Lab-grown brain bits offer medical opportunity — and ethical dilemmas for folks who watch old movies

❝ Xuyu Qian yanked open an incubator door at the University of Pennsylvania to reveal rows of cylindrical tubes swirling, like shaken-up snow globes, with a strange and exotic flurry. The pale, peppercorn-sized spheres were lab-grown globules of human brain tissue, or, as Qian occasionally refers to them, “minibrains.”

“Minibrain” is a controversial nickname, loathed by some scientists who fear it conjures alarmist images of fully functioning brains trapped in vats, while the reality today is balls of cells that can’t think or feel…

❝ …As the technology, which scientists refer to in journal articles as “cerebral organoids,” improves, the more the “minibrain” title fits…“People are more worried about if they reach a certain level — if it’s really like a human brain. We’re not there; we’re very far from there,” said Hongjun Song, who leads the laboratory at Penn’s Perelman School of Medicine, where Qian works. “But the question people ask is, ‘Do they have consciousness?’ The biggest problem I have so far is I think, as a field, we don’t know…”

RTFA. Don’t worry about full-time ethicists. That job title is always ready to take on any topic regardless of knowledge – or ignorance.

My experience with scientists as a profession assures me of relevant and timely reflection. If not overdone conservatism. But, as someone who reads science as the predominant endeavor in building a better life for all – it’s always worth adding useful philosophy to material achievements.

CERN’s potential new particle discovery is a game changer

The team at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland may have discovered a new particle. In its first set of significant results since the upgrade earlier this year, LHC researchers have observed large spikes in energy that could be the result of particle collisions between a new boson even larger than the Higgs.

If it turns out that the data does indeed represent a new particle it would be “a total game changer,” Gian Francesco Giudice, a CERN theorist who wasn’t involved in the discovery, told Nature. “The Higgs boson pales in comparison, in terms of novelty.”

The results appear to confirm speculation about a new discovery at the LHC that has been circulating on social media for the last couple of days. Judging by the results, the particle — if it is a new discovery — would be about four times larger than the top quark, the heaviest particle so far discovered. And it would be six times bigger than the Higgs.

The announcement comes after the researchers spotted unexpected spikes in energy that reflect a collision between super-high energy protons. The different teams working at the LHC have similar results — they both saw an excess number of pairs of photons each carrying around 750 gigaelectronvolts (GeV) of energy. They believe this could have come from the decay of a new 1,500 GeV particle…

The reason CERN has published the results — which it wouldn’t normally do with so little evidence — is that both the Atlas and CMS teams saw the same thing. Atlas saw 40 incidences of the 750 GeV energy pairs, and CMS saw 10.

But it could just be a statistical bump, which occurs all the time. “We expect about ten times as much data next year, which should help resolve this question – but quite likely throw up new ones,” Dave Charlton continued.

The researchers expect to verify whether this represents a new particle or just a bump in 2016.

Between Congressional beancounters and a guy named Clinton in the White House offering wimp-class support, the attempt to build a superconducting super-collider in the United States failed. It would have been three times more powerful than the Large Hadron Collider v1.0.

We had lots of money and time left after that to devote to the Crusades in the Middle East, Homeland Insecurity and the War on Terror, though. American politicians surely know how to organize priorities, eh?

GED test changes cause concern over higher standards

Educators are worried raising academic standards in the U.S. education system may discourage some people from taking high school equivalency exams.

The G.E.D. test will be changed in January to bring it in line with the Common Core — a set of standards for kindergarten through 12th grade students that have been adopted by 45 states and the District of Columbia, The New York Times reported.

There is a lot of fear of it becoming too challenging,” said John Galli, assistant director at the Community Learning Center, an adult education center run by the City of Cambridge, near Boston.

So, maybe kids will be better off staying in school? What a concept.

The changes have caused concern for instructors and students as they try to prepare for the unknown, the newspaper said.

“The information we have is still very much up in the air,” said Catherine Pautsch, education and career pathways coordinator at Youth Build Just-a-Start, a non-profit group that helps young adults prepare for high school equivalency exams. “We haven’t had anyone take the test yet, so we’re not sure what it’s all going to look like.”

The cost of the test will also increase come January. Test-takers currently pay $60 in New York, but that will increase to $80 in January.

Yes, another pet peeve. We have an education system that fails every generation, seemingly getting worse as time passes. We experience boatloads of talk and very few efforts to raise standards. Standards that affect testing as well as teaching. Meanwhile the rest of the educated industrial world strolls by leaving young Americans in the dust.

