut response times in case the car needs to stop suddenly. The invention of Stefan Haufe from the Berlin Institute of Technology uses an EEG headset and sensors on the leg to detect neuronal patterns and muscle tension to find out that the driver intends to apply the brakes. The system improves response times by 130 milliseconds which translates into the length of a small car when stopping from a speed of 100 km/h.

Food for Thought: Weekly Wrap-Up

First signs of future onset of Alzheimer’s disease (AD) can be found already at the age of 14, reports Volker Stollorz in Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung (FAS). Introducing findings by Heiko Braak and Kelly del Tredici from Ulm University, he also points out that AD seems to originate in the Nucleus coeruleus region of the brain stem from which the typical AD clots slowly spread alongside nerve tracts. Stollorz features plans to include members of families with hereditary forms of AD in future clinical trials to test preventive drugs and treatments. Researchers in Germany currently are planning to launch a website and to found a network modeled according to the US “Dominant Inherited Alzheimer Network” (DIAN). Stollorz and his colleague Thomas Liesen also are co-authors of a TV documentary which can be found here for four weeks from July 19, 2011.

Jutta Hoffritz in Die Zeit reports on novel anticoagulants, e.g. Pradaxa by Boehringer Ingelheim, which is already marketed in the US, and similar drugs developed by Bayer Schering, Pfizer and Daiichi Sankyo. The drugs are developed to replace marcumar which carries the risk of severe side effects and is difficult to dose. However, while the new drugs show better efficacy and promise better compliance, Hoffritz cites German medical doctors expressing skepticism because of unknown long term risks and the anticipated high pricing of the drug. Ulrich Schwabe, editor of Arzneiverordnungsreport, a publication known to be very critical about the pharma industry, is quoted with the calculation that treating all eligible patients in Germany with Pradaxa would amount EUR 4.9 billion per year. The calculation is based on the price of the current daily dosis as the drug is already marketed in Germany for the prevention of thrombosis prior to knee and hip replacement surgery.

Christian Heinrich also in Die Zeit features a trend among pharma companies to search for potential applications of their already approved drugs. As an example, he introduces the “Common Mechanism Research” department of Bayer Schering AG, which is systematically studying unusual effects of Bayer compounds to find clues for novel therapeutic applications. Well-known examples of dual use compounds are sildenafil, which was originally developed to treat circulatory disturbance of the heart (now a common drug to treat erectile dysfunction), and aspirin, which was known as a pain killer and only later developed as anti-coagulant.

Christina Hucklenbroich in Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ) reports on the suspicion that recently observed deaths of cattle in Germany may be caused by Clostridium botulinum bacteria. However, she points out the the jury is still out on whether there is a novel zoonosis called chronic botulism as presence of the toxin in minute amounts in the gut of affected animals is difficult to confirm. In addition, the source of the bacteria detected in some animals has not yet been identified.

Also in FAZ, Hildegard Kaulen reports on novel findings how smoking cigarettes suppresses appetite. Researchers from Yale University, she writes, found a hitherto neglected nicotine receptor in the brain, which influences the neuronal circuit involved in appetite regulation. Once nicotine binds to the receptor, the nerve cells start releasing the neurotransmitter POMC which in turn influences nerve cells regulating satiety feelings.

Nicholas Wade in The New York Times reports on efforts by scientists from Harvard Medical School to introduce hundreds of changes in the genome of E. coli bacteria simultaneously, an effort dubbed by a colleague as as “macho molecular biotechnology”. The alteration of 314 sites is just an intermediate step by George M. Church and Farren J. Isaacs to establish a method by which certain stretches of DNA could be changed just the way a word processor searches and replaces certain words in an entire document in one step. The researchers removed a particular stop codon (T-A-G, or “amber”) and replaced it by another (which works just as well). Now they are planning to also remove the gene recognizing the deleted stop codon and subsequently to reintroduce amber and reassign it a new function, e.g. to incorporate a novel amino acid into the bacterium’s proteins.

The Economist announces the world’s first  “World Cell Race” taking place in August. Cells sent in by various research institutions all over the world will compete against each other in the race to move towards a chemoattractant. The scientists thereby hope to identify genes involved in cell mobility which are known to be important drivers in cancer metastasis as well as wound healing and immune responses.

