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ScienceMag.org, February 28, 2009 — Your spit is nothing like your neighbors’. A global study has found vast differences between people in the types of microbes inhabiting their saliva–with a surprising lack of correlation between the type of bugs and where a person lives.
Until recently, biomedically oriented microbiologists tended to focus on just those pathogens that could be grown in the laboratory. But in the past decade, ever-cheaper sequencing technology has enabled wholesale surveys of genes in the environment, and from those genes, assessments of entire communities of microbes associated with the gut and other parts of the body. Certain community compositions are proving to be risk factors, say, in obesity. In 2007, the U.S. National Institutes of Health set up a $115 million, 5-year program to look in-depth at microbes found on or in people.

But Mark Stoneking decided to chase down the microbes in spit. A molecular anthropologist at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, he and colleagues wanted to know whether cheek swabs or saliva were better sources of human DNA to use in his studies of human migrations. They did some tests. “You do get a whopping lot of DNA out of saliva, but much of it turns out to be bacteria,” he recalls.

That got him thinking. He had been impressed by how anthropologists were able to trace human migrations through the differences in the strains of the stomach bug Helicobacter pylori in various groups of people “With that species, you see very strong geographic patterning,” says Stoneking. But getting a sample of H. pylori is relatively difficult, as it requires a stomach biopsy. He wondered whether any of the bacteria in spit would work instead.

Stoneking persuaded colleagues to help collect saliva from 10 volunteers each at a dozen locations around the world. His lab isolated and sequenced about 500 bases from a gene often used to tell one type of bacterium from another. They collected about 120 sequences of this gene from each sample. They then matched those sequences against those in public databases to identify each individual’s bacteria.

Taken together, the samples contained 101 known bacterial genera, 39 of them newly found in the mouth, the team reports today in Genome Research. The samples also included another estimated 64 genera that were not in the databases. Individuals had between six and 30 kinds of bacteria in their mouths. The 10 individuals from California and the 10 from the Congo had the greatest variation; those from the Republic of Georgia and Turkey had the least.

Differences in the bacterial composition among individuals from a particular place tended to be on par with the differences in the bacteria present between individuals from different places, indicating–to the team’s surprise–that there were no geographical patterns. The researchers also did not find any correlation between the bacteria present and age, gender, or environmental factors, such as rainfall. One might expect diet or hygiene to affect the microbial communities, but the researchers did not assess those cultural factors in this particular study. Thus, they have few clues as to why this diversity exists.

“These communities are very complex, and the degree to which they vary between people continues to surprise [us],” says Ruth Ley, a microbial ecologist at Cornell University. She would like to see the researchers follow up the study by looking at more people, taking multiple samples over time from each person, and getting more sequence from each sample. Such efforts may prove worthwhile for more than just anthropological questions, says Daniel Falush, a statistical geneticist at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom: “Variation in this microbiota may reveal unexpected insights into many aspects of health.”

Recent studies show that they could save you time, keep you healthier, and improve medical research.

MIT Technology Review, February 28, 2009, by Emily Singer — Thanks to a large influx of stimulus spending, a debate over electronic health records (EHRs) has been bubbling through newspages and blogs. Some people are concerned about privacy, others are worried that EHRs will help the government will take over healthcare. But few have focused on the potential benefits to patients.

Here’s a smattering of recent studies highlighting how electronic health records might help our costly and overburdened health system:
A study I wrote about earlier last month found that hospitals with the most effective electronic medical record systems had healthier patients–they saw fewer deaths and complications–and lower bills.

Electronic systems also seem to improve preventative medicine by boosting screening. A study from Harvard Medical School found that patients who were sent reminders for colorectal cancer screenings, which were generated from electronic medical data, were more likely to get themselves screened. Electronic reminders sent to physicians had no effect on screening rates, suggesting that patients may be an untapped resource in their own preventative healthcare.