If the agreed purpose of the Common Core is to raise the abilities of students what possibly is the aim of retaining an alternative that retains the lesser standards of the recent past? I don’t see very many worriers offer a convincing case that today’s students confront studies as demanding as those in vogue rolling back to the period immediately after World War 2. Yet, graduation rates, the number of students capable of entering college was much higher than today. The limiting factors were generally opportunity and economics.

I don’t see any benefit to fighting for lower standards.

Clues to risk of autism measurable by creases in placenta

Dr. Harvey J. Kliman, research scientist at Yale School of Medicine, initiated study

A new study raises the possibility that analyzing the placenta after birth may provide clues to a child’s risk for developing autism. The study, which analyzed placentas from 217 births, found that in families at high genetic risk for having an autistic child, placentas were significantly more likely to have abnormal folds and creases.

“It’s quite stark,” said Dr. Cheryl K. Walker, an obstetrician-gynecologist at the Mind Institute at the University of California, Davis, and a co-author of the study, published in the journal Biological Psychiatry. “Placentas from babies at risk for autism, clearly there’s something quite different about them.”

Researchers will not know until at least next year how many of the children, who are between 2 and 5, whose placentas were studied will be found to have autism. Experts said, however, that if researchers find that children with autism had more placental folds, called trophoblast inclusions, visible after birth, the condition could become an early indicator or biomarker for babies at high risk for the disorder…

The research potentially marks a new frontier, not only for autism, but also for the significance of the placenta, long considered an after-birth afterthought. Now, only 10 percent to 15 percent of placentas are analyzed, usually after pregnancy complications or a newborn’s death…

Dr. Jonathan L. Hecht, associate professor of pathology at Harvard Medical School, said the study was intriguing and “probably true if it finds an association between these trophoblast inclusions and autism.” But he said that inclusions were the placenta’s way of responding to many kinds of stress, so they might turn out not to be specific enough to predict autism.

Dr. Harvey Kliman calls inclusions a “check-engine light, a marker of: something’s wrong, but I don’t know what it is.”

If you keep on driving your car after the warning lights come on – well, the expense, the possible failure of your automobile is your own fault. One would hope you pay at least as much attention to warning signs about your children.

Australia ends economic class limits on college students

After winning a scholarship at the University of Technology Sydney, Kristy Everett, the first in her immediate family to go to university, is now able to make ends meet while studying for a double degree in design and visual communication and international studies.

Ms. Everett, 18, is one of a growing number of young Australians from regional areas or disadvantaged backgrounds who enrolled in university this year after the government removed a cap on the number of students in government-subsidized places.

The change is part of a plan to increase the number of citizens with higher education qualifications, in order to ensure that Australia has a skilled population able to compete in the global economy…

Marcia Devlin, chairwoman of higher education research at Deakin University, which has campuses around Melbourne, said the changes would mean that the student body would become more diverse than it was in the past.

“Universities have been very exclusive, and now that the cap’s off it’s more inclusive,” she said, adding that additional funds for disadvantaged students were also helping to increase the diversity of the student body…

Belinda Robinson, chief executive of Universities Australia, which represents the country’s 39 universities, said the increase in enrollment of students from disadvantaged backgrounds, many of whom may be the first in their families ever to go to university, was particularly welcome.

“This opportunity can have a profound effect on breaking the cycle of disadvantage. It also represents a big step forward for Australia by more fully developing our human capital potential,” she said in a statement. “More students, though, means more pressure on already stretched university budgets and facilities and puts the spotlight on the need to invest adequately in supporting students who are less well prepared for university.”

Added students in Oz needn’t worry about competing for positions worldwide with Americans. That’s for certain. Regardless of who’s currently in the White House, the elitist crowd in Congress isn’t about to start increasing spending on education – much less increasing the amount going to support someone solidly working class.

Kudos to elected officials in Australia for backing up those who will be part of building their nation into a growing economic force that relies more and more on talent instead of selling commodities.

Mexico aims for jatropha and agave biofuel leadership

Earlier this month, an AeroMexico plane made an important flight from Mexico City to Madrid. The flight wasn’t notable for who was inside the cabin, but for what was inside the fuel tank: it was the world’s first transatlantic commercial flight using biofuel.

The engines on that flight were powered by a fuel mixture that was 30% biofuel from the jatropha plant, and the trip followed a pair of Mexican domestic commercial flights by Interjet that used the same formula.

Mexico is known for its oil production, but it could be its less obvious flats of arid and marginal land that will be the future of Mexico’s energy resources. The country has quietly positioned itself to become a potential leader in biofuel production as scientists develop a second generation of fuels derived from sources that don’t compete for arable land or with food.

