Sunday, July 29, 2012

Cambridge graduate wins Nobel Prize in medicine

Elizabeth Blackburn, an alumna of Darwin College and a recipient of an Honorary Doctorate of Science from the University earlier this year, has been awarded the Nobel Prize in medicine. Professor Blackburn, along with Carol Greider and Jack Szostak, has been awarded the 2009 Nobel Prize for her research on telomerase, an enzyme she discovered in 1985 with her then PhD student Dr Greider. Telomerase, which adds DNA to the ends of chromosomes in cells, plays a key role in cancer development and has been the focus of much cancer research since its discovery.
Professor Blackburn is an Australian citizen, who earned her BSc (1970) and MSc (1972) degrees from the University of Melbourne, and her PhD (1975) from Cambridge, where she was a student at Darwin College. She did postdoctoral work in molecular and cellular biology from 1975 to 1977 at Yale, joining the faculty of the University of California at Berkeley in 1978, and moving to University of California, San Francisco in 1990 where she is currently Professor of Biology and Physiology. She is a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (1991), the Royal Society of London (1992), the American Academy of Microbiology (1993), and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (2000). She was elected Foreign Associate of the National Academy of Sciences in 1993, and was elected as a Member of the Institute of Medicine in 2000. The University of Cambridge has more Nobel Prize winners than any other institution. Including today’s announcement, there are currently 84 affiliates of the University who have won the Nobel Prize since 1904. They have won in every category, with 29 Nobel Prizes in physics, 24 in medicine, 19 in chemistry, seven in Economics, two in literature and two in peace.

Diabetes drug improves survival from life-threatening infectious disease

Scientists have identified a diabetes drug which halves the mortality rate of a deadly infectious disease found throughout Southeast Asia and Northern Australia. Melioidosis, caused by a soil dwelling bacterium (Burkholderia pseudomallei) that is present in certain regions of the world, results in severe infections include bloodstream infections and pneumonia. Death results in up to 40% of affected individuals despite antibiotic treatment. New research by a multinational team from the United Kingdom, Thailand, Singapore and The Netherlands, however, has found that people taking the diabetes drug glibenclamide (called glyburide in the US) have half the mortality of other patients with melioidosis.
The investigators were supported by the Wellcome Trust Thailand/Laos Major Overseas Programme to study 1160 patients with melioidosis in northeast Thailand, and found that death from melioidosis was only 28% in diabetic patients taking glyburide, compared to a mortality rate of nearly one half in other patient groups including those on other diabetes medication and non-diabetics. A study of white blood cells from people taking glibenclamide, performed by collaborators at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, also showed less evidence of activity relating to inflammation. “Roughly half of all patients with melioidosis have diabetes as a risk factor,” says Dr. Gavin Koh, an infectious diseases doctor at the University of Cambridge and first author of the study. “Our Thai collaborators realised several years ago that diabetics are more likely to get melioidosis, but are less likely to die from their infection compared with non-diabetics. Our research shows that this improvement in survival is not an effect of diabetes itself, but of glibenclamide which is often prescribed to control the high blood sugar of diabetes.” Glibenclamide does not appear to have a direct effect on the bacterium, and researchers hypothesise that its benefit comes from modulation of the human immune response to infection. This raises the important possibility that it might have the same benefit in people infected with other pathogens. “Glibenclamide cannot be given safely to people who present to hospital with severe bacterial infection who are not diabetic,” cautions Professor Peacock, Professor of Clinical Microbiology in the Department of Medicine and senior investigator on the study, “but we hope that our findings will result in further research to define the mechanisms by which the drug increases patient survival, and to the development of related drugs that share these mechanisms but that do not lower blood sugar levels and can be given safely to all patients with severe sepsis.” The study was funded by the Wellcome Trust of Great Britain and was published online by Clinical Infectious Diseases.

Project to improve radiotherapy planning

A collaborative project between physicists, oncologists and computer scientists at Oxford and Cambridge Universities, launched last month, will develop improved tools for the planning of high precision radiotherapy. Accel-RT will also help overcome time constraints that currently limit the use of complex radiotherapy treatment. Radiation therapy (radiotherapy) is an essential part of cancer treatment and is used in the treatment of 40 per cent of all patients who are cured of their disease. All radiotherapy treatments work by the application of ionising radiation to malignant cells in tumours. The free radicals released by this process damage the DNA of the exposed tissue, killing off the cancerous cells. By targeting the radiation to the tumour, the damage to surrounding healthy tissue is minimised.
Modern radiotherapy machines can now deliver highly targeted radiotherapy treatment. However, the use of high precision radiotherapy techniques is extremely demanding in terms of hours spent, from the physician who defines the tumour target and healthy tissues, to the physicist who has to calculate a plan of optimum beam angles and trajectories for the treatment, and the radiographer, who must ensure that the treatment is delivered accurately to the target every day during a six or seven week course of radiotherapy. Accel-RT is an innovative partnership between oncologists, physicists and computer scientists at the Universities of Cambridge and Oxford. Over the next three years the collaborators will develop software tools and processes that will speed up the process of planning of radiotherapy. Once completed, free software tools will be available to radiotherapy treatment centres. These tools will increase patient access to high precision radiotherapy by reducing the bottle-necks in the clinical workflow. The system will operate as a ‘virtual oncologist’, observing what the oncologist is treating and using novel search algorithms to recall similar cases from a clinical archive. Models of tissue structures will be used to help outline normal tissue automatically, as well as to track the movement of these structures during the course of radiotherapy treatment. Accel-RT is being funded by the Science and Technologies Facilities Council (STFC), through its Innovations Partnership Scheme, and will benefit from the support of Siemens Healthcare, a leading supplier of imaging technology and radiotherapy treatment devices throughout the world. The key players in the project are established leaders in their fields. At the University of Cambridge, Dr Neil Burnet has been an ‘early adopter’ of novel radiotherapy technologies at Addenbrooke’s, from the commissioning of the first in-house 3D computerised treatment planning system, through to the evaluation of the TomoTherapy image guided intensity modulated radiotherapy system conducted for the Department of Health. At Oxford University, Professor Jim Davies and his team from the Department of Computer Science have experience in the handling of ‘smart’ data systems – using metadata elements to allow data to be searched and processed in more intuitive ways. Professor Andy Parker and his team at the High Energy Physics group in Cambridge have extensive experience in the storage and handling of large quantities of image data, and the use of grid computing techniques to accelerate this process. “In essence, Accel-RT is helping to identify tumours and surrounding organs during the planning and delivery of radiotherapy treatment. Tracking the change in position and volume of these structures is a complex problem. To perform these calculations in real time for a single patient would require up to 16 Teraflops of processing power – approximately 100 times the power of a standard PC workstation,” said Professor Parker, who is Professor of High Energy Physics at the Cavendish Laboratory and Principal Investigator for Accel-RT. For more details about the project, and to register for project news emails, go to

New light shed on explosive solar activity

The study published today by University of Cambridge scientists working with colleagues in India and the USA is the first to visualise the movement of gases at one million degrees in coronal loops – solar structures that are rooted at both ends and extend out from active regions of the Sun. Active regions are the ‘cradle’ for explosive energy releases such as solar flares and coronal mass ejections (CMEs). The observation will help scientists understand what is considered to be one of the most challenging issues in astrophysics – how solar structures are heated and maintained in the upper solar atmosphere. Extreme solar activity can lead to severe space storms that interfere with satellite communications and damage electric power transmission grids on Earth. Solar activity is cyclical, with the next maximum forecast to occur around May 2013, and severe space weather is now listed very high on the UK’s 2012 National Risk Register of Civil Emergencies. Based on observations from the Hinode satellite (a joint Japanese, NASA, European Space Agency and UK project), the new findings provide the first evidence of plasma upflows travelling at around 20 km per second in the one million degree active region loops. The scientists suggest that the upflow of gases is probably the result of “impulsive heating” close to the footpoint regions of the loops. “Active regions are now occurring frequently across the Sun. We have a really great opportunity to study them with solar spacecraft, such as Hinode and the Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO),” said co-author Dr Helen Mason from the University of Cambridge’s Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics. “Probing the heating of the Sun’s active region loops can help us to better understand the physical mechanisms for more energetic events which can impinge on the Earth’s environment.” Previous ultraviolet images of the Sun taken by NASA’s SDO have shown large loops of hot gas guided by the Sun’s magnetic field and rooted near sunspots. Despite such remarkable developments in the observations and theory of active regions over the past few decades, the question remained as to how solar plasma is heated and rises up into the loops in the first place. Now, the new research provides the first visualisation of plasma flow by showing the movement of gases within the loop as ‘blueshifts’ in diagnostic images using the extreme ultraviolet imaging spectrometer (EIS) on the Hinode satellite. Spectral lines produced by the spectrometer act like ‘fingerprints’ or the ‘bar code’ in a supermarket – the lines identify the multitude of elements and ions within the loop and shifts in the position of the lines provide information on the motion of the plasma. Although the Sun is composed mainly of hydrogen and helium, there are also other trace elements, such as oxygen and iron, in the hot ionised gas within the loops. The scientists suggest that the gas movement is caused by a process of “chromospheric evaporation” in which “impulsive heating” on a small scale can result in the heating of the solar active regions but on a larger scale can lead to huge explosions, such as solar flares or coronal mass ejections. “It is believed that magnetic energy builds up in an active region as the magnetic field becomes distorted, for example by motions below the surface of the Sun dragging the magnetic fields around,” explained Mason, whose research is partially funded by the UK’s Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC). “Sometimes magnetic flux can emerge or submerge and affect the overlying magnetic field. We believe that solar plasma surges upwards when impulsive heating results from magnetic reconnection which occurs either in the loops or close to the Sun’s surface. These disruptions are sometimes relatively gentle but can also be catastrophic.” Commenting on the newly published study, Professor Richard Harrison MBE, Head of Space Physics and Chief Scientist at the STFC Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, said: “The Sun governs the environment in which we live and it is the so-called solar active regions that drive extreme conditions leading to the explosive flares and the huge eruptions; understanding these active regions is absolutely critical for the study of what we now call space weather. The work published by in this paper is a key element of that work, applying innovative analyses to the observations from the UK-led Hinode/EIS instrument.” The researchers hope that a better understanding of active regions might one day help scientists to identify the magnetic field structures that lead to explosive solar energy releases and use this as a means for predicting when such events will occur. The study is published today in Astrophysical Journal Letters.

