Tag Archives: biotech

Growing Neural Implants

Conductive polymer coatings that weave their way into implanted tissue might one day improve the performance of medical implants, such as cochlear implants and brain stimulators used to treat Parkinson’s disease. In early studies, neural interfaces coated with an electrically conductive polymer outperformed conventional metal counterparts. Scientists at the University of Michigan hope that the material’s novel properties will help lessen the tissue damage caused by medical implants and boost long-term function.

Use of devices that are surgically implanted into the brain or other parts of the nervous system is growing rapidly. Cochlear implants, which help deaf people hear, and deep brain stimulation, which relieves symptoms of Parkinson’s disease, for example, are approved by the Food and Drug Administration. Both work by stimulating nerve cells via an implanted electrode. Devices that record and translate neural activity are also under development for people with severe paralysis.

But as use of neural implants grows, so does concern over the damage that those devices can impose on neural tissue. Insertion of the rigid metal electrode into soft tissue triggers a cascade of inflammatory signals, damaging or killing neurons and triggering a scar to form around the metal. “We hope to come up with a way to communicate across the scar layer and send information to and from the device in a way that is as friendly as possible,” says David Martin, a materials scientists at the University of Michigan, in Ann Arbor, who is leading the research into the polymer coatings.

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A Blueprint to Regenerate Limbs

In its own way, the axolotl salamander is a mighty beast. Chop off its leg, and the gilled creature will grow a new one. Freeze part of its heart, and the organ will form anew. Carve out half of its brain, and six months later, another half will have sprouted in its place. “You can do anything to it except kill it, and it will regenerate,” says Gerald Pao, a postdoctoral researcher at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, in La Jolla, CA.

That extraordinary power of regeneration inspired Pao and his collaborator Wei Zhu, also at the Salk Institute, to probe the axolotl salamander’s DNA. Despite decades of research on the salamander, little is known about its genome. That began to change last year, when Pao and his collaborators won one billion bases’ worth of free sequencing from Roche Applied Science, based in Penzberg, Germany. Now that the data is in, scientists can finally begin the hunt for the genetic program that endows the animal with its unique capabilities.

While all animals can regenerate tissue to a certain extent–we can grow muscle, bone, and nerves, for example–salamanders and newts are the only vertebrates that can grow entire organs and replacement limbs as adults. When a leg is lost to injury, cells near the wound begin to dedifferentiate, losing the specialized characteristics that made them a muscle cell or bone cell. These cells then replicate and form a limb bud, or blastema, which goes on to grow a limb the same way that it forms during normal development.

Scientists have identified some of the molecular signals that play a key role in the process, but the genetic blueprint that underlies regeneration remains unknown. Researchers hope that by uncovering these molecular tricks, they can ultimately apply them to humans to regrow damaged heart or brain tissue, and maybe even grow new limbs.

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If we can regenerage anything we like in the future, is it likely that we will stick to just limbs?

I don’t think so.

We’ll likely use this technology to ‘redecorate’ our aging, internal machinery as well… potentially prolonging our lives indefinitely.

An Artificial Pancreas

A device that reads glucose levels and delivers insulin may be close at hand.

Today, people with diabetes have a range of technologies to help keep their blood sugar in check, including continuous monitors that can keep tabs on glucose levels throughout the day and insulin pumps that can deliver the drug. But the diabetic is still responsible for making executive decisions–when to test his blood or give himself a shot–and the system has plenty of room for human error. Now, however, researchers say that the first generations of an artificial pancreas, which would be able to make most dosing decisions without the wearer’s intervention, could be available within the next few years.

Type 1 diabetes develops when the islet cells of the human pancreas stop producing adequate amounts of insulin, leaving the body unable to regulate blood-sugar levels on its own. Left unchecked, glucose fluctuations over the long term can lead to nerve damage, blindness, stroke and heart attacks. Even among the most vigilant diabetics, large dips and surges in glucose levels are still common occurrences. “We have data on hand today that suggests that you could get much better diabetes outcomes with the computer taking the lead instead of the person with diabetes doing it all themselves,” says Aaron Kowalski, research director of the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation’s Artificial Pancreas Project.

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Genetic Modification To Make Us Immune To Aids

Some people have a mutation that makes them amazingly resistant to HIV — and now, scientists may have found a way to give that immunity to anyone.

Viruses enter cells and take them over, but to get inside, they need a handhold. HIV pulls itself in by grabbing onto a protein called CCR5, which decorates the surface of T-cells, which are one of the two major types of white blood cells and play an important role in helping the body fight infections. Back in the 1990’s, researchers took interest in a handful of promiscuous gay men who were able to engage in sexual relations with their HIV-positive partners with impunity. Most of them had a mutation that kept their cells from producing normal CCR5 protein.

