Here’s this month’s second installment of “Everything scientific”, a breakdown of some of the most significant scientific findings in research journals over the past couple of weeks, in a nutshell (The archives are here). Enjoy science, while I take a blogging break till Monday.
Every big pharmaceutical company has now invested heavily in monoclonal antibody research (if you invest in pharma, take a look at some of the companies with successful MAB drugs). But monoclonal antibodies are lousy as drugs in many ways. They are biological molecules, and cannot be chemically synthesized. Biological production is prone to too many variables. They are difficult to store and maintain, not to mention administer. They sometimes trigger horrible immune reactions. But they have one huge advantage. They are super-specific. They zone in and bind to only their specific target within the body, and nothing else. So, they’re perfect to use to target an affected region ALONE (think cancer, for a start). So, the industry is growing rapidly, and is at about $30 billion right now. But, evidence is beginning to mount that there can be serious “collateral damage”, with titration effects and unbalancing immune surveillance, so the thrust now is to understand these areas better. Two excellent editorials take a look at the promise and pitfalls of these drugs.
Speaking of “biotech”, it’s the current buzzword in India. But the walk is still not close to matching the talk. Most degree and diploma holders in “biotechnology” in India have very poor lab skills. There are major changes happening in the patent law universe, and now process patents will be made obsolete. Instruments are extremely hard to find in India (none are made there). Still, some companies are starting to boom, and there are spots of progress. But don’t expect a repeat of the IT boom, and throw your money on Indian biotech yet.
Up in smoke:
Nicotine is the addictive agent in cigarettes, and it’s what makes the smoker feel happy and relaxed. Even when smokers want to quit, the addiction (and withdrawal cravings) often draws them back. How ever, some of the most carcinogenic and harmful agents in cigarettes are not nicotine, but are in the cigarette tar. The nicotine patch works, but often there is a lingering craving to light up. There is some hope for smokers now. The craving is usually due to a decrease in nicotine in the body (since it is metabolized). So, researchers are now trying to inhibit the enzyme (protein) that metabolizes it (a cytochrome P450). The idea is to inhibit the enzyme, and therefore keep levels of nicotine higher in the system for a longer duration of time. This would in turn reduce the craving for a smoke, and reduce the number of cigarettes consumed. This might ease the way to an eventual nicotine free lifestyle. Read more about it here.
(image from here)
When mice are sheepish:
Stem cells are constantly in the news, and stem-cell research is a bit of a hot potato in the States now. Embryonic stem cells are the most desirable because they are extremely versatile, and can develop in to any kind of cell necessary (with the appropriate stimuli). One area of research is to study if embryonic stem cells can repair damaged hearts. But human embryonic stem cells run in to a gamut of regulations (and religious/ethical issues). Bone marrow stem cells (easily available) do not have the same properties and versatility as embryonic stem cells. So scientists are struggling for solutions. In some fascinating research however, some progress has been made. Scientists have managed to use mouse embryonic stem cells to heal damaged sheep hearts. Many problems yet, but the test now will be if primate stem cells can be used to heal human hearts, and thus circumvent many ethical issues.
Warm earth, more hurricanes?
Global warming research also runs into controversy (with various groups opposing it, though it’s going to happen whether they oppose it or not). Still, the link between global warming and hurricanes was not yet strong. But now, there has been a massive 80% increase in the abundance of powerful tropical storms in the past 35 years. During this time, tropical oceans have warmed up due to greenhouse gases. The link is growing stronger, and this editorial points it out. Tropical storms “draw their energy upward from warm ocean water to drive their winds before expelling waste heat to the upper atmosphere.” The full research article is here. Good science always points out the still indeterminable, and I will take the trouble of quoting the last paragraph of the paper in full to illustrate that point:
“This trend is not inconsistent with recent climate model simulations that a doubling of CO2 may increase the frequency of the most intense cyclones although attribution of the 30-year trends to global warming would require a longer global data record and, especially, a deeper understanding of the role of hurricanes in the general circulation of the atmosphere and ocean, even in the present climate state.” (Science, 309, Issue 5742, 1844-1846)
Skeletons in the desert:
As far as human and primate fossils go, Central Africa has been a rich source for them. But, for dinosaur and early mammal fossils, Mongolia’s Gobi desert is providing more skeletons than most closets can handle. Many unknown species have now been discovered. This is also an excellent example of good science reporting in the New York Times, one of the few newspapers with good science coverage.
(Image from here)
Doomsday, not quite?
Space still remains the final frontier. Apparently, about 3.9 billion years ago (yup, puts in perspective our own relative insignificance w.r.t. the universe), the inner planets (including earth) were battered by something. It seems that most of the more recent impacts are due to small objects, which makes sense, since forces nudging asteroids out of the asteroid belt today (like the Yarkovsky effect) favor smaller objects. But this does not explain the ancient bombardment, which was mostly caused by much larger objects. A recent report argues that asteroids smashed the inner planets due to a major planetary rearrangement of outer, larger planets (i.e. Jupiter or Saturn teaming up, or perhaps Neptune and Uranus formed long after the other planets. But the case remains open. In more amazing space news, using satellites and a global network of telescopes, scientists have spotted the most distant explosion thus far. A star died when the universe was in its infancy, and exploded violently (a supernova), causing a gamma-ray burst. Gamma ray bursts are so bright that they are brighter than whole galaxies. Light from this explosion was spotted on the 4th of September. The star exploded when the universe was around 900 million years old. Then it traveled at the speed of light to where we could see it. The universe is now about 13500 million years old, and boy, that light has taken a long time to get here.
“A disease of white people”
Finally, in the September issue of Physics Today, there is an excellent article about Einstein and Racism in America. In September 1946, Einstein told some students at Lincoln University that racial segregation was “not a disease of colored people, but a disease of white people. I will not remain silent about it.” Much has changed since then, thanks to the civil rights movement. But till date, at any major university, African American scientists are incredibly rare, and though the reasons remain many, many underlying attitudes need to change.