ICYMI: Last Week’s Science News (5/10/17)


By: Jaclyn Cascio (@jaclynator)

New research in gene-editing, surprising brain discoveries, and lots of stuff about ice – the world of science is always exciting. ICYMI, here’s some of the science news from last week!

CRISPR isn’t for your salad.

Long story short, CRISPR lets researchers take out and replace DNA in cells. Recently, researchers have used this technology to target fusion genes, which form when two genes combine to produce abnormal proteins that can lead to or cause cancer. These genes are the root of some cancers and by modifying the fusion genes in mice, the scientists found that cancerous tumors in the mice were reduced in size up to 30%, while also preventing any further tumors from developing, and ensuring the survival of the mice for the duration of the study. Further research for humans is needed, but it gets a foot in the door for new cancer treatment possibilities!

Speaking of CRISPR…

Researchers from Temple University and the University of Pittsburgh have utilized CRISPR gene-editing technology to rid the genomes of three different animal models of HIV DNA. The method essentially “cuts out” the HIV-1 virus and prevent viral replication. The new study confirmed previous work while also establishing that the process worked on rodents with acute infections as well as latent infections. Human immune cells were also transplanted into mice and the strategy was still successful. The researchers hope to expand their research to primate models of the disease and treatment, with an eventual goal of human clinical trials. Once again, CRISPR technology is helping scientists in ground-breaking research for health problems of today’s population!

When a “need the bathroom” dance takes a serious turn…

This week, the FDA gave accelerated approval to a new medication for treating certain types of bladder cancer. For those whose cancer has not responded to chemotherapy, they may have the opportunity to try the immune-oncology drug that targets the cancer tumor’s ability to hide from the body’s immune system. It is costly, but it appears to be a viable option for patients that will also bring with it less negative side effects than chemotherapy. The drug, Imfinzi, is also currently going through testing for treating other cancers as well.

Nuclear fission? Check. Nuclear fusion? The UK is on it!

Nuclear reactors today utilize nuclear fission. But scientists have been working hard to achieve nuclear fusion. (The process that fuels our sun and could lead to clean energy if we can figure out how to start the process artificially ourselves.) The UK company, Tokamak Energy, has successfully created “first plasma” in their new ST40 reactor. The first private venture to design, build, and operate a controlled fusion device, they hope to hit the fusion threshold of 100 million degrees Celsius by 2018. Watch out for the Brits!

My mother warned me that my gut was a bad influence.

Recent research has linked the gut to the brain when it comes to Parkinson’s disease. A recent study has found that those who have had a truncal vagotomy (removal of sections of the vagus nerve) seem to present lower rates of Parkinson’s. With the gut and brain are connected by the vagus nerve, various theories have emerged as to how the two are linked with the disease. There’s still a lot to be learned about the gut and brain and how they work together and affect one another, but if we’re lucky, the link might lead to discovering a source and eventually a treatment for the disease! It’s a long road, but the studies continue!

Brain surprise!

One of the greatest mysteries of the human body is the brain. And it looks like the cerebellum might do more than just help with breathing, balance, coordination, etc. Scientists were studying the cerebellum and its activity associated with movement in mice and they rewarded mice with a sweet treat – sugar water – when they moved and pressed a lever. But they got more than they bargained for as some cells in the cerebellum lit up not just with movement, but with waiting for their reward. Another group of cells showed action when a reward was taken away. It appeared that there are cells in the cerebellum that are tied to the body’s reward system. Although this has just been found in mice, and humans might be a different story – the cerebellum is a pretty basic and similar structure across the mammalian world, so it looks like the cerebellum might be more integrated into the rest of the brain’s functions than initially thought!

Just add water!

Researchers are always on the prowl to find ways to be energy transfer and storage more efficient. In a “proof of concept” experimental study, scientists have found that adding a thin layer of water (atomically thin) to certain materials, the material was able to store and deliver energy faster! There are a lot of kinks to work out, so water layers won’t be in devices anytime soon, but the study could lead the researchers one step closer to making items like batteries thinner, more powerful, and longer-lasting, which anyone walking around with a cell phone desires.

Help Wanted: Snow Machine Operators in Switzerland

Just a couple months ago, scientists proposed a wild idea to refreeze the Arctic. It’s ridiculous and implausible, but it looks like other outlandish ideas are being put to the test! In Switzerland, scientists have started a trial study to try to preserve an artificial glacier through the hot summer months by using snow machines to cover the glacier with an artificial layer of snow. Research lead Johannes Oerlemans did the math and believes that 4,000 snow machines could help save the country’s large Morteratsch Glacier and even help it to grow in the coming years. The trial will carry through the summer on a small test section of the Diavolezzafirn Glacier, and if successful might lead to a full scale operation to save the Morteratsch Glacier! It’s not the expansive Arctic, but it’s a start!

Antarctic Blood Falls: An Origin Story

In 1911, the Blood Falls were discovered in Antarctica. The water flowing from Taylor Glacier was originally believed to be colored by a red algae. However, more recently, it has been determined the water gets its blood-red color by iron oxide (rust) coming off fissures in the ice. But no one knew where the running water originated from. A new study using radar methods has shown that the water seems to be seeping up from a salt-water lake trapped beneath the glacier, working its way up under enormous pressure. Blood Falls also hold a lot of mystery around a unique microbial system, so the research of Blood Falls will continue for the foreseeable future!

Fungus Suicide Squad

An abandoned toxic copper mine pit in Montana has been found fatal for some species, while for others an environment to thrive in. Scientists have taken two particular species of fungus found in that pit and combined them to get a compound that is a unique antibiotic, destroying bacteria in a way never expected. The compound managed to wipe out four antibiotic-resistant strains of MRSA, anthrax, strep, and a few others! With bacteria becoming more resistant to treatment, scientists are excited for a new antibiotic that might solve the problem. Extensive study is needed before such a compound ever becomes a prescribed medication in health clinics, but it’s an interesting development!

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