New gene therapy to cure heart

Researchers at a children’s hospital in Boston have developed a new gene therapy method. It is possible to be used not only with regard to an inherited form of heart arrhythmia, but also those heart diseases that are characterised by irregular heartbeat.

In two studies published in the journal Circulation, researchers at Boston Children’s Hospital developed the first tissue model of catecholaminergic polymorphic ventricular tachycardia (CPVT). This is potentially lethal arrhythmia induced by exercises or sudden emotional stress. Then, the model-tailored gene therapy was created, being aimed at treating CPTV by restoring one’s calcium regulation.

Vassilios Bezzerides – who was involved in both studies – describes the researchers’ goal as the development of a gene therapy that could be applied in a single, indefinitely-working dose.

Current methods for treating CPTV, including beta-blockers and surgery, are not sufficient. In order to develop more effective methods, the team at Boston Children’s Hospital first decided to understand CPTV at its molecular level.

According to the National Institutes of Health, mutations in the RYR2 gene bring about approximately half of all CPVT cases. The gene takes part in the process of releasing calcium, which is of crucial significance for the commencement of heart muscle contraction. The researchers reprogrammed blood cells collected from two patients. They later used the cells to create heart muscle tissue models that emulate the real disease. Then, by triggering contraction and simulating exercises, the researchers discovered that while calcium waves moved in an even way through the tissues of a healthy heart, the movement observed in CPTV models was marked by different speeds, leading to arrhythmia. The scientists eliminated arrhythmia by means of a gene therapy, blocking the enzyme CaMKII that affects RYR2. Now, the discovery is to be used for the treatment of arrhythmias.

Source: fiercebiotech


Gene-controlling tags can help in modern therapies

The concept that chemical tags on genes may affect their expression without any alteration of the DNA sequence is surprising. Still, the so-called RNA epigenetics is crucial both for the expression of genes and development of diseases.Today we can use this knowledge.

Pedro Batista, a biologist at the National Cancer Institute (NCI) in Bethesda, Maryland, explains that research has shown epigenetic marks as located on the surface of mRNA. The cell uses them to determine where, when and how much of the protein needs to be produced.

What is more, the marker-modified mRNA may affect the cell viability regardless of whether they are naturally divisible, develop cancers or have impact on the development of neurologic diseases. These provide valuable guidance for drug developers. Contrary to what one might expect, there exist a number of diseases where epigenetic markers play a crucial part.

Modified mRNA had been reported as early as in the 70’s, whereas it was quite abandoned in terms of interest it attracted up to 2008. Subsequently, Chuan He at the University of Chicago, Samie Jaffrey at Weill Cornell Medicine, and Gideon Rechavi at Tel Aviv University in Israel decided to take a new look at the discovery. Their teams focused on one modification of mRNA bearing a marker. The group of researchers not only determined that a well-known enzyme removes the modification but also discovered that the epigenetic marker plays a significant biological role. 

The marker on mRNA may not solely affect the intensity of gene expression that is necessary for the proper differentiation of embryonic stem cells into different types of cells. By contrast, it is capable of restricting this differentiation in blood stem cells. On the other hand, the marker stimulates leukemia in the case of this particular disease. In 2017, three research teams demonstrated that the elimination of the marker with the use of the enzyme on mRNA kills tumour cells in the case of acute myeloid leukemia. At least three biotech companies are currently working on the development of experimental drugs for blocking such enzymes.


Forests can help regulate global warming

If current trends are continued, global temperatures may rise by 1.5 °C over the preindustrial level as soon as in 2030.However, trees can help hold back the climate crisis. 

A new analysis shows that the addition of about 1 billion hectares of forest could remove two-thirds of approximately 300 gigatons of carbon added to the atmosphere by humans since the beginning of the 19thcentury. 

Laura Duncanson, a carbon storage scientist at the University of Maryland in College Park and NASA, describes forests as constituting one of our greatest natural allies against climate changes.

