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News of the Week – March 4th, 2013


“One-two punch-like” double hit might be required for schizophrenia

While the specific causes of schizophrenia are unclear, environmental factors have long been suspected to play a role. A group in Switzerland has linked the combination of prenatal infection and adolescent stress to the development of schizophrenic-like conditions in mice. The researchers first infected pregnant mothers with a virus, then exposed the young mice to stressors such as water deprivation and electrical shocks. They found that mice exposed to both a virus in utero and subsequent stress after birth performed the poorest on behavioral tests and had the most activation in their microglia, the immune cells of the brain, mimicking conditions found in schizophrenia. The scientists hypothesize that the dual insults of infection and stress cause hyper-activation of microglia, leading to brain inflammation and subsequent disease.

Brain activity map proposed by US government

The Obama administration has announced its support for a brain activity map that it hopes will demystify the brain in the same way that the Human Genome Project elucidated genetics. The effort will include both federal and private organizations, and while the map may end up costing billions of dollars, the Human Genome Project cost $3.8 billion but eventually returned $800 billion to the economy. Among the techniques proposed is the use of non-invasive nanotechnology to measure brain activity at the cellular level. The ultimate goal of the brain map would be to link activity patterns across the entire brain to specific behaviors or neurological disorders, such as autism and Alzheimer’s. The NIH, NSF and HHMI, among others, will participate in the project.

Five major psychiatric disorders share genetic link

A study published in the Lancet online last week reports shared genetic risk factors for five very different major psychiatric disorders: autism spectrum disorder, attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder, bipolar disorder, major depressive disorder, and schizophrenia. The Psychiatric Genomics Consortium analysed genome-wide single nucleotide polymorphism data for over 60,000 people worldwide and identified four risk loci that have significant and overlapping links with all five disorders. Despite the multifactorial nature of development of psychiatric illness, these findings strengthen the potential move towards diagnoses based on underlying genetic aberrations, rather than symptomatology, which has long been difficult.

Female thyroid cancer risk higher in Fukushima

On March 11, 2011, a 9.0 magnitude earthquake and tsunami in northeastern Japan devastated the area and led to the release of radioactive material from the Tokyo Electric Power Company’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. A WHO report has estimated the additional lifetime risk of cancer development. The most significant risk elevation applies to the development of thyroid cancer in females exposed as infants in the worse affected areas of Fukushima prefecture. The risk of developing thyroid cancer for this particular group increases by up to around 70% over baseline rates, bringing their overall lifetime risk up from a baseline of 0.77 to 1.29%. Other estimated lifetime risks set out in the report include up to around 7% over baseline for leukaemia in males exposed as infants, and up to around 6% over baseline for breast cancer in females exposed as infants. The WHO believes these estimates are important for priority setting in the coming years for population health monitoring.


NIH faces deep funding cuts as a result of sequestration

Congress failed to reach a consensus on how to reduce the federal deficit by March 1st, resulting in the enactment of sequestration. The NIH budget will be cut 5% and will lose $1.6 billion from $30 billion total. The NSF, FDA and CDC will lose a combined $800 million. The across-the-board cuts will likely have a significant impact on biomedical research in the US, especially since the overall NIH budget has only increased by $3 billion over the past decade. Already, research institutions have implemented hiring freezes and delayed or cancelled projects, and fewer new grants will be awarded by federal agencies in the immediate future. Scientists warn that cutting research will negatively affect both the US and global economies, as well as endanger public health.

Cancer research game developed for citizen scientists

Cancer Research UK has teamed up with technology gurus from Amazon, Facebook and Google in a bid to enlist the help of the public in the search for cancer causing mutations in DNA sequences. Raw genetic data, provided by Cancer Research UK, was converted into a gaming format at Google-sponsored hackathon GameJam, held this weekend (March 1-3) at the heart of East London’s Tech City. The data needs to be analysed by eye and the charity hopes to launch mobile gaming application GeneRun this summer, allowing “citizen scientists” to probe the massive amount of genetic material. In the mean time citizen scientists can enter the Cell Slider website to join the fight from their computers.

Nature Publishing Group buys into open access

The Nature Publishing Group (NPG), which owns Nature and 81 other scholarly journals, announced last week that it had taken a majority stake in Swiss company Frontiers, one of the fastest growing open access publishers and social networking platforms for researchers. NPG launched its first fully open access journal in 2006; it now has 16. Frontiers have a portfolio of open access journals in 14 fields of science and medicine, and described the move as “a strategic alliance to advance the global open science movement”.


Roche pledges release of clinical trial data

Pharmaceutical giant Roche has announced that it will establish an internal review board to grant access to selected members of the public who wish to view anonymised patient data from clinical trials. The decision comes in the midst of a push for publication of all clinical trial results by the pharmaceutical industry, a campaign that has received the support from the Wellcome Trust, the BMJ, and the UK National Institutes for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE). It is uncertain what proportion of all clinical trial data never makes it to the public domain.

Bayer, GSK, Merck and Sanofi announce fourth quarter earnings for 2012

German drug company Bayer had the highest grossing sales of its 150-year history last year. Sales grew by 6% in the fourth quarter, and 5% over the whole year to a total of EUR 40 billion. GSK’s and Sanofi’s earnings were relatively stable compared to the previous year. GSK reported fourth quarter revenues of £1.75 billion, up from £1.7 billion last year. Sanofi’s sales grew by 0.5% over the whole year. Full-year worldwide sales for Merck were down 2% from 2011, to a total of $47.3 billion USD. Merck’s asthma medication Singulair lost patent protection in the US in August last year, leading to steep competition from generic versions of the drug.

Lonza to supply stem cells to NIH in three-year deal

Contract manufacturing organization Lonza signed a $6.9 million USD deal to supply induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) to the US National Institutes of Health’s Center for Regenerative Medicine for the next three years. The company’s Pluripotent Stem Cell Innovation Center is based in Maryland and will generate the cell lines, which are virtually immortal and can differentiate into any cell type of the body. This is the second contract NIH awards to the company for the generation of iPSCs for research and clinical purposes, after awarding a similar contract in October 2012.




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