Is a cure for cancer in sight?

James Watson, one of the giants of 20th-century biology, is getting excited – about the prospects of a cure for cancer.

“New science of the past year makes me optimistic that the back of most incurable human cancers may be broken over the next five to 10 years,” says Watson, who discovered DNA with Francis Crick in 1953. Watson, now 83 and still active in genetics research at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in the US, says his optimism led him to write his first solo scientific paper (as opposed to multi-authored reports) since 1972. It has just appeared in the journal Cancer Discovery.

“We have made immense progress recently but no one in the cancer community wants to be seen jumping up and down with excitement, because researchers have been over-optimistic in the past,” Watson said in an interview with the FT Weekend Magazine. “However, we will likely only win soon if we put ourselves at risk by seemingly over-promising more success than many of my peers deem prudent to promise to the public.”

Watson’s optimism is based on the fact that, 10 years after the completion of the Human Genome Project, powerful molecular inhibitors called RNAis are now available to selectively block every one of the 22,000 or so human genes. So researchers can identify which genes to inhibit in order to stop specific cancers dividing.

A recent RNAi screen at Cold Spring Harbor focused on acute myelocytic leukaemia (AML). It found, unexpectedly, that a gene-activating protein called bromodomain-4 is essential for uncontrolled cell division by AML cells. When the scientists blocked the action of bromodomain-4 with a drug called JQ1, discovered by James Bradner at the Dana Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, the rapidly dividing cancer cells quickly reverted to normal non-dividing white blood cells.

Studies show bromodomain-4 makes cancers “incurable” by expanding the amounts of a key transcription factor called Myc, which in turn activates a large number of biological molecules required for cell division. In fact Myc may be the key to cell proliferation in many other cancers besides AML, and JQ1 may turn out to be a multipurpose cancer cure.

It is far too early to tell, because JQ1 has not yet started clinical trials. Until then, Watson says, “we won’t know whether we have at last in our possession the long sought for miracle molecule that acts against a broad spectrum of different cancers without the life-diminishing side effects of most of today’s anti-cancer drugs.”

Even if JQ1 itself turns out not to cure cancer, Watson is confident its discovery will soon bear other fruit. As his scientific paper concludes, “time cannot move fast enough.”

New spark of hope for stroke patients

Electric currents are becoming increasingly useful for treating disorders of the brain, from depression to Parkinson’s disease. The latest application is to help the recovery of stroke patients.

A study at Oxford university found that very small currents improved patients’ hand movements. Although only 13 people took part in the trial, the 5-10 per cent improvement in movement response times was significant.

Charlotte Stagg, lead author of the study published in the journal Brain, says, “patients certainly noticed the improvements, but they were short-lived.

“However, we are very hopeful that daily brain stimulation would lead to longer-lasting improvements.”

For the next stage in their research the Oxford scientists are recruiting 30 stroke patients for a larger trial to see whether daily brain stimulation, in addition to physiotherapy, leads to measurable benefits after three months. “The brain stimulation technique is relatively cheap, easy to use and it’s portable,” Stagg says.

Strokes are thought to cause a loss of connectivity in the neural region involved in movement of the affected side of the body. The brain appears to respond by using other regions to try to do the same job, a phenomenon known as neuroplasticity.

The simple non-invasive technique used in the study, called transcranial direct current stimulation or TDCS, involves passing a small current of about 1 milliamp across part of the brain, using pads on the outside of the head – in contrast to deep stimulation used to treat Parkinson’s, which requires implants. TDCS increases the “excitability” of neurons in the targeted region of the brain.

Judging from the initial trial, Stagg says “the approach seems to have an effect in a wide range of stroke patients.”

City birdsong takes note of architecture

Urban soloist: the great tit

Ornithologists have noted for years that urban birds tend to sing at a higher pitch than their country cousins. The usual explanation is that higher pitched songs stand out more clearly against the low-pitched noise from traffic and other human activities.

But a study of great tits by scientists from Aberystwyth and Copenhagen universities suggests that another factor is just as important: urban architecture.

Researchers experimented by playing recorded songs from urban and rural tits in both town and forest environments, and measuring how well they carried under different conditions. The species is at home in both city gardens and wild woods.

“Our cities are packed with reflective surfaces, open spaces and narrow channels, which you just don’t get in woodland,” says Emily Mockford of Aberystwyth. “Because sounds bounce and travel in different ways, birds have to use songs that can cope with this. The higher notes mean the echoes disappear faster and the next note is clearer.”

The study, published in the journal PLoS One, also showed that higher pitched birdsong travelled better in woodland. But other factors come into play here, says Rupert Marshall, also of Aberystwyth. “In woodland ... many species of songbird can tell how far away a rival is by how degraded its song is,” he says. “In cities there are fewer visual obstacles and song doesn’t degrade as quickly.”

New plastic a greener option for bottles

A new plastic, made from plant carbohydrates, could reach the consumer market in soft drink bottles in just three or four years.

The plastic, called polyethylene furanoate or PEF, is being developed to challenge polyethylene terephthalate (PET), the oil-based polymer that dominates today’s plastic bottle industry.

Avantium, a Dutch research and technology company, is behind PEF. Its commercial prospects were looking up last month when the company announced a co-development deal with Coca-Cola. Tom van Aken, Avantium chief executive, says PEF has two advantages over PET. First, it is functionally superior because it provides a better barrier to gases and water, so drinks last longer in a PEF bottle.

Second, PEF comes from sustainable sources – sugarcane or any biomass feedstock containing carbohydrate – while PET is an oil-based petrochemical. A PEF bottle is not biodegradable but is fully recyclable.

The company – spun out from Royal Dutch Shell in 2000 – predicts PEF will compete with PET, though this depends on the relative costs of oil and carbohydrates.

The technological key to PEF is Avantium’s secret catalyst that converts carbohydrates into 2,5-furandicarboxylic acid, the monomer (building block) from which the plastic is made.

Avantium is making 40 tonnes a year of PEF for development purposes at a pilot plant in the Netherlands. Commercial production could not start before 2015, van Aken says.

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