Category Archives: biotechnology

Coming Soon – Genome Sequencing at a GP Surgery Near You

Since the first full human genome was successfully sequenced in 2000, genome sequencing has grown into a competitive research field, with investors keen to produce a robust, commercially viable genome sequencer for public use. Tough competition within the industry has already driven down prices, and you can now have your entire genome sequenced within a day for just $1,000 – it’s a long way from the initial price of £2.3 billion in 2003! And it’s about to get a lot cheaper, as some soon-to-be-released new technology makes it possible to sequence DNA on laptops using a small USB device.

The complete human genome consists of around six billion characters, and is a complete set of instructions for creating one unique human being. This information is stored in virtually every cell in the human body, so it can be obtained from tiny samples of tissue such as hair (as long as it contains the hair follicle), saliva, or bone marrow.

This data can then be analysed to determine the likelihood of that person developing certain health problems, or of passing on certain hereditary conditions to their offspring. The person could then use this information to inform their lifestyle choices. For example, if the test showed a high risk of a certain type of cancer, they could adjust their diet and lifestyle to help prevent that type of cancer, or go for diagnostic scans even before they develop any symptoms. Therefore, they could reduce their risk of getting that type of cancer, and if they do develop it, they will be more likely to catch it before it spreads.

At present, scientists have a fairly limited knowledge of what each gene does, and how they interact with others. While a large number of genes have been identified as having a specific function, there is still a very long way to go. However, new advances are being made on a regular basis, which means that a genome map plotted today will become more and more useful to the patient and to medical professionals as time goes on.

While genome sequencing is still in its infancy, its potential benefits, both for providers and patients, are massive. Huge sums of money are being poured into research in this field, and competition between rival providers is fierce. The upshot of this is that prices have dropped substantially, and will continue to drop in future. A new desktop genome sequencer called the Ion Proton sequencer, which was released in January 2012, costs just $149,000, which means that people can get their entire genome back within a day for around $1,000 a pop.

However, even this will look steep once the MinIon USB protein sequencer, developed by Oxford Nanopore, hits the market. This device, which is little bigger than a USB pen drive, is set to cost around $900, bringing it within the financial reach of GP surgeries and clinics around the world. In theory, you could even buy one yourself and sequence your own DNA on your laptop – although unless you are a highly skilled geneticist, making any sense out of the vast reams of data produced will most likely be beyond your capabilities!

Sources:
http://www.nanoporetech.com/
http://www.gizmag.com/ion-proton-sequencer-decodes-dna/21092/
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Whole_genome_sequencing
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Personal_genomics
http://www.bloomberg.com/apps/news?pid=newsarchive&sid=aEUlnq6ltPpQ

News Science Harvard Scientists Reverse The Ageing Process In Mice – Now For Humans

Harvard scientists were surprised that they saw a dramatic reversal, not just a slowing down, of the ageing in mice. Now they believe they might be able to regenerate human organs.

Scientists claim to be a step closer to reversing the ageing process after rejuvenating worn out organs in elderly mice. The experimental treatment developed by researchers at Harvard Medical School turned weak and feeble old mice into healthy animals by regenerating their aged bodies.

The surprise recovery of the animals has raised hopes among scientists that it may be possible to achieve a similar feat in humans – or at least to slow down the ageing process.

An anti-ageing therapy could have a dramatic impact on public health by reducing the burden of age-related health problems, such as dementia, stroke and heart disease, and prolonging the quality of life for an increasingly aged population.

“What we saw in these animals was not a slowing down or stabilisation of the ageing process. We saw a dramatic reversal – and that was unexpected,” said Ronald DePinho, who led the study, which was published in the journal Nature.

“This could lead to strategies that enhance the regenerative potential of organs as individuals age and so increase their quality of life. Whether it serves to increase longevity is a question we are not yet in a position to answer.”

The ageing process is poorly understood, but scientists know it is caused by many factors. Highly reactive particles called free radicals are made naturally in the body and cause damage to cells, while smoking, ultraviolet light and other environmental factors contribute to ageing.

The Harvard group focused on a process called telomere shortening. Most cells in the body contain 23 pairs of chromosomes, which carry our DNA. At the ends of each chromosome is a protective cap called a telomere. Each time a cell divides, the telomeres are snipped shorter, until eventually they stop working and the cell dies or goes into a suspended state called “senescence”. The process is behind much of the wear and tear associated with ageing.

