Wednesday, 22 February 2012

October: Millions of people, malaria, and maybe cloning?

October 18th was a bad day for Malaria, which means it was a great day for the rest of the world. On the same day that WHO announced a worldwide drop by 20% of deaths from malaria, signalling the downfall of one of the world's biggest killers, a malaria vaccine was reported to be successful. In the trial, including 15,000 children, the participants had about half the risk of getting the disease as those without the vaccine. Malaria kills 655,000 people per year, and the work towards eradicating it is a long and arduous task, so good news such as this is always welcome. By the time I will (hopefully) be training to be a medic, it is estimated that another 8-10 countries will have rid themselves of it; hopefully it will follow the same path as polio - a disease which had had no new cases in India, one of the previous hotspots, for 9 months by October 2011.

Stem cells again featured in the headlines for October, this time for their production. Dolly the sheep made somatic cell nuclear transfer famous when she was the first mammal to be cloned in the late 90's; this method had been used since then to try and clone humans so that embryonic stem cells might be made without actual fertilisation of an egg by a sperm cell. However, the embryos produced in this method, which involves taking the nucleus out of an egg and inserting the genetic material of an adult cell (not a sex cell) in order to gain a genetically identical replica of the original adult, did not divide further than 6-12 cells. In order to bypass this method, a team in New York tried a new method: the genetic material of the adult would still be inserted, but this time without first enucleating the egg. This allowed the cell to develop into a blastocyst, where the embryonic stem cells are formed. However, because there was the nucleus of both the adult cell (containing 2 'sets' of chromosomes) and the nucleus of the egg (containing 1 'set' of chromosomes), there was then three of each chromosome. Which, sadly, means that the technique is not quite ready for use in medicine, as it doesn't yet produce cells with only the genes of the donor, and there may be problems with the chromosome numbers. Definitely a technique to watch in the future, as the use of stem cells edges closer towards the mainstream.

In other science: 7 billion people are living on the planet, according to the UN, the dwarf planet Eris is apparently just as big as Pluto, and a study suggests that exercise is just as good as drugs at preventing migranes.