20091113-5

Illustration of rat with spinal injury. (Credit: Image courtesy of University of California – Irvine) 

GoogleNews.com, ScienceDaily.com, November 12, 2009  –  The first human embryonic stem cell treatment approved by the FDA for human testing has been shown to restore limb function in rats with neck spinal cord injuries — a finding that could expand the clinical trial to include people with cervical damage.

In January, the U.S. Food & Drug Administration gave Geron Corp. of Menlo Park, Calif., permission to test the UC Irvine treatment in individuals with thoracic spinal cord injuries, which occur below the neck. However, trying it in those with cervical damage wasn’t approved because preclinical testing with rats hadn’t been completed.

Results of the cervical study currently appear online in the journal Stem Cells. UCI scientist Hans Keirstead hopes the data will prompt the FDA to authorize clinical testing of the treatment in people with both types of spinal cord damage. About 52 percent of spinal cord injuries are cervical and 48 percent thoracic.

“People with cervical damage often have lost or impaired limb movement and bowel, bladder or sexual function, and currently there’s no effective treatment. It’s a challenging existence,” said Keirstead, a primary author of the study. “What our therapy did to injured rodents is phenomenal. If we see even a fraction of that benefit in humans, it will be nothing short of a home run.”

A week after test rats with 100 percent walking ability suffered neck spinal cord injuries, some received the stem cell treatment. The walking ability of those that didn’t degraded to 38 percent. Treated rats’ ability, however, was restored to 97 percent.

UCI’s therapy utilizes human embryonic stem cells destined to become spinal cord cells called oligodendrocytes. These are the building blocks of myelin, the biological insulation for nerve fibers that’s critical to proper functioning of the central nervous system. When myelin is stripped away through injury or disease, paralysis can occur.

Lead author and doctoral student Jason Sharp, Keirstead and colleagues discovered that the stem cells not only rebuilt myelin but prevented tissue death and triggered nerve fiber regrowth. They also suppressed the immune response, causing an increase in anti-inflammatory molecules.

“The transplant created a healing environment in the spinal cord,” said Keirstead, who is co-director of the Sue & Bill Gross Stem Cell Research Center and on the faculty of the Reeve-Irvine Research Center — named for late actor Christopher Reeve, who became a quadriplegic after a cervical spinal cord injury.

In addition to Keirstead and Sharp, Jennifer Frame, Monica Siegenthaler and Dr. Gabriel Nistor of UCI worked on the study, which was supported by Geron Corp., a University of California Discovery Grant, the Roman Reed Spinal Cord Injury Research Fund of California, Research for Cure, and individual donations to the Reeve-Irvine Research Center.


Adapted from materials provided by University of California – Irvine.

20091113-4

Several companies have announced that they will voluntarily phase out the chemical from their products.

STORY HIGHLIGHTS

  • BPA-exposed workers had lower sex drive and lower satisfaction with sex life
  • The greater the BPA exposure, the more likely the men were to have sexual dysfunction
  • BPA’s effects on humans have been debated because research is mostly in mice and animals

GoogleNews.com, CNN.com, November 12, 2009, by Ray Hainer  —  Bisphenol-A, a chemical found in hard, clear plastic used to make everything from baby bottles to food packaging, may increase the risk of erectile dysfunction and other sexual problems in male factory workers exposed to large amounts of the substance, according to a study conducted in China. 

The health effects of BPA have been hotly debated; although some studies have linked BPA to a risk of brain damage, birth defects, hyperactivity, heart disease, early puberty, obesity, and prostate cancer, other research suggests that the low level of exposure from plastics doesn’t pose a health risk to adults. (The picture is less clear for children.) 

Part of the problem is that much of the research has been conducted in mice and other animals, and its validity in humans is controversial. Although not conclusive, the potential health effects have caused some baby-bottle and water-bottle manufacturers to stop using the chemical, at least in part because of public concern. BPA is not found in soft, pliable plastic used in most water bottles.

Now, the new study — one of the first to be conducted in humans — seems to support a finding previously reported only in animal research. 

Among the men who work with BPA, the risk of having difficulty ejaculating was seven times greater than it was among the non-exposed group, and the risk of erectile problems was more than four times greater. The BPA-exposed workers also reported higher rates of low sex drive and lower overall satisfaction with their sex lives, according to the study, published this week in Human Reproduction and funded by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health. 