A third study points to the potential research benefits of electronic medical records, something that some of the physicians and researchers I have spoken with are particularly excited about. According to the research, published in the British Medical Journal, statistical analysis of electronic medical record databases mimics results of clinical trials, predicting which drugs work best. This kind of data wouldn’t replace clinical trials, of course. But scientists say EMRs could be used to supplement clinical trial data, to look at a drug’s effectiveness in a more diverse population, for example. Details of the study are described in a release from the University of Pennsylvania:

[Richard Tannen, Professor of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine and his] team selected six previously performed randomized trials with 17 measured outcomes and compared them to study data from an electronic database — the UK general practice research database (GPRD), which included the medical records of roughly 8 million patients. Treatment efficacy was determined by the prevalence of cardiovascular outcomes, such as stroke, heart attack and death.
After using standard biostatistical methods to adjust for differences in the treated and untreated groups in the analysis of the database information, Tannen found that there were no differences in the database outcomes compared to randomized clinical trials in nine out of 17 outcomes.

In the other eight outcomes, Tannen’s group used an additional new biostatistical approach they discovered that controlled for differences between the treated and untreated groups prior to the time the study began. By using the new biostatistical method instead of the standard approach, the researchers showed there were no differences between the outcomes in the EMR database study compared to the randomized clinical trials.

I go to a large medical practice in Boston that has been one of the pioneers in electronic medical records, and I personally find it very useful. Different doctors have access to my information, whether I’m visiting the Cambridge or Boston location. And I can look at my own health data online–seeing your weight, cholesterol and blood pressure measurements plotted out over time is a sure impetus to keep them in check.

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An illustration of the hemagglutinin protein (shown in yellow and blue) on the H5 influenza virus H5, bound to a neutralizing antibody (red).
Credit: William C. Hwang

Newly made antibodies protect against different varieties of flu.

MIT Technology Review, February 28, 2009, by Emily Singer — Flu shots have to be reformulated every year, thanks to the constantly mutated virus. And the annual vaccine won’t protect against more deadly strains, like the H5N1 bird flu. But that may soon change: scientists have now developed antibody proteins that can neutralize different strains of the influenza virus, including the deadly H5N1 bird flu, the virus behind the 1918 epidemic, and common seasonal strains. These new antibodies target part of the virus that is shared between different strains and thus appears to be broadly effective. The research was published on Sunday in the journal Nature Structural & Molecular Biology.

According to an article in Nature,

The antibodies also give researchers clues about how to develop new vaccines. “This opens up the avenue of thinking about universal influenza vaccines, which has not been realistic before”, says Peter Palese, an influenza expert at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York who was not involved in the work.

A vaccine using this technology could theoretically be used to protect against various types of flu, as well as to treat the virus once a person is infected. Scientists who developed the antibodies say that they hope to have a candidate vaccine to test in humans within the next three years.

But not everyone is as optimistic about the possibilities. According to an article in the New York Times,
Henry L. Niman, a biochemist who tracks flu mutations, was skeptical, arguing that human immune systems would have long ago eliminated flu were the virus as vulnerable in one spot as this discovery suggested. Also, he noted, protecting the mice in the study took huge doses of antibodies, which are expensive and cumbersome to infuse.

The research began by screening a library of 27 billion antibodies he had created, looking for ones that take aim at the hemagglutinin “spikes” on the shells of flu viruses . . . The flu virus uses the lollipop-shaped hemagglutinin spike to invade nose and lung cells. There are 16 known types of spikes, H1 through H16.

The spike’s tip mutates constantly, which is why flu shots have to be reformulated each year. But the team found a way to expose the spike’s neck, which apparently does not mutate, and picked antibodies that clamped onto it. Once its neck is clamped, a spike can still penetrate a human cell, but it cannot unfold to inject the genetic instructions that take over the cell’s machinery to make more virus. The team then turned the antibodies into full-length immunoglobulins and tested them in mice.

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The ability to create stem cell treatments without using embryos is a step closer, say researchers.

BBC, March 1, 2009 — A UK and Canadian team have manipulated human skin cells to act like embryonic stem cells without using viruses – making them safer for use in humans.

