Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Cancer: 'Book of knowledge' published

Cells from a cancer line known as HeLa

The first volume of a "book of cancer knowledge" has been published, which scientists say will speed up the search for new cancer drugs.
The "encyclopaedia" details how hundreds of different cancer cells respond to anti-cancer agents.
UK, US and European researchers say the data, published in Nature, is a step towards tailoring cancer medicine to a patient's genetic profile.
A cancer charity said the work would help in testing new cancer drugs.
Cancer cells grown in the laboratory are an essential tool in cancer research.
Hundreds of different cell lines exist, allowing scientists to study the effect of new cancer drugs on the human body.
Now, a team at the  Wellcome TRust Sanger Institute near Cambridge and various cancer institutes around the world have released two papers cataloguing data on hundreds of cancer cell lines.
The UK team, working with colleagues in the US, Paris and Switzerland, screened more than 600 cancer cell lines with 130 drugs, identifying genetic signatures linked with drug sensitivity.
Already clues are emerging that could be of benefit to patients, including the discovery that a rare bone cancer in children (Ewing's sarcoma) appears to be vulnerable to certain drugs.
Personalised medicine
Dr Mathew Garnett of the Sanger Institute is lead researcher on one of the two papers published in the journal Nature.
He told the BBC: "It's bringing together two very large and very powerful data sets and asking which cell line is the most sensitive and what is behind that sensitivity.
"This is the largest study of its kind linking drug response with genetic markers. You need these very large studies to identify small subsets of cells that are sensitive to drugs."
Dr Levi Garraway of The Broad Institute of Harvard and MIT, Cambridge, US, is a senior member of the research team behind the second paper, which profiled 24 drugs across nearly 500 cell lines.
He told the BBC: "Developing this large cell-line resource with all the associated genetic details is another piece in the pie to get us to our goal of personalised cancer medicine.
"We're trying to get smarter about understanding what the right drug is using the genetic information in each tumour. This is a stepping stone along the way."
The next step is use the information to help decide on tailored treatments for cancer patients.
This would involve getting a genetic "fingerprint" of their tumour, which could be matched to information in the database.
Some cancer drugs are already available for individuals with a certain genetic makeup.
The best known is Herceptin, a breast cancer drug that works in patients with an overactive HER2 gene.
Professor Charles Swanton, based at Cancer Research UK's London Research Institute, said the papers were "an invaluable resource" that provided "extremely useful intelligence" for cancer researchers.
He added: "This new resource will help speed up cancer research and may well begin to guide further developments in personalised cancer medicine."

Cancer medicines linked to genetic profiles

  • A new drug called vemurafenib offers hope to malignant melanoma patients with certain genetic markers
  • Erlotinib helps some lung cancer patients by targeting a receptor found in some tumours. Another new drug, crizotinib, tackles lung cancer expressing the ALK gene
  • The breast cancer drug Herceptin is given to patients with an overactive HER2 gene
  • The cancer drug imatinib blocks cancer growth in white blood cells of patients with chronic myeloid leukaemia carrying a certain gene mutation

Monday, 26 March 2012

Chocolate 'may help keep people slim'