Researchers compared the rates of sexual dysfunction in two groups of workers in China — 230 men who worked at factories that produce BPA or epoxy resin (which contains the chemical), and some 400 men, including workers in other industries, who were not exposed to abnormally high levels of BPA. Epoxy resin is used in the lining of canned foods and is another potential source of BPA in addition to hard, clear plastic. 

The men who worked in the BPA and epoxy-resin factories were exposed to levels about 50 times higher than average. 

The greater a worker’s exposure to BPA — which was measured using spot air and urine samples — the more likely he was to have sexual dysfunction. Yet the dysfunction was apparent even in workers who had worked in a BPA factory for one year or less. 

“This was a very compelling study,” says Dr. Rebecca Sokol, the director of the andrology program at the University of Southern California’s Keck School of Medicine, who specializes in the effects of toxins on the reproductive system. “It’s not cause and effect, but when you have the kind of ambient air quality assessment that they made, it comes pretty close to cause and effect.” 

In the past, the scientists and industry representatives who have argued that BPA is safe at the low level of exposure that occurs for most people have pointed to the lack of BPA research in humans, says the lead author of the study, Dr. De-Kun Li, a reproductive epidemiologist at Kaiser Permanente’s Division of Research, in Oakland, California. 

“They keep arguing, ‘Where’s the human data? Where’s the human data? You can’t extrapolate animal studies to humans,'” Li says. “Which is true, sometimes. But now we have human data.” 

The findings of Li and his colleagues are consistent with the hypothesis that BPA, when it enters the body, can mimic the effects of estrogen and may block male sex hormones (including testosterone). The study has implications beyond male sexual dysfunction, however, since sexual dysfunction is often associated with broader reproductive health problems. 

And the fact that a health effect observed in animal studies has been seen in humans, says Li, suggests that the other findings of animal studies — an increased risk of cancer and obesity, for example — need to be taken more seriously. “We cannot dismiss them anymore,” he says. 

Experts caution that the results need to be replicated in other studies, and also in the United States. 

The study “opens a new front in [BPA] research,” says Peter Myers, a BPA expert and the chief scientist at Environmental Health Sciences in Charlottesville, Virginia. “But as is absolutely necessary when a new front like this is opened up, we need to see replication.” 

It’s unclear, for instance, whether the everyday exposure to BPA that people receive from food packaging and other plastics is significant enough to produce the sexual dysfunction seen in workers who were inhaling the chemical all day. 

The BPA levels measured in the study were “extraordinarily high,” says Sokol, and they may have little or no relevance to “somebody drinking water out of a bottle.” 

But, she adds, “We need to be prudent and cautious about whether this chemical actually is impacting reproduction. People have to stop and say, ‘Whoa, now we’re starting to get data in animals that is manifested in humans.'” 

The study did have some weaknesses. It was relatively small for an epidemiological study, according to Sokol, and the rate of erectile difficulty among the BPA workers was still relatively low overall — a little more than 15 percent. 

This study comes amid mounting concerns over the safety of BPA from consumers, scientists, and public officials. In the summer of 2009, Canada said it was moving towards a ban on the sale and import of BPA-containing baby bottles. A number of states and cities, including Minnesota and Chicago, have passed similar bans or have taken steps to do so. Several companies have also announced that they will voluntarily phase out the chemical from their products. 

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is also in the midst of reconsidering its stance on BPA. In August 2008, largely on the basis of research funded by the chemical industry, the agency issued a draft assessment on the safety of BPA in food packaging, concluding that “an adequate margin of safety exists for BPA at current levels of exposure” from those sources. 

The FDA report caused an uproar in the scientific community and was soon contradicted. The National Toxicology Program (NTP), a federal agency that advises the FDA on chemicals and other environmental toxins, released its own report expressing “some” concern about the potential effects of BPA on the brains, behavior, and prostate glands of fetuses, infants, and children, as well as “minimal” concern about earlier puberty for girls. 

The NTP classified its concerns over reproductive effects from workplace BPA exposure as “minimal.”

Soon after, the FDA’s own Science Board released a report that cited the FDA’s exclusion of a large number of animal studies on BPA, and concluded that the agency may have overestimated the safety of the chemical. Following the release of these reports and a spate of media attention, the FDA announced that it would reconsider its assessment. In mid-August 2009, the agency indicated that it will continue to review the research on BPA effects in humans and will “decide next steps” by the end of November 2009.

