Big Names Gamble Big Bucks on Blood Tests for Early Cancer Detection

Forget biopsies, ultrasounds, mammograms, pap smears, rectal exams, and other unpleasant cancer screenings—the race is now on for simple, affordable blood tests that can detect all sorts of cancers extremely early.

Source: Big names gamble big bucks on blood tests for early cancer detection

This kind of screening is of a very different type to PSA or mammography, where many things can cause elevated PSA or high radio opacity in breast tissue. You are looking either for circulating tumor cells, or as in the Grail case, nucleic acid fragments from said cells. You sequence the DNA you have, looking for known oncogenic mutations. If you find them, the patient has cells with active oncogenes in them. As some oncogenes are known to be particularly deadly, mutant KRAS for instance, they would presumably be prioritized. I would worry more about false negatives than false positives with this technology, as it would presumably not be able to pick up lesser known mutations, and might be completely blind to tumors caused for example by gene amplification.

Why screen early? There are some very rapid cancers, and there are some which appear to be very rapid because they are diagnosed very late. Many of these cancer, pancreatic (and KRAS) being a poster boy ,have been around and undetected for many years, yet the average patient only survives about 6 months after diagnosis. For these cancers, this kind of screening could be a real lifesaver. The average ovarian tumor is 400 grams when detected, and survival is then usually a brutal land war.

We might start screening and then find out tumors can be detected in everyone. This would give us useful data on how frequently cancers arise, and how frequently they are overcome by the immune system. In such a case we would learn not to treat everyone, but maybe wait until certain thresholds were exceeded. Or, since we know what the mutations are the tumor carries, we could use highly targeted immunotherapies, with low toxicity. Everything is impossible to implement perfectly on day 1, but take a look at the landscape, try some things, and learn, and a decade later you have made real progress.

Study: Bovine Milk Exosomes Contain microRNA and mRNA, and are Taken up by Human Macrophages

We reported previously that microRNA (miRNA) are present in whey fractions of human breast milk, bovine milk, and rat milk.

…In the current study, we used bovine raw milk and total RNA purified from exosomes (prepared by ultracentrifugation) and ultracentrifuged supernatants, and analyzed them using miRNA and mRNA microarrays to clarify which miRNA and mRNA species are present in exosomes, and which species exist in other forms.

…These results suggest that bovine milk exosomes might have effects in human cells by containing RNA.

Source: Bovine milk exosomes contain microRNA and mRNA and are taken up by human macrophages

Exocytosis is a normal cellular function, and is one way cells can communicate with each other or provide additional benefits to another. The picture in the wikipedia image shows exocytosis occurring between two neurons, but the process is by no means exclusive to this cell type. Basically, cells can form exosomes, or membrane-bound vesicles which are released from the cell. These can contain proteins, DNA, RNA, you name it.

It’s been known for a while that human milk also contains species of mRNA (messenger RNA) and miRNA (micro RNA). This study essentially says they’re also found in bovine milk. Moreover, they’re primarily located within exosomes when the milk is fractionated. Some of the miRNAs they found in the top 10 are actually shared in both human and pig milk and are predicted to regulate both carbohydrate and lipid metabolism. There are also species-specific miRNAs present in the exosomes, whose function is unknown (as is the majority of the RNA found).

They predict, due to the stability and acid-resistant characteristics of these RNA species, that they may serve a biological function, but they don’t know for sure. They found that a human macrophage-like cell line (an innate immune cell type) can take up these exosomes, but they don’t know if other cell types can as well. So basically, cow milk has all these RNA-containing exosomes floating around in it (much like human milk), and some of them are taken up by our cells. Biological functions still unknown.


Cells can release tiny packets of genetic material which can be taken up by other cells. The authors of this study found that cow milk contains these packets of material. In fact, some of this material is also found in other species, like humans and pigs. This material is super resilient, and so may serve some function, but we don’t know what! Also, some of our immune cells can take up these packets of material. We still don’t know what it does though.

This Experiment First Cracked the Genetic Code—But Most People Have Never Heard of It

One of the most important experiments in the world manages to fly under most people’s radar. After years of patient experimental work, two scientists managed to figure out how one code in DNA translated into an actual, physical protein.

Source: This Experiment First Cracked the Genetic Code—But Most People Have Never Heard of It

It’s nice to see a headline on the net not confusing the genetic code with the genetic sequence. Only the latter is something akin to the source code of computer science, whereas the former governs how genetic information is translated into proteins.

Easy DNA Editing Will Remake the World. Buckle Up.

They were worried about what people called “recombinant DNA,” the manipulation of the source code of life. It had been just 22 years since James Watson, Francis Crick, and Rosalind Franklin described what DNA was—deoxyribonucleic acid, four different structures called bases stuck to a backbone of sugar and phosphate, in sequences thousands of bases long. DNA is what genes are made of, and genes are the basis of heredity.

Preeminent genetic researchers like David Baltimore, then at MIT, went to Asilomar to grapple with the implications of being able to decrypt and reorder genes. It was a God-like power—to plug genes from one living thing into another. Used wisely, it had the potential to save millions of lives. But the scientists also knew their creations might slip out of their control. They wanted to consider what ought to be off-limits.

