Thomas King: An 18-year-old British man has had his failing eyesight improved by cutting edge gene therapy. Steven Howard from Bolton, near Manchester, suffers from a rare form of blindness called Leber’s congenital amaurosis. The condition is the result of a faulty gene which prevents sufferers from manufacturing rhodopsin, a light-absorbing pigment which is a vital component of the human eye. Lack of this pigment has left Howarth with extremely poor night-vision since birth but his vision was progressively worsening and would have left him totally blind by his mid-to-late twenties. The treatment, pioneered by doctors at London’s Moorfields Eye Hospital, works by replacing the damaged gene. This rejuvenates the dying cells on the retina and restores vision as they recover. A healthy copy of the gene is inserted into the cells by injecting a fluid containing a modified virus which carries the healthy gene. When the virus ‘infects’ the retinal cells and copies its own genetic material across, it also copies the healthy gene and repairs the cells’ nuclei. The treatment has improved Howarth’s low-light vision 100-fold and has also improved his peripheral vision, allowing him to see out of the corner of his eye for the first time. Where once he could barely walk across a dimly lit room, Howarth now says he would ‘feel comfortable’ walking home at night. The study’s leader, Professor Robin Ali said that the result was "a major boost for the whole field". Professor Ali, who is the brother of Brick Lane author Monica Ali, admitted that he was surprised to see such a significant improvement but now felt that gene therapies for other vision-reducing conditions, such as macular degeneration, could soon be possible. He said “I find it difficult to remember being as excited as I am today about our science and what it might achieve.” The success is the second breakthrough by Moorfield’s Eye Hospital in just over a week. On the 21st of April, researchers at the hospital announced the trialling of a ‘bionic eye’ which could help sufferers of a degenerative eye disease, retinitis pigmentosa, to regain a basic level of vision. The ‘eye’ is actually a camera mounted on a pair of glasses. The camera picks up images and transmits them wirelessly to a receiver which is connected to the patient’s retina. The receiver sends a sequence of electrical impulses which the retina passes onto the brain. Here they are decoded as patterns of light and darkness to give subjects a vague outline of their surroundings. Researchers warned that it was ‘early days’ but said that they were hopeful for the trial’s success.
Archive for the 'Uncategorized' Category
Kayleigh: The government has proposed that parents might be told if their child is obese at a young age in a bid to tackle childhood obesity. Almost a third of children are now overweight, and this situation doesn’t look to be getting any better, with experts predicting that half of the UK will be obese in 25 years. According to Louise Diss, Operational Director of The Obesity Awareness and Solutions Trust (TOAST), obese children are more at risk of developing serious long term life threatening illnesses, “The possible medical dangers for obese children include type two diabetes, high blood pressure, strokes and coronary heart disease. Other dangers also include malnutrition, kidney and liver problems”, she said. But the medical risks are not the only problem. Louise says children suffer in other ways too. She said: “Psychologically, obese children can suffer from depression and anxiety, and can suffer from low self esteem and feel low self worth. Children may also be bullied because of their size, or alternatively they may become the bully.” It can also seriously have an impact on their future lifestyles. According to the School Food Trust, overweight or obese teenagers tend to leave education earlier, and once they become adults are likely to earn an average household income of £3,500 less than individuals of a healthy weight. They are also 20% less likely to marry. So why are so many children becoming obese at such a young age? Obesity is caused because of an unhealthy diet, which is mainly made up of sugar and fats, and not doing enough exercise to burn off the calories consumed. But it’s not just a case of eating too many sweets and cakes. A lot of the time it is down to family lifestyle. These days, it’s all too easy to order fast food or eat a ready meal at home, with parents not having the time to cook a dinner from scratch. The problem with this is these “ready meals” are full of salt and can be seriously bad for you long term. However, getting the portion size right is also a big factor, as parents need to remember that children do not need as much calories as adults do, in fact the government recommends they need around 1700 calories a day, compared with 2000 for women and 2500 for men. Louise Diss says this isn’t the only reason why children become obese. “Less family time and less family activity and a more sedentary lifestyle can all lead to obesity. However food may also be used as a control, for example