ddn Online

The Blog of Drug Discovery News

New home

The blog has moved to a new home (same server as our magazine’s website) and also has a new look.

Click here to check us out, and please remember to update your bookmarks.



February 10, 2011 Posted by | Announcements and Events | Leave a comment

We interrupt this program…

No post of substance today, as we’re getting ready to shift over to a new blog format and a new URL for the blog. The folks involved in all the technical aspects of that transferred over the most recent posts to the new location, so it’s probably in my best interests not to go posting more original stuff here that they’ll have to move over there.

I’ll post a final update at this location with the new URL as soon as I’m confident everything is ready to go, which should be sometime Wednesday or Thursday of this week.

February 8, 2011 Posted by | Announcements and Events | Leave a comment

New Year’s Resolution

OK, I realize it’s a little late to make the old New Year’s resolution, but I’m non-traditional (I also stay home every New Year’s Eve and I usually toast it with sparkling cider even though I’m not a teetotaler).

But here we go…

I resolve to have a blog post up every weekday for the rest of the year.

Now let see if I can keep that resolution. It would be only the second resolution I’ve kept, and the last one was to add a small and occasional (and legal, by the way) vice to my life as a midlife crisis gift, so it wasn’t hard to keep that one. However, seeing as it was last January’s resolution, success in that (even if it was nearly a foregone conclusion at the time) might bode well for the success of this one. (I’m on a roll!)

Now, I’m not promising you scintillating content EVERY day. This blog is a place for rumination, debate and even humor, but it’s also a place where we put “all the news that doesn’t fit in print.” We can’t run everything in the physical ddn obviously, and the blog and website together give us that extra outlet. Some days might be pharma promotion news while the next day might be breaking news of a huge merger deal. You just never know. Like shopping at thrift/salvage stores, antique shops or Amazon.com, every day’s a surprise.

But I will work hard to ensure that every weekday, sometime between 8 a.m. and 6 p.m. Eastern U.S. time, I have at least one new post, and hopefully more than one on many days.

Here’s hoping we can toast my success in that endeavor. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to see if there’s any more tinsel from the Christmas tree hiding in any corners or under furniture (or perhaps clinging to the back of my shoe right now). And a Happy (somewhat belated) New Year to all of you!

January 7, 2011 Posted by | Announcements and Events | Leave a comment

Research efforts can help fragile young lives

Whether we are researchers or journalists, as we explore the landscape of the drug development world we are reminded just how fragile human life can be.

This week, I came across a story that a team of pediatric cancer researchers have identified variations in a gene as important contributors to neuroblastoma, the most common solid cancer of early childhood.

The study team, led by researchers at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, found that common variants in the LMO1 gene increase the risk of developing an aggressive form of neuroblastoma, and also mark the gene for continuing to drive the cancer’s progression once it forms.

The team’s work appears online in Nature. According to their report, a cancer of the sympathetic nervous system that usually occurs as a solid tumor in the abdomen, neuroblastoma accounts for 10 percent of childhood cancer deaths.

According to its website, The Cancer Center at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia cares for more children with cancer than any other pediatric hospital in the United States. It is ranked second in children’s cancer care in the U.S. by U.S.News & World Report.

It is so sobering to think that the youngest and most vulnerable—our children—sometimes are engaged in a fight for their lives as they battle myriad issues that come with adult-sized problems.

The researchers found a significant association between neuroblastoma and the LMO1 gene, located on chromosome 11, detecting the strongest signal among patients with the most aggressive form of the disease. This portion of the study identified SNPs, changes in a single letter within the DNA sequence, which predispose a child to developing neuroblastoma.

The research team utilized genetic tools to decrease LMO1’s activity, and showed that this inhibited the growth of neuroblastoma cells in culture. Increasing LMO1 gene expression had the opposite effect, causing tumor cells to proliferate.

Because other genes in the LMO family are known to be active in acute leukemias, other researchers have been investigating potential anti-leukemia drugs to target portions of the LMO pathway.

This is just one example of all of the great work going on in labs in hospitals, academic institutions and other facilities in the United States and around the world.

The research offers great hope for children battling cancer. It also is further proof that the work being done in research labs around the world are yielding results that can take steps to eradicate the diseases that take a great toll on us emotionally and physically, regardless of sex, age or race.

Further, the study by researchers at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia shows how we can expand our knowledge base for translating genetic discovery to clinical issues through integrative genomics, combining SNP discovery arrays with gene expression arrays and other functional approaches.

With the great results coming from this work, perhaps the suffering of some of the small and meek can be eased.

December 7, 2010 Posted by | Academia & Non-Profit, Announcements and Events, Labwork & Science, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Unwrapping the chocolate genome project

As ddn Senior Editor David Hutton’s post today shows us, genomics doesn’t all have to be deadly (or even healthily) serious…

If Willy Wonka had been a scientist, you can bet he’d have been on board with efforts to crack the chocolate genome.

