Saturday, December 31, 2011

The most exciting scientific discoveries of 2011

The renown journal Science has just announced that a clinical trial with a new treatment strategy for HIV patients is the most promising discovery of the year. However, over the last few months I have seen quite a few other very interesting new findings. And what better moment to present you with a nice list on the very last day of 2011?

Friday, December 30, 2011

Schizophrenics have too tightly wound DNA

Schizophrenia is described as a disease of the mind, and is often associated with people that have a split personality. However, it is actually a disease with many symptoms, and a split personality, despite movies such as Me Myself & Irene, is not one of them. In an effort to understand more of the biological mechanisms of schizophrenia, scientists from Scripps Research Institute have discovered that the structure of DNA of patients is quite different from that of healthy people. Large parts of the genetic code are too tightly wound, which renders the cellular machinery unable to read the genes that are present in these areas.

Brain uses 'glue cells' to form memories

Scientists have long thought that we use neurons, the cells that make up the wiring of the brain, for all of the brain's functions. The other commonly found cell type, glial cells, were thought to be supporting the neurons in keeping the brain structure intact. Hence the name glial, which is Greek for glue. Researchers from the Tel Aviv University have shown, however, that glial cells play an essential role in memory formation. While the role of glial cells in supporting the brain's wiring have been investigated previously, the Israeli researchers reveal how they are able to function in concert with neurons.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Male-female attraction is governed by DNA

Males and females are naturally attracted to each other in the animal world. This is necessary for procreation: while bacteria can replicate themselves asexually, humans and other animals need sexual reproduction between males and females. Research in frogs shows that females are attracted to singing males, if they have an equal number of chromosomes, which are the carriers of our genetic code. This shows that DNA actually decides attraction, though it is not clear whether humans are also affected by DNA matching.

New mechanism reveals how body prevents cancer

Scientists from the University of Zurich showed that the body possesses a repair mechanism that is supposed to prevent our cells to become cancerous. They found a molecule that repairs damage in our genetic code, induced by factors that can for example be released by smoking. If this particular repair mechanism does not function properly, genetic damage persists and can alter cellular behaviour. While most cells die, some actually become cancerous. While we possess more of these DNA repairing molecules, the discovery of this particular one is important. By improving its functionality, we might be able to prevent cancer.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Bacteria build a house inside our cells

Bacteria appear to be able to hijack our cellular machinery in order to hide themselves inside our cells. They manipulate specific proteins to build a structure that functions as their home. Discovering this mechanism is important in the fight against bacterial infection, as this process is known to cause disease.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Genes responsible for memory formation found

We already possess a fair bit of knowledge about how memories are formed. It is known that brain structures such as the hippocampus are involved, and which processes underly the creation of memories. Now, a team of geneticists from MIT have discovered which genes are responsible for the formation of memory. This is an important discovery, as it might allow us to develop strategies to improve our memories, and counter neurodegenerative diseases that affect what we can remember, such as Alzheimer's disease.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Genetic material in cells contains self-destruct timer

Cells from basically all life forms possess DNA, which is the blueprint for all material required to build cellular structures and maintain its processes. DNA is turned into proteins via intermediates called mRNAs. These molecules are read-outs from their respective genes, and function as the code that is being read by specialized structures that make the protein. But after a while, the cell has made enough protein and the mRNA needs to be destroyed. Scientists from the Albert Einstein College of Medicine found that mRNA molecules are born with a self-destruct timer, which shows how our cells regulate one of its most important processes.

CERN finds a new particle, but it's not Higgs

The group of scientists at CERN, Switzerland have just announced that their ATLAS detector has discovered a new particle. By smashing protons at insanely high speeds in the Large Hadron Collider, they found a particle that is described as Chi-b (3P). It tells us more about the fundamental forces of nature, but the Swiss organization is actually looking for the Higgs boson; the particle that is supposed to complete the Standard Model by explaining why particles possess mass.

