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Insulin-making cells created by Dolly-cloning method

The dream of generating a bank of stem cells to treat injury and illness is a step closer. Embryonic stem cells have been custom-made from adult cells without manipulating the cell’s genes, a process that could trigger cancer.

Stem cells in the making <i>(EPA/Corbis)</i>

Using a similar cloning technique to the one that created Dolly the sheep, two teams have independently shown that it is possible to turn an adult cell into an embryonic stem cell, which can then become any cell in the body.

One team used the technique, called somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT), to transform skin cells from a woman with diabetes into insulin-producing beta cells that could replace those destroyed by the disease. The approach has the potential to replace many other types of tissue including heart cells, neurons and cartilage. This could spur on treatments for Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis and liver disease, and repair damaged bones.

“Cell replacement therapies could dramatically change treatments and even cure debilitating diseases and injuries,” says Susan Solomon, co-founder of the New York Stem Cell Foundation (NYSCF), where one of the studies was carried out.

To achieve the feat, the teams – one led by Young Gie Chung at the CHA University in Seoul, South Korea, and the other by Dieter Egli at the NYSCF – first removed the nucleus of a donated human egg and replaced it with the nucleus from an adult skin cell. Caffeine was added to stop the cell dividing too quickly, buying time for the genes in the egg’s new nucleus to revert to an embryonic state. Electrical pulses and chemicals fooled the cell into thinking it was fertilised, prompting it to divide and multiply.

The result was a bundle of 60 to 200 cells – the first time an adult cell has been used to make a cloned human embryo. In the centre of the bundle wereembryonic stem cells that can differentiate into any cell in the body given the right environment.

No extra genes required

In 2013, a similar procedure was used to convert cells from a fetus and a baby into embryonic stem cells. A fetus’s cells are already essentially embryonic but the baby’s cells needed to be rewound. Since the incidence of stem cell-treatable disease increases with age, researchers needed to figure out how to rewind adult cells, says Robert Lanza at Advanced Cell Technology in Worcester, Massachusetts, co-author of the study led by the South Korean group (Cell Stem Cell, doi.org/sh2). “So we used cells from a middle-aged man and a 75-year-old man.”

The approach offers an alternative to another method used to dial back the clock on adult cells. Induced pluripotent stem (IPS) cells are adult cells that have been coaxed into behaving like embryonic cells by adding four extra genes. There was a lot of excitement when IPS cells were first created in 2006, but since then serious problems have emerged, involving incomplete reprogramming of the cells and the worry that the extra genes might trigger cancer. “We’ve overcome a lot of these problems,” says Lanza, “but SCNT might turn out to be the only way to fully reprogram cells.”

To prove the potential of the technique, Egli’s group went one step further. They took skin cells from a woman with type 1 diabetes and turned them into stem cells. These were then made into beta cells that could theoretically replace those lost to the disease (Nature, doi.org/sjn).

However, this personalised approach is unlikely to be the way forward. If the treatment was tailor-made for each patient, an embryo would have to be discarded every time. As well as the ethical objections this would raise, the procedure would be time-consuming, costly and would be limited by the small number of eggs donated. It’s also unnecessary, says Lanza.

Stem cell bank

Donor cells are sometimes rejected because of our body’s human leukocyte antigen (HLA) system. This produces proteins that are recognised by immune cells. If the proteins aren’t recognised, rejection occurs. Luckily, most people share one of a handful of HLA systems. That means you should only need to create stem cells specific to each HLA system, rather than each individual, says Lanza. Personalised stem cells would only be needed for people with uncommon HLA proteins.

Banks of stem cells could be created from just a handful of eggs. To make the process even more efficient, the embryonic-like stem cells could be transformed into the final product in advance so heart cells or neurons, say, could be picked “off the shelf” as needed, says Lanza.

Ian Wilmut of the University of Edinburgh, UK, who created Dolly the sheep, describes the new work as very encouraging. He says that SCNT stem cells should now be compared with IPS cells to see which is the closest match to true embryonic stem cells created from fertilised embryos. “By contrasting these two approaches we may be able to optimise both procedures and produce the best possible cells for use in research and therapy,” he says.

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A ‘wedding ring’ in space An unusually circular, ring of gas aligns behind a star to create a sparkling image

A new image from the Very Large Telescope in Chile shows what resembles a diamond ring in space.

The ring — which appears blue in the image above — is actually the ghostly outer remnant of a dead star. This field of gas, known as Abell 33, is so big that it would take light three years to pass from one side of it to the other.

