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GE3LS Digest - November 18, 2010

The GE3LS Digest
A compendium of news and research from around the country and around the world

Date: November 18, 2010
This news digest is published by GE3LS at Genome Alberta. Feel free to forward to your colleagues.
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2011 Congress: Exploring the ELSI Universe
The Center for Genomics and Society at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, US, is hosting the 2011 ELSI Congress; Exploring the ELSI Universe, April 12-14, 2011. This conference will showcase empirical research, conceptual and normative scholarship, and policy contributions from ELSI projects relating to all aspects of the Human Genome Project.

New method to create bioartificial organs unveiled – November 3, 2010
Spanish scientists on Tuesday presented a new technique to create bioartifical organs for transplant using stem cells which they said will vastly reduce the risk of rejection of the donated organ.
The technique involves "stripping" a donated heart, liver or other organ which is deemed unsuitable for donation of their cells, leaving just a "scaffold", Francisco Fernandez-Aviles, chief cardiologist at Madrid's Gregorio Maranon hospital told a news conference. Stem cells from the patient are then applied to this framework to re-grow the organ which will share their DNA, thus making it more acceptable to their body. Doctors will be able to carry out transplants involving organs that have been re-generated using this technique in five years time at the earliest, said Fernandez-Aviles. "This will put an end to two problems: the lack of donors or organs suitable for transplant and the rejection of transplanted organs by the patient," he said.

Plants Engineered to Produce New Drugs – November 3, 2010
Humans have long taken advantage of the huge variety of medicinal compounds produced by plants. Now MIT chemists have found a new way to expand plants' pharmaceutical repertoire by genetically engineering them to produce unnatural variants of their usual products. The researchers, led by Associate Professor Sarah O'Connor, have added bacterial genes to the periwinkle plant, enabling it to attach halogens such as chlorine or bromine to a class of compounds called alkaloids that the plant normally produces. Many alkaloids have pharmaceutical properties, and halogens, which are often added to antibiotics and other drugs, can make medicines more effective or last longer in the body.
The team's primary target, an alkaloid called vinblastine, is commonly used to treat cancers such as Hodgkin's lymphoma. O'Connor sees vinblastine and other drugs made by plants as scaffolds that she can modify in a variety of ways to enhance their effectiveness.

Public Understanding of and Reactions to Personalized Genetic Risk Information: Results from the Coriell Personalized Medicine Collaborative – November 5, 2010
Currently, little is known about how people interpret and react to personalized genomic risk information for common complex conditions. To address this knowledge gap, a group of researchers led by Barbara Bernhardt, MS, CGC, Clinical Professor of Medicine and Co-Director of the Penn Center for the Integration of Genetic Health Care Technologies at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, conducted interviews with individuals who received personalized genetic risk results for seven common health conditions through the Coriell Personalized Medicine Collaborative (CPMC), a research project examining the clinical utility of personalized genomic risk information. The interviews included questions about participants' understanding of their disease risk and the actions they took based on their results.

Scientists turn skin into blood cells – November 7, 2010
In a scientific feat that almost defies imagination, Canadian researchers have transformed human skin into different types of blood cells. The achievement by McMaster University scientists is being hailed as a breakthrough that could one day help patients needing transfusions for surgery, to treat potentially deadly blood disorders or to offset the destructive side-effects of chemotherapy. But it also raises the possibility that other cell types, such as neurons to repair brains damaged by disease or injury, could also be directly induced and grown in the lab using a mere scrap of a person's own skin. Principal investigator Mick Bhatia, scientific director of McMaster's Stem Cell and Cancer Research Institute, said his team was able to produce oxygen-carrying red blood cells, two kinds of immune cells and the cells that produce platelets needed for clotting. “We have shown this works using human skin," Bhatia said. "We know how it works and believe we can even improve on the process.” What's significant about the research, published online Sunday in the journal Nature, is that the scientists were able to coax mature blood cells from skin without the intermediate step of producing stem cells that would then need to be differentiated into the various blood cell types.

Engaging the Public? – November 8, 2010
I noticed this editorial in Nature Structural and Molecular Biology, on getting scientific results out to the public. It's worth reading, but not in the way that they think. It starts out reasonably well: As members of the research community, we know we can't rely on the popular media to correct the misperceptions the public might harbor about science-related issues. According to a 2009 Pew Research Center survey of Americans, carried out in conjunction with the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), 76% of scientists feel the media do not adequately distinguish between substantial findings and those that are unfounded. Although it would be easy to say that the public “just doesn't get it,” the burden of passing along the understanding and implications of contemporary science falls squarely on the shoulders of those actively engaged in funding, publishing and carrying out research. That's been said before, as the editorial itself notes, but it's no less true for all that. And the advice that follows is sound, if still rather boring: when you talk to non-scientists, try to gauge how much they know about the subject (without offending people), lay off the acronyms and jargon, look for helpful (and accurate) analogies, and so on. All fine.

Iron nano-structures open up food fortification opportunities – November 9, 2010
The continued development of nano-structured iron compounds may allow for innovative fortification of wheat and rice-based foods, suggests new research from Switzerland. By using a flame aerosol technology researchers from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) in Zurich report that the resulting nano-structures show high iron solubility and low reactivity in foods, making them promising for food fortification applications. The study, published in the Journal of Food Science suggests that nano-structured iron with magnesium or calcium offer stable, highly bioavailable iron enrichment for foods. “The nano-structured iron-containing compounds presented here may prove useful for iron fortification of certain foods; they are highly soluble in dilute acid and likely to be well absorbed in the gut but cause less severe colour changes than iron sulphate when added to difficult-to-fortify foods,” stated the researchers, led by Dr Florentine Hilty of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) in Zurich.

