James Watson against Gene Patents

Gene patents opposed by Watson by Sidra Bashir

James Watson files a brief in the ongoing legal case over Myriad Genetics’ right to hold patents on the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes.

James Watson a renowned co-discoverer of the DNA double helix has stepped in to argue against the patenting of genes. He is arguing on the basis that genes are products of nature. He decided to take action when Myriad Genetics prepared to defend its seven patents on the BRCA genes, which are associated with a higher risk of breast, ovarian, and other cancers.

In addition to understanding the uniqueness of human DNA, I hope that an awareness of the Human Genome Project’s history will guide the Court to the correct decision that human genes, as products of nature, should not be patented,” Watson wrote in an amicus brief filed this week with the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit. “The human genome project was intended to benefit all, not just select companies,” added Watson, who said that he left his post that the National Institutes of Health when the agency began pursuing gene patents.

In July 2011, an appeals court in New York defended Myriad Genetics’ patents, arguing that they were based on isolated and amplified DNA sequences, and thus are not direct products of nature. Last month, however, two patents held by Prometheus Laboratories on two blood tests were ruled against by the Supreme Court. This is when the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the Public Patent Foundation took Myriad back to court.

According to Watson the protection of patent is not a suitable incentive for scientists to encourage the discovery of human genes. It is contrary to what lawyers and judges seem to believe. “A scientist does not—and should not—expect to obtain a legal monopoly controlling the information encoded by human genes,” he wrote. The drawbacks of patenting genes are that they could delay research, particularly the development of diagnostics that use multiple genes to identify a particular disease. If gene patents exist, he added, their holders should be required to license them to anyone who wants to study those genes further.

Others, such as Patent Docs’ Kevin Noonan, on the other hand, argue that gene patents would not stop researchers from using the genetic information. Tomorrow (July 20), the federal appeals court in Washington, DC, will hear arguments on both sides to help make its decision.


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Mole in FDA: Caught and Treated

FDA’s Mole by Maria Atia

Moles are a huge problem whether in homes or in organizations. Even a single mole can lead to the downfall of a large organization if not captured in time. A similar problem was faced by US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) last week. The previous image of FDA as a crystal clear organization was shattered to pieces when five infiltrators were reported to leak out secret information to the media.

FDA ran a computer surveillance operation through which they were able to monitor every command given by the rebels on their computers. They checked every record present on computer, on data travelers, on emails (sent or received), be it on government or home computer. They also checked for updates after every five second. The New York Times being the first to bring to light the extent of the scandal reported that more than 80,000 pages of information were collected during the whole process.  Senator Charles Grassley (Republican, Iowa), investigating officer, in his letter to FDA commissioner Margaret Hamburg claimed that the FDA’s head lawyer got the whole process clearly sanctioned in writing.

An important principle of the scientific-integrity policy issued by the organization in February says, “Allowing FDA staff to communicate their personal scientific or policy views to the public even when those views differ from official Agency opinions.” Another very important point of the policy was to support and protect the informers. But the investigation is a blow to all what FDA previously said.

In expert opinion this disclosure will shake the trust of FDA employees leading them to hold their comments on the chief’s decision. According to survey conducted by Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) which involved 900 FDA scientists it was found that the ratio of scientist afraid of speaking out loud decreased from 36% to 26% during the span 2006-2011. In the same survey an increase from 38% to 61% was observed in people’s opinion of them being supported by their supervisors when presenting a provocative idea.

UCS is a non-profit organization based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which gathers researchers from around the globe along with concerned citizens and also actively engages policymakers, the media and other organizations to extend the reach of their work and drive positive change. Michael Halpern, the integrity program manager at UCS while sharing his views on the whole scenario said, “The mere act of monitoring e-mails can chill scientific discourse at the agency and leave scientists more vulnerable to retaliation.”

The whole story started in 2008 when the US congress learned that the organization did not follow a clear process for reviewing medical devices. This information was leaked by FDA’s own scientist, Maryland of Center for Devices and Radiological Health in Silver Spring. The New York Times published another scientists’ similar opinion regarding a breast cancer imaging device in January 2009. FDA’s approval of a colon-cancer screening device despite its release of harmful radiations again put to question the reviewing policy of FDA as reported in a review in 2010.

The colon-cancer screening device was made available in the market by GE Healthcare of Little Chalfont, UK.  They had spread in the market that the device did not have any side-effects and so the circulation of contradicting facts affected their market greatly. They demanded from FDA the reason for this leak of information.

