Monthly Archives: May 2009

Clive Cookson

To St James’s Palace for a press briefing at the end of the Nobel Laureate Symposium on Climate Change, hosted by the Prince of Wales.

The symposium, attended by 20 Nobel Prize winners and dozens of climate experts, produced a strong closing declaration in keeping with its strangely compelling motto, “The fierce urgency of now”.

The declaration made three demands of world leaders:

1. “An effective and just global agreement” on fighting global warming. This would require a commitment at December’s UN conference in Copenhagen to achieve a peak in global emissions of greenhouse gases before 2015 and a 50 per cent cut by 2050. Given that developing country emissions will continue rise, such an agreement requires industrialised nations to aim for a 25-40 per cent reduction by 2020.

2. Deliver a low-carbon infrastructure – including “smart grids” to connect renewable power sources over large areas – through an unprecedented partnership between governments and business.

3. Protect and restore tropical forests. (This is a pet cause of Prince Charles; as he says, without a solution to rainforest protection there is no solution to tackling climate change.)

It would be easy for a cynic to attack the Nobel Laureate symposium for the way it appeals to snobbery – scientific snobbery by inviting so many laureates and playing up their participation for all it’s worth in publicising the event, and royal snobbery by arranging for a prince to hold it in his palace.

Of course some Nobel laureates are indeed knowledgeable about climate science and involved in the fight against global warming – notably Steven Chu, the US energy secretary. It is not clear what some of the other Nobel attendees contributed, though the idea that laureates as a body constitute some sort of eminent high court of science is an interesting one.

In the end, however, I agree so strongly with the aims of the symposium and its closing declaration that I give it my wholehearted support (for what it is worth). Let us hope governments take the same attitude.

Clive Cookson

Nature, the great British science journal, has offered the animal rights movement a new cause. “Posters that feature an endearing marmoset face peering out of a cage and a caption denouncing experiments will make for an emotionally appealing campaign,” it says in an editorial.

Of course Nature, which publishes papers involving animal research in every issue, does not advocate such a campaign.

But its editorial is warning about the implications of an experiment described in this week’s edition. Japanese scientists have created transgenic marmoset monkeys that glow green in ultraviolet light – and passed the added gene for green fluorescent protein (GFP) on to their offspring.

Although several research teams have tried to produce transgenic monkeys that transmit their new genes to subsequent generations, Erika Sasaki of the Central Institute for Experimental Animals in Kawasaki and Hideyuki Okano of Keio University are the first to report success.

GFP, derived originally from jellyfish, is a standard “marker gene” in molecular biology, which scientists use to demonstrate that genetic engineering has worked.  While glowing green marmosets have little practical application, the experiment shows that transgenic monkeys could be important research tools for investigating human diseases, as transgenic mice already are.

The Japanese researchers transferred 80 transgenic marmoset embryos to surrogate mothers. Five healthy offspring were born, which passed the GFP gene on to their own offspring.

Dr Okano told a media briefing that the next step would be to generate transgenic monkeys that carried genes for brain disorders, starting with Parkinson’s and motor neuron disease. Marmosets would be better vehicles for studying such diseases than mice because their brains are much more like those of humans.

Nature supports such research, as does the FT, so long as it offers sufficient benefits, in the form of more sophisticated “models” of human disease, and the experiments are carried out responsibly.

But the researchers must be ready to deal with the broader ethical questions involved and to be open about their use of animals. As Nature notes, that may not be easy for Japanese scientists, who freely admit their dislike of public confrontation.

E.Sasaki et al 2009

Five transgenic marmosets, with feet glowing green in UV light (inset). (Credit: E.Sasaki et al 2009)

Clive Cookson

After talking to Dan Jernigan, one of the top flu specialists at the US Centers for Disease Control here in Atlanta, I feel a bit clearer about current expert thinking about the H1N1 almost-pandemic.

