FuturaGene, a Sao Paulo, Brazil biotechnology company in the forestry industry will collaborate with Donald Danforth Plant Science Center in St. Louis to apply FuturaGen’s yield enhancement discoveries to food crops in developing countries. Financial and intellectual property aspects of the deal were not disclosed.
FuturaGene, a subsidiary of the Brazilian forestry products company Suzano Pulp and Paper, will provide its biotechnology discoveries for increasing yields of woody biomass to the Danforth Center for testing with food staples grown by farmers in Brazil, as well as Asia and Africa. The first tests are expected to involve model plant species, and if successful, then expanded to specific food crops. The studies also aim to boost plant biomass levels and make crops more suitable as animal feed.
FuturaGene’s research on yield enhancement has so far been applied to plantation forestry products and biomass feedstocks for biofuels, such as poplar and eucalyptus. The company’s work in this area focuses on relaxing the rigid cell walls in forest plant species consisting of cellulose, sugars, and lignins. FuturaGen says its discoveries make it possible to replace some of the natural sugars in cell walls with new types of sugar that make the plant more easily processible after harvest for pulp or biofuel.
FuturaGene has lab facilities in Brazil, Israel, and China. The company says it also has technology licensing relationships with Purdue University, the University of Arizona, and Oregon State University in the U.S., as well as Hebrew University of Jerusalem in Israel, and the University of the State of Sao Paulo and Sao Paulo University in Brazil.
In October 2012, the Danforth Center established its Institute for International Crop Improvement that the center says expands its research on trait improvements, product development, and biosafety to a greater array of crops related to food security. The institute focuses on staple crops important to subsistence farmers such as sweet potato, banana, cassava, sorghum, maize, rice, groundnuts, millet, and cowpea.
Nathan Gianneschi (University of California in San Diego)
Chemistry and medical researchers at University of California in San Diego designed round nanoscale particles to float through the bloodstream and change into net-like threads that accumulate at the site of tumors and help concentrate therapies. The team led by San Diego biochemistry professor Nathan Gianneschi appears online in this week’s issue of the journal Advanced Materials (paid subscription required).
The aim of the research, says Gianneschi, is to find materials that can be injected into the body with one shape, then change to another shape before they reached cancerous tumors. Some cancers produce quantities of enzymes known as matrix metalloproteinases that change the molecular composition and behavior of other proteins, often encouraging the escape of individual tumor cells that lead to the spread of cancer or metastasis.
The San Diego team harnessed this property of matrix metalloproteinases as the catalyst to change the form of the nanoparticles so they congregate at a tumor site. The researchers started with nanoparticles made of a type of detergent that either attracts or repels water at its opposite ends. With this characteristic, the nanoparticles in water self-assembled into spheres, with the water-repellent ends of the particles pointing to the inside.
When mixed with matrix metalloproteinases, the enzymes interacted with peptides on the surface of the nanoparticle balls, penetrating and opening the spheres. Once opened, the nanoparticles reassembled into threads, which then accumulated into a type of net or mesh.
Gianneschi and colleagues tested the technique on mice infected with human fibrosarcomas, a cancer of bone and other connective tissue that produces high levels of matrix metalloproteinases. The researchers inserted one of two types of fluorescent dyes, rhodamine or fluorescein, inside the nanoparticle balls. When the spheres broke down and formed into threads, the two dyes interacted to emit a specific fluorescent signal that let the team track the change in form of the particles.
The team reports that the spheres broke down into threads and reassembled as tiny nets at the site of tumors in the test mice within one day, with the nets persisting for at least a week. The researchers say the nets did not seem to alter the tumors, not did they affect sensitive organs in the mice, such as liver or kidney.
Gianneschi says the research offers “an autonomous material that could sense its environment and change accordingly.” He and his colleagues are now developing nanoparticles carrying an infrared dye that make it possible to visualize tumors deeper in the body.
A Chevrolet Volt and replica of the t-shaped battery pack (Photo by John F. Martin for General Motors)
A cradle-to-grave analysis of lithium-ion batteries, like those used in electric vehicles, shows the batteries have potential adverse impacts on the environment and public health beyond the benefits from their day-to-day use. The study, by consulting firm Abt Associates in Bethesda, Maryland, was conducted for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, with researchers from battery manufacturers, recyclers, and suppliers, and colleagues from Argonne National Lab (part of Department of Energy), and academic institutions.
The study aimed to identify materials or processes used in the full lifetimes of lithium-ion batteries, from the materials used in manufacturing the batteries through their end-of-life and recycling. The batteries themselves are used to power electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles that reduce or eliminate the use of gasoline. But the analysis highlighted areas for improvement that can reduce the impact of the batteries on the environment and public health.
