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Washington Hosts Summit On Gene Editing and 'Designer Babies' ( 104

An anonymous reader sends word that a three-day summit has begun in Washington to discuss the future of genetic engineering. It has a particular focus on the CRISPR technique, which has made gene editing quicker and more robust than ever before. "The reason CRISPR is so controversial is that it works well on 'germline' cells, such as sperm, eggs and embryonic cells, and the genetic editing results in heritable traits. Many scientific organizations have called for a time-out on any experiments on human cells, fearing that this crosses into dicey ethical territory. This meeting in Washington could potentially generate a new call for restraint, or some guidelines in how to handle the explosive technology." Many scientists, lawyers, and policymakers are present at the summit to try to reach consensus on how the scientific community should proceed with such research, and how the fruits of their research should be used. Professor Alta Charo said, "The more we can have effective systems for responsible oversight for the development and deployment of a technology, the more we can take chances. We have the chance to back up at the end, and change course."

Japanese Company Makes Low-Calorie Noodles Out of Wood 158

AmiMoJo writes: Omikenshi Co, an Osaka based cloth manufacturer best known for rayon, a fibre made from tree pulp, is expanding into the health food business. Using a similar process, Omikenshi is turning the indigestible cellulose into a pulp that's mixed with konjac, a yam-like plant grown in Japan. The resulting fibre-rich flour, which the company calls "cell-eat," contains no gluten, no fat and almost no carbohydrate. It has just 60 calories a kilogram, compared with 3,680 for wheat.

Hospitals Can 3D Print a Patient's Vasculature For Aneurysm Pre-Op Practice ( 21

Lucas123 writes: University of Buffalo physicians and researchers from two institutes working with 3D printer maker Stratasys have successfully 3D-printed anatomically correct models of patients' vascular systems — from their femoral artery to their brain — in order to test various surgical techniques prior to an actual operation. The new 3D printed models not only precisely replicate blood vessels' geometry, but the texture and tissue tension, allowing surgeons a realistic preoperative experience when using catheterization techniques. The printed models are also being used by physicians in training.

Gene Drive Turns Mosquitoes Into Malaria Fighters ( 68

sciencehabit writes: The war against malaria has a new ally: a controversial technology for spreading genes throughout a population of animals. Researchers report today that they have harnessed a so-called gene drive to efficiently endow mosquitoes with genes that should make them immune to the malaria parasite—and unable to spread it. On its own, gene drive won't get rid of malaria, but if successfully applied in the wild the method could help wipe out the disease, at least in some corners of the world. The approach "can bring us to zero [cases]," says Nora Besansky, a geneticist at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana, who specializes in malaria-carrying mosquitoes. "The mosquitoes do their own work [and] reach places we can't afford to go or get to."

A Post-Antibiotic Future Is Looming ( 137

New submitter radaos writes: A gene enabling resistance to polymyxins, the antibiotics of last resort, has been found to be widespread in pigs and already present in some hospital patients. The research, from South China Agricultural University, has been published in The Lancet. According to research Jian-Hua Liu, "Our results reveal the emergence of the first polymyxin resistance gene that is readily passed between common bacteria such as Escherichia coli and Klesbsiella pneumoniae, suggesting that the progression from extensive drug resistance to pandrug resistance is inevitable." Work on alternatives is progressing — Dr. Richard James, former director of the University of Nottingham's center for healthcare associated infections, writes, "Until last month I was still pessimistic about our chances of avoiding the antibiotics nightmare. But that changed when I attended a workshop in Beijing on a new approach to antibiotic development based on bacteriocins – protein antibiotics produced by bacteria to kill closely related species, and exquisitely narrow-spectrum."

Researchers Create Plant-Circuit Hybrid ( 39

sciencehabit writes: Researchers have crafted flexible electronic circuits inside a rose. Eventually such circuitry may help farmers eavesdrop on their crops and even control when they ripen. The advance may even allow people to harness energy from trees and shrubs not by cutting them down and using them for fuel, but by plugging directly into their photosynthesis machinery. The researchers used "an organic electronic building block called PEDOT-S:H. Each of these building blocks consists of a short, repeating chain of a conductive organic molecule with short arms coming off each link of the chain. Each of the arms sports a sulfur-containing group linked to a hydrogen atom. Berggren's group found that when they placed them in the water, the rose stems readily pulled the short polymer chains up the xylem channels (abstract). ... The upshot was that the myriad short polymer chains quickly linked themselves together into continuous strings as long as 10 centimeters. The researchers then added electronic probes to opposite ends of these strings, and found that they were, in fact, wires, conducting electricity all down the line."

Scientists Grow Working Vocal Cord Tissue In the Lab ( 25

sciencehabit writes that tissue engineers have for the first time grown vocal cords from human cells. Science reports: "For the first time, scientists have created vocal cord tissue starting with cells from human vocal cords. When tested in the lab, the bioengineered tissue vibrated—and even sounded—similar to the natural thing. The development could one day help those with severely damaged vocal cords regain their lost voices. 'It’s an exciting finding because those patients are the ones we have very few treatment options for,' says Jennifer Long, a voice doctor and scientist at the University of California, Los Angeles, head and neck surgery department, who wasn’t involved in the study."