A star’s glow comes from the fusion of densely packed atoms. Gravity holds this ball of atoms closely together. At the same time, those fusion reactions try to push the ball apart. The star lives in a sort of balance as long as there is enough fuel to keep gravity from making its ball of atoms collapse in on itself. And for the average sun-size star, those fusion reactions may sustain a star in glowing health for some 10 billion years.

But a star won’t live forever. Once most of its fuel has burned up, gravity will allow the star’s denser core to collapse, creating a far denser mix of its heavier elements. When this happens in small to medium-size stars, like our sun, there will be no explosive supernova fireworks. Instead, the star will lose hold of its outer, lighter constituents. Now freed, these gases can begin to slowly drift away as a gently expanding — and glowing — cloud. Astronomers refer to that cloud as a planetary nebula.

And that’s the blue bubble seen here. This nebula resides about 2,500 light-years away in the Hydra constellation.

The denser core of Abell 33’s former star contracted to create a white dwarf, an intensely hot and dense object. Some of the light glowing from it — invisible to the human eye — exists in the ultraviolet part of the electromagnetic spectrum. When this UV light hits oxygen ions in the surrounding planetary nebula, that halo will glow blue (as seen here).

What about the brilliant star in this “diamond-ring setting?” It appears to be perched on the edge of the nebula. It isn’t. That star is only about one-third as far from Earth as the nebula. Only because of a chance alignment do the two appear linked.

Power Words

atom  The basic unit of a chemical element. Atoms are made up of a dense nucleus that contains positively charged protons and neutrally charged neutrons. The nucleus is orbited by a cloud of negatively charged electrons.

constellation  Patterns formed by prominent stars that lie close to each other in the night sky. Modern astronomers divide the sky into 88 constellations, 12 of which (known as the zodiac) lie along the sun’s path through the sky over the course of a year. Cancri, the original Greek name for the constellation Cancer, is one of those 12 zodiac constellations.

electromagnetic spectrum   The range of radiation that spans from gamma- and X-rays through visible light and on to radio waves. Each type of radiation within the spectrum typically is classified by its wavelength.

fusion  The merging of two things to form a new combined entity. (in physics) The process of forcing together the nuclei of atoms. This nuclear fusion is the phenomenon that powers the sun and other stars, producing heat and forging the creation of new, larger elements.

gravity The attraction between any two objects with mass. The more mass there is, the more gravity.

light-year  The distance light travels in a year, about 9.48 trillion kilometers (almost 6  trillion miles). To get some idea of this length, imagine a rope long enough to wrap around the Earth. It would be a little over 40,000 kilometers (24,900 miles) long. Lay it out straight. Now lay another 236 more that are the same length, end-to-end, right after the first. The total distance they now span would equal one light-year.

ion  An atom or molecule with an electric charge due to the loss or gain of one or more electrons.

planetary nebula  A shell of gas ejected from stars like our sun at the end of their lifetimes. This gas continues to expand away from the remaining star (a white dwarf).

star  Thebasic building block from which galaxies are made. Stars develop when gravity compacts clouds of gas. When they become dense enough to sustain nuclear-fusion reactions, stars will emit light and sometimes other forms of electromagnetic radiation. The sun is our closest star.

sun  The star at the center of Earth’s solar system. It’s an average size star about 26,000 light-years from the center of the Milky Way galaxy.

supernova  (plural: supernovae or supernovas) A massive star that suddenly increases greatly in brightness because of a catastrophic explosion that ejects most of its mass.


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False Signs of Life on Alien Worlds

False alarm. Scientists probably couldn’t tell the difference between the light passing through the atmosphere of a distant exoplanet that hosts life (at left in this artist’s representation) and the combined light filtered through the chemically incompat

False alarm. Scientists probably couldn’t tell the difference between the light passing through the atmosphere of a distant exoplanet that hosts life (at left in this artist’s representation) and the combined light filtered through the chemically incompatible atmospheres of a lifeless exoplanet and its equally lifeless moon (right).

Call it the cosmic version of fool’s gold. What was once considered a sure-fire sign of life on distant planets may not be so sure-fire after all, a new study suggests. Instead, it may simply be the artifact of a lifeless world and its equally lifeless moon.

“I like this paper. It’s a great concept,” says Sara Seager, a planetary scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. “I think the [scientific] community is gradually realizing that it might be impossible to be absolutely certain, based on its atmosphere, that an exoplanet hosts life.”