The cells are reprogrammed by the insertion of four genes which are then removed once the process is complete, they report in Nature.
While a significant step it is early days, the Edinburgh-based experts say.
Much of the work on stem cells has focused on those taken from embryos as they have an unlimited capacity to become any of the 220 types of cell in the human body – a so-called pluripotent state.

But campaigners have objected to their use on the grounds that it is unethical to destroy embryos in the name of science.

“ It is a step towards the practical use of reprogrammed cells in medicine, perhaps even eliminating the need for human embryos as a source of stem cells ”
Dr Keisuke Kaji, study leader

In 2007, teams in Japan and the US managed to genetically modify skin cells to be pluripotent, opening the way for a new source of stem cells for use in research.

However, the technique used viruses to genetically modify the cells, which means there was a risk they could become cancerous and so would not be safe for medical use.

The latest study reports a way of delivering foreign genes to reprogramme the cells without using viruses in mouse and human cells.

Furthermore, the team was able to remove the genes afterwards.

Efficiency

Study leader Dr Keisuke Kaji, from the Medical Research Council Centre for Regenerative Medicine at the University of Edinburgh, said nobody, including himself, had thought it was really possible.

“It is a step towards the practical use of reprogrammed cells in medicine, perhaps even eliminating the need for human embryos as a source of stem cells,” he said.

But he added they needed to improve the efficiency of the process.

Co-author Professor Andras Nagy, from the University of Toronto, added: “We hope that these stem cells will form the basis for treatment for many diseases and conditions that are currently considered incurable.”

Professor Sir Ian Wilmut, director of Edinburgh centre where the research was done and the creator of Dolly the sheep, said it would still take time before these cells could be given to patients.

“Crucially, we need to have a method to generate the desired cell types from these stem cells.

“But I believe the team has made great progress and combining this work with that of other scientists working on stem cell differentiation, there is hope that the promise of regenerative medicine could soon be met.”

Professor Robin Lovell-Badge, head of the MRC National Institute for Medical Research, said the research was an exciting step in the right direction but there was still a long road ahead.

“For the time being I think it rather premature to suggest that their work will completely remove the need to derive human stem cells from embryos.”

He added there was still a lot to learn from human embryonic stem cells in order to know whether stem cells reprogrammed from adult cells are truly useful or not.

Josephine Quintavalle, of Comment on Reproductive Ethics, said: “This is ethical stem cell research at its best, with embryonic-type stem cells derived successfully from adult tissue without involving human embryos.”

Story from BBC NEWS:
http://news.bbc.co.uk/go/pr/fr/-/1/hi/health/7914976.stm

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The Apple iPhone is now available in a custom makeover edition for more than $2 million. The cosmetic detail was designed by an Austrian jeweler with diamonds and gold.

NEWSOXY.COM, March 1, 2009, by Rob Adams — Apple Inc’s iPhone comes with a variety of standard colors, but mobile users can show off a new Kings Button which is decorated in diamonds and gold. This unique feature serves as the home button on the smartphone. Now you can dazzle all your friends with the gleaming $2.5 million cosmetic design.

Austrian jeweler Peter Aloisson is serious about the creation of the new “Kings Button” which is the world’s most expensive Apple iPhone 3G. The iPhone button has a 6.6 carat diamond and the iPhone case was dipped in 18-carat gold. Portions of the gold are white and rose. The white gold embraces the edges on the iPhone device and contains 138 diamonds.

At first glance, it is eye-catching and the detailed work that went into this Apple iPhone 3G was done well. Smart phone users can show off their new device while shopping, going to the movies, or when eating at a restaurant. Mobile users strive to be different, and this is one elegant way to be unique.

Apple iPhone owners will appreciate the new Kings Button feel when making calls or surfing the Web.

Apple iPhone users are special, and the Kings Button reminds them on how special they really are to be a smart phone user. Each time you grip the device to make a call or surf the Web, you can feel and appreciate the 138 diamonds which snuggle around your fingers. Pressing the Kings Button is only for the privileged and not for your mobile friends.

The new iPhone makeover edition is available for anyone willing to pay $2.5 million.