Monthly Archives: December 2007

Aging Gracefully Requires Taking Out The Trash

Aging Gracefully Requires Taking Out The Trash

Suppressing a cellular cleanup-mechanism known as autophagy can accelerate the accumulation of protein aggregates that leads to neural degeneration. In an upcoming issue of Autophagy, scientists at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies report for the first time that the opposite is true as well: Boosting autophagy in the nervous system of fruit flies prevented the age-dependent accumulation of cellular damage in neurons and promoted longevity.

“We discovered that levels of several key pathway members are reduced in Drosophila neural tissue as a normal part of aging,” says senior author Kim Finley, Ph.D., a scientist in the Cellular Neurobiology Laboratory, “which suggests there is an age-dependent suppression of autophagy that may be a contributing factor for human neurodegenerative disorders like Alzheimer’s disease.”

Robots Help Elderly When Humans Cannot

Robots Help Elderly When Humans Cannot

If you grow old in Japan, expect to be served food by a robot, ride a voice-recognition wheelchair or even possibly hire a nurse in a robotic suit – all examples of cutting-edge technology to care for the country’s graying population.

With nearly 22 percent of Japan’s people aged 65 or older, businesses have been rolling out everything from easy-entry cars to remote-controlled beds, fueling a care-technology market worth $1.08 billion in 2006, according to industry figures.

At a home care and rehabilitation convention in Tokyo, buyers crowded around a demonstration of Secom’s feeding robot, which helps elderly or disabled people eat with a spoon- and fork-fitted swiveling arm.

Operating a joystick with his chin, developer Shigehisa Kobayashi maneuvered the arm toward a block of tofu, deftly getting the fork to break off a piece. The arm then returned to a preprogrammed position in front of the mouth, allowing Kobayashi to bite.

“It’s all about empowering people to help themselves,” Kobayashi said. The company has already sold 300 robots, which are $3,500.

Can IBM Connect Cores In a Chip With Light?

Can IBM Connect Cores In a Chip With Light?

IBM has come up with a technology that could one day let different cores on a processor exchange signals with pulses of light, rather than electrons, a change that could lead to faster and far more energy efficient chips. The device, known as a silicon Mach-Zehnder electro-optic modulator–converts electrical signals into pulses of light. The trick is that IBM’s modulator is 100 or more times smaller than other small modulators produced by other labs. Eventually, IBM hopes the modulator could be integrated into chips. Here’s how it works. Electric pulses, the yellow dots, hit the modulator, which is also being hit with a constant beam of light from a laser. The modulator emits light pulses to correspond to the electrical pulses. In a sense, the modulator is substituting photons for electrons. Since the beginning of the decade, several companies–Intel, Primarion, Luxtera, IBM–have been coming up with components that, ideally, will let chip designers replace wires in computers and ultimately chips with optical fiber. Wires radiate heat, a big problem, and the signals don’t travel as fast as light pulses. (The research in this area is known as silicon photonics and optoelectronics.)

Light-powered Toothbrush Could Eliminate Need For Toothpaste

Light-powered Toothbrush Could Eliminate Need For Toothpaste

The Shiken Company of Japan is making a prototype solar-powered toothbrush, which causes a chemical reaction in your mouth, with the hopes of improving the elimination of harmful plaque and bacteria.

Dr. Komiyama designed the first model of this type of toothbrush more than 15 years ago: It contained a titanium dioxide rod in the neck of the brush, just below the nylon bristles. Any light falling on the wet rod would release electrons, which would react to the acid typically found in the mouth, helping break down plaque.

The latest model, the Soladey-J3X, works in much in the same way, except that it’s twice as powerful.

The brush also has a solar panel at the base, which transmits electrons to the top of the toothbrush through a wire.

Researchers Identify Granddaddy Of Human Blood Cells

Researchers identify granddaddy of human blood cells

Researchers at the Stanford University School of Medicine have isolated a human blood cell that represents the great-grandparent of all the cells of the blood, a finding that could lead to new treatments for blood cancers and other blood diseases.This cell, called the multipotent progenitor, is the first offspring of the much-studied blood-forming stem cell that resides in the bone marrow and gives rise to all cells of the blood. It’s also the cell that’s thought to give rise to acute myelogenous leukemia when mutated.

Isolating this cell, which is well known in mice but had yet to be isolated in human blood, fills in an important gap in the human blood cell family tree. The work is published in the Dec. 13 issue of the journal Cell Stem Cell.

Irving Weissman, MD, director of Stanford’s Institute for Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine, spent his early career identifying each cell in the mouse blood family tree. The progression went from the stem cell through the progenitor cell through progressively more specialized cells, ending up with the red blood cells, platelets and immune cells that make up the bulk of the blood.

This detailed information has helped researchers understand the origins of blood diseases and cancers and has led to advances in bone marrow transplantation. But studies in mice are never a perfect substitute for understanding those same cells in humans, said Ravindra Majeti, MD, PhD, an instructor in hematology and co-lead author of the paper.

Super Water Repellent Could Cause Big Wave In Market

Super Water Repellent Could Cause Big Wave In Market

A water repellent developed by researchers at the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory outperforms nature at its best and could open a floodgate of commercial possibilities.

The super-water repellent (superhydrophobic) material, developed by John Simpson, is easy to fabricate and uses inexpensive base materials. The patent-pending process could lead to the creation of a new class of water repellant products, including windshields, eyewear, clothing, building materials, road surfaces, ship hulls and self-cleaning coatings. The list of likely applications is virtually endless.

