Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung (FAS) this week in a special section (not online yet) deals with prion diseases such as Kuru, Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, BSE and scrapie and the history of the discovery that some CNS disorders are caused not by pathogens, such as bacteria or viruses, but by infectious proteins. In one of the articles, Volker Stollorz deals with the implication of the discovery. It led to the notion that CNS diseases can be caused by misfolding of proteins, and meanwhile about 2 dozen neurological disorders are classified as “proteopathies”, among them Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease. Stollorz features research that points to the possibility that proteopathies spread through the body by some sort of domino effect. In this case, it cannot be ruled out that they are contagious – which would have enormous consequences for medicine. To rule out the possibility that modern medicine contributes to the spread of neurodegenerative diseases, some researchers already call for sterilizing medical instruments with procedures that also deactivate proteins.
Ralph Diemann in Süddeutsche Zeitung this week introduces photovoltaic company Konarka, which is using the site and machinery of Polaroid company to manufacture sheets producing electric current. Using the old Polaroid instant film technology, the company is printing conductive molecules on extremely thin, light and flexible films that can be applied to common goods – sunshades, car bodies, window panes or even clothes. First products – daypacks and bags producing current to charge mobile phones, already have reached the market. Other companies – BASF, Thyssen-Krupp and Bischoff Glastechnik – will follow suit, Diemann writes. Disadvantages at present are a very low efficiency, a durability of a few years only and a high price.
The Economist this week reports on experiments of various research groups, which have turned mind-reading into reality. The results are still crude, but already, recording brain activity has proven to be an inroad into this area.
Belle Dumé in The New Scientist makes the case for green tea and red laser to treat Alzheimer’s disease. While epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG), an ingredient of green tea can reduce beta amyloid plaques in the brain, red laser light which penetrates tissue and even bone can facilitate uptake of EGCG by the brain and by brain cells. The results come from animal experiments.
Last not least, Robert McMillan in Wired reports about the symbiotic relationship between IT and manure. IT company Hewlett-Packard (HP) seriously is thinking about using cow dung to power future data centers. These centers produce a lot of heat which can be used to heat cow dung for the production of methane, which in turn can power the data center.
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.
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 Economistintroduces 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 Spiegelreports 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.
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.