Smoking Out Y

When people smoke, not only do they inhale burnt pieces of paper which damage their lungs, or have tar accumulate inside of them, which is likely to cause lung cancer, or inject nicotine into their bloodstream, which increases heart rate and blood pressure; it also causes the Y chromosome to eventually disappear. Of course, this only affects males, since the presence of a Y chromosome determines you’re male in gender, but for women smoking is still unhealthy and should be stopped.

Chemicals in tobacco affect this chromosome during cell division or mitosis when the chromosomes are being separated to either sides of the cell. Damage to the chromosome can build up until it eventually disappears. The study, carried out in Sweden, showed that people (men, specifically) who smoked had 33% more chances of loosing their Y chromosome compared to men who didn’t smoke.

However, it has been widely thought for many years that the Y chromosome is so small (in fact, it’s the smallest out of our 46 chromosomes), that its loss wouldn’t have too dire consequences. Past experiments on cells show that they can survive just as well without said chromosome. But new studies show that the lack of this chromosome, although not directly fatal, can shorten life duration and causes an increase in the likelihood of developing cancer. Lung cancer or any other cancer having to do with the respiratory system aside, male smokers are twice as likely to develop cancer as female smokers.

A possible explanation for this is that the Y chromosome contains tumour suppressing genes, so if it disappears, tumours are not going to be controlled and inhibited and therefore will be able to reproduce uncontrollably, causing cancer.

The newest research shows that this effect changes intensity depending on the dose of tobacco smoked. Obviously, the more tobacco you smoke, the more likely you are to suffer from its negative effects. But there’s a silver lining: this process is reversible. If you were to stop smoking, your cells would stop taking damage and after some time they’d be repaired, so you would have the same percentage of healthy cells with a Y chromosome as a non-smoker.

y chromosome

The Y chromosome is more important than you think in the fight against cancer


Cancer’s Gene Struggles

It’s been a very productive week for cancer research. There’s been a new protein discovered which almost tricked everyone into thinking it was helpful against cancer, and scientists found that just by cancelling some genes tumour growth can occur. Seeing as interesting these discoveries are, let’s delve into them.

First and foremost, let’s talk about the p35 gene. This section of the DNA produces a protein, called p35 protein (who knows why), that can detect abnormal cells, and then start to kill them to prevent them from reproducing, therefore preventing a tumour from forming. This has been known for more than 30 years, and by now we thought we knew all there was to know about it. But the discovery of a variant of this gene hit the news this week. Said gene is called the p35-psi gene, which produces another protein, chemically similar to the p35 protein, which also caused an inflammatory reaction in mutated cells, just like p35 does. But after further study, scientists discovered it does the complete opposite of its cousin: it encourages the growth of cancerous cells. The mechanism works by p35-psi teaming up with another protein, cyclophilin D, which together change the mitochondria organelle so the whole cell itself transforms into a new type, similar-looking to a muscle cell, which usually precedes a cancer.

This opens up a door of possibilities for cancer treatments. New drugs could target cyclophilin D, to stop the transforming process from occurring. Or they could suppress the p35-psi gene to stop it from producing the harmful protein in the first place


Cancer Cells

Cancer cells divide uncontrollably, even if they have a mutation which would normally be eliminated

Now moving on to the second piece of news.

We all know how mutations can lead to cancers, but the novelty here was that inactivating genes also caused the disease. This can be done through a process called epigenetic methylation, because a methyl group is added to a gene and so prevents it from being transcribed.

Epigenetic methylation occurs naturally in our cells, and actually helps them repair their DNA. But when this process occurs over and over by continuously exposing the same genes to methyl groups, they might just end up permanently attached, effectively cancelling the gene.

The problem, however, is that it is not known for certain whether epigenetic methylation is a cause of cancer or if cancer causes this methylation. In the study carried out, scientists added a new gene into mice cells, a gene that specifically attracted methyl groups and caused methylation in nearby genes. And speaking of tumour suppressing genes, the team in this investigation concentrated on the effects of methylating gene p16, which also prevents the growth of tumours. Over the course of the experiment, those mice with the injected gene had an increased chance of developing cancer, especially in areas like the spleen or the liver.

Although this information does seem to indicate methylation causes cancer, some researchers argue that maybe when they added the new methylating-prone gene, they messed with the already existing genome so it mutated and turned the cell cancerous.

However, since methylation definitely has an effect on cancer, the group of researchers at Baylor College of Medicine in Texas, where the experiment was carried out, will now focus on investigating a way of reversing this process in cancer cells.

It is interesting to note that methylation occurrence can be linked to our diet, since methyl groups come from the food we consume. Some products like green tea and broccoli help decrease methylation rate, so it might be time you had a sip of some delicious tea just in case.