Life on planets orbiting other stars doesn’t have to literally broadcast its existence: Radio signals are just one way earthbound scientists might detect biological activity elsewhere in the universe, says Hanno Rein, a planetary scientist at the University of Toronto, Scarborough, in Canada. Signs of life are much more likely to be subtle, especially if the organisms are simple. One way to look for such clues is to search for chemical evidence, particularly in light passing through the atmospheres of the planets, Rein says. By comparing the spectrum of light passing through an exoplanet’s atmosphere with that of the unfiltered light emitted by its parent star, astronomers can identify substances present in the exoplanet’s air.

Thus far, Rein notes, scientists haven’t been able to agree upon a single chemical—oxygen, for example—that could be a conclusive sign of extraterrestrial life. But researchers generally agree that certain mixes of two or more chemicals in an exoplanet atmosphere could be a strong sign of life, Rein explains. Here’s the idea: A mixture of gases that would normally react until one is completely gone simply can’t exist over the long term, unless one or both of the gases is being constantly replenished—possibly by the biological activity of life forms. One easy-to-understand example, Rein says, is a mix of methane and oxygen. Left to themselves, those two substances react to form carbon dioxide. And if life on Earth weren’t continuously producing those two gases, chemical reactions between the two would eventually scrub the less prevalent one from the atmosphere, leaving only the other.

Now, Rein and his colleagues propose a scenario that could easily lead researchers looking for extraterrestrial life astray. What if, they say, a distant exoplanet has a moon with an atmosphere of its own? And furthermore, what if that “exomoon’s” atmosphere contains large amounts of a gas that would typically react with one from the exoplanet’s atmosphere if given a chance? Even if neither body hosted life, the combined light from the two objects might easily be mistaken as having passed through a single atmosphere of a body that hosts life, the researchers report online today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

In fact, with current instruments and observing techniques, astronomers might not even recognize that the distant exoplanet has a moon, Rein notes. The two bodies would be so close together that, as seen from Earth, their light would blend into one smudge. Consider, Rein says, the spectrum of light that distant astronomers might see if Earth—whose atmosphere is more than 20% oxygen—had a moon with a methane-rich atmosphere like Saturn’s moon Titan. In that instance, the single smudge of light would contain signs of both reactive gases.

The team’s scenario “is a really very interesting way to get a ‘false positive’ ” for extraterrestrial life, says Wesley Traub, a planetary scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. Scientists could easily be fooled by such a blended spectrum, he notes, and it’s likely that they’d be fooled for quite a while. And if scientists ever did detect such a spectrum, “it’s not clear what the next step would be,” he suggests. Many of the techniques now used to detect exoplanets—such as observations of their gravitational effect on the movements of their parent stars, or mini-eclipses that occur regularly as they pass in front of the stars as seen from Earth—aren’t sensitive enough to detect the presence of an exomoon.


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New ‘Heartland’ disease emerges in U.S. Midwest Carried by the Lone Star tick, it has no treatment or cure

A rare but serious virus infection has emerged in the central United States, a team of doctors has just reported. The virus causes fever, a drop in the blood’s infection-fighting white cells and a reduction in the blood’s clot-making platelets. Called Heartland disease, its name honors the Heartland Regional Medical Center in St. Joseph, Mo. That’s where the first men infected with the virus were treated. To date, there have been eight confirmed cases.

Researchers outline how the mystery disease was discovered in the March 28 Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. They also describe the potential impacts of the virus. Seven men became very sick with the disease but recovered. The eighth man died, the scientists report, although he had also been sick with other conditions.

The disease was first noticed in June 2009. That’s when two Missouri farmers came to the hospital with severe flu-like symptoms. They reported headaches, nausea, high fevers, diarrhea and gut-distress. And they were very, very tired. Blood tests showed the men had low white-blood-cell counts.

Both men reported they had been recently bitten by ticks. The first man said his wife used tweezers to remove a tick from the trunk of his body the day before his fever began. The second farmer had been “ticked” liberally. He told doctors he had averaged 20 tick bites a day for almost two weeks. His last tick bite had been about three days before his fever struck.

Ticks spread many diseases, so the doctors tested for common ones. Their tests didn’t turn up anything. The men were clearly quite sick, though. And they had lots of changes in their blood that indicated their bodies were fighting severe infections. Antibiotics failed to help. But that’s not surprising as it turns out that both men were infected with a virus. Viruses aren’t affected by antibiotics.

Local doctors alerted the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Experts at this CDC found the virus — and confirmed it was a new one. The virus was also an unusual type, a phlebovirus (FLEE bo VI russ). Flies, mosquitoes and ticks tend to spread this kind of germ — but this type of virus had never been seen in the United States. So the Missouri patients had the first American phlebovirus disease. Laura McMullan of the CDC and her colleagues described the unusual germ in the Aug. 30, 2012,New England Journal of Medicine.