Chocolate contains antioxidants but is also high in fat and sugar 

People who eat chocolate regularly tend to be thinner, new research suggests.
The findings come from a study of nearly 1,000 US people that looked at diet, calorie intake and body mass index (BMI) - a measure of obesity.
It found those who ate chocolate a few times a week were, on average, slimmer than those who ate it occasionally.
Even though chocolate is loaded with calories, it contains ingredients that may favour weight loss rather than fat synthesis, scientists believe.
Despite boosting calorie intake, regular chocolate consumption was related to lower BMI in the study, which is published in Archives of Internal Medicine.
The link remained even when other factors, like how much exercise individuals did, were taken into account.
And it appears it is how often you eat chocolate that is important, rather than how much of it you eat. The study found no link with quantity consumed.
According to the researchers, there is only one chance in a hundred that their findings could be explained by chance alone.
Lead author Dr Beatrice Golomb, from the University of California at San Diego, said: "Our findings appear to add to a body of information suggesting that the composition of calories, not just the number of them, matters for determining their ultimate impact on weight."
This is not the first time scientists have suggested that chocolate may be healthy for us.
Other studies have claimed chocolate may be good for the heart.
Consumption of certain types of chocolate has been linked to some favourable changes in blood pressure, insulin sensitivity and cholesterol level.
And chocolate, particularly dark chocolate, does contain antioxidants which can help to mop up harmful free radicals - unstable chemicals that can damage our cells.
Dr Golomb and her team believe that antioxidant compounds, called catechins, can improve lean muscle mass and reduce weight - at least studies in rodents would suggest this might be so.
Mice fed for 15 days with epicatechin (present in dark chocolate) had improved exercise performance and observable changes to their muscle composition.
They say clinical trials are now needed in humans to see if this is the case.
But before you reach for a chocolate bar, there are still lots of unanswered questions. And in the absence of conclusive evidence, experts advise caution.
While there's no harm in allowing yourself a treat like chocolate now and again, eating too much might be harmful because it often contains a lot of sugar and fat too.
And if you are looking to change your diet, you are likely to benefit most from eating more fresh fruits and vegetables.

Sunday, 25 March 2012

Avalanche research aids search for tastier ice cream

X-rays have revealed how the structure of ice cream changes as temperature fluctuates 

Avalanche experts are helping to study how ice cream's structure changes when it is stored in a household freezer.
Samples of ice cream have been scanned with an X-ray machine more typically used to study the ice crystals which are key to avalanche formation.
Nestle is hoping to reveal the exact conditions under which ice crystals merge and grow.
When the crystals get big enough they change the texture of ice cream and alter how it feels when it is eaten.
The study of ice crystal formation has been carried out with the help of scientists at the Institute for Snow and Avalanche Research in Davos, Switzerland.
The X-ray tomography machine at the institute is one of the few that can take images of tiny structures at sub-zero temperatures.
"Previously, we could not look inside ice cream without destroying the sample in the process," said Nestle food scientist Dr Cedric Dubois.
Via the research, summarised in a paper published in the journal Soft Matter, Nestle hopes to find a way to combat the gradual degradation of taste ice cream often suffers. As with many foods, the structure of ice cream is the key to the way it tastes.
'Chewy feel'
Dr Dubois said the research had revealed that the white frost of ice crystals found on ice cream forms as a result of the temperature changes it undergoes as it is transported, sold and stored.
"Most home freezers are set at -18C, but the temperature doesn't remain constant," said Dr Dubois. "It fluctuates by a couple of degrees in either direction, which causes parts of the ice cream to melt and then freeze again."
The way ice cream is stored can change the way it tastes 
Time-lapse images of ice crystals only a few microns across were gathered during the study which cycled samples through a small range of temperature changes.
This showed that as water froze out it formed ice crystals that affected the structure of the ice cream and made it chewy. This could also make the dessert icier, hard to scoop, and less pleasurable to eat.
The study has started to reveal the ''life cycle'' of the crystals and the conditions which trigger some of them to merge, enlarge and significantly alter the texture of the ice cream.
"We already know the growth of ice crystals in ice cream is triggered by a number of different factors," said Dr Dubois. "If we can identify the main mechanism, we can find better ways to slow it down."

Saturday, 24 March 2012

Stamp duty holiday ends, replaced by New Buy Guarantee

The stamp duty holiday was introduced in 2010 to help first time buyers 

The stamp duty holiday for first-time house buyers has ended, meaning they will join others in paying 1% tax on properties worth more than £125,000.
The government says it ended the holiday because it had been ineffective in helping people to buy.
It is introducing a New Buy Guarantee scheme instead, which it says will be better at getting people on to the housing ladder.
The stamp duty holiday was introduced in 2010.
It allowed first-time buyers to save up to £2,500 on the purchase of their first home by exempting them from stamp duty on homes worth up to £250,000.
Under the New Buy Guarantee, the government and major house builders will guarantee part of the loan from banks to first-time buyers.
This is intended to help those with smaller deposits to get on the housing ladder.
The government also announced a new 7% rate on homes over £2m last week.
And it further outlined a clampdown on stamp duty avoidance at the higher end of the market.
Are you a first-time buyer? How do you think these changes will affect you? You can send us your views and experiences using the form below.
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Thursday, 22 March 2012