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Scientists Create Artificial Life

Scientists in the US have succeeded in developing the first synthetic living cell.

The researchers constructed a bacterium’s “genetic software” and transplanted it into a host cell.

The resulting microbe then looked and behaved like the species “dictated” by the synthetic DNA.

The advance, published in Science, has been hailed as a scientific landmark, but critics say there are dangers posed by synthetic organisms.

The researchers hope eventually to design bacterial cells that will produce medicines and fuels and even absorb greenhouse gases.

The team was led by Dr Craig Venter of the J Craig Venter Institute (JCVI) in Maryland and California.

He and his colleagues had previously made a synthetic bacterial genome, and transplanted the genome of one bacterium into another.

Now, the scientists have put both methods together, to create what they call a “synthetic cell”, although only its genome is truly synthetic.

Dr Venter likened the advance to making new software for the cell.

The researchers copied an existing bacterial genome. They sequenced its genetic code and then used “synthesis machines” to chemically construct a copy.

Dr Venter told BBC News: “We’ve now been able to take our synthetic chromosome and transplant it into a recipient cell – a different organism.

“As soon as this new software goes into the cell, the cell reads [it] and converts into the species specified in that genetic code.”

The new bacteria replicated over a billion times, producing copies that contained and were controlled by the constructed, synthetic DNA.

“This is the first time any synthetic DNA has been in complete control of a cell,” said Dr Venter.

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Scientists Discover Drugs That Can Block Memories & Radically Alter Human Personalities

blockmemories

Scientists have discovered drugs which can block out memories and have the potential to radically alter human personalities. No, this isn’t the “nerd discovers beer” scene from every college movie ever – chemicals like propranolol and ZIP have already been shown to remix recollections. But if memories make the man, what happens when you mess with them?

We simply don’t know. Neuroscience Lesson #1 is “The human brain is a terrifyingly complex device, even ones which watch American Idol.” Any alteration could cause serious side-effects, with the additional problem that such symptoms are difficult to diagnose. If your kidney stops working, we have all kinds of ways of measuring that. How you eventually fall over, for one thing. But outside of the Care Bears cartoon there’s nothing to quantify imagination or confidence.

A major part of this problem is that human beings are simply crap at collecting data. Any number of reasons from forgetfulness to embarrassment can prevent patients from reporting regular symptoms for things like broken feet, never mind the nature of their own thoughts – they’re patients, not Zen philosophers. This is why some scientists think online logging might be the answer – a medical version of twitter, for example, where out-patients can report any and every odd feeling as they happen and have the data logged in real time. It’ll certainly be no worse than much of the content already up there – though putting somebody online and telling them to share personal information after erasing their memories may cause new problems. And boost the Nigerian economy.

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Iranian scientists claim they have cloned a goat

clonedgoat

Iranian scientists have cloned a goat and plan future experiments they hope will lead to a treatment for stroke patients, the leader of the research said Wednesday. The female goat, named Hana, was born early Wednesday in the city of Isfahan in central Iran, said Dr. Mohammed Hossein Nasr e Isfahani, head of the Royan Research Institute.

“With the birth of Hana, Iran is among five countries in the world cloning a baby goat,” said Isfahani, an embryologist.

In 2006 Iran became the first country in the Middle East to announce it had cloned a sheep. Two and a half years later, that animal is healthy, the institute said.

The effort is part of Iran’s quest to become a regional powerhouse in advanced science and technology by 2025. In particular, Iran is striving for achievements in medicine and in aerospace and nuclear technology.

Iran’s nuclear work has led to an international showdown over Western claims that it wants to develop atomic weapons. Iran says its nuclear activity is aimed at generating electricity, not the bomb.

The cloning of sheep and other animals could lead to advances in medical research, including using cloned animals to produce human antibodies against diseases, Isfahani said.

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Scientists Discover a Hidden “Memory” Switch in Our Brains

If you’ve e ver been educated, and the fact that you’re reading this means that you either have or are extremely good at guessing, you’ve tried to find a way to enhance your memory. Reading things ten times, flash cards, enough coffee to accelerate an elephant to eighty-eight miles an hour – and none of them work. Now scientists may have found an all-purpose “memory on” switch hiding in your head.

