Posts belonging to Category biomolecular

How To Detect Alzheimer’s 30 years In Advance

Scientists from Japan and Australia have teamed up to develop and validate a blood test for Alzheimer’s disease, with the potential to massively ramp up the pace of Alzheimer’s disease drug trials. The blood test measures a specific peptide in the blood to inform scientists, with 90 per cent accuracy, if a patient has the very earliest stages of Alzheimer’s diseaseBlood samples from patients in a large study from the Japanese National Center for Geriatrics and Gerontology (NCGG) were initially analysed to identify the relevant peptides. Those indicating brain beta-amyloid burden were then tested against patient samples from the Australian Imaging, Biomarker and Lifestyle Study of Aging (AIBL), to validate the results.


Our study demonstrates the high accuracy, reliability and reproducibility of this blood test, as it was successfully validated in two independent large datasets from Japan and Australia.” says Professor Katsuhiko Yanagisawa, Director-general of Research Institute at NCGG.

Dr Koichi Tanaka at Shimadzu Corporation was instrumental in developing the initial blood testing procedure. Professor Tanaka won the Nobel prize in Chemistry in 2002 for the technique. “From a tiny blood sample, our method can measure several amyloid-related proteins, even though their concentration is extremely low. We found that the ratio of these proteins was an accurate surrogate for brain amyloid burden.”

One of the essential hallmarks of Alzheimer’s disease is buildup of abnormal peptide in the brain, called beta-amyloid. The process starts silently about 30 years before outward signs of dementia, like memory loss or cognitive decline, have begun.

Current tests for beta-amyloid include brain scans with costly radioactive tracers, or analysing spinal fluid taken via a lumbar puncture. These are expensive and invasive, and generally only available in a research setting. A diagnosis is usually made without these tools, by assessing a patient’s range of symptoms.

Laureate Professor Colin Masters of the Florey Institute of Neuroscience and Mental Health, and The University of Melbourne, has been at the forefront of Alzheimer’s research since the 1980s. Professor Masters, who co-led the research published in the latest issue of Nature, comments: “This new test has the potential to eventually disrupt the expensive and invasive scanning and spinal fluid technologies. In the first instance, however, it will be an invaluable tool in increasing the speed of screening potential patients for new drug trials.


Hard Material With Self-Healing Capability

Imagine a cellphone that can heal from cuts and scratches just like the human body can. For Chinese researcher Ming Yang and his team at the Harbin Institute of Technology, it’s not really a question of imagining anymore: They have developed a new kind of smart coating that manages to be both soft and hard, not unlike our own skin.

We designed a self-healing coating with a hardness that even approaches tooth enamel by mimicking the structure of epidermis,” Yang says. “This is the most desirable property combination in the current self-healing materials and coatings.”

As described in a paper published Wednesday in ACS Nano, this new material is far from the first smart coating, with previous research looking at both soft and hard coating options. Yang says there’s serious global need for better self-healing materials.

Nowadays people always talk about environment and energy,” he adds. “A self-healing material can help save a lot of money and energy using a smart, environmental friendly way. But the current self-healing materials and coatings are typically soft and wear out quickly. This can bring potential problems about the management of plastic waste.

This new material could solve those waste problems, as it comes closer than any predecessor to combining the flexibility of a soft coating and the resilience of a hard coating, without the short lifespan of the former or the brittleness of the latter. This could be the best of both worlds.

The trick is to use artificial materials in nature’s way,” explains Yang. “The multilayer structure is the key. By placing a hard layer containing graphene oxide on top of a soft layer, we create a smart hybridization you can get the most out of.”

The graphene oxide material used in the coating’s top layer is harder than skin cells, offering a toughness closer to that of teeth enamel. The amazing thing, according to Yang, is that the coating’s hard and soft layers are able to work together to create healing properties that neither could accomplish on its own.


Monkeys Have Been Cloned, Humans Could Be Next

Chinese scientists have cloned monkeys using the same technique that produced Dolly the Sheep two decades ago, breaking a technical barrier that could open the door to copying humans.  Zhong Zhong and Hua Hua, two identical long-tailed macaques, were born eight and six weeks ago, making them the first primates — the order of mammals that includes monkeys, apes and humans — to be cloned from a non-embryonic cell.

