2006 April 30 Sunday
Gene Therapy Researchers Find Better Vectors

MIT's Technology Review has an interview with gene therapy researcher James Wilson MD Ph.D. who is a professor at University of Pennsylvania's School of Medicine. Wilson has been searching for better and safer gene therapy delivery vehicles (vectors) and he thinks he's found some very promising ways to deliver gene therapy.

Fortunately, evolution has generated a diversity of viruses. We screened monkeys and humans for lingering adenovirus-associated viral infection. Adenovirus-associated viruses infect humans and primates. No one knows what the virus does, what the infection looks like or whether it hurts or helps you. We discovered that 40 percent of human livers have persistent infections, and we identified over 100 new subtypes.

Parenthetically, Paul Ewald is looking more and more correct with his argument that we've underestimated the degree to which pathogens play a role in development of human diseases. Think about all those viruses these researchers found while looking for better viruses to use for gene therapy.

Now we are looking at the properties of the vectors and how well they can be transferred to different organs. We found that a variation of a vector called AAV9 can efficiently transfer genes to the heart.

TR: Have AAV vectors been tested in human trials? How safe are they?

JW: Yes. AAV2 has been tested for cystic fibrosis, muscular dystrophy, neurological disease, and hemophilia. Two patients in the hemophilia trial developed liver inflammation, although they did recover. Other than that, there have been no safety issues.

Since then, we've tried to determine if the new AAV vectors will have the same response. We don't think they will -- we think we've figured out what happened in those patients and how to get around it.

The identification of the genetic causes of disease has been done for a long list of disorders such as sickle cell anemia, cystic fibrosis, Huntington's disease, Marfan syndrome, Gaucher disease, and Werner syndrome. For the vast bulk of such diseases no effective treatments followed from identification of their genetic causes. Why? We still need really good ways to deliver gene therapy. Once we develop excellent methods to deliver gene therapy into cells and into chromosomes many diseases will become treatable.

Gene therapy has uses for diseases beyond the classic single mutation diseases. For example, cancers could be stopped if heavily mutated cancer cells could be reprogrammed by gene therapy to restore genes that normally control cell growth. Also, many mutations that accumulate with age that cause cells to work less well could be repaired with appropriate gene therapies. So the stakes are high for the development of excellent gene therapy delivery vehicles and techniques. I cheer every success of Dr. Wilson and other scientists working on gene therapy methods.

By Randall Parker 2006 April 30 08:56 PM  Biotech Gene Therapy
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New Technology To Lower DNA Synthesis Costs

Xiaolian Gao, a University of Houston biology and biochemistry professor and adjunct professor in chemistry and biomedical engineering, says she's developing technology that will lower the cost of gene synthesis by two orders of magnitude.

This developing technology by Gao and her associates has the potential to significantly reduce the economic barrier to make complete functioning organisms that can produce energy, neutralize toxins and make drugs and artificial genes. These organisms may eventually be used in alternative energy sources, natural product synthesis and discovery of novel protein therapeutic molecules, as well as in gene therapy procedures to treat genetic disorders, such as Parkinson's and diabetes, that could yield profound benefits for human health and quality of life.

"Synthetic genes are like a box of Lego building blocks," Gao said. "Their organization is very complex, even in simple organisms. By making programmed synthesis of genes economical, we can provide more efficient tools to aid the efforts of researchers to understand the molecular mechanisms that regulate biological systems. There are many potential biochemical and biomedical applications."

Using current methods, programmed synthesis of a typical gene cluster costs thousands of dollars. The system developed by Gao and her partners employs digital chemistry technology similar to that used in making computer chips and thereby reduces cost and time factors drastically. Her group estimates that the new technology will be about one hundred times more cost- and time-efficient than current technologies.

The harnessing of electronic technologies to solve problems in biological science and biotechnology will lower costs and accelerate the rate of advance by orders of magnitude. Both the reading of DNA (sequencing) and the writing (synthesis) will become extremely cheap.

By Randall Parker 2006 April 30 02:14 PM  Biotech Advance Rates
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TJ Rodgers Sees Demand For Nanopore DNA Sequencers

T.J. Rodgers, founder and CEO of Cypress Semiconductor, says start-up companies looking to automate DNA sequencing are looking for semiconductor manufacturers which can build nanopore devices for DNA sequencing.

EET: A few colleges--Stanford, MIT, others--have created interdisciplinary programs to marry electrical engineering and biology. Do you see a coming together of those disciplines in the commercial space anytime soon?

Rodgers: I have two data points. In gene sequencing, once you understand the sequence of genes in an organism, with bioengineering you can go in and change one gene and modify the characteristic of a plant, as opposed to [just doing] a crude DNA swap where you put two plants together. For instance, you can [engineer] a grape that's more drought-tolerant than it was before but still makes great pinot noir.

[The technology needed] to understand the gene sequence--that's going to go to silicon. There are startups in Silicon Valley coming into our company saying they want us to build holes so small that one DNA molecule will fit in them. They want to watch it fluoresce and find out what it is. And they want millions of chips.

Advances in semiconductor technology are driving advances in biotechnology. Once DNA sequencing can be done on chips the cost will plummet orders of magnitude.

Parenthetically, Cypress's ownership of photovoltaics maker SunPower now provides Cypress with most of its market capitalization.

Cypress owns 85 percent of SunPower, which went public in November. It is valued near $2.5 billion, with its stock trading at $17.24. SunPower's capitalization is about $2.38 billion; since its offering, its stock has risen from $24.42 to a closing high of $44.07. This suggests that much of the value of Cypress these days comes from SunPower.

If Rodgers could find a way to build useful semiconductors for a Cypress-funded DNA sequencing start-up then he could repeat the tentative success of his SunPower investment.

By Randall Parker 2006 April 30 02:03 PM  Biotech Advance Rates
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Founder Population Genetic Scans Accelerate

An article in MIT's Technology Review reports on a Canadian company Genizon Biosciences that is using the genetic homogeneity of the French Quebec founder population to investigate genetic causes of disease just as deCODE Genetics does in Iceland. To someone with an interest in the accelerating rate of biotechnological advance (FuturePundit and I hope quite a few readers of FuturePundit) the most interesting part of the article mentions that Genizon has used improvements gene chip technology to speed up their genetic studies by more than an order of magnitude.

The initial Genizon map, completed in 2004, was created from 1,500 members of the Quebec founder population and had about 81,000 markers. Genizon has now improved its gene hunting capabilities even further, by using a gene chip produced by Illumina, a genetic toolkit company in California, which incorporates markers from both the HapMap and original Quebec map, for a total of more than 350,000 markers per individual. Studies that initially took scientists three months now take just a week, says John Hooper, president and chief executive officer Genizon.

3 months is 13.5 weeks versus 1 week for the same test run now. So in just a few years they sped up their testing by over an order of magnitude. I keep running into reports where researchers mention their experiments use new technology that has sped up their experiments by orders of magnitude and that they can now collect more data and more quickly. These boosts in productivity are going to produce discoveries and effective treatments for diseases which have long been incurable.

To uncover genetic variants that increase risk for a disease, scientists start with DNA from patients and use the gene chips to sift through the markers, searching for particular variants that appear more frequently in people with the disease. Once scientists have identified genes of interest, they create a map of the interacting genes.

Among the diseases they are looking at for genetic risk factors: Crohn's disease, asthma, schizophrenia, baldness, longevity, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, Type II diabetes, osteoporosis, and macular degeneration.

The Genizon web site also has an interesting table of genetically homogeneous founder populations around the world. I had no idea that north east Finland has a genetically homogeneous population only about 15 to 20 generations old. Also, the people in Newfoundland are pretty genetically homogeneous. Also, Costa Ricans from the central valley of Costa Rica meet criteria for homogeneity of recent enough vintage that make them good genetic study candidates.

The costs of DNA studies will drop by more orders of magnitude in the next couple of decades. Scientists will identify the vast bulk of genetic variations that affect our disease risk, physical performance, intelligence, behavior, and other characteristics.

By Randall Parker 2006 April 30 12:05 PM  Biotech Advance Rates
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Financial Experts Debate Implications Of Aging Population

Businessweek has a debate between a couple of finance experts on the financial implications of an aging population. University of Pennsylvania Wharton business school finance professor Jeremy Siegel sees everyone working longer.

The age wave is the most severe in Japan. By mid century, 75 to 80 will be most populous age group there, and the number of workers per retiree will fall to one-to-one. The big questions facing the developed world are, who's going produce the goods, and who's going buy the assets. If there are not enough workers earning income, then there aren't enough buyers of all the stocks and bonds that are going be sold. It's the flip side of same question.

I built a model to show how much longer Americans will have to work because of the coming shortage of workers. Life expectancy will continue to rise. But the retirement age will rise substantially more, I believe, from 62 today to 73 or 74 in the future. Of course, some say it will rise just because people live longer. But it has to rise more than that. The age Americans spend in retirement will shrink from 14.4 years today to 9.2 by mid century.

I certainly agree that retirement ages must rise. Western nations should start raising retirement ages now. We need to move toward eligibility for state-funded retirement programs based on physical and mental inability. Healthy people should work unless they save enough to retire.

Junk bond king Michael Milliken sees a rosier future where biotechnogical advances that lead to slower aging will translate into higher economic output and better lives.

In 1974, it cost $100 million to sequence a gene. Today, it cost $3, and by 2013, it will be 3 cents.

We also constantly underestimate life expectancy. In Japan today, the quality of life lasts longer than anywhere else. They have 73.6 healthy years before becoming disabled (by old age), vs. 67.6 in the U.S. But even in the U.S. there have been big gains. The share of men in poor or fair health has gone from where it was at age 60 20 years ago to age 72 today. That's 12 years of increased quality of life. In 1970, a 59-year-old man had the same probability of dying as a 65-year-old today. The same is true with women. We're living longer and more productive lives.

I think all the conventional ways to project future increases in life expectancy are greatly underestimating the effects of coming advances in biotechnology. Our knowledge is not simply increasing with the same fixed amount of knowledge added to the sum total of our knowledge every year. Rather, the rate at which we can collect knowledge is increasing. That trend looks set to continue for decades to come.

Look at Milliken's example of the dropping cost of DNA sequencing. Orders of magnitude increases in capabilities in biotechnology mirror the orders of magnitude increases that happen in electronics technology. The advances in semiconductors for manipulating things at very small scales that drive the rapid advances for electronics are also enabling the construction of devices for biotechnology such as DNA gate arrays and microfluidics devices. The electronics revolution is being repeated in biotechnology.

Just as the discovery of antibiotics made many infectious diseases suddenly curable the same will happen with diseases of aging. Got a bad heart? Grow a new one or send gene therapy in to instruct your cells in how to repair themselves. Bad liver or bad kidneys? Again, grow replacements or fix them. All the problems that must be solved to reach that point are solvable. Therefore we will solve them.

People who do not see this biotechnological revolution in rejuvenation on the horizon are akin to someone in 1965 saying that of course computers must take up whole rooms and that we'll never have desktop computers which are many orders of magnitude faster than 1965 mainframes. We are going to gain the ability to manipulate cells and genes on a level that will allow us to repair our aged bodies. There's nothing about the nature of physical reality that precludes our developing the ability to do this.

If you want to learn about how human aging will become curable and whole body rejuvenation will become possible read about Aubrey de Grey's Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence.

By Randall Parker 2006 April 30 10:21 AM  Aging Debate
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2006 April 27 Thursday
Stem Cells Repair Rat Spinal Cords

Embryonic stem cells converted into astrocyte cells repaired damaged rat spinal cords and allowed the rats to walk normally again.

Researchers believe they have identified a new way, using an advance in stem-cell technology, to promote recovery after spinal cord injury of rats, according to a study published in today's Journal of Biology.

Scientists from the New York State Center of Research Excellence in Spinal Cord Injury showed that rats receiving a transplant of a certain type of immature support cell from the central nervous system (generated from stem cells) had more than 60 percent of their sensory nerve fibers regenerate. Just as importantly, the study showed that more than two-thirds of the nerve fibers grew all the way through the injury sites eight days later, a result that is much more promising than previous research. The rats that received the cell transplants also walked normally in two weeks.

The University of Rochester Medical Center, Rochester, N.Y., and Baylor College of Medicine, Houston, collaborated on the work. Researchers believe they made an important advance in stem cell technology by focusing on a new cell type that appears to have the capability of repairing the adult nervous system.

"These studies provide a way to make cells do what we want them to do, instead of simply putting stem cells into the damaged area and hoping the injury will cause the stem cells to turn into the most useful cell types," explains Mark Noble, Ph.D., co-author of the paper, professor of Genetics at the University of Rochester, and a pioneer in the field of stem cell research. "It really changes the way we think about this problem."

The breakthrough is based on many years of stem cell biology research led by Margot Mayer-Proschel, Ph.D., associate professor of Genetics at the University of Rochester. In the laboratory, Mayer-Proschel and colleagues took embryonic glial stem cells and induced them to change into a specific type of support cell called an astrocyte, which is known to be highly supportive of nerve fiber growth. These astrocytes, called glial precursor-derived astrocytes or GDAs, were then transplanted into the injured spinal cords of adult rats. Healing and recovery of the GDA rats was compared to other injured rats that received either no treatment at all or treatment with undifferentiated stem cells.

The rats without the GDA cell transplant did not show any nerve fiber regeneration and still had difficulty walking four weeks after surgery.

Note the use of embryonic stem cells. As more therapies are developed in animal models using embryonic stem cells the pressure to allow more research on human embryonic stem cells is going to build. The political opponents of human embryonic stem cell (hESC) research who want to be able to resist this pressure ought to add a couple of billion dollars a year to the money available for adult stem cell treatment.

Mind you, I'm not taking sides in that fight. Rather, I'm always on the look-out for more arguments for why research funding ought to be increased. I figure if hESC opponents can be convinced that they need to fund far more rapid development of alternatives to hESC-based therapies then the total amount of money available to develop rejuvenation therapies will increase.

By Randall Parker 2006 April 27 10:57 PM  Biotech Stem Cells
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Gene Variation Influences Human Intelligence

Genetic variations associated with different risks of schizophrenia also influence intelligence levels among healthy volunteers.