Jatropha-based biofuels are being increasingly used in Mexico, and agave — the plant from which tequila is made — is being studied as a new source for ethanol…Some biofuels, such as ethanol derived from corn and sugar, can indirectly raise the prices of staple foods in many places, along with raising ethical issues [mostly among weenies]…

Gilberto Lopez’s agency teamed up with the state of Chiapas, where Gov. Juan Sabines had already made a name for himself pushing his state toward alternative fuels. Chiapas began cultivating jatropha, whose seeds contain oil that can be extracted and converted into biofuel. The state already uses a jatropha biofuel mix on its buses and trucks, and President Felipe Calderon was on hand in November of last year to inaugurate a biodiesel plant there…

Mexico has several things in its favor to become a leader in biofuels, he said. It has plenty of land not being used for food, it has a high demand for energy, and it is located next door to the energy-hungry United States.

As much as anything else, rural land law needs to be modified to allow large-scale agricultural development for success in alternative fuels. That would be needed for food crops, as well. Since it looks like the demand and profit potential for a diminishing rural population lies with jatropha and a surplus of agave – a rational person might think the prospect for a rural economy in biofuel is very good.

Well – maybe. Rural villages in Mexico can work amazingly hard at staying in the 19th Century. Time will tell.

Lab-grown blood vessels from donor cells trialled in patients

For the first time, human blood vessels grown in a laboratory from donor skin cells have been successfully implanted into patients, according to new research presented in the American Heart Association’s Emerging Science Series webinar.

While more testing is needed, such “off-the-shelf” blood vessels could soon be used to improve the process and affordability of kidney dialysis.

“Our approach could allow hundreds of thousands of patients to be treated from one master cell line,” said study lead author Todd N. McAllister, Ph.D….

The grafts also have the potential to be used in lower limb bypass to route blood around diseased arteries, to repair congenital heart defects in pediatric patients and to fix damaged arteries in soldiers, who might otherwise lose a limb, said McAllister.

The tissue-engineered blood vessels, produced from sheets of cultured skin cells rolled around temporary support structures, were used to create access shunts between arteries and veins in the arm for kidney dialysis in three patients. These shunts, which connect an artery to a vein, provide access to the blood for dialysis. The engineered vessels were about a foot long with a diameter of 4.8 millimeters.

At follow-up exams up to eight months after implantation, none of the patients had developed an immune reaction to the implants, and the vessels withstood the high pressure and frequent needle punctures required for dialysis. Shunts created from patients’ own vessels or synthetic materials are notoriously prone to failure…

Besides addressing a costly and vexing problem in kidney dialysis, off-the-shelf blood vessels might someday be used instead of harvesting patients’ own vessels for bypass surgery. A larger, randomized trial of the grafts is under way for kidney dialysis, and human trials have been initiated to assess the safety and effectiveness of these grafts for lower-limb bypass.

Bravo. Basic research once again leads to a range of benefits for the seriously ill.

Entry-level job market for college grads best in 3 years

Good news, college grads: the entry-level job market is the best it has been in three years — but you may have to settle for less money and a position outside your preferred career path, a new report from Challenger, Gray & Christmas shows.

“There’s lots of positive news out there, and we’re finally seeing some significant job creation,” says John Challenger, chief executive officer. But before you start daydreaming about the corner office, he adds one caveat: The job market isn’t what it used to be, and it may not provide the “ideal job situation” for everyone…

“There’s still a long way to go, but I think it’s going to be a much better year for graduates than it was two years ago,” says Challenger…

…New grads have two advantages that their older peers don’t, Challenger says: For starters, the next generation of workers are a “blank slate,” allowing potential employers to influence their skills and work habits. Secondly, they’re flexible.

“I think a lot of companies are looking for people who can go where the work is and give up some of their work-life balance to find a role they want,” says Challenger. “Companies need flexibility in their workplace.”

On the flipside, new grads aren’t just competing with their classmates — they’re also going toe-to-toe with those who graduated three or four years ago and still haven’t landed their ideal job. “These are people who have experience to add to their job candidacy — they’re out there fighting to land the job they didn’t get when they left school,” Challenger says.

So where are the jobs? Research from job search website shows the outlook is particularly good for recent grads looking for careers in healthcare (physical therapists, registered nurses and physician assistants) and information technology (software engineers, network administrators). In fact, job postings have climbed 53 percent overall from March 2010 to March 2011, Indeed finds.

Even more encouraging, competition for jobs in the 50 largest metro areas has improved significantly, with nine cities now having one online job posting per unemployed person.

Encouraging info. And the Prism blog at Reuters is one of the shiny features brightening the scene at one of the world’s oldest and most professional news services.

RTFA for the numbers behind the analysis.