Document Directory

04 Jan 01 - Medicine - British 'bone factory' discovery offers new surgical hope for the elderly
03 Jan 01 - Medicine - Allergy ease on hand for animal lovers
03 Jan 01 - Medicine - 'Meningitis babies more likely to face teenage problems'
03 Jan 01 - Medicine - Sexual disease link to cervical cancer
03 Jan 01 - Medicine - Vaccine defeats killer disease
03 Jan 01 - Medicine - 'Laser scalpels' identify cancer during surgery
03 Jan 01 - Medicine - Tarantula's venom used to develop heart drug
03 Jan 01 - Medicine - Meningitis fight goes on despite jab success
03 Jan 01 - Medicine - Risk of cervical cancer from chlamydia
03 Jan 01 - Medicine - Meningitis vaccine 'may have saved up to 50 lives'
03 Jan 01 - Medicine - Diabetes gene identified
01 Jan 01 - Medicine - Clue found to schizophrenia
30 Dec 00 - Medicine - Gene Research Success Spurs Profit Debate
30 Dec 00 - Medicine - Live cells injected to fight cancer
30 Dec 00 - Medicine - Mice 'drug factory' offers cancer hope
30 Dec 00 - Medicine - Court Overturns Fetal Tissue Ban
29 Dec 00 - Medicine - Smoking can increase skin cancer risk
29 Dec 00 - Medicine - Ministers delay ban on smoking at work
29 Dec 00 - Medicine - Insurers' use of genetic histories to be questioned
24 Dec 00 - Medicine - Gene breakthrough will cut toll of miscarriages
24 Dec 00 - Medicine - Genome project: 'This means new opportunities for medicine'
24 Dec 00 - Medicine - Cannabis makes confused sperm swim more slowly
23 Dec 00 - Medicine - 'Cancer killer' begins trials
23 Dec 00 - Medicine - Experts claim finding new tool in Aids fight
22 Dec 00 - Medicine - Ketchup may be answer to oral cancer
22 Dec 00 - Medicine - Scientists pinpoint risk of inherited Alzheimer's
22 Dec 00 - Medicine - Scientists Develop Vaccine From Modified Sweet Potato



04 Jan 01 - Medicine - British 'bone factory' discovery offers new surgical hope for the elderly

Martin Wainwright

Guardian- Thursday 4 January 2001


Seven years of patent protected research have led to a world first for British medical scientists, who have reproduced the body's "bone factory" cell in a university laboratory.

Bio-material taken from human skeletal cells has successfully triggered the natural process of endochronal ossification (EO) which creates cartilage and new bone round fractures and damaged bones.

Trials of injecting the new substance into hip and knee joints and dental repairs will start shortly at Sheffield University, after success in triggering bone-making in ordinary marrow cells.

Potentially the technique has important implications for surgery on older people, whose natural cartilage replacement has slowed down, and in reversing the bone damage caused by osteoporosis in older bones.

"We believe we have discovered the gold standard in this field," said Bradley Stringer, a tissue specialist at Sheffield, which took out protective patents in 1994 when doctors decided to investigate copying the natural EO process. "What we've created is the very stuff that nature produces herself to repair bones or make them grow."

The product, provisionally named Skeletex, is the result of painstaking work to copy the rich mixture of proteins and chemicals which trigger bone growth and repair. The Sheffield formula exactly mirrors the collection of active ingredients and others which remain inert until they meet bone marrow cells, which they then trigger into helping the ossification.

"You could call it a chemical soup, or perhaps a chemical symphony," said Dr Stringer. "The task has been to find all the orchestra's members and then to get them playing together."

Trials will start at Sheffield's school of clinical dentistry on volunteers with dental implants or gum disease which has worn away the bone which helps hold teeth in place.

Success will lead to commercial marketing.

"One of our problems in med icine today is a shortage in the bone bank for conventional grafts," said Dr Stringer.

"Skeletex also has the promise to be much more effective than grafts, especially those using bone material... where sterilisation is essential and the result is not always as effective as the natural, bone growing process."

Hip and knee joints are another potential market be cause of the bio-material's strength which promises to remove the "joint wobble" problem which tends to affect people when cement used to fix artificial joint pins wears loose.

Commercial benefits will accrue to Sheffield through its tissue-engineering company CellFactors which has financed the research programme.


03 Jan 01 - Medicine - Allergy ease on hand for animal lovers

Ananova

PA News- Wednesday 3 January 2001


A scientist has come up with a new product which could help the millions of people who suffer from the effects of pet allergies.

Mary Lloyd, from Conwy, north Wales, has produced a lotion that gently removes the microscopic allergens that cause allergies when it is applied to the animal's fur.

She says the majority of allergy sufferers who have taken part in trials for the product, called Petal Cleanse, found it "effective".

Mrs Lloyd added: "The lotions, for dogs and cats, are composed of a delicate balance of cleansers and moisturisers that combine to inhibit the origination of allergic reactions in humans to their pets.

"Over 90% of allergy sufferers who were allergic to pets reported that the product was effective during in-depth trials.

"The medication requirement of multiple allergy sufferers was halved substantially."

The product has also received backing and financial support from the Welsh Development Agency.


03 Jan 01 - Medicine - 'Meningitis babies more likely to face teenage problems'

Ananova

PA News- Wednesday 3 January 2001


Babies who contract meningitis are twice as likely to suffer behavioural problems in their teenage years than their peers.

Children who survive the deadly brain disease at under one-year-old are eight times more likely to be expelled from school and have double the rate of behavioural problems in adolescence.

A British study has also found that 6% of the meningitis children needed special tuition in school, compared to just 1% of youngsters who had not fallen victim to the disease.

Experts described the preliminary findings of the research as "worrying" and called for young meningitis survivors to be given long-term follow-up checks and special care.

The study of more than 1,000 children who developed meningitis before their first birthday between 1985 and 1987 was carried out at the Hammersmith Hospital in London with a grant from the charity Action Research.

During the two-and-a-half year project, a questionnaire was sent to the child's family when he or she reaches 13, and with consent, to their teacher. The results were compared with a group of children who had not suffered the disease.

Preliminary findings show that eight children in the meningitis group had been expelled from school, compared to none in the "control" group.

Twice as many children in the meningitis group as the controls had behavioural problems in school and three times as many families of children who had had meningitis experienced negative behaviour at home as those of the control children.

Professor David Harvey, who is leading the project, said: "Many studies have found that problems in school are very common among children who have survived neonatal intensive care.

"These are often called minor problems, but they may be major ones for children and their families. The results so far are striking, and quite worrying. They demonstrate the need for young meningitis sufferers to have long term follow-ups, and if necessary, special attention and care."


03 Jan 01 - Medicine - Sexual disease link to cervical cancer

By Our Health Correspondent

Times- Wednesday 3 January 2001


A Sexually transmitted disease infecting thousands of women is strongly linked to cervical cancer, according to research published today.

Chlamydia trachomatis is the most common sexually transmitted organism in Britain, accounting for 24,311 known new infections in men and 32,544 in women in 1999. Because most cases show no symptoms, the real number of infections could be ten times higher. Chlamydia has been known to pose a risk of infertility for a long time but the findings reported by Finnish scientists suggest that it may also trigger cervical cancer.

One chlamydia strain, serotype G, is associated with a more than six-fold increase in cancer risk, according to the study in the Journal of the American Medical Association. Women infected with two other strains had their chances of contracting cervical cancer increased by 3.8 and 2.7 times.

Britain, like other western countries, is undergoing a chlamydia epidemic. According to the Public Health Laboratory Service, the number of infections has soared by 76 per cent since 1995.


03 Jan 01 - Medicine - Vaccine defeats killer disease

By Celia Hall, Medical Editor

Telegraph- Wednesday 3 January 2001


The brain disease meningitis C that can kill and maim has been almost wiped out in only a year after a 20 million national vaccination campaign, the Department of Health will announce today.

Last year there were no school or university outbreaks and health officials estimate that the lives of 25 babies, children and young people were saved. There has been a 90 per cent reduction in cases in 15- to 17-year-olds and an 82 per cent reduction in babies under a year old.