GLEN OAKS, NY -- Psychiatric researchers at The Zucker Hillside Hospital campus of The Feinstein Institute for Medical Research have uncovered evidence of a gene that appears to influence intelligence. Working in conjunction with researchers at Harvard Partners Center for Genetics and Genomics in Boston, the Zucker Hillside team examined the genetic blueprints of individuals with schizophrenia, a neuropsychiatric disorder characterized by cognitive impairment, and compared them with healthy volunteers. They discovered that the dysbindin-1 gene (DTNBP1), which they previously demonstrated to be associated with schizophrenia, may also be linked to general cognitive ability. The study is published in the May 15 print issue of Human Molecular Genetics, available online today, April 27.

"A robust body of evidence suggests that cognitive abilities, particularly intelligence, are significantly influenced by genetic factors. Existing data already suggests that dysbindin may influence cognition," said Katherine Burdick, PhD, the study's primary author. "We looked at several DNA sequence variations within the dysbindin gene and found one of them to be significantly associated with lower general cognitive ability in carriers of the risk variant compared with non-carriers in two independent groups."

The study involved 213 unrelated Caucasian patients with schizophrenia or schizoaffective disorder and 126 unrelated healthy Caucasian volunteers. The researchers measured cognitive performance in all subjects. They then analyzed participants' DNA samples. The researchers specifically examined six DNA sequence variations, also known as single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs), in the dysbindin gene and found that one specific pattern of SNPs, known as a haplotype, was associated with general cognitive ability: Cognition was significantly impaired in carriers of the risk variant in both the schizophrenia group and the healthy volunteers as compared with the non-carriers.

"While our data suggests the dysbindin gene influences variation in human cognitive ability and intelligence, it only explained a small proportion of it -- about 3 percent. This supports a model involving multiple genetic and environmental influences on intelligence," said Anil Malhotra, MD, principal investigator of the study.

As DNA sequencing costs fall and larger amounts of genetic sequence differences are collected in humans many more genetic variations that influence intelligence and other cognitive characteristics will be found. The rate at which such genetic variations are identified will go up by orders of magnitude in the next 10 years.

By Randall Parker 2006 April 27 10:47 PM  Brain Intelligence
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2006 April 26 Wednesday
Cure For Cancer Worth $50 Trillion Just To Americans

The economic pay-off of medical research will be enormous when cures for cancer are developed. A couple of academic researchers claim that a cure for cancer would have an economic value of $50 trillion for Americans alone. Add in the value of the cure to other industrialized societies that the total value of the cure likely exceeds $100 trillion.

A new study, to be published in a forthcoming issue of the Journal of Political Economy, calculates the prospective gains that could be obtained from further progress against major diseases. Kevin M. Murphy and Robert H. Topel, two University of Chicago researchers, estimate that even modest advancements against major diseases would have a significant impact – a 1 percent reduction in mortality from cancer has a value to Americans of nearly $500 billion. A cure for cancer would be worth about $50 trillion.

"We distinguish two types of health improvements – those that extend life and those that raise the quality of life," explain the authors. "As the population grows, as incomes grow, and as the baby-boom generation approaches the primary ages of disease-related death, the social value of improvements in health will continue to rise."

Many critiques of rising medical expenditures focus on life-extending procedures for persons near death. By breaking down net gains by age and gender, Murphy and Topel show that the value of increased longevity far exceeds rising medical expenditures overall. Gains in life expectancy over the last century were worth about $1.2 million per person to the current population, with the largest gains at birth and young age.

"An analysis of the value of health improvements is a first step toward evaluating the social returns to medical research and health-augmenting innovations," write the authors. "Improvements in life expectancy raise willingness to pay for further health improvements by increasing the value of remaining life."

Murphy and Topel also chart individual values resulting from the permanent reduction in mortality in several major diseases – including heart disease, cancer, and diabetes. Overall, reductions in mortality from 1970 to 2000 had an economic value to the U.S. population of $3.2 trillion per year.

In 2005 the US economy produced $12.4 trillon worth of goods and services. So the value of a cancer cure equals over 4 years of US economic output.

The enormous economic value of curative treatments for cancer and similar magnitude economic value for cures for other major killers such as stroke and heart disease mean we can get huge the future returns on investment in public spending for basic biomedical research. This means increased biomedical research funding by governments is pretty easy to justify when viewed in economic terms. Yet in order to fund a war, pork, and other wastes the Bush Administration has sought to cut biomedical research spending in inflation-adjusted terms and even proposed a freeze in nominal dollar terms (which means that real research spending goes down by the rate at which inflation goes up).

The numbers bandied about above understate the coming return on decades of basic biomedical research. Rejuvenation therapies will lengthen working careers and brain rejuvenation will boost productivity for most years worked. Minds which have both youthful vigor and the knowledge and skills accumulated from decades of work will achieve much greater feats and operate at much higher levels of productivity.

Because the rate of advance of research can not be forecasted accurately I think there's a tendency on the part of policy makers and the public to underestimate the future return on biomedical research and in other forms of research as well. Our accumulating body of knowledge is going to reach a critical mass at some point in the next 50 years where the vast majority of diseases become curable and replacement or rejuvenation of worn aged body parts becomes commonplace. We ought try much harder to make that day come sooner.

By Randall Parker 2006 April 26 10:11 PM  Policy Medical
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2006 April 25 Tuesday
Tissue Engineers Develop Way To Position Cells In 3-D

Tissue engineering keeps advancing.

MIT bioengineers have devised a new technique that makes it possible to learn more about how cells are organized in tissues and potentially even to regrow cells for repairing areas of the body damaged by disease, accidents or aging.

The method gives them unprecedented control over organizing cells outside the body in three dimensions, which is how they exist inside the body. It uses electricity to move cells into a desired position, followed by light to lock them into place within a gel that resembles living tissue.

Cells traditionally have been studied in two dimensions in a Petri dish, but certain cells behave differently in two dimensions than in three.

"We have shown that the behavior of cartilage cells is affected significantly when they are organized in 3-D," as is the behavior of other types of cells like stem cells, said MIT Associate Professor Sangeeta Bhatia of the Harvard-MIT Division of Health Sciences and Technology (HST), one author of a paper on the technique due to appear in the May issue of Nature Methods.

The new technique is orders of magnitude faster than previous methods used and allows very precise positioning.

The new technique allows for precise control of cell organization, and takes minutes to perform compared to hours or days for the other method.

Albrecht and his colleagues have been using a micropatterning technique to carefully position the cells within about 10 microns of each other. That's nearly the diameter of a cell and about one-fifth the diameter of a human hair. The technique uses a device made with photolithography, the same process used to create circuit patterns on electronic microchips.

In the paper, the MIT researchers said they have formed more than 20,000 cell clusters with precise sizes and shapes within a single gel. They have since scaled that up several-fold. They also have created layers of different cells, attempting to mimic the structure of tissue inside the body.

While the technique may one day be applied to engineer tissues for medical applications, its first use will be for basic research on how cells are organized, how they function and communicate in tissues, and how they develop into organs or tumors. The 3-D organization of cells also may help researchers understand how cells respond to drugs when they are in a normal state compared to a diseased state like cancer.

Cars can last much longer than their original design lives because their parts can be replaced repeatedly. Tissue engineering is really all about the development and installation of replacement parts for humans and other animals. Given sufficiently advanced tissue engineering technologies we would not need to die from age-related internal organ failure or suffer from worn out joints or tendons or ligaments. Tissue engineering advances will provide key pieces of the puzzle for how to do full body rejuvenation.

By Randall Parker 2006 April 25 09:24 PM  Biotech Tissue Engineering
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2006 April 24 Monday
UV Light Activates Gene Therapy Near Damaged Cartilage

University of Rochester Medical Center researchers have show that UV light can turn on gene therapy just in the cells that need it.

An early study has demonstrated for the first time that laser light can target gene therapy right up to the edge of damaged cartilage, while leaving nearby healthy tissue untouched, according to an article published in the April edition of the Journal of Bone and Joint Surgery. True repair of injuries to articular cartilage would enable millions of patients, currently consigned to worsening arthritis and joint replacement, to return to athletic exercise.

Study authors say that dramatic progress is being made toward a new form of light-activated gene therapy for cartilage repair that will be safe, fast, easy on patients and compatible with techniques used by most surgeons (e.g. arthroscopy). Beyond knee injuries, researchers believe the technology could one day guide precision gene therapy for cancer or heart disease, restore vision by repairing eye tissue and rebuild skin destroyed by burns.

UV light turns on stress kinase enzymes that turn on DNA polymerase that causes the single stranded DNA in the gene therapy delivery package to get converted into an active form.

The solution to the problem of how to target some cells for gene therapy, while missing their neighbors, came from a strange source: our cellular defenses against sunlight. The sun gives off ultraviolet (UV) light, which can cause destructive changes (genetic mutations) when exposed to sensitive molecules like DNA. If not defended against, the changes in DNA caused by UV light would cause humans to constantly develop cancer, for instance, in exposed tissue. Thus, an SOS system evolved that calls for genetic repairs when UV light causes too many mutations. Specifically, UV light turns on signaling proteins called stress kinases, which activate DNA polymerase, the enzyme that re-builds DNA chains when damaged.

Current technologies can direct UV light with great precision. That, combined with the ability of UV light to turn on DNA polymerase, has granted researchers the ability to turn on gene therapy in one cell, but not its neighbors. In recent years, researchers have been working to develop a system where UV light pre-treats target tissue, so that only the cells exposed to light gain the ability to copy themselves and grow. What remained was to find the right combination of vector and light to make the therapy safe as well as effective.

Recombinant adeno-associated virus (rAAV) turned out to be the right vector because it has evolved to deliver into the cell only a single strand of deoxyribonucleic acids (DNA), not the usual two strands of molecules. A second strand of DNA must be built by DNA polymerase to form active, double-stranded DNA before genes, or a gene therapy, can take effect. Single-stranded delivery is the key rAAV's usefulness as part of light-activated gene therapy because, of the all the cells infected with a gene therapy, only those struck by UV light will turn on DNA polymerase. Only those cells will activate the therapeutic gene, divide and re-grow tissue.

Cell damage from UV light is a concern.

The current study evaluated the ability of long-wavelength ultraviolet light to stimulate gene expression following infection by rAAV. Researchers evaluated the safety and efficacy of long-wavelength ultraviolet laser light to induce light-activated gene therapy in articular cartilage cells (chondrocytes). The study authors believe this is the first demonstration that site-directed gene delivery can safely and effectively treat articular defects in higher animal cartilage cells.

Given the safety concerns found with short wavelength, researchers were excited to find that the new long wavelength system is an order of magnitude more likely to turn on gene therapy as designed than to cause death by mutation (cytotoxity). Along with previous studies, the current research found rAAV to be highly efficient at turning on gene therapy in articular chondrocytes. Pretreatment with 6000 Joules per meter squared, a standard dose of UV light, led to a tenfold increase in the effect of gene therapy in target cells after one week. In addition, nearly half of cells exposed to the light expressed the inserted, therapeutic gene.

If the UV light was an order of magnitude more likely to turn on the gene therapy than to kill the target cells then was the gene therapy activated in every 10 cells per 1 cell that died from the UV? That doesn't sound so exciting. If the 1 cell died then the other 10 cells might have suffered some permanent DNA damage from the UV. But maybe the press release isn't explaining the actual results well.

This approach could be refined to allow the use of smaller doses of UV. Imagine a molecule activated by UV light and delivered along with the gene therapy. Such a molecule, properly chosen, could activate DNA polymerase. Finding such a molecule would be hard. Though development of a better understandnig of how UV light activates DNA polymerase might lead to identification of such a molecule. Mechanisms for amplifying the selective effects of UV light would allow smaller amounts of UV light to be used.

By Randall Parker 2006 April 24 10:45 PM  Biotech Gene Therapy
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Men More Jealous When Their Mates Are Fertile

Women like more masculine men when they are fertile and men feel more jealous about their mates when their mates are fertile.

Men become more jealous of dominant males when their female partner is near ovulation, researchers at the University of Liverpool have found.

Previous studies have found that women's preferences for male physical appearance vary according to their fertility status. During ovulation women tend to find masculine looking men more attractive and prefer their voices and odour. During this fertile phase women are more likely to have an affair with a masculine-looking man, as their features are linked to high testosterone levels, demonstrating good genetic qualities that can be passed on to offspring.

New research at the University has found that men sense this preference shift in their female partners and find masculine men more threatening during their partner's most fertile phase. Rob Burriss and Dr Anthony Little, from the University's School of Biological Sciences, also found that men only behave in this way if their female partner does not use oral contraception – and is therefore more fertile.

Images of male faces that were either high or low in dominant features, such as a strong jaw lines and thinner lips, were shown to male participants who provided ratings of dominance for each image. A dominant person was defined as someone who looked like they could 'get what they wanted'.

Participants were asked to provide information on whether or not their female partner used oral contraception and the date of her current or previous menses. Male participants whose partners did not use oral contraception and were near ovulation rated masculine faces more dominant than those participants with partners who did use oral contraception and were not near ovulation.

I think of Ray Davies and the Kinks singing "I'm an ape man, I'm an ape ape man, I'm an ape man. I'm a King Kong man. I'm a voodoo man. I'm an ape man". Do not be fooled by all the technological civilization you see around us. We are still primitive products of natural selection.

By Randall Parker 2006 April 24 10:15 PM  Brain Sexuality
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2006 April 23 Sunday
Neurons Identified That Assign Relative Ratings To Goods

All of economics is just the chattering of neurons. Scientists at Harvard Medical School have identified the neurons that advertisers want to control.

BOSTON--Researchers at Harvard Medical School (HMS) report in the April 23 issue of Nature that they have identified neurons that encode the values that subjects assign to different items. The activity of these neurons might facilitate the process of decision-making that occurs when someone chooses between different goods.

"We have long known that different neurons in various parts of the brain respond to separate attributes, such as quantity, color, and taste. But when we make a choice, for example: between different foods, we combine all these attributes--we assign a value to each available item," says Camillo Padoa-Schioppa, PhD, HMS research fellow in neurobiology and lead author of the paper. "The neurons we have identified encode the value individuals assign to the available items when they make choices based on subjective preferences, a behavior called 'economic choice.'"

Everyday examples of economic choice include choosing between working and earning more or enjoying more leisure time, or choosing to invest in bonds or in stocks. Such choices have long been studied by economists and psychologists. In particular, research in behavioral economics shows that in numerous circumstances, peoples' choices violate the criteria of economic rationality. This motivates a currently growing interest for the neural bases of economic choice--an emerging field called "neuroeconomics." In general, it is believed that economic choice involves assigning values to available options. However, the underlying brain mechanisms are not well understood.