as a reward or punishment. Parents may also give children what they want to eat in order to have a quiet life. Food however can also be used as a comfort in times of stress and anxiety” she said. Parents seem to be a big factor in childhood obesity, as children with two obese parents statistically have an 80% chance of being obese themselves. The rise in obesity has also had a knock on effect on other factors too. Reports from the BBC show the NHS is seriously struggling with the costs of obesity, and it was made one of the key priorities in the 2004 public health white paper. Research published in the British Medical Journal stated that obesity could actually bankrupt the NHS, showing the severity of the epidemic. The government are attempting to tackle the problem though. The Department for Education and Skills (DfES) announced last year that it would spend £220 million on rebuilding school kitchens until March 2008 since Jamie Oliver began his school dinner campaign in 2005. Practical cooking lessons and tuition about healthy eating were also made compulsory for 11-14 year olds. Other things are also being done. New government guidelines released by Education Secretary Alan Johnson last year meant that schools could only serve pupils chips twice a week. They also had to give them at least two portions of fruit and vegetables with every meal they had. Low quality meat products, fizzy drinks, crisps, chocolate and other confectionery were also banned from the school canteen in a bid to make children eat healthier. Food labelling has also been introduced recently, with food organisations having to provide calorie and salt information on their products. Junk food adverts were also band around the time of children’s programs earlier this year. There are also other ways to tackle obesity. At current, there are weight loss drugs available that are mainly anophetamine based. These drugs increase the amount of noradrenaline and dopamine hormones in the blood, lowering hunger levels. However, weight loss drugs are not suitable for long term use as the side effects can include high blood pressure, anxiety and restlessness. However, the simple solution to tackling obesity is the simple way, to do more exercise and eat a healthier balanced diet. The problem is this seems to be easier said then done, as only 51% of obese people manage to keep their weight down when they try. However, more realistic expectations of weight loss can help make the change permanent.
Rushda: Scientists from a number of leading institutions around the world believe they have finally found the gene which is responsible for height in humans. Although it has long been known that height is down to genetics, it is only now that any particular gene has been isolated. Indeed a study has shown that those people with two copies of the "tall" version of the HMGA2 gene are up to 1cm taller than those who carry their "short" counterparts. Researchers believe that such results will help them in their mission to discover the links between height and disease. The study was carried out by an international team from Harvard University, the Children's Hospital Boston, Oxford University and the Peninsula Medical School in Exeter. The scientists analysed the genomes of 5,000 white European patients who had submitted DNA samples and essential information such as height and weight, and found that just a small change in the HMGA2 gene impacted the height of the patients. The results of the study, which are published in the journal Nature Genetics, are a breakthrough in finding the biological basis of height and will make it possible to discover even more genes that control it. Interestingly, around 25% of white Europeans carry two copies of the "tall" version whilst a similar number carry copies of the "short" version. As researcher Dr Tim Frayling, of the Peninsula Medical School, explains:
"Height is a typical 'polygenic' trait, in other words many genes contribute towards making us taller or shorter. Clearly, our results do not explain why one person will be 6ft 5in (192 cms) and another only 4ft 10in (145cms). This is just the first of many that will be found, possibly as many as several hundred."The results are important because they may eventually explain the correlations between height and risk of disease. Statistically, taller people are at a greater risk from lung, bladder and prostate cancer whilst shorter people are more likely to suffer from heart disease. Perhaps when we have isolated the genes which are in charge of height, we will also be able to advance our knowledge of such killer diseases. As Professor Joel Hirschhorn, an expert in genetics at Harvard, says:
"Because height is a complex trait, involving a variety of genetic and non-genetic factors, it can teach us valuable lessons about the genetic framework of other complex traits, such as diabetes, cancer and other common human diseases."Maybe right now we can't know of any special link between height and disease, or why people vary in heights so much, but this study shows that future research into the field is very promising.
