Tomatoes are one of the most common crops worldwide, and numerous previous studies document that the fruit contains many beneficial compounds that improve abnormalities of lipid metabolism. Teruo Kawada, from Kyoto University (Japan), and colleagues explored the role of tomato compounds in affecting dyslipidemia, a condition which is caused by an abnormal amount of lipids, such as cholesterol or fat, in the bloodstream.  The team analyzed 9-oxo-octadecadienoic acid, a compound abundantly found in tomato, and found it enhanced fatty acid oxidation and contributed to the regulation of hepatic lipid metabolism, via the peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor alpha (PPAR-alpha) pathway.  As a result, the researchers posit that 9-oxo-octadecadienoic acid exerts anti-dyslipidemia affects and may aid in  the prevention of vascular diseases

Read more……..

9-oxo-10(E),12(E)-octadecadienoic acid derived from tomato is a potent PPAR agonist to decrease triglyceride accumulation in mouse primary hepatocytes

1.                               Young-Il Kim1,

2.                               Shizuka Hirai1,

3.                               Haruya Takahashi1,

4.                               Tsuyoshi Goto1,

5.                               Chie Ohyane1,

6.                               Taneaki Tsugane2,

7.                               Chiaki Konishi3,

8.                               Takashi Fujii3,

9.                               Shuji Inai3,

10.                            Yoko Iijima4,

11.                            Koh Aoki4,

12.                            Daisuke Shibata4,

13.                            Nobuyuki Takahashi1,

14.                            Teruo Kawada1,*


Scope: Tomato is one of the most common crops worldwide and contains many beneficial compounds that improve abnormalities of lipid metabolism. However, the molecular mechanism underlying the effect of tomato on lipid metabolism is unclear. It has been commonly accepted that peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor (PPAR) is one of the most important targets for ameliorating abnormalities of lipid metabolism. Therefore, we focused on the activation of PPAR and attempted to detect active compounds activating PPAR in tomato.

Methods and results: To identify such active compounds, we screened fractions of tomato extracts using PPAR luciferase reporter assay. One fraction, rechromatographed-fraction eluted in 57 min (RF57), significantly increased PPAR reporter activity, in which a single compound is detected by LC/MS analysis. On the basis of LC/MS and NMR analyses, we determined the chemical structure of the active compound in RF57 as 9-oxo-10(E),12(E)-octadecadienoic acid (9-oxo-ODA). The RF57 fraction significantly increased the mRNA expression levels of PPAR target genes involved in fatty acid oxidation and O2 consumption in mouse primary hepatocytes. Furthermore, RF57 inhibited cellular triglyceride accumulation in the hepatocytes.

Conclusion: These findings suggest that tomatoes containing 9-oxo-ODA that acts on PPAR are valuable for ameliorating abnormalities of lipid metabolism.

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI)

Embargoed for Release: Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Comprehensive NIH study helps explain discrepancy in survival rates between cardiac arrests in public and at home

Cardiac arrests that can be treated by electric stimulation, also known as shockable arrests, were found at a higher frequency in public settings than in the home, according to a National Institutes of Health-funded study appearing in the Jan. 27 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine.

The study compared home and public cardiac arrests under various scenarios. For example, the study considered whether bystanders or emergency medical services (EMS) personnel witnessed the cardiac arrest, and whether the person experiencing the arrest received treatment with an automatic external defibrillator (AED).

In every scenario, a higher percentage of public cardiac arrests were classified as ventricular tachycardia (VT) or ventricular fibrillation (VF), the types of abnormal heart rhythms that can be treated by electric shock.

More than one-third of the people who had a cardiac arrest in public and were treated with an AED survived. This is a significant improvement over the roughly 8 percent national average of cardiac arrest survival. In comparison, the overall survival for home-occurring cardiac arrests treated with an AED was 12 percent.

“To improve the overall disappointing outcome for persons experiencing cardiac arrest, we must know the best immediate treatment,” said Susan Shurin, M.D., acting director of the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI), part of the NIH and the major funding agency of this study. “This study provides rich data which indicate the need for further evidence to guide clinical practice and public policy.”

The study is based on data from the world’s largest data registry of pre-hospital cardiac arrest and life-threatening trauma, which is part of the Resuscitation Outcomes Consortium (ROC). The researchers collected cardiac arrest data for over 14,000 people between Dec. 2005 and April 2007. The data spanned over 200 EMS agencies and their receiving hospitals across the United States and Canada.

Among the key findings were that 79 percent of documented cardiac arrests in high-traffic public places where AEDs were available and administered, such as airports or office buildings, were VT or VF.  An AED can automatically diagnose an arrhythmia and shock an arrest victim if necessary. In contrast, only 36 percent of home cardiac arrests in which an AED was applied were VT/VF.

