A new target in fight against obesity and diabetes

             A team of scientists led by Dr. George Thomas of Genome research Institute and Department of Genome Science, University of Cincinnati, the United States, has identified a possible new target for treating obesity and diabetes. The new target, a molecule called hVps34, is activated by amino acids entering the cell. This molecule triggers the activation of an enzyme, S6 kinase 1(S6K1).

            Normally turned on through a series of reactions initiated by the presence of insulin, S6K1 works to drive growth. But it also has second regulatory function. When an organism ‘overfeeds’, S6K1 becomes hyperactive and signals insulin to stop bringing more nutrients into the cell. This hyperactive regulation results in insulin resistance. The researchers found that insulin and amino acids, both of which play critical role in ‘driving’ cell growth, work through independent pathways to trigger a molecule that turns on S6K1. Once S6K1 signals insulin to stop working, this enzyme would become inactive and its other function of promoting growth would also stop. But in laboratory studies, Dr. Thomas and his team noticed that mice on high-fat diets continued to grow, even after insulin quit performing its normal function, indicating the active state of S6K1. Learning that S6K1 can actually be turned on by more than one pathway is important, because it represents a potential target to regulate obesity and diabetes.

November-December 2005, Vatis Update: Biotechnology


Scientists develop technology to detect cancer

             Researchers at the University of Liverpool have developed a breakthrough technology that identifies molecular markers in early lung cancer. The new technology, created in collaboration with SEQUENOM, developers of genetic analysis products, and Methexis Genomics, uses a DNA analysis technique called methylation profiling to detect cells in the lung that are likely to become cancerous. This newly developed method overcomes many of the problems and combines the sensitivity of high-powered microscopes with the capability of analyzing many samples at a time. As part of their research to develop the new technology, the team, based at the University of Liverpool Cancer Research Centre, analysed the methylation profile of 47 genes in lung specimens from 48 patients with a history of smoking. The genes that were selected were known to be involved in cancer development and in this study they were able to accurately determine the relationship between gene methylation in normal and tumour tissue, which in the long term will be of enormous value in identifying high risk individuals.

May 2005, Advanced Biotech


Heart implants that won’t give nasty shocks

             Implantable defibrillators have saved countless lives by applying electric shocks to jump-start failing hearts. But these devices have one serious flaw: they often go off when they are not needed, giving unsuspecting and perfectly healthy recipients the fright of their lives. Andrew Grace, a cardiologist and biochemist has been working with Cameron Health of San Clemente, California, to develop a defibrillator that may spell an end to unnecessary shocks by more thoroughly assessing electrical activity in the heart.

            Standard defibrillators are connected to the heart via wires, and judge how well the organ is functioning by monitoring the small area of tissue that is usually the origin of rhythm disturbances. However, electrical anomalies in this area are not always mirrored elsewhere in the heart, and are therefore not always significant. But defibrillators still kick in and give the heart an unnecessary shock.

            The new device scans the whole heart in the same way as an electrocardiogram (ECG) and will only provide a shock if it picks up a major, organ-wide irregularity. Like an ECG it uses sensor electrodes and magnets to pick up the electric fields generated by electrical activity in the heart muscle. As well avoiding false alarms, the device is less invasive than standard defibrillators as it is not attached to the heart itself but fits on the chest just under skin. This makes fitting it simpler and safer. Cameron Health is hoping to run pan-European human trials in April and if these are successful the device could hit the market later this year.

           The less invasive nature of the device means it may be suitable not only for people who have a history of heart-rhythm disturbances, but also for some of the hundreds of thousands of people who have serious heart attacks each year, and who are at greatly increased risk of sudden death from abnormal heart rhythms.

January 14, 2006 New Scientist


Plants vaccine targets SARS

           Researchers led by Dr. Hilary Koprowski, Director, Centre for Neurovirology, Thomas Jefferson University, the United States, have discovered that tomato and tobacco plants could be engineered to make a vaccine against the SARS virus.

