New drug should help pre-term infants

By Lynne Friedmann

Research advances at The Scripps Research Institute are the cornerstone of the new drug Surfaxin® (lucinactant), approved this month by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to treat infant respiratory distress syndrome. The life-threatening condition occurs when premature infants are born before their bodies are sufficiently developed to produce the lung-coating surfactant that keeps air sacs open and makes normal breathing possible.

Current treatments include mechanical ventilation or administering surfactants derived from cow or pig lungs. However, animal-derived surfactants are expensive, can cause immune reactions, and cannot be produced in quantities sufficient to meet the worldwide medical need.

Scripps researchers first created a synthetic version of lung surfactant in the 1990s, mimicking a natural peptide known as Surfactant Protein B. After formative, basic research at Scripps, the therapy was developed by Discovery Labs of Warrington, Penn.

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Cocoa may enhance skeletal muscle

A clinical trial led by researchers at UC San Diego School of Medicine and VA San Diego Healthcare System found that patients showed improvement to damaged mitochondria (structures responsible for most of the energy produced in cells) after treatment with epicatechin-enriched cocoa. Epicatechin is an antioxidant found in dark chocolate.

In the study, five profoundly ill patients had major damage to skeletal muscle mitochondria as a result of both type 2 diabetes and heart failure. This caused the patients shortness of breath, lack of energy, and difficulty walking even short distances.

Trial participants consumed dark chocolate bars and a beverage with a total epicatechin content of approximately 100 mg on a daily basis over several months. Biopsies of skeletal muscle, conducted before and after treatment, looked at changes in mitochondria volume and the abundance of cristae – internal compartments of mitochondria necessary for efficient function of the mitochondria.

After three months’ treatment, cristae numbers were back toward normal levels and increases in several molecular indicators involved in new mitochondria production were also noted. The study appears in the journal Clinical and Translational Science.

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Running hot, cold in the deep sea

Among the many intriguing aspects of the deep sea are hydrothermal vent systems where hot water surges out from the seafloor. The deep sea also features cold areas where methane rises from “seeps” on the ocean bottom. Finding both habitats intersecting in one place would be unexpected.

But that’s exactly what researchers from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego discovered during a Central America expedition. They coined the phrase “hydrothermal seep” to describe the ecosystem found in the Jaco Scar, at the Costa Rica margin where an underwater mountain is moving under a tectonic plate.

Co-existing animals in the hydrothermal seep ranged from those known to inhabit hot vents or cold seeps, along with “foundation” species that exist in both settings. In addition, scientists also documented a large number of mysterious, previously undescribed species.

Findings appear in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B (Biological Sciences).

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— Lynne Friedmann is a science writer based in Solana Beach.