I highly recommend reading if you’re at all interested in editing DNA to see the history of how the current tools have come forward, and why the power to do so should not be taken lightly.

What Extraordinarily Weird Things Are Locked Up in Your Junk DNA?

We know that we don’t “use” a lot of the genes inside our cells, but our DNA is strung with relics. But what are those relics, and what if they come back to haunt us? Here’s what you’re carrying around, and why it’s not as irrevocably part of the past as you think it is.

Source: What Extraordinarily Weird Things Are Locked Up in Your Junk DNA?

It’s all fun and games until you can wag your vestigial tail…

Mystery Pooper: Firm to Pay $2.2M over Forced DNA Testing for Workers

A federal jury has concluded that an Atlanta grocery warehousing firm must pay two employees a combined $2.2 million for forcing them to submit to a buccal cheek swab to determine if their DNA was a match to feces being left throughout the facility.

Source: Mystery pooper: Firm to pay $2.2M over forced DNA testing for workers

This is an update to the Mystery Pooper story.  I’m glad to see that there are laws against this sort of thing.

I’m skeptical that the payout will be what is listed.  Being awarded and actually receiving can be different things, and that’s besides if the firm challenges the amount awarded.

Hunt for the Rogue Pooper – Company Demands DNA swabs, Employees Sue

Who was the “devious defecator” leaving their “offending fecal matter” across an Atlanta-area warehouse that stored and delivered products for grocery stores?

Source: Hunt for the rogue pooper—company demands DNA swabs, employees sue

As funny and weirdly odd as the news is that lead to this, it’s not laughing matter about the intrusion performed on this two people.  The ability to do DNA testing opens the doors to incredibly invasive knowledge – predisposition to disease and cancer, etc.  I highly recommend watching Gattaca if you haven’t seen it already.

Engineered Virus Protects Bacteria While Eliminating Antibiotic Resistance

Editing the sequence of bases in a DNA molecule is pretty straightforward in a test tube. Until recently, editing the DNA of a living organism had been a very large challenge, one that was more often avoided than taken up. But a system bacteria use to defeat viruses has been repurposed to make a versatile DNA editing system.

Source: Engineered virus protects bacteria while eliminating antibiotic resistance

That’s pretty crazy. But when can I have my own baby triceratops?

How Viruses Hide Inside Your Eyeballs, Even When You’re No Longer Sick

Last week brought the horrifying news that the Ebola virus can live in the eyeballs of survivors, even after it’s been eliminated from the rest of the body. It shouldn’t have been a surprise, though. Viruses have always hidden in parts of our bodies you’d never expect. In fact, we’re all walking virus reservoirs.

Source: How Viruses Hide Inside Your Eyeballs, Even When You’re No Longer Sick

There are also shingles vaccines you can get when you’re older, so please get those, folks. Shingles can be really bad — it can even give you temporary blindness.

I had a co-worker come down with shingles – I’d never heard of it before that, but my boss had.  My boss was certain the co-worker would not come back and they were ultimately correct.

Study: Common Herpes Medication Reduces HIV-1 Levels, Independent of Herpes Infection

Case Western Reserve researchers are part of an international team that has discovered that a common herpes drug reduces HIV-1 levels — even when patients do not have herpes.

Published online in Clinical Infectious Diseases, the finding rebuts earlier scientific assumptions that Valacyclovir (brand name, Valtrex) required the presence of the other infection to benefit patients with HIV-1.

The result not only means that Valacyclovir can be used effectively with a broader range of HIV-1 patients, but also suggests promising new avenues for the development of HIV-fighting drugs. This insight is particularly significant given that some forms of HIV-1 have become resistant to existing medications.

…HIV-1 can lead to the immune deficiency known as AIDS. The herpes simplex virus 2 (HSV-2) causes periodic recurrence of genital herpes lesions, which increase the likelihood that a herpes sufferer may contract HIV through intimate contact. HSV-2 outbreaks are treated with either Acyclovir or the newer generation Valacyclovir, which requires less frequent dosing.

Source: Common herpes medication reduces HIV-1 levels, independent of herpes infection

Wouldn’t be the first time a drug showed this type of cross-reactivity. Lamivudine started as an anti-HIV drug and ended up being effective as an anti-HBV drug as well.  HIV is a retrovirus and HBV is a pararetrovirus – both of which have reverse transcriptase but HBV exists as a DNA virus outside the host cell while HIV exists as a RNA virus outside the host cell. This is important because RNA is more prone to mutations (thus the viral proteins made from the viral RNA avoid the antibodies custom made by the immune system from vaccines) while DNA is more stable in structure (the antibodies are able to target the common motif of the viral proteins made from the viral DNA and kill them before they have a chance to infect the organism). This explains why we have a HBV vaccine, but not an HIV vaccine.

Recent research also suggests that the chickenpox vaccine may help with herpes.  Which shouldn’t be much of a surprise – chickenpox is a form of herpes.