Human Cells’ Time Travel

Last week, I wrote about cells in mice turning pluripotent, meaning having the ability to turn into any cell from our body, by just dipping them in an acidic solution. The conclusion was that if converting normal, specialised cells and converting them into pluripotent cells was possible in humans, it would mean hope for studies in regenerative science and cancer research.

Well, scientists at Harvard Medical School did not waste their time and have already accomplished this feat. Using human cells this time, instead of mice cells, the team applied different environments to the cells, until they finally managed to make them behave like the mice STAP cells (Stimulus-triggered acquisition of pluripotency) they had previously created.

embryo 8

Embryo cell, with 8 totipotent cells

However, these new cells did show some differences to the original, and it’s because different solutions were used, since mice and human cells are not identical and the same solutions wouldn’t have worked. Which solutions were used still remains a secret, and it could be for the best, to prevent uncontrolled use of human pluripotent cells is not advisable.

Another drawback is the fact that these human STAP cells have not shown totipotency (the ability to form a placenta and therefore create an organism). But this could not be as bad as it looks at first sight. The use of totipotent cells at the moment is very strict and regulated, but the study of pluripotent cells not as much. So although work with human totipotent cells couldn’t be done, pluripotent cells are still very useful and worth having a look at.

Of course work still needs to be done, but we are one step closer to being able to study stem cells and the opportunities they provide. It is still a very admirable achievement from scientists at Harvard to have found this only a week after the results with mice were published.

The Miracle of Life

Cancer, multiple sclerosis, diabetes and dementia are examples of illnesses that plague our society, and that have not yet been beaten. However, new incredible results may be bringing us a step closer to make those diseases history. And the only requirements are a normal cell and an acid bath.

This sounds strange, but scientists at Harvard Medical School have managed to convert a normal cell, a white blood cell, for example, into a pluripotent cell. That is, a cell that has the ability to form any type of cell. You can imagine what the consequences of such type of cell are: you can make any type of tissue out of these, so basically heal or reconstruct any part of your body. So if you have a cancer, you can just add these cells and they will grow into healthy ones.

Previously, this type of cells was only available through two ways: by extracting them from an embryo, which meant killing it (called Embryonic Stem Cells), or by changing the genes in a normal cell (called Induced Pluripotent Cells). But both have strong disadvantages. Killing a possible human being is not ethical, and Induced cells have a higher chance of causing cancer, since manipulating DNA is not safe and can be unpredictable.

These problems have caused many scientists to look for alternatives, and they may have found it. Charles Vacanti and his team at Harvard reproduced a group of mice, and extracted a white blood cell from them (although it works with any type of cell). It was modified so they reacted by fluorescence to the presence of Oct-4, a protein only found in pluripotent cells. Then, they were dipped in differ

ent solutions, and its effects were investigated. At first, the usual: some cells died, others remained unchanged. But in the second day, some cells that were introduced in an acidic solution of pH 5.7 for 30 minutes started glowing. After a few more days, more of them were glowing. Therefore, they had become pluripotent.


The mouse carrying the pluripotent cells

The intriguing cells were thereby named “Stimulus-Triggered Acquisition of Pluripotency” or STAP for short.

To test them even more, they were injected into a blastocyst (a group of cells formed by a fertilized egg cell reproducing, that contains pluripotent cells and that if left to grow and implanted onto a uterus can form a living being). The STAP cells integrated themselves perfectly, and ended up forming a new mice individual. This mouse also had children, who still had the STAP marked cells in them.

For further testing, specialized cells from an adult mouse were extracted, and incredibly, they behaved just like the younger ones did.

This method has called a lot of attention from the scientific community, since it’s the safest and fastest way to produce stem cells. It doesn’t murder any human being, only takes a few days (Induced Pluripotent cells take weeks) and chances of cancer are the same as a normal cell. Their most surprising feature, however, is the method of production. You only need to add any normal cell, no matter its age, to a slightly acidic solution, and you can reverse it into its primary state. The simplicity is outstanding, and is very cost-effective.

At the moment, its use in humans is being studied, so it will still be a few years until it can be used properly on the mainstream population. But hope remains that one day it will be able to solve the worst diseases we battle.

A Small Ethical Side Note

After the cells have been made pluripotent, they are manipulated, by adding them to a medium, so they specialize into any cell. But in some mediums, these STAP cells were also able to act as totipotent cells; cells that have the ability to become any cell and also divide into a human being. Of course, this is were science gets very ethical, because this potency gives them the ability to form perfect clones, something never seen before, since experiments such as Dolly the Sheep used other cloning methods which are not as exact. It is not legal to clone a human being, and cloning of other animals is regulated, so any tests on this area are very supervised.

Gene Patent Battle

The science of genetics has experienced a rapid growth since the year 2000 and is becoming increasingly popular due to cheaper ways in which to experiment with genome sequencing.

This field has drawn a lot of attention recently due to the ‘battle’ between Myriad Genetics Inc. (one of the most important businesses in biotechnology) and the Supreme Court of the USA.

