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Cranky commentary by Cynthia Robbins-Roth

It's summertime, which usually is a slow time for biofinancing. But lively things are happening in other parts of the biorealm!

Personalized Medicine, Up Close and Personal

UC-Berkeley genetics professor Jasper Rine is leading a project to teach incoming freshman about personalized medicine by asking them to come to school with a DNA sample. The samples will be tested for the presence of genes related to the ability to metabolize alcohol, lactose and folates.

The theory is that students with certain markers can be counseled to lead healthier lives by drinking less, avoiding dairy or eating more leafy green vegetables. The samples will be blinded — only the students will know which bar code belongs to their own sample.

Clearly, this experiment was designed by someone who has completely forgotten about his own freshman year.

UC-Berkeley is hoping to influence the students by deluging them with lectures and panel discussions about these genetic markers and about the pros and cons of personal genomics.

Some bioethicists have chimed in with their concerns about the lack of counseling for those students given the bad news that ice cream is out of their lives forever. Other bioethicists worry that when students are informed that they lack the gene making alcohol more problematic, it will encourage those students to drink even more. Various groups are trying to stop the planned freshman class group project.

It didn't help that right around the time this news broke, the FDA convinced Walgreens to drop its plan to distribute San Diego-based Pathway Genomics Corp.'s over-the-counter gene screen, and decided that direct-to-consumer genetic tests will be regulated as medical devices, plus testing firm 23andMe Inc., of Mountain View, Calif., reportedly mixed up test results for as many as 96 customers.

We'll see if the project goes forward as planned — and if the freshman class show any significant signs of modified beer, salad and ice cream intake.

Great Science Strikes Again

Recent news has brought some fantastic scientific announcements. First up, reported by Marc Abrams in the UK's Guardian: Inspired by research into the impact of cell phone radiation on brain cancer, a team at the Tokushima School of Medicine in Japan decided to test whether cell phone radiation near testicles could affect a man's sexual behavior.

Not having access to the UC-Berkeley incoming freshman class, they had to settle for male rabbits as their test subjects. One group of rabbits had switched-on cell phones near their genitals for 12 weeks, another group had switched-off cell phones, and a third group was phoneless.

The team then documented in great detail the sexual behavior of the rabbits, and reported that bunnies exposed to active cell phones got sexually exhausted earlier. The team expects this to have "some practical implications," perhaps in cell phone holster design.

In the interests of full disclosure, "BioWorld Bytes" wants to note that Abrams is the editor of Annals of Improbable Research and organizer of the Ig Nobel Prizes, annual awards for "achievements that first make people laugh, and then make them think."

Best Science Headline

"Fly Cells Flock Together, Follow the Light" reported in AScribe Newswire and Nature Cell Biology that Johns Hopkins researchers used a laser beam to activate a specific protein-Rac — in a single fruit fly cell.

When they moved the laser beam, the turned-on cell followed the light, and the surrounding clump of fruit fly cells acted "like a school of fish," following the leader. (Click here for a video clip.)

Now, you may ask yourself, "What the heck was NIH thinking?" It turns out that the ability of specific cells to migrate within an organism can control important functions such as fertility, fetal development, wound healing and tumor metastasis. OK, it still sounds funky.

But not as funky as "Crayfish Brain May Offer Rare Insight Into Human Decision Making," appearing in AScribe's report on a paper in Proceedings of the Royal Society. It seems University of Maryland psychologist Jens Herberholz and colleagues isolated individual crayfish neurons "involved in value-based decisions" — specifically choosing between finding their next meal or becoming lunch for a predator. The team noted, "Currently, there's no direct way to do this with a human brain."

I find my thoughts wandering back to those freshmen . . .

Who Needs Biotech Partners?

In a fit of pique, New York-based Pfizer Inc. decided to avoid those temperamental biotech prima donnas and instead teamed up with the Washington University medical school to revive doomed drugs.

The pharma firm agreed to pay $22.5 million over five years to check out 500 Pfizer compounds for alternative uses. Depending on the outcome, the medical school stands to gain some intellectual property rights and potential licensing agreements.

On that note, I am heading off into the summer. Have a great time out there — try investigating the biological controls behind lightning bug flashing frequency. Report back in the fall!

Robbins-Roth, Ph.D., founding partner of BioVenture Consultants, can be reached at biogodess@earthlink.net. Her opinions do not necessarily reflect those of BioWorld Today.