It was achieved through a process called somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT), which involves transferring the nucleus of a cell, which includes its DNA, into an egg which has had its nucleus removed. Researchers at the Chinese Academy of Sciences Institute of Neuroscience in Shanghai said their work should be a boon to medical research by making it possible to study diseases in populations of genetically uniform monkeys. But it also brings the feasibility of cloning to the doorstep of our own species.


Humans are primates. So [for] the cloning of primate species, including humans, the technical barrier is now broken,” said Muming Poo, who helped supervise the program at the institute.

“The reason … we broke this barrier is to produce animal models that are useful for medicine, for human health.

Genetically identical animals are useful in research because confounding factors caused by genetic variability in non-cloned animals can complicate experiments. They could be used to test new drugs for a range of diseases before clinical use. The two newborns are now being bottle-fed and are growing normally.


3D Printed Ears

A group of researchers in China has constructed ears for children suffering from microtia, a congenital condition where the external ear (pinna) is underdeveloped, with the help of 3D scanning and 3D printing.

The scientists, from Shanghai Jiao Tong University, the National Tissue Engineering Research Center of China, the Chinese Academy of Medical ScienceWei Fang Medical College and Dalian University, engineered a patient-specific ear-shaped cartilage in vitro using a 3D printed biodegradable scaffold and Microtia Chondrocyte (MCs) cartilage cells.

Microtia can have a negative impact on the hearing and wellbeing of children affected by it. Established procedures to treat microtia include rib cartilage reconstruction, plastic implants or prostheses.

Projects like Australia’s FutureHear are 3D printing customized ear molds, while Dr. Ken Stewart of the Royal Hospital for Sick Children in Edinburgh has used 3D scanning and 3D printed models to prepare cartilage reconstructions accurately in the shape of an ear.

This approach, however, combined 3D printing with in vitro tissue engineering on children suffering from microtia only in one ear.


Universal Vaccine Against Influenza A Viruses

Researchers have developed a universal vaccine to combat influenza A viruses that produces long-lasting immunity in mice and protects them against the limitations of seasonal flu vaccines, according to a study led by Georgia State UniversityInfluenza, a contagious respiratory illness that infects the nose, throat and lungs, is among the leading causes of death in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The CDC estimates influenza has resulted in between 12,000 and 56,000 deaths annually in the U.S. since 2010. Seasonal flu vaccines must be updated each year to match the influenza viruses that are predicted to be most common during the upcoming flu season, but protection doesn’t always meet expectations or new viruses emerge and manufacturers incorrectly guess which viruses will end up spreading. In 2009, the H1N1 pandemic caused 200,000 deaths during the first 12 months, and low vaccine effectiveness was also observed during the 2014-15 and 2016-17 flu seasons. A universal flu vaccine that offers broad protection against various viruses is urgently needed and would eliminate the limitations of seasonal flu vaccines.

Seasonal flu vaccines provide protective immunity against influenza viruses by targeting the exterior head of the virus’s surface protein, which is hem
(HA). The influenza virus trains the body to produce antibodies against inactivated virus particles containing the head of this protein, ideally preventing the head from attaching to receptors and stopping infection. However, the head is highly variable and is different for each virus, creating a need for better vaccines. This study uses a new approach and instead targets the inside portion of the HA protein known as the stalk, which is more conservative and offers the opportunity for universal protection.

In this study, the researchers found vaccinating mice with double-layered protein nanoparticles that target the stalk of this protein produces long-lasting immunity and fully protects them against various influenza A viruses. The findings are published in the journal Nature Communications.


Artificial Synapse For “Brain-on-a-Chip”

When it comes to processing power, the human brain just can’t be beat. Packed within the squishy, football-sized organ are somewhere around 100 billion neurons. At any given moment, a single neuron can relay instructions to thousands of other neurons via synapses — the spaces between neurons, across which neurotransmitters are exchanged. There are more than 100 trillion synapses that mediate neuron signaling in the brain, strengthening some connections while pruning others, in a process that enables the brain to recognize patterns, remember facts, and carry out other learning tasks, at lightning speeds.

Researchers in the emerging field of “neuromorphic computing” have attempted to design computer chips that work like the human brain. Instead of carrying out computations based on binary, on/off signaling, like digital chips do today, the elements of a “brain on a chip” would work in an analog fashion, exchanging a gradient of signals, or “weights,” much like neurons that activate in various ways depending on the type and number of ions that flow across a synapse.

