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New England editorial roundup

Published on NewsOK Modified: June 21, 2014 at 8:05 am •  Published: June 21, 2014
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The Providence (R.I.) Journal, June 20, 2014

In the 1960s, thousands of babies were born with severe deformities because the drug thalidomide was prescribed to their mothers to treat nausea associated with pregnancy, or morning sickness. It was a tragedy and a scandal, especially because the medical profession could not explain how the drug actually worked. It seemed to help and so was prescribed, but no one apparently considered the possible side effects.

Fifty years later, researchers in Japan and the United States have made discoveries about thalidomide and possibly more potent derivatives and what they can do to halt the growth of certain classes of cancer cells in the body, the so-called B-cell malignancies, that may go a long way toward erasing the drug's terrible reputation. The cancers include multiple myeloma, a kind of leukemia, and some lymphomas. Because it also suppresses the immune system, lupus may also be a candidate for treatment with thalidomide derivatives.

The Japanese scientists discovered that the drugs work by binding to proteins called transcription factors that give signals for cellular growth. Many cancers are the result of overactive transcription factors, switches that stop switching off. These proteins are also responsible for normal limb development of babies in the womb. In the case of multiple myeloma, lenalidomide, a powerful derivative of thalidomide, killed multiple myeloma cells in the laboratory.

According to Dr. William Kaelin Jr., of the Dana Farber Cancer Institute, in Boston, this ability "could be a template for targeting other transcription factors linked to cancer." That would be ironic indeed.

The Telegram & Gazette of Worcester (Mass.), June 20, 2014

A century after the last passenger pigeon perished at the Cincinnati Zoo, the species that once darkened North American skies in the billions is stirring once more in the hearts and minds of geneticists, and will shortly be back in the public spotlight.

That last bird, named Martha, is on hand at the Smithsonian Natural History Museum in Washington, D.C., for the opening this coming Tuesday (June 24) of a special exhibit on the passenger pigeon and its extinction.

Visitors will be able to see Martha, of course, who has been beautifully preserved and presented, as well as learn about how humans hunted a once prolific bird to extinction. Many ecologists and conservationists consider the demise of the passenger pigeon as a cautionary case study in how humans adversely impact other species.

But therein lie seeds of hope, as well.

Because the story of the passenger pigeon is so well known, and because examples of the birds remain, scientists have long dreamed of making the species the first candidate for "de-extinction."

That process starts with sequencing the pigeon's DNA, which requires more than 80 million fragments. Scientists at the San Francisco-based Long Now Foundation are doing just that, using the material from "Passenger Pigeon 1871."

So while an otherwise anonymous cousin provides the material for a comeback, Martha will handle public relations.

It's not quite Jurassic Park (thankfully), and we hope they succeed, if not in bringing a species back to life, at least in helping Americans better understand the responsibilities that come with stewardship of the Earth.


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