The figures were described as "a miracle" and the most dramatic reduction in cases of a potentially fatal disease since the introduction of polio vaccine in the 1950s.

Department of Health vaccine experts say that meningitis C has been "blitzed" and will become increasingly rare. The speed of the reduction is unprecedented. The threat of meningitis has terrified parents not least because children continue to be wrongly diagnosed.

Dr George Kassianos, immunisation spokesman of the Royal College of General Practitioners, said last night: "This is a very impressive result, which is due to the hard work, co-operation and co-ordination among the doctors, the Department of Health, the manufacturers and the distributors.

"We have created a miracle here. To achieve these results in only a year will be the envy of the world. No other country could have achieved it. The department had the vision to act and was the first in the world to do so."

Dr Kassianos said that in 1998/99 there were 1,530 cases of meningitis C, with 150 deaths, 40 of them among teenagers. Although the figure for last year is not yet available, it is expected to show a dramatic fall.

More significant is that figures for those age groups that have been subject to vaccination programmes are already showing a big fall. They are expected to show that cases among 15- to 17-year-olds have dropped from 50 in 1999 to five last year, including one death. Meningitis kills about one in 10 of its victims.

The vaccination campaign began in November 1999. Some 18 million doses have been administered. Babies and older teenagers, seen as the most vulnerable, were the first to be offered vaccination. All other age groups have since been included. From now on, as the population up to the age of 18 has been covered, meningitis C vaccine will be offered only to babies.

For comparison, in 1955, a year before polio vaccine was introduced, there were more than 6,000 cases. Ten years later they were down to 91 and today there are fewer than 10 a year. Julia Warren, of the Meningitis Research Foundation, said: "The latest figures are a huge step forward, but we have not yet won the fight."

The Department of Health will tell parents to continue to be watchful because of the threat of meningitis B, for which no vaccine is likely to be available for years. Meningitis B is more common than meningitis C. The B form accounts for about half of the total cases and C for about a third.

Symptoms of menigitis and meningococcal disease in babies include high temperature, vomiting, a blotchy complexion, high moaning cry and floppiness. The rash that develops with septicaemia will not fade when a glass is pressed firmly against it.


03 Jan 01 - Medicine - 'Laser scalpels' identify cancer during surgery

By Robert Uhlig, Technology Correspondent

Telegraph- Wednesday 3 January 2001


A scalpel fitted with a probe that can detect the earliest stages of cancer while surgeons are performing operations is under development by scientists.

The probes, which exploit a peculiar property of laser light to spot tumours instantly, could revolutionise cancer diagnosis. Fitted to scalpels, the probes could replace biopsies, the "gold standard" test for cancer, which involves the surgical removal and analysis of a small tissue sample.

Teams in Holland and America are investigating the devices, known as Raman spectroscopy probes, New Scientist reports today. They exploit a trick of light, called the Raman effect, which is already used to analyse various materials.

When laser light bounces off a material, almost all the scattered light has the same wavelength as the laser. But a very small fraction - the Raman spectrum - has different wavelengths that provide an optical fingerprint that can be used to identify cancer.

A team of researchers at the Erasmus Medical Centre in Rotterdam has developed a fibre-optic probe about a millimetre across. It measures the Raman spectra of tissue and compares it with a database of other spectra to check whether the cells are cancerous.

Tests in rats showed that the probe was able to detect second-stage cancer, or high-grade dysplasia every time, and earlier stage abnormalities in seven cases out of nine. Researchers at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, also obtained good results using their own version of the probe to test 24 women undergoing standard examinations for cervical cancer.

Again, the probe was 100 per cent accurate when detecting high-grade dysplasia.


03 Jan 01 - Medicine - Tarantula's venom used to develop heart drug

By Steve Connor, Science Editor

Independent- Wednesday 3 January 2001


The venom of the tarantula spider is being used to develop a revolutionary drug to combat heart flutter, one of Britain's commonest cardiac disorders.

Scientists have discovered that a small protein, or peptide, isolated from the venom of Grammostola spatulata - a hairy tarantula that can grow to the size of a man's hand - can significantly inhibit cardiac arrhythmia, when heart muscle goes into uncontrolled spasms.

The researchers, led by Frederick Sachs of the State University of New York in Buffalo, believe that the peptide, called GsMtx-4, could become the first drug developed that is specifically directed against arrhythmic disorders of the two atria, the smaller pair of the heart's four chambers.

"Our findings open a window on cardiac arrhythmogenesis and point the way towards developing a new class of drugs," the scientists say in a study published in the journal Nature.

The tarantula peptide works by blocking the microscopic channels in the muscle cells of the atria. When stretched, these channels trigger a muscle contraction. Atrial fibrillation occurs more often as people age. It is considered a risk because the fluttering can generate blood clots which can move to the brain and cause a stroke, said Denis Noble, professor of cardiovascular physiology at Oxford University.

"This research by the Sachs group is important. I don't think there is any doubt about that." He said few treatments existed for the condition so the findings could prove invaluable to an ageing population.


03 Jan 01 - Medicine - Meningitis fight goes on despite jab success

By Jeremy Laurance, Health Editor

Independent- Wednesday 3 January 2001


Britain will face the annual scourge of deaths and serious illness caused by meningitis for at least another five years despite the success of a 20m vaccination campaign which has all but eliminated one strain of the disease, officials admitted yesterday.

Professor Liam Donaldson, the chief medical officer, announced that 50 deaths had been avoided and 500 cases of meningitis C prevented since the launch of a vaccine against the C strain of the disease in November 1999.

More than 18 million doses of the vaccine had been offered to every child under 18 in the biggest vaccination programme since the drive against polio in the 1940s. "We have thrown a shield of protection round young children," Professor Donaldson said.

However, the group C strain of the disease accounted for fewer cases than group B and there was "no immediate prospect" of a vaccine being introduced against group B, Professor Donaldson said.

In 1998, group C in England, Wales and Northern Ireland accounted for 1,465 confirmed cases and 205 deaths. Group B accounted for 2,154 cases and 141 deaths. Group B and C account for most cases of bacterial meningitis in Britain, which is the most serious form. Viral meningitis also occurs but is generally less serious and there is no vaccination against it.

Professor Donaldson said: "We urge there should be no complacency. It is important parents, doctors and nurses remain vigilant because early treatment can save lives."

Development of a vaccine against the B strain is proving much harder than against the C strain. The Department of Health is working with the Dutch national authority, which has a prototype group B vaccine which has been tested on British children, and other work is going on in the United States. Dr David Salisbury, head of the department's immunisation programme, said: "The excitement which is just beginning comes from work last year when the genetic code for group B meningitis was sequenced. We now have a rational approach to developing a vaccine that could work but it is five to seven years away."

A group B vaccine, produced in the same way as the group C one, also stimulates the production of antibodies, but these do not provide the same protection against group B disease, for reasons scientists do not fully understand. An effective group B vaccine will therefore have to be produced in a different way. Dr Salisbury added: "There is light on the horizon but vaccine development does not happen overnight."

A group B vaccine developed in Cuba was unlikely to be effective in the UK because the strain was different in Cuba and the vaccine provided protection for adolescents but not for under-fives, who carry the biggest burden of disease in the UK.

Yesterday, however, the Department of Health was celebrating the success of the group C campaign. Yvette Cooper, a Health minister, said it was a vindication of the Government's decision to start the programme at the earliest opportunity, despite problems with supply in the first few months. The UK was the first country in the world to develop, fund and introduce the vaccine, and other European Union countries, such as Spain and Ireland, were following the UK's lead. "It shows the Government was right to bring this vaccine in as rapidly as possible and vaccinate so many children once it was shown the vaccine was safe," Ms Cooper said.

In 1999 there were 238 confirmed cases of meningitis C among under-18s. There were 60 cases last year, a 75 per cent reduction. The number of cases is expected to be lower this year, the first full year after completion of the vaccination programme.

There had been 16 deaths linked with vaccination but all had been explained by other factors, Dr Salisbury said. Common side-effects included nausea, dizziness, headache, rash and injection site reaction, but they only occurred about once in 10,000 cases. "That is a very small price to pay for protection against meningitis," he said.

