Weekly Roundup: Biotechin.Asia

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March 21-27, 2016

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Google Brain’s Quoc Le speaks about how Deep Learning could revolutionize Healthcare

Dr. Quoc Viet Le is a research scientist at Google Brain known for his path-breaking work on deep neural networks (DNN). He is especially famous for his Ph.D work in image processing under Andrew Ng, one of the pioneers of the DNN revolution. Le’s and Ng’s work demonstrated how computers could be used to learn complicated features and patterns in a way similar to how the mammalian brain learns, with better performance than earlier neural network technology. One of their first breakthroughs was demonstrating the training of a large neural network to detect cats from YouTube videos. This revolutionized the interest in DNNs, and got the current giants of the computer industry such as Google, Facebook and Microsoft in a race to incorporate AI techniques into their software. Recently, Google announced a cloud platform for machine learning to encourage people into this area. DNNs have now become a buzzword among tech enthusiasts. They perform effectively in tasks such as image processing, handwriting recognition and game-playing, and are being explored for solutions to other problems such as self-driving cars, robotics, medical diagnosis and environmental and social problems. (Click here to read more)

Scientists use CRISPR-Cas9 to target RNA in live cells for the first time

The genetic code stored in DNA determines everything from the color of our eyes to our susceptibility to a disease. This has motivated scientists to sequence the human genome and develop ways to alter the genetic code, but many diseases are linked to a different fundamental molecule: RNA. As the intermediary genetic material that carries the genetic code from the cell’s nucleus, scientists have long sought an efficient method for targeting RNA in living cells. Researchers at University of California, San Diego School of Medicine have now achieved this by applying the popular DNA-editing technique CRISPR-Cas9 to RNA. This study was published on March 17, 2016 in Cell. (Click here to read more)

BioNascent: a company that aims to invent vegan formula milk

BioNascent is a brand new startup company that was formed very recently in February 2016. Mr Craig Rouskey and Mr Shane Greenup are the co-founders of the company and their aim is to produce milk formula, that closely mimics breast milk. Mr Rouskey, an immunologist, has a rich repertoire of founding startup companies, that includes a company that develops vegan cheese. I had the opportunity to have a chat with him, about his new company and its vision. The following is the excerpt from my interview with Mr Rouskey. When was this company founded and what stage of product development is the company at? Shane Greenup and I presented our idea to IndieBio, which decided to fund us; we are part of IndieBio’s Batch 3 of startup companies. We have been working at this since then. Being a very new company, we are in the early development phase. We aim to replace bovine proteins in milk formula with their humanized versions. We started working in this office at IndieBio two weeks ago and we have expressed certain proteins and are in the process of purifying it. (Click here to read more)

First gene for grey hair discovered

The first study demonstrating a strong link between heredity and hair greying was published in Nature Communications earlier this month. While it has long been known that hair texture, colour and related characteristics such as greying and balding have genetic origins, there has been no conclusive evidence showing the involvement of a specific gene or groups of genes in determining hair greying in humans. Researchers at University College London, led by Dr. Kaustubh Adhikari, conducted a genome-wide association study to map out characteristics of hair in humans and their association to genes and heritability. A cohort of around 6400 people was amassed from five Latin-American countries (Brazil, Colombia, Chile, Mexico and Peru) including men and women of European, African and Native American ancestry. This group showed wide diversity in visual hair characteristics, enabling the researchers to examine a whole host of traits. Both men and women were assessed for hair colour, texture, balding and greying. (Click here to read more)

Experimental Dengue Vaccine Protects all Recipients in Human Trials

An experimental dengue vaccine, TV003 that was developed by Dr. Whitehead and his colleagues at NIAID’s Laboratory of Infectious Diseases along with scientists from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research protected 100% of the vaccine recipients in a clinical trial. Volunteers in this trial were infected with dengue virus six months after receiving either the experimental dengue vaccine TV003 or a placebo injection. All 21 volunteers who received the vaccine, were protected from dengue infection, while all 20 placebo recipients developed dengue. “The findings from this trial are very encouraging to those of us who have spent many years working on vaccine candidates to protect against dengue, a disease that is a significant burden in much of the world and is now endemic in Puerto Rico,” said Stephen Whitehead, Ph.D., of NIH’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID). (Click here to read more)

Blocking Enzymes in Hair Follicles Promotes Hair Growth

Androgenetic alopecia (AA) or ‘male pattern baldness’ is one of the most common causes of hair loss. It can occur due to 3 main factors – genetic predisposition, presence of dihydrotestosterone (DHT) or the age factor. It is characterized by hair follicle miniaturization, i.e. the hair follicles produce thinner, shorter, more brittle hair with weaker shafts. The hair growth cycle normally consists of 3 phases, i.e. growth (anagen), cessation (catagen), and rest (telogen) phases. In AA, the hair follicles are unable to reenter the anagen or growth phase again and remain in a dormant state. Researchers at Columbia University Medical Centre have recently discovered a potential cure for AA by establishing that hair growth can be restored by an enzyme that blocks the JAK-STAT pathway in them! (Click here to read more)

Meet the world’s smartest food scientist: GIUSEPPE

What would be the best way to deliver nutrition to the 7.1 billion odd people on this planet? Science would tell you that it is not the animals. Researchers at the Not Company (NotCo) which is a food-tech startup based at Chile have developed food products that is no longer based on animal ingredients but entirely based on plants. They use machine learning technology to develop tasty, nutritious and affordable plant-based food. However, the food looks and tastes like the classic (animal-based) food. This concept has been around for 10 years and one of the reasons for its failure is that people still prefer locally produced food. What then makes the Not company products special? Founders Matias Muchnick (Engineer), and Karim Pichara (Harvard research associate), along with biochemist Isidora Silva have built an artificial intelligence model named “Giuseppe” that is programmed to become the smartest food scientist on earth. (Click here to read more)