Single gene can cause many forms of cancer

Cancer is found in many forms with many underlying causes. Because each cell in the body can potentially grow out to form a tumour, and there are various mechanisms that allow a cell to grow in an uncontrolled fashion, cancer is actually a large collection of diseases. Though, scientists from the University of British Columbia have revealed that various rare forms of cancer have the same underlying cause. This does not only help us to create a novel therapy, but also makes it more relevant by targeting many forms of the disease.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Study reveals how evolution shaped the human skull

The most remarkable feature of humans are their brains. These peculiar animals have developed such complex brains that they are aware of their own existence, and have an unparalleled ability to shape the world around them. It leads to all kinds of sensational technology, or even being able to write this blogpost. In a large study of skeletons, scientist revealed how the shell that surrounds the brain, our skull, has evolved over time, shedding light on how we became who we are.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Arrhythmias can be treated by cutting nerves

When the heart beats in an irregular fashion, it can cause all kinds of problems. Our body requires a steady flow of blood, which can be adjusted based on individual requirements of organs and muscles. However, some people have a dysregulated heart beat, called arrhythmia. Our heart beat is ultimately controlled by our brain, which is connected to the heart by nerves. When our natural pacemaker goes haywire, we have a problem. Based on that, researchers from the University of California have developed a method to alleviate the severity of the irregular beats, which is based on cutting some of the nerves that control the heart. This should reduce the high number of deaths associated with arrhythmias.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Personalised medicine for cancer patients is coming

A group of scientists have devoted themselves to the development of personalised cancer treatments. Their main goal is to develop strategies to provide each cancer patient with cutting edge therapies, based on a personal profile of the disease. That means future patients will have the characteristics of their tumour assessed, and be given drugs that specifically target the type of tumour they have. Personalised medicine is hallowed to become the next great step in medicine.

Drugs double the efficacy of radiation therapy

Radiation therapy is frequently used in the treatment of cancer. It works by irradiating the tumour, which harms the malicious cells. As a side-effect, however, healthy tissue is also affected by the harmful rays. That is why radiation needs to be given in a low dose, which reduces the efficiency. Scientists from Georgia Health Sciences University have discovered that combining a drug therapy with radiation can be beneficial for the patient. In fact, by selectively targeting cancer cells with medicine, the efficacy can be doubled, which is a great improvement for cancer patients.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Bacteria communicate to launch an organized attack

Bacteria possess various molecules that allows for communication between them. Recently, a protein has been found which tells bacteria to get ready for battle. It helps them to launch a coordinated attack inside the organism they invaded. The scientists from the University of California who discovered the molecule proved that it also plays a role in human infections, highlighting the relevance of their findings for the clinic.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Anti-cholesterol drugs can reduce flu deaths

Statins are drugs used for their cholesterol-lowering effects. They are prescribed frequently, and make pharmaceutical companies earn billions of dollars. A new study has shown they might even be a bigger cash cow, as they seem to reduce the number of deaths from infection with influenza virus, which causes the flu. While certainly unexpected, it can be a welcome addition in the everlasting fight against flu.

Proof that living conditions on Mars can harbour life

Scientists have been speculating about life on Mars. Its conditions are not quite suitable for humans, but small micro-organisms might be able to live on our neighbouring planet, despite the temperatures ranging from -87 to -5 degrees Celsius, and the lack of oxygen. It was already suggested that life could have formed on Mars because expeditions to the planet revealed it once had liquid water. Now, scientists have found microbes living on Earth in Mars-like conditions, showing that some life forms are actually able to survive on Mars.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Camera with trillion frames per second captures light

A new camera that records a stunning trillion frames per second is able to show the trajectory of individual photons, the particles of light. The result is that we can see how a small pulse of light hits an object and consequently scatters. Not only is it an awesome piece of technology, it can in the future be used to improve medical imaging, or create more spectacular lighting effects. A video has been made to show off the capabilities of the camera.

Sugar makes you look older than you really are

Lots of sugar is bad for you. While that is a general truth, a recent study has revealed an additional reason for cutting down on it: high levels of sugar make you look old. In some cases, independent observers perceived people's age almost two years higher than their actual age. Naturally, they used a large number of observers because assessing someone's age from the look of their skin is not quite an exact science. But the results are clear: glucose, which is the simple form of sugar that circulates in your body, makes you look older.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Close friends together yawn more frequently

It is a common sight that people yawn in response to others. Why this behaviour occurs is unknown, but a recent study at the University of Pisa has shown that yawning is more contagious among close friends. That is what they conclude after a year-long study, in which they tracked different people in different relationships. While this does not tell us what the actual function is of yawning, its social aspect is certainly intriguing.

