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June 2012
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August 2012

Eye research could preserve patients' vision

By Amanda Alvarez of the Journal Sentinel

In a dark room, ocular biologist Joseph Carroll stares at a pulsing, speckled, black-and-white image on a computer screen. It's the back of Keri Gerlach's right eye - the retina, to be specific. A high-tech, expensive camera is taking pictures of her eye to follow the progression of a blinding disease called retinitis pigmentosa.

Outside it is sweltering, but inside the imaging room it is quiet and cold; machinery hums, dials are slowly turned to reach optimal focus, and the only words spoken are requests to "blink blink!" Carroll and the team at the Medical College of Wisconsin have been tracking Gerlach's eyes for 18 months, in anticipation of upcoming gene therapy trials that could restore vision to patients.

Taking extremely detailed pictures of the retina is a crucial first step in determining if a patient could benefit from treatment. With eye diseases on the increase, and therapeutic opportunities opening up through advances in genetics, seeing inside the eye is vital, and the pioneering work in this field is being done in Milwaukee.

Full story.

Medical College to join gene-sequencing partnership

By Kathleen Gallagher of the Journal Sentinel

The Medical College of Wisconsin has signed a collaboration agreement with Transgenomic Inc. that calls for the school to provide sophisticated gene-sequencing services for one of the company's products.

The parties did not disclose financial terms, but said the agreement could lead to further collaborations in the rapidly growing area of next-generation DNA sequencing, where high-powered machines are used to determine the exact order of chemical base pairs in a gene.

This is the first time the school's Human and Molecular Genetics Center has landed an agreement to provide such a service for a commercial venture, said Howard Jacob, the center's director.

"It helps us generate money to stay on the cutting edge," Jacob said. The center will use the money it earns to buy new equipment, do more research and hire additional people, he said.

Three of the genetics center's staff members have been licensed as clinical technicians and converted to the clinical lab, Jacob said. That number will probably grow to six in the next year, and possibly higher if things go well, he said.

Full story.

Chemical makes blind mice see

A team of University of California, Berkeley, scientists in collaboration with researchers at the University of Munich and University of Washington, in Seattle, has discovered a chemical that temporarily restores some vision to blind mice, and is working on an improved compound that may someday allow people with degenerative blindness to see again.

The approach could eventually help those with retinitis pigmentosa, a genetic disease that is the most common inherited form of blindness, as well as age-related macular degeneration, the most common cause of acquired blindness in the developed world. In both diseases, the light sensitive cells in the retina — the rods and cones — die, leaving the eye without functional photoreceptors.

Full story.

Who Really Invented the Internet?


Contrary to legend, it wasn't the federal government, and the Internet had nothing to do with maintaining communications during a war.

A telling moment in the presidential race came recently when Barack Obama said: "If you've got a business, you didn't build that. Somebody else made that happen." He justified elevating bureaucrats over entrepreneurs by referring to bridges and roads, adding: "The Internet didn't get invented on its own. Government research created the Internet so that all companies could make money off the Internet."

It's an urban legend that the government launched the Internet. The myth is that the Pentagon created the Internet to keep its communications lines up even in a nuclear strike. The truth is a more interesting story about how innovation happens—and about how hard it is to build successful technology companies even once the government gets out of the way.

For many technologists, the idea of the Internet traces to Vannevar Bush, the presidential science adviser during World War II who oversaw the development of radar and the Manhattan Project. In a 1946 article in The Atlantic titled "As We May Think," Bush defined an ambitious peacetime goal for technologists: Build what he called a "memex" through which "wholly new forms of encyclopedias will appear, ready made with a mesh of associative trails running through them, ready to be dropped into the memex and there amplified."

That fired imaginations, and by the 1960s technologists were trying to connect separate physical communications networks into one global network—a "world-wide web." The federal government was involved, modestly, via the Pentagon's Advanced Research Projects Agency Network. Its goal was not maintaining communications during a nuclear attack, and it didn't build the Internet. Robert Taylor, who ran the ARPA program in the 1960s, sent an email to fellow technologists in 2004 setting the record straight: "The creation of the Arpanet was not motivated by considerations of war. The Arpanet was not an Internet. An Internet is a connection between two or more computer networks."

Full story.

A response piece from the LA Times.

Artificial jellyfish built from rat cells: Reverse-engineered life form could be used to test drugs.

Ed Yong

22 July 2012

Bioengineers have made an artificial jellyfish using silicone and muscle cells from a rat’s heart. The synthetic creature, dubbed a medusoid, looks like a flower with eight petals. When placed in an electric field, it pulses and swims exactly like its living counterpart.

“Morphologically, we’ve built a jellyfish. Functionally, we’ve built a jellyfish. Genetically, this thing is a rat,” says Kit Parker, a biophysicist at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, who led the work. The project is described today in Nature Biotechnology1.

Parker’s lab works on creating artificial models of human heart tissues for regenerating organs and testing drugs, and the team built the medusoid as a way of understanding the “fundamental laws of muscular pumps”. It is an engineer’s approach to basic science: prove that you have identified the right principles by building something with them.

Full story.

Payoff may be near for Exact Sciences

By Kathleen Gallagher of the Journal Sentinel

Exact Sciences Corp. was one of the top-performing stocks in Wisconsin over the last year.

And that was despite reporting losses totaling $60 million over the 39 months ended March 31.

Analyst John Collopy uses just one word to describe the Madison biotech company's losses: "Awful."

The dismal financial results didn't stop Exact's stock from rising 39% so far this year. The company also was the sixth-best performing Wisconsin-based stock for the 12 months ended June 30, according to a Bloomberg Financial Markets report provided by Landaas & Co. A $1,000 investment in Exact at the beginning of June 2011 would have grown to more than $1,246.51 by the end of the month,

Exact also has raised $117.4 million in stock offerings in the last three years.

"Despite all the travails they have gone through from a profit-and-loss standpoint, some pretty sophisticated investors are willing to put money into this company," said Collopy, director of research for Oshkosh-based brokerage firm Carl M. Hennig Inc.

The losses, and the cash infusions from investors, are part of the well-worn pathway biotech companies follow.

Biotechs must raise enormous sums of money to develop, clinically validate and win regulatory approval for their products. Sales and profits come later.

Exact has been on that pathway longer than most.

Full story.

Northwestern Researchers Create “Rubber-Band Electronics”

For people with heart conditions and other ailments that require monitoring, life can be complicated by constant hospital visits and time-consuming tests. But what if much of the testing done at hospitals could be conducted in the patient’s home, office, or car?

Scientists foresee a time when medical monitoring devices are integrated seamlessly into the human body, able to track a patient’s vital signs and transmit them to his doctors. But one major obstacle continues to hinder technologies like these: electronics are too rigid.

Researchers at the McCormick School of Engineering, working with a team of scientists from the United States and abroad, have recently developed a design that allows electronics to bend and stretch to more than 200 percent their original size, four times greater than is possible with today’s technology. The key is a combination of a porous polymer and liquid metal.

A paper about the findings, “Three-dimensional Nanonetworks for Giant Stretchability in Dielectrics and Conductors,” was published June 26 in the journal Nature Communications.

Full story.