Memory loss has been linked to marijuana use for...well...as long as I can remember. A recent report suggests common pain killers may limit this side-effect. However, they might also reduce pot's high too.
Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the main psychoactive chemical in marijuana, produces its psychological and physical effects by interacting with two receptors found on the surface of certain types of cells in the body. One of these receptors is found primarily on cells in the brain.
A few years ago, researchers found that THC's activation of this receptor on cells in the brain seemed to lead to the memory loss caused by the drug. Now, researchers at Louisiana State University's School of Medicine just published work showing that THC turns on an enzyme called cyclooxygenase-2 (Cox-2) when it activates this receptor.
You may have heard of Cox-2 in a different context. It is commonly associated with pain and swelling. Cox-2 inhibitors, such as Celebrex which is often prescribed for arthritis pain, help reduce pain and inflammation. In fact, most anti-inflammatory drugs that aren't steroids--like aspirin, ibuprofen and naproxen--are Cox inhibitors. They block with both Cox-1 and Cox-2 activity.
In the recent study, researchers didn't just find that THC activated Cox-2, but also that a Cox-2 inhibitor protected mice from memory loss that would normally be caused by days of injections with THC. In other words, blocking Cox-2 activation prevented THC-induced memory loss.
Of course, what is not clear is how high the mice with the Cox-2 inhibitor were. Actually, this is really an important question because THC provides effective treatment for many patients suffering from nausea, anorexia, and multiple sclerosis. There is also some evidence it may protect against neurodegeneration associated with Alzheimer's and Parkinson's disease.
If Cox-2 inhibition can prevent memory loss due to THC use in humans like it can in mice, but maintain the other desirable effects of cannabis, it would significantly improve marijuana's medical utility.
The virus for Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) has been found in the pet camel of a man from Jeddah in Saudi Arabia that was diagnosed with the disease last week. Researchers are currently comparing the virus isolated from the camel to see if it matches the variant in the patient.
The finding supports the idea that most people contract the disease from camels. Recent prior contact with camels was noted in several earlier MERS cases. However, being around camels is not so unusual in the Middle East and this is the first time the MERS virus has been confirmed in an animal in direct contact with the patient.
This newly identified MERS infection brings the total number of confirmed MERS cases to 154 since the summer of last year. 64 deaths have resulted from the virus so far. While the 40% mortality rate of the virus is quite high, it doesn't seem to easily transfer from human to human as compared with other viruses in the same family such as SARS.
At least the poor infectivity seems to have prevented an outbreak due the Hajj pilgrimage that marks the end of Muslim Ramadan. Over 1 million travelers visited Saudi Arabia from Oct 13 and ended on Oct 18. However, only one MERS case has been linked to the event to date--a Spanish woman diagnosed a couple weeks after returning home from the trip.
For more info on MERS, take a look at MERS: Deadly but Not So Easy to Catch.
Have you heard of the new genetic engineering tool that's the current rage in biotech labs--CRISPR? The headline in today's Science section of the British newspaper The Independent, 'Jaw-dropping' breakthrough hailed as landmark in fight against hereditary diseases as Crispr technique heralds genetic revolution, may be a bit overblown. It does, however, sum up the excitement in much of the scientific community about this technology.
For example, the article quotes from Craig Mello describing CRISPR as, "better than RNA interference....a tremendous breakthrough with huge implications for molecular genetics...a real game-changer." Craig Mello, of course, along with Andrew Fire won the 2006 Nobel prize in Medicine for their discovery of RNA interference (RNAi). With a name practically synonymous with RNAi, Dr. Mello's enthusiasm about CRISPR is certainly notable, as are the reactions of several scientists mentioned in the article.
If you are not familiar with CRISPR, it is a system bacteria use to chop up DNA from invading viruses. While that may not seem so exciting unless you are a microbe, it turns out that the key components of CRISPR, a protein and a small specially configured DNA, can be taken out of the bacteria and used to genetically engineer almost any DNA in any organism.
CRISPR provides a precise and convenient tool to manipulate DNA. Research labs have been eagerly adopting the technology to make genetic modifications. However, it also has real potential for use in gene therapy.
To find out more about how CRISPR was discovered, how it works, and what it can be do, take a look at CRISPR: What's All the Excitement About?.
