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Archive - Sep 2014


September 28th

Researchers ID Early Sign of Pancreatic Cancer

Collaborating scientists at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and other institutions have discovered a sign of the early development of pancreatic cancer – an upsurge in certain amino acids that occurs before the disease is diagnosed and symptoms appear. The research is being published online on September 28, 2014 in Nature Medicine. Although the increase isn't large enough to be the basis of a new test for early detection of the disease, the findings will help researchers better understand how pancreatic cancer affects the rest of the body, particularly how it can trigger the sometimes deadly muscle-wasting disease known as cachexia. "Most people with pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma (PDAC) (by far the most common form of cancreatic cancer) are diagnosed after the disease has reached an advanced stage, and many die within a year of diagnosis," said Brian Wolpin, M.D., M.P.H., of Dana-Farber, co-senior author of the new study with Matthew Vander Heiden, M.D., Ph.D., of MIT and Dana-Farber. "Detecting the disease earlier in its development may improve our ability to treat it successfully. In this study, we asked whether PDAC produces metabolic changes – changes in the way the body uses energy and nutrients – that can be detected before the disease is diagnosed." The researchers utilized blood samples collected years earlier from 1,500 people participating in large health-tracking studies. The scientists analyzed the samples for more than 100 different metabolites – substances produced by the metabolic process – and compared the results from participants who had gone on to develop pancreatic cancer and those who had not.

Camels Are Primary Source of MERS-CoV Transmission, NIH Study Suggests

National Institutes of Health (NIH) and Colorado State University (CSU) scientists have provided experimental evidence supporting dromedary camels as the primary reservoir, or carrier, of Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus (MERS-CoV). The study, designed by scientists from CSU and NIH's National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), involved three healthy camels exposed through the eyes, nose, and throat to MERS-CoV isolated from a patient. Each camel developed a mild upper respiratory tract infection consistent with what scientists have observed throughout the Middle East. Samples taken from the camels showed high levels of infectious virus in secretions, primarily from the nose, for up to a week after infection; the scientists detected components of the virus for up to 35 days. Although the camels quickly recovered from infection without apparent complications, the researchers say the nasal secretions provide a likely source of transmission to people who handle the animals. The researchers theorize that vaccinating camels could reduce the risk of MERS-CoV transmission to people and other camels; NIAID and others are supporting research to develop candidate vaccines for potential use in people and camels. The MERS outbreak, which began in 2012, continues throughout the Middle East. Since the outbreak began, NIAID researchers have focused on understanding how the virus causes disease and how it can be treated effectively. As of July 23, 2014, the World Health Organization has reported a total of 837 human cases of MERS-CoV infection, including at least 291 deaths. The open-access article describing the current study was published online, ahead of print, in Emerging Infectious Diseases, produced by the CDC, and is scheduled for print publication in December 2014.

September 27th

Discovery of Branched Carbon Molecule in Space Supports Interstellar Origin of Life

Hunting from a distance of 27,000 light years, astronomers have discovered an unusual carbon-based molecule – one with a branched structure – contained within a giant gas cloud in interstellar space. Like finding a molecular needle in a cosmic haystack, astronomers have detected radio waves emitted by isopropyl cyanide. The discovery suggests that the complex molecules needed for life may have their origins in interstellar space. Using the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array, known as the ALMA Observatory, a group of radio telescopes funded partially through the National Science Foundation, researchers studied the gaseous star-forming region Sagittarius B2. Astronomers from Cornell, the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy, and the University of Cologne describe their discovery in the September 26, 2014 issue of Science. Organic molecules usually found in these star-forming regions consist of a single “backbone” of carbon atoms arranged in a straight chain. But the carbon structure of isopropyl cyanide branches off, making it the first interstellar detection of such a molecule, says Dr. Rob Garrod, Cornell senior research associate at the Center for Radiophysics and Space Research. This detection opens a new frontier in the complexity of molecules that can be formed in interstellar space and that might ultimately find their way to the surfaces of planets, says Dr. Garrod. The branched carbon structure of isopropyl cyanide is a common feature in molecules that are needed for life – such as amino acids, which are the building blocks of proteins. This new discovery lends weight to the idea that biologically crucial molecules, like amino acids that are commonly found in meteorites, are produced early in the process of star formation – even before planets such as Earth are formed. Dr.

