Food for Thought: Weekly Wrap-Up
Manfred Lindinger in Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ) introduces a giant molecule the size of a virus. It is not a macromolecule – instead, it consists of just two rubidium atoms glued together by one electron.
Forget about “good” cholesterol, writes Nicola von Lutterotti, also in FAZ. Latest studies revealed that drug therapies to increase HDL failed to reduce the risk for cardiovascular events and did not prolong life.
Klaus Sievers in Die Welt explains how sewage plants can be used to produce electricity. The trick is done by microbial fuel cells populated by metal-reducing bacteria.
Garage biotech is approaching fast, writes Ted Greenwald in Forbes. He introduces OpenPCR, a $599 build-it-yourself PCR machine and PersonalPCR, a $149 2-tube PCR thermocycler by a company called Cofactor Bio. The DNA analysis is performed by Cofactor. Already, the machines have been used by high school students to identify tilapia fish sold as white tuna in a sushi restaurant.
The Economist features Ron DePinho, the new president of the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, TX, a serial entrepreneur who us planning to use the results of the International Cancer Genome Consortium to develop new drugs against five cancers. The effort is financed by a $3 billion cancer-research fund created by the state of Texas and local philanthropists.
In the New York Times (NYT), Gina Kolata profiles Eric Lander, founding director of the Broad Institute of Harvard and the MIT, who excelled as a mathematician but then was attracted by fruit flies and nematodes so that he finally decided to become a geneticist.
Susanne Kutter introduces in Wirtschaftswoche the latest, indispensable winter outfit: gloves that allow for the handling of smartphone and camera touch screens.
Last not least, Hanna Wick in Neue Zürcher Zeitung (NZZ) introduces “Science Ink”, a book by US science writer Carl Zimmer which features tattoos worn by researchers and science enthusiastics, e. g. Schroedinger’s cat, a geological cross section or a piece of DNA.
Food for Thought: Weekly Wrap-Up
Ulrike von Leszczynski in Die Welt introduces a novel submersible which can dive up to 6 kilometers deep but weighs only 500 kg. The 3,5 meter long “autonomous underwater vehicle” named DNS Pegel does not need a pressure chamber as it is being flooded when diving. Instruments and electronics have been developed to withstand the conditions and most are protected by silicone.
In Der Spiegel, Steve Ayan, editor-in-chief of Gehirn & Geist, interviews Florian Holsboer, director of the Max Planck Institute of Psychiatry who explains how and why psychiatry will be revolutionized by tailor-made, personalized medicine to treat conditions such as anxiety, depression and others. Holsboer explains that psychiatric diseases are caused by a complex interplay between genes and environment in which the environment also influences the pattern of genes involved in a certain condition at a certain point in time. In the future, he predicts, “we will be able to generate biochemical snapshots using genetic tests and biomarkers.”
Marc-Denis Weitze in Neue Zürcher Zeitung (NZZ) introduces efforts by scientists from the Max Planck Institute for Biochemistry in Martinsried, the Natural and Medical Sciences Institute (NMI) at the University of Tuebingen and the Department of Biosystems Science and Engineering of ETH Zurich in Basle to record the activity of neurons in neuronal networks – a challenging task as chips and electronics elements need to withstand salty solutions for months. The latest innovation is a chip providing 32,000 contact points on a 2.6 square millimeter area. Nicola von Lutterotti, also in NZZ, reports on US and Swiss studies looking into the causes of hospitalizations. In Switzerland, up to 7% were due to overdosing of medications (either by doctors or accidentally by patients) or prescriptions of medications without observing warnings on potential interactions given on the label.
In the New York Times (NYT), Nicholas Wade reports on the successful genetic therapy of six patients with hemophilia B. The disease was corrected by transferring a working version of the factor IX gene via the adeno-associated virus-8 (AAV-8). The article points out that the therapy did not work or ceased to work in some of the patients. In other patients, the factor IX is produced in sufficient quantities for up to 22 months so that they can live without medications.
The New Scientist this week features a study by researchers from the University of Freiburg, Germany, in which symptoms of multiple sclerosis (MS) have been reverted in mice by injecting RNA oligonucleotides that stimulate the expression of interferon-B (IFNb). IFNb is known to be efficacious in humans with MS. However, 80% of people treated with IFNb injections develop antibodies against IFNb. If produced by the body itself the problem might be avoided.
