Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Aging as a Disease

Source: Reuters
5/16/12 - UPDATE -  Researchers at the Spanish National Cancer Research Centre have announced that they have successfully extended the lifespans of mice by as much as 24% through a gene therapy directed at telomerase, the enzyme responsible for repairing the telomeres, also known as the "caps" at the ends of chromosomes. Telomeres shorten over time with each cell division, and studies have linked this phenomenon to various age-related diseases.

Previous entry (2011): There's a reasonably fresh story running around the wires from Aubrey de Grey, a fairly well-known gerontologist, which reminds me of some of the pieces of the Ray Kurzweil keynote I saw at SC a number of years ago. Ray showed one of his many exponential progress curves that indicated human lifespan was getting close to a point were for every year we lived, we would gain more than a year in average lifespan. Aubrey's claim is that "we have a 50/50 chance of bringing aging under what I'd call a decisive level of medical control within the next 25 years or so" and that "the first person who will live to see their 150th birthday has already been born". Perhaps most mind-bending is his claim that within 20 years of the first person to turn 150, someone will be born who will live to 1000.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Probiotic anti-depressants?

Source: Science
In what might be the the quintessential post for a blog titled Mental Burdocks, I wanted to point out a recent microbiome study that suggests there is a potential for gut bacteria to have impacts on the mind and mood. Researchers found that mice fed widely available probiotic Lactobacillus bacteria showed fewer signs of stress and a greater inclination towards exploration.

This would seem to indicate another level of depth to the old adage 'you are what you eat'.

UPDATE 8/31: Another new study looked at the impact of diet on the viral communities in the gut. The study found that while individual communities varied substantially and remained relatively stable over time, the communities of individuals on similar diets showed convergence.

UPDATE 9/1: By pure coincidence, the seminar at work today was "Inside story: the role of gut microbes in nutrition and drug metabolism", by Peter Turnbaugh, PhD. Peter is from the FAS Center for Systems Biology at Harvard, where their research "involves the development and application of computational and experimental methods for the analysis of community structure, gene content, and function of complex microbial communities." His talk generated lots of discussion, and left me wondering whether anyone has looked at the well-studied impact of caloric restriction on longevity from the perspective of the microbiome - Google doesn't turn up much.

UPDATE 9/2: A paper published in Science yesterday surveys the enterotypes in the human gut and finds they are linked to dietary habits (high protein/saturated fat vs high carbs, etc). It also found that while some shift occurs in the span of hours following a diet change, long term dietary changes are required to change an individual's gut enterotype conclusively.

UPDATE 9/15: Peter got back to me on my question, he reports there are a couple of studies that are related to longevity and the microbiome, but nothing looking directly at whether "specific microbial consortia impact longevity." Also, researchers in Europe have opened my.microbes to the public, in case you are looking to participate in a study and are willing to spend ~$2100 to have your gut bacteria sequenced.

Monday, June 27, 2011

HHMI, Max Planck and Wellcome Trust Announce Plans for new Open Access Journal

The top-tier organizations in the biomedical and life sciences have announced plans to launch an open access journal in the summer of 2012. The plans are the result of a 2010 workshop at HHMI's Janelia Farm, where participants concluded there is a new for a new publishing model. There are several key themes for the new effort - more efficient, responsive publication of research, editorial participation by actively practicing scientists, a digital-only presence, and a move away from requests for modifications or follow-on studies that extend the publication process.

There is hope that this kind of approach to sharing of research findings can help speed the pace of discovery.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Next-Gen Sequencing in the Nic of Time

The Milwaukee-Wisconsin Journal Sentinel has an in-depth write-up on Nic Volker, the young boy with a incredible story of disease and recovery based in next-generation sequencing. George Church, pioneering the Harvard/MIT geneticist, briefly cited this [at that time anonymous] case in his evening keynote back at the Harvard BioMed HPC Summit in October 2010.

Even without the cutting edge science that finally identified the mutation that was the basis for Nic's disease, it's an incredible story - the young boy survived just about every horror you can imagine - multiple bouts with sepsis, chemo, hundreds of surgeries, encephalitis.

The feature goes on to provide an update that suggests that Nic's case may be the leading edge of a wave moving across genetic medicine. While sequencing is a long ways from a miracle cure for huge percentages of diseases, the victories, few as they are, are exciting.

UPDATE 6/28/11 - Another similar story just came through of California twins with a rare condition that wasn't responding to treatment until their genomes as well as the genomes of their older brother, parents and grandparents were sequenced. It's an incredible story, and while this kind of approach is currently beyond the reach of many (~$10K per genome), the cost is falling at roughly 5X per year, putting into reach of routine medicine within several years.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

The Original Leatherman?

Slightly off-topic, but I'm a big fan of fixing things, and that often requires a handy tool. I carried a Swiss Army knife for many years, and then Leathermans once they came on the scene. It's remarkable how similar an 1,800 old year Roman tool is to those of today. The other must-have is a small waterproof LED flashlight, but that's a topic for another post.

Monday, October 11, 2010

50 Ideas to Change Science: MPD

Source: MPD
Jackson's own Mouse Phenome Database has made NewScientist's list of 50 Ideas to Change Science. From the article:
"If we want truly to understand the living world, the genome won't do. We need to get to grips with the "phenome": the sum total of all traits, from genes to behaviour, that make up a living thing. [...] That complexity perhaps explains why there is as yet no "human phenome project", though such a thing was first mooted in 2003. But smaller-scale projects such as the Mouse Phenome Database are now springing up. From personalised medicine to our understanding of evolution, science will be the beneficiary."
MPD enables searches based on 2208 physiological and behavioral data, as well as strain, projects, protocols, interventions (ie drugs, chemicals, diets, etc), testing apparatus, and other criteria, and is being utilized by close to 7000 different visitors per month.

Cars That Drive Themselves Pass the 1000 Mile Mark

Source: NY Times
Not a new story per se, but interesting in that Google has been testing autonomous cars in traffic, and they've gone 1000+ miles without human intervention (and 140,000 miles with only occasional intervention). The NY Times story suggests that autonomous vehicles have the potential to transform society as dramatically as the Internet. It would certainly fix the texting while driving issue once and for all. The  programming is sophisticated enough at this point to have styles of driving ranging from cautious to aggressive. It's fascinating that Google is obviously putting non-trivial resources into this research... makes you wonder what else they are working on.

UPDATE: Deepak Singh has an interesting post on this kind of speculative research.