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Student Designs Simple Water Filter, Seeks Crowdfunding

Drinking water with a filter

Jeremy Nussbaumer takes a drink from a bottle with a DrinkPure filter. (ETH Zurich)

24 July 2014. An engineering student at ETH Zurich, a science and technology university in Switzerland, designed a simple, inexpensive water filter to bring drinking water to developing countries that lack reliable clean water sources. Jeremy Nussbaumer developed the DrinkPure filter while an undergraduate at ETH Zurich, and now has a crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo to finance production and distribution of the device.

Some 768 million people worldwide live in areas lacking treatment systems that provide a reliable source of clean drinking water, according to World Health Organization. Of that number, says the advocacy group Water.org, 345 million live in Africa. Water.org also cites WHO data showing some 3.4 million people die each year from a disease linked to water contamination, and nearly all of those (99%) live in developing regions.

Nussbaumer developed DrinkPure in the university’s Functional Materials Laboratory, which conducts research on polymer membranes used in a variety of consumer, industrial, and health care products. These membranes use nanotechnology to create ultra-fine particles that act as a template for filters meeting precise specifications. The technology is patented and being commercialized by Novamem LLC, a spin-off company from ETH Zurich and partner with Nussbaumer in developing DrinkPure.

The engineered membrane is the third of three filtration stages in the DrinkPure device. The first stage captures larger particles, such as sand and dirt, while a second filter of activated charcoal removes chemical contaminants and odors. The polymer membrane in DrinkPure then filters out bacteria, producing potable drinking water.

The filter weighs under 100 grams (3.5 ounces) and screws on the top of a 1 liter plastic bottle. The user fills up the bottle with water from any source, then squeezes the bottle to force the water through the filter, for drinking. Nussbaumer says the user can squeeze 1 liter of water through the filter in a minute, and one filter can last an entire year.

Nussbaumer, who delayed the start of his graduate studies to develop the device, aims to have the first DrinkPure filters ready for field testing in Africa in January 2015. To finance initial production and distribution for testing, Nussbaumer started a crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo that aims to raise $40,000. As of 24 July, the campaign raised more than $24,000, which ends on 26 August.

While the DrinkPure filter was originally designed for developing regions, Nussbaumer says it would also be helpful for hikers and travelers, who now buy expensive bottled water. “Quickly screw it on a bottle and you can take a drink from any pond or river without a second thought,” says Nussbaumer in a university statement. “I’m actually not a serious walker myself, but if I were to go I would be sure to take the filter along.”

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Company, Institute Studying Youth Lung Cancer Genomes

Barbara Gitlitz

Barbara Gitlitz (University of Southern California)

23 July 2014. Foundation Medicine, a company providing genome-based personalized cancer diagnostics, and Addario Lung Cancer Medical Institute are studying the genomes of younger lung cancer patients to uncover differences in their cancer and identify therapies for this population. Financial terms of the collaboration were not disclosed.

Some 224,000 people in the U.S. are expected to be diagnosed with lung cancer in 2014, with current and former smokers at the highest risk of the disease. An estimated 4,500 of these new cases will be individuals under the age of 45. Many people in this age group are non-smokers and do not have the usual mutations associated with lung cancer, which suggests other genetic factors are at work.

The Genomics of Young Lung Cancer study is being conducted by Addario Lung Cancer Medical Institute, an affiliate of the Bonnie J. Addario Lung Cancer Foundation in San Carlos, California, and led by Barbara Gitlitz, a professor of medicine at University of Southern California. The study plans to enroll 60 patients diagnosed with lung cancer under the age of 40.

Foundation Medicine, in Cambridge, Massachusetts provides profiles of a patient’s cancer, both solid tumors and blood-related cancers, using high-throughput genomic sequencing, to identify genetic alterations that may be driving the cancer’s progression and can help define personalized therapies. In this study, Foundation Medicine’s technology will identify unique genetic alterations associated with lung cancer in younger patients to better understand these specific types of the disease. The genomic findings for individual patients will also be provided to their physicians.

“Lung cancer is fundamentally different in young adults and the current standard of care does not account for this distinction,” says Gitlitz in a Foundation Medicine statement. “This trial has the potential to significantly improve treatment options for young adults through a more thorough understanding of the genomic drivers of lung cancer unique to these patients.”

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Dust Mite Allergy Vaccine Developed, Animal Tested

House dust mite

House dust mite (FDA.gov)

23 July 2014. Researchers at University of Iowa in Iowa City developed a vaccine, which in lab mice generates antibodies that protect against dust mite allergens. The team led by Iowa pharmacy professor Aliasger Salem published its findings in this month’s issue of AAPS Journal.

