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Thursday, 9 July 2009

Inspiration from Nature goes to 21st century, june 2009

Today:
But first, check out this stunning new fish:

It almost has a face!
Today:

  1. Novel vaccine approach offers hope in fight against HIV
  2. Radiation Review: Some People May be 'Allergic' to Cell Phones, Computers
  3. Progress Toward Artificial Tissue?
  4. The Origin of Artificial Species: Creating Artificial Personalities
Short stories:
  1. Women have a more powerful immune system than men
  2. Common diabetes drug may 'revolutionize' cancer therapies
  3. A new lead for autoimmune disease
  4. Genes that influence start of menstruation identified for first time
I have to make a little announcement. Since it's mid-Summer and I have so many things to do (totally unrelated with the fact that it's vacation and I should have fun instead of working), I'll have to make posts even less frequent. I hope I don't disappoint too much people, I don't if I trust the web-statistics, but I simply have no choice. I so want to get back to the old form of 3-4 commented articles or even less, to make it a little bit more personal, but I have so much content waiting to be published. So, I have no idea how I'd do it, I'd probably post whatever I can in the next month and then, I'll pause and figure out how to continue. So, until now, be warned for the chaos.

Novel vaccine approach offers hope in fight against HIV

May 17th, 2009

A research team may have broken the stubborn impasse that has frustrated the invention of an effective HIV vaccine, by using an approach that bypasses the usual path followed by vaccine developers. By using gene transfer technology that produces molecules that block infection, the scientists protected monkeys from infection by a virus closely related to HIV—the simian immunodeficiency virus, or SIV—that causes AIDS in rhesus monkeys.

Johnson cautioned that many hurdles remain before the technique used in this animal study might be translated into an HIV vaccine for humans. If the technique leads to an effective HIV vaccine, such a vaccine may be years away from realization.

Most attempts at developing an have used substances aimed at stimulating the body's immune system to produce antibodies or killer cells that would eliminate the virus before or after it infected cells in the body. However, clinical trials have been disappointing.

The approach taken in the current study was divided into two phases. In the first phase, the research team created antibody-like proteins (called immunoadhesins) that were specifically designed to bind to SIV and block it from infecting cells. Once proven to work against SIV in the laboratory, DNA representing SIV-specific immunoadhesins was engineered into a carrier virus designed to deliver the DNA to monkeys. The researchers chose adeno-associated virus (AAV) as the carrier virus because it is a very effective way to insert DNA into the cells of a monkey or human.

In the second part of the study, the team injected AAV carriers into the muscles of monkeys, where the imported DNA produced immunoadhesins that entered the blood circulation. One month after administration of the AAV carriers, the immunized monkeys were injected with live, AIDS-causing SIV. The majority of the immunized monkeys were completely protected from SIV infection, and all were protected from . In contrast, a group of unimmunized monkeys were all infected by SIV, and two-thirds died of AIDS complications. High concentrations of the SIV-specific immunoadhesins remained in the blood for over a year. source

My comment: That's nice, but as usual, I doubt the use of virus to spread certain type of modified DNA in the body. Genetic therapy is powerful but still dangerous approach. We're way too far from understanding what we're doing and although AIDS is very lethal in Africa, in Western world it is not and there is no need to rush the things. If that sounds racist-I am not. The point is that AIDS can be controlled with available means, which mean that it's absolutely irresponsible to use such therapies on humans. Not until we know for sure what's going on or until we find a way to insert DNA without the need of virus-carrier. And my bet is that this is going to happen any time soon.


Radiation Review: Some People May be 'Allergic' to Cell Phones, Computers

May 15th, 2009 By Lisa Zyga
(PhysOrg.com) -- How exactly does the radiation from electromagnetic fields (EMF) affect the human body? Is it possible that cell phones, computer monitors, TVs, and other electronic devices - which operate within current EMF safety standards - cause illnesses, or are the people who claim to be sensitive to these devices just paranoid? The topic is one of the most controversial subjects in technology today, having important consequences in politics, consumerism, human rights, and health costs.

Olle Johansson, an associate professor and head of the Experimental Unit, Department of Neuroscience at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, has been investigating the effects of electromagnetic fields on human physiology since the early ‘80s. Johansson’s research has led him to become an outspoken supporter of the view that the dangers of EMF radiation from our gadgets are real, and that existing safety standards, which are based on acute thermal effects only, do not adequately protect public health.