Officials would next examine the practicality of extending the vaccination programme to the over-18s by examining where the disease was occurring, what the supply of vaccine was and who should be targeted. However, there had been no outbreaks in universities since the vaccination programme started and the jabs provided to the under-18s would protect them for life, Dr Salisbury said.

The health department will regard the 20m cost of the programme as a small price to pay for eliminating a disease. On Tuesday it announced the same amount would be invested in equipment for monitoring heart disease, which kills more than 100,000 people a year. That may save more lives - but in a less dramatic fashion. Meningitis strikes with unnerving speed and ferocity and mainly kills the young. Heart disease is slow and insidious and tends to carry off the old.


03 Jan 01 - Medicine - Risk of cervical cancer from chlamydia

Press Association

Guardian- Wednesday 3 January 2001


A sexually transmitted disease that infects thousands of women in Britain is strongly linked to cervical cancer, scientists said yesterday.

Chlamydia trachomatis is the most common sexually transmitted organism in Britain, accounting in 1999 for 24,311 known new infections in men and 32,544 in women.

But because most cases show no symptoms, the actual number of infections is thought to be up to 90% greater.

The most serious threat from chlamydia is that it can make women sterile but other long term effects include pelvic inflammatory disease and ectopic pregnancy. Findings reported by Finnish scientists suggest it may also play a role in triggering cervical cancer.

One specific chlamydia strain, known as serotype G, is associated with a 6.6-fold increase in cancer risk, according to the study published yesterday in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Women infected with two other strains had their chances of contracting cervical cancer increased by 3.8 and 2.7 times. Exposure to more than one strain raised the overall risk.

The investigators collated the results of blood tests given to 530,000 women in Finland, Norway and Sweden.

This data was matched to national cancer registries in each country. The scientists, led by Tarja Anttila from the national public health institute in Oulu, Finland, and Jorma Paavonen, from the University of Helsinki, then focused on 128 women who developed invasive cervical cancer at least 12 months after donating a blood sample.

The researchers looked for any association between the presence of antibodies identifying 10 different chlamydia strains and the development of squamous cell carcinoma, the most common form of cervical cancer.

According to the public health laboratory, the number of diagnosed chlamydia infections has soared by 76% since 1995.


03 Jan 01 - Medicine - Meningitis vaccine 'may have saved up to 50 lives'

Staff and agencies

Guardian- Wednesday 3 January 2001


The lives of up to 50 children have been saved in the last year by the introduction of a revolutionary new vaccine for meningitis C, the government has announced.

Cases of the potentially fatal brain disease have fallen by 75% since all under-18s in England and Wales have been immunised.

Experts said they eventually hoped to prevent up to 150 deaths from the C strain of meningitis every year and almost obliterate the disease.

The UK is the first country in the world to develop and introduce a meningitis C vaccine and 18m infants, children and teenagers have been vaccinated since its introduction in November 1999.

New figures released by the Department of Health today showed that cases of the disease have fallen by 90% among 15 to 17 year olds in England and Wales, from 50 in 1999 to five last year.

Just six babies under a year old contracted the disease in 2000 compared with 32 in 1999 - a reduction of 82%.

Overall, the incidence of the disease among under-18s has fallen by 75%, with experts estimating that 500 cases and 50 deaths have been prevented.

Chief medical officer Professor Liam Donaldson said: "This is a wonderful achievement and has dealt a hammer blow to meningitis C - an extremely serious illness if not prevented by the measures we have taken.

"I urge any parent of children and young people under 18 not yet vaccinated to take advantage of the safe and effective protection the vaccine offers and make an appointment to see their GP. There is no need for any child to go unprotected."

Children have been targeted in the immunisation campaign because they are the highest risk group and as yet there are no firm plans to offer the jab to adults, although experts are investigating patterns of the disease in those over 18.

Around 40% of meningitis cases relate to the C strain of the disease, with 60% accounted for by the B strain.

There is still no vaccine for the B strain, although experts in the Netherlands have developed a prototype which British scientists are now looking at. A B strain vaccine developed in Cuba does not work in under-fives and it targets a different strain of the disease from the one prevalent in the UK.

Experts also dismissed fears over the meningitis C vaccine, saying the risks were minimal.

Dr David Salisbury, the government's head of immunisation, said: "With this vaccine we are seeing the disappearance of a disease.

"I believe the vaccine has been shown to be highly effective and completely safe. Any risks associated with the vaccine are nothing compared to the risks associated with the disease."

Sixteen children have died after having the vaccine, but none of the deaths have been found to be related to the jab.

Ministers hailed the news as a success story for the NHS. The Health Minister, Yvette Cooper, said: "It shows that the government was right to bring this vaccine in as rapidly as possible and vaccinate so many children, once it was shown that the vaccine was safe and effective."

In the last six months of 2000, England and Wales went for 22 weeks without a single case of meningitis C in babies under one, compared to just five weeks with no cases in the last six months of the previous year.

From now on only babies of two, three and four months will be vaccinated as routine because all other children should now be protected. Experts believe that once given, the jab should protect from the disease for life.

Denise Vaughan, chief executive of the Meningitis Research Foundation said: "We congratulate the government on the success of the vaccination programme which has been produced through the commitment of all concerned to vital scientific research.

"The foundation is delighted at the impact the vaccine has had in the age groups immunised but believes this reinforces the importance of continued awareness and further research until vaccines are available to protect against all forms of meningitis and septicaemia."


03 Jan 01 - Medicine - Diabetes gene identified

By Corinne Podger of BBC Science

BBC- Wednesday 3 January 2001


Gene discovery could lead to new treatments

Researchers have identified one of the genes involved in the development of adult diabetes.

The discovery may help doctors diagnose the disease in its earliest stages, and may open the way to new treatments.

Adult-onset, or type 2 diabetes, affects up to a 100 million people worldwide. It is a leading cause of blindness, kidney failure and heart disease in adults.

While diet and environment are known risk factors for the disease, type 2 diabetes also tends to run in families. Scientists believe that less than 10 genes may be responsible.

Researchers at the Free University of Brussels believe they have identified one of those genes, which they have called SHIP2. The SHIP2 gene was originally thought to be related to cancer.

Mice experiments

But when the researchers bred mice in which the gene had been de-activated, instead of developing the tumours the mice were born with extremely low sugar levels in their blood, and died shortly after birth.

Dr Stephane Schurmans, who led the research, said SHIP2 appeared to act as a brake on the production of insulin - a hormone which controls blood sugar.

Without SHIP2, insulin levels can soar out of control, pushing sugar levels dangerously low. Dr Schurmans said the research had two potential benefits.

Type 2 diabetics have high blood sugar levels because their bodies are resistant to insulin.

If a drug could be developed to make the SHIP2 gene work more effectively in their bodies, patients' insulin sensitivity could be restored - and their blood sugar levels would return to normal.

Long-term complications

And the finding could help doctors diagnose type 2 diabetes in its earliest stages. At present, many people with the disease are not diagnosed until complications set in - such as blindness or kidney failure.

But by screening the children of people with type 2 diabetes, it should be possible to identify and treat people at risk of the disease years before symptoms appear.

Bill Hartnett, a spokesperson for Diabetes UK, said: "The research is at an early stage, but it certainly does look interesting.

"If we could diagnose type 2 diabetes earlier it would help us to prevent the long-term complications more effectively."

The research is published in the journal Nature.


01 Jan 01 - Medicine - Clue found to schizophrenia

Staff Reporter

Times- Monday 1 January 2001


The brain's main sensory filter, the thalamus, is smaller in schizophrenics, which helps to explain why sufferers get so confused, according to research carried out by the Institute of Psychiatry. With a smaller filter, schizophrenics become bewildered, suffering information overload in one particular area.


30 Dec 00 - Medicine - Gene Research Success Spurs Profit Debate

By Justin Gillis, Washington Post Staff Writer

YAHOO- Saturday 30 December 2000


So many years later, as they sat in their living room recounting the short life of Jonathan Greenberg, his parents would recall a particular moment. At six months the baby was not developing normally, and the Greenbergs, of Homewood, Ill., took him to a smart young Chicago neurologist. Worried, she whispered in the baby's ear: "I hope this isn't anything like I think it is."

