Breakthrough of the year 2015 and runners-up

This year’s breakthrough, according to the scientific journal Science, is the CRISPR/Cas system. Not that it’s brand new – it was first described in 2012, and it was one of the runners-up listed by Science for their 2014 breakthrough, but its use in labs all over the world has grown exponentially, and its achievements and promises have now made it famous beyond the walls of molecular biology labs.

In a nutshell, the CRISPR/Cas system is a genome-editing tool: it makes it possible to delete, insert, or modify pieces of DNA anywhere in the genome of a wide range of species and cell types. What makes it so powerful, compared to other genome-editing tools such as TALENs, is that it is inexpensive and relatively easy to use. Continue reading

Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 2015

This year’s Nobel Prize is awarded to three scientists for their discovery of novel therapies against infections caused by parasites.

One half of the prize goes to Youyou Tu for the discovery of artemisinin, used to treat malaria. The other half is shared by William C. Campbell and Satoshi Ōmura for the discovery of Avermectin, the derivatives of which are used to fight river blindness and lymphatic filariasis.

More details in the press release.

In brief (September 2015): saliva and radiotherapy, cold and insulin sensitivity, and a giant virus

Keeping saliva secretion up after radiotherapy, or how finding where stem cells crucial to salivary gland regeneration reside may help prevent irreversible tissue damage and loss of saliva production after head-and-neck cancer radiotherapy
Getting cold in type 2 diabetes, or how a protocol involving sitting in a cold room for several hours can improve insulin sensitivity in patients with type 2 diabetes
Another big, big, big virus, or how a new giant virus was recently discovered in a 30,000-year-old permafrost sample from Siberia Continue reading

6-week online course on vaccinology

The Pasteur Institute, together with the CNAM, offers a free online course on vaccines. The course has just started and will go on for 6 weeks, so still time to have a look!

“The objective of this course is to offer an integrated overview of vaccinology, from public health and scientific data justifying the development of a vaccine, to its delivery to the populations in the context of industrialized and developing countries.”

Note: the course is aimed at people with some scientific/medical background, so some parts may be a bit difficult to follow for lay persons; nevertheless, there should be some more general/introductory videos from which anyone can learn at least a little something!

When zebrafish have scoliosis

“Don’t slouch, sit up straight, or you’ll get scoliosis!”

Getting this kind of comment from adults used to infuriate me when I was a teenager, since 1) I did sit up straight, and 2) I already had scoliosis (despite all the sitting-up straight). In my mind, it ranked somewhere up there with, say, telling kids not to make a face because, if the wind happened to turn at that same time, their face would remain stuck that way, (I’m not the only one who’s ever heard that, am I?)

Scoliosis is a deformation of the spine. To be precise, it is defined as a lateral curvature of the spine of more than 10° (measured with the Cobb’s method), accompanied by a rotation of the vertebrae. In lay terms: one’s spine is not straight – in my case, it looks like a vertically elongated S.

Often, there is no known reason why the scoliosis developed. Continue reading

What babies see

2 weeksHave you ever wondered what the world looks like to an infant, or even to a 6-month old?

An ophthalmologist at Boston Children’s Hospital and a bunch of scientists and engineers at REBIScan have developed an app called BabySee that lets you see the world through the eyes of a baby, aged from a few days to a year. Simply point your camera at something, and use the slider to choose the age of the baby (increments of one week for the first three months, then of one month until one year of age). Continue reading

Measles-induced immune amnesia

Measles is no trifling childhood disease. The virus is extremely contagious, and measles infection can have severe complications, such as pneumonia, encephalitis, brain damage, and death. Now, a recent study published in Science suggests that measles can also leave children more vulnerable to other pathogens for as long as two to three years after infection.

Mass measles vaccination is known to be associated with a general reduction in childhood mortality. In every country where it has been introduced, it has been followed by a decrease in the number of childhood deaths, not just from measles, but also from other non-measles infectious diseases.

Why is that? How can a vaccine designed to protect you from measles also protect you from other infectious diseases? Continue reading

Why your pup looks at you (it’s not just to beg for a treat)

French bulldogLast Christmas, as I was patting my sister’s little female French bulldog, I found myself thinking how relaxing it felt – well, apart from the slightly itchy eyes. At some point, the dog tilted her head towards me, and we embarked on some sort of staring contest. As the mutual gaze prolonged, I started wondering: What could be going through her mind? Was she thinking about something? Why was she keeping her big but oh-so-cute bulgy eyes fixed on mine?

The interactions between humans and dogs are rather particular, with a level of social bonding and emotional engagement unusual for members of two different species. When compared with wolves, dogs’ closest relatives, and great apes, humans’ closest relatives, dogs appear much more skilled at recognizing and using social cues such as gesture or gaze direction to cooperatively interact with humans, even already as puppies.

But it’s not just that. Why is it that we feel genuinely attached to dogs? What are the biological mechanisms underlying the friendship and love we come to develop towards them? Continue reading

In brief (March 2015, part I): immune variability and HPV vaccine

Two picks from what I’ve read over the past couple of months:
the adaptability of the immune system, or how our immune system is more heavily shaped by our environment and the microbes we encounter than by our genes,
HPV vaccine safety profile, or how a nationwide study conducted in Sweden and Denmark found no increased risk of developing multiple sclerosis or other demyelinating diseases following quadrivalent HPV vaccination. Continue reading