Dust mites are microscopic-sized insects, related to ticks and spiders, that eat skin cells shed by people, and thrive in dusty, warm, and humid environments around the home, such as bedding, carpets, and upholstered furniture. The tiny insects cause an allergic reaction in many people, resulting in sneezing and runny nose, and can trigger attacks in individuals with asthma. A 2003 survey found dust mite allergens in more than 8 in 10 homes in the U.S.

Salem and colleagues sought to develop a vaccine that harnesses the body’s immune system to prevent dust mite allergens from causing a reaction. The researchers designed a delivery system for antigens, the substances that induce an immune system response, using nanoscale particles of a biodegradable polymer, poly(lactic-co-glycolic acid) or PLGA.

The Iowa team tested PLGA nanoparticles carrying the dust mite antigens in various sizes, as well as with and without an adjuvant, a substance that boosts the performance of a vaccine by making immune system cells more receptive. In lab cultures, the researchers found the optimum package to be a combination of antigens and an adjuvant called cytosine-phosphate-guanine or CpG in a 300 nanometer size, which were absorbed by 90 percent of immune system cells (1 nanometer equals 1 billionth of a meter).

In further tests, the team exposed lab mice to dust mite allergens every other day for nine days. During that time, mice receiving the vaccine-plus-adjuvant package created increased numbers of antibodies that fight the allergens. The tests also showed the mice receiving both vaccine and adjuvant experienced 83 percent less lung inflammation than those receiving just the vaccine.

The researchers plan to continue with lab and animal tests of the vaccine, in preparation for eventual human clinical trials.

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Trial Shows Herpes Simplex Therapy Generates Immune Response

Herpes simplex viruses

Herpes simplex viruses (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)

21 July 2014. An intermediate stage clinical trial of an immunotherapy by Genocea Biosciences to fight herpes simplex virus 2 — the main cause of genital herpes — shows the treatment generates an immune system response to the disease that lasts an entire year. The findings were presented this week by Genocea vice-president Jessica Baker Flechtner at this year’s International Herpesvirus Workshop in Kobe, Japan.

Herpes simplex virus 2, or HSV-2, affects the skin and mucous membranes of the genitals and is transmitted through sexual contact. The disease can spread even if the partners have no open sores or symptoms. Genital infections from the virus affect more women than men.

Genocea Biosciences is a biotechnology company in Cambridge, Massachusetts developing vaccines and immunotherapies to protect against or treat symptoms of virus and bacteria pathogens including those causing pneumonia, cancer, and malaria, as well as genital herpes. Its vaccines and immunotherapies aim to harness the power of T cells, white blood cells that directly or indirectly attack specific invading pathogens.

The company’s technology platform, called Atlas, is based on research by immunologist Darren Higgins at University of California in Berkeley and Harvard Medical School. The technology starts with high-throughput screening to identify a small number of key targets, then developing antigens corresponding to those targets to stimulate the appropriate T cells for preventing or treating the infection.

Genocea’s lead candidate is an immunotherapy for HSV-2, code-named Gen-003, designed to reduce the duration and severity of symptoms associated with the disease. The treatments aim to generate immune system responses from T-cells and other antibodies, and can be given with or without an adjuvant or booster.

The clinical trial tested Gen-003 at various doses — 10, 30, and 100 micrograms — both with and without an adjuvant, against a placebo, all administered in three injections at 21-day intervals. The study enrolled 143 patients with HSV-2 at 7 sites in the U.S., and aimed primarily to highlight any safety or tolerability issues over a period of 57 weeks. But the trial also measured T-cell and antibody responses to the antigens in the therapy, as well as changes in genital lesions and the proportion of days with viral shedding, where the virus is detected on the skin.

The results presented at the workshop in Japan show Gen-003 generates a response from the immune system, producing more T-cells, as well as immunoglobulin-G antibodies that fight bacterial and viral infections, and neutralizing antibodies. Moreover, this elevated immune response continued 12 months after the last injection.

Topline results from the trial, released earlier in July, show patients taking Gen-003 in 30 microgram doses reduced their genital lesion and viral shedding rates by 65 and 40 percent respectively, compared to baseline measures, after 6 months. In addition, the genital lesion rate continued 42 percent below the baseline after one year. The results show as well that the treatments are safe and well tolerated.

Genocea is planning a larger clinical trial to test Gen-003 at 30 and 60 microgram doses, with various levels of adjuvants, against a placebo, and with a larger number of HSV-2 patients.

