Custom Search

25 October, 2008

South Australia bioscience incubator launched

South Australia bioscience incubator launched 

SOUTH Australia's purpose-built bioscience incubator is up and running after SA Premier Mike Rann formally opened the facility this morning. 

Photo courtesy of: Drew Lenman and Bio Innovation SA

The $12.9 million BioSA Incubator, which will be home to six early-stage tenants, is located in the state's high-technology hub in Therbarton, just west of the Adelaide central business district.

Rann said the incubator would help to fast-track the growth of the state's bioscience industry.

“The $12.9 million [BioSA Incubator] is unique in Australia – with a combination of tailored laboratories, office space and conference facilities," he said.

The BioSA Incubator is fully occupied already, with the Centre for Pharmaceutical Research, Jurlique Research, Pharmaceutical Packaging Products, Reproductive Health Sciences, Signostics and contract research company vivoPharm the inaugural tenants.

The facility is modelled on successful similar incubators in Europe, and is situated in proximity to more established South Australian life science companies Bionomics, Hospira and TGR Biosciences.

SA Science and Information Economy Minister Paul Caica said the precinct would help lure other life science companies to the state.

“Bringing businesses together in the BioSA Incubator will help lure further venture capital investment into a rapidly expanding sector," he said.

“It creates a huge advantage for South Australia's bioscience sector. It will not only foster our local bioscience start-ups but has the potential to encourage bioscience companies from other parts of Australia to move their operations to Adelaide."

28 August, 2008

Researchers Report Advances in Cell Conversion Technique

Researchers Report Advances in Cell Conversion Technique

Biologists at Harvard have converted cells from a mouse’s pancreas into the insulin-producing cells that are destroyed in diabetes, suggesting that the natural barriers between the body’s cell types may not be as immutable as supposed.

This and other recent experiments raise the possibility that a patient’s healthy cells might be transformed into the type lost to a disease far more simply and cheaply than in the cumbersome proposals involving stem cells.

The new field depends on capturing master proteins called transcription factors that control which sets of genes are active in a cell and thus what properties the cell will possess. Each type of cell is thought to have a special set of transcription factors.

Last year a Japanese biologist, Shinya Yamanaka, showed that by inserting four transcription factors into an adult cell he could return it to its embryonic state.

In a variation of this technique, a team led by Qiao Zhou and Douglas A. Melton at Harvard has now identified three transcription factors active in the insulin-producing beta cells of the pancreas.

They hitched the genes for these three factors onto a virus that infects another type of pancreatic cell, known as an exocrine cell. In mice made diabetic by a drug that kills beta cells, the transformed exocrine cells generated insulin, allowing the mice to enjoy “a significant and long-lasting improvement” in their diabetic state, the researchers are reporting Thursday in the journal Nature.

Many steps remain before the technique could be considered for human use.

Besides producing insulin, the transformed exocrine cells looked like beta cells and ceased making proteins typical of exocrine cells. But they did not organize themselves into the pancreatic structures known as islets where beta cells usually cluster. The researchers claim only to have made “cells that closely resemble beta cells.”

Even so, Robert Blelloch, a cell biologist at the University of California, San Francisco, said, the Harvard experiment was “a very nice story — it’s pretty impressive that you can make such a switch just by adding three factors to a quite different cell type.”

Last month Patrick Seale and Bruce Spiegelman of the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston showed how with a single transcription factor they could make white fat cells generate brown fat cells, a very different type of cell.

The Harvard work “is not occurring in a vacuum, but it’s a very important piece of work,” Dr. Blelloch said.

19 July, 2008

Two genes may prevent HIV infection: Canadian research centre

Scientists have isolated two genes which may prevent people from contracting HIV or at least slow the rate at which they develop AIDS, a new study has found.
The genes were isolated by comparing the genetic profiles of people in their first year of HIV infection with those who managed to resist infection despite repeated exposure to the virus.
The "good" versions of the two genes were present in 12.2 percent of those who resisted infection compared with only 2.7 of patients in primary HIV infection.
Researchers are not yet sure how this protection works.
One of the genes codes for a receptor on the surface of the immune system's natural killer cells which destroy infected cells in the body.
The other codes for a protein which binds the first gene and dampens the natural killer cell activity.
The most likely explanation is that HIV prevents the protein that dampens the killer cell activity from being expressed, allowing the killer cells to destroy cells infected with HIV.
Since this can happen very soon after the initial infection, people carrying those genes may be able to more efficiently destroy infected cells and lower their chances of developing AIDS.
"More research is needed to determine the exact mechanism behind the protection we have observed, but these findings have revealed a promising avenue," said co-author Nicole Bernard of the Research Institute of the McGill University Health Centre in Montreal.
"In the future, our findings could be used to somehow 'boost' the innate immune system and thus fight the virus as soon as it enters the body."
The study was published Wednesday in the journal AIDS.

15 July, 2008

Kidney transplants less successful at night

Study at Bonn University Clinic suggests delaying operations till the next day

Kidney transplants should be carried out during the day if possible. At least this is the conclusion suggested by a survey just published by urologists and internists at the University of Bonn (Transplantation Proceedings, vol. 40, p. 1341 ff.). Hence operations carried out at night require a further operation more than twice as often as other operations. Moreover, the risk of premature failure of the transplant is higher with operations taking place at night. The reason is probably that the surgeon is more alert and focused during the day. Particularly with a complicated procedure such as a transplant, surgical skill is a critical factor for success. Still, currently every third kidney transplant is performed at night, as donor organs should be as fresh as possible.

The medics from Dr. Guido Fechner and Professor Stefan Müller's Bonn team scrutinised a total of 260 kidney transplants. Over 60 per cent had been carried out during the day, the remainder between eight in the evening and eight o'clock in the morning. More than 16 per cent of all the 'night kidneys' had to be operated on a second time in the month following the transplant due to surgical complications. With the 'day kidneys', the complications rate was significantly less, being over six per cent.

On average transplanted kidneys last nine years, but there are also transplants that still work well after more than 20 years. The time when the operation took place here too seems to be a critical factor. 'For "day kidneys" there is a higher than 90 per cent chance that they will function flawlessly even five years after the transplant,' Dr. Guido Fechner explains. 'With "night kidneys" the figure is only 80 per cent.'

The reason presumed for this is that kidney transplants are comparatively complicated procedures. Accordingly, they require a brain that is alert. However, the donated organs are often transplanted during the night shift. 'It was long believed that kidneys had to be as fresh as possible, at all cost, for the transplant to be successful,' Guido Fechner says. It is currently perceived as ideal if the organ is reinserted 18 hours after its removal at the latest. 'Rescheduling a kidney transplant within this time frame, say from 5 a.m. to 8 a.m., without the transplant suffering, is definitely feasible,' he emphasises. 'Instead operations are performed as early as possible, even if that means the urologist has to work at night.'

An alternative is a living kidney donation during which the kidney is taken from a living donor and is immediately inserted into the recipicent. This always happens during the day

06 July, 2008

Families with children without a genetic or gestational link to their parents are functioning well

The emotional well-being of families where children lack a genetic or gestational link to one or both of their parents � where the children have been conceived through surrogacy, egg donation or donor insemination � has long been a subject of debate. Now, in the first worldwide study of this issue, British scientists have shown that relationships within such families appear to be functioning well, and that there are few differences between them and families in whom children were conceived naturally.