Budget 2012: 'Super-connected cities' and video games tax credits

New tax breaks for the games industry were announced in the Budget 
Chancellor George Osborne has announced which cities will benefit from a £100m pot of Treasury cash aimed at making them "super-connected".
These are London, Edinburgh, Belfast, Cardiff, Birmingham, Bradford, Bristol, Leeds, Manchester and Newcastle.
He also announced a further £50m to improve net access in 10 unnamed "smaller cities".
Mr Osborne said that he wanted the UK to become "Europe's technology centre".
The super-connected cities were first announced in Mr Osborne's autumn statement when he pledged £100m to create 100Mbps (megabit per second) citywide networks in 10 urban areas.
By 2015 it is hoped the investments in cities will provide ultrafast broadband coverage to 1.7 million households and high-speed wireless broadband for three million residents.
Motorway reception
The chancellor also announced plans to extend mobile coverage to 60,000 rural homes and along at least 10 key roads by 2015, including the A2 and A29 in Northern Ireland, the A57, A143, A169, A352, A360 and A591 in England, the A82(T) in Scotland and the A470(T) in Wales, subject to planning permission.
Funding would come out of the £150m investment announced in the Autumn Statement.
The government will also consider whether direct intervention is required to improve mobile coverage for rail passengers.
Seb Lahtinen, co-founder of broadband news site ThinkBroadband, said the move was "part of a drive to ensure that not only is the UK the best in Europe in terms of broadband speeds, but can compete on an international stage against countries like South Korea".
"The announcement by the chancellor is a recognition of the fact that broadband technology underpins the economy as a whole, and in particular the digital content industries in this country," he added.
Others felt that money would be better spent in improving rural broadband.
"Whilst funding earmarked for ultra-fast broadband in 10 UK cities is both ambitious and heartening, and will undoubtedly benefit technology companies looking to develop and expand in the UK, the primary concern should be the provision of a quality service to rural areas before pursuing the title of fastest broadband in the world," said Julia Stent, director of telecoms at price comparison site Uswitch.
"Although there are still broadband blackspots and speed issues in some urban areas of the UK, we worry that the major towns and cities will speed ahead of the rest of the country in the premature quest to become fastest in the world."

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

China raises fuel prices for second time in a month

A rise in petrol and diesel prices means refiners can pass some of the higher crude costs to consumers 

China has raised the price of petrol by about 6% and diesel about 7% for the second time in 2012, as it struggles with the rising cost of crude oil.
Global oil prices have been high because of tensions with key supplier Iran.
The move is aimed at ensuring domestic fuel supplies and to help local refiners cut heavy losses.
Analysts said this was a sign the government is less concerned about inflation.
Price worries
Rising prices have been a problem in China since the global financial crisis led authorities to introduce a stimulus package.
Consumer prices peaked in July last year at 6.5% before easing.
In February, the rate of inflation was 3.4% from a year earlier, which is below the government's target of 4%.
"It's a bold move by the National Development and Reform Commission ...looks like inflation has fallen off quite sharply recently, so it is a good politically-timed window," Gordon Kwan from Mirae Asset Management in Hong Kong.
High prices, especially of food and fuel, have previously led to unrest in Chinese cities.
Under China's fuel-pricing system, domestic fuel prices can be adjusted when a basket of international crude changes by more than 4% over a period of 22 days.
Refiner benefits
The hikes are higher than market expectation of an average 3% rise. They come after crude prices rose more than 10% in February.
Fuel prices were last raised in China in February by around 3% to 4%.
After the increase on Tuesday, benchmark diesel will be about $1.22 (76p) per litre and 90-octane petrol about $1.17, although prices vary by region.
Refiners had been urging the government to raise fuel prices, to help them pass on some of the higher cost of crude to consumers.