Archaeologists uncover Palaeolithic ceramic art

Evidence of a community of prehistoric artists and craftspeople who “invented” ceramics during the last Ice Age – thousands of years before pottery became commonplace – has been found in modern-day Croatia. The finds consist of 36 fragments, most of them apparently the broken-off remnants of modelled animals, and come from a site called Vela Spila on the Adriatic coast. Archaeologists believe that they were the products of an artistic culture which sprang up in the region about 17,500 years ago. Their ceramic art flourished for about 2,500 years, but then disappeared. The study, which is published in the journal PLoS ONE, adds to a rapidly-changing set of views about when humans first developed the ability to make ceramics and pottery. Most histories of the technology begin with the more settled cultures of the Neolithic era, which began about 10,000 years ago. Now it is becoming clear that the story was much more complex. Over thousands of years, ceramics were invented, lost, reinvented and lost again. The earliest producers did not make crockery, but seem to have had more artistic inclinations. The Vela Spila finds have been the subject of intensive investigation by researchers at the University of Cambridge and colleagues in Croatia since 2010. Their report, published this week, suggests that although earlier ceramic remnants have been found elsewhere, they had no connection with the site, where the ability to make these artefacts appears to have been independently rediscovered by the people who lived there. “It is extremely unusual to find ceramic art this early in prehistory,” Dr. Preston Miracle, from the University of Cambridge, said. “The finds at Vela Spila seem to represent the first evidence of Palaeolithic ceramic art at the end of the last Ice Age. They appear to have been developed independently of anything that had come before. We are starting to see that several distinct Palaeolithic societies made art from ceramic materials long before the Neolithic era, when ceramics became more common and were usually used for more functional purposes.” Vela Spila is a large, limestone cave on KorĨula Island, in the central Dalmatian archipelago. Excavations have taken place there sporadically since 1951, and there is evidence of occupation on the site during the Upper Palaeolithic period, roughly 20,000 years ago, through to the Bronze Age about 3,000 years ago. The first ceramic finds were made back in 2001. Initially they were almost overlooked, because it is so unusual to find ceramic in the Upper Palaeolithic record. As more ceramic emerged, however, examples were set aside for careful analysis. Researchers meticulously checked the collection for tell-tale evidence of modelling on the artefacts which would confirm that they had been made by a human hand. In all, 36 cases were identified. Broadly, the collection belongs to a material culture known as “Epigravettian” which spanned 12,000 years, but radiocarbon dating has allowed scholars to pin down the Vela Spila ceramic collection to a much narrower period, between 17,500 and 15,000 years ago. Those which can be identified appear to be fragments of modelled animals. The ceramics were clearly made with care and attention by real craftspeople who knew what they were doing. One of the better-preserved items, which seems to be the torso and foreleg of a horse or deer, shows that the creator deliberately minimised the number of joins in the model, perhaps to give it structural strength. They were also marked with incisions, grooves, and punctured holes, using various tools, probably made from bone or stone. Finger marks can still be seen where the objects were handled while the ceramic paste was wet. As well as being the first and only evidence of ceramic, figurative art in south-eastern Europe during the Upper Palaeolithic, the collection’s size, range and complexity suggests that Vela Spila was the heart of a flourishing and distinctive artistic tradition. Although the finds bear some similarities with ceramics discovered in the Czech Republic, which date back a further 10,000 years, there are enough structural and stylistic differences – as well as separation by a huge gulf in time – to suggest no continuity between the two.
The older, Czech finds were also typically found near hearths, which were possibly kilns. Some researchers have even gone so far as to suggest that they were deliberately destroyed in the fire as some sort of ritual act. The Vela Spila finds, on the other hand, appear to have undergone no such ritual destruction – at least not in the same way. As a result, the Cambridge-Croatian team believes that these ceramics came from a hitherto unknown artistic tradition that flourished for about two millennia in the Balkans. Like their Neolithic descendants, these people may have had no knowledge of ceramics before they invented the technology for themselves. And like their Palaeolithic ancestors, over time they either forgot or rejected that technology – only for it to be rediscovered again. The next evidence of ceramic technologies at Vela Spila appears 8,000 years later in the record, and comprises functional pottery items rather than art. “The development of this new material and technology may have been a catalyst for a more general transformation in artistic expression and figurative art at this site thousands of years ago,” Dr Rebecca Farbstein, from the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, University of Cambridge added. “Although we often focus on utilitarian innovations as examples of societies transforming as a result of new technology, the ceramic evidence we have found here offers a glimpse into the ways in which prehistoric cultures were also sometimes defined and affected by artistic innovations and expression.”

Night shifts can raise risk of heart attacks and strokes by more than 40%

Shift work can dramatically increase the risk of heart attacks and strokes, warn researchers. A study of two million people found shift workers are almost 25 per cent more likely to suffer. Night shift workers run the highest risk of 41 per cent, says a study published on the British Medical Journal website People working shifts also have higher levels of unhealthy behaviours such as eating junk food, sleeping badly and not exercising, which are linked to heart problems. But researchers said they took this into account - and the excess risks remained. The latest study is the biggest analysis of shift work and likelihood of vascular problems including heart attacks, strokes and angina. Shift work has long been known to disrupt the body clock and be linked to high blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes, but the overall impact on cardiovascular health has been unclear. A team of international researchers analysed the results of 34 studies involving 2,011,935 people to investigate whether shift work was associated with major vascular events. Shift work was defined as evening shifts, irregular or unspecified shifts, mixed schedules, night shifts and rotating shifts, and the studies also contained day workers or the general population for comparison. Altogether 17,359 had some kind of coronary event, 6,598 had heart attacks and 1,854 had ischaemic strokes caused by lack of blood to the brain. These events were more common among shift workers than other people. Shift work was associated with a 23 per cent increased risk of heart attack, 24 per cent rise in coronary events and five per cent extra strokes. These risks remained consistent even after adjusting for factors such as study quality, socioeconomic status and unhealthy behaviours in shift workers. Night shifts were linked with the steepest increase in risk of 41 per cent for coronary events. However, shift work was not associated with increased death rates from any cause. Daniel Hackam, Clinical Pharmacologist, Stroke Prevention & Atherosclerosis Research Centre (SPARC), London, Ontario, Canada, said the relative risks might appear modest, but millions of people do shift work which means the overall risks are high. He said screening programmes could help identify and treat risk factors, such as high blood pressure and cholesterol levels. ‘Shift workers should be educated about cardiovascular symptoms in an effort to forestall or avert the earliest clinical manifestations of disease’ he added. There has been mounting evidence that night shift working might boost cancer risk because of the disruption to the body clock and hormone production. Previous research found a link between night shifts and increased risk of breast cancer in women. In 2007 the International Agency for Research on Cancer concluded that shift work was ‘probably carcinogenic’.
The UK’s Health and Safety Executive has commissioned researchers in Oxford to explore the relationship between chronic disease and shift work, which is expected to be completed in December 2015. Ellen Mason, Senior Cardiac Nurse at the British Heart Foundation (BHF), said ‘Although the associated increased risk to an individual shift worker was relatively small, many Brits don’t work nine to five and so these findings becomes much more significant. ‘Whether you work nights, evenings or regular office hours, eating healthily, getting active and quitting smoking can make a big difference to your heart health. Anyone over 40 in England should take advantage of a free NHS health check which will examine blood pressure, cholesterol levels and BMI. ‘We also need to raise awareness in the workplace about the signs and symptoms of a heart attack or stroke and urge everybody to call 999 at the first sign of trouble.’ Dr Peter Coleman, Stroke Association’s Deputy Director of Research said ‘It’s a well-known fact that working irregular hours can be bad for our health. It disrupts the body clock and is often associated with an increased risk of high blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes, all of which are risk factors for stroke. ‘Although this study shows that the actual increased stroke risk is fairly low, it’s important for all shift workers to pay close attention to their health and ensure they get the right amount of sleep, exercise, and eat a balanced diet. ‘If you’re at all concerned about your stroke risk, you should make an appointment with your GP or health professional.