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Spin-Off Company Developing Cardiac Drug Tests

Helen Maddock

Helen Maddock (InoCardia)

22 July 2014. A medical researcher at Coventry University in the U.K. is spinning-off a new company to commercialize her research on cardiac drug toxicity for screening new therapies for dangerous side effects before testing on patients. Helen Maddock, a lecturer in cardiovascular physiology and pharmacology, is starting InoCardia to provide this service to pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies.

Maddock’s research investigates biomarkers of malfunctioning heart muscles that offer early indicators of cardiac disorders, such as heart failure. A study by Maddock and Coventry colleague Hardip Sandhu, published earlier this year in the journal Clinical Science, discusses identification of micro-RNAs — molecules of genetic material based on a person’s DNA that regulate genes’ expression of proteins in the body — as biomarkers to detect potential cardiac injuries before irreversible damage occurs.

One application of these findings is to identify potential adverse effects of drugs on patients. InoCardia plans to provide tests using a sample of a patient’s own heart muscle to evaluate the safety of new drugs. The tests use a work-loop technique that simulates mechanical work and power output of muscle contractions, in this case heart muscle contractions, in the lab.

The tests are performed with heart tissue samples submitted to an electrical current that contracts the muscle while exposed to the treatment, with results indicating if the new drug affects the human heart muscle’s contractions. Conducting these tests in the lab, makes it possible for pharma and biotech companies to catch adverse effects before conducting expensive clinical trials, or even preclinical studies with lab animals.

InoCardia already received early venture funding from Mercia Fund Management, providing £250,000 ($US 399,000) in equity capital. The company also recruited pharma and biotech industry veterans to its management team. Maddock serves as the InoCardia’s chief scientist.

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Farm Survey Drone System Seeks Crowdfunding Support

StitchCam drone

StitchCam drone aircraft (PutDronesToWork.org)

21 July 2014. A system that combines an aerial drone with Android tablet and software designed to survey a grower’s crop fields is seeking crowdfunding contributors. The StitchCam system by San Diego start-up SNAP Vision Technologies LLC is the subject of a Kickstarter campaign, but needs to raise more than $92,000 of its $100,000 goal in the next 17 days, when the campaign ends.

StitchCam is the creation of Bill Robertson, a Stanford University design school graduate from an Iowa farm family, looking for a method for farmers to survey their crops, that offers more frequent and up-to-date reports than by walking through fields, and is less expensive than hiring a plane and pilot. Robertson says manned flights of vineyards in Napa Valley, for example, cost about $8 an acre.

The system uses a small, battery-powered quadcopter (four-rotor) drone aircraft that weighs less than four pounds. The body of the aircraft is made of aluminum and carbon fiber, with each rotor measuring 10 inches in diameter. The drone flies lower to the ground than manned aircraft and can maneuver around trees and other obstructions. Both take-off and landing are done autonomously by the drone.

The drone is designed to carry an imaging sensor, which Robertson says has a patent pending. The sensor captures high-resolution images and measures reflected light from the sun in the visible and near infrared spectra to gauge the vitality of the crops. StitchCam adapts open-source work by Public Lab to interpret these images for assessing the state of vegetation.

The system includes as well an Android tablet running software that processes data captured by the drone and uploads it to the cloud for processing. The software is built on the open-source DroidPlanner software for drone aircraft ground stations. Users program the drone’s flight plan, then store the plan in its memory, which the drone follows after take-off.

In addition to starting SNAP Vision Technologies to develop the technology, Robertson created an online community, putdronestowork.org, get public input on StitchCam and further applications of the system. Robertson expects the community will also provide training and a user forum.

Robertson began a Kickstarter campaign on 4 July and continues to 8 August 2014 that aims to raise $100,000. A contribution of $2,800 qualifies a donor for a StitchCam system before the growing season for soybeans corn, and grapes in the U.S. As of today (21 July), however, the campaign raised less than $8,000 with only 17 days remaining.

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Orphan Status Assigned to Kidney Disorder RNA Therapy

Cross-section of kidney (National Library of Medicine)

Cross-section of kidney (National Library of Medicine)

21 July 2014. Regulus Therapeutics Inc. in San Diego says the U.S. Food and Drug Administration designated its RNA therapy for Alport syndrome, a rare genetic kidney disease, an orphan drug. The therapy, code-named RG-012, shows promise in preclinical studies, including with lab mice.

Alport syndrome affects about 1 in 50,000 newborns, a condition that results in progressive loss of kidney function. The disease is caused by mutations in three genes that provide instructions for making a protein used by specialized blood vessels in the kidneys to remove water and waste from the blood, and create urine.