Miss Polly Casey, from the Centre for Family Research, Cambridge University, UK, will tell the 24th annual conference of the European Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology this week that the study found that the egg donation, surrogacy, and donor insemination families showed more similarities than differences in the psychological well-being of the parents, the quality of parent-child relationships, and the psychological adjustment of the child. The potential negative consequences for such children have long been the subject of debate, with concern that parents may behave less positively towards them, and that the child may not feel fully accepted as part of the family.

The researchers have been following up 39 surrogacy families, 43 donor insemination families, 46 egg donation families, and 70 families where children had been conceived naturally. So far the data have been collected up to the time that the children are seven years old, but the researchers hope to continue following up these families for as long as possible. The findings to be presented are from approximately half of the families where the child has reached seven years old.

"We asked questions in a number of different areas to both parents and children," said Miss Casey. "We looked at such things as parental psychological wellbeing and parent-child relationships, and also questioned the mothers on any emotional and behavioural problems they felt that the child might have." In addition, researchers used the standardised Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire, which produces an overall score of the child's adjustment along with individual scores for such things as conduct problems and emotional difficulties. Teachers completed the same questionnaire providing an independent assessment of children's adjustment.

The children's perception of the emotional closeness to their parents was also assessed. "We gave them a blank 'map' with concentric circles and told them that they were at the centre," said Miss Casey. "We then asked them to complete the map by placing family members and friends in the circle that represented the emotional closeness of each relationship."

A pictorial scale of perceived competence and social acceptance was also administered to the children. Pictures of children in different situations were presented by the researcher, against which the children were asked to evaluate themselves. This provided a measure of their cognitive competence, physical competence, maternal acceptance, and acceptance by their peers, all of which have been shown to be associated with the development of self-esteem in later childhood.

"We found that the family types did not differ in the overall quality of the relationship between mothers and their children and fathers and their children," said Miss Casey. "But the analysis did show some differences in the mother-child relationship between family types. For example, we found a minor trend towards greater sensitivity to their child's anxieties and worries among the egg donation and surrogacy mothers compared with the donor insemination mothers, and there was a minor trend towards greater emotional over-involvement with their children, and towards greater disciplinary indulgence, by assisted reproduction mothers as opposed to natural conception mothers."

The children in the different family types did not differ with respect to the Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire as completed by their mothers. However, when the teachers completed the same exercise, a significant difference emerged. "The teachers reported a higher level of emotional difficulties among the assisted reproduction as opposed to the naturally conceived children, although these were not abnormally high," said Miss Casey.

The children's own assessments showed no significant difference between family types for self-esteem. In assessments of family relationships, there was no significant difference between the assisted reproduction children and the naturally conceived children in the location of their mother or father in the family maps, with 85% of assisted reproduction children and 88% of those naturally conceived placing their mother in the closest circle, and 73% of assisted reproduction and 76% of naturally conceived children placing their father in the closest circle.

"However," said Miss Casey "at the time of the child's seventh birthday, only 39% of egg donation parents, 29% of donor insemination parents, and 89% of surrogacy parents had told their children about the nature of their conception. This is markedly less than the proportion of parents who, when their child was one year old, reported that they planned to disclose this information � 56%, 46% and 100% of egg donation, donor insemination and surrogacy parents respectively," she said.

There are numerous and complex reasons for parents deciding not to inform children, the researchers say, including a desire to protect the father, since the mother may not want others to know about his infertility, and the fear that a child may feel less love for the non-genetic parent. "Previous studies have shown that parents want to protect their child, fearing that disclosure may upset them and have an adverse effect on parent-child relationships," said Miss Casey.

Analysis of the differences in the quality of parent-child relationships and the psychological adjustment of the child found significant disparities between those families who had disclosed information regarding conception, and those who had not. "Those mothers who had told their children about their conception showed higher levels of sensitivity to the child and, although there was no statistical difference, we also found that fathers in disclosing families tended to show greater warmth towards their children," said Miss Casey.

Mothers who had been open with children also reported greater marital satisfaction. The researchers also reported a non-significant trend towards lower levels of emotional difficulties among the children who had been told, as assessed by teachers.

"This study shows that families with children without a genetic or gestational link between the parents continue to function well as the child reaches early school years," said Miss Casey. "Where differences in mother-child relationship were found between the different family types, these were reflected in more involved parenting by the assisted reproduction mothers. Those who lacked a genetic or gestational relationship with their child � the egg donation and surrogacy mothers � tended towards greater involvement, as opposed to the donor insemination mothers. These findings are not surprising given the difficulties that the women underwent in achieving motherhood.

"The children themselves showed positive psychological adjustment and did not differ as to family type. We were particularly interested to find that, according to teachers, those children who had been told of their origins tended to do slightly better emotionally than those who had not, though of course this may simply be due to better communication within the family generally. We believe that our findings will benefit clinicians who counsel prospective parents about the implications of disclosing the means of conception to their child, as well as to parents, and, indeed, children, who will be able to learn from the experience of others in similar situations. It is essential that all developments in assisted reproduction are accompanied by studies of the wellbeing of the parents and children involved," said Miss Casey.

01 July, 2008

Mechanism for Hypertension, Insulin Resistance, and Immune Suppression in Rats Revealed

Researchers have discovered a molecular mechanism in a strain of rats that explains why metabolic disorders like hypertension and diabetes often arise together in mammals. The University of California, San Diego’s Jacobs School of Engineering also showed that a common antibiotic reversed the animals’ symptoms of high blood pressure, insulin resistance, and immune suppression.

These studies indicate that hypertension and cell dysfunctions associated with metabolic syndrome may be part of an enzymatic auto-digestion process in which proteases in our body become uncontrolled and break down proteins, reports Geert Schmid-Schnbein, a professor of bioengineering.

Spontaneously hypertensive rats (SHR), a strain predisposed to develop high blood pressure, were used in the study. These rodents, like many people, develop other metabolic complications when high blood pressure arises.

The investigators found significant levels of proteases in the animals’ circulation. Natural enzyme inhibitors found in normal healthy rats did not lower the level of protease activity in the SHR strain to normal levels.

In these hypertensive rat, enzymes cleaved extracellular portions of several protein receptors such as the insulin receptor. Insulin could thus no longer bind and facilitate normal metabolism of glucose, the scientists report. The CD18 receptor, a binding receptor on the surface of infection-fighting leukocytes, was also cleaved. With the loss of CD18 receptors, leukocytes of the SHR animals were unable to bind to the wall of blood vessels, resulting in a compromised immune system, according to the researchers.

The team went on to test whether a protease-blocking drug doxycycline could reverse the multiple metabolic complications. They found that the compound halted the activity of certain proteases in the SHR rat strain.

The scientists had observed that protein receptors on the surface of SHR cells become clipped off as the animals develop hypertension. They found that after several weeks of ingesting doxycycline, however, the SHR rats developed cells that had normal CD18 and insulin receptors. The animals’ metabolic conditions simultaneously improved, blood pressure normalized, and symptoms of immune suppression disappeared, they report.

The study is published on June 30 in the online version of Hypertension.

30 June, 2008

More severe bone infections, health complications in children linked to MRSA, researchers find

DALLAS – June 30, 2008 – The emergence of methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) as a major pathogen has led to more complications and longer hospital stays for children with acute bone infections, UT Southwestern Medical Center researchers report.

Acute osteomyelitis, a bone infection that predominantly occurs in children, is usually caused by the staph bacteria. Treatment has traditionally been straightforward because most S. aureus bacteria can be killed with existing antibiotics.