            To test plants’ ability to produce a successful SARS vaccine, Dr. Koprowski’s team engineered tomato and low-nicotine tobacco plants to produce a fragment of the SARS-CoV protein. Several of the engineered plants successfully expressed high levels of the protein. These levels could be increased through selective plant breeding. To see if the vaccine was effective, the researchers fed mice tomatoes that contained the protein. The mice developed antibodies for the SARS virus. Mice were also treated with a tobacco-derived protein, using injection or via a feeding tube. The injected mice produced SARS-CoV antibodies. However, direct delivery of the protein to the stomach did not produce antibodies. Dr. Koprowski’s team speculates that swallowing the tobacco vaccine directly to the stomach does not provide enough exposure to produce antibodies.

            July-August 2005, Vatis Update: Biotechnology


Good news for cellphone users

           The cellphone buffs, constantly seen glued to mobile phones, are greatly exposed to the ultra magnetic emissions. Here is some good news for them. There are now available ‘Smart’ trousers and shirts from Crocodile’s Indian joint-venture company.

            Crocodile Products Private Ltd (CPPL) has launched radiation-free shirts and trousers, whose pocket linings are made of E-shell (or emission shell as it called) fabric. So now, you no longer have to worry about the radiation from your cellphone hurting your heart or reducing your sperm count.

            The E-shell fabric- woven mix of cotton-polyesters, interlaced with titanium steel - is capable of filtering out the electromagnetic rays known to emit from the cellular phones, which are said to be causing harmful affects on the body.

            The technology used in ‘Radiguard’ is developed in Singapore; its fabric imported from Taiwan and the USA. As the E-shell fabric is made from the fine metal fibre and evenly covered by cotton yarns, there is no possibility for getting it electrocuted or activated by metal detectors. Also it will not block the mobile phone signals, as the fabric is designed to block only the harmful frequency and not the communication frequency.

            January 2006, Alive


Sunflower power

           Scientists at the University of Bonn, Germany, have identified a substance in sunflower that can prevent the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) from reproducing in cell cultures. Called dicaffeoyl quinic acid (DCQA), the chemical is produced when the plant is infected with a fungus Sclerotinia sclerotiorum, which causes the white stem rot disease.

            DCQA is in high demand to treat AIDS, but is not easily available. Its synthetic production is a complex process that drives its price as high as 1,000 Euros (about US $1,200) per milligramme. In an effort to cut the chemical’s cost of production, Claudio Cerboncini of the Bonn Centre of Molecular Biotechnology (CEMBIO) tried to synthesise the material in cell culture. He found that if the sunflower cells were grown in a nutrient solution together with S scletotiorum, DCQA cold be extracted from the medium. Now, researchers from CEMBIO and Stiftung Caesar, a scientific foundation in Bonn are taking this work forward.

            The researchers have also identified the genes that the sunflower activates to produce DCQA in reaction to the fungal infection. They feel that the plant probably produces an enzyme, which acts as a catalyst for the formation of DCQA. They are trying to incorporate the gene for this enzyme into a bacterium, which could then produce the enzyme in large quantities. The group has patented the various techniques to make DCQA and is looking for industry partners.

February 15, 2006 Down to Earth


Scientists create way to generate brain cells in lab

            A team of scientists led by Dr. Bjorn Scheffler, at the University of Florida College of Medicine, the United States, has created a system in rodent models that for the first time duplicates neurogenesis – the process of generating new brain cells- in a dish. If the discovery could translate to human application, it would enhance efforts aimed at finding ways to use large number of person’s own cells to restore damage brain function. Partially because the technique produces cells in far greater amounts than the body could generate on its own.

            According to Dr. Bjorn Scheffler, a neuroscientist “it is like an assembly line to manufacture and increase the number of brain cells. We can basically take these cells and freeze them until we need them. Then we thaw them, begin a cell-generating process, and produce a tone of new neurons”. The researchers have isolated for the first time what appears to be the true candidate stem cell. Their work holds the potential to heal disorders such as Parkinson’s disease or epilepsy.

July-August 2005, Vatis Update: Biotechnology  





Cocktail of food additives could harm young brains

              Food additives used in thousands of processed foods create a ‘chemical cocktail’ which can harm young children’s development. The additives which are used in crisps, sweets, drinks and ice lollies have long been linked to hyperactivity and allergies in youngsters.