In the study, Padoa-Schioppa and John Assad, PhD, HMS associate professor of neurobiology, found a population of neurons located in the orbitofrontal cortex (OFC) that assigns values to different goods on a common value scale. Assigning values on a common scale allows comparing goods, like apples and oranges, that otherwise lack a natural basis for comparison.

Previous work in other laboratories showed that lesions to the OFC can result in choice deficits such as eating disorders, compulsive gambling, and abnormal social behavior. Moreover, the OFC is part of brain circuitry implicated in drug abuse, which can also be thought of as a choice deficit. Padoa-Schioppa and Assad's results establish a more direct link between the activity of OFC and the mental valuation process underlying choice behavior.

"The activity of these neurons reflects the value subjects assign to the available goods when they make choices," says Padoa-Schioppa.

"A concrete possibility is that various choice deficits may result from an impaired or dysfunctional activity of this population, though this hypothesis remains to be tested."

In his experiment, Padoa-Schioppa had macaque monkeys choose between two types of juice offered in different amounts. In some trials, the monkey chose between one drop of grape juice (which monkeys prefer) and one drop of apple juice. In other trials, the monkey chose between one drop of grape juice and two drops of apple juice, etc. Behaviorally, Padoa-Schioppa observed a trade-off between juice type and juice quantity. The monkey might choose grape juice when one or two drops of apple juice were available. However, the monkey might be indifferent between the two juices when offered one drop of grape juice versus three drops of apple juice, and might always choose the apple juice if four or more drops were available. This indicates that the value the monkey assigns to one drop of grape juice is roughly equal to the value the monkey assigns to three drops of apple juice.

On the basis of such choice pattern, Padoa-Schioppa could correlate the activity of neurons in the OFC directly with the value assigned to the two juices. For example, the activity of one particular neuron could be low when the monkey chose one drop of grape juice or when it chose three drops of apple juice (low value). The activity of the same neuron might be medium-high when the monkey chose two drops of grape juice or when it chose six drops of apple juice (medium-high value). And the activity of the same neuron might be high when the monkey chose three drops of grape juice or when it chose 10 drops of apple juice (high value). This means that the activity of such OFC neurons encodes the value chosen by the monkey independently of the physical characteristics of the juice--its taste, quantity, etc.

Padoa-Schioppa also found that other neurons in the OFC encode the value of only one of the two juices offered to the monkey. Some neurons encoded the value of the grape juice, while other neurons encoded the value of the apple juice. "The monkey's choice may be based on the activity of these neurons," says Padoa-Schioppa.

An important aspect of the results is that neurons in the OFC encode the economic value of offered and chosen goods independently of the particular way the goods are offered to the monkey, and independently of the specific action the animal uses to signal its choice. For example, OFC neurons encoding the value of apples and oranges would do so regardless of whether the apple is offered on the right and the orange on the left, or vice versa.

"This result has broad implications for possible psychological models of economic choice," says Padoa-Schioppa. "It suggests that economic choice is, at its essence, a choice between goods as opposed to a choice between actions--such as reaching to the right to take the apple or to the left to take the orange."

This work follows a paper published in February in the journal Cognition by Padoa-Schioppa with collaborators Lucia Jandolo and Elisabetta Visalberghi of the Italian National Research Council in Rome. That behavioral study found that monkeys indeed make choices by assigning values to available foods. In the present study, Padoa-Schioppa and Assad identify the neurons in the OFC that correlate such values.

If you could change the value your brain assigns to various goods would you do it? Would you want the ability to consciously change what your desires are to make your desires more adaptive for your health or more easy to fulfill or less likely to get you into trouble?

One of the scariest things I see about advances in neuroscience is that ultimately these advances are going to point toward directions for the development of neurotechnologies that will make personality and desires malleable. Inevitably governments, terrorist groups, and other entities will use neurotechnologies to mold minds to give them different values, desires, drives.

By Randall Parker 2006 April 23 09:41 PM  Brain Economics
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Early Stage Type I Diabetes Reversed In Mice

A treatment that reverses the development of type I diabetes might work in humans as well.

Researchers at the University of Virginia Health System have made an exciting discovery: a combination of human-safe treatments reversed the course of Type 1 diabetes in mice. Using this model, the researchers found that a combined therapy of lisofylline (LSF) and exendin-4 (Ex-4) effectively reversed newly acquired Type 1 diabetes, also called autoimmune diabetes.

Dr. Jerry Nadler, chief of the UVa Division of Endocrinology and Metabolism, and colleagues theorized that simultaneously blocking a biological pathway that damages beta cells in the pancreas, while adding a growth-promoting stimulus for beta cells, might provide the critical ability to reverse Type 1 diabetes. "This finding is very exciting because it one day may provide an opportunity to restore insulin-producing cells in people with Type 1 diabetes without the need for toxic anti-rejection medications," Nadler said. Type 1 diabetes represents 5-10 percent of all diabetes cases diagnosed, and in the United States there may be 2 million people with Type 1 diabetes.

This treatment also helped the mice to return to and maintain normal, healthy levels of blood sugar. Even after treatment was stopped, blood sugar remained normal until the experiment was completed, as many as 145 days post-treatment. This is the first time that researchers have found a way to reverse diabetes by providing a combination treatment that also could help maintain normal levels of blood sugar in a mammalian model.

The research team used two treatments to reverse the course of diabetes in this model, according to their study, published online in Biochemical and Biophysical Research Communications. One treatment used in this study, lisofylline, suppresses certain immune cells that can destroy beta cells. Lisofylline also allows beta cells to keep producing insulin, as they normally would, even in the presence of destructive substances called cytokines that cause inflammation. In response to glucose stimulation, lisofylline helps the beta cells to enhance their insulin secretion. The second treatment was Exendin-4 (Ex-4), a potent substance that increases insulin secretion and helps the beta cells to grow.

These drugs can be tried for this purpose in humans:

“This treatment may someday benefit people with diabetes, because both LSF and Ex-4 have been tested in humans for other benefits and have been found to be safe,” Nadler said.

What stands in the way of trying this therapy in humans? Could both drugs be prescribed in the United States for off-label use now?

By Randall Parker 2006 April 23 09:30 PM  Biotech Therapies
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2006 April 22 Saturday
Commuters Play Large Role In Flu Spread

The potential for the avian influenza strain H5N1 to spread into the human population and kill tens of millions of people has got researchers studying the question of how influenza spreads. Some researchers at the US National Institues of Health found through mathematical modelling that long commuter trips play a large role in spreading influenza.

Researchers at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) conclude that the regional spread of annual influenza epidemics throughout the United States is more closely connected with rates of movement of people to and from work than with geographical distance or air travels. They also found that epidemics spread faster between more populous locations.

"This valuable study highlights new approaches to using historical data sources and statistical analysis to create epidemiological models. These models not only help us understand the transmission of influenza but also could guide policy for its control" said Dr. Elias A. Zerhouni, NIH Director.

The research results, published this week in Science Express, is based on 30 years of weekly data from the National Center for Health Statistics on influenza-related mortality in different States since 1972.

These results make intuitive sense. Picture a married couple where the husband commutes in one direction and the wife commutes to a very different direction. Then, for example, the husband can get exposed to a virus at work and bring the virus home. Then the wife gets exposed at home and goes to work before feeling any symptoms. Then at work before she starts showing symptoms she passes the virus along to co-workers.

The role of workplaces as nexuses of virus spread most obviously argue for the importance of efforts to reduce the potential for pathogen spread in work environments. Less obviously, households with multiple members in the labor market are also nexuses for virus spread and rearrangements of living arrangements and jobs could reduce the rate of spread of a deadly pandemic virus. For example, in some cases a couple could get jobs at the same employer. Or during a pandemic members of a multi-worker household could try to make arrangements to telecommute. Or people who are in roommate situations could try to get roommates from companies where they work.

States that are well connected get sick before less connected states.

The investigators reached their conclusions by building a mathematical model of influenza spread in the United States based on the historical pattern of epidemics. The results suggest that when disease is imported into the United States in a well-connected state, one with many inflows and outflows of workers, for example, California, disease spreads much faster than if disease is imported in a less-connected state, for example, Wyoming. In observed epidemics, the initial focus of infection varies from year to year, but epidemics tend to emerge more often from California than other less populated states.

The model can simulate influenza pandemic spread, a situation where the greatest majority of the population is susceptible to a new virus. In this case, transcontinental spread could occur more quickly. Infection could reach all states within 2-4 weeks, instead of the 5-7 weeks for annual epidemics, if seeded in a highly connected state.

While children in schools have long been viewed as the biggest spreaders of flu these latest results put workplaces as bigger flu spreaders.

Past research highlighted the role of children in the local spread of influenza, in particular, in schools and households. This study, by contrast, suggests that adults are responsible for the regional spread of influenza because they travel farther and more frequently.

Kids might infect more people but kids do not infect so many people from distant places. Adults create longer chains of infection.

Reduction of inter-regional travel could slow the spead of a deadly pandemic influenza strain into different commuting zones.

As the speed of influenza spread between states is affected by work-related population movements and transmissibility, interventions which limit inter-regional routine travel might slow epidemic spread.

Picture the United States as broken up into a bunch of regions which each have major cities and surrounding suburbs that serve as commuting work destinations. If a flu strain gets into one of those regions then commuters will spread the strain around that region. Since there is far more travel within a region than between regions restrictions on travel between regions would cause less economic disruption than restrictions within regions.

In my post "Economic Collapse Avoidable During An Influenza Pandemic" I proposed the use of "workplace cocooning" - basically living in workplaces - as a way to reduce the spread of a deadly pandemic influenza strain.

Update: A team at Los Alamos National Laboratory developed a simulation for spread of a pandemic flu virus and found that vaccines that provided only partial immunity would have considerable value in slowing the rate of spread of the virus.

The large-scale, stochastic simulation model examines the nationwide spread of a pandemic influenza virus strain, such as an evolved avian H5N1 virus, should it become transmissible human-to-human. The simulation rolls out a city- and census-tract-level picture of the spread of infection through a synthetic population of 281 million people over the course of 180 days, and examines the impact of interventions, from antiviral therapy to school closures and travel restrictions, as the vaccine industry struggles to catch up with the evolving virus.

“Based on the present work ... we believe that a large stockpile of avian influenza-based vaccine containing potential pandemic influenza antigens, coupled with the capacity to rapidly make a better-matched vaccine based on human strains, would be the best strategy to mitigate pandemic influenza,” say the authors, Timothy Germann, Kai Kadau, Ira Longini and Catherine Macken.


“It's probably not going to be practical to contain a potential pandemic by merely trying to limit contact between people (such as by travel restrictions, quarantine or even closing schools), but we find that these measures are useful in buying time to produce and distribute sufficient quantities of vaccine and antiviral drugs,” said Germann of Los Alamos’ Applied Physics Division.

“Based on our results, combinations of mitigation strategies such as stockpiling vaccines or antiviral agents, along with social distancing measures could be particularly effective in slowing pandemic flu spread in the U.S.,” added Longini.

If a partial immunity vaccine is the best that can be developed in advance of a pandemic then that vaccine is still worth developing.

The results show that advance preparation of a modestly effective vaccine in large quantities appears to be preferable to waiting for the development of a well-matched vaccine that may not become available until a pandemic has already reached the United States.

“Because it is currently impossible to predict which of the diverging strains of avian H5N1 influenza virus is most likely to adapt to human transmission, studies of broadly cross-reactive avian-influenza based vaccines with even modest immunogenicity in humans are important,” said Macken, an influenza researcher in the Los Alamos Theoretical Division. Ideally, both vaccine strategies would be done in parallel: Stockpile a modestly effective vaccine to use while the better-matched one is being developed, the authors suggest.

I have no idea what the odds are for H5N1 to accumulate enough mutations to propagate easily between humans. But it if does cross over and achieve pandemic status then a vaccine that provides partial immunity would be extremely valuable.

By Randall Parker 2006 April 22 04:04 PM  Pandemic Isolation
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2006 April 20 Thursday
UV Light Turns Mushrooms Into Vitamin D Source

Robert Beelman at Penn State and some Finnish scientists have discovered that UV light shined on mushrooms is an easy way to boost dietary vitamin D.

The ongoing work, so far, has found that a single serving of white button mushrooms the most commonly sold mushroom will contain 869 percent the daily value of vitamin D once exposed to just five minutes of UV light after being harvested. If confirmed, that would be more than what's in 2 tablespoons of cod liver oil, one of the richest and most detested natural sources of the vitamin, according to the National Institutes of Health.

Details were being presented this week at the FDA's annual science forum. The FDA proposed the research, which was funded by the Mushroom Council, as the agency looks for ways to increase the amounts of vitamin D consumed by Americans.

By Randall Parker 2006 April 20 10:29 PM  Aging Diet Studies
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Will Restrictions On Human Enhancement Lead To Animal Takeover?

In the comments section of a previous post, "Human Stem Cells Partially Fix Rodent Stroke Disability", Brett Bellmore opined:

I sometimes in my darker moments suspect that the sigularity will consist of lab rats taking over the universe, due to regulation delaying human trials of all the various treatments and augmentations.

Brett's idea is that if human enhancement is so restricted by government regulations then under relatively less restrictive regulations animals could receive genetic enhancements that would make them intellectually so improved (in science fiction writer David Brin's terminology "uplifted") that they'd surpass humans in intellectual ability. While he was jesting this does not seem impossible.

A more likely outcome in my view is that some countries will allow much more offspring genetic engineering than other countries and their populations will far surpass the rest of humanity in intellectual ability.

What I find hard to predict is just which countries will have more or less restrictive approaches toward genetic engineering of offspring for the purpose of cognitive enhancement. Current Western left-liberal denial of genetic causes of differences in IQ won't last for another 10 years once cheaper DNA sequencing leads to the discovery of lots of genetic variations responsible for differences in intelligence. At that point will leftists come to see genetic engineering as the best way to end poverty? Will right wing hawks decide that genetic enhancement is needed to compete militarily?

One might expect the Chinese to embrace genetic enhancement without ethical qualms of the sort that show up in discussions in Western countries. On the other hand, the Chinese leadership might decide cognitive enhancement is bound to produce too many people who are so smart that they will lack sufficient deference to authority (ie they will oppose the regime). Genetic enhancement might come to be seen as a threat to stability and a threat to those in power.

Offspring genetic engineering will probably come with a high initial price tag. However, that doesn't mean that offspring genetic engineering will be out of reach of poor people in industrialized countries. Elites might decide (quite correctly in my view) that government subsidies for genetic enhancement will pay off many times over for governments that subsidize it. 160 IQ children who might overwise have been born with 80 or 90 IQs will be orders of magnitude more productive and hence will generate enough tax revenue for governments that any costs for the genetic engineering will get paid back many times over.