It was.

In that moment Dan and Debbie Greenberg's lives were propelled onto a new course, one that put them at the center of a worldwide effort to understand the dread genetic ailment called Canavan disease. Years of struggle culminated in success in 1994, when a doctor recruited by the Greenbergs discovered the gene whose mutant form caused the ailment, making it possible to warn parents at risk of having a Canavan child and raising the chance for future treatments.

But then the Greenbergs' lives took yet another twist. The main sponsor of the doctor's research, Miami Children's Hospital, applied for and received U.S. Patent No. 5,679,635, giving the institution extraordinarily broad rights to the Canavan gene.

The Greenbergs, and many families they had drawn into the effort, had no idea the research for which they gave the very flesh and blood of their children would be turned into a patent. They were distraught when Miami Children's -- defending its right to profit from the research -- cracked down on academic laboratories that had started offering Canavan testing.

"All of us felt that was a real slap in the face," Dan Greenberg said. "It was a common understanding that we were all doing this to benefit the public good."

The Canavan case, which recently landed in federal court in Chicago, is one of the first of what could be many disputes over the patenting of genes. As a new era dawns in the commercialization of biological knowledge, companies such as Human Genome Sciences Inc. of Rockville and Incyte Genomics Inc. of Palo Alto, Calif., are flooding patent offices with tens of thousands of applications, fueling an international debate.

Patent disputes within industries are routine these days, but this is no ordinary fight: The very idea of handing out private property rights on components of human life has provoked a deep emotional reaction in many people, suggesting to some that greed has no limits.

Defenders of such patents -- biotechnology firms, joined by some researchers in academia and the pharmaceutical industry -- get emotional themselves in arguing that without patents society won't benefit from revelations about the molecular roots of disease.

In this view, the true promise of the Human Genome Project -- the ongoing effort to create complete, accurate human genetic maps -- will be realized only if companies invest huge sums to develop new treatments. The money must be raised in the capital markets, and the companies contend that patents are the only means they have to recover their investment and profit from their research.

Wall Street attaches enormous significance to gene patents. When a statement last spring by President Clinton and British Prime Minister Tony Blair was briefly misunderstood as portending changes in patent law, billions of dollars evaporated from the stock market overnight.

"We've got hundreds of billions of dollars of genetic research that we need to do," said Chuck Ludlam, vice president for government relations at the Biotechnology Industry Organization. "The idea that that will happen without patents is completely unrealistic. If we aren't able to do that research, many people will suffer or die who do not need to."

On the other side are some academic researchers, medical ethicists and patient groups who argue that private ownership of the basic building blocks of life is likely to slow down, not accelerate, medical progress. They contend that such ownership creates barriers to research and testing.

Though they lament that they are outgunned by corporate interests, these critics are accelerating their own efforts on a variety of fronts, arguing to governments, courts and the public that gene patents are nothing less than immoral -- that scientists are "patenting life." They have mounted street demonstrations, filed lawsuits and run newspaper advertisements attacking gene patents.

C. Scott Littleton, a professor of anthropology at Occidental College in Los Angeles, finds himself explaining to students that human genes arose over millions of years of evolution -- but are being claimed as property rights in a single generation.

"I think the idea that a company can 'own' a gene is yet another prime example of global capitalism gone mad and inherently absurd," he said.

In the middle of this debate are ordinary citizens, often uncomfortable with the idea that something as fundamental as a gene can be patented but eager to see new medicines developed quickly.

Although the case law is clear -- genes are patentable discoveries, and have been for two decades -- such patents were relatively rare until recently. Nowadays, as biotech companies rapidly create a web of interlocking ownership rights around the human genome, even optimists acknowledge that it will be a challenge to work out all the legalities in a way that allows research and testing to proceed apace.

Many people are striving for compromise in the patent dispute, and institutions such as Johns Hopkins University have balanced competing interests in their handling of gene patents.

Q. Todd Dickinson, head of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office and a supporter of gene patents, emphasizes the importance of this search for common ground. He warns biotech companies that the patents should be made available to other companies and to academic researchers on reasonable terms. If they are not, he said, the companies risk a public backlash that could prompt Congress or the courts to weaken the patent laws.

The companies "could wind up undermining the whole patent system," Dickinson said.

Traditional Legal Device

Patents are an old legal device designed to encourage innovation by granting inventors short-term monopoly rights. In the United States, patents were authorized in the Constitution, and over the years a highly specialized body of law has evolved for adjudicating patent issues.

It was put to a test in the 1970s, when a new technology sprang from the university laboratories around San Francisco Bay.

Scientists learned to slice and dice deoxyribonucleic acid, or DNA, the basic carrier of heredity and the stuff of which genes are made. They learned to pull it out of one organism and insert it into another. Bacteria, they realized, could be made to take up human genes and make the proteins encoded by those genes.

At Genentech Inc. of South San Francisco, the world's first biotechnology company, scientists learned to produce huge supplies of insulin, to treat diabetics, and human growth hormone, to treat dwarfism. The products had previously been derived from human blood or animal organs, creating shortages and safety problems.

The need for improved versions of these drugs was so clear, and the research that went into producing them so expensive and difficult, that few objections were raised when Genentech and university researchers received patents on the human genes involved. Without those patents, Genentech executives say now, the products probably would not have been brought to market, and the biotech industry might have died aborning.

As Genentech's work progressed, it remained unclear just how far old law could be stretched to accommodate the new biology. The U.S. Supreme Court answered that question in 1980. In Diamond v. Chakrabarty, the court ruled 5-4 that a living organism, a bacterium genetically modified by General Electric Co. to break down oil spills, could be patented.

The court's majority found that a genetically modified bacterium fit Thomas Jefferson's language in the Patent Act of 1793, making a new "composition of matter" patentable. The case was hard-fought, and to this day many people disagree with it. But it became the cornerstone of all subsequent biotechnology law, and by now hundreds of billions of dollars of investment decisions have been based on the rules the court set down.

Diamond v. Chakrabarty did not directly tackle the patentability of genes, but attorneys reasoned that if whole organisms were patentable, surely inert pieces of them would be -- assuming those pieces could be shown to be useful, a fundamental requirement of the patent law. The courts endorsed this view.

A main objection that opponents make to genetic patenting is that genes are "products of nature" analogous to a newly discovered mineral or chemical element, and therefore ought to be off-limits. The courts have recognized a "products of nature" doctrine and used it to reject some patent applications.

But a counter-principle has evolved: Even a product of nature can be patented if a discoverer has devised a new process of purification or collection that makes a substance available in previously unknown quantity or purity. Examples patented in this century include adrenaline and purified Vitamin B12.

Given such precedents and the strong language of the Diamond v. Chakrabarty ruling, it was an easy step for the courts to extend the doctrine to genes. One reason is that isolating a gene for medical use is not simply a matter of plucking it out of the body. The "genes" that researchers patent barely resemble genes as they exist in nature.

Inside human cells, genes are broken up into bits and pieces interspersed with long stretches of apparently meaningless DNA. One of the critical -- and difficult -- tasks performed by biotechnology researchers is to identify the useful parts of a gene and string them together into one contiguous stretch of DNA.

It is these artificial constructs -- in effect, edited, man-made versions of genes -- that companies typically patent.

Advocates of gene patents cite the sophistication of this work in arguing that ownership rights are not being granted to scientists simply because they stumble on an aspect of nature, but rather because they are deploying complex techniques to manipulate nature in the service of human goals.

"We are not 'patenting life,' " Bruce Lehman said in a speech in 1998, shortly before he left his post as head of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. "God, I suppose, has a patent on life. We are patenting technology."

Analogous to Others

It was such genetic manipulation that allowed scientists over the past decade to determine the cause of Canavan disease. Though rare, Canavan is analogous, in its inheritance patterns and in the research effort needed to understand it, to hundreds of other genetic diseases.

Canavan occurs most commonly in Jews of European ancestry. The ailment involves a defect in biological machinery that helps build brain and nerve tissue. Catastrophic brain damage results: Children with the disease never learn to walk, talk or feed themselves, and invariably die young.