First Liquid-Cooling Laser Could Advance Biological Research ( 55

Zothecula writes: In a world where lasers are sci-fi's weapon of choice for melting away an enemy spaceship, researchers at the University of Washington have swum against the current and produced the first laser capable of cooling liquids. " They demonstrated that the laser could refrigerate saline solution and cell culture media that are commonly used in genetic and molecular research. To achieve the breakthrough, the UW team used a material commonly found in commercial lasers but essentially ran the laser phenomenon in reverse. They illuminated a single microscopic crystal suspended in water with infrared laser light to excite a unique kind of glow that has slightly more energy than that amount of light absorbed. This higher-energy glow carries heat away from both the crystal and the water surrounding it." The technology could be especially useful for slowing down single cells and allowing scientists to study biological processes as they happen.

Experimental Drug Targeting Alzheimer's Disease Shows Anti-Aging Effects ( 101

schwit1 writes with news that researchers at the Salk Institute have found that an experimental drug candidate aimed at combating Alzheimer's disease has a host of unexpected anti-aging effects in animals. Says the article: The Salk team expanded upon their previous development of a drug candidate, called J147, which takes a different tack by targeting Alzheimer's major risk factor–old age. In the new work, the team showed that the drug candidate worked well in a mouse model of aging not typically used in Alzheimer's research. When these mice were treated with J147, they had better memory and cognition, healthier blood vessels in the brain and other improved physiological features.

"Initially, the impetus was to test this drug in a novel animal model that was more similar to 99 percent of Alzheimer's cases," says Antonio Currais, the lead author and a member of Professor David Schubert's Cellular Neurobiology Laboratory at Salk. "We did not predict we'd see this sort of anti-aging effect, but J147 made old mice look like they were young, based upon a number of physiological parameters."


Controversial Company Offers a New Way To Make a Baby ( 80

sciencehabit writes: A controversial fertility company called OvaScience is preoccupied by an enduring mystery in human biology--why eggs fail--and the palpable hope that we can do something about it. The company offers a new treatment, called AUGMENT, based on what it considers to be egg precursor cells found in a woman's ovaries. AUGMENT, which costs UP TO $25,000, along with thousands more in clinic fees and roughly $25,000 for the IVF cycle that must accompany it, relies on mitochondria from putative egg precursor cells to boost the success of in vitro fertilization (IVF). Seventeen babies have been born so far. The company, which has attracted hundreds of millions of dollars from investors, is poised to introduce a second treatment. But many scientists doubt that egg precursor cells actually exist.

New vs. Old: a Comparison of 23andMe's Health Reports and the Raw Data ( 96

"With much fanfare," writes an anonymous reader, "last month 23andMe returned to reporting health information to their genetic service customers. How does their new service stack up?" According to the Enlis Genomics Blog, it's a good move but not perfect. The linked post explains that "the raw data from 23andMe contains significantly more health information than they are reporting in their health reports," and says "23andme has a long way to go to get back to reporting the same number of variants they were before the FDA ban. However – both the previous and new 23andMe reports pale in comparison to an analysis of the raw data. 23andMe’s new reports tell you about less that 1% of the health-related variants that are in their raw data." It's an interesting statistical blow-by-blow; the company making the comparison has a vested interest in you letting them run the numbers, but is not the only option.

Why New Antibiotics Never Come To Market ( 345

citadrianne writes: New antibiotics are generated naturally over time by bacteria, as weapons in their ongoing chemical warfare against other microbes. Predicting where and when they can be found relies mostly on good fortune and following a hunch. Scientist Brian Murphy's hunch is that the bacteria which live on freshwater sponges could be a hive of new chemicals. "We don’t know a huge amount about these species," he said. "But the only way to find out if there’s anything there is by actually diving down there and carving them off with a knife." But even if these sponges yield the antibiotics of the future, there are seemingly endless roadblocks that prevent us from actually using them to cure disease. "We've discovered six antibiotics in the recent past," Professor William Fenical said. "Of those, three to four have serious potential as far as we know, including anthramycin. But we have no way to develop them. There are no companies in the United States that care. They're happy to sell existing antibiotics, but they're not interested in researching and developing new ones."

Stanford Identifies Potential Security Hole In Genomic Data-Sharing Network 23

An anonymous reader writes: Sharing genomic information among researchers is critical to the advance of biomedical research. Yet genomic data contains identifiable information and, in the wrong hands, poses a risk to individual privacy. If someone had access to your genome sequence — either directly from your saliva or other tissues, or from a popular genomic information service — they could check to see if you appear in a database of people with certain medical conditions, such as heart disease, lung cancer or autism. Work by a pair of researchers at the Stanford University School of Medicine makes that genomic data more secure. Researches have demonstrated a technique for hacking a network of global genomic databases and how to prevent it. They are working with investigators from the Global Alliance for Genomics and Health on implementing preventive measures.

