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News in a nutshell

Posted Feb 21 2011 12:30pm

This week’s news includes the suspension of a researcher working to make petri dish-grown meat a reality, an early end to Japan’s research whaling season due to anti-whaling activists, a study showing the brain’s visual reading centers lighting up when blind people read Braille, statistics suggesting the success rate for experimental drugs is plummeting, and a biomimetic hummingbird drone that may one day spy for Uncle Sam.

Trouble for in vitro meat researcher

Vladimir Mironov, the researcher at the forefront of developing tissue cultured meat grown in petri dishes, has been suspended from his post, and his lab at the Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC) has been shut down for “unacceptable behavior” involving an “act of insubordination,” according to the university. Mironov’s suspension casts a pall of uncertainty on another research program in which he was heavily involved—an effort to grow human organs from stem cells for transplant, which is funded by a $20 million National Science Foundation (NSF) grant. Though details of the fracas that led to his suspension are murky, Charleston, SC, newspaper The Post and Courier reported that Mironov sent a letter to an MUSC administrator coordinating the university’s involvement in the NSF-funded project after the school’s College of Medicine dean, Etta Pisano, ordered him to refrain from doing so.

Japanese whale researchers pack up early

Researchers working aboard whaling ships for the Japanese government in waters around Antarctica have headed home ahead of schedule due to disruptions caused by an anti-whaling activist group. The Sea Shepherd Conservation Society used speed boats to harass whaling vessels and made it difficult for the researchers to secure “the lives of the crew and the safety of property and the ships,” said Michihiko Kano, Japan’s agriculture minister, at a press conference on Friday. Exploiting a loophole in the global ban on commercial whaling, Japan harvests hundreds of minke whales and other whale species every year, recording stomach contents, heavy metal concentrations in flesh, and other data before selling the meat to subsidize continued whale research. This year, Japan’s fleet aimed to take 900 whales, but was only able to capture 172. Hat tip to ScienceInsider .

The brain sees even when the eyes don’t

The brains of blind people reading Braille with their fingertips show patterns of activity similar to those of sighted people who are reading with their eyes, according to a new study by researchers at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem. The team used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to show that in blind volunteers the brain area responsible for processing information gathered through reading—the visual word form area or VWFA—lit up as they read Braille. The research suggests that instead of having a brain region dedicated to sighted reading and one that functioned to process tactile information when blind people read Braille, the brain is more task-oriented and uses the VMFA to process information in both scenarios.

Bad news for new drugs

Everyone knows that developing novel drugs is tough. But a new study from the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO) found that in the last 6 years, it’s gotten harder than ever to get new pharmaceutical products on the market. BIO’s study tracked drug development from 2004 through 2010 and found that the success rate for drugs moving from Phase I clinical trials to FDA approval is approximately one in 10. This is down from a success rate of about one in five or six in previous years. “It ain’t getting any easier to develop new therapies,” Alan Eisenberg, BIO’s head of emerging companies and business development, told Reuters . Biologics fared better, with a success rate of about 15 percent.

Code name: Hummingbird

At last week’s annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, a California-based company unveiled an interesting little piece of biomimetic gadgetry. With funding from the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), tech firm AeroVironment developed the Nano Hummingbird, a remote-controlled micro aircraft that can hover and fly in all directions while shooting and transmitting color video. With a paint job that resembles a real hummingbird’s coloration and two rapidly flapping wings, the Nano Hummingbird could one day be used for reconnaissance or surveillance missions, flying where larger remote-controlled aircraft can’t go.


Related stories:

  • New lab-grown lungs
    [24th June 2010]
  • Minding the Drug Development Gap
    [7th November 2005]
  • Machining the Body
    [9th May 2005]
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