Dan and Debbie Greenberg had no idea, before conceiving their son Jonathan and their daughter Amy, that they were carriers for Canavan disease. It turned out that each had one good copy and one bad copy of an essential gene. Jonathan and Amy had the misfortune to inherit two bad copies; they died, at 11 and 16, respectively.

The Greenbergs, though devastated, did not accept their family tragedy helplessly. While raising three other children, they organized against Canavan disease. They recruited an energetic doctor, Reuben Matalon, to seek the precise genetic cause. They contacted Canavan families worldwide for emotional support and as blood and tissue donors for the research.

One family -- the Szwarcs of Melbourne, Australia, which saw two of four sons die of Canavan -- even flew to the United States with preserved autopsy samples.

Through all of this, no one spoke of patents or profits. In 1993, Matalon -- by then working with a team at Miami Children's Hospital -- announced his success at isolating the responsible gene, which encoded a brain enzyme called aspartoacylase. The 854th chemical unit on a normal copy of the gene was a compound called adenine. On the mutated variant found in sick children, the adenine had been replaced by cystosine, a change sufficient to disable the enzyme. The children's brains would never develop past infancy.

Working from Matalon's papers, academic laboratories began to offer testing for Canavan disease to people who might be carriers. Pregnant couples who were carriers could undergo early prenatal testing to determine if the baby had Canavan. Work on potential treatments could begin. Along with the other parents, the Greenbergs felt they had wrung an accomplishment from their tragedy.

Matalon, meanwhile, discharged a duty he felt toward hospital administrators. "When I discovered this thing, I discussed this with some people and they said, 'Your obligation is to tell your administration that this is a patentable discovery,' " he said. "I did."

The patent was awarded in 1997. A year later, having borne considerable costs for the research, the hospital sought to profit from its discovery. As part of that effort, it started cracking down on academic laboratories offering Canavan tests for a fee.

When they learned of the patent and ensuing efforts to enforce it, the Canavan parents were deeply offended. "We had no idea anyone was really proceeding along those lines," Dan Greenberg said.

Miami Children's Hospital's efforts to commercialize the patent have gone through various permutations, including a failed attempt to license it to a single company. It is unclear on what terms the patent is now being offered for licensing, since the hospital will not discuss it. Some academic labs have deals with the hospital allowing them to resume testing, but others still refuse to sign, calling the terms unacceptable.

The dispute has disrupted carrier screening for Canavan disease in some places and made it more expensive in others.

Matalon, who has left Miami for a post in Texas, emphasized that he has received no personal gain from the patent. In a written statement, executives of Miami Children's said getting some financial return from the discovery was fair because "privately financed scientists, supported by Miami Children's Hospital, unlocked those secrets and as a result of this, mankind benefits."

But the parents perceive a situation in which screening for the disease is less widely available and more expensive than it should be. The parents ran a newspaper advertisement in Miami criticizing the hospital, and they asked it to dedicate the patent to the public. That request was rejected. A few weeks ago, the parents and several allied groups sued Miami Children's and Matalon, alleging breach of duty, unjust enrichment and other wrongs.

"What they're doing is immoral," Barbara Szwarc said from Melbourne. "They've made it into a profiteering venture when young children's lives are at stake."

Several similar disputes about patents and genetic testing have cropped up around the country. Another type of patent dispute involves rights to research tools. These grow from the same body of law as human gene patents, but they are often patents on living animals or bacterial cells, such as a mouse created at Harvard University that is useful in cancer research. Attempts by companies to charge high prices or to limit the use of such tools have provoked numerous skirmishes.

Still another concern in recent years has centered on the habit of some biotech companies of filing for patents on small fragments of genes, without bothering to work out the entire structure of the gene or learn much about its biology.

Such patents are likely to be of little commercial value, since there aren't many uses for fragments of genes. Moreover, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office is adopting rules that are likely to make fragmentary patents hard to get. But thousands of such patent applications are pending, and there is lingering concern among academics and even some biotech companies that they could complicate gene research.

Hunt for Accord

Amid the debate, there's also a search for common ground.

After Johns Hopkins University researchers Bert Vogelstein, Kenneth Kinzler and their colleagues received a patent on a new technique that helps to pinpoint genes involved in disease, the school crafted a license that, for a price, gave commercial rights to the technology to a single company, Genzyme Corp. of Cambridge, Mass., which uses it to find cancer treatments.

At the same time, Hopkins retained the right to authorize free use of the technology by academic researchers. About 300 laboratories have signed up, and the university's handling of the patent has created a worldwide research community that is using the technology to gain new insight into many kinds of disease.

As the Hopkins case illustrates, the central issue is not whether to have gene patents -- barring a sweeping and unlikely change in the law, they are a foregone conclusion -- but rather how those patents are used after they are granted. In this view, relatively broad, open licensing of the sort Hopkins pursued can speed up research and still allow companies to profit from new treatments, while overly restrictive policies like those in the Canavan case can create problems and ill will.

The Genetic Alliance, a Washington umbrella group representing many organizations fighting genetic disease, decided not long ago to study the issue of gene patents. Its experts started out suspicious, but wound up feeling that such patents were probably essential to the development of new medicines. Instead of a broad attack on the patent system, the group has decided to monitor the way patents are being licensed.

"It is not as simple as, 'Patents, good or bad?' or 'Licensing, good or bad?' " said Mary Davidson, executive director of the Genetic Alliance. "Our mission is to be sure all this research benefits real people."

She cited the case of Sharon and Patrick Terry of Sharon, Mass. When the Terrys learned that their two children had a rare genetic ailment that could shorten their lives, they founded a group to help push research forward. Realizing that blood and tissue samples would be needed, they created a central repository under the group's control.

The Terrys also decided they would not oppose the patenting of the gene for their children's disease, pseudoxanthoma elasticum or PXE. "I'm not against patenting," Sharon Terry said. "The structure of the free-market enterprise system in the United States is such that patents work." She hopes, in fact, that patent rights will induce companies to develop treatments for the disease.

What the Terrys are against is naivete.

They knew the terms under which the PXE gene patent might be licensed for testing or drug development would be all-important. They decided that as the price of access to the tissue bank, researchers would have to agree to make the patient group a co-applicant on any patent filing. This is precisely what happened after a researcher in Hawaii discovered the gene whose mutant form causes PXE.

The goal is not profit, Sharon Terry said, but to ensure that PXE patients have a voice when critical decisions are made. If it's approved, the patent is likely to be made broadly available for research and testing.

The Terrys recommend this approach to other patient groups concerned about genetic patenting. "We saw early on," Sharon Terry said, "that we needed to keep control."


30 Dec 00 - Medicine - Live cells injected to fight cancer

By Mark Henderson, Science Correspondent

Times- Saturday 30 December 2000


A living "drug factory" that fights tumours by cutting off the nutrients they need to grow has been successfully tested on animals, scientists announced yesterday.

Genetically-engineered living cells are injected into the body near a tumour. They attack it over the course of months by releasing a protein that restricts its blood supply, starving it of oxygen and other essential nutrients.

Normally, foreign cells such as these are swiftly destroyed by the body's immune system, making them impractical for delivering treatments. The "drug factory" cells are, however, coated in a jelly-like protective film that makes them invisible to the body's defensive white blood cells, allowing them to remain in the body and pump out a regular dose of tumour-killing drugs.

In addition, the protective film is "breathable", so the anti-cancer protein, endostatin, can pass through safely. In parallel animal experiments in America and Norway, the "cell capsules" were found to shrink tumours by more than 70 per cent and prolong survival by 70 per cent, according to results to be published in the January edition of the journal Nature Biotechnology.

The tests could pave the way for the development of a similar method of delivering endostatin to human cancer patients. Both studies used similar kidney cells taken from baby hamsters, which were genetically engineered to produce endostatin, seen as a promising target for cancer drugs for several years.


30 Dec 00 - Medicine - Mice 'drug factory' offers cancer hope

By David Derbyshire, Science Correspondent

Relegraph - Saturday 30 December 2000


Scientists have developed a miniature living "drug factory" that continues to shrink tumours several weeks after it is injected into the body.