            But now a team at Liver-pool University claims it has found proof that, combined together, the chemicals have a powerful effect on nerve cell development. The researchers led by renowned toxico pathologist Professor Vyvyan Howard, carried out a three-year test tube study using nerve cells taken from animals.

            It found that the harmful effect of additives on developing cells was up to seven times greater than expected when two of the additives were combined. The team claimed that the damage was identified at levels which are consistent with the average amount consumed by children eating popular snack foods and drinks.

            During this time, the nervous system is very sensitive to specific disturbances in its environment.

            This is a test tube test, so we have to be guarded in terms of what we can draw from it. However we are seeing that these additives may affect the connectivity of the brain, which has implications for intelligence and development.

            Previous studies have linked additives with changes in behavior. This could be the mechanism causing such an effect.

            Professor Howard added: “this is very important, as the result suggest that the toxic effect of additives in combination on the development of cells of the nervous system can be up to seven times greater than expected from the sum of the effects of the individual additives”.

            The four additives used in the tests were monosodium glutamate (E621), the colours brilliant blue (E133) and quinoline yellow (E104), and the artificial sweetener aspartame.


            December 22, 2023 TOI


10-minute test for deadly stomach bug

            A handheld sensor that can quickly spot contamination by deadly strains of the Escherichia coil bug could help prevent infected food reaching consumers.

            In the US alone, 60 people a year die from E. coli, while 73,000 are infected with pathogenic strains. But detecting the bug is a slow process that involves removing whole batches of foodstuffs from production lines while cultures are grown or DNA amplified. Tests can take 24 hours or more, says Peter Wareing, a food safety expert with Leatherhead Food International in Surrey, UK.

            Now Raj Mutharasan, an engineer at Drexel University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, has developed a cheap, quick and simple detector that just about anyone can use. “It will be as easy to use as a thermometer, giving a result in 10 minutes,” he says.

            The device works by detecting how the mass of a few E. coli cells changes the vibration of a miniature glass beam. The prototype sensor comprises a sliver of glass 5 millimeters long and 1 millimeter wide, which is fixed at one end and has a layer of piezoelectric ceramic called lead zirconate titanate (PZT) glues to the other. The glass sliver is then coated with antibodies to E. coli 0157:H7, the strain that causes the illness.

            An alternating voltage applied to the piezoelectric layer makes it expand and contract, causing the tiny sliver to vibrate. The vibration is greatest at the sliver’s resonant frequency, and this can be detected by measuring the voltage across the PZT generated by the reverse piezoelectric effect, as it peaks at the resonant frequency. Changes in this resonant frequency as E. coli cells bind to the antibodies give a measure of the concentration of the pathogen.

            To make sure only E. coli cells sit on the sliver, the whole operation takes place in moving fluid. A fraction of a milliliter of beef broth, for example, is sloshed back and forth over the sensor during the 10-minute measurement. “The sensitivity is already very high: we can detect E. coli at a concentration of 4 cells per milliliter of ample,” Mutharasan says.

               February 4, 2024 New Scientist  


Stem cells to grow into cartilage

             Scientists at the Imperial College, London the United Kingdom, have successfully converted human embryonic stem cells into cartilage cells. The research involved growing human embryonic stem cells together with cartilage cells in Petri dishes in a specialized system that encouraged the stem cells to change into cartilage cells. When compared with the human embryonic stem cells grown alone, the stem sells and cartilage cells mix was found to have higher levels of collagen, the protein constituent of cartilage.

            The cells were implanted in mice on a bioactive scaffold for 35 days. When they removed the scaffold, the cells were found to have formed new cartilage, showing that they can be successfully transplanted in living tissue. The scientists believe this technique could be used in plastic surgery. When removing head and neck cancers, cartilage parts are often cut away and then grafts taken from other arts of the body. This new technique would enable doctors to take stem cells from the patient, culture them and then transplant them after the surgery.

November-December, 2005 Vatis Update: Biotechnology


Baby monitors up cancer chances

             Children may be at risk of cancer from digital baby monitors, parents have been warned. The cordless gadgets, which allow babies’ breathing patterns to be checked from another room, emit potentially dangerous radio waves even when not in use. Consumer group Powerwatch warned parents against using them after research suggested the technology increased the risk of brain tumours. There are also fears it is linked with leukaemia, breast cancer, headaches and disturbed behaviour patterns in children.