FDA consents to the fact that it started censoring the computers of the informers in April 2010. But the sole purpose of the monitoring was to isolate the mole from the others, claims Erica Jefferson, a spokeswoman for FDA. She also made the point clear that the monitoring was strictly restricted to only those five scientists. By the end of 2011 they had recognized them and four of them were fired with only Ewa Czerska, one of the four scientists, knowing why she was actually sacked. By January, the scientists had dragged the FDA to court accusing them of violating their entitlement of free speech and association.

To help out such informants, the government has a separate department known as Office of Special Counsel. It’s their job to listen to the objections of informants and provide them protection.  Evidence of the scientists’ communication with the Congress and this department has also been retrieved. This was probably the last chance for them which is now lost. As is clear from the statement of Mark Zaid, a lawyer in Washington DC, a specialist in protecting such telltales, “These employees are properly going to members of Congress or the Office of Special Counsel and they are being retaliated against, presumably as a result. It sends a chilling message.”


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InVitro Vogue sets up commercial diagnostics franchises on World Hepatitis Day

InVitro Vogue-The Biotech Company  www.invitrovogue.com observed the World Hepatitis Day by setting up a collection center for its molecular testing division (CAID: Center for Advanced InVitro Diagnostics). CAID specializes in PCR based molecular diagnostics and has been planed accordingly to the International Atomic Energy Agency-IAEA protocols for molecular diagnostics and upholds strict Bio Safety Level 2 protocols. The main objectives of this division are as follows:

  • Provide PCR based quantitative and genotyping for most prevalent disease such as TB, HCV, HBV, CMV, Typhoid etc.
  • To do molecular testing for cancer patients.
  • To provide carrier status screening for couples before marriage like Hemophilia, Thalasemia, Down Syndrome, and Duchene Muscular Dystrophy.
  • To do cytogenetic tests for cancer patients namely Bcr/Abl in Leukemia, Tel/Aml and inv 16. JAK2 for MDS (Mylodisplastic Syndrome).

Five Collection Points/Franchise agreements have been signed for Lahore, Faisalabad and Islamabad. InVitro Vogue offers its customers the best possible quality in diagnostic testing owing to its stringent internal quality control regulations. The company’s chief operating officer, Dr. Omar Malik was present at the occasion and hoped that this would mark a further stable expansion in InVitro Vogue’s work in Pakistan. More similar ventures are expected soon. Investors willing to be a part of InVitro franchise can email at info@invitrovogue.com.









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World Hepatitis Day 2012

World Hepatitis Day: It is closer than you think

World Hepatitis Day (WHD) will be organized on July 28, around the world including Pakistan. WHD is observed to globally aware people about two diseases; Hepatitis B and C. The WHD is organized every year to pay special attention to the patients suffering from Hepatitis B and C, the staggering toll on health. The day aims to encourage prevention, diagnosis and treatment of the life threatening diseases across the world. This year’s theme of WHD is “it is closer than you think”. The campaign aims to aware people about different types of hepatitis, the route of transmission and different methods of prevention and for treatment of disease.

Hepatitis is an untreated and unknown disease. In 2007, the world Hepatitis Alliance launched first World Hepatitis Day. After the World Health Assembly, in May 2010, the world Health Organization (WHO) officially recognized World Hepatitis Day. Now WHD became one of four official disease related days. Several events, to generate public and media interest, have been organized across the world since the WHD has launched. The WHD focuses few specific actions to strengthen precaution, screening, control of viral hepatitis and to have a globally coordinated response for increased public access to treatment. It also aims to enhance coverage of viral Hepatitis B vaccine and merge its vaccination with the national immunization programs.

A person will suffer from Hepatitis if its liver persistently swells for six months. The most common causes of Hepatitis include viral infection, alcohol, fatty liver, chemicals and autoimmune disorder. Among all chronic Hepatitis across the world 75% are due to Hepatitis B and C viral infection. In a report by WHA almost 500 million people are suffering from chronic hepatitis across the world and people who are infected with both viruses is one among three.

A nation-wide survey done in 2011 showed that there are 12.3 million people in Pakistan infected with hepatitis B or C, according to the first-ever national survey on hepatitis. Here is the global campaign video for this year.


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One step closer to artifical life

Artificial Life Not Just A Myth Anymore by Fatima Ahmed

Artificial life (often abbreviated ALife or A-Life) is a field of study and an associated art form which examines systems related to life, its processes, and its evolution through simulations using computer models, robotics, and biochemistry. Scientists in different institutes have been working in this field trying to create a life form artificially. The advent of new technology has enabled them to use computers to design softwares that can actually encode a living organism and reproduce it imitating the traditional biology of life forms. Over the years attempts have been made to create genomes with softwares but what was lacking was the formation of a single cell that could survive on its own.

