Cancer Cure?

The deadly ‘mother cells’ that drive the growth of tumors have been pinpointed for the first time – a breakthrough which could help in the development of a ‘real cure’, scientists say.

In three separate studies on different cancers, researchers have shown the growth and life of a tumor to be dependent on one small group of cells.

These cells, known as cancer stem cells, are also thought to fuel the disease’s spread around the body – the most common cause of death in cancer patients.

They are believed to be resistant to radiotherapy and chemotherapy and so to be to blame for cancers coming back after treatment.

But, until now, no one had proved them to exist in tumors.

The breakthrough, reported simultaneously in the prestigious journals Nature and Science, raises the prospect of better treatments for cancer.

Some scientists liken the killing of cancer stem cells to pulling dandelions out by the roots, rather than merely removing their heads.

They say that combining a drug that attacks these cells with current treatments could lead to a cure.

Ben Simons, of Cancer Research UK’s Cambridge Research Institute, said that knowing just which cells to target ‘might be a much better strategy to effect a real cure and prevent relapse’.

Professor Simons’s study tracked the development of skin cancer in mice. By tracking individual cells, it showed a small number of them drive the growth of the tumor.

A second study identified a group of cells that allow the most common type of brain tumor to regrow after chemotherapy.

This recurrence and resistance to treatment is blamed for the poor prognosis of glioblastoma, with patients living an average of just a year after diagnosis.

University of Texas researcher Luis Parada showed that killing the stem cells, with the help of genetic wizardry, stopped the brain tumors from growing any further in mice.

The third study showed the importance of cancer stem cells in early-stage stomach cancer.

The experiments are important because they tracked the progress of individual cells in tumors as they appeared. This makes the results more reliable than those of previous experiments, which have used more artificial scenarios.

In time, the work could lead to new drugs that home in on and destroy the ‘mother cells’. Options could include combining these with standard therapies to mop up cancer cells left behind by traditional treatment.

However, the work is still in the early stages and any patient benefits are likely to be many years away.

Hurdles include finding a drug that kills cancer stem cells without harming essential healthy stem cells.

Dr Michaela Frye, a Cancer Research UK scientist based at the University of Cambridge, said: ‘Their results add even more weight to the theory that cancers are driven by a distinct group of cells called cancer stem cells.’

Attribution: Mail Online

Blind Mice…No More

An injection into the eye could one day restore sight to the blind, scientists say.

The jab has already been found to repair sight in blind mice, leading to hopes for new treatments for human patients.

The molecule is injected into the eyes and acts as a ‘photoswitch’ that turns on light sensitive cells.

It allowed genetically programmed sightless animals to temporarily see. The researchers are now working on a better compound that could eventually cure people with degenerative blindness.

It could help those with the genetic disease retinitis pigmentosa – the most common inherited form of blindness – as well as AMD (age-related macular degeneration).

In both diseases the light sensitive cells in the retina – the rods and cones – die, leaving the eye without functional photoreceptors.

Professor Richard Kramer, of California University in Berkeley, said the chemical called AAQ acts by making the remaining, normally ‘blind’ cells in the retina sensitive to light.

AAQ (acrylamide-azobenzene-quaternary ammonium) is a photoswitch that binds to proteins on the surface of retinal cells. When switched on by light AAQ activates brain cells in much the same way as rods and cones are triggered.

Prof Kramer said: ‘This is similar to the way local anaesthetics work – they embed themselves in ion channels and stick around for a long time so you stay numb for a long time.

‘Our molecule is different in that it’s light sensitive so you can turn it on and off and turn on or off neural activity.’

Because the chemical eventually wears off it may offer a safer alternative to other experimental approaches for restoring sight – such as gene or stem cell therapies – which permanently change the retina. It’s also less invasive than implanting light-sensitive chips in the eye.

Prof Kramer said: ‘The advantage of this approach is it is a simple chemical which means you can change the dosage, you can use it in combination with other therapies or you can discontinue the therapy if you don’t like the results.

‘As improved chemicals become available you could offer them to patients. You can’t do that when you surgically implant a chip or after you genetically modify somebody.’

Co-researcher Dr Russell Van Gelder, an ophthalmologist at Washington University in Seattle, said: ‘This is a major advance in the field of vision restoration.’

The blind mice in the experiment had genetic mutations making their rods and cones die within months of birth and inactivated other photopigments in the eye.