The researchers assessed three battery cathode chemistries — lithium-manganese oxide, lithium-nickel-cobalt-manganese-oxide, and lithium-iron phosphate — along with battery anodes made with single-walled carbon nanotubes, which are still in development. Batteries made with cathodes using nickel and cobalt, and electrode processing with solvents, have the most potential adverse environmental impact, including resource depletion, climate change, ecological toxicity, and human health, such as respiratory, pulmonary, and neurological effects.
Other environmental and health impacts resulted from the methods used to recharge the batteries, drawing power from conventional electric power plants. Some of this type of impact depends on the location of the power being generated. In the Midwest and South, for example, electric power generally comes from coal-fired plants, while utilities in New England and Calfornia use more renewable sources and natural gas to generate electricity.
The team assessed the impact of single-walled carbon nanotubes because of their ability to improve the energy density and performance of electric vehicle batteries. The researchers found significant energy use in the early stages of carbon nanotube production, which may outweigh the benefits of energy efficiency once the batteries are actually used.
Since batteries with carbon-nanotube anodes are not yet in production, says the team, manufacturers can still refine their production processes to reduce their energy intensity and improve the environmental impact accordingly. The researchers also recommended techniques to reduce the environmental impact of current manufacturing processes, through cathode material substitution, solvent-less electrode processing, and recycling of metals from the batteries.
The global pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca is buying the specialty pharmaceutical maker Omthera Pharmaceuticals in Princeton, New Jersey for $323 million, or $12.70 per share, an 88 percent premium over Omthera’s closing price of $6.75 per share on Friday. Omthera shareholders may also receive up to $4.70 per share in further milestone-achievement payments.
Omega’s only product candidate is Epanova, a compound for reducing triglycerides, a type of lipid or fat in the blood that contributes (with cholesterol) to heart disease. Epanova is made of the omega-3 fatty acids eicosapentaenoic acid or EPA and docosahexaenoic acid or DHA. Omthera says the ingredients are derived from purified fish oil, and thus are of natural origin.
The company says Epanova was initially developed to treat Crohn’s disease, which while shown to be safe, did not prove effective against the disorder. The drug is designed to be prescribed as a complement to a low-fat diet in patients with hypertriglyceridemia, defined as 200 milligrams or more of triglycerides per deciliter of blood.
Omthera reported last year results of two late-stage clinical trials of Epanova. One trial tested the drug in doses of 2 and 4 grams against a placebo with 647 patients having high levels (200 to 500 milligrams) of triglycerides over 6 weeks. The second trial tested Epanova in doses of 2, 3, or 4 grams against a placebo with 399 patients having severe hypertriglyceridemia (500 milligrams or more) over 12 weeks.
The findings show Epanova is effective in lowering triglycerides and non-HDL cholesterol, defined as total cholestrol less the amount of HDL or “good” cholesterol. The results also show the 2 gram dosage of Epanova can be taken with or without meals, which suggests a better chance of patient adherence to the drug. In addition, says Omthera, the drug taken once a day in 2 to 4 gram dosages was safe and well tolerated.
AstraZeneca is the maker of the drug Crestor to treat high cholesterol. Pascal Soriot, AstraZeneca’s CEO, says in a statement that the company sees potential for Epanova both as a complement to Crestor for patients at high risk of heart disease or by itself as a therapy for high levels of triglycerides.
E coli bacteria magnified (USDA Agricultural Research Service/Wikimedia Commons)
Resarchers at University of Adelaide in Australia and Stanford University in California developed a more efficient process for producing genetically designed bacteria. The team led by Adelaide biotechnology professor Keith Shearwin published its findings online earlier this month in the journal ACS Synthetic Biology (paid subscription required).
Shearwin and colleagues call their process “clonetegration,” which simplifies the cloning of DNA, by integrating one or more additional DNA fragments into the genomes of bacteria. The team says its process makes possible the cloning and expression of genetic components usually difficult to propagate in plasmids, the strands of DNA occurring independently of chromosomes in bacterial genomes.
In the paper, the researchers demonstrate their process on Escherichia coli (E. coli), popularly known as an infectious bacteria in food, but also a common test model in biology labs. Shearwin says this process can be applied to the development of therapeutic biological compounds, such as insulin.
Among the advantages of the new process, says Shearwin, is its speed. He notes current gene-integration techniques require several days, while the team’s methods can be run overnight. In addition, the Adelaide-Stanford process allows for multiple rounds of DNA integration in the same bacteria, as well as simultaneously integrating multiple genes at different locations in the genome.