Yoga helps stroke patients to regain their balance

Yoga may help stroke survivors improve their balance, according to a new study. Researchers found group yoga can improve balance in stroke survivors who no longer receive rehabilitative care. In a pilot study, scientists tested the potential benefits of yoga among chronic stroke survivors - those whose stroke occurred more than six months earlier. Lead researcher Doctor Arlene Schmid, a rehabilitation research scientist at Indiana University in the United States, said: 'For people with chronic stroke, something like yoga in a group environment is cost effective and appears to improve motor function and balance.' The study's 47 participants, about three-quarters of them male veterans, were divided into three groups: twice-weekly group yoga for eight weeks; a 'yoga-plus' group, which met twice weekly and had a relaxation recording to use at least three times a week; and a usual medical care group that did no rehabilitation. The yoga classes, taught by a registered yoga therapist, included modified yoga postures, relaxation, and meditation. Classes grew more challenging each week. Compared with patients in the usual-care group, those who completed yoga or yoga-plus significantly improved their balance. The researchers said balance problems frequently last long after a person suffers a stroke, and are related to greater disability and a higher risk of falls. Survivors in the yoga groups also had improved scores for independence and quality of life and were less afraid of falling. Dr Schmid said: 'For chronic stroke patients, even if they remain disabled, natural recovery and acute rehabilitation therapy typically ends after six months, or maybe a year.'
She said improvements after the six-month window can take longer to occur, but added: 'We know for a fact that the brain still can change. 'The problem is the healthcare system is not necessarily willing to pay for that change. The study demonstrated that with some assistance, even chronic stroke patients with significant paralysis on one side can manage to do modified yoga poses.' The oldest patient in the study was in his 90s. All participants had to be able to stand on their own at the study's outset. The researchers said yoga may be more therapeutic than traditional exercise because the combination of postures, breathing and meditation may produce different effects than simple exercise. However, Dr Schmid said: 'Stroke patients looking for such help might have a hard time finding qualified yoga therapists to work with. 'Some occupational and physical therapists are integrating yoga into their practice, even though there's scant evidence at this point to support its effectiveness.' Now the scientists hope to conduct a larger study. They also noticed improvements in the mindset of patients about their disability. The participants talked about walking through a grocery store instead of using an assistive scooter, being able to take a shower and feeling inspired to visit friends. Dr Schmid said: 'It has to do with the confidence of being more mobile. These were very meaningful changes in life for people.' The research was published in the journal Stroke.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Raisins boost athletic performance

For athletes participating in the London 2012 Olympics, here is a helpful tip! According to a new research, you can now replace your dose of sports chews with the good old raisin as it provides the same workout boost. Researchers from the University of California-Davis found that eating raisins can boost performance in athletes and long distance runners.
Many athletes like to fuel with energy gels or chews because they are easy to carry and digest. The study published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition evaluated the effects that natural versus commercial carbohydrate supplements have on endurance running performance. Runners completed three randomised trials (raisins, chews and water only) separated by seven days. The study found that those who ingested raisins or sports chews ran their 5 kilometres on average one minute faster than those who ingested only water. Eating raisins and sports chews promoted higher carbohydrate oxidation compared to water only. “Raisins are a great alternative to sport chews as they provide micronutrients, such as potassium and iron, and they do not have any added sugar, artificial flavour or colours,” said James Painter, nutrition research advisor for the California Raisin Marketing Board. “As an added bonus, raisins are the most economical dried fruit according to the United Stated Department of Agriculture, so they are cost effective and convenient for use during exercise,” he said.

Cheese can help beat diabetes

A new research has claimed that cheese can prevent diabetes, even as the current health guidelines advise cutting back on dairy products. British and Dutch researchers found that eating just two slices of cheese a day cuts the risk of type 2 diabetes by 12 per cent, the Daily Mail reported. Diabetes can cause heart attacks, strokes, blindness and nerve problems, without yet having been diagnosed. The researchers looked at the diets of 16,800 healthy adults and 12,400 patients with type 2 diabetes from eight European countries, including the UK.
The study, published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, found that those who ate at least 55 grams of cheese a day — around two slices were 12 per cent less likely to develop type 2 diabetes. The risk fell by the same amount for those who ate 55 grams of yoghurt a day. For years National Health Survey guidelines in the UK have advised against eating too much dairy, cake or red meat as they are high in saturated fat. This is thought to increase cholesterol and raise the risk of diabetes. Researchers including academics from the Medical Research Council, Cambridge said that not all saturated fats are as harmful as others, and some may even be beneficial. One theory is that the so-called probiotic bacteria in cheese and yoghurt can lower cholesterol and produce certain vitamins which prevent diabetes. And cheese, milk and yoghurt are also high in vitamin D, calcium and magnesium, which may help protect against the condition. “We recommend a healthy balanced diet, rich in fruit and vegetables and low in salt and fat. This study gives us no reason to believe that people should change their dairy intake in an attempt to avoid the condition,” Dr. Iain Frame, director of research at a UK-based charity, was quoted by the paper as saying.

Clinton promises $157m in fight against HIV-AIDS

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced that the U.S. would be contributing an additional $157 million to the fight against HIV-AIDS, even as a constellation of celebrity speakers at the ongoing International AIDS Conference here admitted that the world continued to face serious challenges in halting the spread of the epidemic. Reflecting on the mixed record of the scientific community seeking a cure for HIV-AIDS Ms. Clinton said, “The ability to prevent and treat the disease has advanced beyond what many might have reasonably hoped 22 years ago. Yes, AIDS is still incurable, but it no longer has to be a death sentence.” With a rare hat-tip to former U.S. President George W. Bush, for setting up the nodal PEPFAR agency in 2003 for fighting HIV-AIDS in the U.S., the Secretary added that under President Barack Obama the U.S.’ focus has been on “shifting out of emergency mode and starting to build sustainable health systems that will help us finally win this fight.” To that end, she announced, the U.S. would be contributing an additional $40 million to support South Africa’s voluntary medical circumcision plans; investing an additional $80 million to ensure that HIV-positive pregnant women receive adequate treatment; $37 million in implementation research, country-specific programmes and civil-society support targeting vulnerable and high-risk populations across the world. India found specific mention as a nation with one of the largest HIV-positive populations globally, when Ms. Clinton said that along with South Africa, Namibia, and Botswana, India, may be able to provide more and better care for its by committing more of its own resources to the cause.
“Partner countries also need to take steps like fighting corruption and making sure their systems for approving drugs are as efficient as possible,” Ms. Clinton said, adding that the U.S. had sometimes engaged in “difficult conversations about issues that some leaders don’t want to face, like government corruption in the procurement and delivery of drugs or dealing with injecting drug users.” Emphasising that it was the first time a President of the World Bank had addressed the Conference the new head of the multilateral lender, Jim Yong Kim, praised the role of NGOs in the fight against HIV-AIDS, including the Lawyers Collective in India. Touching upon the overall between the fights against AIDS and poverty, he emphasised openness and innovation, saying, “The countries that have achieved the greatest successes against AIDS have been open about their epidemics. They have shared information widely, challenged stigma, and encouraged public debate. They have refused secrecy and dispelled irrational fear.” Microsoft co-founder and billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates said in a media interview that although recent United Nations statistics suggested that global AIDS deaths last year fell to 1.7 million, down from 1.8 million in 2010, the end was not in sight. Speaking to Reuters news agency he said that far too many people are dying from AIDSand the world still lacked “the tools that will bring about the end.” Wealthy nations, Mr. Gates said, were the primary engine for funding the research and the delivery of life-saving drugs to 8 million poor people and yet they now faced financial challenges that threatened AIDS funding.

Found: Gene that spreads breast cancer

Scientists claimed to have discovered the gene that encourages the spread of breast cancer, paving way for treatments for the disease.
The discovery of the gene, RhoC, could lead to new ways to target the behaviour of these cancer cells, scientists claimed. Chemotherapy often stops working because it doesn't kill cancer stem cells that fuel spread of tumours, the Daily Mail reported. RhoC has been shown to promote metastasis, spread of cancer cells to distant organs, including the bone which is more likely to kill them than a primary breast tumour.