By Randall Parker 2006 April 20 09:30 PM  Transhumans Posthumans
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2006 April 19 Wednesday
Death Rate Drops In United States In 2004

A preliminary US government analysis of deaths in 2004 show an unexpected decline in the total national death rate.

This report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) provides selected key findings from 2004 preliminary mortality data for the United States. The findings come from a substantial portion of the records of deaths that occurred in calendar year 2004 and were received and processed by NCHS as of September 12, 2005. Mortality records are based on information reported on death certificates as completed by funeral directors, attending physicians, medical examiners, and coroners.


The age-adjusted death rate reached a record low 801.0 per 100,000 U.S. standard population (Figure 1). This value is 3.8 percent lower than the 2003 rate of 832.7 (Table 1). All the sex, race, and Hispanic origin groups described in this report showed significant decreases in the age-adjusted death rate between 2003 and 2004.

Declines in deaths are rare. An aging population increases the death rate. So what are the causes of this result?

The biggest killer diseases took fewer lives.

Heart disease continues to be the leading cause of death, accounting for 27 percent of the nation's deaths in 2004. Cancer was second, at about 23 percent, and strokes were third, at 6 percent.

The good news: The age-adjusted death rate for all three killers dropped. The heart disease rate declined more than 6 percent, the cancer rate about 3 percent, and the stroke rate about 6.5 percent.

If this result holds up as the epidemiologists finish their analysis of 2004 deaths then why is this happening? Could statin drugs and other treatments be causing a drop in heart attacks and strokes? Could advances in cancer treatments be behind the decline in cancer deaths?

The raw number of deaths dropped.

"The most striking aspect of the data this year was the intensity or volume of the decreases," said Arialdi Minińo, a statistician with the National Center for Health Statistics at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the lead author of the report. "This is the largest single-year decrease in the raw numbers of deaths that we've seen since the 1940s."

At some point in the 21st century biomedical science and technology will reach a point where whole body rejuvenation becomes possible. At that point the death rate will drop by orders of magnitude in the course of a decade. Some people are trying to make that day come sooner.

By Randall Parker 2006 April 19 09:22 PM  Aging Studies
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Scantily Clad Women Make High Testosterone Men Drive Lousy Bargains

Economists Siegfried Dewitte and Bram Van den Bergh havd found that the sight of attractive women makes men who experienced high testosterone in the womb to drive weaker bargains in betting games.

It seems that the more macho a man is — at least according to his hormones — the more the sight of an attractive woman will affect his judgement.

Researchers at the University of Leuven in Belgium asked men to play an ultimatum game, in which they split a certain amount of money between them. High-testosterone men drove the hardest bargain — unless they had previously viewed pictures of bikini-clad models, in which case they were more likely to accept a poorer deal.

The sight of flesh had less effect on the bargaining tactics of low-testosterone men.

A low testosterone executive could benefit from bringing sexy female administrative assistants to negotiations with higher testosterone representatives of other businesses.

They tested for previous testosterone exposure by looking at the relative lengths of ring fingers and index fingers.

The men's testosterone levels were also tested - by comparing the length of the men's index finger compared to their ring finger.

If the ring finger is longest, it indicates a high testosterone level.

The researchers found that men in the study who had the highest levels performed worst in the test, and suggest that is because they are particularly sensitive to sexual images.

Dr Siegfried DeWitte, one of the researchers who worked on the study, said: "We like to think we are all rational beings, but our research suggests ... that people with high testosterone levels are very vulnerable to sexual cues.

"If there are no cues around, they behave normally.

"But if they see sexual images they become impulsive."

What masculine men need is some sort of drug that'll suppress their reaction to sexy women. The ability to turn it off would enhance one's ability to think rationally. But we'd want the effects to be temporary of course!

Also see my previous post "Index And Ring Finger Lengths Partially Predict Violent Tendencies".

By Randall Parker 2006 April 19 09:22 PM  Brain Sexuality
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2006 April 18 Tuesday
Mediterranean Diet Appears To Lower Alzheimers Risk

More fish, vegetables, olive oil and fruits combined with less meat and dairy appear to the lower the risk of Alzheimer's Disease.

Overall, each additional unit of the Mediterranean diet adherence score (a zero to nine-point scale) was associated with a 9% to 10% decreased risk for Alzheimer's, reported Nikolaos Scarmeas, M.D., of Columbia University here, and colleagues, in the April issue of the Annals of Neurology and published online.

Compared with participants who had the lowest adherence to the diet, the risk for those with the highest adherence was 39% to 40% lower, while those in the middle tertile had a decreased Alzheimer's risk of 15% to 21%. This, the investigators said, showing a significant dose response, and sensitivity analysis did not change these findings.

The result comes from a diet study of elderly people.

Scarmeas followed more than 2,000 cognitively normal elderly people from Manhattan, with an average age of 77 years, for about four years. Every 18 months the participants filled out a dietary questionnaire asking them about what they consumed and how often. In total, 262 of the participants developed Alzheimer's during the course of the study.

The changes that lead to Alzheimer's start happening decades before the full blown disease. Therefore following a better diet makes sense even if you are fairly young.

By Randall Parker 2006 April 18 10:13 PM  Aging Diet Studies
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Rapid Switch From Oil To Coal Possible?

Suppose we really are hitting or getting close to hitting peak oil. An obvious question comes to mind: How long would it take to scale up Coal-To-Gas (CTG) and Coal-To-Liquid (CTL) plants? The answer to that question depends on many factors. One of those factors is how rapidly plants could be built that would do CTG and CTL conversions. Turns out we have a fairly recent example of construction of a CTG plant in the form of the Great Plains Synfuels Plant near Beulah North Dakota which was built in about 3 years.

The idea was conceived during the energy crisis of the seventies by a consortium of gas pipeline companies, Great Plains Gasification Associates. Construction commenced in 1981 after President Reagan agreed to back the project with federal loan guarantees. It was completed in 1984. Barely a year later, with the crash in gas prices, the pipeline companies bailed out, defaulting on $1.5 billion in loans. The Department of Energy took possession of Great Plains when the pipeline companies walked away. In 1988, Basin Electric, the local utility that powered the plant, acquired it for $85 million in cash and a promise to share future profits with the Department of Energy.

Dakota Gas survived by becoming a recycler. Its by-products bring in more than $150,000 a day. The most lucrative by-product is carbon dioxide. In 1997, Dakota Gas signed a deal to deliver CO2 for enhanced recovery in PanCanadian’s oilfield in Weyburn, Saskatchewan. As a result, the field is now producing at 27,000 barrels per day - its highest level since the seventies. An additional benefit is that large quantities of CO2 are now safely sequestered in Weyburn’s producing formations. This year, Dakota Gas signed up another Saskatchewan oil producer for its CO2 – Apache Canadian.

Carbon dioxide might be the ticket for extracting far more oil out of old oil reservoirs. If the rosier scenarios for CO2-enhanced extraction pan out then old US oil fields could burst back into high levels of production. But cost is a problem for producing purified carbon dioxide and then transporting it to oil fields.

The Great Plains Synfuels Plant makes 125 million cubic feet of natural gas each day.

Produces 125 million cubic feet of natural gas per day, plus by-products such as phenol, anhydrous ammonia, ammonium sulfate, cresylic acid, nitrogen and krypton/xenon. Operational in 1984.

A recent futures price of natural gas has it at $7.77 per million BTU. That represents 970 cubic feet. So 1000 cubic feet currently sell for about $8. Therefore the 125 million cubic feet of natural gas produced per day has a market value of about $1 million. Though transportation costs mean the plant operators receive less than that they also sell additional by-products as mentioned above. The total sales of the plant probably run into the hundreds of millions of dollars per year.

One question: what would the cost be for building a similar plant today? On the one hand, inflation has raised costs in general since the early 1980s. On the other hand, technologies for operating chemical plants have advanced in the last couple of decades. Some researchers at Rutgers and UNC Chapel Hill have just developed an important efficiency improvement for the Fischer-Tropsch CTL process. Green Car Congres has more details. Also, see the UNC Chapel Hill press release on the same research.

The Great Plains Synfuels Plant uses 700 workers. A plant built to use newer technologies and on a larger scale would very likely need fewer workers per amount of natural gas or liquid produced.

ANG went bankrupt in 1985 and turned the plant over to the Department of Energy (DOE). Employing 700 workers, the Synfuels Plant is one of only two gasification plants in the world (the other one is in South Africa). The plant purchased its power directly from Basin Electric's Antelope Valley Station (AVS).

Time for plant construction doesn't strike me as a major obstacle for a "Peak Oil" necessitated shift away from oil toward coal. But what about price? Conflicting claims are made about the price at which CTL technologies become competitive.

"The technology is truly efficient and economical," said Claude Corkadel, Rentech's vice president of strategic programs. "But the biggest thing is, our economic analysis shows this technology is better anytime crude oil is at $40 a barrel or higher."


"Coal is a relatively inexpensive form of energy compared to petroleum, and the United States has abundant reserves of it," said Bob McCormick, a senior engineer at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden who is familiar with the coal-to-liquids technology. "There is benefit to converting coal to liquid fuels."

But McCormick doubts Rentech's economic analysis.

"I have not evaluated Rentech's technology, but $40 a barrel seems far-fetched to me," McCormick said.

The cost of substitutes will determine how high the price of oil can go. Some substitutes have well characterized costs. But the cost picture remains unclear to me for coal and similarly for oil shale.

Also see my previous post Fischer-Tropsch Coal Gas Cost Effective With Current Oil Prices?

By Randall Parker 2006 April 18 09:28 PM  Energy Fossil Fuels
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2006 April 16 Sunday
Genetic Variant Doubles Risk Of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder

A gene coding for a transporter for the neurotransmitter serotonin comes in a variation that greatly increases the risk of obsessive compulsive disorder.

Scientists at the National Institutes of Health’s (NIH) National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) have identified a previously unknown gene variant that doubles an individual’s risk for obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). The new functional variant, or allele, is a component of the serotonin transporter gene (SERT), site of action for the selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) that are today’s mainstay medications for OCD, other anxiety disorders, and depression.

“Improved knowledge of SERT‘s role in OCD raises the possibility of improved screening, treatment, and medications development for that disorder,” said Ting-Kai Li, M.D., Director, National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. “It also provides an important clue to the neurobiologic basis of OCD and the compulsive behaviors often seen in other psychiatric diseases, including alcohol dependence.”

Approximately 2 percent of U.S. adults (3.3 million people) have OCD, the fourth most prevalent mental health disorder in the United States. Individuals with OCD have intrusive, disturbing thoughts or images (obsessions) and perform rituals (compulsions) to prevent or banish those thoughts. Many other individuals demonstrate obsessive-compulsive behaviors that do not meet OCD diagnostic criteria but alter the individuals’ lives.

Drs. David Goldman, Chief, and Xianzhang Hu, Research Scientist, in NIAAA’s Laboratory of Neurogenetics discovered the linkage aided by new functional analyses of the SERT genetic variant. The researchers first compared the genotypes of 169 OCD patients to those of 253 controls in a large U.S. patient population[i] and found that the OCD patients were twice as likely to have the variant. Then they studied transmission and non-transmission of the variant in a Canadian population[ii] of 175 OCD parent-child trios (two healthy parents and a child with OCD) and found that the risk variant was twice as likely to be transmitted from a parent to a child with OCD. Specifically, of 86 informative trios, 48 children carried the new risk variant and 26 did not.

Not surprisingly considering this result Stanford researchers found that a serotonin selective reuptake inhibitor, citalopram, provides some relief from OCD.

The pace of genetic studies like the one above happen at a rate mostly driven by the cost of DNA sequencing. When DNA sequencing costs fall orders of magnitude further then scientists will able able to perform massive comparisons of gene sequences between people with and without a large number of disorders and diseases. This will lead to the discovery of large numbers of other genetic variations that influence cognitive function and the risk of cognitive and other disorders.

People are going to become far more interested in the sequences of other people once we know how many different genetic variations influence behavior. Companies will want to hire managers with genetic profiles that mark them as bound to perform well. Ditto for engineers, sales reps, and other types of workers.

Also see my previous posts "Gene Mutations Cause Rare Form Of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder" and "Compulsive Hoarders Have Unique Brain Scan Patterns".

By Randall Parker 2006 April 16 06:28 PM  Brain Genetics
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Human Stem Cells Partially Fix Rodent Stroke Disability

Researchers at the Medical College of Georgia have demonstrated the ability of a commercial human stem cell line to partially repair surgically induced stroke-like damage in rat brains.

A single dose of adult donor stem cells given to animals that have neurological damage similar to that experienced by adults with a stroke or newborns with cerebral palsy can significantly enhance recovery from these types of injuries, researchers say.

Using a commonly utilized animal model for stroke, researchers administered a dose of 200,000-400,000 human stem cells into the brain of animals that had experienced significant loss of mobility and other functions. The stem cells used in the study were a recently discovered stem cell type, referred to as multipotent adult progenitor cells, or MAPCs.

Treated animals experienced at least 25 percent greater improvement in motor and neurological performance than controls, said Dr. Cesario V. Borlongan, neuroscientist at the Medical College of Georgia and the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Augusta.

Improvement in function continued for the length of the study. This suggests that even greater improvement would have been seen over additional months. Also, it opens up the possibility that additional treatment doses might yield even greater improvement.

Following the stroke, both control animals and those that received a single injection of stem cells were evaluated for a period of up to 2 months. Improvements in stem cell treated animals included enhanced performance across the range of tests, which examined strength, balance, agility and fine motor skills, and also included greater recovery of injured tissue.

“A single dose of the cells produce robust behavioral recovery at an early period post-transplantation and the recovery was durable, lasting up to two months, which was the entire length of this study,” Dr. Borlongan said. “Furthermore, animals continued to show improvement over time.” In the newborn model of ischemic injury, enhanced recovery was found within two weeks.

Even though less than 1 percent of the transplanted cells were present two months later, animals receiving treatment developed new neurons, apparently formed from endogenous stem cells. “The mechanism that we are putting forward is these donor cells are secreting nourishing trophic factors that are helping the host brain cells survive and stimulating stem cells from the host to multiply,” Dr. Borlongan said.

I can imagine such a treatment providing benefit even to those who do not suffer from stroke or cerebral palsy. Aged brains with slowly dividing stem cells could get partially rejuvenated if injected stem cells could stimulate existing cells to divide.

