New Nobelist Used His Discovery to Battle His Cancer

1. Immunologist Ralph Steinman was honored today by the Nobel Committee for his discovery of dendritic cells, a class of immune cells that help rally the body’s natural defenses to fight disease. However, the prize is bittersweet for all who knew the 68-year-old scientist during his long career as a researcher and mentor at Rockefeller University in New York City. Steinman became the first winner to die, of pancreatic cancer, between his selection and the announcement of the coveted prize. And he fought his cancer using experimental therapies involving his discoveries.

2. This afternoon, the Nobel Foundation announced that Steinman’s Nobel would stand. “The events that have occurred are unique, and, to the best of our knowledge, are unprecedented in the history of the Nobel Prize,” the statement read. “According to the statutes of the Nobel Foundation, work produced by a person since deceased shall not be given an award. However, the statutes specify that if a person has been awarded a prize and has died before receiving it, the prize may be presented.” Because Steinman was selected as a laureate before he died—even if the announcement came after he passed away—the Board of the Nobel Foundation is standing by its choice.

3. “Dendritic cells are the guys who are training the fighters,” says Pawel Kalinski, an immunologist at the University of Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania, about their role in activating T cells, the body’s immune sentries. Over decades, with Steinman often leading the way, the work transformed cancer research. Cancer vaccines either using or targeting dendritic cells are now the subject of numerous clinical trials, and the first-ever cancer vaccine to be approved in the United States—called Provenge, to treat prostate cancer—injects a patients’ own dendritic cells back into their body. It went on the market last year.

4. Like all cancer vaccines, it’s been a challenge to get dendritic cell immunotherapy to destroy tumors in people. The goal is to selectively activate certain T cells that are best-suited to target cancer.

5. One difficulty is that everyone’s dendritic cells are different, so vaccines need to be personalized, making them expensive and labor-intensive to produce. Provenge, for example, costs $93,000 for three doses and extends life by only about 3 months. Still, it “was a direct validation of Ralph’s concept,” says Kalinski, and vaccines designed more recently, he believes, are working better. A paper he published early this year in the Journal of Clinical Oncology describes a dendritic cell vaccine in advanced glioma, an aggressive form of brain cancer. Nine of the 22 people who received it were alive a year later without signs of progression, a rarity in cancer as serious as this one.

6. Another strategy, which Steinman and others were studying, involves a therapy to target dendritic cells inside the body rather than taking them out and personalizing therapy for each patient. Those treatments are just starting out in clinical trials, says human immunologist Madhav Dhodapkar of Yale University, who are involved in that effort. It’s been “somewhat of a roller coaster,” he says, but, “I think we’re now beginning to see evidence for immune-based approaches to work in cancer.”

7. Steinman also pushed hard for testing therapies in people. “He was one of the first … to say, ‘We’ve got to study humans,’ ” Dhodopkar says, something that had a lasting impact.

8. When Steinman was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer back in 2007, he knew he wanted to marshal his own dendritic cells in the fight. “He had great faith in dendritic cells,” says Sarah Schlesinger, a physician, and immunologist at Rockefeller. “He believed they would establish immunity, and that would cure him.”

9. Steinman tried many experimental treatments, two of which involved dendritic cell therapies designed especially for him. A company, Argos Therapeutics, had a dendritic cell vaccine in trials for kidney cancer and personalized the vaccine for Steinman, even though his cancer was a different type; scientists at Baylor University Medical Center did something similar for another dendritic cell vaccine, which they were testing in melanoma. Both were official clinical trials that were closely vetted by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Steinman also tried a therapy called GVAX, which aims to recruit dendritic cells in the body. “There were dozens of colleagues around the country who helped,” says Schlesinger.

10. Like many who worked with Steinman, Schlesinger described him as unfailingly generous. She first met him as a high school student, calling him out of the blue to seek work in his lab. He couldn’t pay her, Schlesinger said but would offer her vouchers for lunch. That was enough, and he became her lifelong mentor. “He would always introduce me as his colleague, and I would always introduce him as my boss.”

11. Kalinski recalled his student days in the 1980s in his native Poland, when well-stocked libraries and science labs were largely nonexistent. “Every Monday I spent about 5 hours writing requests to people to send me their latest papers because our library was dysfunctional,” he says. Steinman “always did respond,” and also shipped samples of one of his first antibodies against dendritic cells.

