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Week in Review: August 26–30

New model for neurodevelopment; more biotechs going public; how a virus jumped from mammals to birds; statin side effect linked to genetic variant

By | August 30, 2013

Cerebral organoids from stem cells

MADELINE A. LANCASTERA team from the Austrian Academy of Science has grown three-dimensional models of embryonic human brains made from stem cells. Jürgen Knoblich and his colleagues noted that while these so-called cerebral organoids cannot be used to study higher-level brain functions, they may be useful models for studying early development and neurodevelopmental disorders. Indeed, the researchers used the three-dimensional, brain-like structures to study a case of severe microcephaly. These structures could help reduce the need for animal models, noted Knoblich, though it won’t eliminate the need for them entirely.

Stem cell biologist Arnold Kriegstein from the University of California, San Francisco, lauded the work. He told The Scientist that these organoids are “the most complete to date in terms of features that directly resemble those in the developing human brain.”

Bust to boom . . . and bust?

WIKIMEDIA, KLIP GAMEWith dozens of biotech firms having already gone public this year, analysts are celebrating the current biotech boom—and wondering when it might end. Portions of the Jumpstart Our Business Startups (JOBS) Act have helped several early-stage life-science companies make it to market since 2012, and established biotechs have also demonstrated recent success. Furthermore, investors seem to have warmed to the idea of buying into tools and technologies that they once may have glazed over.

Emily Mendel, a spokesperson for the National Venture Capital Association (NVCA), told The Scientist that firms that were previously skeptical about their potential for success are now making big moves. “There was a lot of market uncertainty, and [companies] might have been waiting for the right time,” she said. “And I think the right time has come.”

A zoonotic transmission story

WIKIMEDIA, HERBERTTA new report tells the tale of how reticuloendotheliosis viruses (REVs) may have initially spread from mammals to birds. “It’s basically an example of a contamination that went rogue . . . and extraordinary bad luck,”  Eric Delwart, a professor of laboratory medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, told The Scientist.

It turns out that the source of REV infection in birds was a contaminated stock of the parasite Plasmodium lophurae, which was used to infect birds for malaria research. Historical records showed that P. lophurae had been isolated in 1937 from a pheasant at what’s now the Bronx Zoo. Still, exactly how birds became infected with the mammalian retrovirus remains a mystery. “Retroviral transmission needs to be taken seriously,” said Jonathan Stoye of the MRC National Institute for Medical Research.

Genetic variant behind statin side effect

FLICKR, CAN HWhile side effects of cholesterol-lowering statins are generally rare, some patients experience muscle comfort and dysfunction when taking the drugs. According to research out of Sage Bionetworks in Seattle, a genetic variant that affects expression of the gene for glycine amidinotransferase (GATM) may be partly to blame. GATM controls the synthesis rate of creatine, a molecule muscles use for energy, so it was not surprising that “something that alters the level of creatine within the muscle might predispose the individual to muscular side effects,” Duke University’s Deepak Voora told The Scientist.

Researchers who were not involved in the study noted that it wasn’t simply what the Sage Bionetworks team found that interested them, but how they found it. The team generated lymphoblastoid cell lines to investigate statin-related effects.  “That approach will have implications for studying other drugs,” Voora said.

Other news in life science:

Pioneering Neurologist Dies

Neuroscientist and pediatric neurologist Peter Huttenlocher, who discovered that synapse growth peaks in early childhood, has passed away at age 82.

Data Sharing Goes Linux

A life-science information platform joins the nonprofit organization that helped develop the open-source operating system.

Framingham Heart Study Gutted

The iconic Framingham Heart Study, the longest-running cardiovascular study in the country, has been hit with a $4 million budget cut.

DIY Self-Tracking Device

A new gadget combines the dual obsessions of do-it-yourself science and self-quantification.

Exaggeration Nation

A new study finds behavioral researchers in the U.S. are prone to reporting extreme results.

Ocean Acidity Affects Climate

Acidification of the oceans may lead to lower sulfur levels in the atmosphere, worsening the effects of climate change.

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