“This will become a valuable technique for facilitating genetic engineering,” says Shearwin, “with sequences that are difficult to clone as well as enable the rapid construction of synthetic biological systems.” A University of Adelaide statement says the molecular tools involved in clonetegration will be made freely available for other researchers and further development.
Purdue University in Indiana licensed a reagent developed and patented by one of its organic chemists that makes it safer and more environmentally friendly to add fluorine to organic compounds. The university licensed the reagent, developed in Purdue’s chemistry and pharmacology labs under the direction of professor David Colby, to Aldrich Chemical Co., a subsidiary of research and industrial chemical supplier Sigma-Aldrich in St. Louis.
Colby and colleagues developed a salt form of the chemical hexafluoroacetone hydrate, which they describe in a December 2012 article in the journal Organic Letters. Fluorine is a chemical used in a variety of organic compounds, including medicines and agricultural chemicals. As Colby explains, fluorine binds strongly with carbon, which makes possible durable materials such as Teflon and pharmaceuticals that withstand enzymes and other chemicals in the body.
Incorporating fluorine into organic compounds, however, often requires starting with fluoroform gas that can cause confusion or drowsiness when inhaled, and can produce fluorocarbons that destroy the ozone layer in the atmosphere. Hexafluoroacetone hydrate, the reagent created by Colby and colleagues, is a stable solid that can be used in the open air, and requires no special handling.
Only when mixed with solvents in a controlled chemical process, does the reagent release fluoroform gas, which can then be incorporated into other processes for the production of pharmacueticals, agricultural chemicals, or other compounds.
Aldrich Chemical negotiated the licensing agreement with Purdue’s technology commercialization office. The potential market for the reagent is believed to be sizeable. Some 20 percent of all pharmaceuticals on the market, for example, contain fluorine, including best-sellers like Lipitor and Prevacid.
Researchers at Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, California and Scripps Korea Antibody Institute developed a new process to more rapidly identify antibodies that target specific disease molecules. The team from the lab of Richard Lerner, an immunochemistry professor at and former director of Scripps, published its findings yesterday in the journal Chemistry & Biology (paid subscription required).
Antibodies are the basis of wide range of medicines and disease diagnostics, which bind to distinct molecular targets. They are proteins produced by B cells, a type of lymphocyte or immune cell, that are programmed to mutate a small set of genes in response to attacking microorganisms, such as bacteria or viruses.
Earlier research by Lerner and colleagues devised techniques to identify potential B cells for generating antibodies from large libraries of prospects, then determine which of the prospects can bind to the desired targets. Those techniques have since been used to identify therapies now on the market.
Their methods for identifying potential B cell antibodies were further refined in a process published last year that not only pointed out antibodies that bind to specific targets, but also perform desired functions after binding, such as activating receptors on the target cells. In that study, the Scripps team demonstrated the process by identifying an agonist — a molecule that acts like an antibody — of the hormone erythropoietin that stimulates production of red blood cells.
While a key development, the refined identification process still took a great deal of time. The technique measures the proliferation of cells, an indirect method the researchers say is very slow, and returns results only applicable to that specific, targeted biological pathway. Hongkai Zhang, a research associate in Lerner’s lab and first author of the new study, says the new study aimed to find a more direct method for identifying antibodies that would also be more generalizable to other antibiody functions.
To meet this need, the Scripps team devised a process for fluorescing indicators of molecular activity called reporter cells that light up when an antibody activates a target receptor, which the researchers say can be applied to any signalling pathway. In addition, each test cell in the system produces a unique antibody that works specifically on that cell.
The researchers employed an automated system that maintains millions of these cultured cells, and can quickly deliver test viruses to generate their unique antibodies. The system then detects the fluorescing genes indicating a match with the target molecule. The Scripps team says the technique can screen two million test cells per hour.
To test the technique, the Scripps researchers applied their methods to finding an agonist for thrombopoietin, a hormone controlling production of platelets essential for effective clotting of blood for healing wounds, but also for patients in chemotherapy who experience lower platelet production. Clinical trials of an engineered form of thrombopoietin in 2001, say the researchers, showed it induced an antibody response that resulted in giving patients lower platelet counts, the exact opposite of the intended effect.
Using their antibody identification process, the Scripps team found an antibody, labeled 3D9, that activated the thrombopoietin receptor in smaller quantities than thrombopoietin itself, which the researchers attribute to the antibody being a larger and more stable protein molecule than the small-molecule original. Zhang tested 3D9 in mice, and found after eight days, a single dose of the antibody tripled platelet counts, a more potent response than the engineered form of thrombopoietin.