Alcohol can triple original dose of medicine

Always avoid alcohol while taking certain medicines because it actually triples the original dose, warn researchers. Lab experiments have demonstrated how alcohol made several drugs up to three times more available to the body, effectively tripling the original dose, said Christel Bergstrom, associate professor of pharmacology at Monash University, who led the study. Bergstrom and colleagues explain that beverage alcohol, or ethanol, can cause an increase in the amount of non-prescription and prescription drugs that are "available" to the body after taking a specific dose, the journal Molecular Pharmaceutics reports.
Alcohol can change how enzymes and other substances in the body interact with many of the 5,000 such medications on the market. Some of these medications don't dissolve well in the gastrointestinal tract, especially in the stomach and intestines, according to a Monash statement. The researchers sought to test whether ethanol made these drugs dissolve more easily. If so, this would make the drugs more "available" in the body, possibly intensifying their effects when combined with alcohol. They used a simulated environment of the small intestine to test how rapidly medications dissolved when alcohol was and was not present. Almost 60 percent of the 22 medications in their tests dissolved much faster in the presence of alcohol. In addition, they found that certain types of substances, such as those that were acidic, were more affected. Some common acidic drugs include warfarin, the anticoagulant; tamoxifen, used to treat certain forms of cancer; and naproxen, which relieves pain and inflammation.

Decoding the Secrets of Balance

If you have ever looked over the edge of a cliff and felt dizzy, you understand the challenges faced by people who suffer from symptoms of vestibular dysfunction such as vertigo and dizziness. There are over 70 million of them in North America. For people with vestibular loss, performing basic daily living activities that we take for granted (e.g. dressing, eating, getting in and out of bed, getting around inside as well as outside the home) becomes difficult since even small head movements are accompanied by dizziness and the risk of falling. We've known for a while that a sensory system in the inner ear (the vestibular system) is responsible for helping us keep our balance by giving us a stable visual field as we move around. And while researchers have already developed a basic understanding of how the brain constructs our perceptions of ourselves in motion, until now no one has understood the crucial step by which the neurons in the brain select the information needed to keep us in balance. The way that the brain takes in and decodes information sent by neurons in the inner ear is complex. The peripheral vestibular sensory neurons in the inner ear take in the time varying acceleration and velocity stimuli caused by our movement in the outside world (such as those experienced while riding in a car that moves from a stationary position to 50 km per hour). These neurons transmit detailed information about these stimuli to the brain (i.e. information that allows one to reconstruct how these stimuli vary over time) in the form of nerve impulses. Scientists had previously believed that the brain decoded this information linearly and therefore actually attempted to reconstruct the time course of velocity and acceleration stimuli. But by combining electrophysiological and computational approaches, Kathleen Cullen and Maurice Chacron, two professors in McGill University's Department of Physiology, have been able to show for the first time that the neurons in the vestibular nuclei in the brain instead decode incoming information nonlinearly as they respond preferentially to unexpected, sudden changes in stimuli.
It is known that representations of the outside world change at each stage in this sensory pathway. For example, in the visual system neurons located closer to the periphery of the sensory system (e.g. ganglion cells in the retina) tend to respond to a wide range of sensory stimuli (a "dense" code), whereas central neurons (e.g. in the primary visual cortex at the back of the head tend to respond much more selectively (a "sparse" code). Chacron and Cullen have discovered that the selective transmission of vestibular information they were able to document for the first time occurs as early as the first synapse in the brain. "We were able to show that the brain has developed this very sophisticated computational strategy to represent sudden changes in movement in order to generate quick accurate responses and maintain balance," explained Prof. Cullen. "I keep describing it as elegant, because that's really how it strikes me." This kind of selectivity in response is important for everyday life, since it enhances the brain's perception of sudden changes in body posture. So that if you step off an unseen curb, within milliseconds, your brain has both received the essential information and performed the sophisticated computation needed to help you readjust your position. This discovery is expected to apply to other sensory systems and eventually to the development of better treatments for patients who suffer from vertigo, dizziness, and disorientation during their daily activities. It should also lead to treatments that will help alleviate the symptoms that accompany motion and/or space sickness produced in more challenging environments. The research was conducted by Corentin Massot a Postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Physiology, and Adam Schneider a Ph.D. Student in the Department of Physics.

Modeling of New Enzymes Helps Develop Therapies for Cocaine Abuse

Researchers from the University of Kentucky have designed and discovered a series of highly efficient enzymes that effectively metabolize cocaine. These high-activity cocaine-metabolizing enzymes could potentially prevent cocaine from producing physiological effects, and could aid in the treatment of drug dependency. The results of this study by Chang-Guo Zhan et al are published in the journal PLOS Computational Biology.
The effectiveness of the enzymes' work was evaluated through modeling cocaine pharmacokinetics, the study of the body's action on administered external substances, such as cocaine, when the enzyme exists in the body. As there is no FDA-approved anti-cocaine medication, the medical and social consequences of cocaine abuse have made the development of anti-cocaine medication a high priority. Administration of an enzyme to enhance cocaine metabolism has been recognized as a promising treatment strategy for overdose and abuse. A remarkable feature of the enzyme-based therapeutic approach is that one enzyme molecule can degrade many thousands of drug molecules per minute. This pharmacokinetic modelling is a crucial step of enzyme-based therapy development for cocaine abuse. Furthermore, the general insights of the research should also be valuable for future development of an enzyme therapy for any addictive drug, as the general methodology of the modelling may be used to develop valuable models for evaluating the effectiveness of metabolic enzymes in detoxifying other drugs.

Do Ovaries Continue to Produce Eggs During Adulthood?

A compelling new genetic study tracing the origins of immature egg cells, or 'oocytes', from the embryonic period throughout adulthood adds new information to a growing controversy. The notion of a "biological clock" in women arises from the fact that oocytes progressively decline in number as females get older, along with a decades-old dogmatic view that oocytes cannot be renewed in mammals after birth After careful assessment of data from a recent study published in PLoS Genetics, scientists from Massachusetts General Hospital and the University of Edinburgh argue that the findings support formation of new eggs during adult life; a topic that has been historically controversial and has sparked considerable debate in recent years.
Eggs are formed from progenitor germ cells that exit the mitotic cycle, thereby ending their ability to proliferate through cell division, and subsequently enter meiosis, a process unique to the formation of eggs and sperm which removes one half of the genetic material from each type of cell prior to fertilization. While traditional thinking has held that female mammals are born with all of the eggs they will ever have, newer research has demonstrated that adult mouse and human ovaries contain a rare population of progenitor germ cells called oogonial stem cells capable of dividing and generating new oocytes. Using a powerful new genetic tool that traces the number of divisions a cell has undergone with age (its 'depth') Shapiro and colleagues counted the number of times progenitor germ cells divided before becoming oocytes; their study was published in PLoS Genetics in February this year. If traditional thinking held true, all divisions would have occurred prior to birth, and thus all oocytes would exhibit the same depth regardless of age. However, the opposite was found -- eggs showed a progressive increase in depth as the female mice grew older. In their assessment of the work by Shapiro and colleagues -- published recently in a PLoS Genetics Perspective article -- reproductive biologists Dori Woods, Evelyn Telfer and Jonathan Tilly conclude that the most plausible explanation for these findings is that progenitor germ cells in ovaries continue to divide throughout reproductive life, resulting in production of new oocytes with greater depth as animals age. Although these investigations were performed in mice, there is emerging evidence that oogonial stem cells are also present in the ovaries of reproductive-age women, and these cells possess the capacity, like their mouse counterparts, to generate new oocytes under certain experimental conditions. While more work is needed to settle the debate over the significance of oocyte renewal in adult mammals, Woods and colleagues emphasize that "the recent work of Shapiro and colleagues is one of the first reports to offer experimental data consistent with a role for postnatal oocyte renewal in contributing to the reserve of ovarian follicles available for use in adult females as they age."

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Triple Whammy Led to High Rate of Bottlenose Dolphin Deaths in Gulf of Mexico

Bottlenose dolphins in the northern Gulf of Mexico were hit by a triple whammy of events, leading to an unusually high death rate in early 2011, a paper published in PLoS ONE suggests. Between January and April 2011, 186 bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) washed ashore in the northern Gulf of Mexico. Of these, 86 were near-term or newborn, nearly double the historical average. Dolphin deaths are being monitored by an ongoing Unusual Mortality Event (UME) survey, which began in response to high numbers of adult dolphins dying during a period of sustained cold weather in early 2010. The PLoS ONE study suggests that the cold weather was the first of three factors that weakened the dolphin population and contributed to the high death rate. The second was the Deepwater Horizon oil spill that followed in April. And the third was large volumes of cold fresh water from melting snow entering Mobile Bay — an inlet in the Gulf of Mexico — in 2011.
Dolphins naturally encounter seasonal temperature and freshwater fluctuations, says lead author Ruth Carmichael, a marine scientist at Dauphin Island Sea Lab in Alabama, and neither factor alone would necessarily cause strandings or death. But the cold freshwater pulses may have been the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back, if the dolphin population was already weakened due to depleted food resources caused by preceding events, such as oil in the northern Gulf food chain, or bacterial infection. Between June 2010 and January 2012, 12 of the 51 stranded dolphins tested for Brucella bacteria gave positive results, according to Teri Rowles, coordinator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Marine Mammal Health and Stranding Response Program in Silver Spring, Maryland. Brucella, which is present in some healthy animals, can cause pneumonia, encephalitis, skin and bone infections, and abortion in dolphins. “Studies show that dolphins were in poor condition after Deepwater Horizon and some particularly cold winters, and we know from theNOAA analysis that some had Brucella,” says Carmichael. “For animals already stressed and in poor condition, this freight train of cold fresh water could certainly have affected the timing of mortality.” The cold water pulsed into Mobile Bay during the spring birthing period, and the greatest number of newborn strandings were found close to this area. Since dolphins have a gestation period of 12 months, some of the stranded newborns would have been conceived during the oil spill, which could have affected their ability to survive. “It’s a common fact that animals in good shape nutritionally are much more able to withstand change and stress,” says marine biologist Moby Solangi, executive director of the Institute for Marine Mammal Studies in Gulfport, Mississippi. “With multiple environmental challenges, we may not be able to say it was one thing or another. We do know that dolphins in the northern Gulf have been subjected to a number of environmental challenges in the past few years, and we do know that each one of those challenges will have affected their ability to deal with the others.” As is often the case with strandings, few of the dolphins were recovered in good enough condition to determine the cause of death, Rowles says. Nor do scientists have full data on the causes of death from those that have been analyzed. The UME survey is still ongoing, and final data and analysis are typically not available until 18 months after an event. Carmichael hopes that the study will encourage scientists to consider the physical and chemical environments in which events such as strandings happen, as these could affect the way species respond to stresses.