Although doctors suspected the virus came from the bite of an infected tick, they couldn’t be sure. So Harry Savage of the CDC in Fort Collins, Colo., and his colleagues stepped in.

They hunted ticks at 12 sites, including the farms belonging to the first two Missouri patients. In all, they collected 56,428 of the tiny animals. There were three different species of ticks in their collection. But only the Lone Star ticks (Amblyomma americanum), named for the bright yellow emblem on their backs, hosted any of the new virus. The Savage team reported its findings last July 22 in the American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene.

As this work was going on, another six cases of Heartland disease were confirmed; five in Missouri and one in Tennessee. All the patients were men aged 50 or older (as the first farmers had been). Five recalled having tick bites in the days right before their symptoms developed. And all worked outdoors or engaged in frequent outdoorsy hobbies, such as gardening, hunting or hiking.

It took time, but seven of the infected men, including the two first diagnosed with the disease, eventually recovered.

“No vaccine or medication is available to prevent or treat Heartland virus disease,” notes Daniel Pastula of the CDC in Fort Collins and his team in their new report. So the only way to be protected from the disease is by preventing exposure to it. The CDC doctors recommend applying insect repellents when going into bushy or wooded grounds. They also suggest wearing long sleeves and pants — and checking for signs of ticks every time you come in from woodsy sites.


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Google Seeks to Integrate Cameras Into Contact Lenses

Google announced in January that it was developing a smart contact lens that could continually monitor blood glucose levels of Type 2 diabetics. It has been announced that Google is also working to create a contact lens with an integrated camera that would help people with visual disabilities. 

The lens is meant to work like this: a small camera will be embedded out of the way of the pupil so it will not obstruct vision. Blinking activates the sensor for the camera. An advantage to using this lens instead of something like Google Glass is that the camera is able to follow the eye’s precise movement. Even the smallest sideways glance will still allow the camera to face the point of interest. The data collected by the camera can be processed to recognize a variety of properties including faces, motion, color, light, and certain objects.

If someone with a visual impairment is wearing the lenses and is, say, about to step off the curb while there is traffic present. The lens, which can be linked to a smartphone, will give an auditory warning for the wearer to stop, and then let the user know when it is safe to cross. The facial recognition could help the wearer identify friends and family by connecting to a database. There is also the potential for law enforcement to use the technology to spot persons of interest or those with outstanding warrants.

Of course, the lens isn’t only for those who need help visually navigating their surroundings. It will also be able to take regular pictures hands free. The developers also hope to be able to zoom the camera in, reducing the need for binoculars. While this does seem pretty handy in some circumstances, it seems fairly creepy for others. Keep your blinds closed, guys.

At this stage, the lens is still theoretical, but a patent application was filed on the design back in 2012. There is no telling when or if this product will be available on the open market.


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Water From Fresh Air

In the Namib desert where rain is rare but fog common, a beetle survives by condensing water on its back until drops roll down into the insect’s mouth. Now this principle has been magnified onto a grand scale, providing a possible solution to the desperate lack of water that plagues the populations of many of the world’s dry regions.
 
There is no lack of solutions being experimented with for water shortages. Wells, recycling techniques and methods for cleaning poisoned water have all attracted considerable efforts, particularly since the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation have made the issue a priority for their considerable resources.
 
However, many of these techniques have floundered; great on the page but unsuited to real world conditions. Those technologies that are cost effective represent only partial solutions, working well where a permanent water supply is available, but unsuited to regions where surface water vanishes in the dry season and groundwater is hard to reach. As deforestation and Global Warming expand the areas where water is scarce or erratic something else is needed.
 
While Warka Water to be treated with caution after so many false dawns, it has the advantage of being designed to match the conditions where most alternatives perform the worst.
 
The towers have a 9m tall bamboo or juncus frame holding up a plastic mesh net. As the temperature falls during the night water condenses onto the net and rolls down to a reservoir at the bottom of the tower. Where the beetle draws just a few life-giving drops from the Namib fog, the much larger surface area of the nets allows a 100l a night to collect under ideal conditions. Mesh is used, rather than a solid surface, so that air can circulate, bringing in ever more water.
 
As the designers Arturo Vittori and Andrea Vogler put it, “The lightweight structure is designed with parametric computing, but can be built with local skills and materials by the village inhabitants.”
 
The beetle has proven an inspiration to many but Warka Water claim their carefully shaped design produces much more water for less cost than previous versions.
 
The Warka Water tower is named after a fig tree native to Ethiopia, and depends for its success on a large temperature difference over a night. Since desert regions are notorious for huge temperature variations, particularly during the dry season, Warka towers should flourish where they are needed most.
 