Sunday, 18 March 2012

Cheap places to stay during London Olympics

With only five months to go until the London Olympics, you need to think about sorting out your accommodation if you managed to get tickets but don't live in London.

Hotel prices have shot up in the city during the Olympics and availability is almost non-existent at this stage, so short term property rentals in London are proving very popular - and there are plenty of Londoners who want to cash in. But there are other, cheaper options, ranging from camping to swapping homes or just renting a room.

Property website has seen a 161% surge in searches for the term 'Olympics' on its website over the past four weeks alone, a trend that is almost certain to grow over the coming months. It has launched a section on its website listing houses and flats available to rent in London as short-term lets during the summer.

With almost 1,000 properties in London currently listed to rent during the Olympic period, there is a range of options to choose from, from a one-bedroom flat for £200 per week within walking distance of the Olympic Stadium to a six-bedroom house in trendy Notting Hill for £30,000 per week.

Nick Leeming, business development director at Zoopla, said: "International demand for short-term property lets in London over the summer is set to be fierce. With hotel rooms having been booked out months, and in some cases years, in advance short-term property rentals are a great alternative. And many London homeowners looking to escape the capital during the Games are offering up their homes as a way to cash in."

Other websites that offer flats or houses for short-term lets include, and However, some homeowners are REALLY cashing in.A seven-bedroom house in London's posh Mayfair is expected to set a British record rent of 433,000 a month during the Olympics.

For those who don't want to fork out a grand or more a week, there are alternatives.

Camp in my Garden
A growing number of Londoners will let you camp in their back garden. Check out Camp in my Garden. You can search by Olympic event, for example if you have tickets for Badminton the site comes up with gardens near the venue, Wembley Arena, or with good transport links to that venue. There is some background information about each place, for example if it has outside facilities such as a loo or powerpoint in the garden, and the distance to the Olympic venue.

Otherwise, there are some campsites that are close to the Olympic village. The Camping and Caravanning club will be running several temporary campsites. The nearest will be in the Lee Valley, a 10-minute walk from the Olympic Park, with another five others just outside London in Gravesham (three sites), Romford, and Windsor Great Park in July and August (to book call 0044 (0)845 130 7633 or 0044 (0)2476 475426). Camping at the Games lets you pitch a tent in the grounds of a London sports club.

Camp London are working with Waltham Forest Council to set up a campsite in a 19-hectare field in Walthamstow, north London, for 19 days (26 July to 13 August). It's £25 per single person to pitch a tent, £20 per person in groups of 2-8 and £15 per person in groups of 9 plus. Children between 6 and 12 pay £10 while kids under 6 pay £1.

Camp in London also offers luxury camping - or glamping - in 100 luxury bell tents (pictured) with rugs, tea chandeliers and Egyptian cotton bedding and towels for £100 a night for adults (children aged 6-12 pay £30 and those under 6 a fiver). The site is about 4 miles from the heart of the city and a 5-10 minute shuttle bus ride from the Olympic Park. And the Lee Valley Camping and Caravan Park in Edmonton, north London, has wooden cabins from just £35 a night. Central London is less than an hour away by public transport while the Olympic Park in Stratford is 5 miles away.

Cheap rooms
Cheap rooms are to be had on the Crashpadder site, which lists over 2,000 rooms from £30 a night. You can also rent a room by the night on

Home swap
Some of my work colleagues do home swap all the time when cut down holiday costs, with or without children. Despite horror stories in the press about people coming back to find their home has been trashed, the people I know have never had any problems. The Guardian newspaper runs a Home exchange website. Another one is Home Base Holidays, which has been going for 25 years.