12. Steinman kept an active lab right up to the end. Schlesinger visited him only a week ago with data about an HIV clinical trial of a dendritic cell vaccine, and Steinman was absorbed in what she had to share. While the Nobel Prize was well deserved, says Dhodapkar, “it obviously would have been nicer if he were able to hear the news himself.”

by Jennifer Couzin-Frankel

The Legacy of Jane Goodall

For my students who are currently reading on Ethology:

1. Fifty years ago, in the summer of 1960–the same year that a U.S. satellite snapped the first photo of the Earth from space, the same year that the CERN particle accelerator became operational, the same year that the Beatles got their name–a 26-year-old Jane Goodall got on a plane in London and went for the first time to Gombe Stream Game Reserve, in Tanzania. She carried with her only a notebook and some old binoculars. Almost every day since the day Goodall arrived there in July 1960, somebody has been watching the chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) of what is now called Gombe National Park, carefully recording their every movement.

2. At first, Goodall would situate herself atop a ridge that allowed her an especially wide view of Gombe. She wrote, “I could see my camp in the valley to the south and the dense forest of the lower Kasekela Valley to the north. I gazed through my binoculars at the chimpanzees feasting on fruits and leaves and began to gather my first impressions of their daily life.” Later, after the chimpanzees became somewhat more accustomed to her presence, she was able to get a bit closer. Rather than assigning each individual chimpanzee a number, as is the convention in such anthropological studies, she began to assign them names, like “David Greybeard,” “Goliath,” and “Frodo.”

3. Conventional or not, Jane Goodall–who earned her Ph.D. in Ethology from Cambridge University despite not having Bachelor’s or Master’s degrees–revolutionized not only the way we understand chimpanzees, but also the way we understand ourselves. Duke University announced today that for the first time, fifty years of observational data from Gombe will be housed in the same location, in digitized format, so that additional researchers will be able to utilize it. Dr. Anne Pusey, chair of Evolutionary Anthropology at Duke, will run the project, which will be known as the Jane Goodall Institute Research Center at Duke.

4. Prior to Goodall’s research, people thought that the human species was the only one to spontaneously use tools in any reliable or meaningful way. There were a few instances that had been recorded of captive chimpanzees and other non-human primates using sticks as tools or as missiles, and a few researchers had spotted wild chimpanzees using rocks to break apart nuts, but spontaneous, flexible tool use was considered unique to humans.

5. During her first years at Gombe, however, Goodall discovered that wild chimpanzees did in fact use tools, and quite extensively. In a paper published in the journal Nature, she wrote, “During three years in the Gombe Stream Chimpanzee Reserve in Tanganyika, East Africa, I saw chimpanzees use natural objects as tools on many occasions. These objects consisted of sticks, stalks, stems, and twigs, which were used mainly in connexion with eating insects, and leaves which were used as ‘drinking tools’ and for wiping various parts of the body.”

6. During a period of six months, she had recorded observations of tool use in 25 chimpanzees of all ages and both sexes. She regularly encountered groups of four or five chimps pushing sticks into underground ant nests. After waiting a moment, she watched them remove the sticks from the dirt and lick the ants off the stick. This might not seem like a big deal, but it was!

7. And not only that but the chimps wouldn’t just use any broken stick they found lying around; instead, they intentionally broke them into smaller pieces ranging from 1.5 to 2.5 feet long. She also observed three chimpanzees use sticks for a completely new purpose. At a feeding site that she set up, she watched three adolescent chimps use sticks to pry open boxes of bananas. “After pulling and pushing at the boxes for up to five minutes, each one broke off a stick and stripped it of leaves.

8. Two individuals then tried to push their sticks under the box lids. The third pushed him into the bananas through a hole on the bottom of the box.” Critically, none of the three individuals who tried this had seen either of the others trying to solve the same problem. Each of them came up with the idea on their own!

9. It is said that after Goodall phoned Louis Leakey with news of the chimps’ tool use, he wrote, “We must now redefine man, redefine tool, or accept chimpanzees as human.”