The pharmaceutical industry is facing two major trends that threaten its routine business model. On the one hand, the industry must compete with its own past successes. New drugs not only have be effective but have to be proven more effective than current ones. As a result, increasing research efforts are required for new drug development and new drugs face more regulatory challenges than earlier medicines for the same diseases.
In addition, medicine is becoming much more personalized. While research advances have led to a better understanding of the causes for different diseases, it has also led to a better grasp of why certain drugs only work on a fraction of patients with a specific disease.
For instance, a recent study found that three-quarters of lung tumors have at least one cancer gene mutation that is susceptible to an approved drug. Assuming the study holds up, it means that there are no current drugs expected to be effective for 25% of lung cancer patients. Also, that only a portion of the other 75% of patients would be expected to respond to any particular cancer drug.
Of course, most people realize that the majority of drugs are only effective for a portion of patients. The point is now, biomedical researchers are starting to figure out why and which drugs will work on which patents. Another recent article, for example, evaluated which sets of genes need to be analyzed to match cancer patients with the right drugs. This type of research will produce more effective treatments for specific populations of patients. In commercial terms, though, the fragmentation trend means smaller markets for each drug.
The problem, then, is as it is becoming more difficult and expensive to develop and test new drugs, the patient populations for each drug are shrinking. The FDA, recognizing these developments, just released a report detailing how it will make changes to the way it evaluates and approves new, more personalized, medicines. While this may help ameliorate the regulatory problems with getting new drugs for small patient populations approved, it won't do a lot to address the economic problem of developing more drugs for few people.
Personalized medicine should certainly help us find more effective drugs. However, how will the new drug discovery economic model change to support it?
Take a look at The Increasing Challenges to Making New and Better Drugs: Can Pharma Adapt to Personalized Medicine? for more details.
This Halloween season has me wondering about science's fight to conquer death. Much of biomedical research is focused on extending life and preventing death. How far can science push back the inevitable, though, and is it really inevitable? Is immortality a possibility? What about reversing death? Would the Frankenstein fantasy ever be feasible or zombies?
Recent research is challenging our commonly held ideas about the causes of aging and the ability of the human body to recover from death-like states. Dying may not be as clear-cut and final as it seems. Take a look at The Battle to Vanquish Death. Then, if that puts you in a Halloween mood, you might want to check out Reanimation, Blood Therapy, and Werewolves.
As described previously, there is a significant problem with many published findings in peer-reviewed life science research journals. Many of the results in these studies simply cannot be replicated independently. While the quality of published data has been a recognized concern in much of the biomedical research community, solutions to the problem have been limited.
Today, one attempt at a solution, the Reproducibility Initiative got a major boost. They received a grant of $1.3 million from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation. A few weeks ago, I posted a discussion with Elizabeth Iorns, the founder of Science Exchange who started the Reproducibility Initiative. She explained how she and colleagues at Mendeley, PLOS One, and figshare have coordinated to set up a structure for the independent validation of biomedical research studies.
The money from the grant will advance the objectives of the Reproducibility Initiative significantly by providing resources for laboratories to "validate 50 landmark cancer studies." The Initiative is working in conjunction with the Center for Open Science who is administering the grant funds as part of their own Reproducibility Project, the goal of which is to estimate the reproducibility of scientific studies.
In terms of a large-scale privately funded validation of published biomedical research, this project appears to be the first of its kind. The announcement from the Reproducibility Initiative noted that the publications and data from the work to validate the studies would be freely available online. No mention was made, however, about which studies are slated to be evaluated with this project.
I, for one, am very much looking forward to seeing which papers are chosen and how the data hold up. It should be illuminating.
Researchers at the University of Leicester in the UK showed that brain degeneration in mice with prion disease can be stopped if the animals are fed a specific chemical. The study has been widely hailed as a possible turning point for the treatment of Alzheimer's, Parkinson's and other neurodegenerative diseases.
What is so earth shattering about this simple mouse study that focuses on prion disease and how do the results relate to Alzheimer's and other similar brain disorders? The recently posted article Prions, Alzheimer's, Protein Folding, and Mice provides some context for the findings and explains how they may offer a new approach for the treatment of many debilitating brain disorders.
While not usually life threatening, norovirus infection produces a very discomforting gastrointestinal illness that affects tens of millions annually. As one of the most common viral infections that rivals the flu and is the bane of cruise ship vacationers, norovirus is sometimes called the stomach flu. In fact, though, it is a distinct virus from the flu virus--influenza. Norovirus causes inflammation of the stomach and intestines. Influenza, on the other hand, affects the respiratory system.