In a review to be published in an upcoming issue of Pathophysiology, Johansson has summarized the results from dozens of studies that have investigated the effects of EMFs on the in particular. As he explains, EMFs can act like an allergen, disturbing by eliciting various allergic and inflammatory responses. Johansson hopes that this review, along with the reviews in the extensive Bioinitiative Report published in 2007 that have identified harmful effects from wireless technologies, will urge policymakers to create new public safety limits and limit the future deployment of untested technologies.

In the current review, Johansson explains that the human immune system has evolved to deal with its known enemies, and not with electromagnetic “allergens” (e.g. TV signals, radiowaves, microwaves from cell phones or WiFi, radar signals, X-rays, artificial radioactivity, etc.) which have been introduced within the last 100 years. Our immune systems have developed under the influence of the sun’s radiation and the practically static geomagnetic field, he explains, but not under electromagnetic waves at other frequencies, or the magnetic and microwave pulses generated, for example, by cell phones.

As Johansson explains, antigens are substances that cause the immune system to react in an excessive manner, so that the immune system becomes damaging to local tissue and the entire body in general. Such hypersensitivity reactions can be caused by environmental disturbances that are small enough to enter the immune system. Examples can include dust and drugs, which can enter the respiratory tract or at site-specific locations. Another example is EMFs, which penetrate the entire body.

Different electronic devices produce EMFs that vary in strength, frequency, and pattern. While some studies have found associations between, for example, power lines and leukemia, or brain tumors and cell phones, other studies point out that no biological mechanism causing these illnesses has been identified. As Johansson argues, many studies assume that the only biological mechanism that causes adverse effects is the acute heating of cells and tissues, although he says that non-thermal effects, such as EMFs acting as antigens in the immune system, can occur before heating can be detected, especially after long-term exposure.

In some of the studies that Johansson summarizes, people claim to suffer from subjective and objective symptoms when exposed to electronic devices. Electrohypersensitivity (EHS) affects an estimated 3% to 10% of the population, he says, and often leads to lost work and productivity. In Johansson’s review, some studies hypothesize that people who claim adverse skin reactions after exposure to computer screens or mobile phones may actually have a correct avoidance reaction to the radiation. As he explains, the skin contains mast cells, which are known to react to external radiation such as radioactivity, X-rays, and UV light. Studies have found that skin samples of EHS people after radiation exposure have a higher number of mast cells in the upper dermis, and mast cells infiltrate other layers of the skin that don’t normally have them. EMFs may also cause mast cells to “degranulate,” releasing inflammatory substances that are involved in allergic hypersensitivity, itching, and pain. In previous theoretical studies, Johansson has proposed a model for how a proliferation of mast cells (mastocytosis) could explain sensitivity to EMFs. As in an allergic reaction, EMFs likely affect people differently based on varying immune functions due to variations in genetic make-up.

Johansson’s overall argument is that more research needs to be done on possible non-thermal mechanisms of EMFs’ damage to the human body, and investigations into immune system response in particular could lead to the discovery of a specific mechanism for biological damage.source

My comment: I have to agree here. Although I'm one of those people who cannot leave without internet and computer and mobile, I think we have to explore in depth the biological reaction to EM radiation. It's not that it's killing us, it is not! Live expectancy is still increasing despite the growing number of electronic devices. But that doesn't mean they don't affect us. We really are not used to that kind of radiation and not to that kind of volume. There are always some high energy particles flying around, there's the sun radiation, but today, we're drown in all kind of emissions in all kind of wavelengths that often carry information. And since our brain is a machine for information processing and one equipped quite well, I can bet this could be confusing. And not only this, but for example, there are theoretical evaluations that old GSM phones really could boil an egg solely with their signal-because of the so called Quasi-normal modes. There are dangerous wavelengths that should be avoided! And we don't research this! Why?! Ok, maybe some military scientists do research it, but this is a civil safety issue and it should be carefully examined. They might not kill us, but they can damage us or cause us headaches. Why should we endure discomfort, when we can modify our technologies to be more biologically acceptable. Too costy? Well, I prefer to give those money to stay healthy, than to give it because I'm sick!

Progress Toward Artificial Tissue?