Recently, however, more children with osteomyelitis have been developing the more severe, antibiotic-resistant, community-associated MRSA, resulting in more complications and prolonged antibiotic therapy and hospital stays.

"This study shows the transition from the normal S. aureus to the methicillin-resistant one that everybody calls the superbug," said Dr. Octavio Ramilo, professor of pediatrics at UT Southwestern and senior author of a study available online and in the July/August issue of the Journal of Pediatric Orthopaedics. "What's important about this is not only that MRSA infections are harder to treat because they are more resistant to the traditional antibiotics, but they are also more aggressive and cause more severe disease manifestations. This is reflected very clearly in this study."

Dr. Asunción Mejías, assistant professor of pediatrics and co-lead author, said MRSA isn't a new problem among children.

"But the MRSA that we used to see was acquired in the hospital," she said. "This is a different strain that patients acquire in the community. Now, we see kids with osteomyelitis who have bone abscesses in the legs and who get blood clots that lead to pulmonary embolisms.

"We don't want to alarm parents, but kids who limp or have backaches and fever after an otherwise minor trauma need to be evaluated by a physician," Dr. Mejías said.

Dr. Ramilo said osteomyelitis might be more common in children because kids tend to be more accident-prone. Most commonly, the bones get infected when bacteria reach the bone through the blood supply. It is thought that minor trauma to the bone facilitates the start of the infection.

For the study, researchers culled the medical records of 290 children admitted to Children's Medical Center Dallas between January 1999 and December 2003 with acute osteomyelitis. The median age of those surveyed was 6 years and most children were white or Hispanic. Sixty percent were male. Symptoms such as localized pain, fever, tenderness, swelling and limping were observed in more than half the patients.

The researchers divided the patient population into two groups (January 1999 to June 2001 and July 2001 to December 2003) to verify whether MRSA infections were becoming more common and more severe.

They then compared patients with MRSA osteomyelitis to children with non-MRSA osteomyelitis, which included those with methicillin-sensitive S. aureus (MSSA) infections. They also reviewed outcomes, including duration of fever, the type and length of antibiotic therapy, and the frequency of complications, such as muscle inflammation, bone abscesses, disseminated disease and the need to drain the bone surgically.

Though the clinical characteristics of the participants didn't change significantly between the first and second study periods, children who were treated in the latter period for osteomyelitis fared far worse, possibly because MRSA infections were more common, Dr. Ramilo said.

For example, in the second study period, bone abscesses were observed in 69 percent of the patients with MRSA osteomyelitis versus 26 percent among those with MSSA infections. Children admitted with MRSA osteomyelitis during the second study period also spent an average of 42 days on antibiotics, almost two weeks longer than those diagnosed with MSSA.

Dr. Ramilo said the number of children who needed surgery was also striking. Seventy-eight percent of the patients with MRSA required surgery, compared with 49 percent of those with MSSA.

He said the findings underscore the need for multicenter studies to identify the best antibiotic regimens as well as the best surgical approaches for complications.

"For now, the key is to treat the infection as early as possible with appropriate antibiotics and if needed, surgical drainage of the bone," Dr. Ramilo said.

27 June, 2008

Higher temperatures helped new strain of West Nile virus spread

Findings help explain spread of virus strain responsible for largest US epidemics

SANTA CRUZ, CA--Higher temperatures helped a new strain of West Nile virus invade and spread across North America, according to a study published in the June 27 issue of the journal PLoS Pathogens.

"The study shows that the warmer the temperature, the greater the advantage of the new strain. It also indicates that increases in temperatures due to global climate change would have major effects on transmission of the virus," said A. Marm Kilpatrick, first author of the paper and a senior research scientist for the Consortium for Conservation Medicine.

Kilpatrick, now an assistant professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of California, Santa Cruz, joined with Laura Kramer and others at the New York State Department of Health's Wadsworth Center to conduct the study, which examined the effects of different temperatures on the transmission of two strains of West Nile virus.

The first occurrence of West Nile virus in North America was in New York City in 1999, when it caused a die-off of crows and other birds and 62 reported cases of human infections, including 7 deaths. In the two years after the introduction of the virus, the rate of transmission was relatively low. As it spread along the Atlantic seaboard, there were only 21 reported human cases in 2000 and 66 in 2001.

In 2002, however, a new strain of the virus emerged and rapidly spread throughout North America, completely displacing the old strain by 2005. Coincident with the spread of this new strain were two of the largest epidemics of West Nile virus recorded to date in North America, with 4,582 cases reported in 2002, 11,356 cases in 2003, and more than 270 deaths in both years. Since then, the number of reported cases per year has ranged from 2,500 to nearly 6,000, with more than 100 deaths each year.

Kilpatrick and Kramer set out to determine how the new strain of West Nile virus had displaced the first strain, and what effect temperature had on transmission by mosquitoes. They used laboratory tests to determine how soon mosquitoes are capable of transmitting the virus after feeding on infected blood. The results showed that the new strain is more efficiently transmitted than the older strain, and the advantage of the new strain increases with higher temperatures.

For both strains, increases in temperature greatly accelerated transmission by increasing the efficiency of viral replication in the mosquitoes. As a result, temperature increases of just a few degrees due to global warming could sharply accelerate transmission of the virus and possibly lead to more severe epidemics of West Nile virus in some cooler regions, Kilpatrick said. The researchers used the results to develop a model to predict the impact of increasing temperatures on West Nile virus transmission by mosquitoes.

"A previous study in our lab demonstrated that the new strain of the virus was more efficient at replicating in mosquitoes, which may have increased the intensity of epidemics in the field," Kramer said. "We wanted to examine whether temperature might have played a role in the invasion of the new strain, and whether its success may have been related to increasing temperatures."

Kramer's lab performed a series of studies that involved infecting one group of mosquitoes with the introduced 1999 strain of West Nile virus and siblings with the recently evolved strain. After holding the mosquitoes at different temperatures and for different lengths of time, researchers determined what fraction could transmit the virus. They found that the new strain was more efficient than the introduced strain at nearly all temperatures and time points after infection.

Kilpatrick, who analyzed the data and developed models to predict the impact of temperature on transmission, said the results provide a striking example of how climate and evolution can interact to increase the transmission of this virus. "These results also suggest that relatively small increases in temperature can have large impacts, due to the nonlinear acceleration of transmission with temperature," he said.

"This study shows how direct the impacts of climate change could be for us all," said Peter Daszak, executive director of the Consortium for Conservation Medicine, based at Wildlife Trust in New York. "It isn't just about a rise in sea level or the melting of a glacier in Alaska--it's about our health and our welfare."

24 June, 2008

BIO 2008: Comparing stem cells Joint NSW/Victorian project to compare three types of stem cells

Scientists from Sydney IVF and the Australian Stem Cell Centre (ASCC) in Melbourne have launched a project to characterise and compare induced pluripotent stem cells, human embryonic stem cells and stem cells derived from somatic cell nuclear transfer.

The aim of the project is to develop a routine, repeatable way of making patient-specific stem cells within current legislative guidelines.

The NSW Minister for Science and Medical Research, Verity Firth, and the Victorian Minister for Innovation, Gavin Jennings, made the announcement today at the BIO 2008 convention in San Diego.

Each government has pledged $550,000 to the project. NSW will fund Sydney IVF to undertake the SCNT work, while Victoria has funded the ASCC to perform the characterisation and comparison of the stem cells.

The ASCC recently announced it was the first international group to import iPS cells, licensing them from Professor James Thomson at the University of Wisconsin. Thomson described the development of iPS cells in one of two ground-breaking papers in November last year.