While other thrombopoietin agonists have come on the market since the trials of the engineered variety, Lerner says there’s a real need for thrombopoietin agonists that do not look like the natural form. A pharmaceutical company, reports the institute, apparently agrees with Lerner and already licensed the antibody from Scripps for development.
Biosensor smartphone and cradle (Brian Cunningham, University of Illinois)
Engineers at University of Illinois in Urbana created a system harnessing an iPhone’s camera to turn the phone into a biosensor that can detect proteins, bacteria, viruses, and toxins. The team led by engineering professor and entrepreneur Brian Cunningham published its findings in a recent online issue of the journal Lab on a Chip (paid subscription required).
The biosensor is based on the ability of photonic crystals to alter the frequency of light, which are then captured by the smartphone’s camera. The materials in a photonic crystal block certain wavelengths, creating a gap in the wave bands. These crystals, and their corresponding band gaps, can be structured to control light energy in predictable ways, analogous to integrated circuits controlling the flow of electrons.
In the case of the Illinois sensor, biological material — e.g., proteins or bacteria — binds to the photonic crystal, altering the reflected light frequency from a shorter to longer wave length, and changing color accordingly. The system built by Cunningham’s team has a wedge-shaped cradle that holds the iPhone, as well as a microscope slide with the specimen sample. The slide is coated with photo-sensitive primer configured to react to a specific biological target.
The technician inserts the slide with the specimen sample into the cradle and the reflected light spectrum is measured. The cradle also contains optical components aligned with the phone’s camera, which captures and transfers the image to the phone’s processor where software measures the spectrum and analyzes the data. The processing first identifies the spectrum gap, then remeasures the shift in reflection to calculate the amount of the target molecule in the test specimen.
In the journal article, Cunningham and colleagues demonstrated detection of an antibody protein, but they say the specimen slide can be primed to test for any biological molecule or cell type. The researchers note their handheld system with components costing about $200 performs the same functions as a laboratory spectrophotometer costing $50,000.
The software app prepared for the system can analyze a sample in a few minutes. The researchers are developing manufacturing processes for the iPhone cradle, as well as a version of the entire system for Android devices. Cunningham’s lab received a National Science Foundation grant earlier this year to expand the biomaterials the device can detect to include mRNA sequences for identifying a bacterial pathogen, HIV viral antibodies, and toxic chemicals that contaminate harvested corn.
In 2000, Cunningham co-founded SRU Biosystems, located in Woburn, Massachusetts. The company develops optical-based sensors of biological molecules, and Cunningham continues as the company’s chief technologist.
In the following video, Cunningham and two graduate sudents demonstrate the smartphone biosensor.
Airborne wind turbine prototype (Makani Power Inc.)
Makani Power Inc., a company in Alameda, California developing airborne wind energy systems that fly in the air like kites, was acquired by Google, according to the company’s Web site. Financial terms of the acquisition were not disclosed.
The company says its wind energy system operates like a wind turbine, but is flown from 250 to 600 meters aloft, where winds are stronger and more consistent. The device is a flying wing, about the size of current wind turbine blades, with small rotor-powered generators mounted on the wing. The wing flies in a vertical circular path, with power generated by the device transferred to the ground through a cable made with high-strength fibers that also serves as the tether.
Makani Power is a seven-year old company, which had Google’s green-energy program as one if its early investors. The first five years of the company’s history were devoted to R&D, including support from the Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA-E) to develop a 30 kW prototype of a utilty-scale device. Earlier this month, Makani flight-tested an autonomously-controlled version of the system, including lauch and retrieval; see video below.
The company is developing a 600 kW utility-scale version of the system, designed for off-shore wind farms. Makani says its systems eliminate 90 percent of the material used in conventional wind turbines, and can fly at higher altitudes, as well as off deeper waters than current wind turbines.
News of the acquisition was first reported yesterday by BusinessWeek. The magazine reports that Makani Power will officially be part of Google’s secretive research lab, known as Google X. That lab is also responsible for Google initiatives like Google Glass, the mobile-computers configured as eyeglasses, and self-driving cars.
The acquisition is probably a bittersweet moment for the Makani Power staff. In October 2012 Corwin Hardham, the company’s CEO and one of three co-founders, died unexpectedly of a heart condition at age 38. Hardham was both an engineer and kitesurfer, which probably helped inspire design of the system.
The following video tells about the system’s 3 May autonomous flight test.
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