MIT sugars research affecting bypass patients, drug industry

A young MIT professor’s basic research on complex sugars has led to a cascade of potential medical applications that could, for example, significantly improve outcomes for patients undergoing major operations such as heart bypass surgery and impact a multi-billion dollar drug industry. In the online edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences for the week of January 13, a team led by the professor, Ram Sasisekharan, reports the creation of designer drugs for preventing the blood clots that can cause strokes and heart disease during surgery. The resulting drugs have major advantages over the conventional form they are based on, which has an annual market of $2-3 billion. Further, an additional drug based on Sasisekharan’s work is presently in Phase III clinical trials for heart bypass patients.

Smart polymers provide light-activated switch to turn enzymes on and off

Researchers have applied studies in how proteins bind with different molecules to create a molecular switch that enables them to turn an enzyme on and off. The innovation holds promise for a wide range of laboratory processes, including highly targeted drug therapies. The study, published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, describes a reversible switch for the enzyme endoglucanase in which light is the trigger for turning the switch on and off.

Statistics Help Infants Build Knowledge of Visual World

A baby’s first look at the world is likely a dizzying array of shapes and motion that are meaningless to a newborn, but researchers at the University of Rochester say they have now shown that babies use relationships between objects to build an understanding of the world. By noting how often objects appear together, infants can efficiently take in more knowledge than if they were to simply see the same shapes individually, says the paper published in the current issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Gut Bacteria Interact with Intestine to Regulate Blood Supply

Bacteria aren’t always bad. In fact, they can be extremely helpful partners. According to research at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, microbes found naturally in the mouse and human gut interact with intestinal cells, called Paneth cells, to promote the development of blood vessels in the intestinal lining. “This study provides insights into the mutually beneficial partnerships forged between mammals and their native microbes,” says the principal investigator. “These symbiotic relationships probably are most important in the gut, which contains the largest and most complex collection of bacteria.”

Bacterial protein kills tumors

The use of live bacteria to treat cancer goes back a hundred years. But while the therapy can sometimes shrink tumors, the treatment usually leads to toxicity, limiting its value in medicine. Now, researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago have isolated a protein secreted by bacteria that kills cancer cells but appears to have no harmful side effects. Tested in mice injected with human melanomas, the protein shrank the malignancies, but, in contrast with other studies using whole bacteria, caused no deaths or adverse reactions in the laboratory animals.

Screening technique may speed hunt for genes

The hunt to find a gene that causes a disease typically costs hundreds of thousands of dollars and requires years of research – and it still may fail to turn up the sought-after culprit, driving the research back to square one. The result is that while the genes involved in a few inherited diseases such as cystic fibrosis have been identified, many have not. Now, two scientists say they may have found a way to make the search more economical and speed it up. In an article to appear online in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences next week, scientists from the University of Florida and Purdue University report merging two established genetic-screening techniques to create one that’s better. The new technique narrows the pool of “candidate” genes in a study from thousands of possibilities to fewer than 100 – perhaps as few as 20.

Time to adjust the compass?

Working high in the Canadian Arctic, researchers from the University of Rochester say they’ve found that several aspects of the powerhouse that drives the Earth’s magnetic field may be related. That’s new in itself. But the team also thinks it may indicate our planet’s about ready for a pole reversal, in which all compasses will begin pointing south.

Deer Before Dying

According to a study published in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, venison was the last supper for Iceman, the not-so-cleverly-named Neolithic hunter who was discovered frozen and remarkably well-preserved last decade in the Italian Alps. Researchers from the University of Camerino (Italy) analyzed DNA culled from the contents of Iceman?s 5,300-year-old intestines ? yum, anybody else hungry? ? and determined that the gourmand consumed red deer meat and possibly grains prior to succumbing to an arrow wound. Iceman?s penultimate meal, researchers speculate, was an ibex plus sides of grains and greens.