Nobel Prize 2016 : Chemistry Prize could go to gene-editing, new elements or rechargeable batteries

The Nobel Chemistry Prize is to be announced on Wednesday, with observers suggesting it could go to gene-editing, the invention of the rechargeable battery or the discovery of new periodic elements. Sweden’s biggest daily Dagens Nyheter tipped scientists at Russian, Japanese and US institutes that added four new elements to the periodic table: nihonium (Nh), moscovium (Mc), tennessine (Ts) and oganesson (Og). John Goodenough — a 94-year-old US scientist who invented the rechargeable lithium ion battery that is present in cell phones, computers and electric cars — was another of the favourites for the honour, mentioned by Dagens Nyheter and Swedish radio SR. Also seen as Nobel-worthy was a technique known as CRISPR that can edit parts of the genome of still-developing embryos by cutting out, replacing or adding parts to the DNA sequence. It was named by influential US journal Science as 2015’s breakthrough of the year due to its potential to revolutionise health and medicine. But it could be too early for the jury to award it a Nobel this year, Dagens Nyheter noted, as a bitter patent dispute is currently being waged over who discovered it first. Sweden’s other main daily Svenska Dagbladet nonetheless also mentioned CRISPR as a possible winner. It also pointed to Hong Kong doctor Yuk-Ming Dennis Lo, the director of the Li Ka Shing Institute of Health Sciences. Lo discovered a technique to detect chromosome abnormalities in unborn foetuses, such as Down’s Syndrome, where previous methods could cause a miscarriage. The chemistry prize is the third Nobel to be announced this week.

On Tuesday, the physics prize went to British scientists David Thouless, Duncan Haldane and Michael Kosterlitz for their work in on “topology”, a highly-specialised mathematics field studying unusual phases or states of matter which may one day yield superfast and small computers.

Also mentioned are Russian activist Svetlana Gannushkina, who has championed the rights of migrants and refugees, Syria’s civil organisation of emergency responders known as the White Helmets, and Greek islanders who have come to the aid of desperate migrants. US fugitive whistleblower Edward Snowden, who revealed the extent of the NSA’s surveillance programmes, has meanwhile been nominated for the third straight year. The economics prize will be announced on Monday, 10 October, and the literature prize wraps things up on 13 October. For that prize, the Swedish Academy could tap superstar novelists such as Philip Roth of the US or Haruki Murakami of Japan, or some lesser known writers such as Norwegian playwright Jon Fosse or Syrian poet Adonis. Nobel Chemistry Prize winners of the past decade. The Nobel Prize in Chemistry is awarded annually by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences to scientists in the various fields of chemistry. The first Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded in 1901 to Jacobus Henricus van ‘t Hoff, of the Netherlands.

Body’s natural defences can treat eczema

The body’s own natural defences could be harnessed in a potential therapy for a common skin condition, a new study suggests. The discovery may help create new treatments for atopic eczema, the condition causes distressing itchy lesions that can lead to broken skin with increased susceptibility to infection. It can have a severe impact on people’s lives, work and sleep, researchers said. The discovery follows recent studies that show having an intact natural skin barrier is important in preventing eczema. Now, researchers at the University of Edinburgh in the UK have found a way to use the body’s own defence system to repair tiny breaks in the skin’s natural barrier, which make people more vulnerable to eczema. “This is a great chance to work with something that the body makes naturally to develop new therapies for atopic eczema, which affects so many people’s lives,” said Dr Donald J Davidson from Edinburgh’s MRC Centre for Inflammation Research. The skin’s barrier can be impaired by genetic flaws, environmental factors or bacterial infections. People with eczema are much more likely to carry bacteria known as Staphylococcus aureus on their skins. In people with eczema, this bacteria can infect skin lesions and cause damage to the skin barrier.

Bees on endangered species list

Seven types of bees facing extinction in Hawaii have been placed on the endangered species list for the first time in the US. The listing of yellow-faced or masked bees on the federal register came after US wildlife authorities found that their numbers have plunged in recent years. The bees were once commonly found on the islands of Hawaii and its neighbour Maui but they have become endangered due to habitat loss, wildfires and the invasion of non-native plants and insects.

