Thursday, July 31, 2014

Three Questions for J. Craig Venter

Gene research and Silicon Valley-style computing are starting to merge.
Genome scientist and entrepreneur J. Craig Venter is best known for being the first person to sequence his own genome, back in 2001.
This year, he started a new company, Human Longevity, which intends to sequence one million human genomes by 2020, and ultimately offer Web-based programs to help people store and understand their genetic data (see “Microbes and Metabolites Fuel an Ambitious Aging Project”).
But that’s going to require some massive data crunching. To get these skills, Venter recruited Franz Och, the machine-learning specialist leading Google Translate. Now Och will apply similar methods to studying genomes in a data science and software shop that Venter is establishing in Mountain View, California.
The hire comes just as Google itself has launched a similar-sounding effort to start collecting biomedical data (see “What’s a Moon Shot Worth These Days”). Venter calls Google’s plans for a biomedical database “a baby step, a much smaller version of what we are doing.”
What’s clear is that genome research and data science are coming together in new ways, and at a much larger scale than ever before. We asked Venter why.

Prototype Display Lets You Say Goodbye to Reading Glasses

Researchers are developing technology that can adjust an image on a display so you can see it clearly without corrective lenses.
In addition to making it easier for people with simple vision problems to use all kinds of displays without glasses, the technique may help those with more serious vision problems caused by physical defects that can’t be corrected with glasses or contacts, researchers say. This includes spherical aberration, which causes different parts of the lens to refract light differently.

Unexpected stem cell factories found inside teeth

Development is typically thought to be a one-way street. Stem cells produce cells that mature into specific types, such as the neurons and glia that compose nervous systems, but the reverse isn’t supposed to happen. Yet researchers have now discovered nervous system cells transforming back into stem cells in a very surprising place: inside teeth. 

Retinal regeneration in zebrafish (w/ Video)

How is it that zebrafish can regenerate retinal cells and we can't?

Friday, July 18, 2014


People tended to visually fixate on the face, especially when they said an image elicited a feeling of romantic love. However, with images that evoked sexual desire, the subjects’ eyes moved from the face to fixate on the rest of the body. The effect was found for male and female participants.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014


Tests of a new oral medication show the drug can improve vision in children with an inherited disease that can cause complete blindness and is currently untreatable.
“This is the first time that an oral drug has improved the visual function of blind patients with LCA (Leber congenital amaurosis),” says Robert Koenekoop, professor of human genetics, pediatric surgery, and ophthalmology at McGill University. “It is giving hope to many patients who suffer from this devastating retinal degeneration.”
“Contrary to what was previously thought, children with LCA and defects in RPE65 or LRAT are not born with dead retinal cells; the cells can simply go dormant, and they can remain dormant for years before they eventually die. The oral drug we tested awakened these cells and allowed patients to see.”

Visually impaired Alexandria resident set to take on the Ironman world championship

“I still have light and shadow perception,” Ament said. “It’s sort of like running drunk.”
It is grueling enough to swim 2.4 miles, bike 112 miles and run 26.2 miles, but imagine doing all of that when you can only see a blur of light ahead of you.
Kristina Ament, a 52-year-old federal prosecutor, has completed four Ironman triathlons under those exact conditions because of her Leber congenital amaurosis, a degenerative disease that causes acute vision loss.
Now the Alexandria resident is training for October’s world championshipin Kailua-Kona, Hawaii, as one of five winners of the Ironman lottery for physically challenged athletes.
Like Plaskon, Ament relies on other athletes to guide her through the competition. Every stroke or stride she takes is done while tethered at the waist or arm to someone who can see. It means Ament must find a rhythm with her guide, create a game plan ahead of time to stay in sync.

Google and Novartis Combine Expertise to Produce Smart Contact and Intraocular Lenses

Back in January of this year, Google unveiled an electronic contact lens that it’s been secretly developing by its X research group. The device is capable of measuring glucose levels in the wearer’s tears, a technology that may one day replace finger pricks for millions of diabetics. Additionally, there are plans to embed LED lights into the lens to automatically warn the user when glucose is outside of healthy levels. But Google is not a medical company, so it has partnered with Alcon, a division of Novartis, to turn the device into a real product.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Key to Detecting Alzheimer's Early Could Be in the Eye

Scientists have found that certain biological changes in the retina and lens of the eye, and in the sense of smell, may help predict whether people with no or minor memory issues may go on to develop the progressive brain disease, according to findings presented here Sunday at the Alzheimer's Association International Conference.
But amyloid plaques found in the brain also are known to be deposited in the eye. Two company-funded studies found that those deposits can be detected through noninvasive eye-imaging technology and are highly correlated with the amyloid results from brain imaging.
Cognoptix Inc., a closely held biotech company in Acton, Mass., focuses on amyloid detection in the lens of the eye. CSIRO Australia, the country's national science agency, and its Sacramento, Calif.-based partner, NeuroVision Imaging LLC, have been studying the retina, in the back of the eyes.
The retina is like a "piece of brain outside the brain," said Shaun Frost, a researcher at CSIRO Australia.
The first 40 patients in a 200-participant study showed that retina changes correlated strongly with amyloid plaque development in the brain. The full study will be completed this year, according to Dr. Frost.