New Scientist recently featured a series of articles dealing with bacteria (“bugs that break all rules”): Caroline Williams introduces multicellular behavior of socializing bacteria, features bugs that hunt in packs, bacteria large enough to be visible with the naked eye and bacteria with backbones and cell compartments.

And finally, Cinthia Briseno in Der Spiegel reports on studies proving that the internet is changing the way we memorize and learn. The ability to rely on the internet seems to encourage people to make less mental notes of facts they are sure to find in the web with a few keystrokes.

Food for Thought: Weekly Wrap-Up

There is hope for hepatitis C patients, writes Nicola von Lutterotti in Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ). She reports on four studies looking into the efficacy of Boceprevir (by Merck & Co). and Telaprevir (by Vertex Pharmaceuticals), which received approval recently in the US. Both drugs inhibit the NS3 serine protease, an enzyme necessary for the multiplication of the virus. When used in addition to standard therapy the new medications improved response from 40% to 70% in previously untreated patients an from 25% to 88% in relapsing patients. Moreover, 33% of patients not or only poorly responding to standard treatment responded to the new combination.

Thomas Jüngling in Die Welt reports on “sollectors”, a revolutionary lighting system developed by Siemens subsidiary Osram. The devices affixed at the outside of buildings bundle sunlight by a lens system and route it through fiber optic polymers directly into the interior of the building. If sunlight is not sufficient, the system adds light from LEDs which can be modulated to provide a greater portion of red in the morning and evening and more blue during the day. Jüngling also introduces other systems to direct sunlight into buildings developed by Interferenz Daylight from Bingen, Germany, and Swiss Heliobus.

Die Welt also reports on the identification of one of the key genes involved in anxiety. The gene spotted by a team of scientists from the German universities of Münster (Universitätsklinikum UKM), Hamburg and Würzburg encodes for the neuropeptide S receptor. If the gene is switched off, mice become very anxious. If the scientists administered neuropeptide S, the animals lost anxiety. The researchers are now looking for mutations of the gene in families with members treated for phobias, panic attacks and other anxiety disorders.

Daniel Lingenhöhl in Handelsblatt reports on the discovery of a microbe expressing a cellulase enzyme able to catalyze breakdown of cellulose even at 109°C. The enzyme variant codenamed EBI-244 may be useful for the industrial-scale production of biofuel.

Michael Odenwald in Focus reports on biofuel produced from algae in a pilot plant of Bio Fuel Systems in Spain. The company is cultivating sea algae, which are fed with CO2 from flue gas of a cement plant and produce oil (“blue petroleum”). According to the article, the daily average output is 5 barrels of 159 liters each per hectare which amounts to more than 290,000 liter of algal oil per hectare and year. The output can be used to produce benzine, diesel, kerosine, and plastics.

Is the global clean energy industry set for a major crash? Devon Swezey in Forbes thinks it is – for a simple reason: clean energy, he writes, is still much more expensive and much less reliable than fossil, and subsidies to make clean energy artificially cheaper will have to be cut down dramatically by the governments because of budget problems.

The Economist introduces zoobotics, a new field creating animal-like robots that climb, crawl, swim and even fly like their natural counterparts. The field is getting more and more sophisticated,  thanks to recent advantages in electronics, miniaturization, new materials and zoology. It is hoped that these artificial animals will be able to perform tasks in dangerous environments.

In Wired, Maryn McKenna gives a stunning account of Germany’s EHEC epidemic that now has been traced back to originate from a single shipment of fenugreek seeds that left the Egyptian port of Damietta on November 24, 2009. As this shipment was 15,000 kg and has been broken up to distributers across Europe, which in turn also split it into multiple lots, McKenna forecasts that the the epidemic will be far from over – even if it turns out that the Egyptian source of the outbreak had a one-time, and not an ongoing contamination problem.