This method of treatment for stroke does not repair the core location of damage. However, repair on the periphery could prevent the core damage area from getting even larger and could make the difference between, for example, being wheelchair bound or walking with a cane. Or it could mean the difference between drooling out the side of one's mouth or being able to keep one's mouth closed.

In the adult stroke model, MCG researchers found giving stem cells increased the number of injured cells that survived in the area just outside the area of greatest damage, also referred to as the ischemic core, by 5-20 percent.

“Up to this point, all the treatment approaches, including transplantation and tPA, cannot get rid of that ischemic core,” Dr. Borlongan said. “But outside of that core there is a lining, what we call the penumbra, and that penumbra, if you do not treat it over time, becomes part of the core. We are showing, that even one week after a stroke, we are able to increase the number of cells surviving along that penumbra and that is how we feel it is producing significant recovery, by rescuing cells within the penumbra.”

What we most need are stem cell therapies, gene therapies, and still other therapies that will go into the vascular system and repair blood vessels that put us at risk of stroke. Any therapy aimed at restoring function after a stroke won't be able to put back neurons that held memories or that were trained to do complex physical movements such as, say, playing a musical instrument. Better not to lose the neurons in the first place.

The stem cells used in this experiment came from a Cleveland Ohio biotech company named Athersys.

Athersys, Inc., a Cleveland-based biopharmaceutical company pursuing cell therapy programs in cardiovascular disease, stroke, cancer and other diseases, funded the research in which previously frozen human or rodent multipotent adult progenitor cells,  which the company calls MultiStem™, were thawed and injected directly into the brain.

Researchers believe that MultiStem™ cells are able to deliver a therapeutic benefit in multiple ways, for example by producing factors that limit tissue damage and stimulate repair, according to Dr. Gil Van Bokkelen, the company’s chairman and chief executive officer. In addition, MultiStem™ cells can safely mature into a broad range of cell types and can be produced on a large scale, something which should ease the move toward clinical studies and eventual clinical use. “Given the number of stroke victims each year, it would be a big step forward if a safe and effective stem cell therapy could be produced, conveniently stored, and efficiently delivered on a widespread basis. We believe that we can achieve that with MultiStem™,” commented Dr. Van Bokkelen.

As stem cell therapies become used to treat a wider range of diseases and disorders the revenue from sales will feed back toward the development of improvements and the development of stem cell therapies for yet more conditions and problems. We are on the threshold of a virtuous cycle of stem cell development funded by the enormous amounts of money in the medical industry. Sales of stem cell therapies will replace far less effective therapies and also shift money away from nursing homes and palliative treatments.

Update: Another study using stem cells to repair neuron damage found that a special gel can align the growth of neural stem cells to help bridge spinal cord injury gaps.

The second study addressed a significant problem in the use of stem cells for spinal cord repair, that of directing cells to align in the proper direction along the cord. Misdirected or undirected cell orientation limits the ability of injured nerves to reconnect with other nerve cells further down the spinal cord. “A regrowth-directing structured scaffold is required for spinal cord repair,” said lead study author Norbert Weidner, MD, of the University of Regensburg, Germany.

The research group tested anisotropic capillary hydrogels (ACH) made of a seaweed derivative, which have an internal structure that preferentially guides axons (nerve cell extensions) in one direction. In brain slice cultures, they showed that ACH promoted regrowth of existing axons and improved their ability to reconnect with their target nerve cells. They then tested this strategy in adult rats with damaged spinal cords, where ACH promoted directional regrowth across the scaffold. Ongoing studies demonstrate that ACH can be "seeded" with neural stem cells, which now align properly and may further enhance the regenerative capacity of ACH.

To give you some measure of the potential benefit of a treatment that could repair damaged spinal cords in the United States about a quarter million people have spinal cord injuries and the average age at the time of injury is about 28 years old. So a lot of people will gain decades of greater mobility and richer lives when their spinal cord injuries become repairable. The economic value of effective spinal cord repair techniques will be enormous.

By Randall Parker 2006 April 16 04:23 PM  Biotech Stem Cells
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Hybrid Cars Not Always More Fuel Efficient

Jamie Lincoln Kitman, New York bureau chief for Automobile Magazine, argues in a New York Times article that for some hybrids are so large they are still big fat pigs.

Lately, right-minded people have been calling me and telling me they're thinking about buying the Lexus 400H, a new hybrid S.U.V. When I tell them that they'd get better mileage in some conventional S.U.V.'s, and even better mileage with a passenger car, they protest, "But it's a hybrid!" I remind them that the 21 miles per gallon I saw while driving the Lexus is not particularly brilliant, efficiency-wise — hybrid or not. Because the Lexus 400H is a relatively heavy car and because its electric motor is deployed to provide speed more than efficiency, it will never be a mileage champ.

Kitman points out that federal, state, and local proposals and enacted laws that give preferences to hybrids in tax rebates, high occupancy vehicle lane access, and other advantages are rewarding some drivers who buy big hybrids at the expense of those who buy much more fuel efficient smaller vehicles. Right he is.

Kitman also points out that for highway driving hybrids provide little or no benefit.

The car that started the hybrid craze, the Toyota Prius, is lauded for squeezing 40 or more miles out of a gallon of gas, and it really can. But only when it's being driven around town, where its electric motor does its best and most active work. On a cross-country excursion in a Prius, the staff of Automobile Magazine discovered mileage plummeted on the Interstate. In fact, the car's computer, which controls the engine and the motor, allowing them to run together or separately, was programmed to direct the Prius to spend most of its highway time running on gasoline because at higher speeds the batteries quickly get exhausted. Indeed, the gasoline engine worked so hard that we calculated we might have used less fuel on our journey if we had been driving Toyota's conventionally powered, similarly sized Corolla — which costs thousands less. For the owner who does the majority of her driving on the highway, the Prius's potential for fuel economy will never be realized and its price premium never recovered.

People who buy a Prius who do little driving aren't doing themselves any favors either. If you drive just a few thousand miles per year or mostly on the highway then you'd be better off spending the price premium of a Prius on solar hot water heating or photovoltaic panels. Or you could opt for better home insulation via a number of methods such as more fiberglass insulation material, caulking up leaks (which is a cheap thing to do), and dual pane or even triple pane argon windows. Or replace old appliances and your hot water heater with the most efficient models on the market.

Still, if people want to spend their money on a hybrid then as long as there is not a tax incentive for doing so then why not? Others spend their money on trips to Nepal or turning their small homes into McMansions or buying a large SUV and driving it cross country. A hybrid is just another way to conspicuously consume (and I just saw a Prius with a bumper sticker that said "Question Consumption!" - oh the irony). But if your goal is truly to reduce your fossil fuels energy consumption you ought to take a wider ranging look to find the most cost effective ways you might accomplish that.

One question which a reader has raised: How much energy does it take to make the Nickel Metal Hydride batteries used in hybrids? How long does it take for a hybrid to save enough energy to make back the cost of the batteries? Anyone know?

Similarly, a friend asks how much energy does it take to make solar photovoltaic panels and how long does it take for the panels to earn back the energy used to produce them and to produce the costs of shpping and installing them and their support equipment? Anyone know?

By Randall Parker 2006 April 16 11:45 AM  Energy Transportation
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Anorexia Nervosa 56% Genetic

Do not judge anorexics harshly. Their genes make them do it.

CHAPEL HILL – A new study led by University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill researchers estimates that 56 percent of the liability for developing anorexia nervosa is determined by genetics.

In addition, the study found that the personality trait of "neuroticism" (a tendency to be anxious and depressed) earlier in life is a significant factor associated with development of the eating disorder later.

Anorexia nervosa is a psychiatric illness characterized by an individual’s refusal to maintain a minimally acceptable body weight, intense fear of weight gain and a distorted body image. It occurs primarily among females in adolescence and young adulthood and is associated with the highest mortality rate of any mental disorder.

People prone to depression and anxiety are more prone to anorexia nervosa. So would anti-depressants and/or anti-anxiety drugs reduce the incidence of anorexia?

This study is the first published in the medical literature to estimate how much liability for developing anorexia nervosa is due to genetics, and the first to find a statistically significant association between the prospective risk factor of neuroticism and later development of anorexia, said Dr. Cynthia M. Bulik, lead author of the study, published in the March issue of the Archives of General Psychiatry.

"What this study shows is that anorexia nervosa is moderately heritable and may be predicted by the presence of early neuroticism, which reflects proneness to depression and anxiety," Bulik said. "Fifty-six percent heritability – that’s a fairly large contribution of genes. The remaining liability is due to environmental factors."

Bulik is the William R. and Jeanne H. Jordan distinguished professor of eating disorders in UNC’s School of Medicine and director of the UNC Eating Disorders Program at UNC Hospitals. She also is a professor of nutrition, a department housed in the schools of public health and medicine, and holds the only endowed professorship in eating disorders nationwide.

The reason she and her co-authors reached these conclusions where previous studies could not, Bulik said, is that their study was based on data obtained from screening a very large sample of twins. Their sample, from the Swedish Twin Registry, consisted of 31,406 individuals born between 1935 and 1958. None of the previous studies had samples nearly as large, Bulik said.

Twin studies continue to produce a wealth of scientific information about the human heredity.

The US National Institute for Mental Health says the death rate from anorexia nervosa is pretty high.

An estimated 0.5 to 3.7 percent of females suffer from anorexia nervosa in their lifetime.

The mortality rate among people with anorexia has been estimated at 0.56 percent per year, or approximately 5.6 percent per decade, which is about 12 times higher than the annual death rate due to all causes of death among females ages 15-24 in the general population.

But a March 2003 Mayo Clinic study found that the death rate from anorexia nervosa is no higher than among the general population.

ROCHESTER, Minn. — A long-term study of patients in Rochester, Minn., with the eating disorder anorexia nervosa found that their survival rates did not differ from the expected survival rates of others of the same age and sex.

The results, published in the March issue of Mayo Clinic Proceedings, add to the knowledge of anorexia nervosa and point to other areas that need greater study from researchers.

“Although our data suggest that overall mortality is not increased among community patients with anorexia nervosa in general, these findings should not lead to complacency in clinical practice because deaths do occur,” says L. Joseph Melton, III, M.D., Mayo Clinic epidemiologist and an author of the report.

One argument for the cause of the discrepancy is that other studies used anorexia nervosa sufferers who were sick enough to require hospitalization. Whereas a larger set of all anorexia nervosa sufferers as the Mayo Clinic used brings in people who have less severe cases.

The Mayo Clinic also has a public health information web page that claims anorexia does cause a high mortality rate.

Anorexia typically has numerous complications. At its most severe, it can be fatal. Anorexia has one of the higher deaths rates among all mental illnesses, hovering around 5 percent but perhaps even higher than that.

Perhaps some anorexia patients have such severe symptoms that they damage their bodies through malnutrition while other anorexia patients end up eating more like calorie restriction dieters and perhaps even gain some life expectancy as a result. Though that seems unlikely since the calorie restrictionists try hard to make sure they get enough vitamins, minerals and other essential nutrients aside from calories. Whereas I doubt the bulk of anorexia sufferers manage to do that.

By Randall Parker 2006 April 16 10:35 AM  Brain Appetite
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2006 April 15 Saturday
Test Predicts Kidney Failure Years In Advance

Imagine you could be told two or three or four decades in advance what you are going to die from. Imagine a doctor could tell you that you will die from pancreatic failure 20 years from now barring the development of stem cell therapies or bioengineering technologies for growth of replacement organs. Would it change your attitude toward the urgency of medical research?

I've been predicting for some years that advances in biomedical testing will lead to the ability to predict occurrence of many diseases decades in advance and that this will change public attitudes toward biomedical research funding. A recent report shows another example of how testing can increase accuracy of prediction for disease occurrence. A urine test can identify people of very high risk of kidney disease over a 25 year period.

Routine blood and urine tests may help to predict the risk of end-stage renal disease (ESRD) developing between middle age and old age, reports a study in the May Journal of the American Society of Nephrology.

Abnormal results on the urine "dipstick" test, which detects protein in urine, and a blood test to estimate kidney function can identify patients at increased risk of ESRD—permanent loss of kidney function requiring dialysis or transplantation, according to the study by Dr. Areef Ishani of Minneapolis Veterans Affairs Medical Center and colleagues.

Would your willingness to repeatedly write and phone your elected representatives to ask for increased funding to grow replacement kidneys go up by much if someone could tell you that your kidneys are going to fail 20 years from now?

Think about it this way: Most people who are going to die from kidney failure or lung failure, or other organ failure spend the vast bulk of their lives not knowing exactly which organ or disease is going to do them in or when it will happen. So their support for biomedical research remains diffuse and weak. But if everyone knew what was going to kill them then everyone would have a much more clearly defined stake in the advance of biomedical science and biotechnology.

The higher the test result the higher the predicted risk of eventual kidney failure.

Over 25 years, 1.7 percent of the men developed ESRD or died of kidney disease. On the dipstick test, men who had more than a trace amount of protein in their urine in middle age were at triple the risk of ESRD at follow-up. For those with a stronger positive result, ESRD risk was more than 15 times higher than in men with a normal dipstick result.

The estimated glomerular filtration rate (eGFR)—a rough estimate of kidney function, based on a blood test—also predicted long-term ESRD risk. When the eGFR was abnormally low, risk of eGFR was more than doubled.

The risk of ESRD was especially high when both the dipstick test and eGFR were abnormal-—41 times higher than in men with normal results on both tests. Another routine blood test, the hematocrit level, was unrelated to ESRD risk.

Those people who had 41 times the risk of kidney failure probably had much more than a 50% chance of kidney failure.

Additional factors contribute to the risk of kidney failure.

Several other factors predicted ESRD risk, including age, smoking, blood pressure, low levels of high-density lipoprotein ("good") cholesterol, and blood sugar (glucose) level. Many risk factors for kidney disease are the same as those for heart disease.

Throw in future cheap genetic tests and some more blood and urine tests. Then the accuracy of calculations for risks of death from kidney failure will become even more exact. Ditto for predictions of failures of other organs and body parts.

The ability to predict what is going to kill you will not make each individual support research only on a single disease. People will also find out what is going to kill their parents, their best friends, their kids, their spouses, and acquaintances. Also, people are going to find out what would kill them if their first killer doesn't do it. "Well Bill, your heart's going to give out 15 to 20 years from now and then your kidneys a few years later and then your liver is going to be shot". Suddenly you'll have a laundry list of things you want cures for.