"The combination of the international quality talent and significant resources of these two collaborative partners gives this project the potential to provide world-first advancements in these new biological frontiers," Firth said.

Firth, on her first trip to BIO since becoming a minister 18 months ago, said the project was a collaboration not only between scientists but between governments.

"We have real excellence in stem cell research both in NSW and Victoria," she said. "One thing you learn at BIO is that we are Australia here - it's a bit silly for the states to compete."

22 June, 2008

DNA study unlocks mystery to diverse traits in dogs

ROCKVILLE, MD, June 22, 2008 � What makes a pointer point, a sheep dog herd, and a retriever retrieve? Why do Yorkshire terriers live longer than Great Danes? And how can a tiny Chihuahua possibly be related to a Great Dane?

Dogs vary in size, shape, color, coat length and behavior more than any other animal and until now, this variance has largely been unexplained. Now, scientists have developed a method to identify the genetic basis for this diversity that may have far-reaching benefits for dogs and their owners.

In the cover story of tomorrow's edition of the science journal Genetics, research reveals locations in a dog's DNA that contain genes that scientists believe contribute to differences in body and skull shape, weight, fur color and length � and possibly even behavior, trainability and longevity.

"This exciting breakthrough, made possible by working with leaders in canine genetics, is helping us piece together the canine genome puzzle which will ultimately translate into potential benefit for dogs and their owners," said study co-author Paul G. Jones, PhD, a Mars Veterinary� genetics researcher at the Waltham� Centre for Pet Nutrition � part of Mars� Incorporated, a world leader in pet care that has been studying canine genetic science for the past eight years. "By applying this research approach, we may be able to decipher how genes contribute to physical or behavioral traits that affect many breeds."

Dogs originally derived from the wolf more than 15,000 years ago � a blink of the eye in evolutionary terms. Selective breeding produced dogs with physical and behavioral traits that were well suited to the needs or desires of their human owners, such as herding or hunting ability, coat color and body and skull shape and size. This resulted in the massive variance seen among the more than 350 distinct breeds that make up today's dog population. Until now, the genetic drivers of this diversity have intrigued scientists who have been trying to explain how and why the difference in physical and behavioral traits in dogs changed so rapidly from its wolf origins.

An international team of researchers, which included scientists at the National Human Genome Research Institute, the University of Utah, Sundowners Kennels in Gilroy, California and Mars' Waltham Center for Pet Nutrition in the United Kingdom, studied simple genetic markers known as Single Nucleotide Polymorphisms, or SNPs, to find places in the dog genome that correlate with breed traits. Because many traits are "stereotyped" � or fixed within breeds � researchers can zero in on these "hot spots" to see what specific genes are in the area that might contribute to differences in traits.

The research used 13,000 dog DNA samples provided by Mars Veterinary, which holds one of the most comprehensive canine DNA banks in the world. This collection has been built up with the help of pet owners who have consented to their pets providing cheek swabs and blood samples for the database. Mars' DNA bank allowed the study to cover most of the American Kennel Club recognized breeds that span a wide variety of physical and behavioral traits and differences in longevity.

"With further refinement and additional data, this method could be used to tailor products that may benefit the health of pets," Jones said. "Pet owners and veterinarians may be able to develop better care regimes based on this knowledge. In addition, genetic information about behavioral traits, such as trainability and temperament, could also help veterinarians identify the most lifestyle-appropriate pet for an owner."

This research may also have implications for human health, as dogs suffer from many of the same diseases that we do.

20 June, 2008

Self-assembled Viruses Efficiently Carry Genes And Drug Molecules Into Tumor Cells

ScienceDaily (June 20, 2008) — Viruses are true experts at importing genetic material into the cells of an infected organism. This trait is now being exploited for gene therapy, in which genes are brought into the cells of a patient to treat genetic diseases or genetic defects. Korean researchers have now made an artificial virus. As described in the journal Angewandte Chemie, they have been able to use it to transport both genes and drugs into the interior of cancer cells.

Natural viruses are extremely effective at transporting genes into cells for gene therapy; their disadvantage is that they can initiate an immune response or cause cancer. Artificial viruses do not have these side effects, but are not especially effective because their size and shape are very difficult to control—but crucial to their effectiveness. A research team headed by Myongsoo Lee has now developed a new strategy that allows the artificial viruses to maintain a defined form and size.

The researchers started with a ribbonlike protein structure (β-sheet) as their template. The protein ribbons organized themselves into a defined threadlike double layer that sets the shape and size. Coupled to the outside are “protein arms” that bind short RNA helices and embed them. If this RNA is made complementary to a specific gene sequence, it can very specifically block the reading of this gene. Known as small interfering RNAs (siRNA), these sequences represent a promising approach to gene therapy.

Glucose building blocks on the surfaes of the artificial viruses should improve binding of the artificial virus to the glucose transporters on the surfaces of the target cells. These transporters are present in nearly all mammalian cells. Tumor cells have an especially large number of these transporters.

Trials with a line of human cancer cells demonstrated that the artificial viruses very effectively transport an siRNA and block the target gene.

In addition, the researchers were able to attach hydrophobic (water repellant) molecules—for demonstration purposes a dye—to the artificial viruses. The dye was transported into the nuclei of tumor cells. This result is particularly interesting because the nucleus is the target for many important antitumor agents.

Zebra's Stripes, Butterfly's Wings: How Do Biological Patterns Emerge?

ScienceDaily (June 20, 2008) — A zebra’s stripes, a seashell’s spirals, a butterfly’s wings: these are all examples of patterns in nature. The formation of patterns is a puzzle for mathematicians and biologists alike. How does the delicate design of a butterfly’s wings come from a single fertilized egg? How does pattern emerge out of no pattern?

Using computer models and live cells, researchers at Johns Hopkins have discovered a specific pattern that can direct cell movement and may help us understand how metastatic cancer cells move.

“Pattern formation is a classic problem in embryology,” says Denise Montell, Ph.D., a professor of biological chemistry at Hopkins. “At some point, cells in an embryo must separate into those that will become heart cells, liver cells, blood cells and so on. Although this has been studied for years, there is still a lot we don’t understand.”

As an example of pattern formation, the researchers studied the process of how about six cells in the fruit fly distinguish themselves from neighboring cells and move from one location in the ovary to another during egg development. “In order for this cell migration to happen, you have to have cells that go and cells that stay,” says Montell. “There must be a clear distinction — a separation between different types of cells, which on the surface look the same.”

Previous work identified a specific signal necessary for getting these fly egg cells to move; the problem is that this signal is “graded.” Like drops of ink spreading out on wet paper, this signal travels in between surrounding cells, gradually fading away as it moves outwards. But clear lines are required for pattern formation — there is no grey area between a zebra’s black and white stripes, between heart and liver cells and, in this case, between migrating cells and those that stay put.

How are graded signals converted to a clear move or stay signal? By examining flies containing mutations in different genes, the researchers discovered that one gene in particular, called apontic, is important for converting a graded signal. “When apontic is mutated, the distinction between migrating and nonmigrating cells is fuzzy,” says Michelle Starz-Gaiano, Ph.D., a postdoctoral fellow in biological chemistry. “In these mutants, we see a lot of cases where migrating cells do not properly detach from their neighbors but instead drag them along as they move away.” This showed that the graded signal alone was not sufficient to kick-start the proper number of cells, but instead needed help from apontic.