After injecting very small amounts of AAQ into their eyes, light sensitivity was restored because the mice’s pupils contracted in bright light.

The mice showed light avoidance – a typical rodent behavior, impossible without the animals being able to see some light.

Prof Kramer whose study is published in Neuron is hoping to conduct more sophisticated vision tests in rodents injected with the next generation of the compound.

Dr Van Gelder said: ‘The photoswitch approach offers real hope to patients with retinal degeneration.

‘We still need to show these compounds are safe and will work in people the way they work in mice but these results demonstrate this class of compound restores light sensitivity to retinas blind from genetic disease.’

The current technologies being evaluated for restoring sight include injection of stem cells, gene therapy to insert a photoreceptor into blind neurons to make them sensitive to light and installation of electronic prosthetic devices to stimulate blind neurons.

Prof Kramer said several dozen people already have retinal implants and have had rudimentary, low vision restored.

Eight years ago his researchers developed an optogenetic technique to chemically alter potassium ion channels in blind neurons so a photoswitch could latch on.

Potassium channels normally open to turn a cell off but with the attached photoswitch they were opened when hit by ultraviolet light and closed when hit by green light – activating and deactivating the neurons.

Prof Kramer said new versions of AAQ now being tested activate neurons for days rather than hours using blue-green light of moderate intensity.

These photoswitches naturally deactivate in darkness so a second color of light is not needed to switch them off.

He said: ‘This is what we are really excited about.’

‘However, clearly it is still at an early stage and more extensive trials are needed to confirm the safety and effectiveness of this kind of treatment.’

Gestapo Marches into Maine

by: Steve Mistler, Portland Press Herald

Gov. Paul LePage used his weekly radio address to blast President Obama’s health care law and described the Internal Revenue Service as the “new Gestapo.”

The IRS description was a reference to a provision in the Affordable Care Act that requires Americans not insured by their employers or Medicaid to buy health insurance or pay an annual penalty when filing their tax returns.

The provision, known more broadly as the individual mandate, was the subject of a multi-state lawsuit, but was recently upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court. LePage said the court decision has “made America less free.” “We the people have been told there is no choice,” he said. “You must buy health insurance or pay the new Gestapo — the IRS.”

Maine Democratic Party Chairman Ben Grant, responding to LePage’s remarks, said, “We’ve come to expect a bunch of nonsense from Gov. LePage, but this is a step too far. There appears now to be no limit to the extreme language he will use to misinform, degrade and insult people. Somebody needs to explain to him that he’s the governor of a state, and not a talk radio host. I demand a full apology on behalf of all those who suffered at the hands of the real Gestapo.”

“There is nothing that degrades politics more than purported leaders who so cavalierly invoke the worst in human history when they can’t get their way in legitimate, modern policy disagreements,” Grant said. The Gestapo were Nazi Germany’s official secret police under Adolf Hitler, who imprisoned and murdered thousands of people without cause.

The debate over the mandate has become a political flash point since the health law was enacted. Republicans maintain that the requirement is an unfair tax. Democrats say the mandate was originally a Republican idea born from the conservative Heritage Foundation, which introduced the measure in 1989 as a counterpoint to calls for a single-payer health care system.

LePage also addressed another element of the health-care law that was immediately thrust into the public debate: Medicaid expansion. Originally, Obamacare required states to increase eligibility for low-income residents or pay a penalty. The court decision struck down the penalty; however, the federal government is still offering to pay for the expansion. The federal government will fund 100 percent of the expansion from 2014 to 2016, gradually declining to 90 percent after that.

LePage says he needs more answers before making a decision about the Medicaid expansion, which has been assailed by fellow Republican governors. At least 15 have said they’ll forgo the federal funding. LePage said the state doesn’t know how the federal matches will be paid for and how the newly eligible recipients would be defined. “However, Maine is already a welfare expansion state because of the generous benefits offered,” he said, adding that Maine’s welfare costs are among the highest in the nation because the state had expanded Medicaid prior to the Republican electoral sweep of 2010.

The governor also appeared to preempt potential pressure from hospitals to support Medicaid expansion. Hospitals may end up supporting the expansion because increased Medicaid offerings lower uncompensated, or charity, care levels. Uncompensated care is health-care costs that hospitals absorb because people can’t or won’t pay.