February 21, 2006 TOI  



New vaccine to cure flu for life

           British scientists are developing a revolutionary vaccine that works against all types of flu. It would protect people against lethal bird flu and a singledose could give lifelong immunity.

           Currently, new vaccines have to be developed each year. The major breakthrough has been made by the Cambridge Biotech frim Acambis. Each year, flu kills up to 12,000 people in the UK many of them elderly. But experts have been warning of a possible global pandemic of bird flu, which would infect a third of the world’s population in just a year and kill hundreds of millions. The current problem with fighting flu is that the virus is constantly mutating and producing new strains A new vaccine has to be produced each year to protect against the particular strains circulating at that time. The Scientists at Acambis, working with Belgian researchers, have created the first even “broad spectrum” vaccine, which is effective against many of the most common types of flu.

January 2006, Health Action


Blood test to find heart failure

          A simple blood test may help to detect heart failure at an early stage, says a new study. The test developed by researchers led by James Januzzi at the Massachusetts General Hospital, can accurately diagnose both systolic and diastolic acute congestive heart failure, reports a news agency. It can identify heart patients who may be at risk of death in two months and reduce healthcare expense by enabling physicians to treat them appropriately from the beginning of their hospital stay.

January 2006, Health Action,


Killer inheritance

           Childhood birth defects kill more people each year than AIDS, a toll that is largely preventable.

            That’s the conclusion of the first global audit of childhood birth defects, published by the March of Dimes, a charity based in White Plains, New York. It says 8 millions children with defects are born each year, 3.3 million of whom die before the age of five. That compares to the 3.1 million adults and children who die from AIDS last year.

            Yet simple health measures could prevent up to 70 percents of the birth defects. Fortifying food with folic acid can prevent the babies being born with neural tube defects such as spina bifida, while women could be screened for syphilis, which can damage a fetus, before they become pregnant. Couples could also be screened for the inherited diseases. Screening in Iran reduced the incidence of the disease by one third in three years.

            Cultural steps could also be taken to limit birth defects. Consanguineous relationship, such as marriage between first cousins, are practiced by one fifth of the world’s population. Yet the risk for neonatal and childhood death, intellectual disability and serious birth defects is almost doubled for first cousin unions.

February 4, 2006 New Scientist  


Newly identified protein may inhibit hepatitis virus

           A newly identified family of proteins may inhibit replication of the Hepatitis-B (HBV) and C (HCV) viruses say researchers from California. Hepatitis B (HBV) and C (HCV) are infecting the liver, and in some cases can cause liver failure requiring a transplant for survival. The protein interferon, produced by animal cells when they are invaded by viruses, is released into the bloodstream or intercellular fluid to induce healthy cells to manufacture an enzyme that counters the infection. One class of interferon’s (alpha) is used to treat chronic infection with HBV and HCV. There is a vaccine available to prevent the spread of HBV but not HCV. In the study, a new class of interferons, interferon lambda, was tested for its ability to inhibit HBV and HCV replication. Results showed 90% inhibition of HBV after twenty-four hours and 90-99% inhibition in HCV five days post treatment. The researchers have demonstrated that replication of HBV and HCV is sensitive to the antiviral activities of interferon lambda. These results suggest the possibility that interferon lambda may be therapeutically useful in the treatment of chronic HBV or HCV infection.

  May 2005, Advanced Biotech 


Using GM plants to clean up heavy metals

            Researchers led by Dr. Ru Binggen of the Peking University’s College of Life, Beijing, have successfully used genetically modified (GM) tobacco and a species of algae to remove toxic heavy metals such as mercury from soil and water. As a cheap and effective way of eliminating heavy metal pollution from the environment, these GM plants carry ample health and economic benefits. By inserting a rat gene into tobacco and the algae Dr. Ru’s team made the plants produce matallo-thioein, a protein produced in mammalian liver, which binds easily to heavy metals. GM tobacco produces the protein in its roots and can absorb several hundred times more heavy metals ions from soil than normal tobacco. The plants can then be burnt and the heavy metals safely isolated from the ash. The tobacco plants under trial died before they could reproduce. Even so, the method is still much cheaper than using a chemical process to remove heavy metal pollution.