Previous studies have found that home-based cardiac arrests have far lower survival rates than arrests that occur in public locations. This study found that only a third of arrests which occurred in homes were witnessed, while over half of those in public locations had witnesses who could immediately call 911 and provide assistance.

The importance of having someone who can provide or call for help does not exclude the possibility that the types of cardiac arrests occurring in home may differ from those occurring in public settings, or that those occurring in public may be more likely to be effectively treated with electrical stimulation.

The study noted that this significant contrast in prevalence could be due to the fact that individuals who spend more time in public places typically are younger, more active, and have fewer chronic diseases, thus predisposing them to a different class of arrest.

However, according to Dr. Shurin, more work is needed to know whether the differences in rates of rhythms and in outcome are due to underlying differences in severity of disease or in how rapidly responders provide effective therapy.

“These survival results affirm the value of putting AEDs in public locales,” said Myron Weisfeldt, M.D., a cardiologist at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and lead author of the study. “Even though the overall frequency of VT/VF arrests has declined over the past few decades, they are still a fairly common occurrence in public settings.”

George Sopko, M.D., ROC project officer and program director in the NHLBI’s Heart Failure and Arrhythmias Branch, added that public awareness and education are still important. The best chance of surviving a cardiac arrest, he noted, involves using AEDs in conjunction with cardiopulmonary resuscitation and immediately calling for medical help.

ROC was funded in 2004, with renewed funding in 2010, to conduct clinical research on treatments for life-threatening traumatic injury or cardiac arrest in real-world settings, typically where patients collapse or are critically injured, before they reach the hospital. ROC consists of 10 regional clinical centers in the United States and Canada.  In addition to contributing to the ROC database, these sites conduct multiple collaborative trials and studies aimed at optimizing first-line resuscitation management strategies to improve patient outcomes.

The study was supported by the NHLBI in partnership with the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, the U.S. Army Medical Research & Materiel Command, the Canadian Institutes of Health Research-Institute of Circulatory and Respiratory Health, Defence Research and Development Canada, the American Heart Association, and the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada.,, January 26, 2011, WASHINGTON — Federal health officials are investigating a possible link between breast implants and a very rare form of cancer after reviewing a handful of cases reported over the last 13 years.

The cancer, known as anaplastic large cell lymphoma, attacks the lymph nodes and skin and has been reported in the scar tissue which grows around the implant after it is inserted. The Food and Drug Administration is asking doctors to report all cases of the cancer so the agency can better understand the association.

The agency is aware of just 60 cases of the disease worldwide among the estimated 5 million to 10 million women with breast implants.,, By RAMIT PLUSHNICK-MASTI , 01.26.11,

HOUSTON — Police stood guard as an ambulance took Rep. Gabrielle Giffords from intensive care to a rehabilitation hospital in Houston on Wednesday, an encouraging step that came after doctors upgraded her condition from serious to good.

Doctors at Memorial Hermann Texas Medical Center Hospital determined the Arizona congresswoman was healthy enough to move to nearby TIRR Memorial Hermann, where she will continue her rehabilitation work.

Helicopters buzzed overhead and police stopped traffic and blocked the road as an ambulance took Giffords and her husband, astronaut Mark Kelly, a short way to TIRR, which stands for The Institute for Rehabilitation and Research.

Video from a news helicopter showed a gurney wheeled into the building.

Giffords had been in intensive care since her arrival Friday from Tucson, Ariz.

Last week doctors placed a tube in her head to drain excess cerebrospinal fluid. A backup of the fluid can cause pressure and swelling within the brain.

Doctors said Friday that Giffords would stay in the ICU until the tube was taken out because of a risk of infection. Her move Wednesday suggests that the tube might have been removed, which would be another good sign in her recovery.

Giffords was shot in the head Jan. 8 in a rampage that killed six people and injured her and 12 others. The three-term Democratic congresswoman was hit in the forehead while meeting with constituents outside a Tucson supermarket.

The alleged assassination attempt cast a somber mood over President Barack Obama’s State of the Union speech on Tuesday night, where many lawmakers in both parties wore black-and-white lapel ribbons to signify the deaths and the hopes of the survivors. Giffords’ husband watched the speech from her bedside in Texas, as he held her hand.

The 22-year-old suspect in the shootings, Jared Loughner, pleaded not guilty Monday to federal charges of trying to assassinate the congresswoman and two of her aides. He also faces federal murder charges in the deaths of a federal judge and a Giffords aide, and more charges were expected.

A male Acmon blue butterfly (Icaricia acmon). Vladimir Nabokov described the Icaricia genus in 1944.  Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey

The New York Times, January 26, 2011, by Carl Zimmer  —  Vladimir Nabokov may be known to most people as the author of classic novels like “Lolita” and “Pale Fire.” But even as he was writing those books, Nabokov had a parallel existence as a self-taught expert on butterflies.