A speed race between cells, for science and for fun

In an effort to discover the capabilities of cells to move, scientists have set up a tournament to find the world's fastest cells. 50 groups of scientists submitted a cell culture to the American Society for Cell Biology, who organised this special event. Of course, the whole race was recorded on video.

Overcoming chronic infection with immune revival

Infections with pathogens can become chronic after a while. The main reason is that our immune system has no unlimited supply of 'cellular soldiers' that can be send to battle viruses or bacteria. Eventually, our bodily defences have to give in, and pathogens find a permanent home somewhere in our organs, causing permanent dismay to the patient. Scientists from the Emory Vaccine Center have found a way to revitalize the immune system after it is depleted due to chronic infection. This could be beneficial for treatment of viral infections of HIV or hepatitis.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Promising new vaccines for cancer being developed

One of the reasons tumours are allowed to flourish in our body, is the fact that the immune system is unable to recognize the malicious cells. Normally, when cells start behaving oddly, they will be cleared by specialized immune cells. However, tumour cells have found a way to evade them, and that's why scientists try to come up with ways to train the immune system to successfully recognize cancer cells. Researchers from the Mayo Clinic in Arizona have developed a vaccine that trains the immune system to recognize breast cancer and pancreatic cancer. It significantly reduced the number of tumours in mice, highlighting the therapeutic potential of their findings.

DNA replication visualized in live organisms

When cells aim to grow and divide themselves, they need to replicate their DNA, so that a daughter cell also possesses a set of chromosomes, which serve as a blueprint for the cell. A new substance developed in Zurich, Swiss shows us which cells are actually replicating their DNA. It is the first time this process can be observed with our own eyes, in live organisms. This should aid in uncovering several problems in which cells have too much DNA replication, such as a virus infection or cancer.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Scar formation tells us how to make new therapies

When something in our body gets damaged, repair mechanisms often resort to creating scar tissue. Sometimes this is visible on the outside, on our skin, but it is also present in our organs. The process of scar formation is basically filling up the holes left behind by damaged tissue, that was cleared away by the immune system. The downside of this, is that scar tissue is not functional. In medicine, we would like to stop scar formation, and let the body repair damaged organs by creating new functional tissue. A recent discovery shows how the body forms scars under the influence of mechanical stress. This is an important process, largely responsible for the production of scar tissue in our body. If we can manipulate it, we could reduce scar formation, and therefore cure diseases characterized by excess scar formation, which are pretty common, and collectively known as fibrosis.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Scientists get easy access to embryonic stem cells

Getting access to embryonic stem cells of human origin has just been made a whole lot easier. A new data bank has been given the task to provide scientists with human embryonic stem cells (hESC), free of charge. This should boost research on this topic, which is not easy to conduct because hESC are hard to obtain, or make. These primitive cells carry high potency for use in the clinic, as they are able to transform into all known tissue types, which we can use for repairing organs.

Brain stimulation induces unconscious learning

Scientists have found a way to make people learn things unconsciously. By analysing the brain of participants that were learning a visual task, they discovered that the corresponding brain patterns can be used to learn things automatically. Researchers from Boston University artificially induced the required patterns in the brains of those participating in the study, which made them learn the required task without actually seeing the visual task. Neither were they aware of the fact that they learned something.

Friday, December 9, 2011

NASA releases beautiful pictures of the sun

We see our sun every day when we look up to the sky, and we can feel its rays warming up the Earth and our bodies. Though, it's hard to see what this magnificent large fireball really looks like up close. NASA, after releasing a beautiful video of the Earth, has released a couple of close-up pictures that give a detailed look of the star of our solar system. You will find the pictures after the break, but for those interested, there is also a nice video of the moon, made by German astronomers.