Anna: County Clare, in the west of Ireland, is home to a superior residence built especially for bats. The structure, constructed two years ago, cost the taxpayer 175,000 euros, roughly £120,000, and was built alongside the route of the Ennis by-pass. Conservationists hoped that it would attract a sizeable number of Lesser Horseshoe Bats, but 24 months on there isn't a single bat to be found at the site. The local County Council has kept the exact location of the house a secret, concerned about the prospect of disturbance to this rare species. The bat house was intended to provide more than simply a safe haven for the bat population, and this is why the scientific community is doubly disappointed. Technology, including infra-red sensors and a specially installed telephone line for data download, was intended to provide scientists with crucial data about the movements and behaviour of the protected species. The bats obviously have other ideas, spurning the house in favour of other roosting and breeding locations. The diminutive Lesser Horseshoe Bat is a protected species under EU law. Present in the south-west of England and throughout Wales, the bat is found in the six western counties of Ireland - Clare, Cork, Galway, Kerry, Limerick and Mayo. Habitat disruption and renovation of favoured roosting spots, such as outhouses, stables and old houses, have seen a decline in numbers in recent decades. Undisturbed sites for winter hibernation are also important, but under threat. The Irish population currently stands at an estimated 9,500 bats, according to Bat Conservation Ireland, a charity concerned with the conservation of Ireland's bats. As is the case with all major UK infrastructure projects, the company contracted to build the Ennis by-pass (GAMA Construction), was required carry out detailed surveys of all the plant and animal species on the route. Protected species, among them the Lesser Horseshoe, require special measures. In this case, the construction of a bespoke bat-house, which conservationists believed would lessen the impact of the road on the bats. Sadly, environmental consultant Howard Williams of Inis Environmental Services, has found no proof that this is the case. Commissioned to assess the effectiveness of the mitigation, he confirmed in his recent report that there had been no sign of bats over the last year, both inside and outside the structure. Mr Williams believed the site had great potential:
In short, the information we will be able to analyse at this location will give us the best opportunity ever of understanding the lesser Horseshoe Bat in Ireland.He had, however, not given up hope that the bats would eventually move in to their luxury lodging. Work is nearing completion on a stretch of hedging which will connect the bat house with another known roosting location:
More bats will be searching out foraging areas and will inevitably find the Old Schoolhouse and more importantly, the New Build Bat House.Many people will be unaware that the August Bank Holiday weekend is also European Bat Weekend 2007! Let's hope the bats realise the occasion, and deem it a suitable moving in date...
Jeanne: The exploits of Alexander the Great have been chronicled for centuries. Alexander was undoubtedly one of the most prolific explorers of his time. Born in 356BC, he had by the age of thirty conquered huge swathes of territory across Africa and Asia. In a quest to gain a better grasp the Greek ruler’s exploits, archaeologists are currently examining the remains of what appears to be one of Alexander’s Middle East outposts. The ruins of this outpost are located on the island of Failaka, currently occupied by Kuwait. For Alexander, the island’s location would have been highly strategic. Situated only a short distance away from the mouth of Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, the island would have provided the perfect location from which Alexander could have exploited the thriving Mesopotamian economy. Archeologists believe that this Middle Eastern outpoint was created by one of Alexander’s key generals, Nearchus, around the 4th century BC. The ruins include a cemetery and citadel. According to archaeologists, these buildings reflect Hellenistic architectural influences. However, the ancient buildings also bear the hallmarks of recent conflicts in the Middle East. In particular, a number of these structures have suffered damage from rocket fire during the 1990 Gulf War. Archaeologists hope that the Failaka findings will provide them with further information about Hellenistic civilizations in Africa and Asia. There is already evidence to suggest that Greek ideas were flourishing in parts of Egypt and south Asia during this period. Indeed, some historians have described the unprecedented impact of Alexander’s conquests as 'one of the first examples of globalization'. Ancient inscriptions found in the southern Iraqi town of Basra suggest that Alexander’s influence was keenly felt across the Middle East. Written in Greek and Babylonian, these inscriptions suggest the existence of a ancient civilization strongly structured around class. However, these writings date back to several years after Alexander demise, suggesting that Hellenistic influences remained strong in this part of the world long after the death of the Greek emperor. Failaka’s strategic location was widely recognized by a number of early armies. Prior to the arrival of the Greeks, the island also served as the westernmost outpost of the Bronze Age Dilmun civilization – a collection of ancient people which inhabited modern day Bahrain.