Once the team discovered that apontic is important for getting these cells to move, they set out to figure out how apontic works. Collaborating with mathematician Hans Meinhardt, Ph.D., a professor emeritus at the Max Planck Institute in Germany, they designed a computer model that could simulate how graded signals are converted to commands that tell cells to move or to stay.

By making certain assumptions about each gene and assigning functions to each protein, the team built a simple circuit that can predict a cell’s behavior using the graded signal, apontic, and another previously discovered protein called slbo (pronounced “slow-bo”). The computer model shows that in a cell, the graded signal turns on both apontic and slbo. But apontic and slbo work against and battle each other: when one gains a slight advantage, the other weakens, which in turn causes the first to gain an even bigger advantage. This continues until one dominates in each cell. If slbo wins, the cell moves but if apontic wins, the cell stays put; thus a clear separation between move or stay is achieved.

“Not only is this a new solution to the problem of how to create a pattern out of no pattern, but we have also discovered that apontic is a new regulator of cell migration,” says Montell.

Cell migration likely underlies the spreading of cancer cells beyond an original tumor to other areas of the body. Understanding and therefore being able to manipulate the cell migration pathway could potentially prevent the development of these new tumors. At this stage, Montell says, “it’s more about just understanding what the positive and negative regulators of cell migration are.”

The research was funded by the American Cancer Society and the National Institutes of Health.

This study was published in the May 13 issue of Developmental Cell. Authors on the paper are Starz-Gaiano, Mariana Melani, Xiaobo Wang, and Montell, all of Hopkins; and Hans Meinhardt of the Max-Planck-Institut, Tübingen, Germany.

19 June, 2008

Biotech crops seen helping to feed hungry world

SAN DIEGO (Reuters) - Biotechnology in agricultural will be key to feeding a growing world population and overcoming climate challenges like crop-killing droughts, according to a group of leading industry players.

"It is critical we keep moving forward," said Thomas West, a director of biotechnology affairs at DuPont, interviewed on the sidelines of a biotechnology conference in San Diego. "We have to yield and produce our way out of this."

DuPont believes it can increase corn and soybean yields by 40 percent over the next decade. Corn seeds that now average about 150 bushels per acre could be at well over 200 bushels an acre, for example, DuPont officials said.

Crop shortages this year have sparked riots in some countries and steep price hikes in markets around the globe, and questions about how to address those issues were the subject of several meetings at the BIO International Convention being held this week.

Despite persistent reluctance in many nations and from some consumer and environmental groups, genetically modified crops, -- and the fortunes of the companies that make them -- have been on the rise. Growing food and biofuel demands have been helping push growth.

By using conventional and biotech genetic modification, crops can be made to yield more in optimum as well as harsh weather conditions, can be made healthier, and can be developed in ways that create more energy for use in ethanol production, according to the biotech proponents.

"You can bring a number to tools to bear with biotechnology to solve problems," said Syngenta seeds executive industry relations head director Jack Bernens. "As food prices increase ... it certainly brings a more practical perspective to the debate."

Syngenta is focusing on drought-resistant corn that it hopes to bring to market as early as 2014, as well as other traits to increase yields and protect plants from insect damage. Disease-resistant biotech wheat is also being developed.

Syngenta and other industry players are also developing biotech crops that need less fertilizer, and corn that more efficiently can be turned into ethanol.

Bayer CropScience, a unit of Germany's Bayer AG, has ongoing field trials with biotech canola that performs well even in drought conditions, said Bayer crop productivity group leader Michael Metzlaff.

Water scarcity is a problem seen doubling in severity over the next three decades even as the world population explodes, and will only be exacerbated by global warming climate change, he said.

With some 9 billion people expected to populate the planet by 2040 and 85 percent of the population seen in lesser developed countries, decreased land for agriculture and multiple demands on water use will come hand in hand with an expected doubling in food demand, said David Dennis CEO of Kingston, Ontario-based Performance Plants.

Performance Plants is working with the Africa Harvest Biotech Foundation International to develop and field test drought-tolerant white maize.

"The biggest problem we have in crops is environmental stresses and the biggest stress is drought," said Dennis.

Biotech crop opponents rebuke the idea that biotechnology is the answer, and say industry leaders continue to focus much of their efforts on plants that tolerate more chemicals even as they push up seed prices and make more farmers reliant on patented seed products that must be repurchased year after year.

"I know they love to talk about drought tolerance but that is not what they are really focusing on," said Bill Freese, science policy analyst at the Washington-based Center for Food Safety.

Freese said conventional breeding had the ability to address climate change and food needs, but funding cuts to public-sector crop breeders had reduced the ability of non-biotech groups to advance crop improvements.

"The facts on the ground clearly show that biotech companies have developed mainly chemical-dependent GM crops that have increased pesticide use, reduced yields and have nothing to do with feeding the world," Freese said. "The world cannot wait for GM crops when so many existing solutions are being neglected."

18 June, 2008

Infant play drives chimpanzee respiratory disease cycles

The signature boom-bust cycling of childhood respiratory diseases was long attributed to environmental cycling. However, the effect of school holidays on rates of social contact amongst children is increasingly seen as another major driver. New research on chimpanzees suggests that this effect of social connectivity on disease cycling may long predate attendance of children at schools, with chimpanzee infant mortality rates cycling in phase with rates of social play amongst infants.

Published in the journal PLoS ONE, the new study examined more than two decades of infant mortality data from two chimpanzee communities in the Taï National Park, Côte d'Ivoire. Previous work by the authors, from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig Germany, had shown that chimpanzees at the site were killed by respiratory viruses repeatedly introduced from humans. The new study found evidence for mortality cycling at two distinct intervals. On an annual scale, outbreak deaths peaked during the period of high food availability, when chimpanzees are most gregarious. However, infant mortality also cycled on a roughly three year period.

"What is fascinating about this three year cycle is that it appeared to be self-organized," said Hjalmar Kuehl, the lead author on the paper. "That is, the cycles were not forced by some extrinsic environmental cycle but emerged naturally from the demography, developmental ontogeny, and social behavior of chimpanzees." Climate cycles such as those caused by the El Nino Southern Oscillation were not good predictors of infant mortality patterns.

The key to the three year cycle was the ontogeny of playfulness in chimpanzee infants. Chimpanzee newborns are not very social but infants become increasingly playful with age, reaching a peak in social play at about two years old. Thus, each cycle started when an outbreak killed a group of infants, thereby synchronizing the reproductive cycles of their mothers. One year later, a large cohort of infants was born which, another two years further on, matured to peak play age. These highly playful infants produced a social bridge between community members who might otherwise engage in little direct interaction: ideal conditions for community-wide propagation of a new outbreak. The study provides a nice link between population dynamics and the behavioral issues traditionally studied by primatologists", said Yasmin Moebius, who did the analysis of play ontogeny.

It also has important implications for the conservation of chimpanzees, which are classed as Endangered by the World Conservation Union (IUCN), as well as Critically Endangered gorillas. Ape tourism has been heralded as a means of providing monetary value to governments and local communities. However, close approach to habituated gorillas and chimpanzees by tourists poses a serious disease transmission threat. "Our analyses not only tell us that disease transmission from tourists and researchers is a major problem", said Peter Walsh, another coauthor. "They tell us when the risk is greatest and, consequently, when measures such as vaccination would be most effective."

"We need to be more proactive about taking steps to minimize the disease transmission risk posed by both tourism and research," added Christophe Boesch, a coauthor who initiated the Tai Chimpanzee project in 1979. "We also need to expand our vision to include disease management measures such as vaccination as important parts of the ape conservation puzzle."