Genes as Mirrors of Life Experiences – November 9, 2010
For decades, researchers have ransacked the genetic pedigrees of people with mental illness, looking for common variations that combine to cause devastating conditions like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. The search has stalled badly; while these disorders may involve genetic disruptions, no underlying patterns have surfaced — no single gene or genes that account for more than a tiny fraction of cases.
So scientists are turning their focus to an emerging field: epigenetics, the study of how people’s experience and environment affect the function of their genes.

Genetic Nondiscrimination Rule Unveiled – November 10, 2010
Federal regulators have published a final rule carrying out the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act, which prohibits the use of genetic information to make decisions about health insurance and employment. The Act, enacted in 2008, protects job applicants, current and former employees, labor union members and apprentices and trainees from discrimination based on their genetic information. To protect privacy, it restricts employers from requesting, requiring or purchasing genetic information and strictly limits them from disclosing genetic information.
The final rule is effective Jan. 10, 2011.

Biotechs fear court ruling on gene patenting – November 10, 2010
The Justice department issued an appeals court briefing last Friday that has the potential to change the face of patent law and reshape the biotech industry as we know it. After a lower court ruling in March, which overturned several decades of gene patenting policy, Myriad Genetics corporation has appealed the decision, asking the higher court to recognize its supposed right to patent a sequence of the human genome. If the decision is upheld, the biotech industry mainstay of patenting not only isolated human genes, but plant genes as well, could be a thing of the past. Last year, a conglomeration of medical societies, civil rights groups, researchers and patients sued Myriad and its research foundation at the University of Utah, claiming that the biotech firm's patents on two genes BRCA1 and BRCA2 are unconstitutional and outside the scope of intellectual property rights. The company sells a test for about $3,000 that detects mutations in these genes which signal a high risk of breast or ovarian cancer. In March, United States District Court Judge Robert W. Sweet invalidated the patents.

Republicans could scale back US science budgets – November 10, 2010
Budgets for scientific research in the United States could be scaled back with the return of a Republican-majority in Congress as conservatives aim to slash spending to reduce the ballooning deficit.
 The Republican electoral platform, the "Pledge to America," details the party's ideals of smaller government, lower taxes and robust national defense, and vows to "stop out-of-control spending."
"There is a risk that we may have a significant reduction in the science budget," said Patrick Clemins, director of the research and development policy program at the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Even before Republicans made sweeping gains in the House of Representatives in last week's mid-term elections, Republicans and Democrats agreed to scale back federal spending in order to try and get the deficit, which amounts to almost 14 trillion dollars in national debt, under control.

Patent Grab Threatens Biodiversity and Food Sovereignty – November 11, 2010
Under the guise of developing 'climate-ready' crops, the world's largest seed and agrochemical corporations are pressuring governments to allow what could become the broadest and most dangerous patent claims in intellectual property history. A new report by ETC Group [1] reveals a dramatic upsurge in the number of patent claims on 'climate-ready' genes, plants and technologies that will supposedly allow biotech crops to tolerate drought and other environmental stresses (i.e. abiotic stresses) associated with climate change.The patent grab threatens to put a monopoly choke-hold on the world's biomass and our future food supply, warns ETC Group. In many cases, a single patent or patent application claims ownership of engineered gene sequences that could be deployed in virtually all major crops - as well as the processed food and feed products derived from them. The patent grab on 'climate-ready' crops is a bid to control not only the world's food security but also the world's yet-to-be commodified biomass. In the fog of climate chaos, the 'Gene Giants' hope to ease public acceptance of genetically engineered crops and make the patent grab more palatable.

How to Make Your Own Stem Cells: There Are Now Multiple Ways Adult Stem Cells Can Be Turned Embryonic – November 13, 2010
There are many reasons a patient may need a tissue or blood transplant from a donor, and in many cases the problem of immune rejection is a major obstacle to be overcome. Consequently, researchers have increasingly focused on developing ways to heal damaged or diseased tissues by using a patient’s own cells. There are now multiple types of stem cells that hold great promise for creating patient-specific cells for therapies. Rejection of a transplant from a donor occurs when a patient’s immune system rejects the transplant tissue as foreign. It’s a normal (and usually healthy) process. The body is simply trying to protect itself from a foreign “invader,” just as it usually fights off viral and bacterial infection. Immune rejection is a common problem, depending on the kind of transplant being performed, and often long-term courses of immunosuppressant drugs are required over the patient’s lifetime to prevent rejection of the transplant.


If genetics is the key to a better future, where’s the evidence to prove it? – Fall 2010
On a recent flight home from Europe the movie selection was so limited I decided, reluctantly, to watch The Time Traveler’s Wife. My reluctance was not due to movie snobbery (I have lowbrow taste), but because when I am tired and 30,000 feet above the ocean, manipulative, sentimental romances make me cry; not just sniffles, but full tears occasionally accompanied by sobbing. Watching action and adventure films is no antidote, since tears and heaving shoulders are inevitable if the hero happens to find redemption, revenge or long-overdue respect. Left with no options, I began watching The Time Traveler’s Wife, expecting the worst, but I soon found myself too preoccupied by the premise to let loose with the sobs.


Stem Cell Network Annual Scientific Meeting

November 22-24, 2010
Calgary, Alberta

Exploring the ELSI Universe
April 12-14, 2011
Chapel Hill, North Carolina

Canadian Bioethics Society 22nd Annual Conference: Excellence in Health Care: Meeting the Challenges of Sustainability
June 2-4, 2010
Saint John, New Brunswick

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