A robotic Surgeon with a Sense of Touch

Researchers, including one of Indian origin, claimed to have developed the world’s first robotic surgical system that can give surgeons the sense of touch while they conduct keyhole surgery using a computer. The HeroSurg robot is a major breakthrough to current technology, which now limits robotic surgery to the sense of sight. This means laparoscopic or keyhole/micro surgery will be safer and more accurate than ever before by reducing trauma and lowering risk of blood loss and infection. HeroSurg was developed by engineers from Deakin University in Australia and Harvard University in the US, along with Suren Krishnan from the Royal Adelaide Hospital. Krishnan said the HeroSurg’s sense of touch, provided through technology known as haptic feedback, would lead to better patient outcomes. “The major drawback of the current system is the lack of tactile feedback. Tactile feedback allows a surgeon to differentiate between tissues and to ‘feel’ delicate tissues weakened by infection or inflammation and dissect them more carefully. Tactile feedback will allow us to use finer and more delicate sutures in microsurgery,” he said. Krishnan said the haptics technology would also improve the ability to distinguish between tissues involved with cancer from normal tissue. The project’s lead researcher Mohsen Moradi Dalvand said, “HeroSurg’s unique features include collision avoidance capability, modularity and automatic patient/bed adjustment.”

High BP in children may limit cognitive skills, Suggests Study

Increasing numbers of children have high blood pressure, largely as a consequence of their obesity. A growing body of evidence suggests that high blood pressure may impair children’s cognitive skills, reducing their ability to remember, pay attention and organise facts. Published on Thursday in The Journal of Pediatrics, 75 children aged 10 to 18 with untreated high blood pressure performed worse on several tests of cognitive function, compared with 75 peers who had normal blood pressure. The differences were subtle, and the new research does not prove that high blood pressure diminishes cognitive skills in children. Still, the findings set off alarm bells among some experts. “This study shows there are some differences,” said Dr. David B Kershaw, the director of pediatric nephrology at C S Mott Children’s Hospital at the University of Michigan, who was not involved with the research. Dr. Marc Lande, a professor of pediatric nephrology at the University of Rochester Medical Centre, and his colleagues had children tested at four sites in three states, matching those with and without high blood pressure by age, maternal education, race, obesity levels and other factors. The researchers excluded children with learning disabilities and sleep problems, which can affect cognitive skills. Children with elevated blood pressure performed worse than their peers on tests of memory, processing speed and verbal skills, the researchers found. But all the scores were still in the normal range. Because of increased obesity, elevated blood pressure, also called hypertension, is no longer rare in children, though it is underdiagnosed. In a recent survey, about 3.5% of 14,187 children ages 3 to 18 had hypertension.

“Most people don’t understand that cardiovascular risk factors — in this case, hypertension — can affect thinking and memory, and certainly they don’t think there could be an effect in childhood,” said Dr. Kristine Yaffe, a professor of psychiatry, neurology and epidemiology at the University of California, who has researched the effects of cardiovascular risk factors on cognition. Lande and his colleagues noted that children with high blood pressure tended to have other risk factors that might negatively affect cognition, including insulin resistance and obstructive sleep apnea. Children who had a formal diagnosis of obstructive sleep apnea were excluded from the new study, but some adolescents with poor sleep participated. Lande said the study found “that the presence of hypertension made the effect of poor sleep on cognition even worse.” Lower scores on cognitive tests do not necessarily indicate that a child is struggling in everyday life, experts cautioned. “Yes, there are certain differences, but what they mean in terms of life functioning isn’t clear,” said Dr. Julie Ingelfinger, a professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School and a senior consultant in nephrology at Massachusetts General Hospital. But, she added, “We know from other studies that problems with memory, attention and cognitive function have a lot to do with how well you do in your job and at school.” Children may be uniquely susceptible to cognitive deficits, Kershaw said. “If you have high blood pressure and you’re 10 to 18 years old, it may impact your cognitive function more than if you’re 40 or 50,” he said. The areas of the brain that control executive function mature until a person’s early 20s. So the idea is that perhaps hypertension could hinder that function, Kershaw said.