Just when you thought biotech couldn't get any more fascinating.

26 July 2009

Biology and medicine have long known that more advanced forms of life emit various forms of energy as they go about their business. Mammals emit heat as a byproduct of their metabolisms, and the electrical activity of the musculature, cardiopulmonary, and central nervous systems may be picked up by sensitive instruments and used for diagnostic purposes. Recently, researchers in Japan have discovered that human bodies also emit light in the visble spectrum, albeit in a fashion that most sensors cannot detect. In fact, most lifeforms emit visible light in some fashion though the mechanism behind it isn’t understood. This phenomenon appears cyclical in nature, like many of the ongoing processes of the human body – it peaks around 1600 and seems to be at its lowest around 1000 wherever you happen to be acclimated to. Of all the parts of the body imaged using single photon cameras the face appears to emit the most radiation. The exact mechanism underlying this phenomenon is still a mystery, though hypotheses involving free radicals are currently being bandied about.

In other news, two independent teams of genetic researchers in mainland China claim to have succeeded in re-embryonizing skin cells taken from lab mice and used them to grow clones of the originals. While China isn’t exactly at the cutting edge of stem cell research (then again, neither are the United States) they are known in the scientific community for taking the basics (for some value of ‘basics’) and pushing those principles to their limits – broad rather than deep knowledge, if you will. The article is a little thin on details but what it amounts to is they found a way to take existing, differentiated cells and coax them into somehow… the article isn’t clear if they got them to turn back into stem cells or not but they were put back into a pluripotent state and then grafted into early stage mouse embryos to see what would happen. As it turned out, in 27 out of 37 cases the re-embryonized cells contributed significantly to the development of the embryos and resulted in live mice with distinct germ lines. One of those mice was even able to breed with another mouse and spawn a distinct litter of young, which says a lot for how stable the mouse’s genome was (it’s unknown how many tries were made and how many successes there were).

Physicians have been trying to treat cystic fibrosis for years with gene therapy with varying degrees of success ever since the gene sequence which causes CF was isolated. Unfortunately, the best stopgap measure for CF right now appears to be a double lung transplant and management of the other symptoms as well as possible. Also, the cells which comprise human lungs are curiously resistant to any sort of genetic tampering, which is probably in part a natural adaptation to their exposure to the atmosphere and all the pathogens which can be found there. I don’t know why this wasn’t tried earlier but recently researchers at UNC modified one of the viruses which cause the common cold to insert a corrected version of the gene which causes CF into the cells which comprise the lungs of patients. Although only an estimated 25% of the cells of the lungs would need to be fixed to have a positive effect it appears that it actually affects 60 to 70% of the cells exposed to the hacked viruses. The repaired cells were able to hydrate normally after the corrected gene was inserted as well as circulate mucus normally. These are surprising results from a clinical trial, and it’s hoped that the medical community will continue to persue this avenue of treatment. It should be noted, however, that some of the normal symptoms of the common cold could pose a threat to CF patients, and further genetic modification may be required to the viruses applied to make the potential risks lesser in severity or easier to handle.