In tests, a single injection of the genetically engineered capsules reduced the size of aggressive brain tumours by up to 70 per cent. Although the capsules have yet to be tested on people, researchers believe they could one day be an alternative to more toxic cancer therapies.

Tumour cells need oxygen and nutrients to grow and so stimulate the growth of networks of new blood vessels, a process called angiogenesis. Cancer researchers are investigating chemical agents that can prevent angiogenesis and so cut off the blood supply, killing or shrinking tumours.

Because many natural inhibitors are quickly degraded by the body, some researchers have focused on developing drug factories that continue to secrete agents for weeks or even months after injection.

Two research teams, one at the Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, and the other at the University of Bergen, in Norway, today report in Nature Biotechnology journal how one drug factory works in a mouse body. Although the cancers were not cleared up, the researchers believe the approach could offer an alternative to chemotherapy.


30 Dec 00 - Medicine - Court Overturns Fetal Tissue Ban

Associated Press

Guardian- Saturday 30 December 2000


SAN FRANCISCO (AP) - A federal appeals court panel has ruled unconstitutional an Arizona law prohibiting the use of fetal tissue in medical research.

The decision Friday from the three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals wipes out the nation's last ban on such practices.

The 1984 Arizona statute was too vague for doctors to know what type of medical experimentation or scientific investigation on aborted fetuses was illegal, the court said.

``Individuals must be given a reasonable opportunity to discern whether their conduct is proscribed so they can choose whether or not to comply with the law,'' Judge Mary M. Schroeder wrote for the court.

Similar laws have been overturned in Utah, Louisiana and Illinois. Congress lifted a ban on federally funded research using fetal tissue in 1993.

Arizona's law barred the use of aborted fetal tissue or embryo for medical experimentation or scientific or medical investigation unless to perform a ``routine pathological examination'' or to diagnose a maternal or fetal condition that prompted the abortion.

The law was challenged by the New York-based Center for Reproductive Law and Policy in 1996 on behalf of four Parkinson's disease patients. Two Arizona affiliates of Planned Parenthood later joined the lawsuit.

Medical studies suggest some fetal tissue transplants can treat the neurological disorder because the tissue produces dopamine, a substance in the brain that controls voluntary movement.

The appeals court ruling upholds a similar decision from U.S. District Court Judge William Browning in Arizona.

``We've got judges here making opinions about the statute, which is not vague in my opinion,'' Arizona Right to Life President John Jakubczyk said.

The state also maintained the statute was clear. It argued that a doctor could avoid violating the law, which carries an 18-month sentence, by not performing any tests or procedures on aborted fetuses.

``This argument ignores the exceptions built into the statute that creates the confusion,'' Schroeder wrote.

The Arizona attorney general's office was reviewing the decision, spokeswoman Pati Urias said. The state may ask the court to review its decision or consider new legislation to circumvent the panel's ruling, she said.


29 Dec 00 - Medicine - Smoking can increase skin cancer risk

By David Derbyshire, Science Correspondent

Telegraph- Friday 29 December 2000


Smoking triples the risk of developing a common form of skin cancer, according to a new study published today.

A team of Dutch researchers found that smokers were 3.3 times more likely to develop squamous cell carcinoma than non-smokers. Smoking 21 cigarettes a day or more increased the risk of the disease four times.

Squamous cell carcinoma is the second most common form of skin cancer. It usually affects pale-skinned, fair-haired people over the age of 60. The tumours start as small, firm, painless lumps or patches, often on lips, ears or the backs of hands. If untreated, they may spread to other parts of the body and can be fatal, although the cure rate is high.

Dr Jan Nico Bouwes Bavinck, of Leiden University, said the study was the first to quantify a "substantial risk" for smoking. He said: "Everybody realises that sun exposure is a risk for skin cancer but almost no one knows that smoking is an important and independent risk factor. Smoking is now associated with cancers beyond lung cancer, such as bladder, head and neck, cervical, and skin cancer."

His team of researchers compared the lifes of 580 patients with different types of skin cancer and 386 people without skin cancer. They found that smoking was not associated with other types of skin cancer: basal cell carcinoma or the most dangerous type, melanoma, which accounts for three quarters of all deaths from skin cancer.

Former smokers were 1.9 times more likely to suffer from squamous cell carcinoma than non-smokers. Those who smoked one to 10 cigarettes a day had an increased risk of 2.4, while smoking 11 to 20 a day increased the risk to three. Pipe smokers were also at increased risk but cigar smokers were not, the researchers found.

The links between smoking and skin cancer have yet to be fully explained although it is thought that smoking damages DNA in skin tissue. The findings are reported in the Journal of Clinical Oncology. The most common type of skin cancer is basal cell carcinoma which rarely spreads to other parts of the body.


29 Dec 00 - Medicine - Ministers delay ban on smoking at work

By Marie Woolf

Independent- Friday 29 December 2000


Downing Street and senior ministers have intervened to hold up a ban on smoking at work over fears that it will create red tape and cost businesses millions of pounds.

The Government will face accusations from MPs of deliberately delaying implementation of the ban to protect the interests of pubs, clubs and the hospitality industry.

Ministers and officials are understood to have acted behind the scenes to prevent the enforcement of a code, published in September by the Government's health and safety watchdog, which would prevent workers smoking at their desks. The Government has taken the unusual step of delaying the ban, despite protests from the Department of Health, which wants to protect workers from passive smoking.

MPs and health groups are furious at the delay in introducing the code, which came after a consultation by the Health and Safety Commission that showed wide public support for action on smoking at work.

MPs hope to publish a parliamentary motion when the Commons returns in the new year calling on the Government to implement the ban. Kevin Barron, Labour MP for Rother Valley, plans to table the motion. "We can't understand why the Government has not implemented this," he said.

David Hinchliffe, chairman of the Commons Health Select Committee, was also concerned at the delay and said his committee may look into it.

The code would force employers to ban smoking in offices with no ventilation systems and to provide special smoking rooms. Bars, restaurants and casinos would be given two years to comply and to impose no-smoking policies at the bars. The code would be legally enforceable and employers would face criminal penalties and fines if it was proved in court that they did not meet its minimum standards.

Representatives of the hospitality industry have protested to the Government about the proposed ban.


29 Dec 00 - Medicine - Insurers' use of genetic histories to be questioned



IndBy Jeremy Laurance, Health Editorependent - Friday 29 December 2000


The British Medical Association has written to the insurance ombudsman to raise concerns about how the industry is using genetic information.

Its move follows the referral to the BMA's ethics committee of a case where a company raised questions about a woman's application for life assurance to secure a mortgage because her mother had breast cancer.

Helen Thornton, 35, who lives in Essex, was asked by Nationwide Life to confirm the age at which her mother was diagnosed with the disease so that "we can accurately assess your application".

The case, referred to the BMA by its president, Sir Christopher Paine, has re-opened the controversy over the use of genetic information by insurance companies. There are concerns that this could deter women from different types of screening, because of the possible adverse consequences for the next generation.

Ms Thornton's case is also being studied by Dr Muir Gray, clinical head of the National Breast Screening Programme, and Professor Sandy Raeburn, a geneticist at Nottingham University and adviser to the Association of British Insurers.

Julietta Patnick, the co-ordinator of the breast screening programme, said that only 5 to 10 per cent of breast cancers had a genetic link, and the reaction of the insurance company was disproportionate.

Hazel Thornton, Helen's mother, who was diagnosed during a routine breast screen in 1991, when she was 57, was outraged. "[The insurance company] was penalising not me, but my offspring," she said. "I was very angry indeed. This inflicting of terror on ordinary members of the population gullible enough to go for screening is absolutely wicked."

Mrs Thornton senior, who is a patients' representative and an independent advocate for quality in health care, sent a letter of protest to Nationwide Life, which has since granted her daughter a policy at the standard premium. She pointed out that the kind of cancer she was diagnosed with, ductal carcinoma in situ, is a pre-cancer which in four cases out of five never progresses to a true cancer.

But she says the fact that the company raised a question over her daughter's insurance cover has "immense potential repercussions on the public".

She added: "My daughter is an honest woman and she filled in the form properly, but if she had known how they would respond she might have skated round it."