            A different method was used with the GM algae, the algae were pasted onto a nylon membrane, which was then lowered into polluted water. After absorbing the heavy metal, the algae-covered membranes were taken out of the water and the heavy metals extracted from them in the safety of a laboratory.

November-December 2005, VATIS UPDATE: Biotechnology


Novel diabetes drugs developed

             Researchers from the University of Ulster in the United Kingdom have discovered that by generating stable long-acting forms o GIP, which is a form a naturally occurring molecule produced by the body, two principal modes of anti-diabetic action could be achieved. GIP has been shown to have great potential as a highly effective, tumour-specific, non-toxic therapeutic for the treatment of a variety of oncological diseases, including non-small cell lung, hormone-dependent and hormone-independent ductile, glandular breast, prostate, colon, ovarian, skin and other cancer types.

            Two distinct therapeutic products have been developed from GIP, which is released into the blood following eating based on earlier research done by the team. Pre-clinical studies revealed that both therapeutic products exhibit potent glucose-lowering actions mediated by either increasing circulating insulin or enhancing insulin action. GIP- based therapies are new approaches that offer advantages over existing and emerging diabetes/obesity therapies. It currently has two GIP drugs in its pipeline – Incretide and Metalog – whose actions are regulated by circulating levels of blood glucose. 

November - December, 2005 Vatis Update: Biotechnology



Zebrafish researchers Hook Gene for Human Skin Color

             People come in many different hues, from black to brown to white and shades in between. The chief determinant of skin colour is the pigment melanin, which protects against ultra-violet rays and is found in cellular organelles called melanosomes. But the genetics behind this spectrum of skin colors have remained enigmatic.

            The new work is raising goose bumps among skin-color researchers. “Entirely original and groundbreaking,” says molecular biologist Richard Sturm of the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia. Anthropologist Nina Jablonski of the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco, California, notes that the paper “provides very strong support for positive selection” of light skin in Europeans. Researchers have not been sure whether European pale skin is the result of some selective advantage or due to relaxation of selection for dark skin, after the ancestors of modern Europeans migrated out of Africa into less sunny climes.

            Yet the authors agree that the new gene SLC24A5, is far from the whole story. Although at least 93% of Africans and East Asians share the same allele, East Asians are usually light skinned too. This means that variation in other genes, a handful of which have been previously identified, also affects skin color.

            The Science paper is the culmination of a decade of work, says team leader Keith Cheng, a geneticist at Pennsylvania State University Collage of Medicine in Hershey. He and his colleagues were using the zebrafish as a model organism to search for cancer genes and became curious about a zebrafish mutation called golden, which lightens the fish’s normally dark, melanin-rich stripes. Cheng’s team identified the mutated gene and found that the zebrafish version shared about 69% of its sequence with the humans gene SLC24A5.

 December 16, 2005 Vol. 310  Science



Your pillows may be hotbeds of fungi

            Right under your nose, your pillows may harbour millions of fungal spores, cautions a University of Manchester research study, funded by the Fungal Research Trust and published in the journal Allergy.

            Aspergillus fumigatus, the species most commonly found in pillows, is most likely to cause disease; and the resulting condition- aspergillosis – has become the leading cause of infection and death in leukaemia and bone marrow transplant patients. Immuno-compromised patients are also frequently affected with life-threatening aspergillus pneumonia and sinusitis.

            The findings have important implications for patients with respiratory diseases, including asthma and sinusitis.

February 2006, Health Action


Power of the mind can lessen chronic pain

           Patients could suppress chronic pain by learning to control the activity of certain areas of their brains.

           Christopher deCharms of imaging technology firm Omneuron in California and his colleagues at Stanford University showed eight patients suffering from chronic pain feedback from real-time functional magnetic resonance images of the rostral anterior cingulate cortex (rACC), one of the brain’s pain centers.

           All of the patients had complicated conditions, including fibromyalgia and neuropathic pain, which had failed to respond to treatment. But after just three 13-minute sessions in the scanner, five of the patients learned to suppress the activity of the rACC and reduce their sensation of pain by more than 50 per cent, according to the standard questionnaire assessments.