Artificial life was a myth in the past, which later became a dream, then a goal and now a reality, when 5 days ago, the scientists at Stanford University and the J. Craig Venter Institute finally succeeded in developing the first ever software-based stimulation of an entire organism, a parasitic bacterium called Mycoplasma genitalium, which lives in the genital and respiratory tracts of humans. Though the organism was only a single celled one, it has laid the foundation of evolution of modern science & technology. According to The New York Times, it took 128 computers to operate the stimulation in which the tiny bacterium’s entire lifespan is chronicled at the molecular level. The program was so complex that Markus W. Covert, an assistant professor of bioengineering at Stanford University, said, “running a stimulation for a single cell to divide only 1 time takes around 10 hours and generates half a gigabyte of data”.

The scientists and other experts said that the work was a giant step toward developing computerized laboratories that could carry out many thousands of experiments than it is possible now, helping scientists penetrate the mysteries of diseases like cancer and Alzheimer’s. For medical researchers and biochemists, stimulation software will vastly speed the early stages of screening for new compounds.. And for molecular biologists, models that are of sufficient accuracy will yield new understanding of basic cellular principles. Thus artificial life can now help us to yield better quality of natural life.


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Chemical for Curing Blindness

AAQ the chemical which restore vision in mice; holds promise to treat human blindness by Amina Shakrullah

A team of scientists discovered a chemical which has a temporary ability to bring back the vision of blind mice. The scientists are working to improve the chemical with a hope that this compound will also help to restore the vision of people suffering from degenerative blindness. The team has scientists from the University of California Berkeley and researchers from the University of Washington and Munich. This approach holds promise for the patients who are suffering from blindness disorders like; retinitis pigmentosa, the most common form of inherited blindness and muscular degeneration related to age which is a common cause of acquired blindness in the developed countries. The rods and cones, the light sensitive cells in the retina are dead in both diseases. In the absence of light sensitive cells the eye will not have functional photo-receptors.

The name of the chemical compound which restores vision in blind mice is AAQ (acrylamide-azobenzene-quaternary ammonium). According to a leading researcher Richard Karmer, professor of molecular and cell biology, AAQ acts on remaining normally blind cells in the retina and make them sensitive to light. The AAQ compound is a photoswitch. It binds with the protein ion channels which are present on the surface of retinal cells. The AAQ which is switched on by light alters the flow of ions through the protein channels and activates the neurons. AAQ activates the neurons in a much similar way the rods and cones, light sensitive cells, get activated.

Shining light into one end of a dark tube caused blind mice injected with AAQ to retreat to the dark end. (Image: Neuron)

Karmer claimed that we discovered a unique light sensitive molecule which has the ability to turn on and off the neural activity. The use of AAQ chemical is a safer alternative as compared to other approaches like gene or stem cell therapies. The use of chemical to restore sight is safer because the chemical will eventually deteriorate while in case of stem cell and gene therapy retina will be changed permanently. It is a matter of fact that the use of chemical is also less intrusive instead of implanting light sensitive electronic chips in the eye.

Karmer also said that an important feature of the technique is that it simply uses a chemical and dose of the chemical is adjustable. The chemical can also be used in a combination with other therapies. The therapy using AAQ chemical can be discontinued if desired results are not obtained. When an improved chemical will be available in the market one can replace the older one. But you will lose all these options if you genetically modify a gene or implant a chip in the eye.

Dr.Russell Van Gelder, an opthamologist, said that the discovery of chemical to restore blindness is a major advancement. The findings of the scientists and researchers team are due to be published uptill 26th july in the Neuron journal. Scientists used genetically mutated blind mice in the experiment. The mutations caused death of light sensitive cells rods and cones and inactivation of the photopigments in the eye within a few months of birth. Then a small amount of AAQ was injected into the eyes of blind mice. Scientists confirmed that the mice have restored light sensitivity. They observed contraction of mice’s pupils in bright light and mice also showed light avoidance, which is a typical behavior of rodents.

According to Van Gelger, the approach to use photoswitch provides a real hope to the patients suffering from retinal degeneration. He said we still need to prove with evidences that the compound is as effective and safe for human as it is in mice. But the experimental results which come across show that the compound work better at restoring light sensitive retina blindness which are due to genetic disease.

