PBS Show 'Innovation' Looks at the Stem Cell Research in Modern Medicine

The new PBS technology series Innovation is currently airing episode 6, Miracle Cell.

From the website program description,

"Miracle Cell goes to the front line of these new procedures. With unprecedented and exclusive access, the program explores the current successes and future potential for stem cell therapy. ... Miracle Cell travels to Portugal to document on film, for the first time ever, the harvest and transplant operation. The film also tracks the progress of several of Dr. Lima's patients in the ensuing months."

See also an Innovation's essay on the Stem Cell Controversy.

Adult Bone Marrow Stems Cells Don't Mend Broken Hearts

Two recent reports in the journal Nature [ article ] agree that adult stem cells derived from bone marrow do not effectively repair damaged heart tissue. These 2004 reports contradict early indications of success in 2001 [ article ].

The findings may indicate a further need for the derivation of new embroyonic stem cell lines to treat heart disease, perhaps throwing a wrench into the conservative ban by the Bush administration on public funding of research which utilizes embryonic stem cells from new cell lines [ past blog ].

See how embryonic stem cells are created in the lab in this Wired Magazine article from January 2004.

Cambridge-MIT Institute (CMI): A Partnership for Computational Systems Biology

Bio-IT World reported that the University of Cambridge, England and MIT have teamed up to form the Cambridge-MIT Institute [ article ] [ website ]. The partnership will tackle "Next Generation Drug Discovery" though the application of computer modeling to Systems Biology. Systems Biology attempts to look at the big picture of the human body as a complex system, rather than the isolated context of a single gene or protein.

See also the January, 2004 Bio-IT World interview with Dr. Leroy Hood, founder of the Institute for Systems Biology.

Diverse Perspectives on Outsourcing IT Jobs

Everyone's talking about outsourcing IT jobs in the USA to overseas locations, so to follow on my previous blog, here some more thoughful commentaries on this phenomenon.

Robert Cringely

In a series of Pulpit articles, Bob describes outsourcing as a natural dynamic in the evolution of capitalistic cultures. In short, he says that in the life cycle of a technology or industry, outsourcing occurs while in the shadow of anticipation of the Next Big Thing.

[ link 1 ] [ link 2 ] [ link 3]


Effects of Caloric Restriction on Age-related Disease and Lifespan

While reviewing past articles from the Digital Edition archive at Scientific American Magazine, I came across a 2002 article from my old lab at the Gerentology Research Center at the National Institute of Aging. The article describes a summary of what is known about the effects of caloric restriction on aging, lifespan, and disease.

In short, caloric restriction (CR) is simply the consumption of fewer calories, typically about 30% less, which has been demonstrated to decrease age-related disease, increase average lifespan, and increase maximum lifespan. While this has been well characterized in rodents, roundworms, and fruit flies, the most intriguing studies are being performed on populations of monkeys at NIH and the University of Wisconsin, which must go on for decades before confirming the effects of CR conclusively. In lieu of waiting some 20 or 30 odd years for those projects to complete, scientists can and do look at biologicial indicators that measure the aging process at various ongoing intervals.

As anyone on a typical diet can attest, eating less has the unwanted effects of making one grumpier and less able to focus or concentrate, and it's not very likely that people will really be able to stay on a calorically reduced diet for any significant amount of time, although Dr. Roy Walford is giving it his best try. Scientists hope to develop drugs to mimic the effects of caloric restriction, without actually requirnig humans to eat less. Although I'm personally still hoping that they will come up with one to help me drop the 30+ pounds I've put on since working in the software industry!!


Hurray For The Proposed Harvard Stem Cell Research Center

It's not every day that I find an article about someone I know as the front page story of the Boston Globe. I was very pleased this past Sunday to read about Harvard University's initiative to launch a center for the study of human embryonic stem cells, and as a follow-on to the main article about fund-raising for the proposed center there was an article about Dr. Ole Isacson of Mclean Hospital in Belmont, MA. Harvard's new center will be comprised of an amalgamation of various existing laboratories throughout the greater Boston area, including Mclean Hospital. Since the federal government currently limits funding of stem cell research to existing (aged) cell lines while prohibiting funding for research conducted from newly generated cell lines, Harvard is skirting the ban by funding its center through privately raised money.

Dr. Isacson, a professor of neuroscience and a director for the center of regeneration at Mclean, focuses on the transplanation of fetal brain tissue into the degenerated area of the brain for those afflicted by Parkinson's disease [listen]. The brains of Parkinson's patients exhibit a degeneration of the Basal Ganglia (striata or corpus striatum), a dopaminergic center of the brain involved in (extra pyramidal) regulation of fine movement (or motor control). Some degree of this type of degeneration occurs "normally" in the aging process and can be noticed by the slight shaking of the hand of an elderly person for example, but this condition is exacerbated in Parkinson's patients to the point of spasms and the complete inability to walk or sit still. A type of cell therapy to treat Parkinsons harvests young cells from that part of fetal mamalian brain that would normally develop into the Basal Ganglia (corpus striatum), and transplant it into the equivalent area of the host brain in the patient. The transplanted cells would recognize the cellular signals given off by neighboring areas of the brain, which would cue the cells to develop normally and replace those that have died in that brain area. Those cells have been shown to take hold in the patient's brain, develop properly, and begin producing dopamine, hopefully in the desired levels to restore the neural networks that govern fine control of movement. The result is the amelioriation of Parkinson's symptoms indefinitely. Some day this type of therapy may be replaced by the use of neural tissues grown from embryonic stem cells instead.


