Posts Tagged ‘Mike McRae’

by MIKE MCRAE

Transforming the microbial environment in the guts of children diagnosed with autism could significantly ease the severity of their condition’s signature traits, according to newly published research.

A study on the effects of a form of faecal transplant therapy in children on the autism spectrum found participants not only experienced fewer gut problems, but continued to show ongoing improvements in autism symptoms two years after the procedure.

Arizona State University researchers had already discovered a dose of healthy gut microflora caused characteristics associated with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) to ease or vanish for at least a couple of months after treatment ended.

But to be taken seriously as a potential therapy, there needed to be long term improvements. So a return to the original group of volunteers for another check-up was in order.

It turned out those new microbes were settling in nicely.

“In our original paper in 2017, we reported an increase in gut diversity together with beneficial bacteria after microbiota transfer therapy (MTT), and after two years, we observed diversity was even higher and the presence of beneficial microbes remained,” says biotechnologist Dae-Wook Kang.

The gut might seem like an odd place to start in developing therapies that assist individuals with a neurological condition such as autism.

But in addition to its defining characteristics of impaired social and communication skills, sensory challenges, and reduced core strength and motor control, for up to half of those with ASD the condition can come with a bunch of gut problems.

“Many kids with autism have gastrointestinal problems, and some studies, including ours, have found that those children also have worse autism-related symptoms,” says environmental engineer Rosa Krajmalnik-Brown.

Previous studies have repeatedly pointed to the potential benefits of swapping out a ‘bad’ microbial communities for a better one, either through using probiotics or courses of antibiotics.

Most showed promising short-term effects, suggesting there was more to be explored when it comes to gut-based therapies.

“In many cases, when you are able to treat those gastrointestinal problems, their behaviour improves,” says Krajmalnik-Brown.

In an attempt to elicit a more long-term result, the researchers pulled out the big guns. Forget dropping in a few microbial tourists or killing off a handful of trouble-makers – they went for a whole mass migration.

Using a customised process of gut microflora transplantation called microbiota transfer therapy, the researchers gave 18 kids aged between 7 and 16 a belly full of new microorganisms.

All of the volunteers had both an autism diagnosis and moderate to severe gastrointestinal problems. This group was compared with 20 equivalent control subjects who had neither gut problems nor an ASD diagnosis.

Both were treated for 10 weeks and then had follow-up test sessions for a further 8 weeks.

Admittedly, the experiment wasn’t blinded, so we do need to be cautious in how we read into the results. Placebo effects can’t be ruled out in cases like this.

But saying they were ‘promising’ isn’t too strong a claim to make. The children not only experienced an 80 percent reduction in gastrointestinal symptoms, they showed significant improvements when tested with common ASD diagnostic tools.

Two years later, those same tests indicate the conditions have only improved.

“The team’s new publication reports that the study demonstrated that two years after treatment stopped the participants still had an average of a 58 percent reduction in GI symptoms compared to baseline,” says Krajmalnik-Brown.

“In addition, the parents of most participants reported a slow but steady improvement in core ASD symptoms.”

An external evaluation using a standard ASD diagnostic tool concluded 83 percent of the initial test group could be considered as severe on the autistic spectrum. Two years later, this dropped to just 17 percent.

Amazingly, 44 percent no longer made the cut-off for being on the mild end of the spectrum at all.

Overall, the evaluator determined the severity of ASD traits was reduced by 47 percent compared with their baseline.

For a therapy that has barely any side-effects, and such remarkable improvements in challenges many with ASD struggle with, it’s surely a treatment that will continue to attract attention for further research.

Faecal transplants might sound a little gross, but you might as well get used to them. We’re bound to be seeing them used for a variety of things in the future, from treating superbugs to winning sports.

Now that we’re learning our neurological health is intimately connected with our digestive system, transplanting microbial communities from a healthy gut is seen as the next big thing in treating brain disorders.

This isn’t to say microflora cause autism. It’s a complex condition that has its roots in a diverse range of genes and environmental influences that nudge the brain’s development early in life.

But if we can swap out even a few of those influences, we just might be able to make life a little easier for those who need it.

This research was published in Scientific Reports.

https://www.sciencealert.com/autism-severity-cut-in-half-in-kids-who-underwent-radical-faecal-transplant-therapy

by Mike McRae

Earth might have a dizzying array of life forms, but our biology ultimately remains a solitary data point – we simply don’t have a reference for life based on DNA different from our own. Now, scientists have taken matters into their hands to push the boundaries on what life could be like.

Research funded by NASA and led by the Foundation for Applied Molecular Evolution in the US has led to the creation of an entirely new flavour of the DNA double helix, one that has an additional four nucleotide bases.

It’s being called hachimoji DNA (from the Japanese words for ‘eight letters’) and it includes two new pairs to add to the existing partnerships of adenine (A) paired with thymine (T), and guanine (G) with cytosine (C).