“My goal was to make the best possible water repellent surface,” Simpson said. “What I developed is a glass powder coating material with remarkable properties that cause water-based solutions to bounce off virtually any coated surface.”

Synthetic DNA on the Brink of Yielding New Life Forms

Synthetic DNA on the Brink of Yielding New Life Forms

It has been 50 years since scientists first created DNA in a test tube, stitching ordinary chemical ingredients together to make life’s most extraordinary molecule. Until recently, however, even the most sophisticated laboratories could make only small snippets of DNA — an extra gene or two to be inserted into corn plants, for example, to help the plants ward off insects or tolerate drought.

Now researchers are poised to cross a dramatic barrier: the creation of life forms driven by completely artificial DNA.

Scientists in Maryland have already built the world’s first entirely handcrafted chromosome — a large looping strand of DNA made from scratch in a laboratory, containing all the instructions a microbe needs to live and reproduce.

In the coming year, they hope to transplant it into a cell, where it is expected to “boot itself up,” like software downloaded from the Internet, and cajole the waiting cell to do its bidding. And while the first synthetic chromosome is a plagiarized version of a natural one, others that code for life forms that have never existed before are already under construction.

The cobbling together of life from synthetic DNA, scientists and philosophers agree, will be a watershed event, blurring the line between biological and artificial — and forcing a rethinking of what it means for a thing to be alive.

Can We Cure Aging?

Can We Cure Aging?

Jim Hammond is an elite athlete. He works out two hours a day with a trainer, pushing himself through sprints, runs, and strength-building exercises. His resting heart rate is below 50. He’s won three gold medals and one silver in amateur competitions this year alone, running races from 100 to 800 meters. In his division, he’s broken four national racing records. But perhaps the most elite thing about Hammond is his age.

He is 93. And really, there’s nothing much wrong with him, aside from the fact that he doesn’t see very well. He takes no drugs and has no complaints, although his hair long ago turned white and his skin is no longer taut.

His secret? He doesn’t have one. Hammond never took exceptional measures during his long life to preserve his health. He did not exercise regularly until his fifties and didn’t get serious about it until his eighties, when he began training for the Georgia Golden Olympics. “I love nothing better than winning,” he says. “It’s been a wonderful thing for me.” Hammond is aging, certainly, but somehow he isn’t getting old—at least, not in the way we usually think about it.

They say aging is one of the only certain things in life. But it turns out they were wrong. In recent years, gerontologists have overturned much of the conventional wisdom about getting old. Aging is not the simple result of the passage of time. According to a provocative new view, it is actually something our own bodies create, a side effect of the essential inflammatory system that protects us against infectious disease. As we fight off invaders, we inflict massive collateral damage on ourselves, poisoning our own organs and breaking down our own tissues. We are our own worst enemy.

Some ways to reduce inflammation are elementary. It is impossible to know exactly what is going on in Jim Hammond’s body, but all the aspects of his regimen—healthy food, exercise, and a good attitude—reduce systemic inflammation. Those of us without his tenacity can turn to drug companies, which are exploring new anti-inflammatory drugs like flavonoids. Researchers are also looking at new uses for old drugs—trying to prevent Alzheimer’s using ibuprofen, for example. “The research is really to prevent the chronic debilitating diseases of aging,” says Nir Barzilai, a molecular geneticist and director of the Institute for Aging Research at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York. “But if I develop a drug, it will have a side effect, which is that you will live longer.”

Point in case: aging is caused by molecular mechanisms in our bodies. Mechanisms that we can understand and manipulate in the coming biotech revolution.

Skin Transformed Into Stem Cells

Skin transformed into stem cells

Human skin cells have been reprogrammed by two groups of scientists to mimic embryonic stem cells with the potential to become any tissue in the body.

The breakthrough promises a plentiful new source of cells for use in research into new treatments for many diseases.

Crucially, it could mean that such research is no longer dependent on using cells from human embryos, which has proved highly controversial.

The US and Japanese studies feature in the journals Science and Cell.

The Japanese team used a chemical cocktail containing just four gene-controlling proteins to transform adult human fibroblasts – skin cells that are easy to obtain and grow in culture – into a pluripotent state.

The cells created were similar, but not identical, to embryonic stem cells, and the researchers used them to produce brain and heart tissue.

After 12 days in the laboratory clumps of cells grown to mimic heart muscle tissue started beating.

  • Therapeutic cloning produces stem cells which can develop into different types of body cell, making them ideal for research into treatment of disease.
  • But this technology involves the creation and destruction of embryos, which is ethically controversial. The stem cells created also run the risk of being rejected by the body.
  • The new technology, nuclear reprogramming, creates stem-like cells from the patient’s own cells, avoiding both these problems.

Scientists Breed Mouse That Can’t Get Cancer

Meet the supermouse bred by genetic scientists that CAN’T get cancer

Mice resistant to cancer have been created in a breakthrough that could lead to a human treatment free of side-effects.

A protein produced by the creatures may hold the key to a future therapy.

It attacks tumour cells, but does not harm healthy tissue in the body.

Scientists hope it can one day be adapted for use in humans – saving them the pain, nausea and hair loss usually associated with cancer treatments.

The breakthrough hinges on a mouse gene called Par-4, which produces the protein. U.S. researchers genetically engineered a group of mice to have higher levels of the protein than normal.

These creatures were found to be immune to many forms of the disease, such as cancer of the liver and prostate, the journal Cancer Research reports.

Tests suggest the protein could also beat off breast, pancreatic and head and neck cancers.

Crucially, the animals did not suffer any visible side-effects, the U.S. scientists said.