Magic Bullet ‘DNA Robot’ Programmed To Specifically Attack Cancer Cells

The ‘magic bullet’ has been on the minds of medical researchers for a long time. The only problem is that no such thing exists right now, but medical research has been looking at every possible pathway to get a hint of creating such a thing. Now, a “DNA robot” has been made that specifically targets cancer cells. This has been done using a technique called ‘DNA origami’!

The DNA robot. The wrapping is done with the payload inside. Then it is released when the target appears. Taken from the paper by Shawn et. al. (Courtesy: Science)

A great merger!

It’s a merger between digital logic, nanobots and biological molecular pathways. DNA can be folded into very specific shapes, using a technique called ‘DNA Origami’, the name obviously being inspired by the paper art. Then, specific drugs molecules can be ‘loaded’ onto these DNA robots and sealed with molecules called ‘aptamers’. Aptamers are molecules, made up of a small number of amino acids, which are the building blocks of large protein molecules. These aptamers can recognize the molecular signature of the delivery site and then can unlock the ‘robot’, allowing it to discharge its payload at the site (picture above). This very specific delivery system is the prized mechanism in cancer research at this moment. Generally, cancer drugs (whenever available) do a lot of harm to the healthy cells as well.

The work, led by Shawn Douglas of Wyss Institute, Harvard University, has been published in Science. He goes on to say the following to BBC News:

We’ve been working on figuring out how to build different shapes using DNA over the past several years, and other researchers have used antibodies as therapeutics, in order to manipulate cell signalling, and yet others have demonstrated that aptamers can be used to target cancer cell types. The novel part is really integrating all those different pieces and putting them together in a single device that works.

Why DNA? And what’s next?

But, why DNA for the building block for the robot? Simple. DNA is found in all cells and the body recognizes its own DNA. Thus, making the robots using DNA will eliminate any chances of toxicity or of non-recognition by the healthy cells of the body.

So what’s next? As always in science, and more so in medical science, the next step is optimization! A huge number of tests have to be performed in order to gauge the efficacy of this new technique.

Cancer research is surely at the brink of a big discovery.  There have been frequent knocks on the closed doors, and sometimes, like this present case, a punch through. It’ll be interesting to predict when that door will finally fall!

Breakthrough: Wondrous NASA Biocapsule To Protect Astronauts In Space and Lives on Earth!

The health of men being sent to space has always been a huge concern for space organizations, and NASA has come up with a solution that borders on the edge of being a miracle. NASA has made the NASA Biocapsule – a tangle of carbon nanotubes that will be used to contain particular cells and even medicinal substances inside it. It’s tiny, inserted into the skin, non-reactive, fast-acting and virtually indestructible!

The biocapsule. Courtesy: gizmodo.com

How it works

This is how this contraption works – A small incision is made on the body of the astronaut, barely skin deep. The nanotube, along with whatever package it is wrapped around, is then inserted subcutaneously. The wound is then either stitched up with a couple of stitches and the astronaut is good to go!

The Biocapsule has been made by Space Biosciences Division at NASA Ames, like all other medical technology made exclusively for NASA. Dr. David Loftus has been awarded a patent for leading the group, which came up with this creation.

The Biocapsule might contain cells, which can dispense hormones should the body require it. For example, if one is diabetic, or if one develops such a condition during a long stay in outer space, the capsule might contain pancreatic islet cells (or some cells which behave like these). Should the body need insulin, the cells will detect the low amounts in the blood and automatically start secretion. Dr. Loftus explains:

The capsule would contain pancreatic islet cells (from animals) or would contain engineered cells designed to behave like pancreatic islet cells, with both glucose-sensing and insulin secretion function. Patients with low-insulin requirement might benefit from implantation of a single capsule (containing perhaps a million to 10 million cells); patients with higher insulin requirement might require implantation of more than one capsule.

The Biocapsules can handle diseases as serious as radiation sickness. The Biocapsules can be used to contain cells that release the hormone G-CSF (Granulocyte colony-stimulating factor), which is a standard treatment for cancer patients undergoing radiation therapy so that they don’t develop any side-effects. Cells capable to detecting high exposure can be planted inside these Biocapsules and these will discharge the G-CSF hormone when triggered by the high radiation dose.