Andy Coghlan in New Scientist this week features a breakthrough achieved at Sweden’s Karolinska University Hospital where surgeons successfully transplanted the world’s first synthetic windpipe into a cancer patient whose own windpipe had to be removed. The transplant is made from novel polymeric nanocomposite material developed at the University College London which has millions of tiny holes so that living cells can grow in it. The windpipe was coated prior to the operation with mesenchymal stem cells derived from the patient’s bone marrow. The operation may mark the beginning of a new era of “off-the-shelf” organs for transplantation, Coghlan writes.

And finally, Der Spiegel reports on recent findings that the taste of fatty food triggers the production of endocannabinoids in the gut. As a result, it triggers ravenous appetite for this food. The reason: fat is a rare, but necessary food source in nature, so consuming fat has been decisive for survival. Scientist now hope to discover a way of blocking the specific endocannabinoid receptors in the gut as a means to block adephagia.

Food for Thought: Weekly Wrap-Up

In Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ) Martina Lenzen-Schulte this week reports about an oncology symposion in Wiesbaden/Germany that dealt with oncology patients increasingly turning towards alternative medicines – 40 to 70% according to recent estimates. Oncologists now start to notice they cannot ignore patents’ needs and hopes, and therefore a number of clinicians have turned to looking at available studies on complementary medicine to separate the wheat from the chaff. However, it turns out that many of these studies – on mistletoe therapy as well as on dietary recommendations – are insufficient to provide sound evidence.

Werner Bartens in Sueddeutsche Zeitung features a 3,700 patients study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association demonstrating that contrary to common wisdom low salt diets increase the risk of heart attacks and stroke.

In Wirtschaftswoche, Susanne Kutter introduces the Diapat diagnostic test developed by German biotech company Mosaiques DiaPat GmbH that analyses more than 6,000 different peptide and protein molecules in human urine in one run. The test can be used to diagnose and even predict the onset of diseases. It has just been approved by FDA for the diagnosis of renal diseases. Already, the company markets a prostate cancer urine test in Germany. Mosaique’s test, Kutter claims, is but one of the many achievements to come from proteomics. She adds that the tests will have the potential to save the healthcare system billions of Euros.

Haydn Shaughnessy in Forbes states the record of cancer treatment still looks poor, with cancer mortality not improving a lot – as for example compared to heart diseases. Likewise, many preventive measures such as exercise and low fat diets don’t work. Shaughnessy therefore makes the case to support crowdsourcing approaches to develop a cancer cure like Pink Army and Cancer Commons (see akampioneer’s earlier entry on Open Source Principles – a Concept for the Life Sciences?). Also in Forbes, Matthew Herper forecasts that Pfizer will break itself up and spin out companies soon.

Eric Pfanner in New York Times looks at new European ventures to fill a void in world news after so many news organizations are laying off journalists or closing shop. As examples, he introduces Worldcrunch, a web-based start-up translating newspaper articles from around the world into English and Presseurop which translates into other languages, too.

In the New Scientist Jessica Hamzelou writes that people easily distracted might have more grey matter in their brains than focused people. In a separate article, she also features a pacemaker-like, implantable device that can deliver timed doses of medications for a year. Boonsri Dickinson, also in New Scientist, interviews nobelist Eizabeth Blackburn, the co-discoverer of the telomerase enzyme and its role in aging. Blackburn co-founded biotech company Telome Health, which is now starting to sell a test for telomere length. While at present it is sold for research purposes, e.g. to know more about telomer length as markers of aging, the test will be offered to the public through physicians for $200 later this year. Ferris Jabr in New Scientist introduces an approach fastening nanocapsules filled with interleukins to T cells as a way to cure cancer. So far, it seems to work in mice.

And here our favorite quote from Matthew Herper’s blog, who recently mused about whether entrepreneurs share some genetic characteristics, and if so, whether one could invent an antibody to turn someone into an entrepreneur: “‘Entrepreneur Antibody:’ Serious Side Effects Might Include Visual Hallucinations of Venture Capital.”

And finally, Norbert Lossau in Die Welt features a study by LinkedIn into the most common given names of CEOs, finding that in Germany they are Wolfgang, Christoph and Michael. In France, Gilles is number one, while it is Charles in the UK, Ray in Canada, Guido in Italy and Howard in the US. Marketing people often have short names like Chip, Todd or Trey, while engineers seem to have much longer give names. So think twice before naming your next newborn!

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