New Poison Dart Frog Species Confirmed by DNA Sequencing

A bright orange poison dart frog with a unique call has been discovered in Donoso, Panama, and described by researchers from the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, the Universidad Autónoma de Chiriquí in Panama, and the Universidad de los Andes in Colombia. In the species description published on September 24, 2014 in Zootaxa, the frog was named Andinobates geminisae for Geminis Vargas, "the beloved wife of [coauthor] Marcos Ponce, for her unconditional support of his studies of Panamanian herpetology." Every new species name is based on a representative specimen. The specimen for this species was collected February 21, 2011, in the headwaters of the Rio Caño, in the district of Donoso, Colón Province, Panama, by Samuel Valdés, who was then the MWH Global Inc. environment office director, and his field assistant, Carlos de la Cruz. Additional specimens were collected between the Rio Coclé del Norte and the Rio Belen by biologists Marcos Ponce and Abel Batista, then a student at the Universidad Autónoma de Chiriquí. The specimens were deposited in the Museo de Vertebrados at the University of Panama, the Museo Herpetólogico de Chiriquí at the Universidad Autónoma de Chiriquí, and in the Círculo Herpetólogico de Panamá. "Abel Batista and Marcos Ponce were the first to note the presence of this species," said Dr. Cesar Jaramillo, a Smithsonian herpetologist. "They've known it was there for several years. However, they were not sure if it was only a variety of another poison dart frog species, Oophaga pumilio, which exhibits tremendous color variation. Based on morphological characteristics of the adult and the tadpole, I thought it might be a new species of Andinobates." Dr.

Single-Cell Mass Cytometry of Immune Cells Used to Establish Protein Signatures That Predict Recovery Time from Surgery

On September 25, 2014, Fluidigm (NASDAQ:FLDM) ( in South San Francisco, California, announced that researchers at Stanford University had demonstrated the ability to predict the recovery time of patients who underwent surgical trauma. Convalescence after surgery varies significantly from patient to patient—often with protracted recovery periods resulting in personal suffering as well as substantial societal and economic costs. Now, using the deep profiling capabilities of mass cytometry, scientists have been able to correlate changes in certain blood cell types with surgical recovery times, underscoring a growing understanding of how immune health relates to recovery from traumatic injuries. These findings were published online on September 24, 2014 in Science Translational Medicine. Researchers used Fluidigm’s CyTOF® Mass Cytometry Instrument, a high parameter single-cell-based platform that can determine functional responses in precisely phenotyped immune subsets. The system was employed to comprehensively characterize phenotypic and functional alterations of the human immune system as they occurred in-vivo, in patients undergoing major surgery -- hip replacement in this instance. “A major advantage afforded by the use of the CyTOF instrument lies in its ability to detect finely tuned cell subsets with signaling changes that would be undetectable using other technologies,” said Gajus Worthington, Fluidigm Chief Executive Officer and President. “The discovery, using a panel of 35 protein markers, was only possible using the CyTOF,” Mr. Worthington added. More than 100 million surgeries are performed annually in the United States and Europe. The number is expected to grow as the population ages.

September 25th

2014 Ig Nobel Prizes Recognize Outrageous Science

The 2014 Ig Nobel Prizes, honoring achievements that first make people laugh, and then make them think, were awarded at Harvard University's historic Sanders Theatre on the evening of September 18, before 1,100 spectators in a ceremony filled with bananas, toast, dogs, cats, humans impersonating polar bears, opera singers, and paper airplanes. This was the 24th First Annual Ig Nobel Prize Ceremony (and the 20th consecutive year the ceremony was webcast). Most of the new winners journeyed to Harvard — at their own expense — to accept their prizes. The Ig Nobel Prizes were physically handed to the winners by four genuine Nobel laureates: Carol Greider (Nobel in Physiology or Medicine, 2009) Eric Maskin (Nobel in Economics, 2007), Rich Roberts (Nobel in Physiology or Medicine, 1993), and Frank Wilczek (Nobel in Physics, 2004). Rich Roberts was also given away in the Win-a-Date-with-a-Nobel-Laureate Contest. The event was produced by the science humor magazine "Annals of Improbable Research" (AIR), and co-sponsored by the Harvard-Radcliffe Science Fiction Association and the Harvard-Radcliffe Society of Physics Students. The ceremony included the premiere of "What's Eating You," a three-act mini-opera about people who stop eating food and instead nourish themselves exclusively with pills. This production starred soprano Maria Ferrante, baritone Scott Taylor, and a chorus of microbes (played by ten Boston-area biomedical researchers and the Nobel laureates). The festive ceremony also featured brief talks by Rob Rhinehart, who created the all-in-one food called Soylent, and by Dr. Yoshiro Nakamats (image), the prolific (more than 3,000 patents) Japanese inventor/politican/author, who was awarded an Ig Nobel Prize in 2005 for having photographed every meal he had eaten during the previous 34 years. Dr.

Major Drug Delivery Advance: MIT Chemists Use Modified Anthrax Toxin to Deliver Cancer Drugs

Bacillus anthracis bacteria (image) have very efficient machinery for injecting toxic proteins into cells, leading to the potentially deadly infection known as anthrax. A team of MIT researchers has now hijacked that delivery system for a different purpose: administering cancer drugs. “Anthrax toxin is a professional at delivering large enzymes into cells,” says Dr. Bradley Pentelute, the Pfizer-Laubauch Career Development Assistant Professor of Chemistry at MIT. “We wondered if we could render anthrax toxin nontoxic, and use it as a platform to deliver antibody drugs into cells.” In an article published online on September 22, 2014 in the journal ChemBioChem, Dr. Pentelute and colleagues showed that they could use this disarmed version of the anthrax toxin to deliver two proteins known as antibody mimics, which can kill cancer cells by disrupting specific proteins inside the cells. This is the first demonstration of effective delivery of antibody mimics into cells, which could allow researchers to develop new drugs for cancer and many other diseases, says Dr. Pentelute, the senior author of the paper. Antibodies — natural proteins the body produces to bind to foreign invaders — are a rapidly growing area of pharmaceutical development. Inspired by natural protein interactions, scientists have designed new antibodies that can disrupt proteins such as the HER2 receptor, found on the surfaces of some cancer cells. The resulting drug, Herceptin, has been successfully used to treat breast tumors that overexpress the HER2 receptor. Several antibody drugs have been developed to target other receptors found on cancer-cell surfaces.