A team of German an UK researchers have applied magnetoencephalographic techniques to look inside the very living brain of dozens of people, and if that fact doesn’t impress you chalk one up to “humans can get used to anything.” These people have machines that can scan your mind and draw maps! Sure, those maps are like urban planners trying to document a computer chip, not really sure of which does what or how to represent it, but we can still see some general functions from all the data acquired.

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Medicine goes digital

The convergence of biology and engineering is turning health care into an information industry. That will be disruptive, says Vijay Vaitheeswaran (interviewed here), but also hugely beneficial to patients.

Innovation and medicine go together. The ancient Egyptians are thought to have performed surgery back in 2750BC, and the Romans developed medical tools such as forceps and surgical needles. In modern times medicine has been transformed by waves of discovery that have brought marvels like antibiotics, vaccines and heart stents.

Given its history of innovation, the health-care sector has been surprisingly reluctant to embrace information technology (IT). Whereas every other big industry has computerised with gusto since the 1980s, doctors in most parts of the world still work mainly with pen and paper.

But now, in fits and starts, medicine is at long last catching up. As this special report will explain, it is likely to be transformed by the introduction of electronic health records that can be turned into searchable medical databases, providing a “smart grid” for medicine that will not only improve clinical practice but also help to revive drugs research. Developing countries are already using mobile phones to put a doctor into patients’ pockets. Devices and diagnostics are also going digital, advancing such long-heralded ideas as telemedicine, personal medical devices for the home and smart pills.

The first technological revolution in modern biology started when James Watson and Francis Crick described the structure of DNA half a century ago. That established the fields of molecular and cell biology, the basis of the biotechnology industry. The sequencing of the human genome nearly a decade ago set off a second revolution which has started to illuminate the origins of diseases.

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Blind to be cured with stem cells

British scientists have developed the world’s first stem cell therapy to cure the most common cause of blindness. Surgeons predict it will become a routine, one-hour procedure that will be generally available in six or seven years’ time.

The treatment involves replacing a layer of degenerated cells with new ones created from embryonic stem cells. It was pioneered by scientists and surgeons from the Institute of Ophthalmology at University College London and Moorfields eye hospital.

This week Pfizer, the world’s largest pharmaceutical research company, will announce its financial backing to bring the therapy to patients.

The treatment will tackle age-related macular degeneration (AMD), the most common cause of blindness. It affects more than 500,000 Britons and the number is forecast to increase significantly as people live longer. The disease involves the loss of eye cells.

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Scientists on track to erase your worst fears

Washington: Scientists are on track to block your worst fears after identifying the most prominent neurotransmitter in the brain that plays a key role in the process of “unlearning.”

It could eventually help develop therapies to treat a variety of Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), including phobias and anxiety.

PTSD is an anxiety disorder that can develop after exposure to a terrifying event or ordeal in which grave physical harm occurred or was threatened.

According to researchers at California’s Salk Institute for Biological Studies, a receptor for glutamate, the most prominent neurotransmitter in the brain, plays a crucial role in the process of “unlearning”.

“Most people agree that failure to ‘unlearn’ is a hallmark of post-traumatic stress disorders and if we had a drug that affects this gene it could help soldiers returning from war to ‘unlearn’ their fear memories,” said Stephen F. Heinemann, a professor at Molecular Neurobiology Laboratory, who led the study, published in the current issue of the Journal of Neuroscience.

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An artificial heart for Rs 1 lakh

It’ll be to coronary care what Nano is to cars, say scientists at Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur, who have devised an artificial heart that could save lives for just Rs 1 lakh.

The research team says trials of the prototype lab—constructed heart have been successful on small animals and the gadget is being perfected on goats. The institute has applied for permission to conduct human trials.

The Total Artificial Heart (TAH) — said to be the first such in the country — has been developed by a team of scientists at IIT-Kgp’s school of medical science and technology.

After four years of painstaking research, the scientists say their creation is better and far more affordable than the first artificial heart developed in the US, which showed a “high rate failure” and at Rs 30 lakh, beyond the reach of the common man.

The inventors hope to fit the heart into an ailing patient

within a few months, once permissions from the Indian Council of Medical Research come through. The unique 13—chamber heart is working fine in small animals, said a member of the team. Human tests are to be conducted at Medical College and Hospital (MCH), Kolkata.
Senior cardiac surgeons — Madhusudan Pal, Bhaskar Ukil, Tarun Saha and Kalishankar Das from MCH and Rajiv Narang of AIIMS, Delhi — will conduct the human trials.

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