San Diego Teacher Wins Top Honor for Excellence in Biotechnology Education

San Diego, CA (June 17, 2008) –The Biotechnology Institute announced that Jay Vavra, a teacher at High Tech High in San Diego, CA, as the recipient of the Genzyme-Invitrogen Biotech Educator Award, the nation’s top award for biotechnology education.

Sponsored by Genzyme Corporation and The Invitrogen Foundation, the award was presented June 16 during the Biotechnology Education Banquet at the Biotechnology Institute’s Conference on Biotechnology Education in San Diego, CA.

Established by the Biotechnology Institute, the national biotechnology education organization, the award recognizes premier high school level educators who provide an array of expertise to help improve the teaching and learning of biotechnology in their classrooms.

“These educators are nominated from among more than one thousand outstanding teachers in our National Biotechnology Teacher-Leader Program,” says Paul A. Hanle, president of the Biotechnology Institute. “The nominees are at the forefront of the Institute’s mission to educate teachers and students about the promise and achievements of biotechnology.”

“Teachers provide the spark of learning that ignites the promise of biotechnology for their students,” stated Michael Wyzga, chief financial officer and executive vice president of finance for Genzyme Corporation. “Through this award, Genzyme is pleased to honor these educators for their important role in translating biotechnology into life-long investigative learning.”

“The Invitrogen Foundation was established to do exactly what these educators do each and every day…inspire students to embrace science. It is an honor to continue our support of the Biotechnology Institute’s Biotech Educator Award for the fourth consecutive year,” said Pete Leddy, senior vice president, human resources for Invitrogen and Institute board member. “These educators have a profound impact on the next generation of scientists. We applaud their innovative approach to teaching and passion for making a difference.”

Ten finalists were identified from a nationwide applicant pool from among more than one thousand educators in the Biotechnology Institute’s National Teacher-Leader Program. Vavra, who received an award of $10,000, was chosen by a panel of judges for his proven leadership and excellence as an educator, his commitment to furthering the teaching of biotechnology by outreach to other educators, and the development of innovative ways to teach biotechnology.

Also honored was the second place winner, Michael Dunn of Capuchino High School in San Bruno, CA. who received $5,000. The third-place winner, Simon Holdaway of The Loomis Chaffee School of Windsor, CT, received $2,500.

The other seven finalists, who received a $1,000 product credit from Invitrogen, were:

  • Jennifer Albanese, Salesianum School, Wilmington, DE
  • Myron Blosser, Eastern Mennonite School, Harrisonburg, VA
  • Peggy Deichstetter, St. Edward High School, Elgin, IL
  • Mario Godoy-Gonzalez, Royal High School, Royal City, WA
  • Cheryl Powers, Cate School, Carpinteria, CA
  • Tamica Stubbs, E.E. Waddell High School, Charlotte, NC
  • John Taylor-Lehman, Tri-Valley High School, Dresden, OH

The Biotechnology Institute’s National Biotechnology Teacher–Leader Program is building a network of thousands of teachers committed to teaching biotechnology to students and serving as a resource for other teachers. Through professional development programs and resources, the Teacher-Leader Program provides educators with the skills and strategies to introduce biotechnology to their students and assist their peers to do the same.

14 June, 2008


Arlington, VA (May 12, 2008) – Bayer HealthCare Pharmaceuticals, the San Francisco Bay Area’s second-largest biotechnology employer, and the Biotechnology Institute, the national biotechnology education organization, will launch an intensive program this spring to teach and inspire local young people to consider careers in science and technology. The two-pronged program will focus on students from less advantaged communities. 

“We are taking a two-track approach to addressing critical pressure points, the high school and graduate level, where students must be inspired about science, particularly biotechnology, and its immense potential for solving human health, food and environmental problems,” says Paul A. Hanle, president of the Biotechnology Institute. 

“Bayer shares with the Biotechnology Institute a recognition that the biotechnology industry is a major force for the future—economically, and through improving people’s lives,” noted Joerg Heidrich, Bayer’s senior vice president and global head of biotech product supply. “As an industry leader Bayer is committed to forging new generations of talented, imaginative professionals—and to providing concrete encouragement to all students, especially those traditionally underrepresented in the sciences, to train for jobs in this exciting field.” 

The partnership will establish the “Bayer Minority Fellows Program,” a mentoring program pairing Bayer scientists and executives with ten top-quality graduate students and postdoctoral researchers in life sciences disciplines, particularly those with an interest in research and development and manufacturing. Bayer Minority Fellows will be selected from universities with proximity to Bayer’s West Coast facilities including Washington State, northern California, and San Diego. 

With Bayer experts to guide them, Fellows will explore careers in the biotechnology industry, particularly research and development and biomanufacturing. Fellows will undergo rigorous professional development training in areas such as emerging technologies and industrial entrepreneurship. They will also receive coaching in career-building skills, including interviewing techniques and resume writing. 

The program, modeled after the Institute’s national Minority Fellows Program, will kick off with a two-day training session, to be held May 21-23, 2008, at Bayer’s global biotech headquarters in Berkeley, CA. The initial meeting will be followed with ongoing interactions facilitated over subsequent months in order to strengthen Mentor-Fellow relationships. 

The Bayer/Biotechnology Institute partnership also includes a two-day teacher professional development session on biotechnology for 20 middle and high school teachers from East Bay schools, particularly those in lower-income communities. The session, to be held at Bayer in November, will again tap the expertise of Bayer scientists, who will serve as subject matter experts and mentors. 

The partnership with the Biotechnology Institute is an important addition to Bayer’s portfolio of science education initiatives. On the West Coast Bayer founded the award-winning Biotechnology Partners program in 1992 as a way to train disadvantaged local high school and community college students for careers in the booming industry. Other initiatives include Making Science Make Sense, the company’s national program that brings scientists into public schools for hands-on science training, and programs ranging from elementary school science curriculum development to fellowships for minority graduate and post-doctoral students. 

About the Biotechnology Institute 
The Biotechnology Institute is an independent, national nonprofit organization dedicated to education about the present and future impact of biotechnology. Its mission is to engage, excite and educate the public, particularly students and teachers, about biotechnology and its immense potential for solving human health, food and environmental problems. For more information,

About Bayer HealthCare Pharmaceuticals 
Bayer HealthCare Pharmaceuticals is the U.S.-based pharmaceuticals unit of Bayer HealthCare LLC, a division of Bayer AG. One of the world’s leading, innovative companies in the healthcare and medical products industry, Bayer HealthCare combines the global activities of the Animal Health, Consumer Care, Diabetes Care, and Pharmaceuticals divisions. In the U.S., Bayer HealthCare Pharmaceuticals comprises the following business units: Women’s Healthcare, Diagnostic Imaging, Specialized Therapeutics, Hematology/Cardiology and Oncology. The company’s aim is to discover and manufacture products that will improve human health worldwide by diagnosing, preventing and treating diseases. 



Biotechnology in the United States is a dynaic industry so there are many opportunities for employment. Below are some links to job listings and information about careers in the biotech field.
Adsumo: A Life Sciences Career Website
America's Job Bank
America's Recruiting, Inc. 
American Society of Plant Biologists
American Society for Microbiology
Biocom Workforce

Biotechnology Jobs, Seattle, WA
Eisenhower National Clearinghouse for Mathematics and Science Education
Hire Health
NASA Kids Science News Network
Nature Jobs
NIH Careers
Pharmaopportunities Biotech Jobs
Science Jobs
SciWeb Biotechnology Career Center
Tiny Tech Jobs
Under the Microscope: Biotechnology Jobs in California 
Wet Feet

ASCC scores iPS cellsAustralian scientists to study iPS cells from Thomson lab.

