Tag: New York Times

Food for Thought: Weekly Wrap-Up

Joachim Müller-Jung in Frankfurter Allgemeines Zeitung (FAZ) this week deals with the ethic implications of non-invasive prenatal diagnosis, describing that a huge number of tests based on fetal DNA entering the mother’s blood stream is ready to enter the market. His recommendation is to start an immediate discussion about which tests should be applied and which ones should not.

Ulrich Bahnsen in Die ZEIT interviews Norbert Donner-Banzhoff, Professor at the University of Marburg’s Department of General Practice, Preventive and Rehabilitative Medicine. Donner-Banzhoff conducted a study published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal CMAJ investigating the influence of pharmaceutical advertising on the drug recommendations made in articles in 11 German journals that focus on medical education. Donner-Banzhoff and his team come to the conclusion that journals financed by advertisement from the pharma industry and given away for free almost exclusively recommended the use of specified drugs, whereas journals financed entirely with subscription fees tended to recommend against the use of the same drugs. In the interview, Donner-Banzhoff suggests that a lot of articles published in the free journals have been written by ghost writers and/or members of the pharmaceutical industry.

Matthew Herper in Forbes this week deals with the latest setback in developing drugs to treat Alzheimer’s Disease (AD). He features the failure of Eli Lilly’s semagacest in a Phase III trial in more than 2,600 patients with mild-to-moderate AD. According to an interim analysis, patients receiving the drug, a gamma secretase blocker, worsened to a statistically significant greater degree than those treated with placebo. In addition, the drug was associated with an increased risk of skin cancer. Herper concludes that there is something fundamentally wrong with current hypotheses on the onset of AD and that the failure of the drug may set AD drug development back by many years (see also akampioneer’s recent comment on Probiodrug’s AD hypothesis).

While William Pentland, also in Forbes, reports a potential biofuel breakthrough in producing isobutanol directly from cellulose by using a microbe thriving in decaying grass, Josh Wolfe, co-founder and managing partner of Lux Capital Management, in Forbes states it is time to realize that investing in biofuels may be foolish. He states that while it is hyped as biotech 2.0, there is in fact a fundamental difference to biotech 1.0 which is often overlooked. While biotech 1.0 drugs and molecules can be protected by IP, biofuels cannot. In addition, the marginal cost of producing IP-protected molecules is really low once you did the discovery and first synthesis work (as compared to your margins) – so you can make big profits. Biofuel molecules however have to compete from the onset with the generic fuels already on the market. Biofuel is a commodity, he states, and instead of going back to an agrarian-based economy we should focus on materials and processing based on high energy density, such as uranium.

Donald G. McNeil jr in The New York Times reports on a panel of independent experts from 24 countries that reviewed the handling of the swine flu by the World Health Organization (WHO) in 2009. The draft report – “posted in an obscure corner of the W.H.O.’s Web site” – criticizes the WHO’s “needlessly complex” definition of a pandemic, its inability to deploy 78 million doses donated by rich nations for use in poor ones and its “clumsy communications”.

Colin Barras in New Scientist writes about the origin of cancer and features recent contributions by astrobiologists. While many researchers think that cancer is triggered by a malfunction of the genes trying to control replication which needs to be limited in multicellular organisms, some astrobiologists think a tumor is switching back to some forms of basic cellular cooperation found in the earliest ancestors of multicellular organisms. The distinction is far from being academic: if cancer is some sort of “living fossil” revived it would have only a limited set of survival strategies. In contrast, contemporary medicine regards a tumor as independently evolving cells with nearly unlimited evolutionary potential to escape treatment strategies. The hypothesis explains the co-ordinated survival strategies of cancer, such as angiogenesis and metastasis, and will be further tested soon by genetic profiling.


Food for Thought: Weekly Wrap-Up

Electronic waste is proliferating at an incredible speed: In 2007, an estimated 40 million computers became obsolete world-wide and the rapid turnover of cell phones, printers, cameras etc. comes on top. A US-solution to the problem is introduced by William Pentland in Forbes this week: EcoATM, a California-based startup, provides self-serve electronic recycling stations, or “ecoATM kiosks” at shopping malls, supermarkets and other high-traffic areas. Consumers can insert cell phones they want to get rid off and immediately get a quote based on the value of the device in secondary markets. The business model is about to be expanded to additional portable devices.