September 24th

Universal Enzyme Activated Differently in Different Species, Discovery Paves Way to Tackling Deadly Parasitic Diseases

An enzyme found in all living things could hold the key to combating certain deadly diseases, such as sleeping sickness, a new study suggests. Research into the enzyme, which helps cells convert nutrients into energy, has shown that it is activated in different ways in various species. Researchers say this discovery creates an opportunity to design drugs that block activity of the enzyme – known as pyruvate kinase (image) – in species that cause infection. Blocking the parasite’s enzyme would effectively kill the parasite, without affecting the same enzyme in the patient. Findings from the study could lead to new treatments for diseases spread by parasites – including sleeping sickness and Chagas disease – that affect millions of people in the developing world. Researchers say the finding could ultimately help physicians tackle a range of healthcare problems, including antibiotic resistance and some forms of cancer. Scientists used a range of analytical techniques to discover how pyruvate kinase functions in parasites, mammals, and bacteria. They found that the enzyme becomes active in all species in a similar way. A small sugar molecule binds to the enzyme to kick-start the process of nutrient absorption. But each species has a unique mechanism for activating the enzyme, providing opportunities to design drugs that block its activity in individual species. Professor Malcolm Walkinshaw, Chair of Structural Biology at the University of Edinburgh, who led the study, said: "With this discovery, we've found an Achilles heel for sleeping sickness and many other conditions.

September 14th

Scientists Can Now Explain One Third of the Inherited Risk of Prostate Cancer

Scientists can now explain a third of the inherited risk of prostate cancer, after a major international study identified 23 new genetic variants associated with increased risk of the disease. The study brings the total number of common genetic variants linked to prostate cancer to 100, and testing for them can identify 1% of men with a risk of the disease almost six times as high as the population average. Scientists at The Institute of Cancer Research, London, and in Cambridge, UK, and California led a huge search for new genetic variants including almost 90,000 men and for the first time combining populations with European, African, Japanese, and Latino ancestry. The research, published online on September 14, 2014 in Nature Genetics, was funded in equal amounts by Cancer Research UK, Prostate Cancer UK, the EU and the National Institutes for Health in the US. Researchers found that assessing the top 100 variants identified 10% of men with a risk almost three times as high as the population average, and said that this was high enough to investigate whether targeted genetic screening was merited. The researchers plan to lead a new clinical trial to test whether genetic screening can be effective. In European men, scientists had previously found 77 genetic variants which were known to increase the risk of prostate cancer. In the new research, scientists from The Institute of Cancer Research (ICR) (UK), the University of Cambridge (UK), and the University of Southern California in the U.S. examined the genetic information of 87,040 men from all over the world. They combined genetic population studies of 43,303 men with prostate cancer and 43,737 controls from European, African, Japanese, or Latino heritage to improve statistical power and increase their chances of identifying new variants.

Zebrafish Model of a Learning and Memory Disorder in Neurofibromatosis 1 Points to Different Treatment Needs

Using a zebrafish model of a human genetic disease called neurofibromatosis (NF1), a team from the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania (Penn) has found that the learning and memory components of the disorder are distinct features that will likely need different treatment approaches. The research results were published in the September 11, 2014 issue of Cell Reports. NF1 is one of the most common inherited neurological disorders, affecting approximately one in 3,000 people. It is characterized by tumors, attention deficits, and learning problems. Most people with NF1 have symptoms before the age of 10. Therapies target Ras, a protein family that guides cell proliferation. The NF1 gene encodes neurofibromin, a very large protein with a small domain involved in Ras regulation. Unexpectedly, the Penn team showed that some of the behavioral defects in mutant fish are not related to abnormal Ras, but can be corrected by drugs that affect another signaling pathway controlled by the small molecule cAMP. They used the zebrafish model of NF1 to show that memory defects – such as the recall of a learned task -- can be corrected by drugs that target Ras, while learning deficits are corrected by modulation of the cAMP pathway. Overall, the team's results have implications for potential therapies in people with NF1. "We now know that learning and memory defects in NF1 are distinct and potentially amenable to drug therapy," says co-senior author Jon Epstein, M.D., Chair of the Department of Cell and Developmental Biology. "Our data convincingly show that memory defects in mutant fish are due to abnormal Ras activity, but learning defects are completely unaffected by modulation of these pathways.