The latest report of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change recommended adding 1 billion hectares of forests in order to restrict global warming to 1.5 °C by 2050.Jean-Francois Bastin and Tom Crowther, ecologists of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, as well as their co-authors, wanted to determine whether it is possible for the Earth of today to accommodate so many additional trees. In order to find this out, they analysed nearly 80,000 satellite photographs. The team categorised the planet in accordance with 10 features of the soil and climate. Areas being more or less suitable for various types of forests were then identified. After subtracting the already-existing forests, as well as areas being dominated by agriculture or cities, they calculated what part of the planet might be used for tree planting.

The Earth could accommodate for a maximum of 0.9 billion hectares of additional forests without interfering in the already existing urban or agricultural areas.This is a counterpart of the area of the size of the U.S. The added trees might absorb 205 gigatons of carbon throughout the coming decades. It is more or less five times the amount that was emitted globally in 2018. 



France surprises with views

France, namely the cradle of the world’s fastest passenger airliner, the face transplant and the first HIV isolation is distrustful of vaccines and the economic value of science. Over 140 countries participated in a global public opinion survey.  France turned out to be the most prejudiced.

French scientists claim that the scepticism is known and does not affect their work. Some even suggest that it reflects a deeply-rooted  mistrust of institutions.

Pierre Verger, an epidemiologist engaged in research on vaccines  at the French biomedical research institute INSERM in Marseille, says that they think there exists a problem concerning trust in the government – particularly the health administration.

When asked whether vaccines are safe, 1/3 out of the 1,000 French respondents who participated in the survey disagreed: many more than in other countries. Fore example, 11% shared the opinion of the French in the U.S. According to the survey carried out by Gallup World Poll for the Welcome Trust, a biomedical London-based charity organisation, the distrust did not depend much on one’s age, sex or education.

The survey also reveals the French pessimism concerning the economic value of science. About 55% of respondents claim that science and technology pose a threat to jobs at a local level in the context of the next 5 years. While France is the only country where over 50% of negative opinions were voiced, concerns of a similar nature spread across other parts of Europe. On the other hand, most regions of Africa or Asia express an optimistic attitude to science which is seen as leading to the enhancement of job prospects. The survey results reveal the slow economy of France and a relatively high level of unemployment as likely causes of such views.

Catherine Pélachaud, an artificial intelligence (AI) researcher at Sorbonne University in Paris, describes the fear about the future as understandable, adding that  we see that factories are being closed down, due to which the less-qualified ones may find the conditions hard to adapt to.



Drinking water for everyone

Solar systems can use the sun to evaporate contaminated or salty water so that the vapour can be condensed into the form of safe drinking water. These large and expensive devices can produce a sufficient quantity of water for a small family, yet the price of a system of this kind presents a barrier. Now, researchers have developed a new material that speeds up the evaporation process. If the technology turns out to be cheap enough, it may provide millions of impoverished people with access to clean drinking water.

According to UNICEF data, it is presently the number of 783 million people – namely nearly every tenth person in the world – that have no access to drinking water. These people spend 200 million hours in total a day drawing water from distant sources. In spite of the fact that there exist technologies for the purification and desalination of contaminated seawater, these tend to require expensive infrastructure and a lot of energy that hinders their use in impoverished communities.

Only recently researchers have been working on improving solar photovoltaics and a cheap alternative technology. They developed a vessel with a black bottom that was filled with water, topped with transparent glass and plastic. The black bottom absorbs sunlight and heats water so that it can evaporate and leave its contaminants behind. Then, the water vapour condenses on the transparent covering and drops off to the collector. Unfortunately, the efficiency of such a solution is low, as the sun’s rays need to heat up the entire volume of the water before the evaporation starts. Commercially available versions produce about 0.3 liter of water per hour and per square meter (L/h/m2) when exposed to sufficiently intense sun, while an average human requires about 3 liters of drinking water a day.

Guihua Yu, a material scientist at the University of Texas, Austin, as well as his colleagues, have recently announced a way to circumvent the barrier. The method employs hydrogels, polymer mixtures that create a 3D porous and water-absorbing network. The scientists have developed a sponge composed of two polymers – one that binds water (called polyvinyl alcohol – PVA) and the other one that is a light absorber (called polypyrrole – PPy). Then they placed the material on the surface of the water filling in the solar collector in order to accelerate the process of evaporation. Using the technology, the unit produced 3.2L/h/m2 of water.