Artificial Jellyfish Built from Rat Cells

Bioengineers have made an artificial jellyfish using silicone and muscle cells from a rat’s heart. The synthetic creature, dubbed a medusoid, looks like a flower with eight petals. When placed in an electric field, it pulses and swims exactly like its living counterpart. “Morphologically, we’ve built a jellyfish. Functionally, we’ve built a jellyfish. Genetically, this thing is a rat,” says Kit Parker, a biophysicist at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, who led the work. The project is described today in Nature Biotechnology.
Parker’s lab works on creating artificial models of human heart tissues for regenerating organs and testing drugs, and the team built the medusoid as a way of understanding the “fundamental laws of muscular pumps”. It is an engineer’s approach to basic science: prove that you have identified the right principles by building something with them. In 2007, Parker was searching for new ways of studying muscular pumps when he visited the New England Aquarium in Boston, Massachusetts. “I saw the jellyfish display and it hit me like a thunderbolt,” he says. “I thought: I know I can build that.” To do so, he recruited John Dabiri, a bioengineer who studies biological propulsion at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in Pasadena. “I grabbed him and said, ‘John, I think I can build a jellyfish.’ He didn’t know who I was, but I was pretty excited and waving my arms, and I think he was afraid to say no.” Janna Nawroth, a graduate student at Caltech who performed most of the experiments, began by mapping every cell in the bodies of juvenile moon jellies (Aurelia aurita) to understand how they swim. A moon jelly's bell consists of a single layer of muscle, with fibres that are tightly aligned around a central ring and along eight spokes. To make the bell beat downwards, electrical signals spread through the muscle in a smooth wave, “like when you drop a pebble in water”, says Parker. “It’s exactly like what you see in the heart. My bet is that to get a muscular pump, the electrical activity has got to spread as a wavefront.” Form and function Nawroth created a structure with the same properties by growing a single layer of rat heart muscle on a patterned sheet of polydimethylsiloxane. When an electric field is applied across the structure, the muscle contracts rapidly, compressing the medusoid and mimicking a jellyfish’s power stroke. The elastic silicone then pulls the medusoid back to its original flat shape, ready for the next stroke. When placed between two electrodes in water, the medusoid swam like the real thing. It even produced water currents similar to those that wash food particles into jellyfish's mouths. “We thought if we’re really good at this, we’re going to recreate that vortex, and we did,” says Parker. “We took a rat apart and rebuilt it as a jellyfish.” “I think that this is terrific,” says Joseph Vacanti, a tissue engineer at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. “It is a powerful demonstration of engineering chimaeric systems of living and non-living components.” Parker says his team is taking synthetic biology to a new level. “Usually when we talk about synthetic life forms, somebody will take a living cell and put new genes in. We built an animal. It’s not just about genes, but about morphology and function.” The team now plans to build a medusoid using human heart cells. The researchers have filed a patent to use their design, or something similar, as a platform for testing drugs. “You’ve got a heart drug?” says Parker. “You let me put it on my jellyfish, and I’ll tell you if it can improve the pumping.”

How Old Is the Endangered Polar Bear?

Polar bears may have trod the planet for millions of years, according to a new genetic analysis. That suggests the white-coated, massive bears have weathered previous natural climate changes, and may predate the Arctic ice that is their preferred—and only—habitat today, which is why the species future remains uncertain presently. "There's no guarantee that they'll survive this time," says geneticist Webb Miller of Pennsylvania State University, an author of the study published July 23 in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. After all, Miller notes, the species currently lacks much genetic diversity to help it adapt to changing conditions as well as facing unprecedented threats such as heavy metal pollution accumulating in the Arctic. By better understanding how old the species is, the scientists hope to better understand what might be done to allow the polar bear to cope with onrushing climate change and other existential challenges. By analyzing the genomes of 28 bears—polar bears, including a roughly 120,000-year-old specimen from Norway's Svalbard archipelago, as well as modern brown bears and black bears—the scientists in effect read back in time to a common ancestor at least four million years ago. That finding conflicts with a genetic analysis published in Science earlier this year that suggested the species was only 600,000 years old or so, which the team behind the new research suggests may result from misreading past interbreeding events with closely related brown bears. In fact, the key problem here may be that technically the polar bear may not be a species at all. "If one defines that two species separate as when they cannot produce viable offspring, then perhaps brown bears and polar bears aren't yet separate species," Miller admits.
What makes a polar bear a polar bear? There's the white coat and black skin as well as less visible differences like a thicker layer of subcutaneous fat layers and richer milk. These and other unique features of adaptation to the harsh conditions of Arctic life have convinced biologists that the polar bears represent a unique type of animal—a species of its own. After all, the brown bear that is its closest living relative lacks all of these adaptations, looks different, eats different food and would not fare well in the harsh conditions out on the Arctic ice. Yet, brown bears and polar bears, when they meet, can mate, as evidenced both by the genetic record and observations in the wild. Because polar bears have been spending more time off the ice in recent years, they appear to have begun to interbreed with adjacent brown bear populations, and some of these hybrids are into their second generations. If the basic definition of a species is a group of organisms capable of mating and producing fertile offspring only within their own group, the polar bear and brown bear fail to qualify. Such interbreeding between bear species makes genetic analysis that much more difficult. After all, if the species interbreed even once, that single event can appear to determine the point at which the two species diverged if a scientist happens to analyze only the portion of the genome influenced by that mating event. And the mixing of genetic material has been going on for a long time between polar and brown bears, making disentangling their genetic history that much harder.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Green tea-gold combo offers new therapeutic hope for prostate cancer

A combination of gold and green tea compounds may be potential treatment for prostate cancer, according to researchers from the University of Missouri. In a new mouse study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the researchers found that a combination of a compound found in green tea leaves and radioactive gold nanoparticles were able to destroy the tumour cells. The tea compound, which was attracted to the cancerous cells, helped to deliver the gold nanoparticles, which killed the cancer cells. Researchers said large doses of chemotherapy, which sometimes have toxic side effects, are currently used to treat a variety of cancers, but the new treatment would require doses that are "thousands of times" lower than that of chemotherapy. The particles are small enough to destroy the diseased cells, but leave the healthy surrounding tissue and cells intact. "By combining a natural component in green tea that has an affinity for prostate tumour cells, we have formed gold nanoparticles that have a high uptake in tumour cells," ABC News quoted Dr. Cathy Cutler, research professor at the MU Research Reactor and co-author of the study, as saying. "This formulation of gold nanoparticles, which has shown such tumour cell death at such a low dose in a model of aggressive human prostate cancer indicates it could be effective for aggressive prostate cancer," Dr. Cutler noted.
The green tea compound used in the study, known as epigallocatechin-gallate, or EGCg, is an antioxidant that has been shown in prior research to have cancer-fighting properties. Dr. David Crawford, professor of surgery and radiation oncology at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center, said the use of nanoparticles for a number of areas in medicine to deliver therapy is "exciting," and, while early in development, still promising. But Dr. Derek Raghavan, president of Levine Cancer Institute at Carolinas HealthCare System, called the study "headline hunting" and noted the gap between data and clinical application is "vast." He said there are years of research needed to ensure the safety and efficacy of the treatment. Nevertheless, the University of Missouri scientists were optimistic in their findings, and said they plan on following up their research in dogs, which they said get a form of the disease very similar to the human form.

