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In with the New

There is definitely no shortage of technological innovation in the life sciences.

By | January 1, 2012

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Stephen Friend wrote in our October 2011 issue: “When existing symptom-based disease classifications are decoded into their actual omics-based subtypes, there will be a quantum leap in the ability of epidemiologists to track diseases. DNA will do for biomedical informatics what the TCP:IP address does for the Internet: it will allow information to be layered on citizens in ways that will make the promise of personalized medicine a reality.” So it was heartening to learn, as this month’s issue of The Scientist went to press, that the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI) has earmarked $416 million over the next four years to fund a variety of sequencing projects aimed at using genetic information to enhance clinical treatment decisions.

Technical innovation propelled the omics revolution and resulted in sequencers that now do the job so quickly that researchers are drowning in data. The deluge is now a serious stumbling block—how to store it, how to sort the wheat from the chaff, how to pay for analyzing it. Our profiled scientist this month is technical innovator extraordinaire Elaine Mardis, codirector of the Genome Institute at Washington University in Saint Louis, which is slated to receive a large chunk of the NHGRI grant. She’s a big believer that sequencing a patient’s genome will have a huge impact on treatment design. As Mardis puts it: “We now have this incredibly sensitive ‘microscope’—a sequencer that can tell us everything that’s gone wrong in the genome of a cancer patient.”

At The Scientist we consider it part of our mission to cover technical innovation, and we do it in a number of ways. Exhibit number one: for the fourth year, a panel of expert judges sifted through more than 65 submissions sent in by the makers and users of the latest life science tools and selected the Top 10 Innovations of 2011. Many of the winners are impressive (and costly) machines that allow more data to be collected more quickly and easily; others represent important advances in microscopic resolution. But this year’s #1 innovation is a pocket-size holographic microscope that can be attached to the camera of a cell phone, imaging tropical parasites in far-off locales and sending the image to a remote computer for analysis. And it could cost as little as $10.

We don’t just nod to the new and innovative once a year, though. We do it in every issue. Our Lab Tools column covers new tools and software by interviewing scientists about the instruments and techniques they use to tackle research questions. And our Modus Operandi (MO) column, which made its debut in the July 2011 issue, takes a graphic look at a hot new technique, which may or may not involve an advance in instrumentation. This month you can read about a new method that makes RNAs glow green using synthetic fluorophores derived from the chemistry of green fluorescent protein.

Among the techniques we’ve covered recently is single-cell analysis, which, completely coincidentally, has appeared several times in the last few issues. Our November/December 2011 MO column, “Flow Cytometry for the Masses,” assigned months ago, highlighted a new technique which allows the tracking of as many as 45 different parameters (and potentially 100 or more) in a single cell. The technique uses a new mass spec instrument, CyTOF, designed by DVS Sciences—which ended up taking the #4 spot on our Top 10 list. And our Lab Tools author, Jeffrey Perkel, independently chose the technique and the machine to include in a column illustrating advances in high-throughput flow cytometry. It’s clear the scientific community has its eye on this one.

Every month we mix nouvelle technique cuisine with science features in which cutting-edge research is dished up in a readable style. On this month’s menu you’ll find an article about the role that resolvins—omega-3 fatty acid derivatives—play in the regulation of acute and chronic inflammation, and you’ll thrill (or shudder) to editor Jef Akst’s roundup of the molecular tricks that various parasites use to take control of the behavior of their hosts.

Happy New Year. We eagerly anticipate another 12 months of innovation.

Mary Beth Aberlin
Editor-in-Chief
eic@the-scientist.com

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