A recent report in the Portland Press Herald showed that uncompensated care by Maine hospitals has doubled over the last five years, from $94 million to $194 million. LePage said that increasing Medicaid may make it more difficult to pay hospitals the $500 million the state already owes in reimbursement.

The governor added that Maine will not move forward the ACA’s insurance exchanges — the marketplaces where individuals can shop for health plans from private companies — until the proposed $800 million tab to pay for them passes Congress. “With these looming uncertainties circling around this issue, Maine cannot move forward right now with Obamacare,” LePage said.

The governor finished his radio address by outlining his ideological opposition to the health-care law, which he said “raises taxes, cuts Medicare for the elderly, gets between patients and their doctors, costs trillions of taxpayer dollars, and kills jobs.” “Even more disheartening is that reviving the American dream just became nearly impossible to do,” he said. “We are now a nation which supports dependency rather than independence. Instead of encouraging self-reliance, we are encouraging people to rely on the government.”

Modified Mosquitoes

Huge numbers of genetically modified mosquitoes are to be breed by scientists in Brazil to help stop the spread of dengue fever, an illness that has already struck nearly 500,000 people this year nationwide.

Dengue effects between 50 and 100 million people in the tropics and subtropics each year, causing fever, muscle and joint ache as well as potentially fatal dengue haemorrhagic fever and dengue shock syndrome.

The disease is caused by four strains of virus that are spread by the mosquito Aedes aegypti. There is no vaccine, which is why scientists are focusing so intensely on mosquito control.

The initiative in Brazil will produce large quantities of genetically modified male Aedes aegypti mosquitoes, which will be released into nature to mate with females, the health ministry said.

“Their offspring will not reach adulthood, which should reduce the population,” it said in a statement.

The new mosquitoes will be produced in a factory inaugurated on Saturday in the northeastern Brazilian state of Bahia. Four million insects will be churned out per week.

The experiment has already been attempted in two mosquito-infested towns in Bahia, each with about 3,000 inhabitants.

“Using this technique, we reduced the mosquito population by 90 per cent in six months,” the ministry said.

Attribution: UK Telegraph

What’s a Dentist to Do?

A new chemical could make human teeth ‘cavity proof’ – and do away with the need for visits to the dentists forever.

The molecule has been called ‘Keep 32’ – after the 32 teeth in a human mouth.

The chemical was designed by dentists in Chile, and wipes out all the bacteria that cause cavities in just 60 seconds in tests.

The chemical could be added to any current dental care product, turning toothpaste, mouthwash and chewing gum into ‘super cleansers’ that could get rid of the underlying cause of tooth decay.

The chemical targets ‘streptococcus mutans’, the bacteria that turns the sugar in your mouth into lactic acid which erodes tooth enamel.

By exterminating the bacteria, ‘Keep 32’ prevents the damage to teeth before it happens.

Using a product containing the chemical keeps your teeth ‘cavity proof’ for several hours.

The product has been under test for seven years, and is now going into human trials.

It could be on the market in 14 to 18 months, say researchers José Córdoba from Yale University and Erich Astudillo from the University of Chile.

The chemical could even be added to foods to stop bacteria damaging teeth as you eat.

The researchers hope to licence the patent to chemical giants such as Procter and Gamble.

‘We are currently in talks with five interested in investing in our project or buy our patent,’ say the researchers.

Attribution: Mail Online

Cancer Gets Creamed

WHEN a disease runs skin deep, perhaps all that is needed is moisturizer supercharged with gene-regulation technology.

For skin conditions including melanoma, treatments that are applied directly to the skin are the ideal drug solution: they are easy to use and they affect only the area under which they are applied.

The problem is that our skin is such a successful barrier against toxins that finding substances that penetrate it is a huge challenge, says Amy Paller at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago. So until now, clinics have used lasers or ultrasound to help deliver drugs deep into the skin.

Paller and her colleague Chad Mirkin, also at Northwestern, have found a way through the skin barrier. They coated tiny gold spheres with small interfering RNA (siRNA) – tiny pieces of nucleic acid that appear to penetrate the barrier and enter skin cells through an as-yet unspecified pathway. The siRNA is selected to target one of the genes responsible for making cancer cells grow quickly, called epidermal growth factor receptor.

Paller and Mirkin mixed the drug with store-bought moisturizer and applied it to mouse skin. Not only did the nanoparticles penetrate the skin, but they also targeted the intended gene without causing toxicity or other side effects in the surrounding skin.

Attribution: New Scientist