The technologies which are currently being evaluated to restore sight to people, whose rods and cones had died, include regeneration of rods and cones by injecting stem cells; gene therapy to make blind neurons sensitive to light by inserting a photoreceptor gene also known as “optogenetics”, and installation of small light sensitive retinal chips having electrodes attached to them that will help to trigger the blind neurons. Karmer said that already a lot of people have retinal implants and had restore low vision.

About eight years ago, a group of scientists including Karmer, Trauner and their colleagues developed an optogenetic technique. The technique chemically alters the potassium ion channels in the blind neurons which were also having photoswitch latch on them. Normally the open potassium ion channels are helpful in turning off a cell. But because of attached photoswitch cells will help to activate and deactivate neurons as they will be opened in the presence of ultraviolet light and closed in the presence of green light.

Afterward, Trauner artificially synthesized AAQ which is a photoswitch which attaches to potassium channel without genetically modifying the channels. According to Karmer, New modified AAQ which are being tested are better, as they activate neurons for a few days instead of hours. To activate neurons they use blue green light of moderate intensity and the photoswitches automatically deactivates in darkness means there is no need of a second color of light to deactivate these photoswitches. That’s why scientists are very excited about them.


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Lab Grown Jelly Fish

Artificial Jelly Fish from Rat Cells by Amina Shakrullah

Researchers of Harvard University and California institute of technology developed a free living jellyfish by using quiescent silicone and live cardiac muscle cells. The researchers took the advantage of advancement in material science, tissue engineering and marine biomechanics. The artificial jellyfish is also a proof that a variety of muscular organs and simple life forms can be made through reverse engineering.

The method of developing tissue engineered artificial jellyfish also called as “Medusoid” was publicized on July 22 in a Nature biotechnology paper. Kevin Kit Parker described some constructs which have the ability to grip, pump and even walk. He is an expert of producing bioengineered actuators which are a type of powered cells and tissues. His inspiration to produce a tissue engineered jellyfish was the result of frustration that no advancement is being carried out in the field of cardiac muscle cells. The process by which human heart pumps blood throughout the body is similar to the propelling of jellyfish through water which is carried out by pumping. The main aim in rebuilding the basic motor function of jelly fish was to understand that how these pumps actually work. The image shown below shows the liver cells which  have been used in this process:

Parker, a professor at Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Science and a renowned faculty member of the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering, said that it was 2007 when a thought cross my mind that may be we have failed to completely understand the primary laws of muscular pumps. He started observing marine organisms, whose survival is based upon pumps. He said, I observed a jellyfish during my visit to New England Aquarium. After watching a jellyfish in the aquarium, instantly I note down all the similarities and differences between the pumping mechanism of a jellyfish and human heart.

Parker in collaboration with Janna Nawroth built up the “artificial jellyfish” also known as “Medusoid”.  Janna a doctoral student in biology at Caltech accomplished this work as a visiting researcher in the Parker’s lab in addition to it he is also the main author of this study. Naworth said that the basic purpose of our study is to bring advancement in the field of tissue engineering.

It is become evident that jellyfish which is an oldest multi-organ animal of the world, is an ideal subject. Jellyfish is an ideal organism as it uses muscles to propel through the water. Also the morphology of jellyfish is similar to that of the human heart beat. During the reverse engineering of a medusa jellyfish an alignment map of all the sub cellular protein networks in all their muscle cells was created. Maps were developed with the help of crystallography and biometrics tools. Then electrophysiological triggering and biomechanics of propulsion and propulsive stroke were observed and studied.

Studies have revealed that a sheet of cultured rat heart muscle cells that can contract by electrical stimulus in a liquid environment would serve as a perfect starting material to produce an artificial jelly fish. Then a silicon polymer was integrated to shape the body of the small artificial creature into a thin membrane. This artificial creature is similar to the jelly fish having eight arms which are like appendages. The artificial jellyfish construct was then placed in a container having ocean like salt water. An electric current was applied and a synchronized muscle contraction was observed that was similar to the movement of a jellyfish. It was also observed that the muscle cells start contracting a little bit even before the electricity was being applied to them.

Dabiri said, “I am surprised that just by combining few components we are able to arrange silicon based cells. These cells have ability to swim and feed just like a biological specimen, jelly fish. The researchers also said that they used such a design strategy that can be generally applied to the reverse engineering of multiple human organs.”

The next aim of the researchers is to produce a jelly fish which can turn and move in a particular direction. May be a simple brain is also added to the artificial jelly fish so that it can respond to the changing environmental conditions. More advance behaviors like searching for food and energy and moving towards light stimulus can also be incorporated into the artificial jellyfish.


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