The good news is that the illness is on average similar in its severity to normal seasonal flu or perhaps just a little more virulent. Certainly the virus is nowhere near as dangerous as the new flu strains that have caused the great pandemics of the past, notable in 1918.

What is unusual is the age pattern of infection, which continues mainly to infect children and young adults. In the US, 60 per cent of cases have been in 5- to 24-year-olds.

The new strain is scarcely hitting old people, the main victims of seasonal flu. To some extent this may reflect the pattern with which H1N1 is moving through the community, with schools particularly affected, so that the elderly have been less exposed to the virus.

But tests suggest that older people are still protected to some extent by previous exposure to similar viruses.  This would particularly apply to those born before the 1957 pandemic of H2N2 flu which swept away many of the old H1N1 strains dating back to 1918.

When I told Jernigan that, so far as I knew, I had never had flu, he said I was almost certainly wrong. I must have been infected in the past but the symptoms were not serious enough to register in my mind as flu.

Routine analysis of blood samples shows that 7-10 per cent of the US population – 21m to 30m Americans – is infected with flu virus in an average year.  But many suffer nothing worse than a feverish cold.

So much for the scorn that we hear frequently health experts and others pour on people who complain about flu when the symptoms are supposedly not serious enough. “You just have a bad cold,” they are told. But it turns out not to be true that flu is bound to hit you with a high fever and lay you low for a week.

It seems that the new virus is less likely than seasonal flu to cause very mild cold-like symptoms but that remains to confirmed.

Meanwhile experts such as Jernigan continue to emphasize the unpredictability of new flu strains, while repeating the likelihood that the northern hemisphere will experience a more extensive H1N1pandemic after the flu season begins in the autumn. By then, however, a vaccine against the new strain should be in production.

Clive Cookson

Just 10 years ago one of the dogmas of 20th century neuroscience – that adult humans do not make new brain cells – was overthrown. The discovery at the Salk Institute in California of adult neurogenesis, the creation of neurons, gave new hope to those seeking treatments for brain disease and inspired a great wave of neural research.

Leading investigators of neurogenesis discussed their findings at the BIO conference in Atlanta today, in the most fascinating scientific session I have attended here. The focus was on depression, which affects an estimated 15m Americans and hundreds of millions of people worldwide. As Saundra Maass-Robinson, an Atlanta psychiatrist, reminded us, fewer than half the patients treated with the antidepressant drugs available today “achieve remission” – in other words have their depression lifted.

Depression is a focus for neurogenesis research because neuroscientists, led by René Hen of Columbia University, discovered around 2003 that all antidepressant drugs achieve at least some of their effects by stimulating the growth of neurons in a region of the brain called the hippocampus, which is involved in learning and memory.

The conventional explanation for how antidepressants such as Prozac work is that they increase the production of certain neurotransmitters – brain chemicals such as serotonin that carry signals between neurons. But scientists have long been aware of a paradox here: the drugs change neurotransmitter levels very quickly but their clinical benefits only appear after a few weeks.

Hen’s hypothesis, that the delay in antidepressant action reflects the time taken for new cells to generate in hippocampus, has been confirmed by animal studies, brain imaging and postmortem examination of human brains – and is now widely accepted by neuroscientists.

The research led to the formation of BrainCells Inc (BCI), a biotech company in San Diego dedicated to developing new drugs for depression based solely on stimulating neurogenesis rather than neurotransmitters. Two candidate drugs, discovered by screening hundreds of chemicals to find ones that best trigger the proliferation of new cells in laboratory cultures of neurons, are already in early clinical trials and results will be available later this year, says BCI chief scientist Carrolee Barlow.

Of course if neurogenesis can be stimulated without unacceptable side-effects, there could be many other applications beyond depression. For example NeuroNova, a Swedish neurogenesis company targeting Parkinson’s disease and ALS, will be presenting its work here tomorrow.  