Pearls can now be of help in treating cancer

Pearls rich in essential minerals can help treat killer diseases like cancer, a leading scientist has claimed. In a series of experiments by Ajai Kumar Sonkar at the Pearl Aquaculture Research Foundation in Port Blair, pearls produced through special culture technique have been found to contain traces of several metals and minerals which are known to have major health benefits. “We have produced the pearls in a controlled environment in the lab in most aseptic conditions. They are found to contain traces of metal and minerals such as zinc, copper, magnesium, iron, calcium, sodium and potassium,” Sonkar said. “These micro-nutrients are essential for various body functions such as metabolism, growth and immunity. Of them, zinc has been found to be playing a major role in preventing fatal diseases like cancer,” he told PTI. A study, published recently in the British Journal of Cancer, has also established zinc’s anti-tumour role that prevents the growth of cancer cells. Other studies have also found that zinc deficiency in the body causes delayed healing of wounds. It is also found to play a leading role in weight loss, help decrease the severity and duration of cold and several other illnesses. According to Sonkar, they have produced pearls from four different species of pearl oysters. “The bio availability of zinc in the pearls can be exploited to help treat several diseases.” For scientific analysis, the scientist had sent samples of pearl powder to the Indian Council of Agricultural Research’s Central Institute of Fisheries Technology in Cochin, which established the pearls do contain all the mentioned metals and minerals.
Now, Sonkar wanted to carry out a comprehensive clinical test to find out health benefits of the specially cultured pearls. “I have already been approached by some prestigious laboratories from abroad and a workout process is going on,” he said and hoped that “some miraculous result to counter the notorious deceases could be found, if a comprehensive clinical analysis is conducted“. In the pearl culturing operation, one to three-years-old oysters undergo surgical implantation, known as seeding, in which mantle issue is taken from the donor oyster and grafted in the recipient oyster along with the nucleus. Then these oysters are kept in laboratory condition for healing, after which they are transferred to the sea placed in the cages where they remain six months to two year for pearl formation. The oyster can produce more than one pearl in its life time by taking good care of it, including regular cleaning of the outer shell to remove seaweed.

Bacteria too are family

“Bacteria” has been a bad word, spelling infections and diseases. But the latest Human Microbiome project has something different to say. What it says can change the way we look at ourselves and our ailments...and of course influence our attitude towards bacteria.
There are many sites and talks on this project but the one under review gives a comprehensive introduction to the project. On BBC radio, it comes as a conversation between Dr. Julie Segre, senior investigator at the U S National Institute of Health, Claire Fraser-Liggett, Director of the Institute for Genome Sciences at the University of Maryland, Lita Proctor Head of the project at National Institute of Health, and interviewer Geoff Watts. The conversation gives us some statistics: Our body is the playground for around 100 trillion microbes, hiding in our mouth, nose, guts, skin and genitals. The Human Microbiome Project in the US is sequencing the genomes of bacteria which live on our body. The Microbiome project thinks that understanding the life that lives on the internal and external body surfaces could provide vital information on illnesses from heart diseases to cancer. Our microbes help us digest food in our stomach, produce natural moisturisers on our skin and synthesise vitamins in our intestine. Super-organisms Julie Segre says, “The Microbiome project is a process of discovery. We need to start thinking of ourselves as super-organisms. This is the second genome – the bacterial genomes as well as the human genomes, all of that is part of the true genetic content of a human.” The theory is that we have co-evolved with our microbes in order to defend our bodies against pathogens. Geneticists are aiming to find out what constitutes a healthy microbial community, and what happens when the group is invaded by ‘bad’ bacteria. New research has suggested that pathogenic microbes could be implicated in a whole host of diseases, including obesity, heart disease, cancer, Alzheimer’s, arthritis and autism. The sheer density of microbial cells is ten times more than the human cells on our body surfaces. “We may find there are new links between the human microbiome and diseases that today we don’t think of as having any underlying microbial component,” says Claire Fraser-Liggett. The hope is that this research will pave the way for more personalised treatments which could help get our bacterial communities get back on the right track. The Microbiome project sees any one person’s microbes as one community. So rather than studying them individually, they are studying the microbes and their genetic material collectively. Lita Proctor says, “Microbes includes fungi, bacteria and viruses...we have still to identify all of them. We are aiming at understanding and sequencing 3000 of them. It sounds like a lot but we are probably looking at thousands of species of which we don’t know about.” Base code The process of extracting the genetic material from an entire community of project begins by dipping a swab taken from the body in salt water. The organisms released are then tested in many ways. The DNA is extracted from them and later mounted on to sequencing machines. The sequencing machine drills down to the base code. A skin sample could have 500 microbes and each microbe could have four million of these little letters...this complicated analysis is being done so quickly only thanks to advances in technology. “The key to this field is the new mathematical techniques to analyse this data,” says Lita Proctor. “What species is where and what are they doing? These are the questions we are engaged with....” A European project found about two kilos of bacteria live in our gut. They help us digest food we can’t do ourselves and give some proteins and even help to prevent cancer. There are three different types of microbial community which may be related to diet and so different communities may have different microbial population. As research on microbiomes progresses, the hope that new cures can be found gains strength.

Chimps decode speech mystery

That chimpanzees have a close evolutionary relation with human beings is a known fact. But recent research suggests that even our language might have been evolved from the variety of gestures used by chimpanzees to communicate with each other. A Stirling researcher has identified between 20 and 30 manual gestures used by a community of wild chimpanzees to communicate with others in a range of activities including nursing, feeding, sex, aggression and defence. Interestingly, a third of these gestures could have been used by humans during their evolving stage to develop language. Postgraduate researcher at the University of Stirling, Dr. Anna Roberts, found that chimpanzees use arm beckoning gestures to make another approach them, flail their arms to make another leave, use begging gestures to make others pass food and clap their hands to express excitement. The study is the first to show that wild chimpanzees are so close to humans in terms of their communicative abilities and these gestures suggest that the common ancestor of humans and chimpanzees must have used similar manual gestures. Dr. Roberts said: “Chimpanzees use these gestures intentionally to elicit a desired response from other chimpanzees and they may be the missing link between ape and human communication.” She added: “We now know that these gestures must have been in the repertoire of our common ancestor and might have been the starting point for language evolution. Manual gesture in chimpanzees is controlled by the same brain structures as speech in the human brain.” Dr. Roberts claimed that chimpanzees not only communicate using manual gestures, but they are able to work out what the signaller means from both gesture and accompanying context.
“Chimpanzees not only use similar manual gestures to humans,” she pointed out, “but the way they use these gestures is also very similar to the way humans gesture and use language. The defining way that people understand communication with others is by figuring out what someone really means by ‘mind-reading’ their intentions and we have discovered that chimpanzees may have a similar ability.” Dr. Roberts studied chimpanzees in the wild in Uganda over a period of eight months for her PhD at the University of Stirling. The study was undertaken in Budongo Conservation Field Station, funded by the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland. She has subsequently published two papers: ‘Usage and Comprehension of Manual Gestures in Wild Chimpanzees’ in the journal Animal Behaviour; and ‘Repertoire of Manual Gestures in Wild Chimpanzees’ in Evolution and Human Behaviour. “We are all interested in what distinguishes us from animals and the defining feature of humans is language. Language allows us to co-operate, to learn from each other and to create cohesive society. No other species has been found to have such a complex and flexible system of communication but we know very little about how we came to have language,” Dr. Roberts said.

Compound that flushes out latent HIV created

Researchers have created a collection of “bryologs” — derived from a tiny marine organism, that been shown to activate latent HIV reservoirs with equal or greater potency than the original substance. A collection of “bryologs” activate hidden reservoirs of the virus that currently make the disease nearly impossible to eradicate. Thanks to antiretrovirals, an AIDS diagnosis hasn’t been a death sentence for nearly two decades. But highly active antiretroviral therapy, or HAART, is also not a cure. Patients must adhere to a demandingly regular drug regimen that carries plenty of side effects. And while the therapy may be difficult to undergo in the United States, it is nearly impossible to scale to the AIDS crisis in the developing world. The problem with HAART is that it doesn’t address HIV’s so-called proviral reservoirs — dormant forms of the virus that lurk within T-cells and other cell types. Even after all of the body’s active HIV has been eliminated, a missed dose of antiretroviral drugs can allow the hibernating virus to emerge and ravage its host all over again. "It’s really a two-target problem,” Professor Paul Wender from Stanford said. "And no one has successfully targeted the latent virus,” he said. But Wender’s lab is getting closer, exciting many HIV patients hoping for a cure. The lab’s work may give doctors a practical way to flush out the dormant virus. The first attempts to reactivate latent HIV were inspired by observations of Samoan healers. When ethnobotanists examined the bark of Samoa’s mamala tree, traditionally used by healers to treat hepatitis, they found a compound known as prostratin. Prostratin binds to and activates protein kinase C, an enzyme that forms part of the signalling pathway that reactivates latent viruses. The discovery sparked interest in the enzyme as a potential therapeutic target, especially as it was discovered that prostratin isn’t the only biomolecule to bind to the kinase. The bryozoan Bugula neritina — a mossy, colonial marine organism — produces a protein kinase C—activating compound that is many times more potent than prostratin. The molecule, named bryostatin 1, was deemed to hold promise as a treatment, not only for HIV but for cancer and Alzheimer’s disease as well. The National Cancer Institute initiated a Phase II clinical trial for the compound in 2009 for the treatment of non-Hodgkin lymphoma. But the substance had a number of side effects and proved prohibitively difficult to produce. "It took 14 tons of bryozoans to make 18 grams of bryostatin,” Wender said. "They’ve stopped accrual in trials because, even if the trials worked, the compound cannot be currently supplied,” he said. Patient enrolment was suspended until more accessible compounds came out of the Wender Group’s lab. Wender, who published the first practical synthesis of prostratin and its analogs in 2008, had set out to make a simpler, more effective synthetic analog of bryostatin. "We can copy the molecule or we can learn how it works and use that knowledge to create something that has never existed in nature and might be superior to it,” he said.
The seven resulting compounds, called bryologs, share two fundamental features with the original bryostatin: the recognition domain, which directly contacts protein kinase C, and the spacer domain, which allows the bryolog-protein kinase C complex to be inserted into the cell membrane. The researchers tested the new compounds’ ability to reactivate viral reservoirs in J-Lat cell lines, which contain latent HIV and begin to fluoresce when they express the virus. In the J-Lat line, bryologs induced virus in as many or more cells than bryostatin at a variety of concentrations, and ranged from 25 to 1,000 times more potent than prostratin. The compounds showed no toxic effects. Bryolog testing remains in the early stages — the researchers are currently conducting in vivo studies in animal models. But practical bryostatin substitutes may be the first step toward true HIV—eradication therapy. The study has been published in the journal Nature Chemistry.