The Best Aspect of it all!

Now here is the coolest aspect of this miracle – it can be easily used on Earth! This is a potential explosive keg of medical revolution having the size of a few microns. It can save millions of lives on Earth, were it to go public! This might even be used to administer very local dosages of substances, which might be harmful to other organs, if it spreads.

With the closest doctor being a few thousand kilometers away, the tiny bundle of security might be the life of an astronaut. Literally!

Researchers Create Brain Tissue Using Skin Cells

A medical miracle has been achieved in Edinburgh’s Center for Regenerative Medicine, Scotland, just a few miles from Roslin Institute, where Dolly, the world’s first cloned sheep was created. Scientists have created brain cells from skin cells and this is to study patients suffering from schizophrenia and depression. Since, it is not possible to poke the brain and study the development and degeneration of brain cells in such patients, scientists have hoped for a workaround.

Brain network - an artist's impression

Using the Stem Cell Route

After long frustrating periods fraught with disappointing results, researchers finally made a breakthrough using skin cells to make stem cells, which can then be made into brain tissue. The main reason for this is that tissues degenerate soon after death. Furthermore, they get affected by lack of oxygen during death, medication and, of course, ultimate stages of the disease itself.

Royal Edinburgh Hospital’s Professor Andrew McIntosh, collaborating with the study, says:

That tissue is affected by whatever killed them and by the impact of the medication they had been taking for their condition, possibly for several decades. So having access to living brain cells is a significant development for the development of drugs for these conditions.

Controversy

Stem cells have been held up as a potential cure for many diseases, including cancer. Unfortunately, there has been opposition to the use of stem cells, especially when the stem cells need to be embryonic. Several religious groups have likened this to murder, as they believe that the soul enters the embryo when it is 10 days old and killing this fetus is equivalent to taking a life. Scientists around the world are strongly against this kind of reasoning, hailing stem cell research as the next big thing in medical sciences, a revolution potentially more impactful than even penicillin.

Embryonic Stem Cells (Courtesy: Scientific American)

As this pioneering experiment showed, it might be possible to generate tissues for other organs like lungs and heart. However, that is still some time away, even if funds and academic freedom are granted to scientists.

Tiny Amounts Of Alcohol Double A Worm’s Life Expectancy!

Humans might just envy Caenorhabditis elegans. It has been found that tiny amounts of alcohol nearly double the lifespan of this particular worm. However, even the UCLA chemistry professors who discovered this bizarre phenomenon, are unable to explain why.

The worm! (Photo courtesy: Shilpi Khare, one of the team members)

This study was intended as a model of aging. Tiny amounts of ethanol were given to worms and they found that, instead of dying soon, the worms were  living much longer – sometimes almost twice as longer!

Cholesterol and Ethanol

Steven Clarke, the biochemistry professor at UCLA and lead author of the study, surmised that it’s only the high doses of alcohol which affect an organism adversely. Alcohol in low concentrations might actually be helpful. He says:

We used far lower levels, where it may be beneficial.

The team studied the worms right from their larval stage to adulthood. The worms eat bacteria and live for a mere 15 days. The tiny amount of alcohol was noticed to extend the life of the worms to 20 to 40 days consistently.

The lab tested the effect of cholesterol on these worms. They injected cholesterol, which is quite harmful in humans, since it often tends to clog up vital arteries and veins in humans. What they found was that the ethanol ingested earlier was helpful in dissolving the cholesterol, and indeed cholesterol dissolves in ethanol rather readily. The dilution of the ethanol administered earlier was 1-in-1000.

No one knows why!

Different concentrations yielded similar results. The team tried concentrations of 1-in-20,000, but the results were still positive. The effect was however not found when the concentration was increased to about 1-in-250. The puzzle is still open.