May 15th, 2009

(PhysOrg.com) -- For modern implants and the growth of artificial tissue and organs, it is important to generate materials with characteristics that closely emulate nature.

However, the tissue in our bodies has a combination of traits that are very hard to recreate in synthetic materials: It is both soft and very tough.

A team of Australian and Korean researchers led by Geoffrey M. Spinks and Seon Jeong Kim has now developed a novel, highly porous, sponge-like material whose mechanical properties closely resemble those of biological soft tissues. As reported in the journal Angewandte Chemie, it consists of a robust network of DNA strands and carbon nanotubes.

, such as tendons, muscles, arteries, and skin or other organs, obtain their mechanical support from the extracellular matrix, a network of protein-based nanofibers. Different protein morphologies in the extracellular matrix produce tissue with a wide range of stiffness. Implants and scaffolding for require porous, soft materials -- which are usually very fragile. Because many biological tissues are regularly subjected to intense mechanical loads, it is also important that the implant material have comparable elasticity in order to avoid inflammation. At the same time, the material must be very strong and resilient, or it may give out.

The new concept uses as a matrix; the strands completely “wrap” the scaffold-forming carbon nanotubes in the presence of an ionic liquid, networking them to form a gel. This gel can be spun: just as silk and synthetic fibers can be wet-spun for textiles, the gel can be made into very fine threads when injected into a special bath. The dried fibers have a porous, sponge-like structure and consist of a network of intertwined 50 nm-wide nanofibers. Soaking in a calcium chloride solution further cross-links the DNA, causing the fibers to become denser and more strongly connected.

These spongy fibers resemble the collagen fiber networks of the biological extracellular matrix. They can also be knotted, braided, or woven into textile-like structures. This results in materials that are as elastic as the softest natural tissues while simultaneously deriving great strength from the robust DNA links.

An additional advantage is the electrical conductivity of the new material, which can thus also be used in electrodes for mechanical actuators, energy storage, and sensors. source

My comment: Now that's a complete alchemy! If you bothered to read the description, it sounds so cool, it's amazing they figured how to do it. I see immense potential in that and I hope they develop it properly. It's really really something big!

The Origin of Artificial Species: Creating Artificial Personalities

May 14th, 2009 By Lisa Zyga

(PhysOrg.com) -- Does your robot seem to be acting a bit neurotic? Maybe it's just their personality. Recently, a team of researchers has designed computer-coded genomes for artificial creatures in which a specific personality is encoded. The ability to give artificial life forms their own individual personalities could not only improve the natural interactions between humans and artificial creatures, but also initiate the study of “The Origin of Artificial Species,” the researchers suggest.

The first artificial creature to receive the genomic personality is Rity, a dog-like software character that lives in a virtual 3D world in a PC. Rity’s genome is composed of 14 chromosomes, which together are composed of a total of 1,764 genes, each with its own value. Rather than manually assign the gene values, which would be difficult and time-consuming, the researchers proposed an evolutionary process that generates a genome with a specific personality desired by a user.

Kim told PhysOrg.com. “I proposed a new concept of an artificial chromosome as the essence to define the personality of an artificial creature and to pass on its traits to the next generation, like a genetic inheritance. It is critical to provide an impression that the robot is a living creature. ”

As the researchers explain, an autonomous artificial creature - whether a physical robot or agent - can behave, interact, and react to environmental stimuli. Rity, for example, can interact with humans in the physical world using information through a mouse, a camera, or a microphone, with 47 perceptions. For instance, a single click and double click on Rity are perceived as “patted” and “hit,” respectively. Dragging Rity slowly and softly is perceived as “soothed,” and dragging it quickly and wildly as “shocked.”

To react to these stimuli in real time, Rity relies on its internal states which are composed of three units - motivation, homeostasis, and emotion - and controlled by its internal control architecture. The three units have a total of 14 states, which are the basis of the 14 chromosomes: the motivation unit includes six states (curiosity, intimacy, monotony, avoidance, greed, and the desire to control); the homeostasis unit includes three states (fatigue, hunger, and drowsiness); and the emotion unit has five states (happiness, sadness, anger, fear, and neutral).

“In Rity, internal states such as motivation, homeostasis and emotion change according to the incoming perception,” Kim said. “If Rity sees its master, its emotion becomes happy and its motivation may be ‘greeting and approaching’ him or her. It means the change of internal states and the activated behavior accordingly is internal and external responses to the incoming stimulus.”