Plus, a lot of chronic diseases don't kill you but are mighty inconvenient and some are quite painful. Suppose teenagers can be told they're at high risk of seborrhea or Crohn's Disease or arthritis or several other diseases that won't kill them but will be with them for decades. Many of those medical problems you start accumulating in your teens, 20s, 30s, and 40s will become predictable to varying extents. Therefore in the future where tests can more accurately predict onset of a large range of diseases even teens will find more reasons to support biomedical research.

Advances in medical tests that increases disease prediction accuracy will create larger interest groups in support of development of cures for all the diseases whose occurrence can be more accurately predicted long in advance of clinical onset. Since advances in testing are happening and will continue to happen for decades to come I'm predicting a growth in the size of interest groups in support of the development of stem cell research, gene therapy, growth of replacement organs, and other cures for diseases. This trend will accelerate the development of treatments that can reverse aging entirely.

By Randall Parker 2006 April 15 12:01 PM  Aging Studies
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2006 April 14 Friday
Acreage For Corn Dropping Due To High Energy Costs

Corn for ethanol is touted in some circles as a solution to high energy costs. As long time readers know, FuturePundit is mighty skeptical about corn ethanol and thinks it is a boondoggle. Green Car Congress reports that high energy costs are causing less corn to be planted in the United States.

The rising costs of fuel and fertilizer are leading US farmers to switch from corn to less input-intensive crops such as soybeans in 2006, according to the Prospective Plantings report recently released by the US Department of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS). Dry conditions also contributed to lower corn planting intentions in the southern Great Plains.

Farmers plan to plant 78 million acres of corn in 2006, down 5% from 2005. They intend to plant a record-high 76.9 million acres of soybeans, up 7%.

Anyone see a problem here? This shift is happening in spite of government interventions through subsidies and regulations to increase the production of ethanol from corn. In spite of the US government's support for corn ethanol the rising cost of fossil fuels energy is causing farmers to shift away from producing corn. Hardly a reason to be bullish about corn ethanol, is it? The rising use of corn to make ethanol for transportation energy is going to drive up the cost of corn for animal and human feed. The decline in corn production is going to drive up the cost of corn ethanol too.

Large scale grain crop biomass as a way to supply a large fraction of transportation fuel is a bad idea. It makes Archer Daniels Midland and some corn farmers happy. It also makes some of the more ignorant greenies happy. But we do not have enough land to make corn a major source of energy. The government subsidies spent on corn ethanol would be better spent on research into photovoltaics, batteries, nuclear molten salt reactors, and other technonologies which can help produce replacements for fossil fuels.

Development of genetically engineered corn that can bind nitrogen would probably reduce or reverse the shift of farmers toward soybeans. High natural gas prices have driven up nitrogen fertilizer costs and soy's ability to fix nitrogen makes it a better crop in the face of high natural gas prices. But if biomass is to have a much larger energy future my guess is that future lies with the development of technologies for breaking down cellulose combined with grasses which produce more energy per acre.

If we really have entered the Hubbert "Peak Oil" era then we need to get more hard headed about what can replace oil. Corn is not the solution or even on a top 10 list of solutions.

By Randall Parker 2006 April 14 11:07 PM  Energy Biomass
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2006 April 13 Thursday
High Energy Prices Revive Offshore Drilling Debate

Brad Knickerbocker of the underappreciated Christian Science Monitor has written an informative article on the revival of the offshore drilling debate.

The US Interior Department's Minerals Management Service (MMS) has proposed leasing areas offshore Virginia, the Gulf of Mexico, and Alaska for energy development. Oil and gas developers are happy with the proposal - as far as it goes. "It's a step in the right direction," says Mike Linn, chairman of the Independent Petroleum Association of America.

"However, the majority of the Outer Continental Shelf (OCS) remains off- limits," he says, noting that some 90 percent of US waters have drilling bans - an area whose potential resources could replace Persian Gulf oil imports for several decades.

In its recent five-year leasing proposal, MMS estimates undiscovered resources to include 85.9 billion barrels of oil and 419.9 trillion cubic feet of natural gas technically recoverable from all federal offshore areas.

At $70 per barrel that oil is worth $6 trillion dollars or about half of one year of the United States GDP. The oil, if extracted, would generate local jobs and replace imports as well as lower prices. At $7 per 1000 cubic feet (close to current prices but half of the peak price hit several months back) the natural gas would be worth about $3 trillion. So all told perhaps $9 trillion worth of energy is sitting out on the US continental shelf waiting for exploration to find it.

A substantial contingent in Congress including 115 House members favor a moratorium on drilling in areas closer to coast lines. But if we really are entering the "Peak Oil" period and the price of oil continues to rise then I'm betting the opposition to coastal oil drilling will lose their battle. Let gasoline hit $4 a gallon and the demand for more oil exploration is going to get pretty loud. Let gasoline hit $6 a gallon and I expect to see oil rigs going in within site of the expensive coastal houses owned by rich folks - just like the oil rigs off of Santa Barbara (which I think look pretty cool lit up at night).

While the environmentalist opponents to offshore drilling are eventually going to lose I think they've served a few useful purposes. First off, they've forced oil companies to use better safety equipment and methods to reduce the risk of accidents. Second, they've delayed drilling in many areas while safety technologies have advanced. So when drilling finally happens the risk of accidents will be much lower. Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, by delaying offshore oil and natural gas extraction the environmentalists have kept oil and natural gas in the ground until it becomes much more valuable. When "Peak Oil" hits that offshore oil will cushion the blow of the transition period.

For "Undiscovered, technically recoverable oil in the US" (and since it hasn't been discovered there's a substantial error in this estimate) a chart at the bottom of the article shows Alaska as containing one third of the remaining undiscovered offshore oil and one half of the undiscovered onshore oil in the United States. The Gulf of Mexico comes in a close second. Alaska and the Gulf of Mexico are what we have left.

The United States finds itself in a worsening financial situation due to a large trade deficit whose growth is partially driven by rising oil prices. When the dollar declines as a result of the trade deficit that will effectively lower the cost of oil for countries whose currencies appreciate against the dollar. Therefore their demand for oil will rise and that will drive up the price of oil even higher in dollar terms.

The International Monetary Fund says half of the recent US trade deficit worsening is down to rising oil prices.

In the first chapters of its semi-annual World Economic Outlook, the IMF said that over the past two years, higher oil prices had accounted for one-half, or about one percentage point of GDP, of the deterioration in the US current account.

Oil prices are now high enough to provide incentives to develop coal for a wider range of uses. Perhaps an accelerated shift toward coal will put a longer run ceiling on the price of oil. But right now the United States would benefit financially from scaling up extraction of offshore oil and natural gas. How about a tax on new offshore fields to fund research on photovoltaics, batteries, nuclear molten salt reactors, and other non-fossil fuel energy sources? A small tax could fund billions of dollars of energy research per year.

By Randall Parker 2006 April 13 07:58 PM  Energy Policy
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2006 April 10 Monday
Rapid Growth In Photovoltaics Demand Driven By Germany

If photovoltaics installations were primarily market driven you'd expect photovoltaics installations to be heating up in high sunlight places like southern California, Arizona, and New Mexico. FuturePundit thinks the lop-sided growth in photovoltaic demand so heavily weighted toward Germany is a sign that the demand growth is driven by regulations, not market prices.

World solar photovoltaic (PV) market installations reached a record high of 1,460 Megawatts (MW) in 2005, representing annual growth of 34%, says the annual PV market report issued today by Solarbuzz LLC, a San Francisco based solar energy consultancy.

Germany's PV market grew 53% to 837 Megawatts in 2005, corresponding to 57% of the world market. This level is eight times the size of the United States market. Japan's 14% growth took it to 292 MW.

Solar cell production reached a consolidated figure of 1,656 MW in 2005, up from 1,146 MW. Japanese producers maintained their leadership with 46% share, while Europe accounted for 28%. US cell production was 156 MW in 2005.

"Cumulative installed solar PV electricity generating capacity expanded by 39% in 2005 and now exceeds 5 Gigawatts worldwide and investment in new plant to manufacture solar cells exceeded $1 billion in 2005," said Craig Stevens, President of Solarbuzz LLC. "Meanwhile, the PV industry raised more than $1.8 billion on capital markets over the past 12 months."

The increase in demand obviously was not driven by falling prices for photovoltaics.

Despite a rise of 12% in silicon feedstock capacity, tight supply caused long-term polysilicon contract prices to increase by up to 25%. The on-going capacity shortfall will restrict world PV market growth to just 10% in 2006.

Solarbuzz market demand forecast scenarios show worldwide industry revenues will reach $18.6 to $23.1 billion with annual PV installations between 3.2 and 3.9 Gigawatts in 2010

California's few hundred million dollars per year in subsidies doesn't make the grade against German subsidies.

Generous new German government subsidies for solar installations in that country have especially pressured supplies just as California has approved its own 10-year, $2.9 billion program giving residents a $7,000 subsidy to add the units to their homes.

How about spending a few hundred million a year on photovoltaics research? Or how about spending a few hundred million a year insulating buildings and doing other things to make buildings more efficient? I'm far from convinced that subsidizing photovoltaics purchases is the most cost effective way to reduce fossil fuels consumption or accelerate energy technology development. I bet smaller subsidies per house to install solar hot water in a far larger number of houses would save more energy per dollar spent.

Solar photovoltaics systems prices rose at least 10% due to high silicon costs.

For years, solar cell prices gradually fell as demand grew and efficiency improved. But the tug of war between the huge chip industry and the growing solar cell manufacturing sector has pushed costs of solar systems up at least 10 percent, said Howard Wenger, executive vice president of Berkeley-based PowerLight Corp., which calls itself the nation's largest buyer of solar cells. A typical installation of a system that is integrated into the roof now averages about $21,000.

We need scientists to discover ways to make non-silicon photovoltaics materials that are far cheaper to manufacture.

Germany's subsidies are driving up prices so far that California's subsidies are getting out-competed.

What's not going up is the rate of installations. In California, which boasts 80 percent of the nation's solar energy production, installations, which surged almost 40 percent in each of 2003 and 2004, slowed last year to 22 percent, according to California Energy Commission statistics.

The commission has subsidized up to 90 percent of the solar installations statewide since 1998.

The Prometheus Institute claims solar production grew even more in 2005.

Preliminary estimates for 2005 show global photovoltaic (PV) cell production increased more than 40% from nearly 1200 MW in 2004 to 1727 MW in 2005. European production growth outpaced Japan, U.S. production was relatively lackluster, but the real highlight was in the aggregate of small, global producers outside of the major markets that more than doubled cell production.

But what is the average output of that 1727 MW of theoretical capacity? 30% of that? Note that the shift in demand toward Germany from California probably lowers average realized output as a percent of total capacity for new installations as compared to existing installations since Germany is further north and has more clouds.

Ron Kenedi, an executive in Sharp's photovoltaics business, told Reuters that a shift toward much thinner silicon-based photovoltaics will provide a solution for high refined silicon prices.

One thing driving up the cost is a shortage of refined silicon, the main active component of solar panels. Its price has risen 120 percent over the last 14 months.

But costs could ease as Sharp moves to producing "thin film" solar panels that use 2 to 3 microns of refined silicon, rather than the 200 microns in conventional panels, he said.

"We're starting to produce them and probably will produce them in the United States," he said, adding that new silicon refineries should open in 2008.

SunPower Corporation, a majority owned subsidiary of Cypress Semiconductor, is pursuing another method to make photovoltaics more cost effective: Sunpower claims to have the highest conversion efficiency for light turned into electricity for any photovoltaics product on the market.

SUNNYVALE, Calif., April 4, 2006 /PRNewswire-FirstCall via COMTEX News Network/ -- SunPower Corporation (Nasdaq: SPWR), a Silicon Valley-based manufacturer of the world's highest efficiency, commercially available solar cells and solar panels, today announced volume shipments of its new line of industry-leading solar panels. This next generation line of products comprises panels rated at 220, 215 and 95 watts respectively, and is designed to maximize energy production from a limited solar array footprint in residential, commercial, and remote power applications.

The new line of solar panels, SPR-220, SPR-215 and SPR-95, offers efficiencies of up to 17.7 percent, producing up to 50 percent more power in a given roof area compared to conventional solar panels, while reducing installation costs per unit of power. The SPR-215 panel incorporates the company's uniquely attractive, all-black design that enhances the appearance of roof-mounted solar systems. The SPR-220 was recently listed by Photon Magazine as the highest efficiency panel available worldwide.

Yet some analysts think high and still rising silicon prices limit SunPower's growth till 2008.

Sales figures for photovoltaics are not the numbers to watch. Prices are key. I'll be a more excited when photovoltaics costs stop rising and start falling again. I'll be a lot more excited about photovoltaics when prices start falling rapidly.

By Randall Parker 2006 April 10 08:41 PM  Energy Policy
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2006 April 09 Sunday
Pigs For Xenotransplant Organs

The University of Pittsburgh Medical Center and biotech company Revivicor are attempting to revive efforts to genetically engineer pigs to make organs for xenotransplantation into humans. Writing for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review Luis Fabregas covers a lot of territory in a survey of the UPMC-Revivicor efforts. Human trials for some types of transplants might be just a few years off.

Momentum is building for two promising projects.

One is using insulin-making pig islets to bolster the insulin levels of people with type 1 diabetes, something routinely done in at least one hospital in Mexico City. In the last five years, about 40 patients at Children's Hospital of Mexico have received the pig islet transplants. Some of them have significantly reduced their insulin intake, said spokeswoman Isis Casanova.

Researchers at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh, led by Dr. Massimo Trucco, have been testing pig islets in small monkeys since 2004.

Another project would use pig hearts in people with severe heart failure instead of mechanical pumps.

By Revivicor's own estimates, the market for pig organs could be worth at least $6 billion.

The intensity of UPMC's efforts, including discussions between Revivicor and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, suggest UPMC is poised to begin human clinical trials within two or three years.

Revivicor's pigs have been genetically modified to not produce alpha-1-galactose sugar which causes human immune rejection. Much more could be done along those lines to make pig organs more like human organs in order to enhance compatibility. This strikes me as a direction that ought to get huge amounts of funding.

Pigs have a virus incorporated into their genomes called porcine endogenous virus (PERV) which could potentially infect humans. But such viruses could be knocked out of pigs genetically engineered for organ production. At the same time, a variety of human genes could get transplanted into pigs to make them have immune systems, livers, and other organs more like humans. It is a lot of work. All the more reason to start doing in sooner and on a greater scale.