Helen Thornton shared her mother's anger and said the insurance company had asked the wrong questions.

"I happen to be fanatically fit but they never asked about my lifestyle," she went on. "Yet if I was overweight and ate burger and chips and sat in front of the TV all day it would have far more effect on my health. They have got hung up on this one factor.

"I can deal with it and I am not worried by it. But for an ordinary person not as well-versed in the facts of breast cancer as I am it could have frightened the wits out of them and they might not know where to go for information."

The BMA is investigating the impact of genetic information on the practices of the insurance industry. The Human Genetics Commission, an advisory body to the Government, is to issue a paper on the subject in the new year.

A spokeswoman for the BMA said: "The question is whether genetic information is so hugely different from the other information which insurance companies seek such as about blood pressure and smoking. But there is huge public distrust of the companies, which we acknowledge."

The Association of British Insurers said companies had always used genetic information because they had always asked applicants for details of their family history. "The whole genetics issue is a way of fine-tuning this type of family history information," said a spokeswoman. "Just because in this case the mother was diagnosed with breast cancer doesn't mean the daughter will develop it but in some cases there is a family link and that is what the insurance company was trying to find out."

Information about exercise and lifestyle, she said was relevant, but also subjective and difficult to check. "Information about family history is factual," she added.


24 Dec 00 - Medicine - Gene breakthrough will cut toll of miscarriages

Lois Rogers, Medical Correspondent

Sunday Times- Sunday 24 December 2000


Doctors have developed a technique for helping thousands of women who suffer recurrent miscarriages. They have devised a way of circumventing a common genetic abnormality which can cause pregnancies to fail.

Doctors at Guy's and St Thomas's hospitals in London have used the technique on several women who had endured repeated miscarriages but who have now given birth to healthy babies.

The mothers have genetic abnormalities called chromosomal translocations, which are carried by one person in 500. Although harmless to the carrier, the condition can be damaging or fatal to their embryos because it involves part of the genetic material of one chromosome breaking off and joining onto another.

It causes thousands of miscarriages and births of handicapped children each year. Many couples who have the abnormality diagnosed by blood tests are told they should abandon all hope of starting a family.

Now doctors using IVF techniques have developed a way of screening out embryos that inherit the translocatons.

Tracey Spreckley, 35, underwent the technique and gave birth last month to normal healthy twins after several earlier pregnancies had ended prematurely.

"I can't believe it," she said. "The babies are fantastic and they don't have my translocation so there is no risk of the same thing happening to them. We are delighted."

Doctors at Spreckley's home in Linlithgow, West Lothian, had said nothing could be done for her, but she heard about the research at St Thomas's and sought treatment there.

The process begins by creating embryos in vitro. When they have grown to clusters of eight cells, each has a cell removed and its chromosomes checked.

The new technique, perfected by Caroline Ogilvy, a geneticist at Guy's, will at present only prevent a small proportion of the 250,000 miscarriages each year. Embryos with abnormalities are screened out and a healthy embryo is implanted.

As with all IVF treatment there are risks. Spreckley's first treatment ended in yet another miscarriage. However, the second attempt - Spreckley's seventh pregnancy - resulted in the birth of twins Jack and Sarah six weeks ago. They were from the only two genetically normal eggs out of 23 that were collected from her ovaries.

The first baby to be born using the technique, Guy Hiney Bancroft, arrived six months ago. Since then the team has proved that it works with nine other successful births.

Peter Braude, professor of obstetrics and gynaecology and head of the team, said: "In the past these patients were told nothing could be done. Now there is real hope."


24 Dec 00 - Medicine - Genome project: 'This means new opportunities for medicine'

John Sulston

Independent- Sunday 24 December 2000


John Sulston, aged 58, is a former director of the Sanger Centre in Cambridgeshire and a leading member of the Human Genome Project team. This is his account of his breakthrough year

Our success in unravelling the human genome was a huge international effort, funded by a diverse group of organisations who had sponsored a kaleidoscopic blend of people around the world. Most important of all, in my mind, was that it resulted in the human genome sequence being freely available to all without any restriction. And this despite some powerful commercial opposition.

It was so important to me and my colleagues because the legacy of the human genetic code, the product of millions of years of evolution, belongs to us all. The announcement in June that we had obtained the draft sequence caused a great stir. The fuss and press coverage almost seemed too much for what is, really, just one more step in our understanding of ourselves. Nevertheless, the enormous public interest generated in our milestone gave the opportunity for everyone to debate about how we can use this information. After all, the genome is the basic recipe of a person. Knowing the complete genetic sequence opens up new opportunities in medicine.

As is the nature of legacies, our children and their children will feel the greatest benefits of what we are doing now. But they could also face challenges. So one of the messages I'd like to get across at the close of the year 2000 is that we need to understand and discuss what can and should be achieved by knowing this genomic information at this early stage while all the options are still open.

My personal event of the year was stepping down as director of the Sanger Centre in Cambridge after its first eight years. I had actually made the choice a couple of years ago to ensure that the lab continues with renewed vigour and is capable of seizing the opportunities for the future. It was both sad and immensely exciting for me to hand over the reins. The team spirit there is extraordinary, and I owe everyone so much for making it work so well.


24 Dec 00 - Medicine - Cannabis makes confused sperm swim more slowly

Nick Paton Walsh

Guardian- Sunday 24 December 2000


Smoking cannabis slows down more than your thoughts and speech. New research shows sperm swim much slower when exposed to the drug's active ingredient, increasing the chances of infertility among dope smokers.

American scientists have studied the effects of cannabis on the chemical signals in the reproductive organs. While a small amount of the active ingredient in marijuana smoke, tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), makes sperm more alert and increases the chance of the egg being fertilised, a large dose of THC confuses the sperm, causing them to become sluggish and dopey, and so less likely to penetrate the egg.

'THC is the substance in marijuana smoke that makes people high,' said Professor Herbert Schuel of the University of Buffalo in New York State, author of the research.

'The sperm change their swimming behaviour. [With a low concentration of THC] they swim hyperactively and rapidly, waving their heads from side to side. These are the kind of sperm most likely to fertilise the egg. When the concentration was 10 times higher, the number of sperm showing hyperactivity decreased.'

Schuel examined the role of THC in the cells of the male and female reproductive systems, focusing on its relationship with a similar set of chemicals produced by the body, anandamides. These signal to sperm and nearby cells to become hyperactive by latching on to receptors on the outside wall of cells. But THC latches on to the receptors instead, leaving the anandamides adrift to build up around the sperm. Too many anandamides give the sperm an excess of signals, making them confused and sluggish.

Scientists have known for more than 40 years that cannabis damaged the production of sperm - reducing their numbers and quality - but this research marks a breakthrough in understanding how it affects the action of the sperm on the egg. Schuel first showed that THC could damage fertilisation in a series of experiments carried out in the late 1980s on sea urchins.

Infertility affects one in seven couples trying for their first pregnancy, and 40 per cent of these cases are down to problems with sperm.

Campaigners have long argued for the legalisation of marijuana, citing its medicinal properties as a painkiller and relaxant. The Government is currently assessing the effectiveness of cannabis as a painkiller and hopes to reach conclusions by the end of next year.

The anti-drugs lobby will welcome this finding as it confirms a damaging effect of the drug. Several members of the shadow cabinet recently admitted to having smoked marijuana, and 2.7 million Britons are regular users. The British spend 3.5 billion a year on the drug, and a quarter of 15-year-olds are thought to smoke or to have tried it.


23 Dec 00 - Medicine - 'Cancer killer' begins trials

By Nigel Hawkes, Health Editor

Times- Saturday 23 December 2000


The Royal Free Hospital in North London is to carry out trials of a powerful new cancer drug next year.

Professor Richard Begent and his team have created a genetically modified antibody that identifies the tumour cells and carries an enzyme to it.Once this enzyme arrives, a harmless "pro-drug" is given to the patient which is converted into a tissue-destroying drug. Since the enzyme is located only at the tumour cells, this is the only place where the drug is created - hitting the tumour hard but leaving the healthy cells undamaged.