He was the curator of lepidoptera at the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard University, and collected the insects across the United States. He published detailed descriptions of hundreds of species. And in a speculative moment in 1945, he came up with a sweeping hypothesis for the evolution of the butterflies he studied, a group known as the Polyommatus blues. He envisioned them coming to the New World from Asia over millions of years in a series of waves.

Few professional lepidopterists took these ideas seriously during Nabokov’s lifetime. But in the years since his death in 1977, his scientific reputation has grown. And over the past 10 years, a team of scientists has been applying gene-sequencing technology to his hypothesis about how Polyommatus blues evolved. On Tuesday in the Proceedings of the Royal Society of London, they reported that Nabokov was absolutely right.

“It’s really quite a marvel,” said Naomi Pierce of Harvard, a co-author of the paper.

Nabokov inherited his passion for butterflies from his parents. When his father was imprisoned by the Russian authorities for his political activities, the 8-year-old Vladimir brought a butterfly to his cell as a gift. As a teenager, Nabokov went on butterfly-hunting expeditions and carefully described the specimens he caught, imitating the scientific journals he read in his spare time. Had it not been for the Russian Revolution, which forced his family into exile in 1919, Nabokov said that he might have become a full-time lepidopterist.

In his European exile, Nabokov visited butterfly collections in museums. He used the proceeds of his second novel, “King, Queen, Knave,” to finance an expedition to the Pyrenees, where he and his wife, Vera, netted over a hundred species. The rise of the Nazis drove Nabokov into exile once more in 1940, this time to the United States. It was there that Nabokov found his greatest fame as a novelist. It was also there that he delved deepest into the science of butterflies.

Nabokov spent much of the 1940s dissecting a confusing group of species called Polyommatus blues. He developed forward-thinking ways to classify the butterflies based on differences in their genitalia. He argued that what were thought to be closely related species were actually only distantly related.

At the end of a 1945 paper on the group, he mused on how they had evolved. He speculated that they originated in Asia, moved over the Bering Strait, and moved south all the way to Chile.

Allowing himself a few literary flourishes, Nabokov invited his readers to imagine “a modern taxonomist straddling a Wellsian time machine.” Going back millions of years, he would end up at a time when only Asian forms of the butterflies existed. Then, moving forward again, the taxonomist would see five waves of butterflies arriving in the New World.

Nabokov conceded that the thought of butterflies making a trip from Siberia to Alaska and then all the way down into South America might sound far-fetched. But it made more sense to him than an unknown land bridge spanning the Pacific. “I find it easier to give a friendly little push to some of the forms and hang my distributional horseshoes on the nail of Nome rather than postulate transoceanic land-bridges in other parts of the world,” he wrote.

When “Lolita” made Nabokov a star in 1958, journalists were delighted to discover his hidden life as a butterfly expert. A famous photograph of Nabokov that appeared in The Saturday Evening Post when he was 66 is from a butterfly’s perspective. The looming Russian author swings a net with rapt concentration. But despite the fact that he was the best-known butterfly expert of his day and a Harvard museum curator, other lepidopterists considered Nabokov a dutiful but undistinguished researcher. He could describe details well, they granted, but did not produce scientifically important ideas.

Only in the 1990s did a team of scientists systematically review his work and recognize the strength of his classifications. Dr. Pierce, who became a Harvard biology professor and curator of lepidoptera in 1990, began looking closely at Nabokov’s work while preparing an exhibit to celebrate his 100th birthday in 1999. She was captivated by his idea of butterflies coming from Asia. “It was an amazing, bold hypothesis,” she said. “And I thought, ‘Oh, my God, we could test this.’ ”

To do so, she would need to reconstruct the evolutionary tree of blues, and estimate when the branches split. It would have been impossible for Nabokov to do such a study on the anatomy of butterflies alone. Dr. Pierce would need their DNA, which could provide more detail about their evolutionary history.

Working with American and European lepidopterists, Dr. Pierce organized four separate expeditions into the Andes in search of blues. Back at her lab at Harvard, she and her colleagues sequenced the genes of the butterflies and used a computer to calculate the most likely relationships between them. They also compared the number of mutations each species had acquired to determine how long ago they had diverged from one another.

There were several plausible hypotheses for how the butterflies might have evolved. They might have evolved in the Amazon, with the rising Andes fragmenting their populations. If that were true, the species would be closely related to one another.

But that is not what Dr. Pierce found. Instead, she and her colleagues found that the New World species shared a common ancestor that lived about 10 million years ago. But many New World species were more closely related to Old World butterflies than to their neighbors. Dr. Pierce and her colleagues concluded that five waves of butterflies came from Asia to the New World — just as Nabokov had speculated.

“By God, he got every one right,” Dr. Pierce said. “I couldn’t get over it — I was blown away.”