Armed with that knowledge, scientists have developed several tactics to block the production of CCR5 or perturb its shape so that the HIV virus can’t grab onto it during the first step of its hijacking attempt. The strategy is much akin to cutting your hair before a wrestling match: It gives your opponent one less thing to grab onto.

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Another great step towards curing humanity’s ailments.

This is probably only the beginning. I expect many more diseases to be cured in the coming biotech-decade.

Cancer ‘cure’ in mice to be tested in humans

Scientists at Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center are about to embark on a human trial to test whether a new cancer treatment will be as effective at eradicating cancer in humans as it has proven to be in mice.

The treatment will involve transfusing specific white blood cells, called granulocytes, from select donors, into patients with advanced forms of cancer. A similar treatment using white blood cells from cancer-resistant mice has previously been highly successful, curing 100 percent of lab mice afflicted with advanced malignancies.

Zheng Cui, Ph.D., lead researcher and associate professor of pathology, will be announcing the study June 28 at the Understanding Aging conference in Los Angeles.

The study, given the go-ahead by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, will involve treating human cancer patients with white blood cells from healthy young people whose immune systems produce cells with high levels of cancer-fighting activity.

The basis of the study is the scientists’ discovery, published five years ago, of a cancer-resistant mouse and their subsequent finding that white blood cells from that mouse and its offspring cured advanced cancers in ordinary laboratory mice. They have since identified similar cancer-killing activity in the white blood cells of some healthy humans.

“In mice, we’ve been able to eradicate even highly aggressive forms of malignancy with extremely large tumors,” Cui said. “Hopefully, we will see the same results in humans. Our laboratory studies indicate that this cancer-fighting ability is even stronger in healthy humans.”

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The wheels of biotech keep on churning out impressive cures for all that ails us.

Curing 100% of mice with agressive cancer is more than impressive.

The cure is definitely coming. I understand people have made failed predictions about this in the past, but they were only wrong in their timing, not in their ability to see possibilities.

The difference between then and now is that today, we are seeing actual proof of the fact that cancer can indeed be cured.

Biotech Breakthroughs: 15 Developments That Will Eventually Affect YOUR Life

1. Self-assembling Nanofibers Heal Spinal Cord – No more quadriplegics in the future.

2. Gene Sequencing for the Masses – A personal genome scan for everybody. This will make you aware of what’s going on in your body. It will probably motivate people to live healthier lives.

3. Scientists discover “master gene” for blood vessel growth in tumors – Another great step towards a cure for cancer.

4. Genetic Future: The human genome is old news. Next stop: the human proteome – After mapping our genome, we’d also like to map the proteome. This will tell us everything about all the proteines we have in our bodies.

5. Human Protein May Offer Novel Target For Blocking HIV Infection: Successful In Lab – A step towards curing HIV and Aids.

6. Human trials to begin on ‘diabetes cure’ after terminally ill mice are returned to health – Progress towards the noble goal of curing diabetes.

7. Mad Science: Rejuvenate Your Brain with Umbilical Cord Blood – Rejuvenation. Need I say more? Death to aging!

8. Whole genome sequencing costs continue to fall: $300 million in 2003, $1 million 2007, $60,000 now, $5000 by year end – Personal genomes are about to get cheap! It’s close… just like solar power, now that I think of it.

9. Regeneration Initiative enables nerve cells on a computer chip to heal and regrow damaged nerves – Nerve regeneration. Useful if you want to cure paralysis.

10. Researchers create heart and blood cells from reprogrammed skin cells – New cells? Sign me up, buddy! When my body starts wearing out, I want new cells so I can live on for decades longer!

11. Science 2.0 — Is Open Access Science the Future? – Will science go open source? Why not… some software is open source, and look at what it has produced: Linux, one of the most stable OS’es ever to grace the planet. Imagine the results that a worldwide science project could possibly yield.

12. Scientists successfully awaken sleeping stem cells – Good, more regeneration for me!

13. Mini Stem-Cell Labs – More stem cells… (I never get enough of’em!)

14. Gene therapy experiments improve vision in nearly blind – Curing blindness with gene therapy. And keep in mind that this is just the beginning. Don’t believe me? Check back here in 10 years to see if I was right.

15. Troops’ body parts may be regrown – Great, now I won’t have to fear losing a precious, currently irreplaceable body part anymore. I’ll sleep better knowing that my arms and legs are no longer scarce commodities.

