By Jason Glynn
Political Science Major
The Science Watchroom is back!! There have been numerous advancements and breakthroughs in science since we closed out the last semester. This addition will look at two possible life-changing breakthroughs: telomeres and antibiotics. As a former biological sciences major this stuff is close to my heart.
Firstly, researchers at Stanford University Medical Center have turned back the aging clock in cultured cells by lengthening their telomeres. Telo-what? Let’s give you some background info on telomeres. We all know that life’s code lies within DNA, and this DNA is bundled up in chromosomes that contain your entire genome. Telomeres are the end caps of these chromosomes. They serve to protect the DNA as the chromosome is repeatedly copied; however, this doesn’t always work so well. Up until about 30 years of age, your body produces an enzyme called telomerase, and this works to sort of rebuild these protective end caps to fight against degradation. After around 30, you make less telomerase, and your chromosomes consistently lose DNA as they are copied; thus, you age and many cells die. In fact, this can be witnessed by the famed cloned sheep: Dolly. Dolly was cloned from an older sheep, and began to age far before her time, because the chromosomes that were cloned were already degrading.
Now, the breakthrough and why it’s important. Using modified RNA, researchers can quickly and efficiently lengthen these telomeres, effectively turning back the clock on aging. “Now we have found a way to lengthen human telomeres by as much as 1,000 nucleotides, turning back the internal clock in these cells by the equivalent of many years of human life,” according to Helen Blau, PhD, professor of microbiology and immunology at Stanford. No, we will not all be immortal – yet. So far the use has been strictly experimental. Since when telomeres are degraded cell division slows or stops, this makes research difficult. “This new approach paves the way toward preventing or treating diseases of aging,” said Blau. “There are also highly debilitating genetic diseases associated with telomere shortening that could benefit from such a potential treatment.” I don’t know about you, but I want to get me some of that.
Now onto antibiotics. I’m sure you’ve all seen stories about how bacteria is consistently evolving and becoming increasingly antibiotic resistant. Well, Maine is fighting back!
There have been few breakthroughs in antibiotics in recent years because of the inability to grow microbes in the lab; only a dismal percentage of them can be grown in normal cultures. Moreover, only an estimated 1% of microbes have been identified, and the majority of that minority can’t be grown on common nutrient mediums in a lab environment. Until now.
Researchers from a team led by Northeastern University’s Kim Lewis have found a novel way to replicate a microbe’s environment in the lab, and this has led to the first antibiotic breakthrough in 25 years. Soil-dwelling microbes have long been thought to be a potentially rich source for new drugs, but they are notoriously difficult to grow in a lab. The new method isolates microbes in a device called the iChip, which can then be embedded in the same soil they naturally grow in. A new drug, Teixobactin, was isolated from Maine’s own muddy marsh soil, and has been very effective on staph infections in mice. Staph infections are known to rapidly evolve and develop superb antibacterial resistance, but this new drug attacks the cellular walls, which is difficult to develop resistance to.
What’s more important than the new drug is the ability to study even more new microbes now that they can be grown in a lab. According to federal data, approximately 23,000 deaths per year and millions of illnesses in America are attributed to antibiotic-resistant bacteria. In the last 20 years only 5 new antibiotics have been approved by the US Food and Drug Administration. It is about time we had a breakthrough, and due to this new method, it looks like there are many more to come.
By Jason Glynn