Frontlines

As blood-letting, the aspirin of medieval medicine, fell out of favor, so too did its boon companion, the leech. In the past two decades, however, the slimy, segmented worms squirmed back into hospitals as a treatment for the venous congestion that can occur after reconstructive surgery. Recently, a University of Wisconsin team created a mechanical replacement designed to work as well or better at clearing dead, clotted blood from reattached tissues. The prototype leech sucks blood from a 3-mm w

Jan 21, 2002
The Scientist Staff
As blood-letting, the aspirin of medieval medicine, fell out of favor, so too did its boon companion, the leech. In the past two decades, however, the slimy, segmented worms squirmed back into hospitals as a treatment for the venous congestion that can occur after reconstructive surgery. Recently, a University of Wisconsin team created a mechanical replacement designed to work as well or better at clearing dead, clotted blood from reattached tissues. The prototype leech sucks blood from a 3-mm wound, irrigates the wound with the anticoagulant heparin, and a porous rotating tip subcutaneously loosens clots. "Leeches really are an elegant biological organism in what they do," says Nadine Connor, research director of otolaryngology at the university. But, she adds, "they haven't really signed on to the medical team.... Their goal is to fill their gut with blood, not really to provide a service." The mechanical version, besides being sterile, insatiable, reusable, and capable of drawing blood from a larger, deeper area than a live leech, also requires less monitoring from nurses. Connor estimates that clinical trials may start in humans within three years. Funded by the Department of Veterans Affairs, the device could reduce the cost of leech therapy. Such critters, says Connor, cost about $7 a pop, and a therapeutic course could require two leeches per hour for up to 10 days.

Neuroscience draws a crowd

Courtesy of Peter Howard


The 1990s, the so-called Decade of the Brain, may be officially over, but the Century of the Brain may be just beginning. Attendance at the Society for Neuroscience meeting in San Diego in November totaled 28,000, some 7,000 more than the previous year's meeting in New Orleans. Heart and rheumatology groups meeting in other California cities at the same time drew only hundreds. Joe Carey, a spokesman for the society, attributed the strong attendance to location, expansion in conference offerings, and shifts in other disciplines. "Neuroscience is still one of the most uncharted science fields, "which makes it of particular interest to researchers, while new findings from genomics and proteomics are certainly helping to stir interest."
—Jean McCann

From stem cell to neuron

Courtesy of Su-Chun Zhang

ES Cells within a cluster of rosettes

WiCell Institute researchers in Madison, Wis., successfully transplanted neuroprecursor cells from three lines of human embryonic stem cells (ESCs) into baby mice brains and developed them into mature neuron and glial cells (S-C Zhang et al., "In Vitro differentiation of transplantable neural precursors from human embryonic stem cells," Nature Biotechnology, 19[12]:1129-33, December 2001.) This breakthrough shows that blank-slate stem cells can become neuroprecursor cells, which then develop into more specific cell types that are necessary for normal brain function. "These are the cells that will be used ultimately to treat Parkinson's and other central nervous system disorders," says Su-Chun Zhang, assistant professor in anatomy at the University of Wisconsin. Zhang says the experiment was successful not only because the precursor brain cells gave rise to functional brain cells, but because they didn't generate other cell types. While the results produced strong evidence that stem cell therapies could live up to their lofty billing, Zhang says that this type of revolutionary treatment is still years away from clinical applications.

New euros for new enterprises

Courtesy of Audiovisual Library European Commission


The European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) in Heidelberg, Germany, recently raised 10 million euros for its New Technology Fund. Gabor Lamm, managing director of the lab's Enterprise Management division (EMBLEM), says the fund will aim the capital toward first and second rounds of financing and earmark 30% of the fund volume for biotech start-ups in EMBL member states. The lab created the fund to aid in commercializing new technology and to build on existing EMBL spin-offs, such as Heidelberg-based Lion BioScience, Cenix BioScience in Dresden, and Cellzome, also in Heidelberg. "We hope all this will ultimately help to attract top-class scientists to the institute," Lamm says. EMBLEM's institutional investors include the United Kingdom, BankInvest of Denmark, and Marco Polo of Spain. Lamm says the monetary muscle of EMBL's international venture capital partners will continue to be integral to helping start-ups. "These companies initially need help in order to get them to walk," he adds. EMBL receives its funding from 16 member states including Israel and most of Western Europe.

Susceptibility gene for restless legs

Courtesy of M. Ray Barillaro

Alex Desautels

For the one in 20 people with restless leg syndrome (RLS), daytime movements may be annoying, but nighttime symptoms cause profound fatigue and sometimes depression. "The symptoms are described by patients as creeping, crawling, aching, tingling, and less commonly, painful," says Alex Desautels, a PhD candidate in the Guy Rouleau lab at Sacred Heart Hospital and McGill University in Montreal. "Most patients experience delayed sleep onset, multiple awakening and reduced sleep efficiency." The group performed a genomewide scan in a large French Canadian family and looked for markers inherited with RLS. They detected an area on the long arm of chromosome 12 that harbors a susceptibility gene (A. Desautels et al., "Identification of a major susceptibility locus for restless leg syndrome on chromosome 12q," American Journal of Human Genetics, 69:1266-70, December 2001.) The researchers are confirming the results in two other large kindreds. "We believe that this result can be extrapolated beyond this family, but we don't know yet if it is the only locus involved in RLS," Desautels says. A top-candidate gene contender: the human version of the Drosophila circadian rhythm gene timeless. "The finding of a gene may lead to the development of accurate and feasible diagnostic tests, and improved treatments of RLS and related conditions."

Researchers fuse biology and light

Courtesy of Frank Miller


A $2.7 million, five-year National Science Foundation grant will fund 40 multidisciplinary doctoral candidates in biophotonics at the University at Buffalo in New York. The study of the effects of light on life, biophotonics is usually peopled by biologists-turned-physicists or the reverse, with a sprinkling of chemists, materials scientists, and engineers. Scientists in the field have developed photodynamic cancer therapy, biomedical imaging, laser surgery, fluorescence microscopy, molecular tweezers, biosensors, chromosome paints, and quantum dots. "Biophotonics is ... where a lot of exciting research is being done in medicine, diagnostics, and new technologies," says principal investigator Alexander Cartwright, an associate professor of electrical engineering and deputy director of the university's Institute for Lasers, Photonics and Biophotonics. Researchers also study photosynthesis and bioluminescence. The degree program includes a certificate in biophotonics, which verifies training in optical and computational techniques and research ethics.