The lab is now trying to isolate the factor, which leads to this strange behavior. They suspect a gene. This immediately opens up the question as to whether this same procedure can be helpful to humans or not. Afterall, we share a large percentage of our genetic baggage with these worms. There is more – the worms ingesting alcohol look healthier than ones which do not. Says Paola Castro, one of the members of the group:

At high magnifications under the microscope, it was amazing to see how the worms given a little ethanol looked significantly more robust than worms not given ethanol.

It is possible that the worms are using the ethanol directly as a source of food.

Before you ask, let us just say that this procedure may not really be applicable to humans. And if you really want to drink, kindly give yourself a better excuse than ‘Even a worm drinks and look where that’s got it’.

Stem-Cell Laden Windpipe Transplanted In A Cancer Patient

The potential of stem-cells was demonstrated again when a man from Baltimore, Christopher Lyles, aged 30, received an artificial wind-pipe made out of stem-cells. He’s just the second person in history to have received this treatment.

The stem-cell laden windpipe. (Courtesy: University College London)

Removal and replacement

Lyles was suffering from tracheal cancer, or cancer of the windpipe. A team of doctors, led by Dr. Paolo Macchiarini, removed his cancerous trachea and replaced it with one made of a polymer, seeded with stem cells. The stem cells were taken from his own bone marrow and should grow to replace the trachea which he once had.

Dr. Macchiarini, a professor of regenerative surgery at Karolinska Institute, Stockholm, was the hero of the occasion, as he was in the only other attempt made before.

The litmus test

A glass mold of the windpipe was made and this was coated with stem cells, taken from the patient’s bone marrow and nose. This was then left in a bioreactor – a device to stimulate cell growth – for two days to grow. The transplant was then ready!

Further growth of cells can happen within the human body – the best bioreactor known. The cancerous trachea was removed and this stem-cell laden trachea was put in.

Stem cell research holds huge potential for medicine. It won’t be any exaggeration to say that stem cell holds the key to medical research and success in the near future.

More info: http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-504763_162-57359679-10391704/cancer-patient-receives-stem-cell-made-windpipe-first-in-u.s/

Pen Removed From Woman’s Stomach After 25 Years Still Works!!

This is a modern, upgraded version of the Jonah myth. A British woman, who had accidentally swallowed a pen 25 years ago, got the foreign object removed today! Miraculously, the felt tip pen, with the bare tip, hadn’t done anything to her stomach lining. Possibly of equal wonder is the fact that the pen still works!

Twenty five years ago, the woman wanted a better look at her tonsils. She used a mirror and a pen, which slipped and went down the esophagus (food canal)! Doctors didn’t believe her when she went to get herself checked. Furthermore, X-rays didn’t show anything.

CT Scan!

Now, a CT scan proves her honesty. The following photo shows the pen clearly!

The CT scan clearly shows the pen inside the stomach. (Courtesy: BMJ Case Reports)

Doctors have requested her to get the object removed, since, even though it hasn’t caused any trouble to the stomach walls, the risk is just as high that it will rupture the stomach walls. The woman is 76 years old now.

After the pen was removed, doctors used it to write Hello’ on a pad of paper. Amazingly, it writes perfectly.

Hello to the world! After 25 years. (Courtesy: BMJ Case Reports)

The case report of this bizarre incident is reported here.

Doctors have looked at this strange case and have made the following observations: Plain abdominal X-Rays may not be very useful in determining the presence of ingested objects’ and that it may be worth believing in a patient’s account, no matter how ludicrous it is’.

I found the whale and Jonah more believable! But then, as Mark Twain had reminded us, truth need not be constrained by the limits of our imagination.

Eureka: World’s First Vaccine and Cure For Cancer Developed by Israeli Medicine Company

The BIG NEWS of a Cancer Curing Drug is coming in from Israel.

An Israeli company has come up with a vaccine against cancer that is both safe in terms of no side-effects and can be administered as a drug. Vaxil BioTherapeutics has developed a vaccine that is now undergoing clinical trials and not yet available in the market. It is being tested at Hadassah University Medical Center in Jerusalem and the trials could take as long as six years to conclude.