To go from a basic biological discovery to clinical trials within a decade is remarkable. As Barlow says, “this is one of the fastest moving fields I have ever seen in science.”

Clive Cookson

Aids took centre stage at the BIO conference in Atlanta with a powerful performance from Elton John, Aids fundraiser extraordinaire, as the day’s keynote lunch speaker.

There is no denying the draw of celebrity, and half an hour before admission the lines snaked for several hundred metres round the Georgia World Congress Centre. The last speaker to pull in such a big BIO crowd was Bill Clinton in Chicago three years ago.

Several thousand people eventually filed into the lunch venue, a gigantic exhibition hall, and sat around circular tables to eat a salad of rare roast beef on iceberg lettuce followed by lime cheesecake.

The warm-up acts before Elton were standard fare at BIO plenary lunches. Brilliant high school science students and a star teacher won educational awards. A heart-rending film called Saving Roman showed sick children who could be helped through biotech research. The annual Biotechnology Heritage award went to Robert Fraley of Monsanto for work on GM crops. Sunny Perdue, Governor of Georgia, won the Governor of the Year award.

At last Kristine Peterson, group chair of Johnson & Johnson, one of the companies most active in Aids research, introduced Sir Elton (as everyone respectfully called him here) and he bounded up to the podium, wearing an orange-red round-necked shirt under a black suit – and his trademark orange-tinted glasses.

As someone who never seen him live or heard him speak, I was struck by Elton’s lively demeanor and strong, deep voice. He sounds like a successful English stage actor.

But enough of the superficial details. Elton’s message is that Americans have become dangerously complacent about Aids in their own country and worldwide. More than 1m Americans are living with HIV – one third of them under the age of 30 and most from poor and disadvantaged groups.

The lack of good educational materials about Aids is shocking, he said, and so is the refusal of the federal government to fund a clean needle exchange scheme that would reduce the spread of HIV among injecting drug addicts.

“Fewer and fewer Americans identify Aids as a public health priority,” he said. “It frightens me particularly that the number of young people concerned about Aids is plummeting.”

Elton ended with a challenge to the biotech industry to increase its rate of innovation in producing Aids drugs and vaccines.

Sadly Elton declined my request for an interview – and, more importantly, BIO’s request to take part in a press conference after his speech. But BIO, the Biotechnology Industry Organisation, held a media briefing anyway.

“Sir Elton John challenged our industry to address the gap between what we are doing and what we should be doing,” said Jim Greenwood, BIO chief executive. “We are here to accept that challenge.”

Three companies – GeoVax, Argos and Tibotec (a J&J subsidiary) – outlined progress on Aids vaccines and treatments. And Aids activists David Miller and Michael Manganillo, once sworn enemies of an industry they accused of profiting excessively from their disease, were there to give their support.

The Elton John Aids Foundation has raised $150m for community-based Aids project since its foundation in 1992. BIO said it would contribute $150,000 to the foundation and it challenged the “biotech community” to match that with small individual donations.

Clive Cookson

In Atlanta for BIO, long billed as the world’s biggest biotech conference. It should keep its title this year, despite an attendance likely to be 35 to 40 per cent down on the 20,000 who went to the 2008 meeting in San Diego. The record was 22,000 for BIO2007 in Boston.

Three factors have combined to depress attendance during this week’s event. In order of importance they are the sharp downturn in the economic fortunes of the biotech industry, the location of the meeting and fears of swine flu.

Many smaller biotech companies – particularly those based outside the US – cannot afford to burn several thousand dollars sending delegates to BIO, when they are in serious danger of running out of money.

Nor is Atlanta regarded as an attractive venue for the meeting. The airport is dysfunctional, judging from my experience flying in from London, and – let’s be kind – the city lacks charm. More importantly it is far from the heartlands of the US biotech industry on the east and west coasts and, for agricultural bio, the upper Midwest.  The Boston and San Diego conferences attracted hoards of local companies which have no counterparts around Atlanta.