Every day that goes by your organs all get one day older and closer to failure. If we start trying a lot harder now many of us could get youthful organs transplanted from pigs when our own organs get old and start to fail. Time's a wasting. Time is wasting our body parts and making them slowly break down. We ought to develop the means to repair and replace old human body parts.

By Randall Parker 2006 April 09 09:13 PM  Biotech Organ Replacement
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Saudis See Peak Oil Within 2 Decades

FuturePundit thinks he ought to join the peak oil pessimist camp. The Saudis do not think the oil producers can keep up with growing oil demand from China, the United States, and other developing and developed countries.

But demand for the world's premiere source of energy is rising so fast _ by around 2 million barrels per day each year _ that even Saudi Arabia's vast resources will be unable to cope without drastic help, oil executives and analysts say.

Remarkably, even Saudis, who control over a quarter of the world's known oil, are calling for relief from relentless consumption.

"The current out-of-control demand is not good for us," Ghazi Al-Rawi, head of private equity at Gulf One Investment Bank, said in a recent interview. "When you have this kind of demand, you're forced to supply beyond the optimal rate. That's not a positive thing."

So then $80 per barrel oil is not out of the question. Demand is going to get throttled back by rising prices. How much will this slow the world's rate of economic growth?

The guy formerly in charge of Saudi Aramco's oil production, Saddad al-Husseini, says that at best Saudi Arabia could boost production 35% and hold it there for 2 decades.

If such help doesn't materialize and Saudi Arabia maxes its output _ cranking out perhaps 35 percent more oil than it does today _ the kingdom's proven reserves might only sustain those gushing flows for a couple of decades before starting to dwindle, al-Husseini said.

Keep in mind that many nations have already reached their oil production peak and are on the way down. The Saudi peak will probably come later than for any other country. Therefore the world oil peak comes sooner than 2 decades from now. The demand for coal, oil tar sands, and oil shale will skyrocket unless we shift to nuclear and accelerate research into cheaper ways to make photovoltaics.

The heir apparent to head France's large Total oil company says the world is never going to see the widely projected 120 million barrels of oil per day.

THE world lacks the means to produce enough oil to meet rising projections of demand for fuel over the next decade, according to Christophe de Margerie, head of exploration for Total and heir presumptive to the leadership of the French energy multinational.

The world is mistakenly focusing on oil reserves when the problem is capacity to produce oil, M de Margerie said in an interview with The Times. Forecasters, such as the International Energy Agency (IEA), have failed to consider the speed at which new resources can be brought into production, he believes.

“Numbers like 120 million barrels per day will never be reached, never,” he said.

Want more oil? Fuggedaboutit. We are at about 82 million barrels per day. If the Saudis at best hope to add 5 million barrels per day then the world oil production ceiling isn't even going to be 100 million barrels per day.

We need to ask ourselves what we should do about the coming peak in oil production. Some of my readers advocate for the development of nuclear power plants based on Molten Salt Reactor (MSR) designs. Those designs would supposedly be cheaper than the current Light Water Reactor (LWR) designs. MSR would use much less fuel since it would burn the fuel far more thoroughly and also would therefore produce far less waste. Sounds good to me.

We also need acceleration of battery development so that most cars can get powered by elecrticity generated from nuclear, solar, and wind power. We also need acceleration of research into photovoltaics as well.

Matthew Simmons argues (see his book Twilight in the Desert: The Coming Saudi Oil Shock and the World Economy) that the Saudis have greatly exaggerated the size of their oil reserves. He's expecting an even earlier oil production peak and has some recommendations for what to do about it. See my post Matthew Simmons On Softening Oil Peak Impact. My guess is that many obvious things to do will happen in response to rising prices. But the costs of the transition would be lessened greatly if the public had a much clearer view of when the peak will come and how expensive oil will get. For example, new housing construction would feature much better insulation and other energy efficiency enhancing features.

Update: How soon and to what extent will people and businesses adjust to reduce their use of oil and natural gas? The New York Times reports that so far consumers have resisted changing their lifestyles to use less gasoline.

Still, the biggest surprise so far is that high prices seem to have had little impact on driving habits. Gasoline demand, which averaged 9.1 million barrels a day last month, remains very strong; in fact, it is up by 2 percent since January 2004 when oil prices began to rise. Analysts are puzzled.

"The real question is, What will consumers do?" said John Felmy, the chief economist at the American Petroleum Institute, the industry's main trade group. "That's a key part of the equation."

Anecdotes from rural areas suggest that people are moving away properties that require longer commutes to work. Maybe a shift is already underway and will show in coming months. But it could be that consumers are waiting to see whether prices will remain high. Once they become convinced that higher prices are to stay for a long time then I would expect more movements and job changes to reduce commute times, bigger efforts to insulate houses, shifts toward buying more efficient vehicles, and other longer term adjustments.

What I'd like to know: How high can oil prices go? I do not buy the predictions of $200 per barrel oil because before that happened high prices will curtail demand and also cause a stampede toward substitutes. The potential for Fischer Tropsch Coal-to-Liquid is the most obvious reason why oil won't go to $200 per barrel. Wood and corn for space heat, wind for electricity, and other substitutes would all become cost effective before $200 per barrel oil was reached.

One problem with substitutes is the time it takes to develop them. Oil shale and oil tar sands can also come on line and provide many millions of barrels of oil per day. But construction to ramp up either would take many years.

Maybe $200 per barrel oil is possible. But for how long? Such a price would cause a deep worldwide recession.

Update II: Stanford geophysicist Jon Claerbout wrote a review of Simmons' book in which he finds Simmons' arguments quite plausible.

Failure to find any more oil than the Hawtah Trend since 1967 was not for lack of trying. Saudi ARAMCO has access to ample capital and the world's top talent. Exploration technology has seen major developments since then, but technology does not guarantee results. In 2005 ARAMCO's budget for exploration and development is $2.7 billion. Alaska's Prudhoe Bay is a clear example that while new technology may add something, it cannot keep up with depletion, even with the recent runup in prices.

Of course there is much more to an oil field than its area shown by this map. Simmons' book provides us with much such information that he has distilled from 200 papers published with the Society of Petroleum Engineers. ARAMCO ceased publication of production statistics by oil field when it was nationalized in the late 1970s, but their engineers continue to publish technical papers on problems, successes, and difficulties.

Alarmingly, the development of horizontal drilling has added nothing to reserves while hastening the speed at which they can be drawn down.

I am worried. The world economy looks like it is heading toward much higher energy prices for an extended period of time. But necessity is the mother of invention. So I also expect to see a big acceleration of energy research and development once the realisation sinks in that the world's oil production peak is near.

By Randall Parker 2006 April 09 10:51 AM  Energy Fossil Fuels
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2006 April 06 Thursday
Nanopore Design For Cheap DNA Sequencing Identified

A nanopore that has electrodes that can measure the electrical differences between genetic code letters could enable very cheap and fast DNA sequencing.

A team led by physicists at the University of California, San Diego has shown the feasibility of a fast, inexpensive technique to sequence DNA as it passes through tiny pores. The advance brings personalized, genome-based medicine closer to reality.

The paper, published in the April issue of the journal Nano Letters, describes a method to sequence a human genome in a matter of hours at a potentially low cost, by measuring the electrical perturbations generated by a single strand of DNA as it passes through a pore more than a thousand times smaller than the diameter of a human hair. Because sequencing a person’s genome would take several months and millions of dollars with current DNA sequencing technology, the researchers say that the new method has the potential to usher in a revolution in medicine.

“Current DNA sequencing methods are too slow and expensive for it to be realistic to sequence people’s genomes to tailor medical treatments for each individual,” said Massimiliano Di Ventra, an associate professor of physics at UCSD who directed the project. “The practical implementation of our approach could make the dream of personalizing medicine according to a person’s unique genetic makeup a reality.”

The physicists used mathematical calculations and computer modeling of the motions and electrical fluctuations of DNA molecules to determine how to distinguish each of the four different bases (A, G, C, T) that constitute a strand of DNA. They based their calculations on a pore about a nanometer in diameter made from silicon nitride—a material that is easy to work with and commonly used in nanostructures—surrounded by two pairs of tiny gold electrodes. The electrodes would record the electrical current perpendicular to the DNA strand as the DNA passed through the pore. Because each DNA base is structurally and chemically different, each base creates its own distinct electronic signature.

While these researchers have identified the needed configuration the nanopore electrodes they haven't yet built the device. But they say the problem might be solved soon.

The researchers caution that there are still hurdles to overcome because no one has yet made a nanopore with the required configuration of electrodes, but they think it is only a matter of time before someone successfully assembles the device. The nanopore and the electrodes have been made separately, and although it is technically challenging to bring them together, the field is advancing so rapidly that they think it should be possible in the near future.

The researchers also expect this method to have a lower error rate than the current Sanger method for sequencing DNA.

Cheap DNA sequencing will bring many benefits and changes. A massive comparison of the DNA sequences of millions of people along with recording a large quantity of other information about each person (physical shape, hair/eye/skin color, health records, IQ, education, values, preferences, etc) will lead to the fast identification of genetic variations that contribute to a huge range of human differences.

By Randall Parker 2006 April 06 10:12 PM  Biotech Advance Rates
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Diesel Hybrids Seen As Most Efficient But Most Costly

Technology Review has an article reviewing the prospects of diesel hybrid vehicles. PSA Peugeot Citroën has demonstrated a record efficiency diesel hybrid but the diesel and the hybrid both add to the total cost.

What's holding back commercialization is cost. A diesel-powered car in Europe already costs $1,750-2,400 more than an equivalent gasoline model, and PSA estimates that making a diesel hybrid could double that premium. Hence, PSA says controlling costs will be a challenge, but it is starting to engineer cost-shaving solutions.

Note that even in Europe with much higher gasoline prices the diesel hybrid is still seen as too expensive to justify the fuel savings.

But diesel hybrids would be more efficient than gasoline hybrids.

What's clear is that diesel hybrid technology has significant potential. According to a 2003 study by MIT's Laboratory for Energy and the Environment, a study that remains one of the most comprehensive projections for propulsion technologies, diesel hybrids should outperform nearly all other propulsion technologies through 2020 -- including fuel-cell cars that run on hydrogen derived onboard from gasoline. Fuel cells using pure hydrogen offered a marginal benefit in efficiency, but only when combined with hybrid technology, and at a significantly higher price.

But the hydrogen fuel cells only make sense if or when materials are found to store hydrogen at room temperature. If active air conditioning is needed to keep the hydrogen cold then cars will use energy even when stationary.

In theory fuel cells burning liquid hydrocarbons might surpass diesel engines in efficiency and would not suffer the hydrogen storage problem.

What will mature more rapidly? Battery technologies or fuel cell technologies? If battery technologies mature more rapidly then the world could move toward all electric vehicles. If fuel cells mature more rapidly then battery improvements could still get used in combination with fuel cells to power fuel cell hybrids. Batteries allow regenerative braking to capture energy that would otherwise be lost. Unless a fuel cell design can enable a non-battery dependent method of capturing the braking energy the role of battery-based hybrids seems set to grow even if fuel cells start competing with the internal combustion engine.

Technology Review has another article reporting on an advance at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill that may greatly reduce the cost of fuel cells.

Joseph DeSimone, the UNC-Chapel Hill chemistry and chemical engineering professor who heads the lab where the work was done, thinks they can increase the membrane's surface area 20 to 40 times by using different patterns, increasing the power density proportionately.

Such improvements in power density mean that a much smaller fuel cell could provide adequate power for a vehicle. The material is also easier to work with, which should reduce manufacturing costs.

They mention that these fuel cells might work well with methanol. I'm guessing the fuel cell cost problem is going to get solved before the hydrogen storage problem. So initial vehicle fuel cells are probably going to burn liquid hydrocarbons.

By Randall Parker 2006 April 06 09:56 PM  Energy Policy
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2006 April 05 Wednesday
Vitamin D Reduces Breast Cancer Risk

Papers presented at the 97th Annual Meeting of the American Association for Cancer Research provide additional evidence that higher vitamin D reduces breast cancer risk.

Now, new studies by researchers at the Samuel Lunenfeld Research Institute at Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto suggest the "sunshine" vitamin may play a significant role in reducing breast cancer risk. The results, based on population data, found the reduction was most apparent among subjects exposed to the highest levels of vitamin D when they were young.

By interviewing about 576 patients who had been diagnosed with breast cancer and 1,135 people who had no cancer, the scientists discovered that significant reductions in breast cancer were found in those who had either worked in an outdoor job, had taken part in outdoor activities when young, or consumed cod liver oil or milk.

Working an outdoor job between ages 10 to19 resulted in an estimated 40 percent reduced risk of breast cancer, while frequent outdoor activities between ages 10 to 29 lowered breast cancer risk by an estimated 35 percent.

"These outdoor activities included those that didn't involve physical activity," said Julie Knight, who headed the Mount Sinai research team. "And so we believe that this is evidence of a reduction of breast cancer risk, associated with earlier exposure to the sun."

For dietary influences on cancer development, taking cod liver oil between ages 10 to 19 reduced breast cancer risk by about 25 percent, and consuming at least nine glasses of milk every week between the ages of 10 to 29 reduced the risk by 35 percent. The dietary and lifestyle reductions were significant, even when adjusted for other risk factors for breast cancer such as age, ethnicity, close relatives with breast cancer, age at menarche and age at a woman's first birth.

Women with higher concentrations of vitamin D in the blood are at less risk of breast cancer.

Increasing doses of dietary Vitamin D may help prevent breast cancer, with the optimal level of intake of Vitamin D more that three times the current average for Americans, according to a study conducted at the University of California, San Diego.

Previous studies have suggested a link between Vitamin D deficiency and higher incidence of breast cancer. Cedric Garland, Dr. P.H., and Edward Gorham, Ph.D., of UCSD, and their colleagues examined existing cancer studies to determine if higher Vitamin D levels in the blood could reduce the risk of cancer.

"There is a strong inverse dose-response relationship between the serum concentration of 25-hydroxyvitamin D and the risk of breast cancer," Garland said. "It's a close fit to a linear model," meaning that higher amounts of 25-hydroxyvitamin D in the serum resulted in decreased risk of breast cancer. The evidence further pointed to a level of Vitamin D measured in blood that correlated with a 50 percent reduction in the incidence of breast cancer.

Garland, Gorham and their colleagues studied a serum Vitamin D metabolite known as 25 hydroxyvitamin D and its association with breast cancer occurrence in a pooled study that included 1,760 women. The studies that provided the data for the pooled analysis were conducted by Elizabeth R. Bertone-Johnson and colleagues at Harvard, and L.C. Lowe and associates at Saint George's Hospital Medical School in London.