Some tips
1. Use a reputable lettings agent for a short-term let
2. Be prepared to make a quick decision to avoid any disappointment
3. Have all relevant references and identification paperwork needed ready
4. Check the location and nearest transport links. Don't get caught out by listings with 'ideal' Olympics location where you end up travelling for an hour on the Northern Line. London Transport has a journey planner.
5. On the other hand, if you don't want to spend a fortune be prepared to stay further from the Olympic Park, or even outside London 

Saturday, 17 March 2012

Android app developers criticise Google for late payment

A message on the site Android developers use to track sales acknowledged the problem, but the "learn more" link did not work 

Android app developers have complained about a hold-up in payments from Google.
Europe-based software writers have posted hundreds of comments on the company's forums, saying their February fees had not been received on 7 March as scheduled.
Coders receive a 70% share of sales of their app on the Google Play store.
Six days after the first complaint, a Google employee wrote that: "We're actively investigating this."
"We apologise for this inconvenience. At this time, no action is needed on your part," the developer relations manager added.
She did not say whether the problem originated with Google or one of its payment processing partners.
'Hard to contact'
Some users in France, Sweden and the Netherlands reported that their banks had received the money by midday on Friday. However, others in the UK, Spain, Portugal and Germany said that they had still to receive funds.
Many complained about the difficulty in contacting Google for more information.
"They seem to think no direct contact is a good thing??? Crazy situation but that's how these big corps work and until it hurts their bottom line nothing will change," wrote one developer nicknamed UKAPPS on the Google page named Checkout Merchant forum.
The forum members became particularly annoyed after the firm provided an update last night on its developer console - the page programmers log into to track their sales.
"We are aware of reports from some European developers that they are yet to receive their March 2012 payout for February 2012 sales," it said.
An attached hyperlink promising "learn more" led to a page which said: "We're sorry but the information that you requested cannot be found."
One forum member, nicknamed Red_Rage wrote: "Their response to what is a make-or-break issue for some developers is so amateur. A broken link in the console link after all this whining? Really Google? Really?"
Automated systems
The BBC spoke to one developer who is owed thousands of pounds, but asked not to be identified in case it jeopardised his livelihood.
He noted that he had been previously been able to contact a staff member at Apple when there had been an issue with one of his apps on the firm's iOS platform - but said in this instance it had proved impossible to reach a Google representative.
"If you traverse through the 'contact us' pages of the site, you'll eventually get to a form, but it's pre-populated with generic a/b/c choices, and there is no space to write a custom note," he said.
"Google need to realise that investment in actual human support staff is essential; there are limits to the ways in which a system can be automated - however financially attractive that option may be."
A spokesman for Google said he was unable to provide a statement about staffing.

Wednesday, 14 March 2012

Cyber-attack on BBC leads to suspicion of Iran's involvement

The BBC is not providing detail of the timing or nature of the cyber-attack 

A "sophisticated cyber-attack" on the BBC has been linked to Iran's efforts to disrupt the BBC Persian Service.
In a speech Director General Mark Thompson plans to say that the internet attack coincided with efforts to jam two of the service's satellite feeds into Iran.
He will say: "We regard the coincidence of these different attacks as self-evidently suspicious."
Last month Mr Thompson accused Iran of intimidating Persian service workers.
Reporters Without Borders has also complained about Iran's "cyber-army".
The latest revelation follows a blog post by Mr. Thompson in February in which he complained of the "repeated jamming of international TV stations such as BBC Persian TV, preventing the Iranian people from accessing a vital source of free information".
In his speech to the Royal Television Society he will note that on the day of the cyber-attack there had also been an attempt to disrupt the Persian Service's London phone-lines by the use of multiple automatic calls.
"I don't want to go into any more detail about these incidents except to say that we are taking every step we can, as we always do, to ensure that this vital service continues to reach the people who need it," Mr Thompson will say.
Some parts of the BBC were unable to access email and other internet services on 1 March. It is understood that the attack may have been caused by its systems being overwhelmed by a flood of external communication requests - a so-called distributed denial-of-service attack.
However, a BBC spokeswoman was unable to provide detail about the incident.
"I'm afraid we can't comment any further on the details of the attacks than what's in the extract [of the speech]," a she said.
The revelations follow Reporters Without Borders''Enemies of the Internet'' report which was released at the start of the week.
The free-speech lobby group reported that Iran and some of the other countries on its register "censor internet access so effectively that they restrict their populations to local intranets that bear no resemblance to the world wide web."
It added that Iran's authorities were now capable of blocking ports used by virtual private networks designed to bypass the restrictions.
It also reported that at times of unrest the state had slowed internet connections speeds to make it impossible to send or receive photos or videos.
Iran's Revolutionary Guard created a "cyber army" in 2010. Hundreds of net users have been arrested and some even sentenced to death.
Earlier this month the country's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, also ordered officials to create The Supreme Council of Virtual Space - a body tasked with defining policy and co-ordinating decisions regarding the net.
Iran's Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not reply to a request for comment.