“It’s not just illnesses that we’re trying to address,” Vittori told the Smithsonian Magazine, although with 1400 children a day dying from waterborne diseases that would be reason enough.  “Many Ethiopian children from rural villages spend several hours every day to fetch water, time they could invest for more productive activities and education,” Vittori says. “If we can give people something that lets them be more independent, they can free themselves from this cycle.”
 
Vittori hopes to install two Warka Towers in Ethiopia next year, and believes that, “Once locals have the necessary know-how, they will be able to teach other villages and communities to build the Warka.” Cost estimates for the remote constructions of systems are notoriously unreliable, but Vittori believes the towers can be built for $500 each, a quarter or systems that purify equivalent amounts of water. They are seeking sponsorship to bring the idea to fruition. While we suggest Warka Beer would be a great fit, anyone wanting to get behind the idea should make contact.

 


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UCSF Joins Research Partnership to Eliminate Malaria in Namibia

University’s Work Already Has Contributed to 98 Percent Drop in Malaria Cases in Namibia

As we mark World Malaria Day this year, UCSF’s Global Health Group is celebrating the success of Namibia, where malaria case have dropped 98 percent over the past decade.

mosquito nets hang over beds in Africa

In 2003, Namibia saw 450,000 cases of malaria; in 2013, that number fell to 2,500. The country is now on track to becoming malaria-free by 2020.

The deadly disease, caused by parasites that are transmitted from person to person by mosquitoes, is now found mostly in the northern regions of Namibia.

The National Vector-borne Disease Control Program (NVDCP) at the Namibia Ministry of Health and Social Services effectively controls the spread of malaria with interventions such as spraying dwellings with insecticides, distributing mosquito nets treated with insecticides, using malaria tests that can give accurate results within 15 minutes, and distributing medicines that kill the parasite.

To further this success, the UCSF Global Health Group’s Malaria Elimination Initiative is teaming up with the Multidisciplinary Research Centre at the University of Namibia, the Novartis Foundation for Sustainable Development, the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, the Clinton Health Access Initiative, and others to research new strategies and interventions that the NVDCP can use to get rid of the remaining pockets of transmission and eliminate malaria by 2020. Members of this research partnership will be working together to strengthen the national malaria surveillance system, learn more about how to eliminate the remaining reservoirs of infection in the Zambezi region, and understand the risk factors that are associated with malaria transmission.

The steering committee of the malaria research partnership meets with the chancellor and vice chancellor of the University of Namibia. Photo courtesy of Novartis Foundation

Worldwide, an estimated 3.3 million lives have been saved since 2000 through stepped up malaria control and elimination efforts, according to the World Health Organization. Mortality rates have been cut almost in half.

UCSF’s Global Health Groupreceived a $15 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in December to help nearly three dozen countries eliminate malaria within their borders.

In 2012, an estimated 207 million people got sick from malaria, and 627,000 of them died, mostly children under five in sub-Saharan Africa. In 2013, 97 countries had on-going malaria transmission.

Applying Research to Malaria Elimination in Namibia

NVDCP, UCSF and their partners have been working in Ohangwena and Omusati regions since 2012 to conduct similar research to understand malaria transmission.

Early results from initial studies show that people who become infected with malaria are more likely to be young males who have traveled recently to areas with more malaria, and those who live with or near people infected with malaria. Often these malaria-infected neighbors and household members do not show signs and symptoms because the number of parasites infecting them is very low. These “asymptomatic” individuals pose a new challenge for the NVDCP in achieving malaria elimination because they’re tough to identify.

To address these challenges, the NVDCP has implemented a new strategy called reactive case detection, which requires health staff to follow up on every case of malaria to determine where the infection came from, and whether it has spread to other people.

Starting in May 2014, the research partners will begin supporting the NVDCP in Zambezi to ensure that every malaria case is reported. Members of the research team will work alongside NVDCP staff to conduct reactive case detection and map each reported case with mobile technologies, to better understand where malaria occurs. This information will be used to help the NVDCP and its research partners to better understand malaria transmission patterns in Zambezi region, and ultimately select the most effective and efficient strategies to eliminate it. 

This groundbreaking research is not only providing answers to vital questions for malaria elimination in Namibia, but is also generating knowledge that will be useful for other countries who seek to eliminate malaria.

The UCSF Global Health Group, part of the UCSF Global Health Sciences, is an “action tank” dedicated to translating new approaches into large-scale action to improve the lives of millions of people. The Group’s Malaria Elimination Initiative provides research and advocacy support to countries moving towards an evidence-based path to malaria elimination.