Radiation damage bigger problem in microelectronics than previously thought

The amount of structural damage that radiation causes in electronic materials at the atomic level may be at least ten times greater than previously thought. That is the surprising result of a new characterization method that uses a combination of lasers and acoustic waves to provide scientists with a capability tantamount to X-ray vision: It allows them to peer through solid materials to pinpoint the size and location of detects buried deep inside with unprecedented precision. The research, which was conducted by post-doctoral fellow Andrew Steigerwald under the supervision of Physics Professor Norman Tolk, was published online on July 19 in the Journal of Applied Physics. "The ability to accurately measure the defects in electronic materials becomes increasingly important as the size of microelectronic devices continues to shrink," Tolk explained. "When an individual transistor contains millions of atoms, it can absorb quite a bit of damage before it fails. But when a transistor contains a few thousand atoms, a single defect can cause it to stop working." Previous methods used to study damage in electronic materials have been limited to looking at defects and deformations in the atomic lattice. The new method is the first that is capable of detecting disruption in the positions of the electrons that are attached to the atoms. This is particularly important because it is the behavior of the electrons that determine a material's electrical and optical properties. "An analogy is a thousand people floating in a swimming pool. The people represent the atoms and the water represents the electrons," said Steigerwald. "If another person – representing an energetic particle – jumps into the pool, the people in his vicinity change their positions slightly to make room for him. However, these shifts can be fairly subtle and difficult to measure. But the jumper will also cause quite a splash and cause the level of the water in the pool to rise. Much like the water in the pool, the electrons in a material are more sensitive to defects than the atoms." To detect the electron dislocations, the physicists upgraded a 15-year-old method called coherent acoustic phonon spectroscopy (CAPS). "CAPS is similar to the seismic techniques that energy companies use to search for underground oil deposits, only on a much smaller scale," said Steigerwald. Oil explorers set off a series of small explosions on the surface and measure the sound waves that are reflected back to the surface. That allows them to identify and map the layers of different types of rock thousands of feet underground. Similarly, CAPS generates a pressure wave that passes through a chunk of semiconductor by blasting its surface with an ultrafast pulse of laser light. As this happens, the researchers bounce a second laser off the pressure wave and measure the strength of the reflection. As the pressure wave encounters defects and deformities in the material, its reflectivity changes and this alters the strength of the reflected laser light. By measuring these variations, the physicists can detect individual defects and measure the effect that they have on the material's electrical and optical properties.
The physicists tested their technique on a layer of gallium arsenide semiconductor that they had irradiated with high-energy neon atoms. They found that the structural damage caused by an embedded neon atom spread over a volume containing 1,000 atoms – considerably more extensive than that shown by other techniques. "This is significant because today people are creating nanodevices that contain thousands of atoms," said Steigerwald. One of these devices is a solar collector made from quantum dots, tiny semiconductor beads that each contains a few thousand atoms. "Our results may explain recent studies that have found that these quantum-dot solar collectors are less efficient than predicted," he said. "The fact is that we really don't understand how any atomic-scale defect affects the performance on an optoelectronic device," said Tolk. "Techniques like the one that we have developed will give us the detailed information we need to figure this out and so help people make nanodevices that work properly."

Hair samples from infants show exposure to anti-HIV drugs in the womb and during breast-feeding

Researchers from the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) and Makerere University in Uganda have used hair and blood samples from three-month old infants born to HIV-positive mothers to measure the uninfected babies' exposure—both in the womb and from breast-feeding—to antiretroviral medications their mothers were taking. The results, they said, are surprising. "We found high levels of exposure to three antiretroviral medications in the hair samples of HIV uninfected infants at twelve weeks of life," said study senior author, Monica Gandhi, MD, MPH, associate professor of medicine at the UCSF Division of HIV/AIDS at San Francisco General Hospital and Trauma Center (SFGH). "From looking at plasma level data at the same time point, we believe that transfer of two of the medicines from mother to baby occurs exclusively in the womb and transfer of the third medication occurs both in the womb and through breastfeeding." The findings could lead to new ways to protect infants from HIV transmission and to better understand the development of toxicities and resistance to the drugs, the researchers said. A single plasma level of a medication reflects drug exposure over approximately 24 hours. Measuring the concentrations of antiretrovirals in a small hair sample reveals exposure over the past month. The team therefore measured both plasma and hair levels of medications in babies whose mothers were taking HIV medications to get a better idea of when drugs are being passed from mother to baby. "Since fetuses start growing hair in the womb, hair sampling gives us an opportunity to examine exposures to drug before birth," said Gandhi. UCSF researchers have pioneered the use of hair sampling for measuring antiretroviral levels. The procedure is now a standard measure in many research studies, equivalent in HIV clinical care to measuring hemoglobin A1C to monitor average blood glucose levels in patients with diabetes. In the study, the team took hair and blood samples from two groups of HIV-positive mothers, all of whom breast-fed their infants. For 45 mother/infant pairs, the mothers' antiretroviral regimens included a protease inhibitor, lopinavir, boosted by ritonavir, another antiretroviral medication. The other 64 mothers were on an efavirenz-based regimen. Infants in the lopinavir group had levels of the drug in their hair that measured 87 percent of the levels found in their mothers' hair. The levels of ritonavir were about 45 percent of the levels found in their mothers' hair. When the researchers looked at the drug levels in the blood drawn from the mothers and infants at 12 weeks, they found the expected levels of lopinavir and ritonavir in the mothers, but none of either in the blood of the infants. The inability to find drug in the infants' blood at 12 weeks tells us that the lopinavir and ritonavir in their hair is not due to recent exposure, so breast-feeding did not transfer these drugs to the infants. Our conclusion is that the lopinavir and ritonavir were transferred to the babies in the womb, and lopinavir at quite a high level," said Gandhi. In the efavirenz group, researchers found infant drug levels in hair samples that were about 40 percent of the levels found in their mothers. Additionally, they found that infants had levels in their blood that were about 15 percent of what was found in their mothers. These findings indicate a moderate transfer of efavirenz both in the womb and during breastfeeding said Gandhi. "Our findings, as we verify them, will have important implications. One, being able to measure drug exposures of fetuses in the womb and during breast-feeding can help us understand how to better protect infants from HIV transmission from HIV-positive mothers during pregnancy, birth and after birth. Antiretroviral medications are delivered prophylactically to HIV-positive mothers and newborns to prevent transmission, and fetuses derive protection from transmission if their HIV-positive mothers are on an antiretroviral regimen," she said. "Second, the development of resistance to antiretroviral medications in infants is an important issue. HIV develops resistant mutations after fairly low levels of exposure to the class of medications to which efavirenz belongs, non-nucleoside transcriptase inhibitors (NNRTIs). Additionally, hair sampling for antiretroviral exposure levels will ultimately help us monitor toxicities associated with these medications in infants." Using hair to measure exposure to antiretrovirals has advantages in that it is a painless, bloodless, biohazard-free method of collecting a stable specimen from HIV patients. It measures drug exposure over time and has been shown to be more predictive of treatment response than the "snapshot" of exposure provided by a single plasma level of medication. Gandhi said that researchers are finding hair sampling to be a very useful tool in several settings. One use is in resource-limited settings where collecting, storing and handling blood draws is difficult and expensive. Hair is snipped, wrapped in foil and needs no refrigeration.
Another setting is in monitoring drug exposures in uninfected people. Researchers have been using the technique to measure adherence/drug levels in some of the pre-exposure prophylaxis trials, where high-risk uninfected patients take antiretrovirals to prevent getting infected with HIV. Non HIV-infected individuals cannot be monitored for adherence to antiretrovirals like HIV-infected individuals (where levels of HIV in the blood are measured routinely to indicate how well they are taking their pills) so hair levels provide a novel and reliable indicator of adherence. A third setting is for monitoring prenatal exposures. Hair sampling is the only way currently to measure how much antiretroviral exposure fetuses are getting in the womb long-term. Cord blood measurements of antiretrovirals at birth, which are expensive and cumbersome to collect, still only reflect exposure to the babies over the short-term. And collecting hair levels is a much easier technique for monitoring drug exposure levels in infants, especially when compared to blood draws. This work will be presented at 11:15 a.m. ET on Saturday July 21, 2012 during the 4th International Workshop on HIV Pediatrics, which takes in Washington, D.C. preceding the XIX International AIDS Conference. A poster presentation of the same data, titled, "Lopinavir and efavirenz concentrations in paired hair samples as a marker of cumulative exposure among postpartum women and breastfeeding infants in Tororo, Uganda" will be unveiled at the XIX International AIDS Conference at 3:00 p.m. ET on Sunday, July 22, 2012.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Now, an app to detect skin cancer