10. Goodall’s observations weren’t limited to tool use. Prior to her research, people thought that chimpanzees were peaceful vegetarians. Goodall discovered, however, that chimpanzees regularly hunt and kill small monkeys. In one of her notebooks, she wrote, “…KS follows a female colubus (monkey) who was carrying a baby monkey on the tummy. Grabs the baby and takes it in the bushes and feeds on the colubus.

11. Other chimps continue to hunt.” Subsequent research found that groups of chimpanzees often form hunting parties. When they find a monkey, they isolate it in a tree surrounding it from all sides in order to prevent its escape. Meanwhile, one chimp attacks and retrieves it. The meat is then shared among the group. Not only does this change the way we think about chimpanzee diet and nutrition, but also the way we think about the natural history of cooperative behavior.

12. Goodall realized that if she was going to take such meticulous notes, she would have to develop a more efficient note-taking system. Instead of taking longhand notes, she began using voice recorders. Each night, she would transcribe her notes onto carbon paper. Eventually, her long narratives would be replaced by abbreviated data called “check-sheets.”

13. Now, researchers at Duke University are taking more than twenty file-cabinets full with fifty years of check-sheets, longhand narratives in both English and Swahili, hand-drawn maps, videos, and photos, and carefully digitizing everything. This will allow researchers to construct searchable life-histories of the chimpanzees of Gombe, for the first time.

14. The word “archives” is a bit misleading, though. The new Jane Goodall Institute Research Center at Duke is continuing to receive new data from Gombe, which will all become digitized and included in the collection as well.

15. The curation of this sort of longitudinal data is critical now, more than ever. According to a recent review co-authored by Pusey, Goodall, and colleagues, chimpanzee populations have declined from around one million individuals in 1900 to fewer than 300,000 today. While the total population size of chimps may seem large compared to other endangered ape species like the Sumatran orangutans, chimps reproduce and mature very slowly (like humans).

16. This makes them particularly vulnerable to hunting and disease. In addition, most wild chimpanzees live in the Congo, where wildlife protection is extremely difficult due to ongoing political conflicts and war.

17. Massive deforestation, to make way for farming and settlements, leaves chimpanzees in genetically isolated groups, making the risk of extinction even higher. It is also particularly difficult (if not impossible) to reintroduce captive-born chimpanzees or those orphaned by the illegal bushmeat trade into wild groups because of high hostility between members of different social groups.

18. It is extremely common for infants of either sex or males of any age, to be attacked and killed by members of other social groups. Goodall has estimated that unless major changes are put into place, the species could be extinct in the wild in just thirty years. The future of the other species in the genus Pan, bonobos (Pan paniscus), is even bleaker.

19. Humans and our primate cousins are similar not just in terms of behavior. There are abundant similarities as well when it comes to brain structures and immune systems. Research on the simian immunodeficiency virus (SIV) could shed important light on the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV).

20. Unique among non-human animals, chimpanzees are susceptible to influenza and polio. With over 97% of our genome shared with chimpanzees and bonobos, this might not be particularly surprising. The desire to understand where we come from is a fundamentally human trait, but this understanding is vitally dependent on understanding our nearest primate relatives.

(Courtesy: Jason G. Goldman, YouTube, Duke University, Scientific America and those stakeholders of the printed article and multimedia)


My daughter, a standard six student, once asked me: what are the different states of matter on earth? I guess that is what she learnt or asked in school. Of course I know the answer: solid, liquid and gas.

But I told her there is a new emerging one according to my previous entry. She opened up her eyes: what?

I said: Plasma. yes. She knew plasma tv and I told her plasma has life on its own.

Even before the introduction of LED, plasma tv is the trendy gadget to be displayed in the living room.

Plasma by itself is a key to new energy source. It can be used as disinfectant and for sterilization of medical equipment.

That all I know about plasma. Go and find out yourself. I told her….

Scientist: Award & Conspiracy

Neuroscientist honored by White House

University of Southern California (USC) neuroscientist Roberta Diaz Brinton is among 13 winners of the 2010 Presidential Citizens Medal, the nation’s second highest civilian honor. Brinton is being honored for her contributions to science and technology education. For the past 19 years she has directed the USC STAR Program, which educates Los Angeles students and their teachers about science and provides hands-on research opportunities in labs at USC.

