Science Briefs: Pharma giant grows cancer tumour profile

Swiss drugmaker Roche's logo is seen at their headquarters in Basel, on Jan 28, 2016.
Swiss drugmaker Roche's logo is seen at their headquarters in Basel, on Jan 28, 2016. PHOTO: REUTERS

Pharma giant grows cancer tumour profile

With an eye on creating the most comprehensive database of cancer tumour profiles, pharmaceutical giant Roche will introduce its genomic-sequencing test in more Asia-Pacific countries by the end of the year.

The database will, hopefully, help oncologists better decide on the most appropriate treatment for their patients, and help scientists uncover new drug targets.

"Science has evolved so much that it is not enough to just know where the cancer started. Now as a clinician you need to understand the molecular basis of the disease and the genomic profile of the cancer," said Ms Ashley Magargee, general manager of Roche Singapore.

The genomic-sequencing test was launched in Singapore last year, soon after Roche entered into a partnership with the test's developer, American firm Foundation Medicine.

Roche is now working with researchers at public hospitals here to study cancers.

There are now around 125,000 profiles in the database, most from Western populations.

Getting more Asian profiles is important as the common cancers in Asia can differ from those in Western countries, said Ms Magargee.

Dr Wong Seng Weng, medical director of The Cancer Centre, pointed out that in the current era of precision medicine, the selection of "best treatment" is often based on guidance from genomic profiling.

National jurisdictions are moving towards approval of new treatments, based not on the location of the original tumour or the type of cancer cells, but on the type of genomic mutations cancers carry, he said.

Correction note: An earlier version of the story stated that the general manager of Roche Singapore is Ms Ashley Margargee, instead of  Ms Ashley Magargee. This has been corrected. 

Common moss may prove a cheap pollution monitor

Delicate moss found on rocks and trees in cities around the world can be used to measure the impact of atmospheric change, and could prove a low-cost way to monitor urban pollution, according to Japanese scientists.

The bioindicator responds to pollution or drought stress by changing shape, density or disappearing, allowing scientists to calculate atmospheric alterations, said Associate Professor Yoshitaka Oishi from Fukui Prefectural University.

"This method is very cost-effective and important for getting information about atmospheric conditions," Prof Oishi told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by telephone.

"Moss is a common plant in all cities, so we can use this method in many countries.

"They have big potential to be bioindicators," said Prof Oishi, who analysed nearly 50 types of moss for the study.

He said humid cities where moss thrive could benefit most.

In a research paper published in the Landscape And Urban Planning journal, Prof Oishi and a colleague described how they studied the effect of nitrogen pollution, air quality and drought stress on moss found over a 3 sq km area in Hachioji city, in north-western Tokyo.

The study showed that severe drought stress tended to occur in areas with high levels of nitrogen pollution, which it said raised concerns over the impact on health and biodiversity.

The World Health Organisation says 88 per cent of city dwellers are exposed to annual pollution levels that exceed its air quality guidelines. South-east Asia and the eastern Mediterranean have the worst air quality.

"We believe this method can contribute to the evaluation of atmospheric pollution in other areas," said Prof Oishi.


Why a few drops of water make whisky taste better

Ignore the snobs because most experts agree: A few drops of water can enhance the taste of whiskies, from well-rounded blends to peat bombs redolent of smoke, tobacco and leather.

Why is this so? The answer, a pair of biochemists in Sweden said, resides in the subtle interplay of molecules that brings those bursting with flavour to the surface of the liquid amber in one's glass.

The smoky flavour typical of whiskies made on the Scottish island of Islay, for example, can be traced to a group of flavour-packed molecules known as phenols, and to one in particular called guaiacol.

Laboratory simulations revealed that adding a splash of water makes guaiacol rise to "the air-liquid interface", Associate Professors Bjorn Karlsson and Ran Friedman of Linnaeus University in Kalmar, Sweden, reported in the journal Scientific Reports.

Higher concentrations of guaiacol are found in Scottish whiskies than in American or Irish ones, the study found.

For any whisky, the importance of adding water is already evident in the manufacturing process.

Whiskies are made by distilling fermented grains, such as barley or rye.

Distilled malt whiskies typically contain around 70 per cent alcohol before being aged in oak barrels for at least three years. Maturation reduces the alcohol content by 5 to 15 per cent.

But that is still far too high for optimal drinking pleasure, so the whisky's alcohol content is further diluted to around 40 per cent before bottling by adding water.


Compiled by Samantha Boh

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 25, 2017, with the headline 'Science Briefs'. Print Edition | Subscribe