The mutations prevent the kidneys from performing these functions, leading to fibrosis and scarring of the kidney and eventually kidney failure. People with Alport syndrome also experience vision and hearing loss, since that same protein affected by the mutations is also a key component in the development of inner ear structure, as well as shape and color of the retina.

Regulus develops therapies based on micro-RNAs, molecules of genetic material based on a person’s DNA that regulate genes’ expression of proteins in the body. One micro-RNA can regulate entire collections of genes and are thus considered important regulators of the human genome.

Research by Regulus shows one micro-RNA, miR-21, to be over-expressed in mice with Alport syndrome. RG-012 is a chemically-modified genetic molecule that inhibits the functioning of miR-21 in lab cultures. Regulus says tests in mice with Alport syndrome show RG-012 decreases the rate of kidney fibrosis, and increases the life span of mice by 50 percent. The company is aiming for the first half of 2015 to begin a clinical trial of RG-012 as a treatment for Alport syndrome.

Orphan drug designation is granted to treatments being developed for diseases affecting fewer than 200,000 people in the U.S. Therapies, both drugs and biologics, designated as orphan drugs qualify for incentives such as tax credits for clinical trials and exemptions from marketing application fees.

Regulus was formed in 2007 as a joint venture of Alnylam Pharmaceuticals and Isis Pharmaceuticals to develop micro-RNA therapies. The company is also developing a micro-RNA treatment for hepatitis C viral infections.

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Robotic Device Provides Extra Fingers to Enhance Human Grip

Faye Wu wearing robotic device

Faye Wu wears the supernumerary robotic fingers (Melanie Gonick, MIT)

18 July 2014. Engineers at Massachusetts Institute of Technology designed a glove-like robotic device that adds two more fingers and coordinates with a person’s hand to help with manual activities. Mechanical engineering professor Harry Asada and graduate student Faye Wu discussed the device earlier this week at the Robotics Science and Systems conference in Berkeley, California.

Asada and Wu are seeking to build a device that can help people with limited hand functions or only one hand perform day-to-day activities, such as lifting objects or opening a letter. Rather than building a device that requires separate commands, the researchers instead are building a system that adjusts to and coordinates with an individual’s natural gripping patterns.

The device designed by Asada and Wu, called supernumerary robotic fingers, has two larger fingers on either side of a glove with sensors and actuators worn on the wrist. The two larger fingers make it possible for the wearer to hold and lift heavier objects.

The researchers devised an algorithm to coordinate the two extra fingers with the motions of the wearer’s natural hand and five fingers. In first learning the physiology of hand movements, Asada and Wu discovered the muscles in a person’s hands and fingers are highly coordinated. And while grasping various objects requires some differences in muscle movements, they discovered in grasping any object, the hand uses the same basic two actions: bringing the fingers together and closing them in toward the palm.

When adding the two robotic fingers, Wu — who conducted tests of the device — discovered a similar pattern. She grabbed various objects, from a cookie to a football, multiple times and from various angles, with the hand assisted by the robotic device, recording the movements and actions each time. The tests revealed two or three basic grasping actions, when using the robotic device.

The algorithm then reads the posture of the wearer’s hand and coordinates the movements of the two extra fingers to enhance a person’s grip when performing manual activities. In further  development of the device, Wu seeks to better understand the amount of force needed to assist the human grasp. “With an object that looks small but is heavy, or is slippery,” says Wu in a university statement, “the posture would be the same, but the force would be different, so how would it adapt to that?”

The researchers hope to compile a collection of posture and force patterns for the algorithm in next versions of the device. Because of subtle differences in grasping behavior between individuals, future versions may need to learn a person’s grasp, much like voice command systems today learn a person’s vocal patterns.

In the following video Asada and Wu discuss and demonstrate the supernumerary robotic fingers.

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U.S. Energy, Ag Depts Fund Genomic Research for Biofuels

Flowering sorghum (Agricultural Research Service/USDA)

Flowering sorghum (Agricultural Research Service/USDA)

18 July 2014. The U.S. energy and agriculture departments are funding 10 new studies that aim to improve plant feedstocks for biofuels and other bio-based products. Department of Energy (DoE) is contributing $10.6 million in 2014, while Department of Agriculture (USDA) is adding $2 million. The studies run for 3 years.

The joint DoE/USDA Plant Feedstock Genomics for Bioenergy program started in 2006 with the aim of improving the capacity of renewable feedstocks for biofuels, such as ethanol, and chemicals. The research is particularly focused on dedicated plant species that grow on land that can’t support food crops and require less intensive production practices.