Rainer Floehl in Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ) explains that to date, leukemia diagnostics does not take important informative parameters into account. A study in about 1,400 patients with acute myeloid leukemia (AML) led to the development of a risk scale which was subsequently tested in a further 800 patients. The scale comprises factors like patient age, chromosomal changes and body temperature as well as concentration of thrombocytes, hemoglobin fibrinogen and lactate dehydrogenase enzyme. The new scale will allow to stratify patients for aggressive chemotherapy or milder forms of treatment, thereby reducing unnecessary, severe side effects.

Alexander Picker, David Jackson and Stephan Brock in Die ZEIT respond to an article by Martina Keller in the same paper published in January, which dismissed the majority of novel cancer drugs as providing only marginal benefit to the patients while being grossly overpriced and full of severe side-effects. The authors, biologists and managers of Life Biosystems AG (Heidelberg, Germany), a company developing decision support systems for oncologists, point out that judgements like this – frequently found in today’s media – do not take into account the progress which is currently being made with personalized cancer therapies. They state that the diagnostic and analytic advances in this field still have to reach clinics and patients as well as regulatory agencies and insurers.

Malcolm Ritter in Die Welt reports about progress in personalized prostate cancer therapy. To date, a lot of men receive over-therapy such as chemo- and radiotherapy because doctors cannot tell apart aggressive from slowly growing, more benign forms. The article introduces a test developed by Ronald DePinho of Dana Farber Cancer Institute which identifies aggressive forms.

Alexander Wehr in Die Welt reports about a paradigm shift in preventing stroke by using novel anti-coagulants such as apixaban, dabigatran, edoxaban and rivaroxaban instead of warfarin or aspirin. In the same paper, Maria Braun features a study conducted by the University of Toronto showing that bilinguality has a surprisingly high protective effect against Alzheimer’s disease.

Finally, Amy Wallace in the New York Times introduces a start-up still seeking investors that has taught parasitic wasps new tricks. The founders discovered that wasps can be drilled to sniff any volatile substance, even if it is not occurring in the wasps’ natural habitat, and that they are even better in detecting odor traces than dogs. First product of the newly founded company is a device for detecting bedbugs, but the founders think of other applications as well – from sniffing explosives to detecting drugs or cadavers. The company is seeking a modest $200,000 to get the prototype on the market.

Food for Thought: Weekly Wrap-Up

Matthew Herper of Forbes this week takes up the issue whether a DNA sequencer can get FDA approval and quotes Jay Flatley, president and CEO of Illumina as saying the company is in talks with FDA to get regulatory clearance to use its technology for medical diagnostics. He also writes about the late Adriana Jenkins, who worked for Celgene and Third Rock Ventures, among others, and died of breast cancer earlier this month. Having been treated as one of the first patients with one of the first personalized drugs, Herceptin, which gave her a decade of life, she calls for a new law that would give drug companies extended monopolies for developing personalized medicines. Her  own last article explaining her plea for supporting personalized medicine by a legislation similar to the Orphan Drug Act  is featured in Forbes, too.

Also in Forbes, Robert Langreth explains  why Novo Nordisk decided to abandon development of diabetes pills and to ramp up insulin production instead – a move highly successful so far.

Dealing with green energy, the Economist reports on the latest efforts to develop artificial leaves for the synthesis of carbohydrate fuels directly from sunlight, carbon dioxide and water. The article features efforts by the Joint Centre for Artificial Photosynthesis (JCAP) in California, Massachusetts-based Sun Catalyx and a group at Massey University in New Zealand lead by Wayne Campbell.
For those of us who already are short-sighted and need reading glasses on top, the New York Times has good news about a new gadget that already hit the US market. Anne Eisenberg reports that with the new device the days of bifocal spectacles may be over soon. The new emPower electronic spectacles have liquid crystals inserted at the bottom of the lens which change refraction by simply touching the frame. As a result, reading power can be easily switched on and off.