Although the study of Li and his colleagues isn’t likely to drastically change the course of the debate (additional studies will be needed for that to happen), it will help keep the spotlight on the health effects of BPA.

“This study forces some new questions into the arena that need to be answered,” says Myers.

The New York Times, November 12, 2009, by Nicholas D. Kristof  —  Your body is probably home to a chemical called bisphenol A, or BPA. It’s a synthetic estrogen that United States factories now use in everything from plastics to epoxies – to the tune of six pounds per American per year. That’s a lot of estrogen.

More than 92 percent of Americans have BPA in their urine, and scientists have linked it – though not conclusively – to everything from breast cancer to obesity, from attention deficit disorder to genital abnormalities in boys and girls alike.

Now it turns out it’s in our food.

Consumer Reports magazine tested an array of brand-name canned foods for a report in its December issue and found BPA in almost all of them. The magazine says that relatively high levels turned up, for example, in Progresso vegetable soup, Campbell’s condensed chicken noodle soup, and Del Monte Blue Lake cut green beans.

The magazine also says it found BPA in the canned liquid version of Similac Advance infant formula (but not in the powdered version) and in canned Nestlé Juicy Juice (but not in the juice boxes). The BPA in the food probably came from an interior coating used in many cans.

Should we be alarmed?

The chemical industry doesn’t think so. Steven Hentges of the American Chemistry Council dismissed the testing, noting that Americans absorb quantities of BPA at levels that government regulators have found to be safe. Mr. Hentges also pointed to a new study indicating that BPA exposure did not cause abnormalities in the reproductive health of rats.

But more than 200 other studies have shown links between low doses of BPA and adverse health effects, according to the Breast Cancer Fund, which is trying to ban the chemical from food and beverage containers.

“The vast majority of independent scientists – those not working for industry – are concerned about early-life low-dose exposures to BPA,” said Janet Gray, a Vassar College professor who is science adviser to the Breast Cancer Fund.

Published journal articles have found that BPA given to pregnant rats or mice can cause malformed genitals in their offspring, as well as reduced sperm count among males. For example, a European journal found that male mice exposed to BPA were less likely to make females pregnant, and the Journal of Occupational Health found that male rats administered BPA had less sperm production and lower testicular weight.

This year, the journal Environmental Health Perspectives found that pregnant mice exposed to BPA had babies with abnormalities in the cervix, uterus and vagina. Reproductive Toxicology found that even low-level exposure to BPA led to the mouse equivalent of early puberty for females. And an array of animal studies link prenatal BPA exposure to breast cancer and prostate cancer.

While most of the studies are on animals, the Journal of the American Medical Association reported last year that humans with higher levels of BPA in their blood have “an increased prevalence of cardiovascular disease, diabetes and liver-enzyme abnormalities.” Another published study found that women with higher levels of BPA in their blood had more miscarriages.

Scholars have noted some increasing reports of boys born with malformed genitals, girls who begin puberty at age 6 or 8 or even earlier, breast cancer in women and men alike, and declining sperm counts among men. The Endocrine Society, an association of endocrinologists, warned this year that these kinds of abnormalities may be a consequence of the rise of endocrine-disrupting chemicals, and it specifically called on regulators to re-evaluate BPA.

Last year, Canada became the first country to conclude that BPA can be hazardous to humans, and Massachusetts issued a public health advisory in August warning against any exposure to BPA by pregnant or breast-feeding women or by children under the age of 2.

The Food and Drug Administration, which in the past has relied largely on industry studies – and has generally been asleep at the wheel – is studying the issue again. Bills are also pending in Congress to ban BPA from food and beverage containers.

“When you have 92 percent of the American population exposed to a chemical, this is not one where you want to be wrong,” said Dr. Ted Schettler of the Science and Environmental Health Network. “Are we going to quibble over individual rodent studies, or are we going to act?”

While the evidence isn’t conclusive, it justifies precautions. In my family, we’re cutting down on the use of those plastic containers that contain BPA to store or microwave food, and I’m drinking water out of a metal bottle now. In my reporting around the world, I’ve come to terms with the threats from warlords, bandits and tarantulas. But endocrine disrupting chemicals – they give me the willies.