In this way, small neuromorphic chips could, like the brain, efficiently process millions of streams of parallel computations that are currently only possible with large banks of supercomputers. But one significant hangup on the way to such portable artificial intelligence has been the neural synapse, which has been particularly tricky to reproduce in hardware.

Now engineers at MIT have designed an artificial synapse in such a way that they can precisely control the strength of an electric current flowing across it, similar to the way ions flow between neurons. The team has built a small chip with artificial synapses, made from silicon germanium. In simulations, the researchers found that the chip and its synapses could be used to recognize samples of handwriting, with 95 percent accuracy.

The design, published today in the journal Nature Materials, is a major step toward building portable, low-power neuromorphic chips for use in pattern recognition and other learning tasks.


AI Improves Heart Disease Diagnosis

Researchers from the University of Oxford are using artificial intelligence (AI) to improve diagnostic accuracy for heart disease. The team hope to roll out the system across the NHS later this year, helping to improve patient outcomes and saving millions is misdiagnoses. The research, led by Prof Paul Leeson and RDM DPhil student Ross Upton (Cardiovascular Clinical Research Facility), took place in the Oxford University Hospitals Foundation Trust and is the basis of spin-out company Ultromics.


Thousands of people every year have an echocardiogram – a type of heart scan – after visiting hospital suffering with chest pain. Clinicians currently assess these scans by eye, taking into account many features that could indicate whether someone has heart disease and if they are likely to go on to have a heart attack. But even the most well trained cardiologist can misdiagnose patients. Currently, 1 in 5 scans are misdiagnosed each year – the equivalent to 12,000 patients. This means that people are either not being treated to prevent a heart attack, or they are undergoing unnecessary operations to stave off a heart attack they won’t have.

The new system uses machine learning – a form of artificial intelligence – to tap into the rich information provided in an echocardiogram. Using the new system, AI can detect 80,000 subtle changes inviable to the naked eye, improving the accuracy of diagnosis to 90%. The machine learning system was trained using scans from previous patients, alongside data about whether they went on to have a heart attack. The team hope that the improved diagnostic accuracy will not only improve patient care and outcomes, but save the NHS £300million a year in avoidable operations and treatment.  So far the system has been trialled in six cardiology units in the UK. Further implementation of the technology is now being led by Ultromics – a spin-out company co-founded by Ross Upton and Paul Leeson (Cardiovascular Clinical Research Facility). The software will be made available for free throughout the NHS later this year.


How Nanotechnology Can Help Heal Hearts

Nanotechnology is especially suited to medicine because nature operates at not even a micro, but a nano scale synapses, the extracellular spaces between neurons that exchange massive amounts of information per second are approximately only 20-40 nanometres (nm) wide. The typical largest coronary artery, which supplies oxygen-rich blood to the heart, barely measures an inch in diameter.

Nanotechnology works with this natural nanoscale to deliver better healthcare results with fewer risks and side effects in a shorter span of time. It uses finer instruments, minimally invasive procedures and more efficient drug delivery systems to unblock blood vessels and repair tissues. This aspect of nanotechnology is especially useful and can reduce the risks associated with many invasive procedures, including cardiac care protocols.

Angioplasty is a procedure to open narrowed or blocked coronary arteries, which supply blood to the heart. During an angioplasty, a balloon catheter is guided into the affected artery; the balloon may be ‘blown up’ a few times to widen the diameter of the artery. Often a coronary artery stent, a small, metal mesh tube that expands inside the artery, is placed during or immediately after angioplasty to help prevent the artery from closing up again. A drug-eluting stent, now the norm, has medicine embedded in it that helps prevent the artery from closing in the long-term.

So far, so good. But this is where we run into a hiccup.  One of the biggest problems with current drug-eluting stents is Paclitaxel, the very drug they carry. Clinical trials show toxicity associated with Paclitaxel and increased chances of thrombosis, a dangerous event linked with heart attacks and strokes. Cardiologists remain conflicted over the use of Paclitaxel. A possible solution to Paclitaxel could be an alternate, safer drug, which is small enough at the molecular level to be bioavailable and can also be introduced in the artery in a short span of 35-40 seconds. Keep the stent in the artery any longer than this razor-thin span and you risk complications. Sirolimous is one such drug, but the biggest problem with Sirolimous is that it is slow on the uptake.

