Tag: The Economist

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

Die Welt this week reports on plans by BayerCropScience, a division of Bayer AG, to develop new, heat- and drought-resistant wheat varieties. To accomplish this goal, BayerCropScience will refrain from introducing novel genes into the wheat genome for fear of protests in Europe. However, the company is cooperating, among others, with Israel-based Evogene to also develop genetically engineered crops for other markets.

Michael Simm in Focus features the latest accomplishments of synthetic biology in which researchers control artificially introduced networks of genes in cells and tissue. As an example, scientists from the Department of Biosystems Science and Engineering (D-BSSE) in Basle, Switzerland, have inserted genes for hormone production into cells. By adding genetic control elements that can be switched on by irradiation with blue light these genes can be controlled from outside. As an example, the researchers in vitro introduced a genetic network for the production of insulin into human tissue which subsequently was micro encapsulated and transplanted to the skin of diabetic mice. After a meal, blue light is applied to switch on insulin production in order to normalize blood sugar levels. The model works well so that the researchers are thinking about clinical trials. Already, the use of light to switch on genes has led to the new scientific discipline of optogenetics which is exploring light-controlled genes and cells to treat diseases such as Parkinson’s or epilepsy. D-BSSE researchers also developed cells carrying a network of genes that is able to normalize uric acid levels in gout patients.

Siegfried Hofmann in Handelsblatt is introducing various therapeutic approaches of biopharmaceutical companies in a series entitled “future lab 2020.” Topics range from personalized medicine to stem cell therapies to novel immune therapies.

David Shaywitz in Forbes provides a thoughtful article explaining why Silicon Valley failed to make a dent in the healthcare space: “most tech-savvy entrepreneurs lack an in-depth appreciation for the complexity of medicine in general, and the nuances of the doctor-patient dynamic they are confidently trying to influence or replace.” He goes on to say that management of high-tech companies needs to understand the science: “When a science-driven business is led by leaders who don’t even know what they don’t know, and who actually believe that the crisp powerpoint slides that bubble up for their review actually and adequately represent the science involved – then you risk making some very ignorant decisions.”

The New Scientist this week features a story on how cancer cells can be poisoned with  2-deoxyglucose. The sugar dislodges a protein protecting a suicide switch which subsequently can be triggered by ABT-263 navitoclax, a molecule under development at Genentech. The magazine also reports on a call for proposals by DARPA, the US military’s research arm, to develop small interfering RNA (siRNA) to fight bacteria. DARPA is seeking ideas for adaptable nanoparticles that can be reprogrammed “on the fly” by loading up specific siRNA to deal with outbreaks among troops.

And finally, the Economist features people pioneering the backyard generation of fuel to power their diesel cars. The recipe starts with collecting used kitchen oil, which after some filtering is broken down into esters and glycerol by adding sodium hydroxide and methanol and heating. Glycerol is drained away and the remainder is washed with water to get rid of impurities. Removing residual water and moisture is done with an aquarium bubbler. The resulting biodiesel, the article states, can be used in diesel cars without any modification. Already, British company Oilybits is selling devices to produce 120 liter batches of biodiesel in a more professional way.

Food for Thought: Weekly Wrap-Up

Thomas Jüngling in Die Welt introduces auxetic materials which have the unique property of becoming broader when stretched and more tight when crushed. The effect is not depending on the material used, but on the inner structure, so that auxetic materials can be designed from metals as well as plastics. Applications span from improved bulletproof vests to seals to better sofa cushions. In medicine, auxetic materials may be used as dressing, filters, e. g. for artificial lungs, or for the delivery of drugs from plasters.

Jürgen Rees in Wirtschaftswoche introduces a technology developed by car manufacturer Volkswagen which lets an electrically powered delivery van drive autonomously and by acclamation of its driver from outside. The car is designed for courier services.

The Economist this week takes a look at personal manufacturing as the potential “next big thing”. Could be, at least in areas of the world where industrial infrastructure is poor and capital rare, the paper says. Prices for 3D printers came down from more than $100,000 to $2,500; kits may amount to $500, thanks to start-ups in the field. Add costs for the thermoplastics ($1 a pound), free software and even freely available blueprints, and personal manufacturing seems to be at the same stage as the personal computer world was when Apple introduced the Apple II.