Tuesday, 13 March 2012

A simple guide to pensions

We all need to think about how we will survive financially after we retire. After all, the State Pension does not give you much to live on, and this is unlikely to change - especially given that we are all living longer and longer.

Pensions can be very confusing, though. That's why we've come up with a simple guide to the subject to help you navigate you way through the complicated jargon.

What will I get from the state?

There are two parts to the State Pension, the Basic State Pension and the Additional State Pension.

Most people are entitled to the Basic State Pension once they reach the State Pension Age, which depends on your date of birth but is likely to be between 65 and 68 for anyone who has not yet retired.

The amount you receive depends on how much National Insurance you have paid during your working life. Consequently, people who have taken career breaks may not be entitled to the full amount.

The Additional State Pension (also known as S2P - or previously SERPS) is only paid to workers who have paid Employees Class 1 National Insurance Contributions (Nics) on actual or deemed earnings.

When will I get it? 

Your State Pension Age, which is the earliest point at which you can draw your State Pension, depends on your date of birth.

For anyone retiring between now and 2018, it is likely to be 65 - whether you are male or female. If you are due to retire between 2020 and 2034, then your State Pension Age will currently be 66, while those retiring after that will have to wait until they are 67 or 68 to claim the State Pension.

What is the Pension Credit? 

The Pension Credit is a means-tested social security benefit that is designed to provide older Britons with a minimum level of income, and reward those aged 65 and over with extra cash to supplement the modest incomes they get from their retirement savings.

What is contracting out? 

It is possible to opt out of the additional State pension by redirecting your NICs to an occupational or personal pension scheme - a process known as 'contracting out'. Whether you would benefit from contracting out depends on your individual circumstances such as your age, earnings and pension provision. It is vital to seek independent professional advice on this issue as a result.

What about personal pensions? 

With a personal pension, you pay regular monthly amounts or a lump sum to a pension provider that invests the money on your behalf. The fund is usually run by a financial organisation such as a bank or insurance company.

Do I need one? 

Whether or not a personal pension is right for you depends largely on how much you can afford to save for retirement and how much income you can expect from any other pensions.

If, for example, your employer offers a company pension scheme or a stakeholder pension scheme into which it makes an employer contribution, you will usually be better off increasing your contributions to this fund. But if not, a personal pension offer generous tax breaks and is therefore a popular vehicle for retirement saving.

How do I choose a personal pension? 

There are a number of factors to consider before getting a personal pension. These include how the money will be invested, the provider's charges and how much you can afford to save.

If you think you may need to stop and start your payments or vary the amount, for example, you might consider a stakeholder pension. Other options include Self-invested personal pensions (Sipps), which offer greater investment freedom and are a good choice for more experienced investors.

Whichever you choose, you will also have to decide how to turn the cash into an income stream once you retire. The most common way to do this is by buying an annuity.

What is an annuity? 

An annuity is a contract with an insurance company that provides a retirement income - in the form of regular payments - for the rest of your life.

Members of defined contribution pension schemes, such as money purchase, personal pensions and stakeholder pensions, can use their accumulated fund to purchase an annuity once they are 55.

A lot of people buy an annuity from their pension provider. However, you can significantly increase the income you get by shopping around so it is sensible to compare the whole market before making your choice.

What are the other options? 

Income Drawdown allows you to take an income from your pension fund while the fund remains invested and continues to benefit from any fund growth - or suffer should markets fall. You generally need a substantial fund value, say at least £100,000, for this to be an option.

The risks involved also make it crucial to discuss this with an independent financial adviser before taking the plunge.