The system, called Adept - antibody-directed pro-drug therapy - can deliver 10,000 times as much of the enzyme to the tumour as it does to the blood that carries it there and has the advantage of not being a foreign body easily rejected by the immune system.

"Every enzyme molecule can activate thousands of molecules of the pro-drug," Professor Begent said. "We have already seen some responses in patients but plan new trials next year with an improved system. We believe that there will be fewer side-effects and hope that the therapy will pack the punch to kill cancers before they have the time to develop drug resistance."

The trial will initially concentrate on colon and breast cancers but a similar approach could be used for neuroendocrine cancers, the subject of this year's Times Christmas Appeal.

The Times Appeal aims to raise sufficient money to finance a research fellow to apply similar techniques to the treatment of neuroendocrine cancer, which affects about 1,000 new patients each year.

The research fellow will work with Dr Daniel Hochhauser in Professor Begent's department, and Dr Martyn Caplin of the Royal Free. Times readers have already been generous in their support of the appeal but the more that can be raised, the more research can be done.


23 Dec 00 - Medicine - Experts claim finding new tool in Aids fight

AFP

Dawn Internet- Saturday 23 December 2000


PARIS, Dec 22: French doctors said on Thursday they had devised a gene therapy in mice that dealt a blow to the AIDS virus by fooling it into latching on to a passing protein rather than a cell, causing it to wither and die for lack of nutrition.

The research by doctors at Edouard-Herriot Hospital in Lyons, one of France's top institutions in medical innovation, is published Friday in the US magazine AIDS.

Researcher Kamel Sanhadji said that the work had been carried out on mice that had been genetically modified to be without immune defences, to enable the rodents to receive human cells yet not reject them.

Two genes were then inserted into the mice, causing them to produce a substance called glycoprotein.

This circulated in the blood, mimicking CD4 receptors, the part of a cell surface to which the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) is attracted.

"When the AIDS virus meets a human cell, it latches on to its CD4 receptors and then infiltrates the cell," Sanhadji said.

"We sought to imitate this process by placing receptors in the vicinity of the virus, but in a soluble form."

The mice were infected with HIV a week after the gene transfer, but the virus was fooled by the false CD4s and did not penetrate cells, which meant that it was deprived of an energy source to survive and reproduce, Sanhadji said.

After three weeks, "virus levels in the blood were quite undetectable, even using the most powerful techniques, such as gene amplification," he said.

He added, however, that it was too early to say whether the virus may be holing up in a reservoir of the body, such as the lymph glands, the brain or spinal cord.

The next step will be test the therapy on primates, with the hope that if all goes well, trials could be carried out on humans "two or three years from now," starting with people who have resistance to the anti-retroviral cocktail of AIDS drugs.

One of the challenges will be to find a way of delivering the therapy to humans, using a disabled virus with the gene tucked inside as a Trojan Horse, infecting each of the body's cells and changing its DNA programming accordingly.


22 Dec 00 - Medicine - Ketchup may be answer to oral cancer

By Robert Uhlig, Technology Correspondent

Telegraph- Friday 22 December 2000


Eating tomato ketchup or pizza regularly could protect against mouth cancer, scientists said yesterday. Lycopene, the pigment that makes tomatoes red, may destroy tumours.

In an experiment to investigate the anti-cancer properties of several chemicals in food, a team led by Betty Schwartz, a biochemist at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, found that tumour cells given lycopene died.

The best sources may be concentrated tomato products that also have some fat content, such as ketchup and tomato pizza toppings, they said. Red fruits, such as watermelons and guavas, also contain lycopene but in lower quantities. Oral cancers are particularly aggressive and tend to be advanced by the time they are diagnosed. Only half the people diagnosed with oral cancer live for more than five years.

Prof Peter Bramley, of Royal Holloway College, University of London, said: "This adds to an increasing body of evidence that lycopene in the diet can reduce the risk of cancer at many sites, including breast, pancreas, prostate and intestine." He is seeking genetically engineered tomatoes to make more of it.

Dr Schwartz said the cells lining the mouth are linked by tiny channels called gap junctions. These allow the cells to communicate, but are absent in cancer cells. Lycopene restores them. Healthy cells can then detect cancerous neighbours and order them to self-destruct.

Having shown that lycopene kills oral cancer cells in culture, Dr Schwartz plans to test it on people, using normal diet doses.


22 Dec 00 - Medicine - Scientists pinpoint risk of inherited Alzheimer's

James Meek, science correspondent

Guardian- Friday 22 December 2000


A breakthrough in understanding how the risk of getting Alzheimer's disease can be inherited was announced by researchers yesterday.

They have identified an area on a chromosome - the 10th - linked to an increased risk of contracting Alzheimer's. The findings, in the journal Science, come hard on the heels of news in the journal Nature of a vaccine.

Richard Hodes, director of the US National Institute of Ageing, said: "With the ageing of the baby boomers, the urgency to understand the disease increases every day."

It was known that a form of one gene on chromosome 19 made people more susceptible to the disease. But only 50% of sufferers have that gene, so other factors are at work.

Pinning down a new chromosomal hotspot will spark a race to find and patent the gene or genes involved.

If a commercial firm were to get the patent it would be able to command princely licence fees from anyone else seeking to develop gene-based tests or treatments.

The researchers were from the University of Wales college of medicine, the Institute of Psychiatry in London, a number of US institutions and the Institute of Biomedicine in Valencia, Spain.


22 Dec 00 - Medicine - Scientists Develop Vaccine From Modified Sweet Potato

Kithure Julius Mwingirwa

All Africa- Friday 22 December 2000


Scientists have developed an edible vaccine against food poisoning from a genetically modified sweet potato.

The immunity against Norwalk virus-responsible for causing food poisoning from many poorly stored or handled foods, is triggered by eating a potato that is genetically modified and equipped with anti-Norwalk virus, according to researchers at Cornell University, USA.

The invention, a joint research with the University of Maryland School of Medicine, is capable of halting effects of Norwalk virus in the human body incase of consumption of poisoned food. The researchers add that eating the modified and vaccine inclusive sweet potato successfully curtail food -borne illness.

The triggering of immunity against a virus by eating a sweet potato is not the first invention.

The Thompson Institute developed a vaccine against the highly killer Hepatitis B, still using a genetically modified sweet potato last year.

The switch of vaccine into edible foods, says Dr Anthony Fauci, director, United States National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) that funded both potato vaccine initiates is precipitated by the realisation that: "Edible vaccine offer exciting possibilities for significantly reducing the burden of disease like hepatitis and diarrhoea, particularly in developing world where storing and administrating of vaccine are often major problems."

Should this edible vaccine be successful in Africa, says Dr Grace Akoth, a nutritionist, then Africa will term this as a gigantic milestone because millions of African population face food-borne illness every year depleting the little medical facilities available in poorly equipped government hospitals."

"Unlike other forms of vaccine injected into the body or administered through drops-often subjected to illogical controversies, fears and safety queries like the recent countrywide polio vaccine falsely rumoured as laced with Aids/ HIV, there will be little room for hatching of such a rumour in this genetically modified sweet potato that has already developed vaccine," says a doctor at Kenyatta" National Hospital.

"An edible vaccine, " says Dr Carol Tacket, professor at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, "could be easy to produce, safe, affordable and effective."

Should this scientific venture materialize, as researchers says is the position, the concept of edible vaccine could provide inexpensive protection for most of the world's poorest population, many incapable of affording the conventional vaccine, and where administered free, lack means of reaching at the designated centres.

Many countries produce sweet potatoes in thousands of tons making it their staple food. This means that the genetically modified sweet potato could not only offer starch and carbohydrates to their consumers but also guard against food-borne illness.

Kenya, through the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (Kari) recently started field trials of the first transgenic sweet potatoes which lab tests and limited field trials at its research farms proved successful.

"If the transgenic sweet potato fronted by KARI proves a success, then it should not hesitate borrowing the vaccine theory from their counterparts in America. This decade is an 'agricultural revolution' and Kenya should not be left behind," says Dr Akoth.

'The percentage of poor quality milk from co-operative societies processing milk is very high. This is despite the farmers supplying the co-operatives with relatively good quality milk.'