Jeanne: Cloning technologies have improved immensely since the birth of Dolly the sheep 11 years ago. Given these improvements, it seems only a matter of time before cloned livestock become commonplace on western farms. At the moment, animal cloning only occurs in very special instances. However, the US Food and Drug Administration is expected to make a landmark ruling at the end of the year which could make large-scale commercial cloning a reality. Most importantly, it will allow meat from cloned animals to enter the human food chain. Most consumers, however, appear less than pleased when presented with the prospect of eating meat originating from cloned animals. The cloning of farm animals is a flourishing business in the US state of Texas. ViaGen, a commercial cloning organisation in Austin, Texas, has cloned several hundred farm animals in recent years. However, the company’s services do not come cheap. Having your prize bull cloned is likely to set you back a massive $15,000. Currently, most of the corporation’s clientèle are farmers specialising in the breeding of high-quality livestock. According to ViaGen’s director, Blake Russell,
"Cloning technology is currently in a rapid state of development and will meet the needs of large agricultural farms around the world very, very soon."Other cloning-related projects are currently in the pipeline as well. Texas A & M University is embarking on a project to clone a number of endangered species. Researchers at the university have already successfully cloned a cat. The cat, known as Copy Cat (or CC) was the handiwork of scientist Charles Long who has commented extensively on the issues surrounding the subject:
"There is nothing different about clones than there is any animal which is out there in the regular population. Therefore the FDA can really only come to one decision, which is to allow cloned animals to go into the food chain without labelling."Nevertheless, cloning continues to remain a very controversial subject, in this, one of the most conservative states in the country. The American President, George W. Bush, has vowed to maintain rigid controls over cloning in the United States. Nevertheless, many farmers are looking forward to the prospect of breeding cloned animals. Governments in the United Kingdom and Europe, however, seem less willing to engage in animal cloning for commercial purposes
Rushda: Finally some of the mystery behind left-handedness is being dispelled after scientists from Oxford have found a gene which appears to increase the chances of someone being left-handed. Approximately 10% of all people are left-handed, and now this trait is being attributed to a gene, named LRRTM1, which is said to play a large role in determining which side of the brain performs a certain function. What is most interesting, however, is how left-handedness is linked to someone's character or intelligence - indeed, many have speculated in the past that those who are left-handed display different behaviour and skills to those who are right-handed. For example, it has been said that those who are left-handed think more quickly - this certainly doesn't seem too far out given that many famous thinkers such as Albert Einstein and Isaac Newton were left-handed. Unfortunately, however, the study has shown that those with the gene are more susceptible to developing conditions such as schizophrenia, due to brain imbalance. At any rate, the study is exciting as the scientists are hoping to find more links between left-handedness and behaviour, as well as links between left-handedness and medical conditions, in the future. As the leading researcher Dr Clyde Francks says:
"We hope this study's findings will help us understand the development of asymmetry in the brain. Asymmetry is a fundamental feature of the human brain that is disrupted in many psychiatric conditions."He also points out, however, that left-handers need not be worried about the link as there are a number of different factors which play a part in developing schizophrenia. As Jane Harris, of the mental health charity Rethink, says:
"It is probably a combination of factors, including genetics, problems in childbirth, viral infections, drug use, poverty and urbanisation."All in all, it is great to know that research may finally be able to unravel the truth from the myths about those who are left-handed. If it does turn out that mental conditions can be attributed to left-handedness, this is good news as it means we are getting closer to finding a cure for some of the most mysterious illnesses, namely those of the brain.