As it is, chocolatiers Mars and Hershey have had their eyes on a different kind of Golden Ticket, spending millions to crack the code to unlock the secrets for better sweets.

The race pits two factions of scientists who are working hard to analyze the chocolate genome, the genetic code behind the cocoa tree, which they hope could one day make candy bars taste better, cost less, and maybe come guilt free.

Mars, the maker of such tasty confections as Milky Way, M&Ms and Snickers, dedicated $10 million to a chocolate genome project two year ago. Teaming up with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and tech giant IBM, the confectioner announced earlier this month that it had cracked more than 92 percent of the genome. Their work is available for free at the Cacao Genome Database, a clearinghouse set up by Mars to aid chocolate research.

The Mars team has made available the draft genome that is a rough physical map of the cacao tree’s 10 chromosomes. Roughly 400 million “letters” of code have been arranged into chunks of about 150,000 letters each. This rough map will allow scientists to search for genes associated with particular traits, according to Juan Carlos Motamayor, chief cacao scientist for Mars. The researchers have already figured out where some genes of interest reside, but they aren’t making that information available yet, he tells U.S. News & World Report

“This will help guarantee a sustainable future for cocoa for the farmers, the consumers and Mars Inc.,” Howard-Yana Shapiro, the head of plant research at Mars, told the New York Times.

Rival Hershey, the name behind popular candies like Reese’s and Kit Kat, helped fund a similar effort by the French government and Pennsylvania State University. This faction is waiting to release its findings in an upcoming scientific paper.

The question is: Can all of this effort by scientists lead to better tasting chocolate or increase cocoa’s natural production of flavonoids, which studies show may be good for your body?

According to Mark Guiltinan, a plant molecular biologist at Pennsylvania State University and leader of one of the rival efforts, that just might be the end result, but it hasn’t been the driving force behind the projects.

The point of the research, according to scientists, isn’t to create a “super candy bar,” but rather to improve and accelerate selective breeding, resulting in plants that yield more cocoa beans are more resistant to drought and disease.

Researchers also hope to improve the traditional method of breeding trees, a laborious, trial-and-error process in which researchers try to isolate the sweetest traits and replicate them. That can take as long as 15 years to complete.

Armed with a map of the cacao tree’s genetic makeup, scientists could cut that process down to two or three years. For instance, they could extract the DNA of a young tree and see whether it has the right genes for resisting diseases instead of waiting years for the tree to mature.

Guiltinan tells the Philadelphia Inquirer that chocolate, he said, originates in the poorest countries of the world, mostly from small farmers in the tropics. The cacao plants that produce the cherished cocoa beans are vulnerable to disease and drought – much of Brazil’s cacao was recently destroyed by a fungus, for example.

According to Mars, farmers suffer $700 million to $800 million worth of damage every year. In its website, Mars writes that this milestone in the project was achieved three years early and marks a significant scientific landmark that is already beginning to benefit millions of farmers, especially in West Africa. Seventy percent of the world’s cocoa production comes from West Africa.

The project isn’t a novel idea, with genetic sequencing already having been used to improve breeding for corn, soybeans, and other major crops, he said.

Still, the question on the tip of everyone’s tongue is whether the chocolates will taste better. After all, isn’t that what it’s all about.

Well, yes and no.

Actually, scientists say that it’s possible that better-tasting chocolate may be a part of the end result. The flavor actually comes not from the growing, but from a process of fermentation, which happens off the plants where the beans are subjected to bacteria yeasts and molds.

That breaks down the starches and proteins in the beans, creating lots of smaller compounds that, after roasting, make chocolate taste chocolaty. Chemical analyses have shown that chocolate can contain the same compounds that impart flavor and scents to fruits, flowers, sherry, vinegar, butter, almonds, caramel, nutmeg, and other spices – and, in some cases, Swiss and blue cheese.

The chocolate genome race actually has been underway for more than a decade.

Guiltinan told the Inquirer that his chocolate genome project started in the late 1990s when he and other scientists got grant money from a consortium of chocolate companies, including Hershey. But around the same time, Mars Inc. and the Agriculture Department together decided to launch their own genome project.

Fortunately, the research teams targeted different varieties of the cacao plant. The Mars people sequenced a cutting from a variety called Forastero, which they say is the progenitor of most chocolate on the market today.

Guiltinan’s effort chose a sample of an heirloom variety called Criollo, which he says is closely related to the original chocolate that the Mayans and Aztecs consumed as a hot drink laced with peppers.

Which brings us back to our fictitious chocolatier of film and literature.

Watching from the sidelines, Willy Wonka has to be excited by the prospects of genetically-enhanced cacao trees. On second thought, he’s probably had a team of Oompa-Loompas working on this for years behind the gates of his mysterious factory.

October 27, 2010 Posted by | Academia & Non-Profit, Announcements and Events, Corporate, Government, Labwork & Science | , , , , | 2 Comments