People with milk allergies often turn to products like rice and soy milks. But now, in a twist, there is a new source of hypoallergenic milk in the offing: genetically-modified cows.
An electronic scaffold for growing cyborg tissues
To craft synthetic flesh, all you need are seed cells—stem cells or cells from a specific organ—to form the basis of the material and a scaffold of biological material, which supports the cells as they grow into tissue for patching up hearts or artificial organs. But why grow boring old biological materials when you can create cyborg ones? In a new paper published in Nature Materials, researchers describe how to make synthetic tissues that integrate electronics.
Instead of growing cells on a purely biological scaffold, these researchers used nanowires to build electronic scaffolds and then coat them with biological materials like collagen, forming hybrid scaffolds that included both tissue and technology. With these scaffolds as a base, researchers successfully formed viable cyborg tissue from seed cells, including neurons, cardiac, and smooth muscle cells. The tissue remained viable for a few weeks, but the researchers still need to conduct extended studies to see how these tissues would fare as long-term implants.
Ripening coffee berries.
Coffee aficionados may look down their noses at decaf beans, which are chemically treated to rob them of their caffeine, and, some say, their flavor. But the market for decaf is worth $2 billion a year, and if scientists can create a bean that’s naturally stimulant-free, well…that would be a kick. A new feature at Nature News chronicles the frantic efforts of plant biotechnologists to create such a caffeine-free coffee bean. It’s a tall order:
Developing such a bean through conventional breeding or even genetic modification has proved more difficult than anyone anticipated. Coffee plants take years to begin producing beans, and can be fickle when they do. Moreover, to make them profitable to farm, the plants need to be productive, ripen synchronously and be of a size and shape that can be harvested easily by hand or by machines. The loss of any of these traits can render a plant worthless.
Left: the silk mesh 1 day after being seeded with fibroblast cells. Right: 4 days after seeding.
What’s the News: People have long known that spider silk has many practical uses, even in the medical field; Ancient Greeks, for example, employed the strong, flexible fiber as bandages. But the clinical uses of spider silk may stretch beyond that: scientists may someday be able to use the silk to help create artificial skin, according to new research out of the Hannover Medical School in Germany. In the study, published recently in the journal PLoS One, researchers successfully grew tissue-like skin on a mesh frame of silk harvested from golden silk orb-weaver spiders.
What’s the News: Whether genes can be property is an ongoing controversy in the world of biotechnology, and last week saw the latest court battle in that war: Upon appeal, a suit brought by the ACLU charging that genes aren’t products of human ingenuity and thus cannot be patented was settled largely in favor of Myriad Genetics, the biotech company that has patents on two BRCA genes. The genes are linked to hereditary breast and ovarian cancer, and plaintiffs charged that Myriad’s exclusive test for the genes kept patients from getting second opinions.
A detailed description of the court’s reasoning can be found over at Ars Technica. But for those of you who are thinking, what? someone else can own my genes?, chew on this: About 20% of human genes are patented or have patents associated with them, according to a comprehensive analysis. Here’s why.
What’s the News: Researchers at the Scripps Research Institute have now created a vaccine that prevents a heroin high in rats. The vaccine, detailed in a recent study in the Journal of Medicinal Chemistry, stimulates antibodies that can stop not only heroin but also its derivative psychoactive compounds from reaching the brain.
What’s the News: When vampire bats bite their victims, their saliva releases an enzyme called desmoteplase, or DSPA, into the bloodstream, which causes blood to flow more readily. Several years ago, scientists realized that the same enzyme that gives bats more blood for their bite may also help stroke victims by breaking down blood clots. Dubbed Draculin, this blood-clot-bashing drug has now entered a phase 2 study: In hospitals across the country, scientists are currently comparing Draculin with traditional anticoagulants to see if it increases the three-hour window doctors have to treat post-stroke blood clots. “This is one of the studies that actually extends that window up to 9 hours,” says lead researcher Michel Torbey. “We’re hoping the bat saliva, in itself, dissolves the clot with lower risk of bleeding in the brain afterwards.” Read More
Smooth-muscle cells show green in this comparison of blood vessels grown with (right)
and without (left) growth factor FGF9. Without muscle, vessels don’t pump.
What’s the News: Biologists may have been barking up the wrong tree when it comes to growing new blood vessels to provide blood to tissues damaged by heart disease. The vessels that form under the influence of a growth factor intended to kick-start the process are sickly and shrivel up within a year, but a new study in Nature Biotechnology ($) shows that focusing on making the surrounding cells provide support may solve the problem.
The stem cells formed a sac that then folded in half
a couple days later (see image above, courtesy of Nature),
forming the optic cup.
What’s the News: Give a blob of cells the right environment—lots of nutrients, special chemical signals, and a comfy gel cushion—and they just might grow you a body part. In a feat of bioengineering, scientists at the RIKEN Center for Developmental Biology in Japan have grown a retina from mouse embryonic stem cells. Remarkably, much of the development happened spontaneously, indicating that even undifferentiated cells have a blueprint in mind. Researchers hope the work will someday yield transplantable retinas for people with diseases like retinitis pigmentosa.
“When I received the manuscript, I was stunned, I really was,” commented human molecular geneticist Robin Ali (via Nature News). “I never though I’d see the day where you have recapitulation of development in a dish.”
What’s the News: DARPA wants to fund research into technologies that could be built into the genome of microorganisms and keep track of any changes made to the organism’s genes, according a call for proposals the agency made earlier this month. In other words, DARPA wants to “turn on Track Changes” in certain viruses and bacteria.
What’s the Context:
How the Heck: No idea. And, judging by its description, DARPA isn’t too sure either. The agency is asking for “multidisciplinary research proposals” and gives a nod to “possibly utilizing a cryptographical or complex mathematical approach.”
Image: Wellcome Images / Peter Artymiuk