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Archive - Sep 8, 2014

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New, Antibody-Based, Non-Steroidal Treatment for Certain Severe Asthmatics

A team of researchers at McMaster University and St. Joseph's Healthcare Hamilton, both in Canada, have successfully evaluated a new, antibody-based drug for certain patients with severe asthma. The drug – named mepolizumab (image)– can replace traditional, steroid-based treatments for a specific subset of patients, resulting in improved outcomes and reduced side effects. The study and manuscript, published online on September 8, 2014 in the New England Journal of Medicine was led in Canada by Dr. Parameswaran Nair, Staff Respirologist, Firestone Institute for Respiratory Health at St. Joseph's Healthcare Hamilton and Professor of Respirology at the Michael G. DeGroote School of Medicine at McMaster University. Dr. Nair and his colleagues recruited the largest number of participants for this global study. "This new drug is the only therapy that has been proven to be effective in well-established clinical trials to help reduce doses of steroid-based treatments such as prednisone for those with severe asthma," said Dr. Nair, adding that the paper reconfirms the team's observation published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2009. Patients with severe asthma often require high doses of steroid-based treatments that can significantly impair their quality of life. These high doses can cause debilitating side effects including mood swings, diabetes, bone loss, skin bruising, cataracts, and hypertension. Previous research at the Hamilton institutions has identified specific types of patient with severe asthma who have an overabundance of a particular type of white blood cell (eosinophils) present in their sputum. These patients often suffer from the most severe asthma symptoms and can only be treated through steroid-based medications such as prednisone.

Bacterium Routinely Breaks and Reassembles Its DNA

Life can be so intricate and novel that even a single cell can pack a few surprises, according to a study led by Princeton University researchers. The pond-dwelling, single-celled organism Oxytricha trifallax (image) has the remarkable ability to break its own DNA into nearly a quarter-million pieces and rapidly reassemble those pieces when it's time to mate, the researchers reported online on August 28, 2014 in Cell. The organism internally stores its genome as thousands of scrambled, encrypted gene pieces. Upon mating with another of its kind, the organism rummages through these jumbled genes and DNA segments to piece together more than 225,000 tiny strands of DNA. This all happens in about 60 hours. The organism's ability to take apart and quickly reassemble its own genes is unusually elaborate for any form of life, explained senior author Dr. Laura Landweber, a Princeton professor of ecology and evolutionary biology. That such intricacy exists in a seemingly simple organism accentuates the "true diversity of life on our planet," she said. "It's one of nature's early attempts to become more complex despite staying small in the sense of being unicellular," Dr. Landweber said. "There are other examples of genomic jigsaw puzzles, but this one is a leader in terms of complexity. People might think that pond-dwelling organisms would be simple, but this shows how complex life can be, that it can reassemble all the building blocks of chromosomes." From a practical standpoint, Oxytricha is a model organism that could provide a template for understanding how chromosomes in more complex animals such as humans break apart and reassemble, as can happen during the onset of cancer, Dr. Landweber said.

2014 Lasker Awards Announced, Often Prelude to Nobel Prize

On September 8, 2014, The Albert and Mary Lasker Foundation announced the winners of the 2014 Lasker Awards: Kazutoshi Mori and Peter Walter for basic medical research; Alim Louis Benabid and Mahlon R. DeLong for clinical research; and Mary-Claire King for special achievement. "For nearly 70 years, the Lasker Awards have honored extraordinary individuals who have made fundamental biological discoveries, developed therapies to dramatically improve patient care, and provided mentorship and leadership to pave the way for the next generation of scientists," said Claire Pomeroy, President of the Lasker Foundation. "This year's laureates join that tradition and illustrate to the public why science is so worthy of our support." Walter (University of California, San Francisco) and Mori (Kyoto University, Japan) will receive the 2014 Albert Lasker Basic Medical Research Award for discoveries that elucidate a key quality-control system in the cell, the unfolded protein response. DeLong (Emory University School of Medicine, Atlanta) and Benabid (Joseph Fourier University, Grenoble, France) will receive the 2014 Lasker~DeBakey Clinical Medical Research Award for developing a surgical technique that reduces tremors and restores motor function in patients who have advanced Parkinson's disease. Mary-Claire King (University of Washington, Seattle) will receive the 2014 Lasker~Koshland Special Achievement Award for her contributions to medical science and human rights. Joseph L. Goldstein, Chair of the Lasker Medical Research Awards Jury, observed that the award-winning research was spurred by scientists who anticipated key questions. "This year's Lasker winners have the uncanny ability to spot the next big thing in their field," he said.

Sleeping on Animal Fur in Infancy May Reduce Risk of Asthma

Sleeping on animal fur in the first three months of life might reduce the risk of asthma in later childhood, a new study has found. The new research, presented at the European Respiratory Society (ERS) International Congress in Munich on September 8, 2014 (abstract 1944), suggests that exposure to the microbial environment in animal skin and fur could have a protective effect against asthma and allergies. Previous studies have suggested that exposure to a wider range of environments from a young age could be protective against asthma and allergies. These findings have not been confirmed conclusively in urban settings. In this new study, researchers investigated children from a city environment who had been exposed to animal skin by sleeping on the material shortly after birth. Data from a German birth cohort called Lisaplus were used. The cohort included over 3,000 healthy newborns who were mainly recruited in 1998. The researchers collected information on exposure to animal skin during the first three months of life, along with information on the health of children until the age of 10 years. Information on 2,441 children was used in the study, with 55% of those included sleeping on animal skin in the first three months of life. The results showed that sleeping on animal skin was associated with a reduced risk of a number of factors connected to asthma. The chance of having asthma at the age of 6 years was 79% lower in children who had slept on animal skin after birth compared with those who were not exposed to animal skin. The risk decreased to 41% by the age of 10. Dr. Christina Tischer, from the Helmholtz Zentrum München Research Centre, said: "Previous studies have suggested that microbes found in rural settings can protect from asthma.