Bumblebees Used For Targeted Pesticide Deliveries ( 23

Zothecula writes: Chemical pesticides are generally a bad thing for the environment and pollinators like bees that our agriculture relies on. Now a company out of Vancouver, Canada, called Bee Vectoring Technology (BVT) has brought the two together in a system that uses bees to deliver tiny amounts of natural pesticides and beneficial fungi while pollinating crops.

New Artificial Fingerprints Feel Texture, Hear Sound ( 21

sciencehabit writes: Fake fingerprints might sound like just another ploy to fool the feds. But the world's first artificial prints — reported today (abstract) — have even cooler applications. The electronic material, which mimics the swirling designs imprinted on every finger, can sense pressure, temperature, and even sound. Though the technology has yet to be tested outside the lab, researchers say it could be key to adding sensation to artificial limbs or even enhancing the senses we already have.

FDA Approves Drug That Uses Herpes Virus To Fight Cancer ( 76

An anonymous reader writes: U.S. regulators have approved a first-of-a-kind drug that uses the herpes virus to infiltrate and destroy melanoma. Nature reports: "With dozens of ongoing clinical trials of similar 'oncolytic' viruses, researchers hope that the approval will generate the enthusiasm and cash needed to spur further development of the approach. 'The era of the oncolytic virus is probably here,' says Stephen Russell, a cancer researcher and haematologist at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. 'I expect to see a great deal happening over the next few years.' Many viruses preferentially infect cancer cells. Malignancy can suppress normal antiviral responses, and sometimes the mutations that drive tumour growth also make cells more susceptible to infection. Viral infection can thus ravage a tumour while leaving abutting healthy cells untouched, says Brad Thompson, president of the pharmaceutical-development firm Oncolytics Biotech in Calgary, Canada."

3D Printing Soft Body Parts: a Hard Problem That Just Got Easier ( 19

sciencehabit writes: Humans are squishy. That's a problem for researchers trying to construct artificial tissues and organs, and one that two separate teams of engineers may have just solved. Using a dish of goo the consistency of mayonnaise as a supporting 'bath,' a team led by biomedical engineer Adam Feinberg at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, can now print 3D biological materials that don't collapse under their own weight as they form—a difficulty that has long stood in the way of printing soft body parts (abstract). Once printed, the structures are stiff enough to support themselves, and they can be retrieved by melting away the supportive goo. The other team, from the University of Florida (UF) in Gainesville, has a similar system for printing (abstract), but without the slick trick of the melting goo.

Google Snapping Up Top Biomedical Talent ( 76

An anonymous reader writes: Google is expanding its scope once again. The company has been pushing hard to lure top physicians and researchers in the life sciences away from their prestigious academic posts. Google is easily able to pay more than universities, and they also offer a different type of focus. "Silicon Valley offers strong technology resources that are hard to access in academia, Topol says, as well as the opportunity to pursue goals that are difficult to reach for in academia, where scientists are not typically rewarded for pursuing real-world applications." Other companies are starting to push into this sector as well, but none of them match Google's efforts; it's estimated the company is now pouring a billion dollars a year into life-sciences research.

Disruptive Bloodwork Startup May Offer Mostly Vaporware 174

dmr001 writes: As seen previously, Palo Alto startup Theranos planned to put the power of affordable lab work directly in the hands of patients with tiny fingerprick samples taken at Walgreen's, with four hour turnaround. The company claimed their tests were "made possible by advances in the field of microfluidics." But they were cagey about methodology and didn't use FDA approved analyzers.

Now, the Wall Street Journal reports (paywalled) (among others) that all but one of Theranos' analyzers currently in use is off the shelf, and that their tiny samples may not always have been accurate. Typically cagey founder Elizabeth Holmes vigorously disputes the criticism of her $9 billion startup, but entrenched players like Quest Diagnostics and LabCorp (which do quite well charging orders of magnitude above Theranos' prices) are likely doing a happy dance.

Physicians worrying about patients bringing in their own carcinoembryonic antigen levels and Epstein Barr Virus panels to confirm their Internet diagnoses of cancer and chronic fatigue may also be breathing sighs of relief, albeit with bittersweet regret at the potential loss of the price advantage and milliliter samples.

Beware: FBI, Other Agencies Might Go After Your Voluntary DNA Records ( 132

Kashmir Hill reports at Fusion that DNA results from companies like 23andMe are being requested by law enforcement agencies, something that is likely to start happening more and more. From the article: Both and 23andMe stipulate in their privacy policies that they will turn information over to law enforcement if served with a court order. 23andMe says it's received a couple of requests from both state law enforcement and the FBI, but that it has "successfully resisted them." ... would not say specifically how many requests it's gotten from law enforcement. ... "On occasion when required by law to do so, and in this instance we were, we have cooperated with law enforcement and the courts to provide only the specific information requested but we don’t comment on the specifics of cases,” said a spokesperson. (Related Wired article here.)