The internal control architecture processes incoming sensor information, calculates each value of internal states as its response, and sends the calculated values to the behavior selection module to generate a proper behavior. Finally, the behavior selection module probabilistically selects a behavior through a voting mechanism, where each reasonable behavior has its own voting value. Unreasonable behaviors are prevented with matrix masks, while a reflexive behavior module, which imitates an animal’s instinct, deals with urgent situations such as running into a wall and enables a more immediate response.

As the researchers explain, each of the 14 chromosomes in Rity’s genome is composed of three gene vectors: the fundamental gene vector, the internal-state-related gene vector, and the behavior-related gene vector. Rity has 1,764 genes in total, each gene can have a range of values represented by real numbers. While genes are inherited, mutations may also occur. The nature of the genetic coding is such that a single gene can influence multiple behaviors, and also a single behavior can be influenced by multiple genes.

Depending on the values of the genes, the researchers specified five personalities (“the Big Five personality dimensions”) and their opposites to classify an artificial creature’s personality traits: extroverted/introverted, agreeable/antagonistic, conscientious/negligent, openness/closeness, and neurotic/emotionally stable.

As the researchers showed, a 2D representation of the genome can enable users to view the chromosomes of the three gene types and easily insert or delete certain chromosomes or genes related to an artificial creature’s personality. source

My comment: Wow, that sounds like a great tamagochi. Just imagine, you buy a domestic robot, but it's not only there to clean for you, it can also simulate a dog or a cat and to have it's own moods. It makes interaction so much more interesting and "valuable" to the person in the terms of acquired fun. It's great. And you can even breed such codes and find the one that you enjoy the most. You can experiment with the genes and what's the most important, it clearly gives you a more personal feeling of your companion. Just imagine what you could do with all this. Absolute treasure!

Short stories:

Women have a more powerful immune system than men

May 12th, 2009 When it comes to immunity, men may not have been dealt an equal hand. The latest study by Dr. Maya Saleh, of the Research Institute of the McGill University Health Centre and McGill University, shows that women have a more powerful immune system than men. In fact, the production of estrogen by females could have a beneficial effect on the innate inflammatory response against bacterial pathogens.

More specifically, estrogen naturally produced in women seems to block the production of an enzyme called Caspase-12, which itself blocks the inflammatory process. The presence of estrogen would therefore have a beneficial effect on innate immunity, which represents the body's first line of defence against pathogenic organisms. "These results demonstrate that women have a more powerful inflammatory response than men," said Dr. Saleh.

This study was conducted on mice that lack the Caspase-12 gene, meaning that the mice were extremely resistant to infection. The human Caspase-12 gene was implanted in a group of male and female mice, yet only the males became more prone to infection.

Since these experiments were conducted using a , the researchers consider these results to be applicable to humans. This feature of the female innate might have evolved to better protect women's reproductive role. source


Common diabetes drug may 'revolutionize' cancer therapies

June 3rd, 2009

Researchers at McGill University and the University of Pennsylvania have discovered that a widely used anti-diabetic drug can boost the immune system and increase the potency of vaccines and cancer treatments.

...They discovered that the widely prescribed diabetes treatment metformin increases the efficiency of the immune system's T-cells, which in turn makes cancer and virus-fighting vaccines more effective.

The specialized of the human immune system known as "T-cells" remember pathogens they have encountered from previous infections or vaccinations, enabling them to fight subsequent infections much faster. This "immunological memory" has been the subject of intense study for many years, but until now the underlying cellular mechanisms behind it were not well understood. Now, the researchers say, they can use diabetic therapies to manipulate T-cell response and enhance the immune system's response to infections and cancer alike.

"We serendipitously discovered that the metabolizing, or burning, of by T-cells following the peak of infection is critical to establishing immunological memory," Pearce added. "We used metformin, which is known to operate on fatty-acid metabolism, to enhance this process, and have shown experimentally in mice that metformin increases T-cell memory as well as the ensuing protective immunity of an experimental anti-cancer vaccine."