By Gabe Mirkin MD, November 12, 2009       Nobody has yet shown any way to extend the life span of humans. However, both exercise and calorie restriction (with adequate nutrients) have been shown to extend the life span of animals.  Both of these measures apparently extend life by increasing the number and size of mitochondria in cells and making them turn food into energy more efficiently.  Each cell in your body contains up to several hundred mitochondria which provide the most efficient chemical reactions in your body for converting food into energy.

       An exciting new study on worms offers a potential method for you to prolong life and good health.  When blood sugar levels rise too high, sugar enters cells in large amounts.  An earlier study showed that adding sugar to the diet of the worm, C. Elegans, shortens its life (Cell Metabolism, October, 2007).  Now the researchers have found that preventing sugar from entering cells by altering the genes for DAF-2, DAF-16 and Heat Shock Factor-1 causes the same changes as avoiding sugar and extends the worms’ life span up to 20 percent (Cell Metabolism, November 2009).

These benefits could also occur in humans because we have the same three genes that control sugar entry into cells as those of the worms.

       Calorie restriction and exercise probably prolong life by the same mechanism: they enlarge and activate mitochondria in cells that turn food to energy. This helps mitochondria to clear free radicals much more rapidly from the body.  Free radicals can damage cells and therefore shorten life. The worms’ cells responded to the absence of sugar inside cells by increasing their ability to clear free radicals from their bodies which prolonged their lives.  Indeed, when sugar was allowed to again enter their cells, they still could clear free radicals faster and live longer because their enlarged mitochondria were more efficient in removing free radicals.

       This research on worms questions the way doctors treat type II diabetes when they prescribe drugs to lower blood sugar levels by driving sugar into cells.  The best treatment may be to develop diets and drugs that prevent blood sugar from entering cells in the first place.

       For now, we know that you will shorten your life and increase risk for many diseases by allowing blood sugar levels to rise too high after meals.  A diet that keeps sugar from rising too high after meals (and reduces the entry of sugar into cells) can prevent diabetes,  help control all the side effects of diabetes (JAMA, December 16, 2008), cause the most weight loss, and allow many type II diabetics to safely stop their medications (Nutrition and Metabolism, January 2009).  Avoid foods that cause the highest rise in blood sugar levels: sugar in liquid form (sugared drinks, fruit juices, and adding sugar to any drink); foods made from flour (bread, spaghetti, macaroni, pretzels, bagels and so forth); and foods with added sugar.

       You should also exercise every day.  Exercise causes muscles to remove sugar from the bloodstream at a very rapid rate and this effect lasts maximally for about half hour after you stop exercising, then tapers off until it stops completely after about 17 hours.  Furthermore, since lack of vitamin D causes high blood sugar levels, you should make sure that your blood level of vitamin D3 is above 75 nmol/L.

 

New recommendations on vitamin D

By Gabe Mirkin MD, November 12, 2009       At the University of Toronto School of Medicine’s “Diagnosis and Treatment of Vitamin D Deficiency” conference on

November 3, 2009, thirty of the world’s leading researchers on vitamin D recommended 2,000 IU of vitamin D daily (the current recommendation is 600 IU).  Vitamin D3 blood levels should be 100-150 nmol/L (40-60 ng/ml); the existing recommendation is 30-50 nmol/L.

       Vitamin D pioneer Dr. Cedric Garland presented data showing that raising vitamin D levels to 200 nmol/L decreased breast cancer risk more than 77 percent.  He said: “Breast cancer is a disease so directly related to vitamin D deficiency that a woman’s risk of contracting the disease can be virtually eradicated by elevating her vitamin D status to near that level.” Recent work has shown that all cells in the body have “vitamin D receptors” to control normal cell growth. Garland presented new evidence that low vitamin D status compromises the integrity of calcium-based cellular bonding within tissues, which allows rogue cancer cells to spread more readily.

       Vitamin D deficiency is associated with at least 24 cancers, diabetes, multiple sclerosis, heart disease, falls and fractures, psoriasis and many other health problems.

Does exercise contribute to arthritis? Research says no 

Harvard Medical School, November 12, 2009  —  If you’re putting off getting into a regular exercise routine because you’re worried that exercise contributes to arthritis, think again. Studies show that exercise can be safe for joints, both in older, overweight folks and in athletes. 

The knees of Framingham

In 1948, more than 5,200 residents of Framingham, Mass., volunteered for the Framingham Heart Study, which has produced major insights into the causes of heart attack and stroke. In 1971, scientists began a new study of the children of the original volunteers and the spouses of those children. Between 1993 and 1994, 1,279 members of the Framingham Offspring Cohort enrolled in a study of exercise and arthritis. Their average age was 53.