Hannah Waters in The Scientist features a new pathway that may be used to develop novel antibiotics, e.g. to combat Staphylococcus infections.  The trick is done by blocking RNA degradation via a small molecule inhibiting the enzyme RNAse P found in gram-positive bacteria. This leads to accumulation of RNA transcripts and their encoded proteins so that the bugs die from chaos.

In Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ), Jörg Altwegg reports about a baby that opened up a fierce ethical debate in France. The boy was conceived after preimplantation diagnosis made clear that he not only did not carry beta thalassemia but that he also was suited as a blood donor for his older sister suffering from the disease. Another ethical debate around human genetics is taken up by  Volker Stollorz in a Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung (FAS) article not yet online. In the US, researchers have developed a universal gene test able to uncover the genes for hundreds of severe, rare genetic diseases. The test is going to be used for family planning, and couples at risk of conceiving a child with one of those conditions can opt to perform preimplantation diagnosis. However, while some human geneticists warn that the results might overstrain the expertise of human genetic councelors, others already are crazy about using such tests to eliminate all recessive alleles for genetic diseases from the human gene pool.

Finally, Alison McCook in The Scientist claims researchers are punks, because just like in punk music, as they are typified “by a passionate adherence to individualism, creativity and freedom of expression with no regard to established opinions.” To get a taste, she recommends listening to Minor Threat and Nomeansno for a start.

Food for Thought: Weekly Wrap-Up

MacGregor Campbell reports in the New Scientist that DNA can stretch to nearly twice its length without breaking and explains how this feature can lead to the development of new drugs to fight cancer. Ferris Jabr in the same magazine reports about the first discovery of a virus infecting nematode Caenorhabdis elegans, a workhorse of developmental biology. The discovery will now enable biologists to study virus-host interactions in this model organism.

The Economist introduces a technology developed by Planar Energy (Orlando, Florida) which turns rechargeable batteries into thin, solid devices by printing lithium-ion batteries onto sheets of metal or plastic. The magazine quotes the company by saying the cells will be more reliable than conventional lithium-ion cells, will be able to store two to three times more energy in the same weight and will last for tens of thousands of recharging cycles. They could also be made for a third of the cost. The trick is done by using a ceramic electrolyte which can be printed and appears solid while it allows free passage to lithium ions.

Matthew Herper in Forbes reports on PerkinElmer’s entry into the DNA sequencing market by creating a service business. Researchers can send in DNA for sequencing by PerkinElmer and subsequently access and analyze the genetic data in a computer cloud. Focus will be on human exam sequencing. Matthew also features a video interview with Mischa Angrist, author of “Here is a Human Being: At the dawn of personal genomics” about what it means to look at one’s own sequence data and whether these data should be private or be available for science.

Also in Forbes, Robert Langreth introduces research by William DeGrado, of the University of Pennsylvania trying to breath new life in peptide drugs to fight infectious diseases. DeGrado uses supercomputer simulation to create antibiotics that mimic natural ones but are far simpler to produce and more stable. The first drug designed by DeGrado, PMX-30063 by PolyMedix to treat staphylococcus skin infections is now in clinical trials.

The New York Times also deals with infectious diseases. Sindya N. Bhanoo outlines efforts of researchers from seven countries to analyze how a single strain of Streptococcus pneumoniae bacteria has morphed over 30 years and spread across the world, as a result of evolutionary pressure by antibiotics and vaccines. Within three decades, the strain turned over about 75% of its genome by recombination and mutation. The study appeared in Science.

German papers feature two stories on drugs that surprisingly show efficacy in indications they have not been developed for: Cinthia Briseno in Der Spiegel reports on a study featured in Science on cancer drug Taxol paclitaxel which is able to stimulate the growth of nerve fibers that have been cut in two. The researchers are now planning clinical studies in paraplegics. Nicola von Lutterotti in Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung reports a Lancet Neurology study on Prozac fluxetin which is able support the recovery from palsy in stroke patients.

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