January 7, 2011
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Symmetry Saves the Day
University of Toronto ♦ Published in Stem Cells, Dec. 29, 2010
One of the hallmarks of stem cells is their ability to maintain the stem cell pool indefinitely through the process of asymmetric division. When they divide they give rise to one slightly more differentiated cell and one daughter stem cell identical to the original. By carrying out cell division in this manner, stem cell populations, at least in theory, are capable of living indefinitely. David Piccin and Cindi Morshead — researchers at the Donnelly Centre for Cellular and Biomolecular Research — discovered that the Wnt (pronounced ‘wint’) signaling pathway is involved in damage response in neural stem cells found in the brain. Using a mouse model Piccin and Morshead show that when neural stem cells sense it is time to replenish the stem cell population, for example during the period following a stroke, Wnt signaling contributes to a signaling cascade that promotes symmetric division. When stem cells divide symmetrically they produce two identical daughter stem cells rather than one daughter stem cell and a differentiated progenitor, ensuring that the stem cell pool does not become depleted.
H5N1 Vaccine Derived from Tobacco Plants Shows Results in the Clinic
Medicago Inc. ♦ Published in PLoS ONE, Dec. 22, 2010
Egg-based vaccine manufacturing failed to live up to its promise of rapidly producing large quantities of live vaccine for control of viral outbreaks. During the recent H1N1 influenza pandemic only 3 million doses of live vaccine had been produced by the 5 month mark, when 60 million had been expected. Canadian biotechnology company Medicago Inc. has come up with an all together different approach that could make fast and efficient vaccine production a reality — a plant-based manufacturing technology that produces influenza vaccines using Nicotiana benthamiana. At the core of the vaccine technology is something known as a “Virus-Like Particle” (VLP). VLPs are small entities containing the hemagglutinin protein of H5N1, and are produced by infecting tobacco plants with an Agrobacterium inoculum containing an H5 expression cassette. VLPs are then harvested from the aerial portions of the plant. Although a VLP resembles a viral particle, it lacks the genetic content within, thus is replication defective and non-infectious. Another aspect differentiating Medicago’s approach is that the technology only requires the genetic sequence of the virus, not an actual sample, as is the case with technologies using inactivated virus in vaccines. In a preclinical study led by Medicago’s Dr. Louis Vezina, researchers show that a VLP vaccine could induce cross-reactive antibodies in ferrets. After challenging the animals with lethal doses of H5N1 researchers observed reduced pathology and suppressed viral loads in vaccinated animals. The paper also reports on clinical results: a phase 1 trial of the H5 VLP vaccine in healthy adults between the ages of 18 and 60 revealed that the plant-derived vaccine was tolerated well at all doses and had strong immunogenicity as detected by microneutralization assays. These results taken together hold promise for Medicago’s plant-based manufacturing technology. Another plus? The vaccine can be produced in 3 weeks of sequence release! This is no doubt why DARPA made a non-repayable contribution of $21 million to Medicago back in August to build a 90,000 square foot cGMP facility in North Carolina for VLP vaccine production.
December 24, 2010
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Given that the UN Climate Change Conference has just wrapped up in Mexico, I thought for the Christmas edition of the FSR I would lay out some articles from Nature focused on global warming and its impact on one of Canada’s most iconic animals — the polar bear. University of Alberta’s Andrew Derocher reports on recent findings that suggest we can curb the polar bear’s extinction, but only if policy-makers move quickly. Steven Amstrup of the Alaska Science Center created a number of greenhouse gas emission scenarios and examined them within a projection model of sea-ice loss. The results indicated that mitigation has the potential to greatly improve the polar bear’s situation in the
snowy north. Amstrup believes that reducing emissions by sufficient amounts could increase the abundance of polar bears and broaden their distribution.
Melting ice also places the genetic diversity of Arctic animals at risk. A recent Nature commentary piece describes how the loss of habitat forces Arctic animals into environmental niches they would otherwise remain clear of, which can lead to interbreeding with different species. Brendan Kelly of the National Marine Mammal Laboratory in Alaska refers to this effect as a “melting pot”. In 2006, a white bear with brown patches was shot and killed by hunters in the Arctic. Genetic analysis would later show what many feared, that the animal was a hybrid between a polar bear and a grizzly (the polar bear in the photo above hasn’t been rolling in the mud, it’s a suspected hybrid). This year an even more unlikely event occurred when hunters in the Canadian north shot and killed a 2nd generation hybrid bear — its mother was a hybrid and its father a grizzly.
The outcome of the recent UN climate talks was positive, with unanimous adoption of the Cancún agreement. Developing countries will also be required to take heed to global warming policy and act to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Steps are being made in the right direction but execution and adherence will be essential to seeing results that benefit the earth and its animal populations in the coming decades.
As we approach year end I thought I would also reference you Nature’s “2010 Gallery: Images of the year“, which provides a fascinating look at some of the natural wonders that amazed (and scared) us over last 12 months. I should also point you towards an excellent article on nanomedicine recently published in NEJM; written by Dr. Betty Kim of the Institute for Biomaterials and Biomedical Research and the Terrence Donnelly Centre for Cellular and Biomolecular Research in Toronto, the review covers the properties of nanomaterials and the myriad in vivo and in vitro applications of these tiny tools.