According to the pooled analysis, Vitamin D in blood serum equal to 52 nanograms per milliliter was associated with a 50 percent reduced risk of breast cancer. To move closer to a serum concentration of 52 nanograms/milliliter, a typical individual would have to consume no less than 1,000 International Units (IU) of Vitamin D every day, through supplements or vitamin D-fortified foods. Currently, a typical American consumes only 320 International Units of Vitamin D a day. The upper limit for vitamin D intake established by the National Academy of Sciences is 2,400 IU/day, but no toxic effects of vitamin D intake have been reported for intakes below 3,800 IU per day.

I already take vitamin D pills that put me up in the safer range.

The linked page also reports evidence that flavonoids reduce the risk of breast and ovarian cancer. Click thru and read the whole thing.

Also see my posts Vitamin D Could Decrease Overall Cancer Risk 30% and Vitamin D Crucial For Long Term Lung Health.

By Randall Parker 2006 April 05 09:51 PM  Aging Diet Cancer Studies
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More Of Older Brains Activate To Recognize Faces

As the brain ages more of it has to get recruited into solving problems that smaller areas used to solve.

New Haven, Conn.--One of two separate areas of the brain light up when younger people look at a house or a face, but each image activates both areas of the brain at the same time in older persons, according to a study published by Yale University and the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, this month in NeuroReport.

Although the researchers cannot say for sure, one theory that needs further study is that the extra activity in older adults is probably compensation for age-related changes in brain volume or efficiency, according to Christy Marshuetz, assistant professor in the Department of Psychology and a co-author of the study.

The study included a dozen people 18- to 27-years-old, and an equal number of 61- to 80-year-olds. They were asked to remember three images of houses or three images of faces and then asked to decide if another image was from the original set. Functional magnetic resonance imaging was used to track neural changes during these tasks.

I hate brain aging the most out of all aging. Brain aging is going to be the hardest problem to solve because we will be able to grow replacements for most organs. But the brain has your identity and memory. It needs to be repaired and rejuvenated by fixing all of its cells.

Our brains try to compensate for getting old.

They hypothesized that even when consciously remembering specific items, older adults would show decreased specialization in the fusiform face area of the brain and the parahippocampal place area of the brain when compared with younger adults. The researchers also expected, and found, more activity in older adults in the frontal cortex and believe this activity is compensation for less differentiation in the visual cortex at the back of the brain.

We need treatments that will repair old brain cells. Gene therapies will some day bring in replacement DNA to fix mitochondria that no longer work well and gene therapies will also bring in enzymes that will cut up junk that accumulates in cells.

The arrival of brain rejuvenation therapies will cause an economic boom when smart old minds become younger and energetic once again. Combine rejuvenation with therapies that increase intelligence and memory and the economic boom will get even larger still.

By Randall Parker 2006 April 05 09:42 PM  Brain Aging
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2006 April 04 Tuesday
Genetically Engineered Stem Cells Repair Rat Tendon

Israeli researchers engineered mesenchymal stem cells to repair tendons.

Weekend athletes who overexert themselves running or playing basketball may one day reap the benefits of research at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem that shows that adult stem cells can be used to make new tendon or ligament tissue.

Tendon and ligament injuries present a major clinical challenge to orthopedic medicine. In the United States, at least 200,000 patients undergo tendon or ligament repair each year. Moreover, the intervertebral disc, which is composed in part of tendon-like tissue, tends to degenerate with age, leading to the very common phenomenon of low-back pain affecting a major part of the population.

Until the present time, therapeutic options used to repair torn ligaments and tendons have consisted of tissue grafting and synthetic prostheses, but as yet, none of these alternatives has provided a successful long-term solution.

A novel approach for tendon regeneration is reported in the April issue of the Journal of Clinical Investigation. Researchers Prof. Dan Gazit and colleagues at the Skeletal Biotechnology Laboratory at the Hebrew University Faculty of Dental Medicine engineered mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs), which reside in the bone marrow and fat tissues, to express a protein called Smad8 and another called BMP2.

When the researchers implanted these cells into torn Achilles tendons of rats they found that the cells not only survived the implantation process, but also were recruited to the site of the injury and were able to repair the tendon. The cells changed their appearance to look more like tendon cells (tenocytes), and significantly increased production of collagen, a protein critical for creating strong yet flexible tendons and ligaments.

An advance in imaging technology made it possible to measure and confirm the tendon repair.

Lots of technologies are advancing in ways that support more rapid development of stem cell therapies, gene therapies, and other newer kinds of therapies. The rate of advance of biotechnology will continue to accelerate.

By Randall Parker 2006 April 04 10:23 PM  Biotech Tissue Engineering
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First Bioengineered Bladders Work In Humans

Grown from one's own cells in a laboratory, bioengineered replacement bladders work in humans.

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. -- The first human recipients of laboratory-grown organs were reported today by Anthony Atala, M.D., director of the Institute for Regenerative Medicine at Wake Forest University School of Medicine. In The Lancet, Atala describes long-term success in children and teenagers who received bladders grown from their own cells.

“This is one small step in our ability to go forward in replacing damaged tissues and organs,” said Atala, who is now working to grow 20 different tissues and organs, including blood vessels and hearts, in the laboratory.

The engineered bladders were grown from the patients’ own cells, so there is no risk of rejection. Scientists hope that laboratory-grown organs can one day help solve the shortage of donated organs available for transplantation. Atala reported that the bladders showed improved function over time -- with some patients being followed for more than seven years.

The study involved patients from 4 to 19 years old who had poor bladder function because of a congenital birth defect that causes incomplete closure of the spine. Their bladders were not pliable and the high pressures could be transmitted to their kidneys, possibly leading to kidney damage. They had urinary leakage, as frequently as every 30 minutes.

The lab is working on growing bioengineered hearts and pancreases.

The success is the culmination of an idea that the team began exploring 16 years ago. Atala adds that they are also working on growing bio-engineered hearts and pancreases in the lab.

Why can old cars run for decades longer than their original design? Because when their parts break they can be replaced. Same will be true for humans. This isn't a distant science fiction fantasy. Growth of replacement organs will become very commonplace in the first half of the 21st century.

Update: The cost of growing the bladder is $4000 per patient (though the New York Times quotes an even higher figure of $7000). That doesn't include the cost of the surgery to implant it or other fees for doctors. The bladder grows on a scaffold.

To grow new bladder tissue, his team biopsied cells from the muscle and lining of the bladder walls in individual patients. These cells were cultured in the lab, then seeded onto a specially constructed, biodegradable mould, or scaffold, shaped like a bladder.

Over the next two months, the cells continued to grow into the mould, which was then sutured to the patient's original bladder. (The mould degrades as the bladder tissue integrates with the body.)

Cost is a big problem, especially since all the organs age and will need either replacement or rejuvenation in place. The ability to grow replacement organs in pigs genetically engineered to have many human genes will some day greatly lower the costs of making replacement organs..The work of genetically engineering pigs for this purpose ought to receive much higher levels of funding.

Stem cell therapies, gene therapies,and assorted nanotech devices will eventually provide the means to repair and rejuvenate organs in place.

80 researchers are working at Wake Forest to develop this same technique to grow other types of organs.

Dr. Atala added that 80 researchers in his regenerative medicine institute at Wake Forest were trying to apply the scaffolding techniques to build new hearts, livers, kidneys, pancreases, nerves and other tissues.

The huge historical turning point where human bodies become repairable is within sight.

By Randall Parker 2006 April 04 06:06 AM  Biotech Tissue Engineering
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2006 April 03 Monday
Pine Nut Oil Reduces Appetite

Pine nuts as a useful diet food?

SAN FRANCISCO – In the face of the growing obesity health challenge, "appetite suppressants are increasingly interesting because they work on the very simple premise of 'What you don't eat now, you won't need to lose later,'" Alexandra Einerhand, director, nutrition and toxicology-Europe at Lipid Nutrition notes.

Einerhand says that in a study, polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) derived from "Korean pine nuts, which have been part of our diet since before ancient Greek and Roman times, stimulated two well-known appetite suppressing peptide hormones at the same time that overweight women reported significantly less desire to eat only 30 minutes after ingestion," compared with an olive oil placebo.

In a paper being presented in an American Physiological Society session at Experimental Biology 2006, Einerhand reports that "in this randomized, double-blind cross-over trial, the greatest effect was observed after just 30 minutes, with the 18 women reporting a 29% reduction in "desire to eat" and a 36% drop in "prospective food intake" scores. Their subjective feelings of appetite were evaluated by visual analog scales, a validated scoring system.

The experiment found a parallel and significant increase in cholecystokinin (CCK) of 60% and glucagon-like peptide 1 (GLP1) of 25% that remained as long as four hours after ingestion. CCK and GLP1 are appetite suppressors, which "send signals of satiation to the brain diminishing the desire to eat and food intake usually significantly," she adds.

In my own sample of one eating a few Brazil nuts seems like it causes a reduction in my appetite lasting for hours. I've long suspected that some nuts have this effect. But until now I haven't come across any research that provided a mechanism to support my intuition about nuts and appetite. Anyone else find that some type of nuts reduces your appetite?

By Randall Parker 2006 April 03 09:34 PM  Brain Appetite
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Lack Of Sleep Linked To High Blood Pressure, Other Risks

Do not skimp on the sleep.

April 3, 2006 – If you're middle age and sleep five or less hours a night, you may be increasing your risk of developing high blood pressure, according to a study released by Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health and the College of Physicians and Surgeons, and reported in Hypertension: Journal of the American Heart Association.

"Sleep allows the heart to slow down and blood pressure to drop for a significant part of the day," said James E. Gangwisch, PhD, lead author of the study and post-doctoral fellow in the psychiatric epidemiology training (PET) program at the Mailman School. "However, people who sleep for only short durations raise their average 24-hour blood pressure and heart rate. This may set up the cardiovascular system to operate at an elevated pressure."

Dr. Gangwisch said that 24 percent of people ages 32 to 59 who slept for five or fewer hours a night developed hypertension versus 12 percent of those who got seven or eight hours of sleep. Subjects who slept five or fewer hours per night continued to be significantly more likely to be diagnosed with hypertension after controlling for factors such as obesity, diabetes, physical activity, salt and alcohol consumption, smoking, depression, age, education, gender, and ethnicity.

The researchers conducted a longitudinal analysis of data from the Epidemiologic Follow-up Studies of the first National Health and Nutrition Examination Study (NHANES I). The analysis is based on NHANES I data from 4,810 people ages 32 to 86 who did not have high blood pressure at baseline. The 1982-84 follow-up survey asked participants how many hours they slept at night. During eight to 10 years of follow-up, 647 of the 4,810 participants were diagnosed with hypertension. Compared to people who slept seven or eight hours a night, people who slept five or fewer hours a night also exercised less and were more likely to have a higher body mass index. (BMI is a measurement used to assess body fatness). They were also more likely to have diabetes and depression, and to report daytime sleepiness.

I've come across other studies on the obesity-sleep connection. If you want to keep the weight off find a way to get enough sleep. See, for example, my posts Sleep A Lot To Avoid Burn-Out From Stress And To Stay Skinny and Mutant Mice With Disrupted Sleep Habits Get Fat.

Get 7 or 8 hours sleep each night so that you'll live long enough to still be alive when rejuvenation therapies are developed.

By Randall Parker 2006 April 03 09:34 PM  Aging Studies
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2006 April 02 Sunday
Will Offspring Genetic Engineering Cause Population Explosion?

Several years ago Steve Sailer commented that what parents most want from their children are grandchildren.

Feminists and gay male leaders will also soon grow concerned that allowing parents to select embryos will leave them with fewer followers. This is because free market Galtonism will increase the gap between the sexes. Parents will select for square-jawed, ambitious, high testosterone, first-born sons, and lovely, nurturing, high-oestrogen, latter-born daughters. Why? What parents want most from their children are grandchildren, and high-achieving sons, such as business executives, produce far more grandchildren on average than high-achieving daughters. Further, parents will want loving daughters to take care of them in their old age.

Thus, boys will become more masculine and girls more feminine.

That statement was made in the context of what people will select to give as characteristics to their children and how Lefists will oppose individual choice in offspring genetic because parents will choose characteristics that Leftists, and feminists in particular, will not like.

The focus in that essay on the battle between ideological factions (important though it is) distracted me for years from noticing something far more important: If parents want their children to have grandchildren then won't parents tend to select cognitive characteristics for their children that will cause their children to want to have children of their own? If so, won't that lead to a population explosion?

Lately I happened to have several conversations with friends and acquaintances who were incredibly enthused about becoming grandparents. Then I recalled Steve's comments and got to thinking about the ramifications of so many parents wanting to become grandparents. This strikes me as a big problem once that desire meets up with offspring genetic engineering.

Years ago Mojo Nixon and Skid Roper did a song called "Elvis Is Everywhere" (except in Joan Rivers and Michael J. Fox). Well, Darwin is a lot like Elvis. He's everywhere. Natural selection is happening all around you all the time. Darwinian natural selection is like Spock's brain controlling an entire planet. It is that pervasive.

Currently fertility rates are declining below replacement levels in many Western nations. In the past natural selection ensured reproduction by use of lust. But birth control pills and other methods of contraception have (seemingly) defeated natural selection. But Darwinian natural selection is relentless and not so easily defeated. Therefore I do not buy the argument that the decline in fertility is a one way street.

As I've previously reported on an Australian twins study (see here and here) characteristics that increase fertility appear to be under positive selective pressure in humans. So just from natural selection I expect to eventually see an upswing in fertility in Western populations. But will humans do genetic engineering to their offspring that greatly speeds on selection for the desire for children and hence for increased fertility? This seems plausible, even likely.

Worse yet, suppose some members of future generations are genetically engineered to really really like having children. Then suppose we achieve the ability to rejuvenate using Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence (SENS). People will live for thousands of years with youthful bodies. If they have a very strong genetically engineered urge to reproduce they might not be satisfied with just one child. Every one or two hundred years they might plot ways to have more children. If such people become a large fraction of the total population then I could easily envision them achieving a democratic majority to vote for continued unlimited reproductive rights. What happens then? Potentially the birth of tens of billions of humans. The human population could double and double and double again many times.

Anyone see a reason why this won't happen? Getting taken over by AI robots that wipe us out is one way that future might not come to past. But short of that, can a human population explosion be prevented?

By Randall Parker 2006 April 02 02:15 PM  Trends Demographic
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