All the volunteers were free of arthritis when the study began. Each answered detailed questions about their patterns of exercise, including walking, jogging, being active enough to work up a sweat, and their overall exercise level. All the people provided information about knee injuries and symptoms of knee pain and stiffness. In addition, all the volunteers were weighed and measured, and they each had a full series of knee x-rays. 

Between 2002 and 2005, the subjects answered the same questions about knee pain and injury, and the x-rays were repeated. All the x-rays were independently evaluated by two experts who had no knowledge of the subjects’ exercise histories. 

When the results were tallied, the researchers found no link between exercise and arthritis of the knee. The most active people had the same risk of arthritis as the least active, in terms of both symptoms and x-ray abnormalities. 

Exercise was as friendly to the knees of joggers as walkers, even though jogging subjects the lower body to much higher impact and stress than walking. And even though obesity is an independent risk factor for arthritis, physically active overweight members of the study group fared just as well as their slim peers.

Australian knees

Although the Framingham study goes a long way toward dispelling the idea that exercise causes arthritis, it did not confirm a fond hope of exercise enthusiasts: that repetitive exercise could be good for joints.

However, a high-tech Australian investigation of 297 men and woman without knee injuries or disease showed that people who performed the most vigorous weight-bearing exercise had the thickest, healthiest knee cartilage.

Runners’ knees

A 2008 study that compared 284 dedicated runners with 156 nonrunners also found little evidence that exercise causes arthritis. After a remarkably long 21-year follow-up period, the runners experienced significantly less musculoskeletal disability than did their less active peers – and the runners also enjoyed a 39% lower mortality rate.

The research is impressive, and it confirms earlier studies. Former varsity runners, for example, are no more likely to develop arthritis in their legs than former college swimmers, and champion runners are no more likely to end up with arthritic hips than nonathletes. 

Exercise as therapy?

Exercise is often prescribed for patients with arthritis. Exercise may be safe for healthy joints – but is it also safe for arthritic joints? 

In 2005, British researchers found that both walking and muscle-strengthening were safe and effective, reducing pain and disability in people with arthritis. And in 2006 and 2007, scientists in the Netherlands and the U.K. reported that graded exercise programs are safe and effective for patients with arthritis of the hip or knee.

Healthy body, healthy joints

To prevent problems caused by exercise, be sure your general health is good; older people and patients with heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, or other significant problems should get medical clearance. And all of us should get in shape gradually. Listen to your body as you exercise and report any problems to your doctor.

Warming up and cooling down will help protect your heart and your joints. Stretching exercises, good shoes, and good technique will also reduce your risk of musculoskeletal injuries. With these simple precautions and a dose of common sense, exercise will be safe for your joints.

Next excuse?

Cinnamon as treatment for diabetes?

Harvard Medical School —

Q. I’ve heard that you can treat diabetes by taking an extract from cinnamon. I suspect this is snake oil, but is there anything to it?

 

A. A few years ago, I heard the same thing from a friend. My first reaction was like yours, but my friend was knowledgeable about food and suffered from type 2 diabetes, so I looked into it. There have been several published scientific studies – randomized, placebo-controlled trials – of cinnamon in patients with type 2 diabetes or prediabetes. Most involved relatively few people (between 20 and 60) and lasted a short time (a few weeks). A slight majority showed that cinnamon reduced blood sugar more than placebo, but the other studies didn’t show a benefit.

 

Whenever some improbable treatment is reported to work, and I’m not sure I believe it, I look for a biochemical explanation. With cinnamon and diabetes, there is one, and it involves glucose, insulin, and insulin receptors.

 

Glucose is the simple sugar that circulates in the blood. All cells depend on it for energy, so glucose needs a way to get from the bloodstream into cells. Insulin is a hormone that also circulates in the blood. When insulin attaches to structures on the outside of cells called insulin receptors, it’s as if doors to the cells swing open and glucose is allowed in. In people with type 2 diabetes, cells resist this effect of insulin, so glucose doesn’t get into cells and builds up in the blood instead.

 

Cinnamon contains several chemicals that stimulate insulin receptors so glucose can get into cells and that means levels in the blood go down. There’s some debate about exactly which chemicals are the critical ones.