Man-made molecules reverse liver cirrhosis in rats

Man-made molecules reverse liver cirrhosis in rats

Scientists in Japan have designed artificial molecules that when used with rats successfully reversed liver cirrhosis, a serious chronic disease in humans that until now can only be cured by transplants.

Cirrhosis is the hardening or scarring of the liver, and is caused by factors such as heavy drinking and Hepatitis B and C. The disease is especially serious in parts of Asia, including China.

Cirrhosis occurs when a class of liver cells starts producing collagen, a fibrous material that toughens skin and tendons. Such damage cannot be reversed although steps can be taken to prevent further damage. In advanced cases, transplants are the only way out.

In the journal Nature Biotechnology, the researchers said they designed molecules that can block collagen production by liver “stellate cells,” which are also known to absorb vitamin A.

The scientists then loaded the molecules into carriers that were coated with vitamin A, which tricked the stellate cells into absorbing the molecules.

“By packaging the (molecules) in carriers coated with vitamin A, they tricked the stellate cells into letting in the inhibitor, which shut down collagen secretion,” the researchers wrote.

Cancer Breakthroughs

Breast cancer ‘master gene’ breakthrough

The most deadly feature of breast cancer is when it disperses from the breast, causing tumours to develop in other parts of the body.

But now researchers say they have found a way of stopping this process, known as metastasis, after pinpointing the gene which controls the spread of the cancer.

By removing this gene from cancer cells the American teams of scientists were able to halt its progress and even turned the cancer cell back to normal.

Cancer treatment: The chickens that lay golden eggs

The genetically modified brown eggs produced by a flock of designer hens at the Roslin Institute near Edinburgh are the biotechnological equivalent of a Fabergé.

Several generations of Isa Brown hens – a prolific egg-laying French cross between Rhode Island Red and Rhode Island White – have been bred from “founder birds” that were genetically altered by Dr Helen Sang and her team to contain human genes.

Each gene provides the recipe for the production of a corresponding human protein. In the Roslin Institute hens the human protein is found only in their eggs, reducing the risk of harm to the hens themselves.

The egg proteins are rich in expensive drugs that can fight cancer and other diseases, with each egg containing enough medicine to treat a handful of patients each year.

Grand Engineering Challenge: Reverse-Engineering The Brain

At engineeringchallenges.org we find a number of engineering challenges, the most important of which is perhaps the one of reverse-engineering the brains.

For decades, some of engineering’s best minds have focused their thinking skills on how to create thinking machines — computers capable of emulating human intelligence.

Why should you reverse-engineer the brain?

While some of thinking machines have mastered specific narrow skills — playing chess, for instance — general-purpose artificial intelligence (AI) has remained elusive.Part of the problem, some experts now believe, is that artificial brains have been designed without much attention to real ones. Pioneers of artificial intelligence approached thinking the way that aeronautical engineers approached flying without much learning from birds. It has turned out, though, that the secrets about how living brains work may offer the best guide to engineering the artificial variety. Discovering those secrets by reverse-engineering the brain promises enormous opportunities for reproducing intelligence the way assembly lines spit out cars or computers.

Figuring out how the brain works will offer rewards beyond building smarter computers. Advances gained from studying the brain may in return pay dividends for the brain itself. Understanding its methods will enable engineers to simulate its activities, leading to deeper insights about how and why the brain works and fails. Such simulations will offer more precise methods for testing potential biotechnology solutions to brain disorders, such as drugs or neural implants. Neurological disorders may someday be circumvented by technological innovations that allow wiring of new materials into our bodies to do the jobs of lost or damaged nerve cells. Implanted electronic devices could help victims of dementia to remember, blind people to see, and crippled people to walk.

Treating Muscular Dystrophy with Stem Cells

Treating Muscular Dystrophy with Stem Cells

Researchers at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center (UT Southwestern) have used embryonic stem cells from mice to grow muscle cells. These same cells, injected into mice with a mild form of muscular dystrophy, formed healthy, functional muscle fibers at the site of deteriorating tissue. Scientists say that the research, while still in its early stages, could eventually lead to a cell-based therapy for patients with muscular dystrophy and other muscle-related diseases. The research was recently published in the online edition of Nature Medicine.

According to the Muscular Dystrophy Association, about 250,000 people in the United States have some form of the disease. The most well known, Duchenne muscular dystrophy, is caused by a genetic mutation that disrupts the formation of dystrophin, an important protein involved in the formation of muscle cells. In the absence of dystrophin, muscles are unable to regenerate, and they gradually weaken and waste away. Eventually, the deteriorated area is taken over by fat and connective tissue.