           The volunteers could not explain how they were able to manipulate their brain activity, but control experiments in which healthy people endured painful heat on the palms of their hands showed that they could not diminish pain levels without  seeing the brain-scan feedback, or when shown brain scans from a different person.

           Previous work suggested that people might be able to manipulate their experience of pain in this way, but this is the first demonstration in a clinical setting. They have yet to establish whether the patients can retain the ability.

December 17, 2005 New Scientist


Rough on fibre

            Eating plenty of dietary fibre stops you getting bowel cancer, right? Wrong, according to a new analysis of 13 major studies.

            Stephanie Smith-Warner and her colleagues at the Harvard School of Public Health in Boston examined “prospective” studies in which healthy people were followed to see if there food intake altered their chances of getting cancer. The data 7,25,628 men and women, who were followed for up to 20 years. About 8000 of these people developed bowel cancer, and it made no difference how much fibre they had eaten.

            But the new analysis did not include a huge prospective study of 500000 Europeans in 10 countries, known as EPIC, which was published in 2003 – after Smith – Warner selected her studies for analysis. EPIC found that people with the highest levels of fibre intake reduced their risk a getting bowel cancer risk by 40 percent.

            The Harvard team may include EPIC in a future analysis. But whatever the final verdict on bowel cancer, Smith-Warner urges people to keep eating a diet rich in fibrous fruit, vegetables and wholegrains, which has proven benefits in preventing heart disease and diabetes.

December 17, 2005 New Scientist  



Healing bones

            How an Indian remedy works: An Indian plant, Cissus quadrangularis, is used in traditional medicine to treat bone fractures. Recently, a team of researchers at the National Chemical Laboratory (NCL), Pune, tried to explain how the plants, which can be used both internally and externally, works.

           Commonly called hadjod, the plant belongings to grapes family. Earlier trails have shown it reduces healing time for fracture by 55-33 percent. To understand how it works, the NCL team, led by Murali Sastry, boiled the plant stem in water for five minutes to prepare an extract. On studying its composition, the scientists found the extract was rich of two elements- Calcium and phosphorous, which are present in the bones as calcium hydroxyapatite.

            When the researchers passed the carbon dioxide thought the extract, they found calcium carbonate crystals were formed. This demonstrates the availability of the calcium in the plants to make other compounds, may be even calcium hyroxyapatite. This research could help explain how the bone grows. Earlier studies have shown the plant has anti-osteoporotic properties and could be useful for menopausal women too.


December 31, 2005 Down to Earth


New discovery in the lab halts anthrax

            The scientists believe this discovery is especially valuable because the anthrax bacterium is widely regarded as a potential bioterrorism weapon. The team have identified an enzyme that is involved in the multiplication of the bacteria and isolated a substance–N-hydroxylamine-that interrupts its function, stopping the growth of any anthrax infection. The new research, happening at the University of Stockholm, reveals that it may be possible to find substances that effectively knock out corresponding enzymes in other pathogenic organisms.

            Spores of the bacterium Bacillus anthracis cause anthrax. B. anthracis is considered to be one of the top (CDC Category A) biothreat agents by the US government. The bacteria secrete toxins that paralyse the immune system, damage tissues and lead to death. Bacillus anthracis, can develop into full-blown anthrax in the lungs very rapidly and must be stopped as quickly as possible. Combining the substance N-hydroxylamine with ordinary antibiotics that work more slowly can do this.

            When people are exposed in an anthrax attack, antibiotic treatment alone is not enough. Vaccination takes a long time to achieve protection, and it is the toxins, not the bacteria, that kill. A number of US biotechnology companies are currently undertaking research into Anthrax therapies. Human Genome Sciences and Elusys Therapeutics, have developed similar anti-anthrax drugs, Abtrax and ETI-204 respectively. The drugs are artificial antibodies, or proteins that mimic the natural proteins made by the body to fight off invading germs. Anthrax antibodies, though potentially useful, share one of the main disadvantages of current treatment with antibiotics in that its effectiveness appears to drop off rapidly the later they are administered in the course of the disease.

December 2005, Advanced Biotech




                                 Edited by Dr. A. M. Mehendale