For Vaxil’s Homepage:  http://www.vaxilbio.com/

A vaccine that is also a drug

The vaccine also acts like a drug, i.e. it can be administered to a sick person as a cure. The vaccine is being tested against a form of blood cancer called multiple myeloma and it is generating enough success. Vaxil says that it could be used against other types of cancer as well, including the common prostrate and breast cancer. The primary immune technology, called VaxHit, can then be developed for other forms of cancer.

How the drug works

The problem with cancer is that the immune system of the body doesn’t know what exactly it should do. The Vaxil product, called ImMucin, trainsthe immune system to act in a specific way. Cancer cells have a marker called MUC1 that is unique to cancer cells only. ImMucin trains T-cellsof our immune system to attack only those cells that are marked by the MUC1 marker. The success rate of the vaccine has not been revealed, but it is supposedly phenomenal. The diversification of the vaccine stems from the fact that MUC1 marks more than 90% of the different cancer cells. Furthermore, since only those cells marked with MUC1 are targeted, the drug has no side-effects and is completely safe to use.

This may be the ultimate magic bullet that scientists have been working towards for a long time. However, there are still a few clinical tests to go.

Vaxil’s Homepage:  http://www.vaxilbio.com/

World’s First Malaria Vaccine Passes Major Human Trial

This is big big news coming from the medicine research front. For the first time in history, a vaccine has been synthesized that is proven to work successfully against malaria. This is, however, just the first round of trials, but the success rate is extremely exciting. The vaccine, made by the R&D wing of GlaxoSmithKline, has been shown to halve the risk of malaria in African children. We might soon see a commercially available shot that’ll provide immunity to millions against malaria for life.

The Anopheles mosquito

The vaccine, known as RTS-S or Mosquirix, has been clinically tested in five-to-17 month-old babies in Africa. The success rate is around 50% – 47% for severe malaria and 56% for clinical malaria. So, the best we can say at this moment is that the vaccine is not the magic bullet, like the small pox vaccine, which has eradicated the disease. The malaria vaccine is likely to only control the spread of the deadly disease, which is endemic in over 100 countries, many of them being African.

The Support

The research has been financially supported by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The Gates Foundation will also pour in money to get the drug into Africa and then arrange for the proper administration in regions ravaged by malaria. Before that, however, the clinical trials have to confirm the efficacy of the drug. GSK predicts that the drug could hit the market by 2015.

The cost-efficiency of the drug is a huge factor in the success of the anti-malaria campaign. GSK promises to make no money out of this project. It says that it will charge only the manufacturing cost (which will be low, if mass produced), plus 5% on it, which will then be diverted to focus research on tropical diseases. In a way, Africa can partially pay for its own medical research. The Gates Foundation hailed the success as a huge milestone. The plan is to price the vaccine at a nominal $10 for 3 shots, which is the required number of shots.

The Man Behind the Miracle

The success came after 24 long years of painstaking research by GSK research scientist Joe Cohen, who was heading the research. He speaks his heart:

This is a dream of any scientist — to see your life’s work actually translated into a medicine … that can have this great impact on peoples’ lives. How lucky am I?

Dr. Joe Cohen, the mastermind in the war against malaria (Photo Courtesy: Reuters)

But, this is no magic bullet and will not have the same impact the small pox vaccine had on the disease. This is, however, a crucial step. Dr. Cohen is rightly cautious, when he says:

The work is not over, that is for sure

The Plasmodium vivax microgamete. The others are RBC's. Special dye adheres to the microgamete. This will give rise to many P.vivax microbes.

The vaccine stimulates the immune system to attack the microbe as soon as it enters the body from the parasite. This prevents the microbe from reproducing indiscriminately and settling in the liver of the victim.

We might not have won the war against the deadly disease, but it certainly seems that we will soon possess a potent weapon. For Africa, where health and life are luxuries, this vaccine will be more like an elixir.

Of Glow-In-The-Dark Cats And A Cure For AIDS

Whether it be as a pet or a way to test for AIDS resistance, glowing cats are always handy to have around the lab. Fluorescent cats are now being used to study the resistance of the species to the AIDS virus.