Last week, at the Infectious Diseases Society's annual meeting researchers collaborating with Takeda Pharmaceuticals provided some hope to the millions that come down with the nausea, diarrhea, and vomiting that accompany norovirus infection. They have reported on a vaccine that, at least, seems to fend off the worst of these symptoms.
In a study that I certainly would not have volunteered for, 98 people--about half of whom were inoculated with a vaccine to norovirus--drank water harboring the virus. Fifty-five of the participants, some vaccinated and some not, caught the virus from the contaminated water. However, while 42% of the non-vaccinated group suffered significant symptoms, only 20% of the vaccinated group did.
While the study group is a bit small, the results suggest the vaccine may save a bit more than half of those infected from the brunt of noroviral related illness. You can read more about this study in the press release from the Infectious Diseases Society of America.
Many, if not most, peer-reviewed biomedical studies cannot be replicated independently. Surprised? Researchers working to develop new drugs that have tried to replicate publications are not.
A recent survey in PLOS One of researchers at MD Anderson, one of the premier Cancer Research institutions in the world, again substantiates the poor reliability of published research that has come up repeatedly over the last few years. Over half of the investigators surveyed said they had been unable to reproduce findings found in the published literature and only a third of these cases were eventually resolved.
The PLOS One survey of MD Anderson researchers also provides some indication of the cause of the problem. Almost a third of the research trainees at the institution felt pressure to generate data in support of their mentors' hypotheses, and 18.6% reported that they had been pressured to publish data they were unsure of.
Actually, concerns about the issue and possible solutions have been raised for several years. However, solutions to the problem have been sparse. Meanwhile, the ubiquity of irreproducible results creates a costly problem for biomedical research.
Lots of time and money is spent by pharmaceutical and diagnostic companies to pursue promising published results that indicate new approaches to identify and treat diseases. When these efforts do not pan out because the original work on which they are based is flawed, this money and time is lost. Meanwhile, other projects based on more solid science that could produce new treatments or diagnostics are delayed or passed over. Ultimately, specious published data hurts all of us because it impedes the research that will develop better cures.
About a year ago, Elizabeth Iorns, CEO of Science Exchange, teamed up with colleagues at PLOS One, Mendeley, and figshare to start the a program that attempts to address this problem head-on by setting up a mechanism for the scientific community to replicate and validate important scientific findings. Recently, I had the chance to ask Dr. Iorns her thoughts about how the project got started and is working out. You can read her comments about Reproducibility Initiative here.
It's been almost two years since the UC Davis and China-based DNA Sequencing powerhouse BGI agreed to establish the BGI@Davis Joint Genome Center. Now one of the largest academic DNA sequencing facilities in the US is open for business. To celebrate, BGI held its second annual conference on Genomics, ICG 2013, in Sacramento last week just 10 miles away from the UC Davis campus.
"Open for business" may, in fact, be an apt description since, in addition to supporting UC Davis researchers, the center will also process DNA sequencing for BGI's general service business. It is common for University laboratories that provide core services like DNA sequencing to offer use of their excess capacity on a fee-for-service basis. Typically, though, the laboratories, such as the UC Berkeley and UCSD Sequencing Facilities are more home-grown operations. UC Davis' new facility, backed by the largest sequencing provider in the world, is a league apart.
Currently, the facility has three Illumina HiSeq DNA sequencers and five Life Technology Ion Proton Sequencers. It is staffed mainly by BGI employees and is planning to obtain CLIA certification so it can analyze physician-provided patient samples.
Pathak Dushyant, vice chancellor for technology management and corporate relations at UC Davis, believes the partnership provides three clear benefits. First, the local presence enables UC Davis scientists to work "shoulder to shoulder" with BGI researchers, and get the benefit of their expertise so laboratory projects will more forward more quickly. Also, he anticipates that these interaction will generate collaborations that will help commercialize new technologies more rapidly.
Finally, he sees China, which is investing a lot of resources into fundamental research and cutting edge technology, as an important source for potential partners, especially as investment constraints from US sources increase. He hopes the success of this BGI endeavor as "just the thin-edge of the wedge that will lead to more collaborations with China."
You can read more about BGI in BGI Plans to Sequence the World.