Single protein stops cell division in cancer

Rapid cell division is one of the main problems in cancer. Their rate of replicating themselves is so high, that it starts damaging their surroundings. Cancer therapies mainly focus on stopping growth, mostly by non-specific toxins that also hamper healthy cells. A newly discovered protein was found to play a role in cell division, and seems effective in killing cancer cells. Clinical trials are now needed to assess whether it is any use for cancer patients. It does seem a promising new weapon in our arsenal against cancer.

'Fat switch' hints at why people get obese fast

Scientists from Warwick Medical School have found that the body can flip a switch which is important for our metabolism. Differences in the activity of this switch may explain why some people gain weight much faster and struggle with keeping their weight balanced. The mechanism is based on an enzyme that can be flipped in an active and an inactive state. Modifying this enzyme could aid in losing weight. According to the scientists, this could be a breakthrough in tackling obesity.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

New drugs can reduce the levels of bad cholesterol

Bad cholesterol is widely known as a risk factor for the development of various diseases, such as stroke and atherosclerosis. Various drugs aim to target bad cholesterol in the body, but a new approach by the University of Leicester can increase the efficiency. They found how a molecule negatively impacts the rate at which the body can clear bad cholesterol from the body, which they want to target with new drugs. By lowering the level of bad cholesterol, it is possible to prevent the associated diseases.

Treating malaria by starving the parasite causing it

A new medicine in development to treat malaria focuses on killing the parasite that causes the disease by starving it. By blocking the production of a molecule that the mosquito needs to build new DNA, it can't make new cells, causing it to die. By starving it of the required building blocks for DNA, the scientists claim they have found the Achilles' heal, which aids in eradicating the bug causing malaria.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

The liver could be the cause of Alzheimer's disease

Scientists from an American institute might just have revolutionized the treatment of Alzheimer's disease, a neurodegenerative disease that leads to loss of memory. While it was long thought that the underlying pathology starts somewhere in the brain, for an unknown reason, the researchers have shown that it actually seems to be the liver that induces the disease. If these findings can be verified, it is a revolution in our understanding of the disease, and it will have important implications for treatment, or finding a cure.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

NASA discovers planet similar to Earth

NASA researchers have found a planet where water can exist in liquid form. The temperatures and the conditions were claimed to be favourable to life, and the planet is orbiting a star that is quite similar to our sun. It is the first time a planet is discovered outside of our own that could harbour life.

Relevance of accupuncture to relieve pain gets some scientific backing

Acupuncture is a technique were therapists stick a bunch of needles in a patient's skin. Long has it been confined to a place in the field of alternative medicine, but a recent study has shown that here is scientific proof for its use to relief pain. That is welcome news for acupuncturists, and an interesting result for medicine in general.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Active nervous system predicts effective weight loss

Surprisingly, scientists have found a correlation between activity of the nervous system and someone's success in losing weight. They showed that increased activity of the autonomous nervous system during rest affects the rate at which the body's metabolises, and the rate at which calories derived from food are being used up. According to the researchers, working at an institute in Melbourne, Australia, the measured activity can accurately predict obesity, which is a helpful tool in analysing one's change on losing weight.

Muscle tiredness starts in the brain

A mechanism in the brain has been linked to inducing the feeling of being unable to gather the strength for certain tasks during physical exercise. It appears to be a key factor in determining the limits of our muscle capabilities. Though we are inclined to think that our muscles are the most important in determining our limits, it is actually the brain that sets them. Modifying this mechanism can prove to be interesting for athletes, that want to push themselves to the extreme.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Drugs reverse lethal radiation damage

Radiation treatment is often used to combat certain types of cancer, or before a bone marrow transplantation in blood diseases. Like many other therapies, it is not very specific, causing harm to surrounding tissue. Scientists from Harvard Medical School found that drug treatment can significantly decrease the damage caused by radiation therapy. It can probably be used in the clinic, to ameliorate the side-effects found when patients undergo radiation therapy.

Cancer cells can be tricked with poisonous sugar

There is a lot of research being performed on treating cancer. The trend is to find specific therapies that only target cancer cells, and leave healthy cells alone. Scientists from Kyushy University Medical School propose a new idea: treatment with sugar. By coupling sugar molecules with a specific drug, cancer cells can be forced to kill themselves with relatively high selectivity. Apparently it works so well that the researchers hope to start clinical trials soon.

