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Week in Review: August 5–9

Flu researchers propose H7N9 studies; NIH makes deal to share HeLa genome; herbal “remedies” can cause cancer; scientists record grid cell activity in humans

By | August 9, 2013

How to study H7N9

WIKIPEDIA, CYNTHIA S. GOLDSMITH AND THOMAS ROWEStudying dangerous pathogens is a double-edged sword. Bringing them into the lab and engineering them to become more virulent or more easily transmitted risks the accidental or purposeful release of a potentially deadly agent. On the other hand, without a deeper understanding of the threat, researchers may not be able to properly defend the population against a natural outbreak. These issues came to a head last year when researchers performed so-called “gain-of-function” experiments on the lethal H5N1 bird flu virus. The scientific community is now confronted with a similar dilemma in the face of H7N9, which has infected at least 133 people in China and killed 43 since March.

To preempt the negative fallout of such research on H7N9, a group of 22 prominent influenza researchers this week published a letter about how to approach the virus, emphasizing the need for a strict review process and the use of secure facilities. Signatories on the letter, published in both Nature and Science, include the leaders of last year’s H5N1 projects—Ron Fouchier from the Erasmus Medical Center and Yoshihiro Kawaoka from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

“One of the main accusations last time around was that the flu community wasn’t being transparent about our work,” Fouchier told The Scientist. “Now, we’re trying to be upfront about what needs to be done, how it could be done, and how we could do it safely.”

HeLa genome to be shared with some

WIKIMEDIA, THE LACKS FAMILYAfter the genome of the commonly used cell line HeLa was published in March, science writer Rebecca Skloot and others raised the ethical concern that the family of Henrietta Lacks, from whom the cells were taken without permission in the early 1950s, had not given its consent to the publication. Shortly thereafter, the genome was retracted. Now, in consultation with the surviving family members of Henrietta Lacks, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has announced a framework for sharing the retracted genome sequence, as well as another HeLa genome sequenced by NIH-funded researchers at the University of Washington in Seattle. The agreement, announced this week in Nature, will allow researchers to apply for access, assuming they plan to use the data solely for biomedical research purposes and formally acknowledge the contribution of Henrietta and her family.

Skloot, who first publicized the unethical way in which the world’s HeLa cell lines were derived in her 2010 book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, sat in on the series of negotiations between the NIH, the Lacks family, and other researchers and bioethicists. This week, The Scientist spoke with her about the process, and what the agreement means for science. “Hopefully this will be the beginning of conversations happening between scientists and non-scientists across the board in a way that might be different,” she said.

Traditional Chinese medicine may cause cancer

WIKIMEDIA, BOGDANAristolochic acid, a compound commonly found in Aristolochia plants traditionally used in Chinese herbal remedies, is a powerful carcinogen, according to new research—causing more mutations than either tobacco smoke or UV light. Researchers first began to suspect the dangers of Aristolochia in the early 1990s, when women taking such plant-based treatments for weight loss began developing kidney problems and, later, abnormal upper urinary tract growths. Aristolochia contamination has since been linked to a high incidence of urothelial carcinomas of the upper urinary tract (UTUC) in Europe and Taiwan. And while aristolochic acid is now banned in most countries, it is still commonly used in traditional Chinese medicine. Now, two genome-wide association studies of UTUC patients with known exposure to aristolochic acid demonstrate that the compound causes frequent and consistent mutations—specifically, an A-to-T transversion. And the studies’ authors suspect that it’s not just UTUC that result from aristolochic acid ingestion, but possibly liver cancer and maybe others as well.

“The number of mutations identified per megabase of DNA was pretty astounding,” Elaine Mardis, director of technology development at The Genome Institute at Washington University in St. Louis, told The Scientist. “Heretofore we thought that melanoma was the world class leader in terms of mutation number, or rate, but this now looks like it’s above and beyond that.”

Humans navigate with grid cells

FLICKR, EUSKALANATOFinding one’s way around a room likely involves the use of grid cells, which fire in a triangular pattern simultaneously, according to research published this week. First identified in rats in 2005, researchers have since suspected that grid cells also play a role in human navigation, and now, thanks to neuronal recordings of people completing a video-game search task, researchers at Drexel University have found evidence of grid-like firing in the hippocampus and entorhinal and cingulate cortices, brain regions involved in memory, among other things. “[The research] not only validates the intrinsically ambiguous fMRI findings [from previous studies], it [also] validates the enormously successful freely moving rodent model of human spatial cognition in which grid cells, place cells, et cetera were discovered,” said University College London’s Neil Burgess.

Mental disorders may share mechanism

WIKIMEDIA, ABOGOMAZOVAResearchers have identified a gene, topoisomerase 3β (TOP3β), that may underlie the cognitive problems associated with both schizophrenia and fragile X syndrome. As geneticist and psychiatrist Nelson Freimer of the University of California, Los Angeles, was studying the genomes of people in Northern Finland, he found a small deletion on chromosome 22 that was particularly common compared to the Finnish population as a whole. Within the deletion was TOP3β, which encodes an enzyme that interacts with the FMRP protein that, when mutated, causes fragile X syndrome. The researchers further found that the deletion was associated with schizophrenia in Finland and with intellectual disability in Northern Finland.

“They add a plausible mechanism and additional support to the growing understanding of the role of fragile X in a broad range of neurodevelopmental diseases,” said Richard McCombie, a geneticist at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory.

Other news in life science:

Bird Flu Spreads Between People

The H7N9 avian flu strain appears to have been transmitted from human to human for the first time, but its ability to jump between people is limited.

Dermatologist Censured for Plagiarism

A Case Western dermatologist has admitted to plagiarizing a grant she reviewed, plus taking text from eight research papers and a patent application.

Lab-Grown Burger Taste Test

The world’s first burger grown in a petri dish was cooked and served up in a public taste test.

UC Embraces Open Access

The University of California has adopted a system-wide policy that aims to make future research articles authored by its faculty freely available to all.

Turkish Scientists Face Injustice

Eight academics are among those being unfairly persecuted by Turkish officials, according to a new report from scientific academies’ human rights committees.

A Dolphin Doesn’t Forget

Bottlenose dolphins appear to remember one another’s whistles for up to 2 decades.

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