The recent findings suggest a new link between the metabolic pathways deregulated in and and their role in immune cell function. The results suggest that common diabetic therapies which alter cellular metabolism may enhance T-cell memory, providing a boost to the . This could lead to novel strategies for vaccine and anti-cancer therapies. source

A new lead for autoimmune disease

June 4th, 2009

A drug derived from the hydrangea root, used for centuries in traditional Chinese medicine, shows promise in treating autoimmune disorders, report researchers from the Program in Cellular and Molecular Medicine and the Immune Disease Institute at Children's Hospital Boston (PCMM/IDI), along with the Harvard School of Dental Medicine. In the June 5 edition of Science, they show that a small-molecule compound known as halofuginone inhibits the development of Th17 cells, immune cells recently recognized as important players in autoimmune disease, without altering other kinds of T cells involved in normal immune function. They further demonstrate that halofuginone reduces disease pathology in a mouse model of autoimmunity.

Currently there is no good treatment for autoimmune disorders; the challenge has been suppressing inflammatory attacks by the immune system on body tissues without generally suppressing (thereby increasing risk of infections). The main treatment is antibodies that neutralize cytokines, chemical messengers produced by T cells that regulate immune function and inflammatory responses. However, antibodies are expensive, must be given intravenously and don't address the root cause of disease, simply sopping up cytokines rather than stopping their production; patients must therefore receive frequent intravenous infusions to keep inflammation in check. Powerful immune-suppressing drugs are sometimes used as a last resort, but patients are left at risk for life-threatening infections and other serious side effects.

Through a series of experiments, the researchers show that halofuginone prevents the development of Th17 cells in both mice and humans, halts the disease process they trigger, and is selective in its effects. It also has the potential to be taken orally.

Recognized only since 2006, Th17 cells have been implicated in a variety of autoimmune disorders including inflammatory bowel disease, rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis, type 1 diabetes, eczema and psoriasis. They are genetically distinct from the other major categories of T-cells (Th1, Th2 and T-regulatory cells).

Th17 cells normally differentiate from "naďve" CD4+ T cells, but when Sundrud and colleagues cultured mouse CD4+ T-cells along with cytokines that normally induce Th17 development, there was a pronounced decrease in Th17 cells - but not in Th1, Th2 or T regulatory cells - when halofuginone was added. Similarly, in cultured human CD4+ T-cells, halofuginone selectively suppressed production of IL-17, the principal cytokine made by Th17 cells.

And in mice with experimental autoimmune encephalitis (EAE), an artificially-induced immune disease resembling multiple sclerosis in humans, and marked by infiltration of Th17 cells into the central nervous system, low-dose halofuginone treatment significantly reduced both the development of EAE and its severity. (In mice with another form of EAE that doesn't involve Th17 cells, halofuginone had no effect.)

Eventually, they found that halofuginone acts by activating a biochemical pathway known as the "amino acid starvation response," or AAR, which typically protects cells when , essential building blocks of proteins, are in short supply. When excess amino acids were added to cultured exposed to halofuginone, the AAR didn't switch on, and Th17 cells were able to develop. Conversely, the researchers were able to inhibit Th17 differentiation simply by depleting amino acids, thereby inducing the AAR.

Why would the AAR prevent Th17 cells from forming? The researchers propose that the AAR has an energy-saving function, slowing down a cell's building activities to conserve amino acids.

Halofuginine is one of the 50 fundamental herbs of traditional Chinese medicine, and has been used as an antimalarial agent. source

Genes that influence start of menstruation identified for first time

May 17th, 2009

Researchers from the Peninsula Medical School, along with collaborators from research institutions across Europe and the United States, have for the first time identified two genes that are involved in determining when girls begin menstruation.

The findings of the study could have ramifications for normal human growth and weight too, because early-age menstruation is also associated with shorter stature and increased body weight. In general, girls who achieve menstruation earlier in life tend to have greater (BMI) and a higher ratio of fat compared to those who begin menstruation later.

The study carried out an analysis of 17,510 women across eight different international population-based sources. This number included women of European descent who reported the age at which they reached menstruation of between nine and 17 years.

The two genes identified were on chromosomes nine and six. One in 20 females carry two copies of each of the gene variations which result in menstruation starting earlier, and they will start menstruating approximately four and half months earlier than those with no copies of the gene variants.

She added: "The study takes us nearer to understanding the biology of the processes involved in puberty and early growth and to understand what constitutes 'normal' in growth and development." source

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