Tag: William Pentland

Food for Thought: Weekly Wrap-Up

Hildegard Kaulen in Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ) reports from the 61st Lindau Meeting of Nobel Laureates on the need for novel antibiotics. She features the talk of Thomas A. Steitz from Yale University on ribosomes and novel antibiotics. Steitz in 2009 received the chemistry nobel prize for the structure determination of ribosomes together with Ada Yonath and Venkatraman Ramakrishnan. This discovery has led to novel insights on antibiotics binding to these cellular organelles – an important prerequisite for the design of novel antibiotics as bacterial ribosomes still are the most important targets for antibiotics. Among others, the scientists learned that the larger the contact area of ribosomes and an antibiotic, the more mutations are necessary to evade the binding and anti-microbial activity of the compound. Steitz therefore recommends linking antibiotics. He also co-founded a company, Rib-X Pharmaceuticals, which is designing novel antibiotics by structure-based design. Its most advanced compound successfully completed a Phase II study this year.

Richard Friebe, also in FAZ, reports on a breakthrough in synthetic biology accomplished by a team of German, French and Dutch scientists and published in Angewandte Chemie. Other than Craig Venter, who rebuilt an organism by chemically synthesizing its DNA, the group designed a partially artificial organism. Using automated selection, the researchers transformed an E. coli strain unable to synthesize thymine nucleotides into an organism incorporating the artificial thymine analogue 5-chlorouracil instead of thymine into its entire DNA. The goal of the project was to demonstrate that it is possible to develop a generic technology for evolving the chemical constitution of microbial populations by using the simplest possible algorithms. Members of the team recently co-founded Heurisko USA Inc.

Die Welt reports on novel insights into the medical role of Helicobacter pylori, a bacterium living in the human stomach and known for its ability to cause gastritis, gastric ulcer and stomach cancer. Christian Taube from the University of Mainz and colleagues from Zurich University recently published findings that early infections with Helicobacter can protect against allergic asthma. In newborn mice, an early infection impaired maturation of dendritic cells in the lung and increased enrichment of regulatory T cells responsible for oppressing asthma. Resistance is lost once Helicobacter is eradicated with antibiotics. The researchers therefore think that the increase of allergic asthma may be caused by today’s widespread use of antibiotics.

Type 2 diabetes can be cured by a strict diet, reports Christina Berndt in Süddeutsche Zeitung (SZ). In a UK study comprising 11 type 2 diabetics, in 7 of the patients insulin production normalized and the liver started to respond to the hormone properly after they were put on a strict 600 kcal diet for 8 weeks. The cure even worked in patients suffering from diabetes for 4 years and the effects were lasting, provided the patients did not overeat subsequently.

William Pentland in Forbes writes that the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is a driving force behind a new effort to harness biology as a manufacturing platform. The “Living Foundries” program is designed to fund projects that enable on-demand manufacturing capabilities for the production of advanced materials and devices. “Key to success,” DARPA writes, “will be the democratization of the biological design and manufacturing process, breaking open the field to those outside the biological sciences.” As examples, DARPA mentions next-generation DNA synthesis and assembly technologies, modular genetic parts and systems, and cell-based fabrication systems.

In a Forbes interview conducted by Alex Howard,  Charlie Quinn, director of data integration technology at the Benaroya Research Institute, talks about the necessity of new tools and strategies to cope with today’s data deluge. Quinn, who is dealing with genomics, maintains that it is not only about novel technologies but also about cultural changes to create greater value by sharing data and establishing open source and even open data projects, sharing data much earlier than it is done now. Thereby, novel ideas can be spread earlier. “What we’ve been doing is going around and trying to convince people that we understand they have to keep data private up to a certain point, but let’s try and release as much data as we can as early as we can.”

Food for Thought: Weekly Wrap-Up

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.

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.