Tuesday, July 01, 2014

Why mosquitoes bite some people and not others

Science explains one of life's great mysteries. Plus! A natural remedy to keep you insect-free all summer

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Music Changes the Way You Think

Is it possible that hearing such isolated musical components can change the way you think? An ambitious new paper recently published by Jochim Hansen and Johann Melzner in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology argues precisely that.
What the scientists found is that the simple act listening to either of these two chord sets changed how people processed information in a very basic way. For example, the researchers asked people to take a list of shopping items and organize them into groups. Think detergent and paper towels: same kind of thing, or different? Results showed that “tritone” people formed fewer categories than “perfect fifth” people, indicating that they were thinking in broader, more inclusive categories than their counterparts.
Underlying these seemingly disparate questions is a relatively new theory in social psychology that has shown itself capable of explaining an impressive variety of human behaviors. It’s known as construal level theory, and its core premise is that there’s a link between how far things are from people and how abstractly they construe them. Distant things—a Hawaii vacation next year, say—appear to us general and decontextualized, their basic features (the beach, the sun) forefront in our minds. As they draw near, however, elements we never before considered (the packing, the possibility of rain) suddenly demand our attention. The forest, in other words, becomes the trees. Overall, the theory helps explain many seemingly disparate phenomena, like why we’re bad at predicting how long it’ll take us to fix the kitchen sink, why absence makes the heart grow fonder, and why we rarely follow through on New Years resolutions. In all these cases, what seemed a certain way from afar turns out, up close, to be a different beast entirely.
How does all this relate to repeating chord patterns? What the researchers have done, cleverly, is consider music’s ability to conjure up highly specific mental states. Tiny, almost immeasurable features in a piece of music have the power to elicit deeply personal and specific patterns of thought and emotion in human listeners. 


Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Book Review: 'The Big Fat Surprise' by Nina Teicholz

What if the government's crusade against fat fed the spread of obesity by encouraging us to abstain from foods that satiate us efficiently?

It is a commonplace in public-health discussions of obesity to warn that the search for "perfect" or "better" evidence is the enemy of good policy and that we can't afford to wait for all the information we might desire when there is a need to do something now. Yet Ms. Teicholz's book is a lacerating indictment of Big Public Health for repeatedly putting action and policy ahead of good evidence. It would all be comical if the result was not possibly the worst dietary advice in history. And once the advice had been reified by government recommendations and research grants, it became almost impossible to change course. As Ms. Teicholz herself notes, she is not the first to point out that saturated fats have been sinned against by bogus science; and yet, the supermarket aisles are still full of low- and no-fat foods offering empty moral victories.
"The Big Fat Surprise" is more than a book about food and health or even hubris; it is a tragedy for our information age. From the very beginning, we had the statistical means to understand why things did not add up; we had a boatload of Cassandras, a chorus of warnings; but they were ignored, castigated, suppressed. We had our big fat villain, and we still do.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Vibrating Electronic Glove Teaches People to Read/Write in Braille with Little to No Effort

Reading and writing in Braille can be a frustrating new skill that people who lost their eyesight have to learn. Typically, to become a natural at Braille requires many hours of learning, but researchers at Georgia Tech developed a glove that can help learn Braille without even thinking about it.
The electronic glove has vibrating motors sitting atop each knuckle and was originally used toteach people to play piano. The knuckles can be made to vibrate in different patterns that correspond to phrases written in Braille. In studies, to be presented at the 18th International Symposium on Wearable Computers (ISWC) in Seattle in September, the researchers had volunteers wear the glove while focusing on learning Braille, while other participants played unrelated video games during the same Braille learning sequences. Remarkably, even those that didn’t consciously focus on Braille were able to repeat writing phrases taught by the glove. Moreover, not only did writing of Braille improve, but the study participants were also able to read Braille with greater ease.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

India Has a New Health Care Plan That Will Make Americans Jealous

The news: Millions of Indians are about to get a lot healthier. Dr. Harsh Vardhan, the country's new health minister, is rolling out a new health care initiative that will provide Indians free access to 50 essential generic medicines.
"Fifty basic essential drugs address 75% of the health care needs of the majority, and we plan to make these available free to everyone, from birth to death," Vardhan told the Hindustan Times.
How this will work: India's public hospitals and dispensaries will offer free medicine to treat pain, infections, hypertension, diabetes and many other diseases. Vardhan explained that, "The program" which will be rolled out in phases, "will focus on efficient procurement, quality control and rational use – 50% medicines are wasted or overused, leading to complications and drug-resistance."

Ad-Tech Entrepreneurs Build Cancer Database

Flatiron Health Is Sharing Its Information About 550,000 Cases With Doctors, Medical Facilities

Most treatments for cancer are based on protocols developed from clinical trials. Outcome reporting can lag for a while until papers are published. Flatiron gathers data that weren't previously available and shareable, the 96% of cases where the patient didn't participate in a clinical trial.
Revenue comes to two-year-old Flatiron from charging cancer centers for access to its database and by joining with life-science companies on their research. The centers contribute specific information about actual cases, with patient names taken off. This includes the course of treatment prescribed, and the outcome. Every cancer center has lots of such information: If they contribute theirs, they get access to the whole Flatiron database, and their doctors can see a much wider data set as they prescribe courses of treatment.

Today, Flatiron Health has 105 employees, and half of those are engineers. More than 200 cancer centers in the U.S. either use or are testing its database, which holds information about more than 550,000 cancer cases. This spring, it received Google Ventures' largest-ever investment in a medical-software company, $130 million. Mr. Turner, age 28, recently spoke to The Wall Street Journal about his struggles so far to build the business, which he expects to break even within a few years. Edited excerpts:

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