 

So cinnamon as a treatment for diabetes may not be pure snake oil. But hang on. I also think studies with many more people for longer periods of time need to be done before we get too excited about this “natural” treatment. My guess is that cinnamon and other foods may have some value in treating type 2 diabetes, but probably as adjuncts to, rather than as substitutes for, conventional medicine.

– Anthony L. Komaroff, M.D.

Editor in Chief, Harvard Health Letter

20091113-2

GoogleNews.com, Financial Times, November 12, 2009, by Jonathan Guthrie  —  Stem cells are the fabric of life. Capable of transforming into the new tissue needed to repair damaged bodies, they promise to revolutionize medicine.

The UK has talented stem cell scientists, such as Nobel laureate Sir Martin Evans. It has a relatively permissive approach to controversial research using stem cells from human embryos. So British universities should be expected to spawn a cohort of profitable stem cell spin-offs.

Not so, according to Michael Hunt, chief executive of ReNeuron, a spin-out from King’s College London. “There are too few businesses coming through to create a critical mass. I can’t see that we will have a thriving stem cell sector here,” he says.

In the US, federal disapproval has, until recently, hampered embryonic stem cell research. But in the UK, a lack of venture capital has prevented start-ups from exploiting this advantage.

UK technology businesses in other fields, such as electronics and the internet, have the same problems raising funds. There is a particular shortage of sums of £1m-£5m ($1.7m-$8.4m, €1.1m-€5.6m) to develop technology that has passed feasibility studies but is still some way from the market. UK entrepreneurs that have operated in the US say that venture capitalists based there are far more likely to support second, third and even fourth rounds of funding.

ReNeuron, which has raised about £30m to fund its research, is the first British company to win regulatory approval for clinical trials of a stem cell treatment. It will inject cultured stem cells derived originally from human fetuses into the brains of stroke victims. The hope is that patients will regain lost faculties. If successful, the treatment would have great commercial potential: strokes are the single largest cause of adult disability.

Other funding options

A shortage of venture capital has hurt the UK’s stem cell industry. One entrepreneur estimates that no more than £5m ($8.4m, €5.6m) has been invested in the sector since last year. Here are some other options:
●Public markets Earlier this decade, soaring equity values allowed several businesses with stem cell programmes to raise money on the Alternative Investment Market including ReNeuron, Epistem and Intercytex. This enabled them to bypass a UK venture capital industry weakened by the impact of the dotcom collapse. They may do so again if the current rally continues.

●Business angels
Wealthy private investors sometimes back technology companies, even when payback is uncertain, because they have a personal or philanthropic interest in the science. The amounts they offer – typically of about £100,000 per investor – tend to suit early stage businesses rather than those seeking follow-on funding.

●Public sector funds
The government has committed more than £500m to its own range of venture capital funds, which typically co-invest with partners from the private sector or with European Union public bodies. These have become an important source of financing for fledgling biotech companies. Further public backing is likely to flow from a new wave of state investment, including the £750m Strategic Investment Fund.

ReNeuron’s plans are mirrored on a grander scale in the US by Geron, the stem cell research company, which has approval for clinical trials of its own. The business, based in Menlo Park, California, plans to test whether people with damaged spinal cords will benefit from injections of its own line of stem cells when it has cleared final safety checks.

Geron got a conditional go-ahead from the US Food and Drug Administration just days after Barack Obama took office in January. In March, the president lifted an eight-year ban on federally funded research into embryonic stem cells imposed by George W Bush, his predecessor. “The beast is beginning to stir on the other side of the Atlantic and will throw billions at it,” says Richard Archer of the Bio Industry Association, a UK trade body.

20091113-3

It would be hyperbolic to suggest the Bush ban gave the UK and other EU nations an easy advantage in stem cell research and business formation. The US science base is the biggest and best funded in the world. US states and private foundations went on paying for embryonic stem cell research during the ban. However, the sense among British biotech entrepreneurs is that the UK should have made far more progress than it has.

Greg McGarrell (left) gives an authentic taste of the sector’s frustration. The keen equestrian co-founded Medcell Bioscience, a spin-out from University College London, in 2000. It treats tendon injuries in race horses using stem cells. Medcell wants to test whether the same medicine would work in humans too.

But after a year and a half of pitching for £5m in medical trial funding from the UK’s relatively small and poorly resourced group of venture capitalists, Mr. McGarrell is close to conceding defeat.

