For years, researchers have been using fluorescent proteins in bacteria and animals to study everything from gene therapy and neural development to cancer and limb regeneration (and create some very pretty pictures). The concept is fairly simple: by inserting the gene for GFP (green fluorescent protein, originally found in jellyfish) at the end of another gene—say the gene for hemoglobin—its glow can be used to measure how much hemoglobin is produced and where it is produced in the cell.
Inspired by the success of GFP as a research tool (it earned its discoverers the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2008), scientists have adopted a similar approach to identify and locate transplanted stem cells in animal models. Except in their case, they’ve begun to use the gene for luciferase, the enzyme responsible for the mesmerizing glow of the firefly. And if this method works, it could make stem cells a potent tool for addressing heart disease.
The engineered ovary after 48 hours.
For many cancer patients, treatment can be a double-edged sword. While recent advances in chemotherapy, radiation therapy, and surgery have brought relief to millions of sufferers, a significant fraction have had to sacrifice their ability to have children in return. Going under the knife or being bombarded by high-energy rays—though often critical for therapy—can sometimes irreparably damage a woman’s eggs or man’s testes, robbing them of their fertility. To say that this leaves young patients pondering therapy with an unenviable set of choices would be something of an understatement.
Fortunately, thanks to some groundbreaking work by researchers from Brown University, female patients may soon never have to make this most difficult of decisions. A team led by Sandra Carson, a professor of obstetrics and gynecology, has built the first synthetic human ovary from scratch by cobbling together the three cell lines involved in egg development—the theca cells, granulosa cells, and egg cells themselves—into a fully three-dimensional honeycomb-shaped structure.
Researchers’ new-found interest in frogs may only be skin-deep, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Because hidden within their rugose (science-ese for “wrinkled”) flesh may lie a bumper crop of powerful antibiotics. Though hardly a secret among researchers, who’ve been singing their praises as a potential treasure trove for new drugs for years, efforts to systematically catalog—or even investigate—the thousands of amphibians that could yield promising new antimicrobial substances have been few and far between.
The neurons of a patient suffering from Alzheimer’s.
You may not be consciously aware of it, but at any given time your brain is playing host to billions of simultaneous conversations (and no, I’m not talking about those voices). I speak, of course, of the conversations between your neurons—the incessant neural jabbering that makes it possible for you to move your limbs, learn, remember, and feel pain. Every time we experience a new sensation or form a memory, millions of electrical and chemical signals are propagated across dense networks of axons and jump from one synapse to the next, building new neuronal connections or strengthening existing ones. And they are constantly changing—forming and reforming associations with other neurons in response to how the brain perceives and processes new bits of information.
Despite being central to our understanding of how the brain functions, these neural chats remain largely a mystery to scientists. What exactly are the individual neurons “saying” to each other? And how do these electrical and chemical “messages” become translated into actions, memories, or a range of other complex behaviors? To help decipher these discussions, a team of researchers from the University of Calgary led by bioengineer Naweed Syed have built a silicon microchip embedded with large networks of brain cells. The idea is to get the brain cells to “talk” to the millimeter-square chip—and then have the chip talk to the scientists through a computer interface.
A patient receiving a flu shot.
In the not too distant future, the phrase “shooting up” could take on a whole new meaning. At least if the U.S. Army has its way. Wired‘s Danger Room blog reported a few days ago that the military is seeking bids for a high-tech form of vaccination that could be delivered quickly and efficiently to a large number of troops in the heat of battle. More specifically, the Pentagon wants a DNA vaccine that can be administered via a literal shot to the arm—and a jolt of electricity. All without causing too much “discomfort” to the patient, of course.
Suffice it to say that this futuristic-sounding vaccine would be a far cry from what you and I received as children. As last year’s swine flu epidemic made painfully clear, our current methods of vaccine development, which have remained essentially unchanged for decades, are woefully outdated. The vaccines take too long—upwards of seven months—to produce, are easily prone to failure if not prepared correctly and, in many cases, lose their potency after only a year. These failings have helped draw attention to DNA-based vaccines, cocktails of genetically engineered plasmids which offer the promise of inducing a stronger, and more targeted, immune response. Where regular vaccines are slow to develop and hard to combine, DNA vaccines can be made relatively quickly and mixed together to ward off multiple pathogens at once. They are also generally safer to produce and administer, more durable and can be scaled more easily.
Doctors are not doing so well. In addition to being extremely expensive to train, maintain, and, of course, to visit, they have a lot of other problems. If your doctor is a drunk, an addict, or just plain-old incompetent, his or her colleagues may not tell you or anyone else. Even when doctors are sober and sharp, their diagnoses are often, ahem, less than correct. Mark Walker’s “Uninsured, Heal Thyself” paints a pretty terrifying picture:
Physicians can and do misdiagnose frequently: they prescribe for nonexistent diseases or injuries and fail to notice symptoms or make the correct inferences. An article in the Journal of the American Medical Association noted: “Two 1998 studies validate the continued truth that there is an approximately 40% discordance between what clinical physicians diagnose as causes of death antemortem and what the postmortem diagnoses are” (Lunberg, 1998). This is a pretty shocking statistic: in 4 out of 10 deaths there is a disagreement between what physicians think is the cause of death prior to autopsy, and autopsy findings.
Egads. Is there any solution to the doctor debacle? Read More