Author Archives: daniel yung-tse hsiao

Too Much Protein? Let Me Get Rid of That

Imagine if we could change the levels of proteins in our body the same way we make changes on our iPhones, that is, quickly, efficiently, reliably, and reversibly (“reset button”). This may seem highly unlikely. However, Wu Yang Jin and his lab succeeded in developing a new approach to alter the levels of specific proteins in rats. Proteins are crucial for humans as they perform a wide variety of functions such as building, maintaining and replacing tissues in our bodies.

Alzheimer’s disease is characterized by too much proteins in the brain called amyloid-beta plaques. Source: Flickr Commons. Credit to: alle banane.

Alzheimer’s disease is characterized by too much proteins in the brain called amyloid-beta plaques. Source: Flickr Commons. Credit to: alle banane

Proteins are indeed critical for our survival. However, inappropriate levels of proteins can also be harmful to humans, as is the case in Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s disease. The method by Jin and his colleagues could be of importance when considering new research avenues to overcome shortcomings of protein manipulations in current clinical research. His research may lead to promising treatment options for treating human diseases such as Parkinson’s disease. Below is a video description of the plaque formation that causes Alzheimer’s disease.

Credit: Danton O’Day

As opposed to current techniques that regulate levels of proteins, Jin’s proposed method allows to remove proteins quickly and reversibly, such that proteins can regain their initial states, if need be. Specifically, his method consists of injecting a small protein, known as a peptide, into an organism. The peptide has the ability to track down specific proteins and eliminate them in order to bring the levels of proteins back to normal. An additional feature of this new method is that the peptide can remove targeted proteins in the brain. Due to its small size, the peptide can cross the blood brain barrier (BBB) and can enter the brain from the circulatory system. The BBB is a barrier that protects the brain from harmful compounds that could present in the circulatory system.

Credit: Daniel Hsiao, Harrimal Cheema, Sara Lariviere, and Amirhossein Tashakor

Jin has demonstrated the efficiency of the method by reducing the levels of various proteins. One such example targeted a protein called death-associated protein kinase 1 (DAPK1), which plays an important role in triggering cell death after a stroke. The implication of this protein is that it kills cells in the brain after a stroke, thereby increasing irreversible damage in the brain. When Jin and his colleagues injected the peptides into the circulatory system of stroke induced experimental rats, they found that the peptides successfully targeted and eliminated DAPK1 in areas of the brain affected by the stroke. As a result, damage done by the stroke were immensely reduced.

 

Parkinson’s disease is associated with symptoms such as resting tremor, postural instability, and slow walking. Source and Credit to: Wikipedia Commons.

In the podcast, we explained the paper in more detail.

Credit to: Daniel Hsiao, Harrimal Cheema, Sara Lariviere, and Amirhossein Tashakor

Daniel Hsiao, Harrimal Cheema, Sara Lariviere, and Amirhossein Tashakor

Mars One, project to colonize Mars. Is it achievable?

Interstellar travel or interstellar colonization have been cores to many science fiction stories. There’s nothing more exciting to see something in science fiction to exist in the real world. Now, it seems the dreams of many science fiction fans have a chance of becoming true.

Concept of Mars Colony (Image from Wikimedia Commons, credit to NASA Ames Research Center)

In 2012, a project of sending humans on a one-way trip to colonize Mars, the Mars One project, was announced. According to Mars One, a rover will be send to Mars to search for optimal location for a settlement in 2020. In 2022, cargoes for building a settlement will be sent, and a settlement will be established in 2023. The first crew of colonists will depart Earth in 2024 and will arrive in 2025, while the second crew will depart in 2026. Below is a video of a brief description of Mars One.

Youtube video uploaded by MarsOneProject

Criticisms have never stopped since the day of the announcement. One of the criticisms is on the funding of the project. Different from major space projects supported by governments, Mars One receives no funding from any government agencies but from company partnerships, sales of broadcasting rights, crowd funding, and more. NASA chief Briand Muirhead said that he has very little confidence in such project being publicly funded.

Also, the cost of the project received many criticisms. The project was estimated to cost 6 billion USD, but Austere Human Missions to Mars, a similar project proposed by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), was estimated to cost 100 billion USD. The difference in cost raised skepticism on the Mars One project. In an assessment by MIT on the Mars One project, establishing a settlement on Mars would cost 4.5 billion USD alone, meaning only 1.5 billion USD will be left for building of spacecrafts, transporting the crews to Mars, or any other costs.

As for technology required for the project, no detailed information has been released yet. The Mars One project only has brief descriptions of the technologies required for the project on the website, and they stated that the existing technology is sufficient carry out the project. However, according to the same assessment by MIT, one of the technology essential to the project (In-Situ Resource Utilization) is currently immature to be used on Mars. In-Situ Resource Utilization is required to convert raw resources on Mars into usable resources.

At this point, the project receives many doubts. However, the future is unpredictable. Maybe a new technology is currently in development and will make the project possible in the future. Whether the Mars One project will be successful or not, only time will tell.