The new projects funded for 2014 are:

- Patrick Brown, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign ($1.3 million) is studying genetic variations in 600 types of sorghum to reveal traits that affect their cellulosic content and potential energy yields.

- Amy Brunner, Virginia Tech, Blacksburg ($1.4 million) is investigating an integrator of signaling pathways in poplar trees considered a biofuel source with high potential, that regulate their seasonal growth and dormancy, and respond to day-length and nutrient stress.

- Robin Buell, Michigan State University, East Lansing ($1 million) is researching genetic mechanisms and outputs, such as metabolites and RNAs — nucleic acids providing genetic instructions to cells — in switchgrass to better understand how this feedstock adapts to cold and to improve its breeding efficiency.

- Luca Comai, University of California, Davis ($1.3 million) is studying the dosage of genes in hybrid varieties of poplar trees to identify and field test dosage variations that contribute to their optimal biofuel feedstock properties.

- Maria Harrison, Boyce Thompson Institute for Plant Research, Ithaca, New York ($864,400) is investigating the genomes of Brachypodium distachyon, a model grass species, as well as the biofuel feedstock sorghum to identify proteins in sorghum development that can benefit its breeding and sustainability.

- Michael Marks, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis ($1 million) is researching the agronomic traits of pennycress — a hearty, low-growing, flowering weed — as a potential oilseed feedstock for biodiesel and cover crop in the upper Midwest.

- John McKay, Colorado State University, Fort Collins ($1.5 million) is studying the newly sequenced genome of Camelina, an oilseed that grows on marginal land with no irrigation,  to improve its performance as a biofuel feedstock in arid regions of the West.

- Todd Mockler, Donald Danforth Plant Science Center, St. Louis, Missouri ($1.5 million) is investigating Brachypodium distachyon genomes to find traits in the model grass plant that can improve drought resistance and other desirable properties of engineered bioenergy grass feedstocks.

- John Mullet, Texas A&M University, College Station ($1.2 million) is researching traits of sorghum and related plant species to increase their water efficiency and drought resistance, as well as field testing engineered hybrid sorghum varieties.

- Erik Sacks, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign ($1.5 million) is studying miscanthus to identify and field test molecular markers associated with traits that improve this plant feedstock’s yield and adaption, as well as those of related sugar and energy cane varieties.

The research is not only expected to advance knowledge of biofuel feedstocks, but also contribute to economic development in rural areas, by providing additional opportunities for growers using marginal lands and needing few resources.

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Arcadia Awarded U.S. Patent for Longer Shelf-Life Tomato

Tomatoes at farmers market

(A. Kotok)

17 July 2014. Arcadia Biosciences, an agricultural biotechnology company in Davis, California received a patent for its engineered tomato that ripens slower after harvesting. Patent number 8,772,606, “Non-transgenic tomato varieties having increased shelf life post-harvest,” was awarded by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office on 8 July to two inventors and assigned to Arcadia Biosciences.

The technology covered by the patent seeks to lengthen the amount of time vine-ripened tomatoes can sit on the shelf, and still have the texture, firmness, and taste desired by consumers. Traditional breeding methods, says Arcadia, are labor intensive and can take years before producing noticeable results, which even then may add only modest amounts of time to shelf life.

Many tomatoes sold in stores are picked before ripening, says the company, which allows them to develop a red color during transit and storage, but they lose the vine-ripened flavor sought by consumers. In addition, Arcadia is seeking a process that would not require introducing a gene from another plant to slow ripening, given some consumer resistance to transgenetic modification.

The Arcadia solution covered by the patent induces a mutation in at least one of the tomato’s non-ripening genes that changes the sequence of genetic molecules in the tomato to preserve the color and firmness of the fruit after harvesting. The patent also covers proteins and amino acids produced by the mutated non-ripening genes, as well as food products produced by tomatoes grown with the altered genes.

Arcadia’s technology for extending shelf life in tomatoes and other produce is based on a genetic screening technique called Targeting Induced Local Lesions in Genomes or TILLING, first developed at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle. With TILLING, Aracadia produces seeds and plants with the desired mutations, then screens the DNA from plants until the desired mutation and traits are identified.

The company says it first developed its extended shelf-life technology under a Department of Defense contract, where DoD was seeking ways of preserving fresh produce for longer periods in remote regions. “This technology,” says Arcadia CEO Eric Rey in a company statement, “offers tremendous value for both producers and consumers of tomato food products, including fresh market tomatoes, canned tomatoes, ketchups, soups, sauces, pastes and juices.”

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