Anna: The Southern Ocean cannot continue absorbing carbon at current rates, according to research published in the journal Science last week. The disturbing findings are the result of a four year study of the Antarctic region, conducted by scientists from the University of East Anglia (UEA), British Antarctic Survey (BAS) and the Max Planck Institute. Oceans are major "carbon sinks", reservoirs of carbon dioxide which remove quantities of the harmful gas from the atmospheres. The Earth's natural carbon sinks, oceans and plants, absorb around half of all carbon produced by human activity. The Southern Ocean alone accounts for more than 6% of the world's ocean carbon storing capacity. Since 1981, the ocean's ability to hold carbon has been reducing and this carbon sink now appears to be reaching capacity, resulting in a higher level of carbon dioxide in the earth's atmosphere. The findings follow hot on the heels of new evidence that the polar ice caps are breaking up, and revelations last year that Siberia's immense frozen peat bogs are melting. The one million square kilometre area of permafrost is gradually thawing, releasing huge quantities of methane, a greenhouse gas more potent than carbon dioxide. The accelerated rates of carbon dioxide and methane release are interpreted by some scientists as a worrying indication of the speed of anthropogenic climate change. The Southern Ocean research team found that increased winds over the ocean had triggered a release of stored carbon dioxide. These winds are a new phenomenon, thought to be a result of the ongoing depletion of the ozone layer in the Antarctic. Strong winds lead to increased turbulence and carbon dissolved in deep water is dredged to the surface, where it is released into the armosphere. If the trend continues, this particular carbon sink will become an increasingly ineffective counterbalance to the huge volumes of greenhouse gases being emitted each year. And as the greenhouse effect intensifies, so will the release of carbon, a negative feedback that could have catastrophic long-term consequences. Dr Corinne Le Quéré of UEA and BAS said:
This is the first time that we've been able to say that climate change itself is responsible for the saturation of the Southern Ocean sink.Our planet is 'gifted' with around 8 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide annually, thanks to human activities like energy generation and consumption, agriculture and waste disposal. This, surely is an area where the G8 leaders must take the lead. The major produceers of carbon dioxide since the industrial revolution began, the developed world is also responsible for getting emissions under control and encouraging a responsible attitude among emerging economies like China and India. With other studies suggesting that similar processes are occurring in the North Atlantic, now is the time to take action. As Le Quéré says, serious efforts need to be made to reduce carbon emissions. It's no good throwing our hands up and accepting that greenhouse gas levels are bound to increase as the world's population and energy needs grow.
Alex: I posted a few weeks ago about my excitement concerning the BBC's upcoming release of their Iplayer, which allow licsence fee payers the ability to download programmes up to a week after they are broadcast and keep them on their harddrives for almost a month. It now looks like the BBC have hired a former Microsoft executive to handle their digital rights management for this, the very software that allows users to retain the files for a period of time, but for no longer, and prevents the files being further shared across the P2P networks. Is this a good move for the Beeb? Or will it mean for the kind of consumer lock-in that many users have found detrimental in Microsoft's Media Player and make the whole service somewhat of a washout?
Rushda: We've seen the huge Topshop frenzy of thousands of women eager to bag their special and unique (notice the irony) clothes designed by Kate Moss. Now New Look has jumped on a similar bandwagon by releasing their own collection of celebrity summer dresses designed specially by Lily Allen. Ok, I admit that I do not know who Lily Allen is but that's not the point. I just can't understand why something can look nicer to you just because someone cool (supposedly) has designed it. The collection can be viewed here, and doesn't look anything special to me. In fact, the idea that it's supposed to be special because of Lily actually puts me off.