Jörg Albrecht and Volker Stollorz in Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung (FAS) report on a simple method to combine the deadly, but barely contagious bird flu virus with the highly infectious, but rarely lethal swine flu variant to a deadly and highly contagious novel flu virus. The new virus with an alleged mortality rate of 70% has been designed in the Netherlands and was reported by Science. Albrecht and Stollorz mention various other combination experiments to create deadly and highly contagious viruses, raising the question of whether the data should be published or not.

Valentin Frimmer in Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ) reveals the mechanism of endoreduplication common in plants to multiply chromosomes without subsequent cell division. Endoreduplication allows for faster synthesis of enzymes and cell components and is economically and commercially very important as it contributes to about half of the global biomass growth.

In Neue Zürcher Zeitung (NZZ) Nicola von Lutterotti summarizes the biological and medical importance of nitric oxide, an important signaling molecule of the body. She explains successes and failures in developing nitric oxide-based drugs for the treatment of pain, high cholesterol levels, hypertension, and others.

Ärzte Zeitung reports latests insights into the EHEC epidemic which in Germany this summer caused 3,842 infections, including 855 cases of hemolytic-uraemic syndrome and 53 deaths. Ultimately the bacteria were discovered in a 15 metric ton charge of fenugreek seeds imported from Egypt; however, it was unclear why only the 75 kg of this lot delivered to an organic farm in Northern Germany and a few kilograms bought by a French farm led to outbreaks of the disease. Ärzte Zeitung writes that Martin Exner, director of the Institute for Hygiene at the University Clinic Bonn, Germany, believes that the bacteria were in a viable but non-culturable (VBNC) state in the charge.  Already it has been shown that the EHEC strain causing the outbreak can adopt the VBNC state. It is also known that under certain circumstances infectious bacteria in VBNC state can be activated, e.g. by transit of the intestine. At least at one of the farms, workers regularly ate sprouts cultivated on the site and five of the workers were identified as eliminators. Exner speculates that a well used on the farm as a water source might have spread the bacteria as the toilets are located at the well house. As a result, Exner calls for improving hygiene standards in sprout-cultivating factories similar to clinics.

Food for Thought: Weekly Wrap-Up

Clemens Gleich in Die Welt reports on the development of super batteries able to power a smart phone or notebook for days without re-charging. While some researchers try to improve conventional lithium-ion batteries by modifying the carbon-based anode with silicon, others design lithium-oxygen or fluorine-oxygen batteries. Main challenges are safety, prevention of swelling and maintaining a high capacity.

Britta Verlinden in Die Zeit reports on the discovery that dimethyl fumarate, a standard drug used for the treatment of psoriasis since 1994, may also be used as a pill to treat multiple sclerosis. Preliminary results of a Phase III trial demonstrate its ability to significantly reduce the number of attacks. The drug candidate codenamed BG-12 is being developed by Biogen Idec. The paper raises the concern that BG-12 may be sold as MS medication at €15,000 a year – while based on the price of the same compound for psoriasis, costs would amount to €4,400 per year, which already “is clearly more costly than what might be expected based on the cheap basic material”.

The Economist this week features the discovery of Oxford University scientists that a small marine organism produces a water-resistant, flexible material which has the adhesive characteristics of barnacle glue and the structural properties of spider-silk fibres. Already, spider silk is being used for novel materials. A salt water tolerant silk might open up medical uses for silk where it would come in contact with salty body liquids. The paper also looks into the prospects of stem cell therapies. While Geron’s pulling out of the stem cell business is viewed as bad news for the field, the paper highlights good news coming from a Lancet paper describing how stem cells can be used to repair hearts. The injection of autologous heart stem cells into damaged heart muscles of patients which underwent coronary bypass surgery led to “remarkable” results, improving pumping volume and other parameters.

Linda Geddes in The New Scientist raises hopes that partial wave spectroscopic (PWS) microscopy some day may be used to screen the general population for diseases like cancer, Alzheimer’s Disease or autoimmune diseases. PWS microscopy can detect changes in the chromatin density of cells, and researchers already have shown that cancer patients even in apparently healthy cells have unusual chromatin densities not seen in cancer-free people.

Finally, Alex Knapp in Forbes proclaims the end is in sight: we may be approaching the day where coffee is both rare and expensive. For one, the demand is growing all over the world at an enormous rate, and second, at the same time yields are diminishing because of pests, climate changes and political instabilities. So enjoy your coffee while it lasts!

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