Molecular Biology and IT Classes at Harvard Extension School

The Harvard Extension School offers a great selection of courses in both Biology and Computer Science, making a great combination of classes to help ramp up on Bioinformatics. Having been working in IT for 4+ years now, I've been growing rusty on my Biology skills and knowledge, and in an effort to refresh myself and make some gains towards my interest in Bioinformatics I've decided to take a couple courses this semester.

Starting tomorrow, I'll be taking Principles of Genetics and Biochemistry II, on Monday evenings. In addition, I'll be adding to my programming skills with XML with J2EE on Thursday nights.

Thinking ahead a bit, this sequence might be well followed by the Genomics and Computational Biology and Introduction to Proteomics in for the Fall semester, and then Web Services in the Spring of 2005.

On a related note, the Bio-IT World Expo will be held in Boston again, March 30 - April 1, at the Hynes Convention Center. Although I have attended some of the past I3C meetings, I feel that I'm still a bit premature to get much out of this year's conference. I think I'll be better prepared to attend the expo in 2005.

Ten years ago I completed Neurobiology, Signal Transduction, and Molecular Biology at the Harvard Extension School, and more recently a Java course. I feel that enables me to make a fair comparison. I elieve that the quality of courses at Harvard, with regard to both the faculty and facilities, is superior to any of the other local universities also catering to the continuing education crowd. I especially enjoyed the MolBio class by David Dressler at Harvard. Dr. Dressler was especially articulate, comfortable, and knowledgeable in front of the class, although I don't see any courses benefiting from his instruction in recent semesters.

At Brandeis, I took an Intro to XML course, an Advanced Java course, and a Cell Biology course, and only the XML course met my expectations for faculty, and all of them fell way short in my expectations for quality of facilities. All of the CS courses at Brandeis@Night are held in a single deteriorating building with poor HVAC, kindergarten-like wooden chairs, and sardine-like seating arrangements. My advice is to avoid Brandeis if at all possible.

Germany! A Photographic Journey

Click for Photo Gallery of Bamburg, Germany In April of 2000 I completed two years in the Nelson and Turrigiano Neuroscience Lab at Brandeis University. Before moving on my new career at Allaire, and now at Macromedia to work with the ColdFusion Application Server, I spent some time in southeastern Germany (Bamberg, W¸rzburg, and Rothenburg oder Tauber) while visiting my old friend, Isabel Rodriguez. While still in Boston, my friends from Brandeis helped me down a few beers before my flight to commemorate my departure from the lab. If you'd like large images, please add a comment.

Scientific Publications for Steven Erat

Alanna Watt, Mark van Rossum, Sacha Nelson, Gina Turrigiano

Activity Coregulates Quantal AMPA and NMDA Currents at Neocortical Synapses.
Neuron, Vol. 26, 659-670, June, 2000

AMPA and NMDA are coexpressed at many central synapses, but the factors that control the ratio of these two receptors are not well understood. We recorded mixed miniature or evoked synaptic currents arising from coactivation of AMPA and NMDAP receptors and found that the long-lasting changes in activity scaled both currents up and down proportianally through changes in the number of postsynaptic receptors. The ratio of AMPA and NMDA current was similar at different synapses onto the same neuron, and this relationship was preserved following activity-dependent synaptic scaling. These data show that AMPA and NMDA receptors are tightly corregulated by activity at synapses at which they are both expressed and suggest that a mechanism exists to actively maintain a constant receptor ratio across a neuron's synapses. We thank Steven Erat for the preparation of cultures.

Rabin BM, Joseph JA, Erat S.

Effects of exposure to different types of radiation on behaviors mediated by peripheral or central systems.
Advances in Space Research 1998;22(2):217-25. PMID: 11541399 [PubMed - indexed for MEDLINE]
The effects of exposure to ionizing radiation on behavior may result from effects on peripheral or on central systems. For behavioral endpoints that are mediated by peripheral systems (e.g., radiation-induced conditioned taste aversion or vomiting), the behavioral effects of exposure to heavy particles (56Fe, 600MeV/n) are qualitatively similar to the effects of exposure to gamma radiation (60Co) and to fission spectrum neutrons. For these endpoints, the only differences between the different types of radiation are in terms of relative behavioral effectiveness. For behavioral endpoints that are mediated by central systems (e.g., amphetamine-induced taste aversion learning), the effects of exposure to 56Fe particles are not seen following exposure to lower LET gamma rays or fission spectrum neutrons. These results indicate that the effects of exposure to heavy particles on behavioral endpoints cannot necessarily be extrapolated from studies using gamma rays, but require the use of heavy particles.


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