Dr. Pierce and her colleagues also investigated Nabokov’s idea that the butterflies had come over the Bering Strait. The land surrounding the strait was relatively warm 10 million years ago, and has been chilling steadily ever since. Dr. Pierce and her colleagues found that the first lineage of Polyommatus blues that made the journey could survive a temperature range that matched the Bering climate of 10 million years ago. The lineages that came later are more cold-hardy, each with a temperature range matching the falling temperatures.

Nabokov’s taxonomic horseshoes turn out to belong in Nome after all.

“What a great paper,” said James Mallet, an expert on butterfly evolution at University College London. “It’s a fitting tribute to the great man to see that the most modern methods that technology can deliver now largely support his systematic arrangement.”

Dr. Pierce says she believes Nabokov would have been greatly pleased to be so vindicated, and points to one of his most famous poems, “On Discovering a Butterfly.” The 1943 poem begins:

I found it and I named it, being versed

in taxonomic Latin; thus became

godfather to an insect and its first

describer — and I want no other fame.

“He felt that his scientific work was standing for all time, and that he was just a player in a much bigger enterprise,” said Dr. Pierce. “He was not known as a scientist, but this certainly indicates to me that he knew what it’s all about.”

Acmon Blue

© Turudu

The Vision of Music: A physician who conducts music reflects on the healing powers of mingling the senses.

by Samuel Wong MD

When Edgar Degas could no longer see well enough to paint, he turned to sculpture, relying on a newfound tactile keenness. When French composer Gabriel Fauré’s hearing became deranged, he cried, “I only hear horrors.” Ludwig van Beethoven persisted in writing symphonies yet confided to his brothers, “I am deaf…how would it be possible to admit the deficiency of a sense I ought to possess to a more perfect degree than anybody else?”

A painter loses his eyesight; a composer loses his hearing. How might we treat and rehabilitate such patients? How can we take advantage of the healing mechanisms of neuroplasticity and sensory transfer to lift the spirit of a devastated artist? How might we harness the associative power of music and the visual arts to amplify one sense so as to replace the loss of another?

I have spent my professional life immersed in issues of sight through my work as an ophthalmologist and sound through my work as a symphony conductor. I have enjoyed inhabiting both of these worlds, so it is perhaps not too surprising that I would be captivated by thoughts of how their intersection might benefit others, particularly people who have lost the use of a sensory capacity that is vital to their creative expression.

My interest in exploring these possibilities has led me to probe the physiological aspects of synesthesia, a perception by one sense, such as vision, through stimulation of another sense, such as hearing. Could our understanding of how the brains of synesthetes—and nonsynesthetes—respond to sensory stimulations give us clues to therapies for those who’ve lost a perceptual window to their worlds?

Coda Blue

Synesthesia derives from the Greek terms syn, meaning together or with, and aesthesis, meaning sensation or perception. The scientific community became aware of this condition in the late 1880s when Sir Francis Galton, a half-cousin of Charles Darwin, wrote in Nature about individuals who saw colors when viewing letters of the alphabet or hearing music.

Synesthesia can find expression in several ways. In music-color synesthesia, individuals experience tones or sounds in response to colors or shapes. For those with ordinal-linguistic personification, ordered sequences, such as letters, numbers, days, or months bear distinctive personalities: Wednesdays, for example, might be perceived as an impish adolescent.

Spatial-sequence synesthetes can experience three-dimensional perceptions; months may appear near the ground. In the rarest form, lexical-gustatory, words cause taste sensations in the mouth—“echo,” for example, may always elicit the taste of buttered toast—while in the most common form, grapheme-color, thought to be experienced by 68 percent of synesthetes, letters or numbers have identifying colors.

Although the prevalence of synesthesia is imprecisely known, researchers estimate that, at minimum, it appears in one in twenty thousand but that certain types manifest in one of every two hundred people. It is a lifelong condition, possibly heritable, and is remarkably consistent: If the letter M is perceived to be purple, it will always be purple. This latter trait has been perhaps most famously expressed by Vladimir Nabokov. “In the green group,” he wrote, “there are alder-leaf f, the unripe apple of p, and pistachio t….In the brown group, there are the rich rubbery tone of soft g, paler j, and the drab shoelace of h.”

Some musicians strongly associate sound with color. For the composer Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, the key of C major was white, while the key of B major was a gloomy steel blue. Franz Liszt exhorted an orchestra, “That is a deep violet, please, depend on it! Not so rose!”

Tone Poems

My interest in synesthesia and the brain led me to functional MRI. By showing neurons at work, it allows us to spy on artists’ brains and to watch their creative processes unfold. So, in an attempt to understand what parts of my brain engage when I listen to, read, think, or translate a piece of music, I submitted myself as a candidate for an experiment. While on a conducting assignment, I spent a week rehearsing an orchestra in Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Between rehearsals I had my brain scanned while undertaking five different activities: listening to a recording of Beethoven’s music; thinking of the music but in silence, with my eyes closed; reading a score of Beethoven’s Fifth in silence; moving my fingers as if playing the symphony on the piano, again in silence; and thinking of the motions I would use when conducting this music.

