News, science news

Should we really stop taking antibiotics when we feel better?

You probably saw all that fuss in the news a few days ago about a study in the BMJ which concluded that you shouldn’t take the full course of antibiotics – or at least, that was what was reported. I was immediately suspicious that this was one of those stories that the press spins wildly out of all proportion. So let’s see what the actual study has to say…

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biology, genetic modification, News, Science

Writing movies into DNA

Well, what will they think of next? A little while ago, I wrote about the possibilities of using DNA as information storage. Researchers have now managed to insert a little movie into the genome of the E.coli bacterium (the workhorse of the genetics world). They used the CRISPR/Cas9 genome editing technique to insert the five frames of a galloping horse. Essentially, the snippets of DNA generated by CRISPR were used to correspond to pixels. Here’s the GIF:

galloping horse

Of course, you need to decode the message written in the nucleotides of the bacterial DNA to reconstruct the image (or movie), so you also have to have the ability to read it and know the code, and it’s incredibly laborious. You can’t just read it off one cell either, nor with one pass – it took several hundred thousand reads for the whole thing.

So why would you bother? Honestly, that’s a little ambiguous at the moment. Their original idea was to actually create a recording system to monitor changes happening in cells, in order, ultimately, to decipher how brain cells take on distinct identities. Instead of using indirect measurements or experimental perturbation to answer these questions, it would essentially get the cells to tell you what was happening to them themselves. They didn’t achieve that, but it’s a step towards it. Like many science advances, it’s an impressive technical feat that for now remains just a curio, but who knows where it may ultimately lead?



Shipman, S. L., et al.  Nature (2017).

Biological therapy, biology, genetic modification, medicine, News, Science, science news

A successful first for gene therapy

Who would like to hear some really good news? Thought so. One of the promises of the molecular biology and genomics revolutions was that gene therapy – replacing defective, disease-causing genes with functioning ones, or otherwise treating these diseases by genetic means – would become a reality. Even, optimistically, something commonplace. Like so many things, however, it has proved more complicated than hoped, and those longed-for treatments elusive. There has never been a therapy of any kind that alters the disease progress of a neurodegenerative disease – until now. Continue reading

biology, medicine, News, science news

New antibiotics could be right under – or in – our noses

There is increasing concern over the rise in antibiotic resistance, with many infections now becoming resistant not just to commonly used, long-established antibiotics like penicillin, but to last-resort newer antibiotics like vancomycin. The search for new antibiotics is becoming increasingly urgent – and it seems that some are lurking in surprising places. Continue reading

Biological therapy, biology, cancer, News, science news, Uncategorized

NICE approves combination immunotherapy drug for advanced skin cancer

Sometimes the science of the future seems very far away, and sometimes it seems to happen almost faster than you would think. Immunotherapy is taking off at a record pace in the search for better cancer treatments.

The National Institute for Clinical Excellence (Nice), the body in the United Kingdom that licences medicines for use, has just approved a combination of two immunotherapy drugs in record time. These two drugs are ipilumab and nivolumab, which I blogged about as a treatment showing promising clinical trial results only a short while ago.

Nivolumab blocks a molecule secreted by cancer cells that prevents the T-cells of the immune system from recognising and destroying them. Ipilumab, which was approved by Nice in 2012, stimulates the T-cells to multiply. This drug combination has been approved for the treatment of metastatic (i.e. spread from its original site) melanoma, a particularly intractable cancer to treat. The life expectancy for this type of cancer is only around two years: the combination treatment has extended this to as much as ten years (and counting, in some cases). Moreover, ipilumab alone is effective in about 20% of cases: the combination raises that to 60%. So these are massively improved odds. I expect to see more successes soon, and, as more experience is gained with these exciting new techniques, hopefully the side-effects will become more manageable as well.

biology, Explainer, medicine, News, Opinion piece

Zika virus: from mice to monkeys, via organoids

There’s been a rush of new papers out lately which are starting to explain how Zika virus causes fetal damage. Understandably, since the suspicion of a link between Zika and microcephaly (an abnormally small head, associated with neurological defects) in humans was raised, there’s been an intensive research effort directed at uncovering the causality of this process, but I’m still impressed at the speed at which scientists are gaining answers. It was only last month, after all, that the CDC declared that there was a “causal link” between Zika and microcephaly. Continue reading