This work to expand on nature’s own genetic recipe might sound a little familiar. The same scientists already successfully squeezed in two new letters in 2011. Only last year yet another version of an extended alphabet, also with six letters, was made to function inside a living organism.

Now, in what might seem like a case of overachievement, researchers have gone back to the drawing board to develop even more non-standard nucleotides.

They have a purpose for doubling the number of codes in the recipe book, though.

“By carefully analysing the roles of shape, size and structure in hachimoji DNA, this work expands our understanding of the types of molecules that might store information in extraterrestrial life on alien worlds,” says chemist Steven Benner.

We already know a lot about the stability and functionality of ‘natural’ DNA under a range of environmental conditions, and are slowly teasing apart possible scenarios describing its evolution from simpler organic materials to living chemistry.

But to really get a good sense of how a genetic system could evolve, we need to test the limits of its underlying chemistry.

Hachimoji DNA certainly allows for that. The new codes, labelled P, B, Z and S, are based on the same kind of nitrogenous molecules as existing ones, categorised as purines and pyrimidines.

Similarly, they link up with hydrogen bonds to form their own base pairs – S bonding with B, and P with Z.

That’s where the similarities fade out. These new ‘letters’ introduce dozens of new chemical parameters to the double helix structure that potentially affect how it zips and twists.

By devising models that predict the molecule’s stability and then observing actual structures made of this ‘alien’ DNA, researchers are better equipped what’s truly important when it comes to the fundamentals of a genetic template.

The researchers constructed hundreds of hachimoji helices made up of different configurations of natural and synthetic bases and then subjected them to a range of conditions to see how well they held up.

While there were a few minor differences in how the new letters behaved, there was no reason to believe hachimoji DNA wouldn’t work well as an information-carrying template that could mutate and evolve.

The team not only showed their synthetic letters could contribute to new codes without swiftly disintegrating, the sequences were also translated into synthetic RNA versions.

Their work falls well short of a second genesis. But a novel DNA format such as this is a step towards determining what living chemistry might – and might not – look like elsewhere in the Universe.

“Life detection is an increasingly important goal of NASA’s planetary science missions, and this new work will help us to develop effective instruments and experiments that will expand the scope of what we look for,” says NASA’s Planetary Science Division’s acting director, Lori Glaze.

Devising new bases that can operate alongside our own DNA also has applications closer to home, not only as a way to reprogram life with a different code base, but in our effort to build new kinds of nanostructures.

The sky really isn’t the limit with synthetic DNA. This is going to take us to the stars and back again.

This research was published in Science.

https://www.sciencealert.com/scientists-made-synthetic-dna-using-8-letters-and-it-could-help-us-find-aliens

by Mike McRae

Once a month, a 33-year-old Irish man would fill a syringe with his own semen and squirt it into the veins and muscles of his right arm, hoping it would make his chronic lower back pain go away.

Physicians came across this unusual case when its subject admitted himself into a Dublin hospital following several days of lower back pain brought on by lifting a heavy object.

Following an examination, medical staff discovered his lower right arm was red and slightly swollen, with signs of a fairly serious subcutaneous infection. An X-ray revealed signs of an abscess deep under the skin.

The patient disclosed it was most likely caused by recent injections of his own semen. Apparently back pain was an ongoing problem for the gentleman, and he’d come up with a rather innovative plan to treat it by introducing his own ejaculate intravenously and intramuscularly.

For the previous year and a half he’d been giving himself a monthly shot of his own self-made tonic. In the wake of his most recent bout of back pain, he had even upped his dose to several injections.

The case study is outlined in an Irish Medical Journal article playfully titled “Semenly” Harmless Back Pain: An Unusual Presentation of a Subcutaneous Abscess. Its authors dug into the literature – both clinical and alternative – for some kind of explanation, but came up empty handed.

“A comprehensive review of EMBASE, PubMed, Google scholar and the wider internet was conducted with an emphasis on intravenous semen injection for the treatment of back pain as well as for other medical and non-medical uses,” the authors write.

“Although there is a report of the effects of subcutaneous semen injection into rats and rabbits [in 1945], there were no cases of intravenous semen injection into humans found across the literature.”

Alleged health benefits of semen have been debated in the literature. It’s occasionally injected just under the skin in minuscule amounts to test for allergic reactions, and has been contested as a way to treat semen-sensitivities.

But when it comes to reducing pain, let alone specifically treating back injuries, this is pretty much unheard of.

The patient was diagnosed with cellulitis – a bacterial infection of the skin – and the doctors gave him intravenous antimicrobial drugs; but before they could administer further treatment, he discharged himself.

This research was published in the Irish Medical Journal.

https://www.sciencealert.com/patient-injected-himself-with-semen-thinking-it-would-cure-his-back-pain