When swine flu dominated the headlines three weeks ago, the Bio Industry Organisation thought it might be a disastrous further deterrent to people thinking of attending its international convention but in the end flu fear seems to have had relatively little effect. “Hand sterilization stations” are dotted around the George World Convention Centre, equipped with germicidal liquid and paper towels, but no one seems to be using them.

Even in this year’s slightly shrunk form, BIO is still a gigantic meeting with more than 1,000 people speaking at vast numbers of parallel sessions, more than 1,800 exhibitors and innumerable business meetings – for many attendees the main reason for being here is to strike up collaborations and partnerships.

I’ll be reporting and blogging this week from Atlanta on the big issues, from biofuels to stem cells research in the new Obama era.

Clive Cookson

The California Institute for Regenerative Medicine – set up in November 2004 when voters agreed to provide $3bn in funding for stem cell research – is finally moving ahead at full speed, after many delays caused by legal challenges and uncertainties over selling the state bonds that will fund it.

Today Alan Trounson, CIRM president, told the World Stem Cells and Regenerative Medicine Congress in London: “We have invested $1bn of our $3bn, in research grants and some expenditure on major facilities.”

The latest round of grants was announced two weeks ago after the state confirmed a successful bond sale, with 15 awards made to move basic research into the clinic.

Two of these “translational grants” were made to biotech companies, Novocell and BioTime, rather than academic labs – a sign of CIRM’s wish to work more closely with industry.

“There will be more and more opportunity for biotech companies to access funding, either as grants or loans,” Trounson told the London meeting. “The connection with the pharmaceutical industry is very important too.”

As CIRM flexes its financial muscle as the world’s largest source of stem cell research funds – and the Obama Administration relaxes George W Bush’s restrictions on federal support for embryonic stem cell research – European scientists may find the prospect of a move across the Atlantic irresistible.

Clive Cookson

To the House of Lords for a science seminar. The upper house of our Parliament may be unelected – and therefore a target for democratic reform – but it certainly boasts a strong array of scientific talent.

Helene Hayman, who chairs the house in her capacity as Lord Speaker, is holding a series of seminars for peers and journalists, to highlight the chamber’s expertise in important policy areas. Economics came first, science is second and foreign policy will be next.

John Krebs, the zoologist and former head of the Natural Environment Research Council and the Food Standards Agency, started the seminar with a review of food science issues. Then Susan Greenfield, neuroscientist and director of the Royal Institution, explained her fears that children who grow up immersed in “screen culture” (from computers, television, mobile phones, etc) will undergo psychological changes including shorter attention span, reduced empathy and excessive risk-taking. And Bob May, population ecologist and former president, talked about climate change.

After this trio of formal opening contributions, we heard from an array of distinguished scientific peers, who contribute regularly to Lords debates, scrutinise and amend legislation (such as last year’s Embryology Act) and write the excellent reports produced by the Lords Science and Technology Committee. (The committee’s next report, due out next month, will be about gene testing and genomic medicine.) All but one are life peers; the exception is John, Earl of Selbourne, one of 90 hereditary peers who still serve in the House.

I asked a slightly unfortunately worded question about how all this scientific expertise could be preserved if and when the House of Lords is reformed to make it “more democratic” by introducing directly elected peers. Baroness Hayman ticked me off: “It is important not to start from the premise that an institution can only be democratic through direct elections,” she said. Openness and accountability are equally important.

Jack Cunningham, who chaired two inquiries into reforming the House of Lords, made clear his opposition to a wholly elected upper chamber. “If they want some of the real strengths [of the Lords] to survive and develop, they can’t take that route,” he said. “People will have to choose whether they want a pale reflection of the lower chamber.”

I had favoured a wholly elected House of Lords, without really thinking through the issues. By the end of today’s seminar I agreed with Lord Cunningham – and most of his fellow peers – who feel that it would be a tragedy if all the house’s expertise in specialist fields such as science were sacrificed to what he called the “democratic imperative”.