It took years of research by a dedicated core team of doctors, surgeons, pharmacists and chemists to finally put together the puzzle. And when all the pieces locked in place, the answer was perfect in its simplicity – a nanotechnology-enabled polymer-free drug-eluting stent system, especially adapted to carry Sirolimous, a far safer and hypoallergenic drug than Paclitaxel.


New Robust Oilseed Crop Resists Drought

University of Copenhagen (Denmark) and the global player Bayer CropScience have successfully developed a new oilseed crop that is much more resistant to heat, drought and diseases than oilseed rape. The breakthrough is big and it will feature as cover story of the April issue of Nature Biotechnology.


Oilseed rape does not grow very well in warm and dry areas. We are very happy that we have succeeded in using a groundbreaking technology on a mustard plant, which is a close relative to rape. The result is an oilseed crop with improved agronomic traits that is tolerant to global warming. The new crop will enable cultivation in areas that today is not suitable for oilseed crops, such as the Western part of Canada, parts of Eastern Europe, Australia and India”, explains Professor Barbara Ann Halkier, Head of DynaMo Center of Excellence, University of Copenhagen, is one of the scientists who has worked on developing a new oilseed crop with better properties.

The mustard plant is similar to oilseed rape in many ways. It looks like a rape plant and its oil has the same attractive features with high content of mono– and polyunsaturated fatty acids e.g. omega-3 and -6 plus antioxidants and vitamins. However, it is also a lot more robust when grown under arid conditions and upon exposure to diseases. Mustard is therefore an obvious candidate to replace oilseed rape.

Until now it has been an undefeatable challenge that mustard seeds are full of the bitter defense compounds that give mustard its characteristic flavor. Consequently, the protein-rich seed meal that remains after the oil is pressed out of the seeds is useless as animal feed,” adds Barbara Ann Halkier.

In close collaboration with Bayer CropScience – one of the major global players within plant biotechnology and breeding – she and other scientists from the DynaMo Center have found an original solution to this problem.


Alcohol Damages DNA In Stem Cells

Scientists have shown how alcohol damages DNA in stem cells, which may help to explain how drinking alcohol is linked to an increased risk of cancer, according to research led by scientists from the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology (UK)  and part-funded by Cancer Research UK. Much previous research looking at the precise ways in which alcohol causes cancer has been done in cell cultures. But in this study, published in Nature, researchers used mice to show how alcohol exposure leads to permanent genetic damage.

The scientists gave diluted alcohol, chemically known as ethanol, to mice. They then used chromosome analysis and DNA sequencing to examine the genetic damage caused by acetaldehyde, a harmful chemical produced when the body processes alcohol. They found that acetaldehyde can break and damage DNA within blood stem cells leading to rearranged chromosomes and permanently altering the DNA sequences within these cells. It is important to understand how the DNA blueprint within stem cells is damaged, because when healthy stem cells become faulty they can give rise to cancer.

Some cancers develop due to DNA damage in stem cells. While some damage occurs by chance, our findings suggest that drinking alcohol can increase the risk of this damage,” said Professor Ketan Patelopens in new window, lead author of the study and scientist, part-funded by Cancer Research UK, at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology.

The study also examined how the body tries to protect itself against damage caused by alcohol. The first line of defence is a family of enzymes called aldehyde dehydrogenases (ALDH). These enzymes break down harmful acetaldehyde into acetate, which our cells can use as a source of energy.

Worldwide, millions of people, particularly those from South East Asia, either lack these enzymes or carry faulty versions of them. So, when they drink, acetaldehyde builds up which causes a flushed complexion, and also leads to them feeling unwell.

In the study, when mice lacking the critical ALDH enzyme ALDH2 – were given alcohol, it resulted in four times as much DNA damage in their cells compared to mice with the fully functioning ALDH2 enzyme.


Nano-based Chip Detects Explosives

Technical University of Denmark (DTU) is ready with a prototype for a chemical “sniffer system” for the detection of criminal substances like narcotics and explosivesDogs have an eminent sense of smell. Their snouts use a specific sniffing technique which almost grabs hold of scents. Elephants’ snouts are even better than those of dogs, but obviously these are attached to elephants which are difficult to carry around. Consequently, today dogs are employed to track narcotics, money and explosives. Sometimes dogs are able to sense explosives in very small doses, however, they are not always 100 percent reliable as they are also sensitive to changes in their surroundings. A technological solution is therefore to be preferred in the tracking of stocks of narcotics or explosive materials.