The functional MRI revealed differences in the responses in my auditory and visual cortices, as I expected. But dramatic differences also appeared in the associative areas of my brain, in the V4 region, the temporoparietal-occipital junction, the corpus collosum, and the limbic system, regions whose interplay contribute to our perception of color. The experiment showed me how incredibly rich and varied the musical experience can be, a knowledge that gives me a greater understanding for the diversity that audience response can take. It also provided me a startling glimpse of the responses that synesthetes—whose perceptual pathways may be differently wired or, possibly, less disinhibited—can enjoy.

Our growing knowledge of functional brain anatomy will allow us to continue gathering clues about artists’ creative processes. In the same way, we can begin to capture the associative power of music and painting into art therapy. Some blind patients, for example, have found comfort in musical training, which has inducted them into a rich sonic world of subtle beauty. Visual patterns can be transformed into sound patterns for recognition and appreciation. Such synesthetic techniques can be helpful for patients with sensory loss.

Breaking The Sound Barrier

I often find comfort in late-night music. In Gustav Mahler’s work I hear the end of mankind, as did the late Lewis Thomas ’37, an observation recounted in his book Late Night Thoughts on Listening to Mahler’s Ninth Symphony. But in Beethoven’s Ninth, I hear and see a fist-shaking, gravity-defying, deaf-be-not-proud maestro and the indomitable spirit of mankind.

My role as a conductor allows me to imagine the power offered by a synesthetic world. Sometimes, when I’m conducting an orchestra, I’ll close my eyes, and memories of past performances, a teacher’s lessons, landscapes, colors, and the faces of musicians all flash together. Then the images disappear as quickly as they came, as a musical note evaporates in thin air after it is made. Only its memory and aftertaste linger in the mind, sometimes for years or even a lifetime.

Moving from the concert theater to the operating theater, I am often struck by how the brinkmanship inherent in the work of conductors also exists in the work of surgeons. When a conductor closes his score and his eyes to conduct a searing performance of The Rite of Spring, he faithfully reproduces Igor Stravinsky’s carefully calculated arrhythmias. One misstep, one deviation of a few milliseconds, and the fine synchronization and ensemble are threatened. Drums may lose their entrainment and rhythms unravel.

During an eye operation, if a surgeon presses a few micrometers too deep, phaco tip may penetrate the posterior lens capsule, and lens fragments may fall back to the retina. Fortunately, such complications rarely occur in either the musical or surgical endeavors.

The accolades in both fields, when they occur, can be palpable. The applause in the clinic can be as resonant as that in a concert hall, though often quiet: The gratitude of patients shines through their eyes when, after cataract surgery, they relive the wonder of unimpeded vision.

It would give me great joy to be able to help artists regain critical sensory mechanisms they have lost, much as my surgery can help those encumbered by cataracts regain their view of the world. Our growing understanding of the neuromechanisms of sensory perception may make this possible one day. By learning how the brains of synesthetes process sensory stimulation and by comparing that information with that derived from experiments similar to my own, we may be able to rehabilitate those who—through stroke, aphasia, or other devastations to their neural landscapes—have lost the ability to make those connections.

To ensure that research and interest in “music medicine” grows, I have launched the Global Music Healing Institute, a foundation engaged in studying the effects of music on the autonomic system, on mood, and on speech and cognition. It is my hope that by stimulating research, public awareness, and interdisciplinary knowledge of the medical benefits of music, this organization will help build bridges that will allow patients—perhaps even a Degas or Fauré of today—reconnect with the perceptions and functions that help make their lives full.

Samuel Wong, Harvard ’88, has held music directorships in New York, Hong Kong, Hawaii, and Michigan. He has led the Royal Philharmonic on tour and recorded two award-winning discs with the Hong Kong Philharmonic. He now practices ophthalmology in New York.

This article appeared in the Spring/Summer 2007 issue of the Harvard Medical Alumni Bulletin.


No glue required: Broken polymer chains reform to repair a crack in this

material when it is pressed together and exposed to UV light.
Credit: Krzysztof Matyjaszewski, Carnegie Mellon University

A polymer that mends itself could lead to medical implants or engine parts that fix themselves

MIT Technology Review, January 24, 2011, by Prachi Patel  —  A new polymer material that can repeatedly heal itself at room temperature when exposed to ultraviolet light presents the tantalizing possibility of products that can repair themselves when damaged. Possibilities include self-healing medical implants, cars, or even airplane parts.

The polymer, created by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University and Kyushu University, heals when a crack in the material is pressed together and exposed to UV light. The same treatment can cause separate chunks of the material to fuse together to form one solid piece.