-Daniel Hsiao

Driverless Car, the Future of Transportation?

When talking about driverless cars, most people immediately think about Google’s driverless cars. However, Google isn’t the only company that is currently developing driverless cars; many other companies, like Volvo, Audi, BMW, Toyota, Mercedes-Benz, and possibly Apple have been developing their own autonomous cars. Base on the actions of those big companies, driverless cars seems to be the next milestone of transportation.

Google’s driverless car: Credit to: Humans Resources Establishment on Flickr Common

 

Driverless autonomous cars are capable of safely transporting passengers to designated locations with very minimal driver control. Google’s driverless car, for example, is equipped with video cameras, radar sensors, and a laser range finder to detect the surroundings of the vehicle, according to Google. A more detailed description of Google’s driverless car can be found in the following video:

Safety is always the top concern about driverless cars. How reliable is the autonomous system? For the past few years, Google’s driverless cars have logged over 700,000 accident-free miles. However, there was one accident involving Google’s driverless car in 2011. This article stats that the accident happened when the car was manually driven. As for the concern for safety, Google seems to do a great job at preventing accidents caused by its driverless cars.

Sensors on Driverless Car. Credit to: Pallavi Srinivasareddy on Flickr Commons

Traffic congestion is another big concern, especially when driver licence is not required for driverless cars in UK. The number of cars on the road will significantly increase. To solve the problem of traffic congestion, autonomous cars can effectively utilize the road to reduce traffic congestion. The autonomous car can communicate with each other, or even to the traffic lights,  to result in a smoother traffic flow. However, potential hacking can occur, and researchers are currently working towards a more secure autonomous system.

Comfort should be another concern of the general public regarding driverless cars. While traveling in driverless cars can provide extra rest time, the passengers will feel uncomfortable if the transportation involves frequent sudden stops. Researchers have simulated different traffic scenarios to evaluate the smoothness of the rides. The researchers found that in order to provide comfort in the ride, a cost of traffic congestion cannot be avoided.

Driverless cars may provide a more convenient and a safer way of transportation. However, there are still many obstacles for driverless cars to overcome. After all, we live in a stochastic world where there are accidents even a perfect computer system can’t avoid.

-Daniel Hsiao

A War Against Antibiotic Resistance

Ever since the discovery of penicillin, scientists have been in constant battle against the growing resistance of bacteria to antibiotics. How did the war start? According to APUC (Alliance for the Prudent Use of Antibiotics), bacteria develops resistance through genetic mutations or acquiring resistance genes from another bacterium. By treat bacterial infection with antibiotics, the bacteria without the resistance gene will be killed. However, bacteria with the resistance gene will survive and continue to multiply.

Here’s a more in-depth video:

So why do we care? At 2011, Coates et al. examined the existing antibiotics and concluded that the rate of new antibiotic discovery is much slower than the growing rate of antibiotic resistance. This means that in the near-future, we will run out of antibiotics to even treat a minor infection.

However, according to some of the recent articles, we seem to have the upper hand in this battle. Henry et al. discovered a new therapy of fighting bacterial infection without causing bacterial resistance. The therapy involves creating liposome (vesicles made of cell membranes) decoys in the body for bacterial toxin to bind to, preventing the toxin from damaging the host cells. This buys time for the immune system to get rid of harmful bacteria in the host.

Also, a new class of antibiotic is being developed by Ling et al., and the way they discover the antibiotic may possibly lead to a new ways of discovering new antibiotics.

Everything looks pretty good at this point. New ways of discovering antibiotics and new therapy that will not result in antibiotic resistance will likely lead to the solution of antibiotic resistance.

However, these discoveries may not necessarily lead to a solution of growing antibiotic resistance. The root of the problem remains untouched. For example, the general public should be better educated about the misuse of antibiotics. In an article by Jean Pechere, Jean conducted a survey on patients using antibiotics. The result shows significant misuse of antibiotics in the community Jean surveyed.

The discovery by Henry et al. may look really promising. Treating infections without using antibiotics will prevent the development of antibiotic resistance. However, what if the immune system cannot clear out the bacterial infection effectively, and the patient is required to use antibiotics? A follow-up study is required to test the effectiveness of the therapy on different strains of bacteria.

Overuse of Antibiotics. Source: Flickr Common. Credit to: Ian Weddell

Even though these are great discoveries, we should not view them as solutions to antibiotic resistance, but should keep in mind that great amount of effort is still required to solve the emerging antibiotic resistance. More effort should be put towards educating the public or preventing the overuse of antibiotics.

The Center for Disease Control (CDC) listed ways to prevent antibiotic resistance:

  • Practice Good Hygiene
  • Take exactly the amount doctors have prescribed. No more, no less.

 

Misuse of Antiobiotics can cause antibiotic resistance. Picture Obtained from Flickr, Credit to AJC1

-Daniel Hsiao