Researchers at DTU have developed the prototype of a chip able to sniff molecular structures from a number of known substances. A special camera visualises the results from the chip (with 24 megapixels per 15 second) and newly developed software interprets these images according to changes in colour (i.e. the difference between two pictures), caused by the impact of the scents in the air.

We have conducted experiments by sucking air from smaller containers like e.g. handbags or pieces of luggage and from large industrial sized containers typically used for smuggling. In both cases, we arrived at promising results”, says Mogens Havsteen Jakobsen, Senior Researcher at DTU Nanotech.

By using the so-called colorimetric sensing technique, the artificial nose is able to detect different substances like explosives, narcotics, the ripeness of cheese, rotten meat and fish, the quality of wine and coffee or bad indoor climate of a room.

The project has specifically targeted explosives which are a growing safety risk in our society. The Chemical Division of the Danish Emergency Management Agency has been an important collaborator because they are authorised to produce and handle explosives. “We have test laboratories which have been made available during the course of the project”, says Jesper Mogensen, civil engineer and analysis chemist at the Chemical Division and therefore used to handling explosives.

There will be some evident advantages in using a technology such as CRIM-TRACK, compared to the instruments available today,” Jesper Mogensen says. “Firstly, the preparation time is short in that what you largely need to do is switch on the tracker and use it. This is valuable time saved. Secondly and perhaps the most important advantage is the fact that the EOD (the Explosive Ordnance Disposal) does not need to collect a sample. Today when we are called to a ransacking if e.g. a kilo of white powder has been found and we have to analyse its chemistry by way of GC-MS (i.e. gas chromatography-mass spectrometry), a sample of the substance must be collected on a fibre. In other words, it is necessary to collect physically a sample with all the risks this entails. With DTU’s sniffer system, it is possible to collect samples in the air. It sniffs for the drug much like a dog and indicates whether there are any explosives or not. This will increase the safety of our EOD”.


How To Detect Cancer With a Urine Test

Researchers centered at Nagoya University (Japan) develop a nanowire device able to detect microscopic levels of urinary markers potentially implicated in cancerCells communicate with each other through a number of different mechanisms. Some of these mechanisms are well-known: in animals, for example, predatory threats can drive the release of norepinephrine, a hormone that travels through the bloodstream and triggers heart and muscle cells to initiate a “fight-or-flight” response. A far less familiar mode of cellular transport is the extracellular vesicle (EV). EVs can be thought of as small “chunks” of a cell that are able to pinch off and circulate throughout the body to deliver messenger cargo to other cells. These messengers have become increasingly recognized as crucial mediators of cell-to-cell communication.

In a new study reported in Science Advances, researchers centered at Nagoya University have developed a novel medical device that can efficiently capture these EVs, and potentially use them to screen for cancer.


EVs are potentially useful as clinical markers. The composition of the molecules contained in an EV may provide a diagnostic signature for certain diseases,” lead author Takao Yasui explains. “The ongoing challenge for physicians in any field is to find a non-invasive diagnostic tool that allows them to monitor their patients on a regular basis–for example, a simple urine test.”

Among the many molecules EVs have been found to harbor are microRNAs, which are short pieces of ribonucleic acid that play diverse roles in normal cellular biology. Critically, the presence of certain microRNAs in urine might serve as a red flag for serious conditions such as bladder and prostate cancer. While this important cargo could therefore theoretically aid physicians in cancer diagnoses, there are still many technological hurdles that need to be overcome. One such hurdle: finding a feasible method to capture EVs in sufficient quantities to analyze them in a routine clinical setting.

The content of EVs in urine is extremely low, at less than 0.01% of the total fluid volume. This is a major barrier to their diagnostic utility,” Yasui notes. “Our solution was to embed zinc oxide nanowires into a specialized polymer to create a material that we believed would be highly efficient at capturing these vesicles. Our findings suggest that the device is indeed quite efficient. We obtained a collection rate of over 99%, surpassing ultracentrifugation as well as other methods that are currently being used in the field.