It all started a few years ago when such company was able to isolate genes with effects on breast and ovary cancer, and since then has tried to patent those genes to benefit financially from their use.

After months of this dispute, the government has arrived to the conclusion by unanimity that Myriad won’t be able to patent those genes, since they were created by nature and therefore shouldn’t be owned by individuals. Also, this type of discoveries or natural occurrences that are essential for scientists to do their work and improve our world should not be restricted by patents, said one of the judges of the court.

However, they have also decided that synthetic cells or genes could be patented since they are not produced by nature but rather have been created in a laboratory. This will allow Myriad to obtain the patent for a cell they invented some time ago, so they have not lost everything after all.

In my opinion, the judges have made an excellent decision. It’s fine to patent some things as it is the source of income for many people, but when companies or individuals try to patent things that come from nature, I wouldn’t allow it, because it should be there for everyone to use without having to pay as it has been for many years before.

Also, if the genes or cells have to do with cancer, they should never be allowed to be patented, because it would only slow down cancer research and prevent a cure to be found.

Battling Blood Cells

A new treatment for leukaemia has revolutionised medical ideas, which could change modern treatments against cancers into safer and more effective cures.

Symptoms of Leukaemia

Symptoms of Leukaemia

For those of you who don’t know, leukaemia is a form of cancer that origins in the bone marrow and causes an excessive amount of a special type of white blood cell called B-cells.

This new possible cure targets T-cells, another form of white blood cells, whose main function is to produce phagocytes that ‘eat’ the harmful organisms that attack the body. What the researchers have been trying to do is to inject a harmless virus into the T-cells, which then changes its genes to target and destroy a unique molecule that is only found in the surface of B-cells. This way, the B-cells are destroyed, decreasing its numbers and therefore curing this disease.

Now, you may be asking: But won’t this mean that all the B-cells will be killed, weakening the immune system? Well, the answer is no. Not all of the T-cells will be changed genetically, and when those that have been die, they will be substituted naturally by the body to act as they have doing all their life. And the B-cells will also be produced again, though in a much more healthy quantity, as the leukaemia will have been totally cured.

It has been tried on humans already, which extremely positive results. In 5 patients, the leukaemia was cured altogether, 4 of tem in 8 weeks and 1 in only 8 days!

Unluckily, 2 of these 5 patients died, one from a blood clot and the other of a relapse.

Orange ribbon use to represent fight against leukaemia

Orange ribbon use to represent fight against leukaemia

However, with these generally encouraging results, a new test is being prepared with 50 patients this time, which will hopefully fully

demonstrate the beneficial consequences of this treatment and allow it to be used much more often.

But the potential of this treatment doesn’t stop at curing leukaemia. Other cancers, such as prostate cancer, could be cured, but instead of

targeting at one unique molecule, they would target at pairs of molecules. This has been tried in mice already and has shown surprisingly positive results.



Anti-Cancer Nano-Robot Invented

Picture taken from the nano-robot

Picture taken from the nano-robot

This week, Harvard University’s team, lead by Shawn Douglas, announced the invention of a new American nano-robot, based on a sequence of human DNA, designed to transmit information and instructions to cells. This robot is inspired in the model of the human immune system.

With its nanometric scale, and its ability to program cells, it can open new doors in biomedical therapies. Researchers say it can be a new option to fight cancer, as it can reprogram cells so that they auto-destroy themselves.

In the experiments carried out by the American scientists, they used the nano-robot to transmit instructions to two types of cells: a leukaemia and a lymphoma cell. The robot activated the apoptosis function (cellular suicide) used by the body to kill old or faulty cells.

The scientists gave it a hexagonal shape using a special technique called DNA origami  used to change the DNA’s shape. This can be done with DNA as it can be easily sinthesized and manipulated to change it to several forms.

The robot’s objectives are to improve the use of certain medicines and transmit molecular signals.

Although the program is quite advanced, it stills has some problems to be solved.

For example, scientists have to figure out which structure and shape to use to increase the robot’s capacity, They also have to find an appropriate method that can manipulate the robot (open, insert instructions, transport it…) at nanoscale in the body.

To find more details about this new invention, visit

This method differs from the last attempt of using a nanoscopic robot to cure illnesses in many ways.

The latest model, also a nano-robot, didn’t carry instructions that activated the cells suicide. It used an RNA Interference therapy, which targeted the virus’ messenger RNA that stopped protein production in intruder cells, causing death of these cells by starvation. Its designers, Andrew Fine and Craig Mello, won the 2006 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine because of this robot.

Both of this known anti-cancer treatments are very efficient, but still need testing to become more widely used. Nowadays, we still use radiotherapy and anti-cancer drugs, which have much more problems than the use of nano-robots. The biggest being the death of other benevolent cells and not just cancer cells.