Brinton’s own laboratory studies the neural mechanisms of cognition and how they’re affected by aging and neurodegenerative disease. In particular, she’s received recognition, including being featured in a recent article in The New York Times Magazine, for her work on the potentially neuroprotective effects of estrogen in women who take hormone therapy after menopause.
Stem Cell Pioneer Yamanaka bags another Prize

TOKYO—The hot streak of stem cell researcher Shinya Yamanaka of Kyoto University in Japan and the Gladstone Institute of Cardiovascular Disease in San Francisco, California, continues. The Inamori Foundation announced today he is the winner of this year’s Kyoto Prize in the category of advanced technology. Since his discovery in 2007 of a way to reprogram human adult cells to behave like embryonic stem cells without the controversial use of embryos, Yamanaka has won at least 10 major international awards, including two that often presage Nobel recognition: the Robert Koch Prize in 2008, and the Albert Lasker Basic Medical Research Award in 2009.

The Kyoto Prize for lifetime achievement in basic sciences goes to László Lovász of Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest for wide-ranging advances in mathematics and computer science. William Kentridge, a visual artist from Johannesburg, South Africa, has taken the arts and philosophy prize. Each winner will receive $550,000 at a ceremony on 10 November in Kyoto.
Conspiracy Theory?

Who killed Masoud Alimohammadi, the Iranian physicist who was blown up outside his apartment in Teheran on 12 January by a remote-controlled motorcycle bomb? Emerging details of the professor’s scientific and political life have strengthened the accusation by opponents of Iran’s regime that the murder was sponsored by pro-government forces and not by foreign intelligence agencies, as Iranian authorities claim.

It has already been reported that Alimohammadi, a theoretical particle physicist at the University of Tehran, was one of 240 academics at the institution who had declared their support for Mir Hossein Mousavi, the main opponent of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in last year’s election.

On 5 January, just a week before he was killed, Alimohammadi gave a talk before a student gathering at his university’s physics department in which he encouraged students to press on with the reformist movement without descending into chaos. Expressing disillusionment with Iran’s current state of affairs, Alimohammadi recounted his political activism from 3 decades ago when he participated in the Islamic revolution.

Ali Nayeri, an Iranian-born physicist at Chapman University in Orange, California, who was a freshman at Sharif University in the late ’80s when Alimohammadi was earning a Ph.D. from that institution. Alimohammadi starts the talk by noting that fear of reprisals had kept many on campus from attending the event. “I, too, was instructed not to come,” he says, according to a translation.

Nayeri says he and many students he has talked to at the University of Tehran believe that Alimohammadi paid a price for his activism. “His killing was masterminded by the Islamic Republic,” Nayeri alleges. “The message to academics is: ‘Don’t meddle in the political sphere.’ ”

A look at Alimohammadi’s history reveals a man who went from radical Islamist roots to becoming a moderate and a reformist.

As a college student in the ’80s, he was actively involved in the cultural revolution that followed the overthrow of the monarchy in 1979, serving on a university committee that worked on physics education. He became the first Iranian student to receive a Ph.D. in physics from an Iranian university.

Nayeri says he saw Alimohammadi for the first time during a campus visit by the Nobelist Abdus Salam to officially inaugurate the Ph.D. program that Alimohammadi was enrolled in. Sporting a full beard, the young graduate student looked very much the pious Muslim that many say he was, Nayeri says. At the ceremony, a senior Iranian physicist touted Alimohammadi and the three other students who made up the inaugural class as proof that Iran could produce the next Salam.

Nayeri says his last meeting with Alimohammadi—in 1995 at a conference in Port Anzali—offers an insight into the man’s love for his country. Nayeri told Alimohammadi, then a researcher at the Institute for Studies in Theoretical Physics and Mathematics, about his plans to go abroad for graduate studies. Alimohammadi listened quietly, without expression, puffing on a cigarette. Nayeri finally asked him why he hadn’t moved to the West to pursue a scientific career. “He said—because we wanted to show that it was possible to stay in Iran and produce world class papers,” Nayeri recalls.