Scientists have developed a new, free iPhone application which could help you conduct a self exam to detect potential skin cancer, but there is a catch: You will have to fully expose yourself for results. Developed by a team at the University of Michigan in the US, the new app, called UM SkinCheck, aims to make the already existing whole body photographic self-diagnosis a bit simpler and cheaper.
Instead of hiring a photographer for full body shots, the app allows one to take multiple shots of different body parts. In other words, one has to take 23 nude photos in seven different poses that will be stored on an app. As you cannot take all the photos yourself , you will have to enlist a friend to help, LiveScience reported. In addition to the full-body survey , the app includes many other useful tools. "You can do a self-exam , where it guides you through checking parts of your body that are most likely to have exposure to sun, a lesion tracker, so you can note if sunspots on your body have changed or become abnormal, and a risk calculator, which asks questions like your race and amount of freckles to determine your chance of developing melanoma," the portal said. There's also important information on sun damage and tips on how to stay safe. A Characteristics of Melanoma tab shows images of what potential skin cancer could look like, a Sun Safety tab has tips on how to preserve your skin while outside and a Sunscreen Tips tab has lots of info on what kind of sunscreen to use and when to use it. And there's also a helpful feature for links on learning more about skin cancer and preventing it. Background info within the app says that "studies have shown that total body photography can be an important tool in helping track skin changes that could indicate skin cancer" . Thankfully the app has a password protection setting, which, when enabled, keeps your information and images private. You can also set up notification times for when you should do a self-exam or check lesions.

In 10 years, rich to become immortal by transplanting brains into robots?

A Russian entrepreneur, who heads a hi-tech research project called 'Avatar' , has contacted the world's richest to offer them immortality. Itskov claims that he will personally oversee their immortality process in exchange for an undisclosed fee.
Itskov, a media entrepreneur, claims to have hired 30 scientists to reach this goal and aims to transplant a human brain into a robot body within 10 years. "You have the ability to finance the extension of your own life up to immortality. Our civilization has come very close to the creation of such technologies : it's not a science fiction fantasy. It is in your power to make sure that this goal will be achieved in your lifetime," the Daily Mail quoted Itskov as saying. He has contacted a list of billionaires with a proposal for funding his quest for immortality - which Itskov refers to as 'cybernetic immortality' and the 'artificial body' . The initiative is opening its San Francisco office this summer, and will be launching a social media project connecting scientists around the world. "The 2045 team is working towards creating an international research center where scientists will be engaged in the fields of anthropomorphic robotics , living systems modelling and brain and consciousness modeling with the goal of transferring one's individual consciousness to an artificial carrier and achieving cybernetic immortality," Itskov's official site said. "Such research has the potential to free you from disease , old age and even death."

Planet discovered 'right at Earth's front door' could harbour life

Astronomers at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and the Carnegie Institution of Washington believe they have discovered a planet right at Earth's front door that may be capable of supporting human life. The planet is 22 light years away, previously thought to be 20 light years, and is formally known as Gliese 581g, but lead researcher Professor Steven Vogt told that he has since named it after his wife. "I called it 'Zarmina's world'. It's not just in our backyard, it's right in our face," Professor Vogt said. The study, which was released to this week, showed that the planet was twice the size of earth. It is known as a "super Earth" due to its ability to hold on to its gassy atmosphere, which increases its chances of retaining liquid. Whether this liquid is frozen and stored under the surface or flowing freely across the planet, the researchers can't say. The scientist from the University of California said that the planet has "churchly weather" similar to what we experience in Australia. "From the energy bounds and brightness of the star we can tell that the temperatures would be just about right to stand on the surface and feel the warmth of the alien star on your face, like standing in the park in Sydney," he explained. However the researchers were unable to determine what the surface of the planet is like, Professor Vogt said.
The planet exists in what is known as the "Goldilocks Zone" - an area near earth that isn't too hot, or cold but is just right for sustaining life. Prof Vogt is sure that scientists will eventually be able to send out probes in search for advanced civilisations "If you get lucky and find civilisations, you'd be able to have a two-way conversation within a human life-time. You don't want to have to spend 1000 years waiting to hear 'wazzup', and then another 1000 years before they get to hear not much, and you?'" he said. The researcher said after making first contact, scientists may receive an answer within 44 years. "Within a few hundred years you could be able to receive picture postcards from an iPhone or Android and be able to listen to what they sound like, and sample their way of life from a spacecraft," he said. "There is something out there," Prof Vogt stated. The study will be published in European astrophysics journal, Astronomisch Naschrischten (AEST).

Colorful science sheds light on solar heating

A crucial, and often underappreciated, facet of science lies in deciding how to turn the raw numbers of data into useful, understandable information – often through graphs and images. Such visualization techniques are needed for everything from making a map of planetary orbits based on nightly measurements of where they are in the sky to colorizing normally invisible light such as X-rays to produce "images" of the sun. More information, of course, requires more complex visualizations and occasionally such images are not just informative, but beautiful too.
Such is the case with a new technique created by Nicholeen Viall, a solar scientist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. She creates images of the sun reminiscent of Van Gogh, with broad strokes of bright color splashed across a yellow background. But it's science, not art. The color of each pixel contains a wealth of information about the 12-hour history of cooling and heating at that particular spot on the sun. That heat history holds clues to the mechanisms that drive the temperature and movements of the sun's atmosphere, or corona. "We don't understand why the corona is so hot," says Viall who wrote about this technique and her conclusions about the corona in a paper that appeared in The Astrophysical Journal on TK date. "The corona is 1,000 times hotter than the sun's surface, when we would expect it to get cooler as the atmosphere gets further away from the hot sun, the same way the air gets cooler further away from a fire." Scientists generally agree that energy in the roiling magnetic fields of the sun must transfer energy and heat up into the atmosphere, but the exact details of that process are still debated. Viall created her technique to see if she could distinguish between theories that describe coronal heating as uniform over time, versus those that say it comes from numerous nanoflares on the sun's surface. To look at the corona from a fresh perspective, Viall created a new kind of picture, making use of the high resolution provided by NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO). SDO's Atmospheric Imaging Assembly (AIA) provides images of the sun in 10 different wavelengths, each approximately corresponding to a single temperature of material. Therefore, when one looks at the wavelength of 171 Angstroms, for example, one sees all the material in the sun's atmosphere that is a million degrees Kelvin. By looking at an area of the sun in different wavelengths, one can get a sense of how different swaths of material change temperature. If an area seems bright in a wavelength at shows a hotter temperature an hour before it becomes bright in a wavelength that shows a cooler temperature, one can gather information about how that region has changed over time. To study such temperature changes, many scientists focus on analyzing a specific subset of solar material, such as giant arcs of charged particles that leap up off the sun's surface called coronal loops. Scientists gather information about the loops by comparing nearly simultaneous images of the sun in different wavelengths. Analysis of the loops in each image requires time-consuming, manual analysis to subtract the background observations away from the loops themselves, a process which is also inherently subject to human judgment and bias. In addition, each individual image represents light from only a narrow range of wavelengths, representing material at a narrow range of temperatures. Viall wanted to look at as much of the solar material in a given area of the corona as she could, incorporating information about a variety of temperatures simultaneously. She also wanted to avoid the subjective process of subtracting out the background. Instead, she decided to look at all light coming from a given spot on the sun at the same time. That meant coming up with a visualization technique to convey all that information at once -- and thus her Van Gogh-like images were born. For an interesting spot on the sun, Viall examines six channels over an entire 12-hour stretch. She compares each channel to the other channels in turn, assigning it a red, orange, or yellow color if the area has cooled, and assigning it a blue or green color if the area has heated up. She assigns the exact shade of the color based on how much time it took for the temperature change to occur. "In essence, I'm measuring the time lag of how long it takes a given area to heat up or cool down," says Viall. "But it's totally automated, with no need for humans to make a decision about what to incorporate or ignore. And all of the solar material is represented statistically, not just one wavelength of light." Viall's images show a wealth of reds, oranges, and yellow, meaning that over a 12-hour period the material appear to be cooling. Obviously there must have been heating in the process as well, since the corona isn't on a one-way temperature slide down to zero degrees. Any kind of steady heating throughout the corona would have shown up in Viall's images, so she concludes that the heating must be quick and impulsive – so fast that it doesn't show up in her images. This lends credence to those theories that say numerous nanobursts of energy help heat the corona. Source: NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center

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