I still think the Lords should be reformed but I now prefer a hybrid system, with about half the house elected on long mandates and half appointed from people who have exceptional expertise and experience to offer, rather like today’s life peers but less political.

Parliamentary Copyright

The Lord Speaker on her Woolsack (Parliamentary Copyright)

Clive Cookson

The coming week is going to be crucial for space astronomy.

On Monday the shuttle Atlantis is due to blast off from Cape Canaveral with seven astronauts, on Nasa’s fifth and last mission to service the 19-year-old Hubble Space Telescope.

Then on Thursday it will be the European Space Agency‘s turn. An unmanned Ariane 5 rocket will send two new observatories costing a total of €1.9bn, Herschel and Planck, into space.

Hubble is the most famous and successful telescope of modern times. It has sent back to Earth a stunning series of images of distant stars and galaxies, which have enabled astronomers to calculate the age of our universe (13.7bn years), estimate the speed at which it is flying apart and examine planets around other stars, among many other things.

The final servicing mission, costing $1bn, will replace some instruments on Hubble, mend others and replace batteries and gyros – extending its working life for at least five years. It is the most difficult mission undertaken by the shuttle, because it goes higher into orbit than routine flights to the International Space Station and involves more intricate space walks.

While Hubble looks at objects in the visible regions of the spectrum, Herschel and Planck operate at much longer wavelengths, which are not detectable by our eyes.

Although the pair are sharing a ride on Ariane 5, they are independent observatories.

Herschel will observe at a region of the spectrum, known as far infrared and submillimeter, that has until now been neglected by astronomers. This should enable it to see through dust and gas, which obscure observations at other wavelengths, to see stars and galaxies in their early stages of development.

Planck is designed to examine in greater detail than any previous instrument the “cosmic microwave background” radiation, left over from the Big Bang 13.7bn years ago. Cosmologists hope it will show them how an initial period of unbelievably rapid expansion laid down the patterns of stars and galaxies we see today – and help to explain mysteries such as dark matter and dark energy.

Clive Cookson

One secret of good research – whether to advance basic science or to apply in business or public policy – is to challenge a common assumption by asking a question others have not thought of.

That is what Chris Field and colleagues at the Carnegie Institution at Stanford in California did in a study of biofuels for transport, published today in the journal Science.

Everyone is used to driving cars powered by liquid fuels such as petrol and diesel. And in the US the drive to grow biofuels for vehicles has focused on converting crops to ethanol which can be used in internal combustion engines.

However, that turns out to the wrong approach, according to the study (carried out with the University of California, Merced). It is actually much more efficient to convert biomass to electricity for battery-powered vehicles.

The authors calculated that burning biomass to generate electricity in a power station delivered 80 per cent more mileage per acre of crops than converting it to ethanol for liquid fuel. It also doubled the greenhouse gas offsets to mitigate climate change.

Asking whether bioelectricity or bioethanol is a more efficient use of crops and land is “a relatively obvious question once you ask it, but nobody had really asked it before,” says Field.

Bioelectricity was a clear winner over bioethanol, whether the energy came from corn or switchgrass (a new cellulose-based crop).

A car powered by bioelectricity could travel almost 14,000 miles on the net energy from an acre of switchgrass, while a car powered by bioethanol from the same crop would go only 9,000 miles.

“The internal combustion engine just isn’t very efficient, especially when compared with electric vehicles,” says Elliott Campbell, another author. “Even the best ethanol-producing technologies with hybrid vehicles aren’t enough to overcome this.”

The world of research

The science blog is no longer updated but it remains open as an archive.

Clive Cookson, the FT's science editor, picks out the research that everyone should know about, in fields from astronomy to zoology. He also discusses key policy issues, from R&D funding to science education. He'll cover the weird and wonderful, as well as the serious side of science.