[Whether the view here is true or just a propaganda to blame some quarters, you judge]

(Courtesy: Science)

Role of Astrocytes In Generation of Sleep

If you’re feeling sleepy, it might be thanks to your astrocytes. This group of brain cells, long assumed to play a mere housekeeping role, may actually be responsible for controlling when we fall asleep, by releasing a chemical called adenosine.

“One of the leading theories of sleep generation comes from the observation that there is an accumulation of adenosine [in the brain] during waking, and that this adenosine decreases during subsequent sleep,” says Tommaso Fellin at the Italian Institute of Technology in Genoa. Adenosine is thought to suppress neurons which usually stimulate the cortex and keep it, and so us, awake. However, he says, “the cellular source of this adenosine has long been overlooked”.

Astrocytes play a key role in providing neurons with nutrients and aiding cell repair. In addition, unlike neurons that control immediate brain activity, astrocytes are thought to modulate longer-term activity by regulating communication between neurons. Because sleep pressure – the physiological mechanisms that result in the need to sleep – also builds up over a prolonged period of time, Fellin and Michael Halassa, now at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and colleagues, decided to investigate whether astrocytes might be the source of the adenosine that may drive the urge to sleep.

They used mice which had been genetically engineered to stop releasing adenosine from their astrocytes in response to an antibiotic in their food. Suppressing levels of adenosine reduced the length of sleep the mice took after being deprived of shut-eye for 6 hours, and prevented some of the cognitive defects associated with sleep loss (Neuron, DOI: 10.1016/j.neuron.2008.11.024).

“Our research suggests that these cells are responsible for adenosine accumulation” and the regulation of sleep, says Fellin, who presented the results at the Forum of European Neuroscience in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, last week.

“This is exactly the type of function that astrocytes would be expected to perform,” says Douglas Fields at the US National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland. “Astrocytes communicate slowly and on larger spatial scales than neurons. They are well suited to have a more global influence on brain function.”

By: Linda Geddes / Courtesy: New Scientist

The Advantage of Speaking Two Languages

The ability to speak a second language isn’t the only thing that distinguishes bilingual people from their monolingual counterparts—their brains work differently, too. Research has shown, for instance, that children who know two languages more easily solve problems that involve misleading cues. A new study published in Psychological Science reveals that knowledge of a second language—even one learned in adolescence—affects how people read in their native tongue. The findings suggest that after learning a second language, people never look at words the same way again.

Eva Van Assche, a bilingual psychologist at the Univer sity of Ghent in Belgium, and her colleagues recruited 45 native Dutch-speaking students from their university who had learned English at age 14 or 15. The researchers asked the participants to read a collection of Dutch sentences, some of which included cognates—words that look similar and have equivalent meanings in both lan guages (such as “sport,” which means the same thing in both Dutch and English). They also read other sen tences containing only noncognate words in Dutch.

Van Assche and her colleagues recorded the participants’ eye move ments as they read. They found that the subjects spent, on average, eight fewer milliseconds gazing at cognate words than control words, which suggests that their brains processed the dual-language words more quickly than words found only in their native language.

“The most important implication of the study is that even when a per son is reading in his or her native language, there is an influence of knowledge of the nondominant second language,” Van Assche notes. “Becoming a bilingual changes one of people’s most automatic skills.” She plans to investigate next whether people who are bilingual also process auditory language information differently. “Many questions remain,” she says.

Close Up On Deforestation

In an attempt to improve environmental governance of Sumatra’s once-extensive tropical forests, a publicly accessible Web site showing detailed maps of widespread deforestation on the Indonesian island over the past few decades has just been launched. Scientists, government officials, and anyone else can log on to view the maps of the diminishing rainforest, which houses a diversity of tropical wildlife, including tigers, elephants, and orangutans.

The lack of free and easy access to reliable maps of Sumatran forests has limited Indonesia’s efforts to protect its natural heritage, according to David Gaveau, a landscape ecologist based at the University of Kent in the United Kingdom, who designed the site. “Maps of tropical deforestation are generally not available outside of the scientific community and government agencies,” says Gaveau. “Well-informed public opinions oblige governments and corporations to take actions against illegal activities they may engage with, for example, illegal logging.”

The Web site uses Google Earth technology and satellite images to create interactive maps up to a scale of 1:150,000. (By: Claire Thomas)