Week in Review: August 29–September 2

Roger Tsien dies; the CRISPR patent dispute you’ve never heard of; immunotherapy for Alzheimer’s; Tasmanian devils developing resistance to transmissible cancer

Sep 2, 2016
Jef Akst

Nobel Laureate Roger Tsien dies

The news broke this week that the 64-year-old University of California, San Diego, (UCSD) biochemist died on a bike trial in Eugene, Oregon, on August 24, though the cause of his death is still unknown. Tsien earned the 2008 Nobel Prize for Chemistry for his work developing green fluorescent protein into an indispensable tool for labeling proteins, cells, and tissues. He also designed labels in a variety of other colors, including one that fluoresced in the infrared, allowing researchers to see deeper into tissues.

“I’ve always been attracted to colors,” Tsien told the San Diego Union-Tribune in 2008. “Color helps make the work more interesting and endurable. It helps when things aren’t going well. If I had been born color-blind, I probably never would have gone into this.”

EXCLUSIVE: Delving into an obscure CRISPR patent fight

A high-profile battle is ongoing between the Broad Institute and the University of California (UC), Berkeley, over who holds the rights to CRISPR gene-editing technology. This past January, the US Patent and Trademark Office declared a patent “interference” and launched an investigation into the matter. But this is only one facet of the story about who owns CRISPR. Another patent dispute—one patent lawyers are calling “bizarre” and “odd”—remains unsettled between the Broad and Rockefeller University, which has argued that Luciano Marraffini of Rockefeller deserved to be named as an inventor on some of the earliest patents covering the technology.

What has happened “is really outside the course of normal events,” said Kevin Noonan, who specializes in biotechnology patent law as a partner with McDonnell Boehnen Hulbert & Berghoff in Chicago, told The Scientist. “I’m not sure what the patent office is going to do with it.”

Senior Editor Kerry Grens sorts through the legal intricacies of the battle and explores the future implications for the scientists and institutions involved. In a related opinion article, senior patent attorney Catherine Coombes discusses how this patent dispute highlights the need for scientists to discuss the issue of intellectual property early on in the discovery process.

Immunotherapy for Alzheimer’s disease

An antibody called aducanumab, developed by Cambridge, Massachusetts–based Biogen, reduced amyloid-β plaques in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients in a Phase 1b clinical trial, according to a study published this week (August 31) in Nature. An interim analysis of the trial results suggested that the antibody worked in a dose-dependent manner, a promising sign for its future development.

“What they found was very exciting: that aducanumab treatment was associated with an unusually striking and progressive removal of existing plaques,” Eric Reiman, executive director of the Banner Alzheimer’s Institute in Phoenix, Arizona, who was not involved in the work, told The Scientist.

Resistance to devil cancer

The contagious cancer that has decimated Tasmanian devil (Sarcophilus harrisii) populations over the past 20 years is finally hitting a wall. While devil facial tumor disease (DFTD) was once nearly 100 percent fatal, the marsupials are starting to survive the disease. Now, researchers have identified genomic evidence that the devils are evolving resistance. They published their results this week (August 30) in Nature Communications.

“It’s such an important finding,” said Beata Ujvari of Deakin University in Geelong, Australia, who did not participate in the work. “We suspected that the devils would evolve resistance to the disease. It was really exciting to see that this hunch or hypothesis was actually correct.”

Zika updates

WHO: No Zika Cases Among Olympics Attendees

The World Health Organization reports zero laboratory-confirmed infections stemming from the Games in Rio, noting, however, that some cases may have gone undetected.

FDA: Screen All US Blood Donations for Zika

The US Food and Drug Administration recommends that all blood collected across the country be tested for the virus.

Theranos Withdraws Zika Blood Test

The embattled company failed to include proper safeguards, according to federal regulators.

Mosquitoes Inherit Zika: Study

The virus can be vertically transmitted by female Aedes aegypti and A. albopictus mosquitoes to their offspring, scientists show.

More news in life science

Dogs Respond to Words and Inflection

Using an MRI scanner to examine how dogs’ brains process speech, researchers find that our canine companions hear both what we say and how we say it. 

Did Lucy Fall to Her Death?

An analysis of bone fractures in the famous hominin’s fossil remains suggest that she stretched out her arms to brace for a fall before she died.

Researcher Fired for Misconduct Shoots Former Boss

A former Mount Sinai School of Medicine faculty member shot the institution’s dean, The New York Times reports. 

US Gov't Takes On Predatory Publishers

The Federal Trade Commission has filed a legal complaint against the OMICS Group for allegedly engaging in deceptive practices.