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Biotech / Biomedical Blog

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GMO Tomatoes to Improve Your Health

Thursday February 27, 2014

Researchers in the UK have genetically engineered a tomato to produce anthocyanins--the compounds that give some berries and a handful of other fruits and vegetables their purple-red colors. However, anthocyanin aren't just about pretty colors. They are thought to provide significant health benefits. In fact, when the tomatoes were developed several years ago, testing showed that the provided some protection against tumors in cancer-prone mice.

As a result, a company has formed to begin medical trials to evaluate if juice from the genetic engineered anthocyanin tomatoes has measurable benefits for humans.

You can read more details on these tomatoes at the Animate Discovery blog.

Acid-Bath Stem Cell May Be Washed Up

Wednesday February 19, 2014

You may have heard about the sensational study a couple weeks ago which showed that certain type of stress can turn normal adult cells into stem cells. Many news stories fixated particularly on the finding that simple acid was enough to generate pluripotent stem cells from regular mouse blood cells. Such an easy way to produce stem cells would be a phenomenal achievement. In the last several days, however, concerns about the integrity of these novel findings have begun to replace much of the initial excitement.

The study, published in the journal Nature, was carried out at the prestigious RIKEN Center for Developmental Biology in Japan.

Within days of the publication, however, peers noticed problems with figures in the paper. A photograph was duplicated and artifacts on gel images appeared to have been retouched. In response to these reported discoveries, the RIKEN Research Institute opened an investigation to look into the "irregularities" in the publication last week.

Adding to the concern, last week UC Davis stem-cell researcher Paul Knoepfler also blogged about the difficulty many labs are having in repeating the work. It appears that at least 9 other labs have been unable to produce stem cells using the reported approach. Even more disturbing, one of the publication's own authors reports that he cannot get the method to work in the new lab that he founded when he left RIKEN just before publication.

You can read more about the developing concerns with the publication in Nature and Science. While it is not clear yet whether there is any implication of fraud in with this research, there are certainly a number of reasons to be skeptical of the results are this point.

Protein That Eliminates Plaque-Forming Amyloids Associated with Alzheimer's

Monday February 17, 2014

It's been known for over 100 years that dark sticky deposits known as plaques form in the brains of Alzheimer's patients. These are caused by fragments of a protein known as amyloid. For some reason, normal amyloid sometimes folds up incorrectly and the misfolded molecule then clumps together to form these plaques between nerve cells. Alzheimer's seems to start as soon as the amyloid clumps begin to accumulate and disrupt brain cell function. The large visible plaques occur late in the process.

Alzheimer's Plaques

Several recent drug failures indicate that just reducing the amount of amyloid to try to slow the formation of the plaques doesn't seem to really affect Alzheimer's progression. As a result, a lot of recent research has focused on why cells have trouble getting rid of misfolded forms of the amyloid protein appears necessary, which causes it to accumulate with age.

Since there is always some misfolding of the millions of proteins produced constantly by organisms, cells have a sophisticated way to dispose of this potentially damaging debris. When misfolded protein accumulate, cells activate the unfolded protein response which captures the proteins in specialized cell vesicles called lysozomes which contain enzymes to degrade them.

Essentially, then, cells have a way to digest and eliminate misfolded proteins. First, though, they have to realize these trashed proteins are around and locate where they are in the cell. For this purpose, there are receptors on the surfaces of the lysosomes that help identify and capture misfolded proteins.

Just a few days ago, researchers published a study that showed that SORLA, a receptor found on lysosomes, is critical for proper processing of the amyloid precursor protein. Genetically engineered mice with increased SORLA cleared the amyloid-plaque forming peptides more quickly. The researcher also noted that mutations in the gene for SORLA have been linked to early onset of Alzheimer's.

This recent study identifying a protein involved in managing the processing of misfolded amyloid complements a different discovery last fall that showed how regulating another part of the unfolded protein response could protect mice from dementia. Slowly there seems to be real progress uncovering the biological causes for Alzheimer's and related neurodegenerative diseases, and these discovery offer new approaches for treating these diseases.

You can read more about the recent work unraveling how SORLA regulates amyloid process at the Alzforum.

Valentine's Day: A Holiday for the Heart

Monday February 10, 2014

There are heart transplants and artificial hearts but they are poor substitutes for the one you are born with. While the heart has been a symbol of love and desire since ancient times, it's pumping actions does truly sustain our lives from minute to minute. In fact, keeping your cardiovascular system fit may be the most important thing you can do for your personal health.

It is tradition to focus on your heart's desires for Valentine's Day. It seems this holiday would also be a good time to consider your own heart health. Take some time on Valentine's Day to tend to both the romantic and physical dimensions of the heart. You'll find that their needs are not so different.

Take a look at Have a Care for Your Heart on Valentine's Day.

Why Is Drug Development So Expensive

Sunday February 9, 2014

Discovering and developing new therapeutics is incredibly expensive. Analysis shows that each new drug costs several billion dollars to develop and launch. Why is it so expensive to develop new drugs? What drives this cost?

The simple answer is that researchers are not very good at identifying new potential drugs. Most potential drugs fail in development. They turn out not be safe or they are not as effective as originally thought. The failure rate is over 90%. Simply, if we could better determine which chemicals or biological molecules were likely to be effective and safe drugs at the beginning of the process, years of time and effort in in trying to turn these drug candidate into new medicines would be saved.

Take a look at The Costly Game of Drug Discovery for more information.

