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Week in Review, June 10–14

Supreme Court says no patenting (natural) genes; brain-computer interfaces mimic motor learning in brain; regenerating finger tips; gene therapy goes deeper; NIH needs more diversity; cross-border collaboration

By | June 14, 2013

(Natural) genes unpatentable

WIKIMEDIA

The United States Supreme Court ruled Thursday (June 13) that naturally occurring human genes could not be patented but that synthetic DNA sequences could. The decision effectively invalidated patents on two genes used as markers for a variety of cancers held by biotech company Myriad Genetics. Myriad patented the two genes, BRCA1 and BRCA2, in which mutations often portend breast and other cancers, as the basis of diagnostic tests to predict cancer risk.

The Court’s decision deals a blow to biotech companies hoping to secure monopolies on similar tests that target one or two specific genes. But the verdict benefits researchers and patients, according to Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health. “The decision represents a victory for all those eagerly awaiting more individualized, gene-based approaches to medical care,” he said in a statement. “The right to control exclusively the use of a patient's genes could have made it more difficult to access new tests and treatments.”

Motor and mind control

WIKIPEDIA, JOSHUA FURMAN

Using brain-computer interfaces (BCI) and learning motor skills activate similar networks of brain regions, according to research published Monday (June 10) in PNAS. By studying patients with epilepsy as they used BCI to move a computer cursor with only their minds, researchers led by Jeremiah Wander of the University of Washington in Seattle discovered that the task activated some of the same brain regions— the primary motor cortex, primary somatosensory cortex, dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, and premotor cortex—that light up when people learn new motor skills, such as typing.

“This work is very exciting,” Jose Carmena from the University of California, Berkeley, who was not involved in the study, told The Scientist. “It shows that, as in motor skill learning, the process of BCI skill learning recruits a widely distributed network of brain areas not directly connected to the BCI.”

Nailed it

STOCK.XCHNG, JUZARA

Researchers have come one step closer to understanding how mammals can regenerate digit tips but not whole digits or limbs—stem cells at the bases of finger and toenails. The stem cells helped to coordinate signaling between the nail, bone, and nerve tissues necessary to regrow amputated mouse digits.

The molecular program that governed mammalian regeneration resembled that already seen in amphibians—suggesting a conserved regeneration program that could be harnessed in other tissues, Hans-Georg Simon, a developmental biologist at Northwestern University who did not participate in the study, told The Scientist. At the center of the regenerative ability of these cells was the Wnt signaling pathway, which is known to be important in embryonic development. Mouse digits amputated further from the tip, where the stem cells were not present would not regenerate. The results could inform improvements to future stem cell therapies involving the regrowth of limbs.

Gene therapy goes deep

WIKIMEDIA, SHELOVESGHOSTS

A common gene therapy vector can now deliver its therapeutic payload deep into retinal tissue, after scientists used directed evolution to endow the inactivated virus with greater penetrative abilities. Opthamologists routinely inject drugs into the eye’s vitreous humor to treat a variety of ocular ailments. But trials of a gene therapy for retinal degeneration has been hampered by the fact that adeno-associated virus (AAV), a common vector for gene therapy, cannot penetrate deep into the retina where target cells are located.

AAV is a respiratory virus, and therefore evolved to infect epithelial cells in the lung. But David Schaffer of the University of California, Berkeley, and colleagues developed a version of AAV that was able to infiltrate the retinas of mouse eyes. Though the new vector did not consistently penetrate macaque retinas, which are thicker than those of mice, the research could lead the way to vectors that can penetrate deeper into other tissues, a development that could improve gene therapy for a variety of diseases.

More diversity, NIH

FLICKR, CTBTO PHOTOSTREAM

Virginia Tech genomicist Ed Smith bemoans the lack of diversity among research staff at the National Institutes of Health. “The NIH of course has lots of diversity,” he wrote, “almost every janitor, dish washer, mail man, and parking lot attendant is a minority!” While he applauds NIH Director Francis Collins efforts to increase diversity in the ranks of the genomic research workforce, Smith argued that the same principles need to be applied to the NIH’s own staff. “It is not enough to support diversity in science, NIH needs to live it.”

Research globally

FLICKR, KENNETH LU

The way for the United States to retain its global scientific preeminence is for researchers to engage in more international collaborations, according to two Washington State University researchers. Jane Payumo and Prema Arasu wrote in The Scientist this week that research publications and patent applications from US-based, international teams of scientists have risen only slightly or in some cases decreased in the past few years. The trick to encouraging more of this type of collaboration may lie in the funding, they said. “University research and international offices can partner on incentives and procedural changes (e.g. international travel awards, promotion and tenure guidelines that encourage outreach, etc.) as well as lobby federal agencies to provide more funding for multi-institutional collaborative projects.”

Other news in life science:

Global Alliance to Share Genomic Data

Leading medical and research centers around the world announce a plan to share massive amounts of genetic and clinical information.

The Solution to Medical Isotope Shortages?

A Canadian lab demonstrates upgrades to hospital cyclotrons that can yield enough diagnostic tracer element overnight to meet an entire city’s daily needs.

Dog Disease Threatens Tigers

Wildlife veterinarians plan to track the canine distemper virus in Indonesia.

Distantly Related Viruses Proliferate Similarly

Whether infecting hot spring-dwelling microbes or humans, viruses co-opt the same group of proteins to assemble themselves and break out of cells.

Genomics Investment Boosts US Economy

A new analysis suggests that the Human Genome Project has delivered $178 for every federal dollar invested, but many analysts are not convinced by the figures.

US Chimps May Get Endangered Status

A proposal to grant captive chimpanzees the same endangered species status as wild chimps could hamper medical research.

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