Scientists from the Australian Stem Cell Centre (ASCC) will be the first in Australia to gain access to human induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells from Professor James Thomson of the University of Wisconsin.

The iPS cells have been imported under an agreement with Thomson, who has developed the human iPS cell lines and was, at the same time as Professor Shinya Yamanaka from the University of Kyoto, the first to describe human iPS cells in November 2007.

Thomson was also the first scientist to identify and describe human embryonic stem cells in the scientific press in 1998 and has been a leader in the field of embryonic stem cell research since.

Both scientists use retroviruses to insert genes into human skin cells to reprogram them. Each uses slightly different genes in the procedure.

The human iPS cells arrived at the ASCC's Melbourne laboratories in late May. Drs Andrew Laslett and Naoki Nakayama, both senior scientists in the human embryonic stem cell laboratory, will be the first at the ASCC to work with them.

"We plan to comprehensively compare the iPS cell lines to existing human embryonic stem cell lines using the first class scientific infrastructure and innovative characterisation and differentiation strategies in place at the Australian Stem Cell Centre," Laslett said.

"These experiments will give us a greater understanding of the relative utility, advantages and potential barriers to the clinical use of iPS cells as compared directly to human embryonic stem cells."

02 June, 2008

Skin colour and skin cancer

The team from Iceland's deCODE Genetics that identified sequence variations influencing hair, eye and skin pigmentation have found two more genetic determinants and two variants that confer an increased risk of melanoma.

The studies were published today in Nature Genetics, along with an Australian study identifying a new melanoma risk locus.

In October last year, deCODE reported novel single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) influencing skin, eye and hair colour in Europeans.

They found that a SNP on chromosome 14 in the SLC24A4 gene is associated with an increased likelihood of blond rather than brown hair, and blue rather than green eyes. Blonde hair is also associated with a variant near the KITLG gene on chromosome 12.

A SNP on chromosome 6 is associated with freckles, as is a SNP in the tyrosinase (TYR) gene.

The team also confirmed previous studies associating red hair, freckles and sun sensitivity with the MC1R gene, and other variants near the OCA2 gene with eye and hair colour.

In the new studies, the team found a variant in the ASIP (encoding agouti signalling protein) gene, which has a well-documented role in pigmentation, which was very similar to those observed in MC1R. They also found two coding variants in TPCN2 that are associated with blond versus brown hair.

Importantly for skin cancer research, the team has found a haplotype near ASIP confers a significant risk of cutaneous melanoma, the highly aggressive cancer that causes the majority of deaths, and a risk of basal cell carcinoma, the more common but less deadly cancer.

A variant on TYR also conferred a risk of cutaneous melanoma and basal cell carcinoma.

In an independent study, Stuart McGregor, from the Queensland Institute of Medical Research, and colleagues found two SNPs on chromosome 20 conferred a risk of cutaneous melanoma. The SNPs are located in the region of ASIP but the team believes there are several other candidate loci.

deCODE papers: DOI: 10.1038/ng.160 and DOI: 10.1038/ng.161 MacGregor paper: DOI: 10.1038/ng.163

Prototype vaccine for West Nile virus

Brisbane's Replikun Biotech has signed a licence agreement with UniQuest, the University of Queensland's commercialisation arm, to develop a new vaccine technology for West Nile virus.

The technology is based on research by UQ's Associate Professor Alex Khromykh and Dr Roy Hall and involves a developmental vaccine based on a modified form of the Kunjin virus, a benign flavivirus endemic to northern Australia.

The new technology will complement Replikun's core technology platform, Kunjin replicon gene delivery, the company's COO, Dr Lavinia Proctor said.

This technology provides a novel, persistent gene delivery system, which is anticipated to be suitable for immunotherapy, vaccine development and recombinant protein production, she said.

The Kunjin replicon is a self-replicating piece of RNA derived from the RNA genome of the Kunjin virus. It incorporates a vaccine or immunotherapy gene in place of deleted Kunjin virus structural genes.

The company said the removal of the Kunjin virus structural genes ensures that the Kunjin replicon cannot produce infectious particles. The Kunjin replicon retains the non-structural protein genes and several other elements essential for replicon self-replication.

The Kunjin replicon is well tolerated by cells, allowing vaccines to persist. Persistent vaccine antigen expression from the Kunjin replicon, combined with relatively low attendant inflammation, supports the formation and maintenance of protective immune responses, the company said.

Replikun is also developing a cancer immunotherapy candidate and a therapeutic HIV vaccine, both based on the Kunjin delivery system.

Under the agreement, Replikun will be responsible for all further development and commercialisation of the vaccine technology and will pay royalties to UniQuest on sales of licensed products.

West Nile virus has caused more than 1000 deaths in the US since it emerged in 1999 and is a growing problem in Europe. Khromykh and colleagues are also researching whether this type of vaccine could also be used against other flaviviruses such as dengue, tick-borne encephalitis and Japanese encephalitis viruses.

06 May, 2008

New disaster preparedness strategy announced

New disaster proposal could legally protect physicians
In an unprecedented initiative, US and Canadian experts have developed a comprehensive framework to optimize and manage critical care resources during times of pandemic outbreaks or other mass critical care disasters. The new proposal suggests legally protecting clinicians who follow accepted protocols for the allocation of scarce resources when providing care during mass critical care events. The framework represents a major step forward to uniformly deliver sufficient critical care during catastrophes and maximize the number of victims who have access to potential life-saving interventions.

“Most countries, including the United States, have insufficient critical care resources to provide timely, usual care for a surge of critically ill and injured victims,” said Asha Devereaux, MD, FCCP, Task Force for Mass Critical Care. “If a mass casualty critical care event occurred tomorrow, many people with clinical conditions that are survivable under usual health-care system circumstances may have to forgo life-sustaining interventions due to deficiencies in supply, staffing, or space.” As a result, the Task Force for Mass Critical Care developed an emergency mass critical care (EMCC) framework for hospitals and public health authorities aimed to maximize effective critical care surge capacity.

Published as a supplement to the May issue of CHEST, the peer-reviewed journal of the American College of Chest Physicians (ACCP), Definitive Care for the Critically Ill During a Disaster offers guidance for hospitals, medical professionals, and public health authorities on how to prepare for and provide essential critical care when the need for critical care resources far exceeds availability.

Expanding Critical Care Resources for a Disaster
To prepare for a mass critical care event, the task force proposes that hospitals with ICUs aim to meet several standards, including the ability to provide sufficient critical care for at least triple their usual ICU capacity and sustain this surge for up to 10 days without external assistance. Suggested surge capacity requirements include stockpiling medical equipment, including mechanical ventilators; optimizing medication; designating auxiliary critical care areas; and augmenting critical care staff.