The Feline Version of AIDS

Cats, just like humans, are infected by AIDS and have no resistance against the virus. Scientists decided to study the resistance of a few genetically modified cats to the action of the Feline Immuno-deficiency Virus (FIV), the feline equivalent of the Human Immuno-deficiency Virus (HIV). However, the rhesus macaque, a member of the monkey genus, is capable to resisting the AIDS virus. The idea was to inject the restriction factors’ (a set of genes) into the cats and see how the newer generations adapt to this genetic change. In order to track the passage of these antiviral genes throughout the cat’s body, scientists used fluorescent protein extracted from jelly fish. The unimaginatively named Green Fluorescent Protein (GFP) acts as a perfect marker and makes the cat, no prizes for guessing, glow with a green fluorescence.

Bright and green! Not to mention, cute.

Immunity As Bright As A Glowing Cat

While it may seem amusing to some, and even macabre to others, GFP is a common way of chromatically tagging cells or tissues in the biotech lab. It is easily available and  gives intense colours around 395 nm (green) wavelength. It is used as a biosensor’, to test whether some inserted genes can be expressed in a particular cell or not.

The antiviral gene and the GFP were both injected into the egg of a female cat. The next generation of cats developed the characteristic glow. Cells taken from these cats were then tested for resistance against FIV and, lo behold, they were indeed found to be resistant.

This is a vital step and might hold the key to finding a cure for the AIDS virus for humans too. The next step in research would be to introduce full-grown injected cats to the AIDS virus and see whether the immunity is multi-cellular or not.

Cats are promising to shed new light on an old menace, in more ways than one.

Innocuous Prehistoric Soil Bacteria Can Destroy Cancer Cells

This is the microbial version of the Good Samaritan story with far greater consequences. A very common soil bacterium Clostridium sporongenes can kill off cancerous cells and can be easily harnessed into a cancer drug. Furthermore, the bacterium does no damage to the cancer patient.

Clostridium sporogenes: Final Answer?

Common Wonder

The bacterium grows only in those places where oxygen is absent, like deep inside the soil or within tumors in the body. It is extremely specific in this aspect and does not grow in places where oxygen concentration exceeds a certain threshold level.

Scientists from Dutch and UK stimulated the production of an enzyme by the bacterium that can serve as a cancer drug. The studies were presented to the Society of Microbiology.

The Procedure

Spores of the bacterium are injected into the patients’ body. Since the microbe grows only in oxygen-depleted regions, it doesn’t grow indiscriminately and latches onto solid tumours. In this anaerobic environment, the bacterium produces a specific enzyme. A separate anti-cancer drug is injected into the patient at the same time, but in an inactive form. When this inactive drug meets the bacteria at the tumour site, the secreted enzyme activates the drug. Once activated, it destroys the cells surrounding it i.e. the tumor cells.

The Ultimate Magic Bullet

The bacterium may really be the magic bullet’ scientists have been searching for. Magic Bullet’ refers to the hypothetical medical concept in which a drug will only act on a specific type of cell or enzyme and not disturb any other component of the body. In case of cancer, the drug must target only cancer cells and not harm the healthy living tissues. C.sporogenes fits the bill perfectly. Since it grows only is low-oxygen regions, it will not grow on healthy tissues, as they are richly supplied by oxygen.

Prof. Nigel Minton explains this bizarre characteristic:

Clostridia are an ancient group of bacteria that evolved on the planet before it had an oxygen-rich atmosphere and so they thrive in low oxygen conditions. When Clostridia spores are injected into a cancer patient, they will only grow in oxygen-depleted environments, i.e. the centre of solid tumors. This is a totally natural phenomenon, which requires no fundamental alterations and is exquisitely specific. We can exploit this specificity to kill tumor cells but leave healthy tissue unscathed

Thus, new age cancer treatments may be non-invasive with little or no side-effects and due to a harmless soil microbe.

The Final Answer may have been under our feet all along. Who’d have thought that the dirt that you wash off your shoes might hold the key to a cancer cure?