Tag: Yale University

Food for Thought: Weekly Wrap-Up

First signs of future onset of Alzheimer’s disease (AD) can be found already at the age of 14, reports Volker Stollorz in Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung (FAS). Introducing findings by Heiko Braak and Kelly del Tredici from Ulm University, he also points out that AD seems to originate in the Nucleus coeruleus region of the brain stem from which the typical AD clots slowly spread alongside nerve tracts. Stollorz features plans to include members of families with hereditary forms of AD in future clinical trials to test preventive drugs and treatments. Researchers in Germany currently are planning to launch a website and to found a network modeled according to the US “Dominant Inherited Alzheimer Network” (DIAN). Stollorz and his colleague Thomas Liesen also are co-authors of a TV documentary which can be found here for four weeks from July 19, 2011.

Jutta Hoffritz in Die Zeit reports on novel anticoagulants, e.g. Pradaxa by Boehringer Ingelheim, which is already marketed in the US, and similar drugs developed by Bayer Schering, Pfizer and Daiichi Sankyo. The drugs are developed to replace marcumar which carries the risk of severe side effects and is difficult to dose. However, while the new drugs show better efficacy and promise better compliance, Hoffritz cites German medical doctors expressing skepticism because of unknown long term risks and the anticipated high pricing of the drug. Ulrich Schwabe, editor of Arzneiverordnungsreport, a publication known to be very critical about the pharma industry, is quoted with the calculation that treating all eligible patients in Germany with Pradaxa would amount EUR 4.9 billion per year. The calculation is based on the price of the current daily dosis as the drug is already marketed in Germany for the prevention of thrombosis prior to knee and hip replacement surgery.

Christian Heinrich also in Die Zeit features a trend among pharma companies to search for potential applications of their already approved drugs. As an example, he introduces the “Common Mechanism Research” department of Bayer Schering AG, which is systematically studying unusual effects of Bayer compounds to find clues for novel therapeutic applications. Well-known examples of dual use compounds are sildenafil, which was originally developed to treat circulatory disturbance of the heart (now a common drug to treat erectile dysfunction), and aspirin, which was known as a pain killer and only later developed as anti-coagulant.

Christina Hucklenbroich in Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ) reports on the suspicion that recently observed deaths of cattle in Germany may be caused by Clostridium botulinum bacteria. However, she points out the the jury is still out on whether there is a novel zoonosis called chronic botulism as presence of the toxin in minute amounts in the gut of affected animals is difficult to confirm. In addition, the source of the bacteria detected in some animals has not yet been identified.

Also in FAZ, Hildegard Kaulen reports on novel findings how smoking cigarettes suppresses appetite. Researchers from Yale University, she writes, found a hitherto neglected nicotine receptor in the brain, which influences the neuronal circuit involved in appetite regulation. Once nicotine binds to the receptor, the nerve cells start releasing the neurotransmitter POMC which in turn influences nerve cells regulating satiety feelings.

Nicholas Wade in The New York Times reports on efforts by scientists from Harvard Medical School to introduce hundreds of changes in the genome of E. coli bacteria simultaneously, an effort dubbed by a colleague as as “macho molecular biotechnology”. The alteration of 314 sites is just an intermediate step by George M. Church and Farren J. Isaacs to establish a method by which certain stretches of DNA could be changed just the way a word processor searches and replaces certain words in an entire document in one step. The researchers removed a particular stop codon (T-A-G, or “amber”) and replaced it by another (which works just as well). Now they are planning to also remove the gene recognizing the deleted stop codon and subsequently to reintroduce amber and reassign it a new function, e.g. to incorporate a novel amino acid into the bacterium’s proteins.

The Economist announces the world’s first  “World Cell Race” taking place in August. Cells sent in by various research institutions all over the world will compete against each other in the race to move towards a chemoattractant. The scientists thereby hope to identify genes involved in cell mobility which are known to be important drivers in cancer metastasis as well as wound healing and immune responses.

New Scientist recently featured a series of articles dealing with bacteria (“bugs that break all rules”): Caroline Williams introduces multicellular behavior of socializing bacteria, features bugs that hunt in packs, bacteria large enough to be visible with the naked eye and bacteria with backbones and cell compartments.

And finally, Cinthia Briseno in Der Spiegel reports on studies proving that the internet is changing the way we memorize and learn. The ability to rely on the internet seems to encourage people to make less mental notes of facts they are sure to find in the web with a few keystrokes.

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.”