The researchers were able to cut the same block into pieces and put them back together at least five times. With further refinement, the material could mend itself many more times, says CMU chemistry professor Krzysztof Matyjaszewski, who led the research team.

Currently, the polymer can only repair itself in an oxygen-free environment, so the researchers had to carry out the UV treatment in the presence of pure nitrogen. But they hope to develop polymers that heal under visible light and don’t require nitrogen, which should open up many practical applications, including products and components that heal after suffering minor damage. Such a material, Matyjaszewski says, “would be a dramatic improvement over what we’ve already done.”

Self-healing materials have been made before, mainly polymers and composites. But most of those have relied on tiny capsules that are filled with a healing agent. When the polymer cracks, the capsules break open and release the healing agent, which becomes polymer solid and seals the crack and restores the material’s properties. But once the capsules are depleted, the material can no longer mend itself.

The new polymer relies on carbon-sulfur bonds within the material. “There are thousands of chemical bonds here, and even if you lose a small percent, one can think about potentially repeating the healing a hundred times,” Matyjaszewski says.

The researchers found that even shredded bits of the polymer will join together to form a continuous piece when irradiated with UV light. This implies that the material could also be easy to recycle. The researchers presented the details of their experiments in a paper published online in Angewandte Chemie.

Some research groups, including Matyjaszewski’s, have made polymers that heal when exposed to heat or certain chemicals. But Michael Kessler, a materials science and engineering professor at Iowa State University, says light healing is a superior option. “I think that UV stimulus is particularly appealing as an external stimulus because it’s noncontact, it happens at room temperature, it’s pretty easy to acquire and handle, and, importantly, it’s limited to target areas where the damage occurs,” Kessler says.

Kessler adds, however, that the new material suffers from two of the main drawbacks faced by other self-healing materials: it requires pressure, and the repair process takes hours.

Nonetheless, some self-healing materials are on their way to commercialization. Autonomic Materials in Champaign, Illinois, is readying corrosion- and scratch-resistant coatings containing microcapsules developed by Scott White, a professor at the Beckman Institute at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

White’s colleague Nancy Sottos has made materials that mimic human skin and that heal themselves using underlying channels filled with healing agents. Sottos envisions the materials being used for structural applications such as airplane parts, car and spacecraft components, and for everyday products such as cell-phone and laptop cases.

UV-triggered healing won’t be suitable for all applications, says Sottos. That’s because the restructuring of carbon-sulfur bonds that allows the material to heal also requires that material to be rubbery and soft.

“You can make materials that are harder or softer,” says Matyjaszewski. “Every self-healing material is somehow unique and has advantages over the other ones. It depends on the properties and area of application.”

Tasmanian devil (Sarcophilus harrisii)
Credit: Wikimedia commons/KeresH, Published 20th January 2011, by Vanessa Schipani

A form of contagious cancer found in dogs and wolves may steal its host’s mitochondria to replace its own failing organelles, possibly aiding its survival despite damage from high mutation rates.

The results, published in the January 21st issue of Science, may provide clues for hindering the spread of other similar cancers, such as a disease that threatens the endangered Tasmanian devil.

“This paper is an important step in advancing our understanding of the biology of this fascinating area of transmissible cancers,” said Matthew Breen, professor of genomics at North Carolina State University, who was not involved in the research.

Canine Transmissible Venereal Tumor (CTVT) is an atypical form of cancer that can be passed between dogs during mating. Normally found on the genitalia, the cancer cells are transferred from one individual to another on contact.

Though the high mutation rates typical of cancer likely allowed this tumor to evolve skin to skin transmission over time, in some cases it may also cause its mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) to completely degenerate, said Clare Rebbeck, a former PhD student in Austin Burt’s lab at Imperial College London in the UK and first author on the paper. Without mitochondria, the powerhouses of the cell, the tumors cannot produce the energy needed to support basic cellular functions, such as metabolism and DNA replication and transcription, which eventually results in cell death.

But the cancer seems to have evolved an ingenious solution — steal the host mitochondria to do the job after its own mitochondria succumb to the damage. After conducting phylogenetic analyses of mitochondrial and CTVT sequences from a wide geographic range of dogs and wolves, Rebbeck, now a postdoctoral fellow at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York, and her colleagues found that the nuclear DNA of the tumors was almost identical to one another, but their mtDNA was often more similar to the mtDNA of dogs than to other tumors, suggesting the cancer had adopted its hosts’ mitochondria on at least one occasion. To continue with this story, click on the hot link, below.

Continue reading: Cancer pilfers cell powerhouse – The Scientist – Magazine of the Life Sciences

Jennifer S. Altman for The New York Times

The New York Times, January 24, 2011, By GARDINER HARRIS

The Obama administration has become so concerned about the slowing pace of new drugs coming out of the pharmaceutical industry that officials have decided to start a billion-dollar government drug development center to help create medicines.

