Friday, August 29, 2014

Quick links

From Science: Genome sequencing from patient samples reveals how the Ebola virus spread in Sierra Leone, mutating along the way. Sadly, some authors who contributed to the study died after being infected with the virus.

From 'Tis the season for big-money buys in the pharma sector.

From Forbes: How Illumina became the leader in genome sequencing technology.

From Nature: The RIKEN research centre at the centre of the recent stem cell scandal (see here) is going to be renamed and downsized, after researchers around the world protested the initial plan of closing it down altogether. Throwing the baby out with the bathwater, perhaps?

From MarketWatch: XPRIZE announces the 10 finalists for the $10 million Qualcomm Tricorder XPRIZE. The Tricorder is meant to be a small, personal medicine device that fits in the palm of your hand, capable of monitoring your health parameters and instantly diagnosing selected illnesses. To learn more, see here.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Patient, diagnose thyself

Here's another interesting genomics-related article I came across recently - a patient more or less diagnosed herself by identifying the gene mutation that was making her sick.

The subject of the article is Kim Goodsell, an extreme athlete and mainstream dropout, who in her forties was diagnosed with a genetic condition called Charcot Marie Tooth (CMT) disease, a neurological disorder. She was already suffering from a heart problem, and was surprised when doctors didn't seem to think they were related.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Personal genomics in India

Personal genomics - where a consumer directly gets his or her DNA sequenced through a private company to learn about their predispositions to various diseases as well as other lifestyle conditions - has been on the rise in the West, with companies springing up to offer direct-to-consumer genetic testing, and a McKinsey report anointing it as one of the 12 disruptive technologies of the future, with an estimated market value of around 1 trillion dollars in a decade from now.

In India, however, personal genomics is very much a nascent industry. Three years ago, I wrote about Acton Biotech, a company that at the time was planning to introduce India's first commercial genome scanning service. While that doesn't seem to have happened, I recently had a chance to speak with Anu Acharya, the CEO of Hyderabad-based Mapmygenome, which started offering large-scale genome tests to customers last year under the brand Genomepatri.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Another setback for stem cell research

A few months ago, I wrote about two high profile papers in the field of stem cell research that were published with a great deal of fanfare, only to fall under a cloud of suspicion when other researchers were unable to replicate the initial findings. The story has taken a very sad turn indeed, so I thought a follow-up post was due.

The two papers were authored by a team from the RIKEN Institute in Japan - Dr. Haruka Obakata was the lead author - and attracted attention for demonstrating an extremely simple method of creating stem cells from normal ones, as simple as exposing cells to mechanical stimuli or bathing them in an acid solution. Elegant in their simplicity, these methods also bypassed many of the technical and ethical obstacles that stem cell researchers must contend with. Naturally, many researchers were eager to duplicate the method in their own labs, but as one lab after another failed in their attempts, scientists began to wonder if the published results were perhaps too good to be true.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Quick links

In the New Yorker: An in-depth profile of anti-GMO activist Vandana Shiva that explores both sides of the debate over genetically modified seeds. As always, I'm struck by the gap between the rhetoric of the experts and the reality on the ground.

From BuzzFeed: A professor at the University of British Columbia has designed a series of evening gowns that draw design inspiration from microscopic images of cancer cells.

From the New York Times: Some Ebola survivors are returning home to a less than warm welcome.

From the Economist: An unexpected link between HIV and multiple sclerosis may open new avenues of treatment.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

More updates on the Ebola outbreak

Here are some more updates on the ongoing Ebola outbreak in West Africa.

The current state of the epidemic:

  • WHO confirms that the death toll currently stands at 932 and pledges $2 million to help the fight against the spread of the virus.
  • The US Centres for Disease Control (CDC) has issued a Level 3 travel warning, advising against non-essential travel to the countries of Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia, where the outbreak is at its worst. CDC Director Tom Frieden has called this the "biggest and most complicated Ebola outbreak in history."
  • There are now five confirmed cases of Ebola in Nigeria, all of whom were involved with caring for a Liberian-American man who flew into Lagos from Sierra Leone and ultimately died. A nurse involved in the man's treatment has also died after acquiring the virus from her patient.
  • A suspected Ebola victim in Saudi Arabia, a man who recently visited Sierra Leone, has now died. If the virus indeed caused the man's death, this will be the first Ebola-related death outside of Africa.

Trouble in Sierra Leone:

  • An official from Doctors Without Borders has appealed for help from international organizations, claiming that the Sierra Leone government is unable to deal with the outbreak.
  • Quarantine measures imposed by the Sierra Leone government are not being strictly enforced, making it harder to control the spread of the virus. This is due in part to decades of antipathy towards the state. Many also believe that the present outbreak has been caused by witchcraft and sorcery, and place greater faith in witch doctors and traditional healers. A deep-rooted distrust of Western medicine and its emissaries, doctors and foreign aid workers, is making things worse.
  • Author Richard Preston tracks Ebola in Kenema, Sierra Leone.

The latest in treatments being developed for Ebola:

  • The BBC covers the current state of experimental treatments.
  • Two Americans who contracted Ebola in Liberia have been flown back to the US to receive an experimental monoclonal antibody-based treatment on an emergency basis. The therapy has not yet been tested in humans or received official sanction from the FDA. Nonetheless, unhappy Liberians are demanding to know why they are being told that there is no cure for Ebola, when the Americans seem to have one.
  • The co-discoverer of the Ebola virus, Peter Piot, argues in an opinion piece that experimental treatments should be tested in affected countries with support from the WHO.

And finally:

  • The threat of an Ebola outbreak in the developed world is still low, despite all the furore. This is largely because Ebola is not transmitted via the airborne route, only through direct contact with the bodily fluids of an infected person. Quarantine, if correctly enforced, should be effective at halting the virus in its tracks.
  • Malaysian glove manufacturers are anticipating a boom in business thanks to Ebola. Tellingly, they anticipate the main consumers to be from the developed world,  "rather than from developing countries like Africa (sic) where glove consumption is low.” Low glove consumption can help to explain how Ebola is spreading so rapidly.
  • Author Laurie Garrett (do read her book The Coming Plague, if you haven't done so already) profiled the 1995 Ebola outbreak in Zaire, and it still makes for relevant reading.