He says: “There is no oil greasing the wheel, so I am in talks about breaking the business up. It is very frustrating. We have a huge amount of supporting data from the veterinary business showing that the treatment works.” It is possible that a large continental pharmaceutical business will buy Medcell’s intellectual property and attempt to take it to market. This is a common pattern in the UK.

Biotech spin-outs can usually raise a few hundred thousand pounds to get started. When they have proved that their treatment works on humans, institutional capital readily follows. The muddle is in the middle. Funding for clinical trials is in very short supply. “A lot of companies have sold assets in fire sales or sold out altogether,” says Vadim Alexandre, an analyst at Daniel Stewart, the stockbroker.

Stem cell research has scientific glamour but is a turn-off for many venture capitalists, whose own funding has been curtailed by the credit crunch. One reason is that the technology is largely unproven in humans, which means it is a long way from turning a profit. “What we have seen is a migration of funds to quicker wins, such as clean technology,” says Mr. McGarrell.

Engineers do not have to manage complex clinical trials involving hundreds of patients. Moreover, their test apparatus is unlikely to kill anyone, unless it is particularly badly wired.

‘There are too few businesses coming through to create a critical mass’

By contrast, medical regulators on both sides of the Atlantic drag their feet granting trials for stem cell treatments because so much can go wrong. Dangerous inflammations are possible. If cells proliferate in the wrong place, cancer may result.

ReNeuron circumvented pessimistic venture capitalists by raising money on the Alternative Investment Market. The Guildford-based company listed during a phase when the exuberance of small investors supported flotations by untested technology companies.

The party mood may return if ReNeuron’s stroke treatment succeeds in clinical trials, boosting other quoted stem cell fledglings such as Epistem.

However, the weakness of support for biotech companies from the City will always remain a hazard in the commercialization of stem cell research. The Technology Strategy Board, an arm of government, has promised to put £18m into feasibility studies and clinical trials in 2010. Whether it can keep that pledge may depend on the views of the Conservative government that pollsters expect to win power in a spring election.

Mr. Archer quips that “a prudent man would get the money before next May”. Subsidies may be odious to fans of free markets but without them, the UK is unlikely to produce a healthy stock of stem cell businesses.

Curiously, Celltech, the UK’s most financially successful biotech business, was set up in 1979 by the National Enterprise Board, a government agency. And that transaction was signed off by an incoming Tory prime minister not usually associated with interventionism: Margaret Thatcher.

20091113-1

The lakes on Titan have some surprising chemical contents, according to the latest data from the Cassini spacecraft

MIT Technology Review, November 12, 2009  —  One of the exotic attractions of Saturn’s moon Titan is the possibility that it has oceans and lakes, with waves and breakers not unlike those on Earth. In the 1990s, astronomers ruled out the possibility of a global ocean using radar measurements taken from Earth but the possibility of lakes remained. And sure enough, in 2005, the Cassini spacecraft spotted a large lake-like feature called Ontario Lacus near the south pole and has since spotted numerous smaller ones.

So what are these lakes made of? The conventional thinking is that the lakes must be made of a mixture of liquid ethane, methane and nitrogen. However, the amount of methane in the atmosphere makes it difficult to see in liquid form at ground level and only liquid ethane has been directly spotted in Ontario Lacus.

The only other way to infer the composition of the lakes is by creating a thermodynamic model of the atmosphere using spacecraft and laboratory data and theoretical calculations. And of course, data from Cassini is revolutionising these calculations.

Today, Daniel Cordier from the Ecole Nationale Superieure de Chimie de Rennes, France, et amis, present the latest take on the data. Their number crunching reveals that:

“the main constituents of the lakes are ethane ( 76-79%), propane (7-8%), methane (5-10%), hydrogen cyanide (2-3%), butene (1%), butane (1%) and acetylene (1%).”

That’s a rich and somewhat unexpected mix. But it’s also useful because it allows more detailed calculations about the role of liquid on the surface of Titan. “Our results provide the chemical data needed to compute the amount of deposition of various hydrocarbons and nitriles in fluvial valleys in the Titan’s midlatitudes,” says the team.

And that should allow planetary geologists to build and test a new generation of models that show how rivers and streams have carved the surface of Titan. Geologists will be waiting with baited breath. The differences as well as the similarities with the processes that occur on Earth should make fascinating reading.

Ref: http://arxiv.org/abs/0911.1860: An Estimate of the Chemical Composition of Titan’s Lakes