The new effort comes as many large drug makers, unable to find enough new drugs, are paring back research. Promising discoveries in illnesses like depression and Parkinson’s that once would have led to clinical trials are instead going unexplored because companies have neither the will nor the resources to undertake the effort.

The initial financing of the government’s new drug center is relatively small compared with the $45.8 billion that the industry estimates it invested in research in 2009. The cost of bringing a single drug to market can exceed $1 billion, according to some estimates, and drug companies have typically spent twice as much on marketing as on research, a business model that is increasingly suspect.

The National Institutes of Health has traditionally focused on basic research, such as describing the structure of proteins, leaving industry to create drugs using those compounds. But the drug industry’s research productivity has been declining for 15 years, “and it certainly doesn’t show any signs of turning upward,” said Dr. Francis S. Collins, director of the institutes.

The job of the new center, to be called the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences, is akin to that of a home seller who spruces up properties to attract buyers in a down market. In this case the center will do as much research as it needs to do so that it can attract drug company investment.

That means that in some cases, the center will use one of the institutes’ four new robotic screeners to find chemicals that affect enzymes and might lead to the development of a drug or a cure. In other cases, the center may need to not only discover the right chemicals but also perform animal tests to ensure that they are safe and even start human trials to see if they work. All of that has traditionally been done by drug companies, not the government.

“None of this is intended to be competitive with the private sector,” Dr. Collins said. “The hope would be that any project that reaches the point of commercial appeal would be moved out of the academic support line and into the private sector.”

Whether the government can succeed where private industry has failed is uncertain, officials acknowledge, but they say doing nothing is not an option. The health and human services secretary, Kathleen Sebelius, sent a letter to Congress on Jan. 14 outlining the plan to open the new drug center by October — an unusually rapid turnaround for an idea first released with little fanfare in December.

Creating the center is a signature effort of Dr. Collins, who once directed the agency’s Human Genome Project. Dr. Collins has been predicting for years that gene sequencing will lead to a vast array of new treatments, but years of effort and tens of billions of dollars in financing by drug makers in gene-related research has largely been a bust.

As a result, industry has become far less willing to follow the latest genetic advances with expensive clinical trials. Rather than wait longer, Dr. Collins has decided that the government can start the work itself.

“I am a little frustrated to see how many of the discoveries that do look as though they have therapeutic implications are waiting for the pharmaceutical industry to follow through with them,” he said.

Dr. Collins’s ability to conceive and create such a center in a few short months would have been impossible for most of his predecessors, who had nice offices but little power. But Congress in recent years has invested real budgetary and administrative authority in the director’s office, and Dr. Collins is the first to fully use these new powers.

Under the plan, more than $700 million in research projects already under way at various institutes and centers would be brought together at the new center. But officials hope that the prospect of finding new drugs will lure Congress into increasing the center’s financing well beyond $1 billion.

Hopes of new money may be optimistic. Republicans in the House have promised to cut the kind of discretionary domestic spending that supports the health institutes, and officials are already bracing for significant cuts this year. But Dr. Collins has hinted that he is willing to cannibalize other parts of the health institutes to bring more resources to the new center.

“There are some people that would say this is not the time to do something bold and ambitious because the budget is so tight,” he said. “But we would be irresponsible not to take advantage of scientific opportunity, even if it means tightening in other places.”

For the plan to go into effect by October, the administration must by law get rid of one of the 27 centers and institutes already in existence at the N.I.H. — something that has never been done before. So the administration plans to downgrade the National Center for Research Resources, in part by giving some of its functions to the new drug center.

Researchers and staff members connected to the research resources center have inundated a complaint blog about the coming change. Mark O. Lively, a professor of biochemistry at Wake Forest University and a member of an advisory council to the research resources center, said that he could not understand why the administration was moving so quickly with its plans.

“And the N.I.H. is not likely to be very good at drug discovery, so why are they doing this?” Dr. Lively asked.

But Dr. Garret A. FitzGerald, a professor of medicine and pharmacology at the University of Pennsylvania, said the new center could inspire universities to train a new generation of investigators who could straddle the divide between academia and industry.

“It could be a really good idea,” he said.

Both the need for and the risks of this strategy are clear in mental health. There have been only two major drug discoveries in the field in the past century; lithium for the treatment of bipolar disorder in 1949 and Thorazine for the treatment of psychosis in 1950.

Both discoveries were utter strokes of luck, and almost every major psychiatric drug introduced since has resulted from small changes to Thorazine. Scientists still do not know why any of these drugs actually work, and hundreds of genes have been shown to play roles in mental illness — far too many for focused efforts. So many drug makers have dropped out of the field.

For Dr. Thomas R. Insel, director of the National Institute of Mental Health, the drug industry’s departure from this vital research area shows that the government must do something, although he acknowledges the risk.