Trigger Event and Process
Prior to the rationing of critical care resources, hospitals and surrounding areas must first experience a “trigger” event that includes a declared state of emergency and lack of critical equipment or infrastructure. The decision to initiate EMCC must occur in conjunction with local and regional Medical Emergency Operations Command authority and not by individual hospitals.
Critical Care Resource Allocation

The task force advises rationing scarce critical care resources only after surge capacity has been exceeded and all attempts to use outside resources have been made. Under these circumstances, the task force proposes a formal EMCC triage and resource allocation protocol. Examples of the protocol include:
The hospital triage officer/team will assess and prioritize all patients for receipt of scarce interventions using objective medical criteria.
Palliative care for all patients will be a priority. However, patients will be ineligible for scarce critical care interventions if they have extreme organ failure and/or severe chronic illness with a short life expectancy.
Critical care resources will not be preferentially distributed to any specific population group.
Decisions regarding resource allocation will be documented, remain transparent, occur uniformly across all affected regions, and subject to rigorous quality assurance.
“Ideally, having an emergency mass critical care plan in place would prevent hospitals from needing to ration critical care resources,” said Lewis Rubinson, MD, PhD, Task Force for Mass Critical Care. “However, if the surge capacity is exceeded, the use of emergency mass critical care triage and rationing will help local health-care facilities minimize mortality and optimize survival.”
Physician Liability
EMCC protocol allows the triage officer and supporting triage team to make decisions that benefit the greatest number of patients with potentially limited resources. Consequently, lifesaving care may be withheld from one patient and given to another, prompting ethical and legal implications. To reassure critical care providers and ensure consistent allocation of critical care resources, the task force advocates for legal protection of health-care professionals and institutions that follow accepted EMCC protocols while providing care during times that require critical care resource rationing. Government endorsement of a protocol for EMCC triage and resource allocation ideally would shield practitioners and institutions acting in good faith from liability.

“The new EMCC framework provides a much needed foundation for disaster preparedness in the critical care setting. Suggestions proposed by the task force will facilitate ongoing discussions and allow for further input from the disaster planning community,” said Alvin V. Thomas, Jr., MD, FCCP, President of the ACCP. “Hospitals, communities, and government agencies must take the next steps to modify framework principles and implement them in critical care environments.”

Task Force for Mass Critical Care
Spearheaded by the ACCP, the task force consists of 37 senior-level participants with broad expertise relevant to EMCC, representing military medicine, medical societies and institutions, and government agencies, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the US Department of Health and Human Services. The task force also includes members of the Critical Care Collaborative (CCC), a group of medical professional societies who collectively represent more than 100,000 health-care professionals. Members of the CCC include the ACCP, the American Association of Critical-Care Nurses, Society of Hospital Medicine, and the American Society of Health-System Pharmacists.

29 April, 2008

South Korea reports new case of suspected bird flu

SEOUL, April 29 (Reuters) - South Korea on Tuesday reported a suspected bird flu outbreak at a chicken farm in Ulsan City, which if confirmed would be the first in the southeast, as the country grapples with its worst outbreak of avian influenza।

South Korea previously confirmed 20 cases of the H5N1 strain in poultry in less than one month, despite having killed more than 5 million chickens and ducks, as the virus spreads at its fastest rate since the country reported its first case in 2003।

No human deaths from the disease have been reported in the country।On Tuesday, the Agriculture Ministry said a chicken farm in Ulsan, some 390 km (242 miles) southeast of Seoul, reported deaths of more than 100 chickens in a week and initial tests gave positive readings for the avian virus.

Seoul has stepped up the culling of birds in affected areas and launched an investigation into all of the country's 260 duck farms in a bid to prevent the spread of the virus.South Korea had to kill 5.29 million birds during the first outbreak between late 2003 and early 2004. The second outbreak in 2006-2007 saw about half that number culled.

(Reporting by Miyoung Kim; Editing by Ken Wills and Sanjeev Miglani)

27 April, 2008

Study finds that minimally invasive robotic bypass surgery provides health and economic benefits

Study finds that minimally invasive robotic bypass surgery provides health and economic benefits

Added costs are offset by shorter hospital stay and fewer complications

Minimally invasive heart bypass surgery using a DaVinci robot means a shorter hospital stay and faster recovery for patients, as well as fewer complications and a better chance that the new bypass vessels will stay open. And, according to a University of Maryland study, robotic heart bypass surgery also makes good economic sense for hospitals. The study will be presented at the American Surgical Association on April 26, 2008.

Using a surgical robot increases the cost of each bypass case by about $8,000, according to Robert S. Poston, M.D., a cardiac surgeon formerly at the University of Maryland Medical Center who is the lead author of the study. He says those additional expenses, which are due to equipment and supplies, are offset by a shorter hospital stay, reduced need for transfusions and fewer post-surgical complications that would require a patient to be re-admitted to the hospital. Especially with high risk patients who have lung or kidney disease or other health problems, the researchers found that the minimally invasive, robotic approach saves costs.

“These findings are significant because payers are considering linking reimbursement for coronary artery bypass surgery to patient outcomes,” says Stephen T. Bartlett, M.D., professor and chairman of the Department of Surgery at the University of Maryland School of Medicine and chief of surgery at the University of Maryland Medical Center.

“Our study shows that there are health benefits to patients from the minimally invasive approach, both in terms of a shorter recovery and also looking at the function of the bypass graft months after the surgery,” adds Dr. Bartlett, who is one of the study’s co-authors.

While the DaVinci surgical robot is in widespread use for prostate surgery, the University of Maryland Medical Center is among only a few hospitals nationwide, and was one of the first in the U.S., to use the robot to perform multiple vessel heart bypass surgery.

The researchers studied 100 consecutive patients who had minimally invasive coronary bypass surgery using a robot at the University of Maryland Medical Center. The technique requires no incisions except for a few small holes to insert instruments. These cases were compared to a matched group of 100 patients who had the traditional “open” bypass surgery with a sternotomy, a surgical incision through the sternum.

The average length of the hospital stay for the patients with the minimally invasive surgery was about four days compared to seven days for the traditional bypass operation; however the difference was even greater among patients considered to be at high risk. In that group, the average stay was five days with robotic surgery compared to 12 days with the traditional technique.

The complication rate for those who had the robotic bypass was also much lower, with 88 percent of patients free of complications after having the minimally invasive surgery compared to 66 percent of those with the “open” operation.

The patients in the study were followed up one year after their surgery. Using a CT angiography scan, the researchers found that those who had the robotic bypass were much less likely to have narrowing or clots in the bypass graft than those with the traditional bypass surgery from six months to a year after the operation.

“We saw a long term benefit to patients after their bypass in terms of the patency, or openness, of the bypass graft, according to Bartley Griffith, M.D., head of Cardiac Surgery at the University of Maryland Medical Center and professor of surgery at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. Dr. Griffith, also a co-author of the study, says the grafted vessels of more than 99 percent of the patients who had robotically-assisted bypass surgery were still open and functioning well compared to about 80 percent of those who had the “open” operation.

The reason for the difference is that for patients who need multiple bypasses, surgeons can easily access two internal mammary arteries to use as the new bypass vessels rather than taking a section of vein from another part of the body. In traditional bypass operations, only one internal mammary artery is used while other bypasses are performed using a vein. The long-term success of the bypass, or patency of the target vessel, is superior with an internal mammary artery versus a vein.

Dr. Poston says hospitals have been waiting for data on the costs and benefits of robotic-assisted heart bypass programs before investing in them. “Our conclusion from this study is that robotically-assisted coronary artery revascularization presents quality of life benefits for patients along with financial savings for those hospitals which care for large numbers of high risk patients,” says Dr. Poston, who recently moved from the University of Maryland to be the chief of cardiac surgery at Boston Medical Center.

The study, “Superior Financial and Quality Metrics with Robotically-assisted (DaVinci) Coronary Artery Revascularization,” will be presented at the 128th annual meeting of the American Surgical Association in New York on April 26, 2008.