And finally, “self-hacking” can be dangerous to your health, reports Klaus Vogt in Die Welt. Self hackers are promoting the “Quantified Self” movement and are recording, rating and sharing a wealth of body functions – from weight and blood pressure to feelings and data on sex and meditation – on a daily or even more frequent basis. While the movement already finds interest among medtech companies and data providers, medical professionals now warn that the underlying condition can become addictive. The akampioneer recommends software developers should program a meta app analyzing the quantified self data so that an addiction value can be posted on top.
Food for Thought: Weekly Wrap-Up
Dieter Durand and Susanne Kutter in Wirtschaftswoche feature a disputation between Alzheimer-researcher Konrad Beyreuther and author Cornelia Stolze, who has written a book claiming Alzheimer’s disease does not exist as an exactly defined disease.
While Beyreuther maintains the disease is real and can be clinically separated from other forms of dementia, he concedes that current medications are useless and that diagnosis often is inadequate. Stolze in her book “Vergiss Alzheimer” (“Forget About Alzheimer’s”) states that patients with signs of dementia often are labeled as Alzheimer’s disease patients although they are not, that they receive useless medications, that the real causes of their respective dementias, such as diabetes, depression, stroke, or dehydration, are overlooked and not treated, and that medical doctors make money with unreliable early diagnostic tests. A review of the book is to follow soon – please regularly check the akampioneer.
Joachim Müller-Jung in Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ) comments on a proposal by several US stem cell researchers in the “Cell Stem Cell” journal. The manifesto calls for establishing a market for human donor egg cells so that scientists can use these cells for cloning experiments. While the purpose is not cloning humans but generating pluripotent human stem cells, Müller-Jung warns that the push will once again put the “cloning humans” debate on the table – a discussion he thinks is needed like a hole in the head. He states there are plenty of experiments already demonstrating that sooner or later it will be possible to generate pluripotent human stem cells for regenerative medicine by reprogramming human body cells.
Martina Lenzen-Schulte, also in FAZ, features the first attempts to use the mirror neuron concept for clinical purposes, e.g. for the rehabilitation of stroke patients to support regain of movement control.
Hildegard Kaulen in FAZ reminds her readers that a substantial part of the research crowned by nobel prizes never received third-party funds. She expresses sympathy with the proposal put forward in “Nature” by Stanford University’s John Ioannidis to either allocate research grants by lottery, by dividing up the money so that each applicant receives the same amount, or simply by handing out money to outstanding scientists with the only specification to use it for research. He criticizes that it has never been investigated which method to allocate research grants is the best and that the current practice consumes too much valuable time that should be spent more creatively on research.
Die Welt reports in a feature by dpa on material scientists of the Technical University Dresden who use wood for pipes that are as strong and resilient as pipes made from concrete. Wood is cut to rectangular blocks, which are heated to 140°C and compressed. Subsequently, all air – which amounts to up to two third of the wood’s volume – is removed. The resulting panels are then bonded and formed by applying steam. The team led by Peer Haller of the university’s Institute for Steel and Wood Construction calculates that a post carrying 50 tons of weight needs 155 kg of steel but only 28 kg of wood treated with the new procedure.
Katrin Blawat in Süddeutsche Zeitung (SZ) reports that Umckaloabo, an alcoholic extract of Pelargonium sidoides roots, is under investigation by Germany’s Federal Institute for Drugs and Medical Devices (BfArM). The medication, which is sold as OTC in Germany for the treatment of acute bronchitis (with annual sales of about € 40 million), is suspected to cause inflammation of the liver, with six cases reported in 2011.
The New York Times (NYT) this week deals in-depth with the recommendation of the United States Preventive Services Task Force that men no longer should have an annual prostate-specific antigen (PSA) test. Gardiner Harris interviewed the experts involved in reviewing PSA testing, citing Dr. Roger Chou, an associate professor of medicine at the University of Oregon, as saying “the idea that knowing you have a cancer isn’t always a good thing is a very difficult concept for many people.” Chou states that the vast majority of men who have prostate cancer will never be bothered by it. Urologists however view the issue differently, stating the task force chose to focus on the wrong studies and it was wrong to throw PSA testing away.
Last not least, in preparation of the coming common cold season, Ulrike Gebhard in Neue Zürcher Zeitung (NZZ) explains that men suffer from the common cold more often than women. Reason is – according to researchers from Belgian Gent University – that women often carry extra portions of genes from the toll-like receptor (TLR) gene family. As a result, they produce more of the so-called miRNA molecules that support the body in fending off viral infections. The downside of women’s more powerful immune system is increased susceptibility to autoimmune diseases and a more violent reaction to certain vaccines.
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.