“Would we be foolish — we being an agency that has never developed drugs and actually doesn’t know how to do therapeutics that well — to get into this space?” Dr. Insel asked.

But Dr. William Potter, who was once a top researcher at the mental health institute and retired last year as the vice president of translational neuroscience at the giant drug maker Merck, said that far more basic research needed to be done on the causes of mental illness before anyone — industry or government — could successfully create breakthrough drugs.

“We still don’t even understand how lithium works,” Dr. Potter said. “So how do people think we can find drugs systematically for mental illness?”   Source:, January 24, 2011

Editor, Nicole Perlroth’s Note: This post was written by Bryan Roberts, a PhD and partner at the venture capital firm Venrock, in response to House Republicans’ efforts to repeal the healthcare reform act, or the Affordable Care Act (ACA). What he has to say is worth your attention.]

Virtually everyone agrees that our healthcare system is unsustainable in its current form. The impact of escalating healthcare costs combined with mediocre value created for each dollar spent has finally entered the national consciousness.  Over the last 30 years, there have been amazing advances in our abilities to combat human disease and equally impressive innovation within information technology that has changed the way we live, yet there has been staggeringly little application of innovation to the efficiency of our healthcare system.

No one should be surprised by this situation.  Healthcare in America is provided, and paid for, by the transaction – per office visit, per surgery, per x-ray – with little visibility into performance, efficiency, quality or cost.  We pay for volume and, as in any industry, people who are paid by the widget will seek to produce more widgets at ever increasing prices. Why has it worked this way?  It is easier to measure transactions than outcomes.  Until recently, the system has lacked both the information technologies and political will to advance a better model.

Our simplistic, static and misaligned incentive system has succeeded at one thing in addition to gobbling up ever increasing amounts of US GDP: stifling creativity.  For years entrepreneurs have turned their attention to other challenges, and not unreasonably.  There has been no incentive for change in the system – patients did not pay; providers were driven by volume; employers were focused on other parts of their businesses.  So who would be compelled to adopt an entrepreneur’s innovation? No one. So they went on to create enormous advances, efficiencies and value in the internet, software and China to name a few.

The stage is now set for this all to change. A confluence of forces is propelling the healthcare information technology and services sector from an uninteresting backwater to a central topic of conversation in start-up and investment circles.  A major catalyst for this dramatic reversal has been the Affordable Care Act (ACA, aka “Healthcare Reform”).  Cutting through the political grandstanding, the ACA will create enormous new opportunities for entrepreneurship and innovation in healthcare.

Perhaps those in Congress who favor repeal of the ACA have not fully digested the law, or perhaps they don’t actually understand the demonstrated economic power of innovative technology start-ups over the last 30 years.  But from Silicon Valley, failure to wholeheartedly endorse, implement and nurture the ACA, and its downstream innovations, would be rescuing defeat from the jaws of victory.  The ACA encompasses multiple provisions designed to enable and nurture approaches that can shift the payment (and therefore incentives) of healthcare providers from “pay for volume” to “pay for value” approaches.  Examples of innovative approaches include:

  • Pay for performance programs: Providers can be financially rewarded for better outcomes in various situations such as reducing hospital errors and minimizing near-term hospital readmissions.
  • Accountable Care Organizations (ACO):  ACOs will launch in January 2012 and allow physician organizations and health systems to earn a significant share of any savings generated by more efficient healthcare delivery.
  • Healthcare market transparency: The ACA supports healthcare market transparency, including affording visibility into healthcare coverage options and healthcare provider quality performance.  As it represents 1/3 of the US insurance market, Medicare has long had a treasure trove of information on cost and quality in healthcare, but it was largely inaccessible until now
  • Center for Medicare and Medicaid innovation (CMMI): Funded with $10 billion to support the identification and testing of new models of payment and care delivery that will improve quality while reducing cost.
  • Streamlined rollout: The ACA gives the Secretary of Health and Human Services the power to adopt any new model validated by CMMI, so long as Medicare’s chief actuary certifies the model as improving quality while lowering costs or holding costs neutral.  Entrepreneurs can thereby foresee broad adoption of successful innovations without the historical roadblocks.

The net result of the ACA is a rising tide of innovation and venture creation that has the opportunity to save lives, save money, help transform our health system for the better and create many jobs. . Healthcare IT/services is gaining dramatic traction in the garages, dorm rooms and tree houses of talented, creative people who are seeking to create businesses to change the world because, at long last, there is a compelling business case to do so.  All of this, at a time when America is seeking every means possible to improve its economy, employment and global competitive advantage.

It would be a shame to repeal, or even diminish support for, the ACA and thereby derail the efforts, and potential success, of the one economic sector of the US that has outshone and outcompeted the rest of the world for 30+ years – our entrepreneurs.

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