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Week in Review, June 17–21

On the gene patent decision; a high-res human brain model; bats’ influence on moths mating calls; toxicants threaten brain health; platelet-driven immunity

By | June 21, 2013

Supreme Court nixes gene patents

WIKIMEDIA, MIKE MITCHELL, NCILast Thursday (June 13), the Supreme Court of the United States unanimously ruled against the patentability of isolated human genes, such as the patents Myriad Genetics held on two BRCA genes, mutations in which are linked to breast and ovarian cancer. In an essay (published early online as a result of the High Court’s decision) for our July print issue, lawyer Joan Ellis of the Dickinson Wright firm wrote that the finding is not surprising, and lays out the precedent set by previous Supreme Court cases. And while many have raised concerns about what the invalidated patents will mean for the biotech and pharma industries looking to get healthy returns on investment in the genetic testing field, Jeffery Perkel reported that many will actually benefit from the decision.

Women at high risk for breast and ovarian cancer will now likely have more than one option for a genetic test before deciding whether or not to receive a mastectomy or ovariectomy; healthcare consumers should see the costs of genetic diagnostics drop as more competition enters the marketplace; and researchers previously weary of venturing into the genetic testing field can now forge ahead without fear of litigation. “I am delighted,” Mary-Claire King of the University of Washington School of Medicine told the New Scientist last week. “This is a fabulous result for patients, physicians, scientists, and common sense.”

High-res imaging of the human brain

AMUNTS, ET AL.More than 7,400 20-µm-thick slices of human brain tissue have been painstakingly stitched together into the most in-depth model of the organ ever built, exceeding the resolution of previous models “by a factor of 50 in each direction,” study leader Katrin Amunts of the Jülich Aachen Research Alliance in Germany, told The Scientist.

The so-called BigBrain model could serve as an essential research tool for a variety of neuroscience questions, including the exploration of cell density and morphology across the entire cortex and studies of neuronal activity within specific brain regions.

“It allows observation down into the cytoarchitectural level in a comprehensive way, which really hasn’t been done before,” said Arthur Toga, director of the Laboratory of Neuro Imaging, at the University of California, Los Angeles, who was not involved in the work. “That’s enormously valuable.”

Bats drive evolution of moth mating calls

RYO NAKANOThe ultrasonic hearing of many moth species arose in response to the evolution of bat echolocation—hearing bat’s ultrasonic calls allowed moth species to better avoid their predators. At the same time, however, this expanded hearing range set the stage for the evolution of ultrasonic mating calls, and according to a new study, the similarity of moth and bat calls may have directed the evolution of moth deception. Specifically, if male moths happened to have similar calls to their bat predators, they could trick females into thinking they were bats—eliciting a freeze response that made them easy to mate with. Alternatively, if male moth calls were somewhat different from bat calls, they continued to diverge such that females could easily distinguish between the two. The new work provides examples of different moth species that fit each of these scenarios.

Protect the brain from toxicants

WIKIMEDIA, JENS LANGNERPhilippe Grandjean, an adjunct professor at Harvard School of Public Health and professor and chair of Environmental Medicine at the University of Southern Denmark, argued that much of the neuroscience community—and in particular large government initiatives to study the human brain—is overlooking a key area of research: the effects of environmental toxins on brain development. “This is a shame,” he wrote. “A wealth of research shows that metals, pesticides, solvents, and other chemicals can seriously impede brain development in children,” and more than 200 substances are known to be neurotoxic in adults. “We need to understand better the causation and emergence of brain diseases as a result of toxic chemicals.”

Platelets’ role in immunity

DONALD BLISS/NCIPlatelets, known for slowing bleeding upon injury, may also play a key role in immunity, according to a new study that found platelets in the livers of mice engulfed blood-borne bacteria, protecting the animals against microbial infection. Previous evidence showing that platelets express pathogen-combating receptors and can kill bacteria in vitro also supports this notion, but the new work “emphasizes that platelets play a day-to-day role in innate immune defense by helping remove bacteria in the liver,” said Steve Watson, a platelet cell biologist at the University of Birmingham, who did not participate in the research.

More news in life science:

Top GSK Scientist Fired Over Paper

The head of GlaxoSmithKline’s Shanghai neurodegenerative-disease research unit is axed after irregularities are uncovered in a 2010 paper he published.

Menopause Caused by Men?

A new hypothesis holds that women become infertile later in life because males prefer younger mates.

More Questionable Stem-Cell Science

Disgraced stem-cell researcher Hisashi Moriguchi has published three new papers in BMJ Case Reports, including a rehashing of a retracted 2012 paper.

Father of Crystallography Dies

Nobel Laureate Jerome Karle has passed away at age 94.

Silver Boosts Antibiotic Efficacy

Silver makes bacteria more susceptible to antibiotics by weakening their cell membranes and inducing overproduction of DNA-damaging oxidative radicals.

Molecule Wards Off Mole-Rat Cancer

A sugar protects the subterranean rodents from out-of-control cell division.

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