The Changing Drug Development Environment

Friday January 31, 2014

An increased understanding of disease, escalating healthcare costs, and informed patient groups are having a transformative impact on the development and approvals of new therapeutics. What do pharmaceutical and biotech companies need to do to account for these changes to maximize the success of their drug development programs?

The rapidly changing economic environment of drug development was the topic of a panel discussion the Biotech Showcase in San Francisco earlier this month. Take a look about what they said about how Patients and Payers Are Changing Drug Development.

New Biotech Developments Anticipated This Year

Wednesday January 22, 2014

The start of the New Year has me wondering about the biomedical and biotech developments the next 12 months might bring.

The accuracy of last year's 2013 list is mixed. Some predictions like expected advances in stem cell research and cancer occurred as expected. These weren't very specific though. Also, there was the Supreme Court ruling on gene patenting. On the other hand, approval of the first GMO animal for human consumption, the AquaAdvantage Salmon, has still not occurred.

So, with mixed results on last year's predictions, let's forge ahead into what''s on the horizon in biotech news for this year--2014?

It's safe to say there will some advances in the treatment of major diseases, such as cancer, Alzheimer's. The questions, of course, is what sort of developments can we anticipate? That's more difficult.

While the Supreme Court ruled that companies can't patent human genes last year, there is another question on gene ownership this year. Are you entitled to know the features and accompanying risks that are written in your own genes? In other words, can you get your own DNA sequenced and analysis, or does this require a doctor? This is shaping up to be the regulatory genomics question of 2014.

Of course, developments in stem cell technology will continue, but what about anti-aging research? Not cosmetic cover-ups or techniques to remove wrinkles, what about really slowing, or even reversing, the aging process. It looks as though researchers may really be on the verge of discoveries that will enable medicine to manipulate the aging process.

Read more about these anticipated biotech stories for 2014 in 6 Biotech and Biomedical Advances on Horizon in 2014.

Metabolism Boosting Hormone Found

Wednesday January 8, 2014

Most everyone is aware that regular exercise improves your body's metabolism--the rate at which you is burn calories to produce energy. The more energy you have, the more energetic you feel, and the faster your body recovers and heals.

Brown and White Fat Cells

Several years ago researchers found a key protein turns on genes involved in energy metabolism in muscle cells. However, this metabolic change in response to exercise doesn't just happen in muscles. Cell metabolism adjusts throughout the body, and especially in fat tissue. I mean, that's why most people work out, right?

How do muscles activated by exercise transmit a general signal to ramp up the body's chemistry? The answer--or at least one answer--appears to be β-aminoisobutyric acid (BAIBA). A consortium of researchers from institutes in Boston, Canada, and Europe found that this hormone, which is secreted by muscle in response to exercise, changes white fat to brown fat.

Why should it matter what color fat is? Well, fat cells aren't all the same. Most fat cells have a large supply of high calorie lipids that they slowly burn. These are white fat cells that store excess calories. However, some fat cells generate heat by burning through lipids at a high rate. These cells also have a lot of iron so they have a brownish color. Basically, white fat makes you tired and chubby whereas brown fat makes you warm and thin.

BAIBA, then, seems to turn white fat cells into brown ones. It lights their fire, so to speak. Actually, it is not the only muscle hormone that has been found. About 2 years ago, some of the same researchers identified irisin that is also released by muscles into the blood in response to exercise. However, unlike with irisin, mice drinking BAIBA-laced water lost weight. Also, analysis of 2000 patients in the Framingham Heart Study correlated an increase in BAIBA levels in the blood with exercise, and found low levels of BAIBA associated with diabetes risk factors.

Probably, as with most physiological pathways, there are many factors involved with complicated interactions and feedback loops. The recent discoveries of these metabolic hormones, though, suggest that it may eventually be possible to make drugs that mimic at least some of the beneficial effects of exercise. Maybe there's hope for us couch potatoes after all.

You can read more about this study at the Science website.

Some GMOs Contain Pesticides. So What?

Friday January 3, 2014

Many groups concerned about environmental health issues express concern that genetically modified crops have been engineered to express insecticide. For example, here is a blog from Generation Green. In fact, it is true that some crops have been modified to produce a protein lethal to some insects. Is this a reason for concern though? Only if you are an insert larva.

Some genetically modified corn, soy, and other crops express a protein from a bacteria called Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) that kills insects. The Bt bacteria is usually found in the soil and, in fact, it has been used as a "natural" pesticide for over 50 years. It is especially common in organic farming and has also been used in densely populated areas to control pests such as Gypsy moths with no adverse effects.

The Bt-Cry protein is only one of hundreds of pesticides that the bacteria and plants produce. There been an evolutionary arms war for hundreds of thousands of years and virtually all plants produce some toxins to various insects and, often, other animals too. Bt-Cry isn't particularly notable or unique. It is just effective against certain insect larvae. Of all the health risks posed by any meal, concern over the presence of Bt-GMOs should be so far down the list as to be considered negligible.

For more information on why Bt-GMOs aren't a cause for concern, take a look at Are There Pesticides in Some GMOs?

The Past Year in Biotech

Sunday December 22, 2013

Several exciting biotech development occurred in 2013. The year saw the first cloning of human embryos and a decision by the Supreme Court on patenting genes. Researchers worked out important details about the development of Alzheimer's disease, medicine learned to appreciate the microbes living all over each of us, and researchers discovered a new fast approach for gene engineering. Finally, Google also started an anti-aging venture.

Get a rundown of six key happenings in biotech in 2013, The Six Big Biotech Stories of 2013.

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