Meditation keeps your brain from wandering off

There has been much debate about whether mediation is in any kind useful. Some scientists argue its effects are similar to a placebo, and therefore do not acknowledge that it can induce any lasting changes in people's mindset. However, a new study reveals that in experienced meditators some brain parts are less active. According to the researchers, this might indicate that medication can increase happiness.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Violent video games change 'emotion areas' in brain

How violent video games affect the brain is subject to a lot of controversy. Some scientists claim that violence in games is harmful, while others claim they do not influence our behaviour at all. While it is still not clear how violence can influence our behaviour, a new study has shown that there are at least some changes visible in the brain when playing violent games. However, it still remains to be seen whether that has any lasting consequences.

Cells respond to cancer and allergy in similar ways

The cells in our body use similar pathways to protect themselves from cancer and to induce allergy, a new study suggests. When cells are exposed to stress factors that can cause damage leading to cancer, they activate certain stress molecules that call in the help of the immune system. British scientists discovered that these stress molecules also play a role in allergy, when the immune system responds strongly to otherwise harmless particles coming from the environment. Discovering how the body responds to cancer-causing damage is important to develop treatments that involve the immune system.

Some people have the ability to see colours at will

It appears possible to see colours simply by using the mind. That is what scientists conclude after they asked people that are very susceptible to hypnosis to hallucinate colours on certain monochromatic patterns. Using only their will, they were able to do so. This was previously thought only to be possible during hypnosis. The ability to bend reality at will can in some cases be useful, for example to increase the effectiveness of psychotherapy, or to block out pain.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Brain processes visual information unconsciously

Scientists have shown that the brain does not always need to make use of our consciousness to process visual information. For visual input we are accustomed to perceiving, it takes longer before our awareness is being notified. However, if our visual systems process something unusual, our consciousness is called in much earlier. It shows that we do not necessarily need to be aware of things to assess the impact of visual information. And this may hold true for other sensory input as well, raising the question of how much we actually consciously process from the world that surrounds us.

Muscle-powered therapy can prevent HIV infection

One of the body's protection mechanisms against infection is churning out antibodies that bind to pathogens, which are consequently rendered immobile, or flagged to be killed by immune cells. But HIV is different. Because the virus infects certain immune cells, the immune response is hampered, which includes the antibody production. Scientists have artificially made a bunch of antibodies able to bind HIV, but the cells that are supposed to produce those antibodies, are impaired in AIDS patients. As an alternative, a gene-based therapy was developed to modify other cells to start making antibodies. As it turns out, muscles, that have the required genes built in, were able to make antibodies that protect against HIV infection, even after the virus is trying to destroy the immune system during an infection. That is a promising result in developing a vaccine that eradicates HIV, and consequently AIDS as a disease.

3D printer is able to create bone

Using a modified printer, scientists have found a way to create 3D structures that closely resemble bone. In the future, we should be able to use this for certain medical procedures where bone needs to be repaired. The machine, that works similar to an ordinary inkjet printer, can be used to custom build pieces of bone. After all the necessary testing has been done, doctors could order pieces of bone which they need for their patients, and it would simply be made using a computer to give out a print job.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

The illusive dark matter is probably quite heavy

The stuff that makes up almost a quarter of our universe but has never been observed directly, probably consists of a particle that is relatively heavy, a new study suggests. Because we know dark matter has a gravitational pull on the matter we can see, we know it consists of particles that possess mass. However, it is unknown what the characteristics of these particles are, because we can not observe them, hence the name dark matter. A team of scientists from the famous Fermi lab set out to discover the mass of this unknown particle, by looking at radiation coming from so-called dwarf galaxies. They found out that the dark matter particle is likely to be 44 times heavier than a proton, the latter being a building block for atoms and thus for matter we can observe. With this discovery, scientists can calibrate their particle detectors to look for things that fit the size range found by Fermi lab, which might speed up the search to find the illusive dark matter particle. Additionally, a newly constructed dark matter map, ought to help in the process.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Improved vaccine protects you a 100-fold better

Vaccines function by eliciting an immune response in the body. When it encounters an actual pathogenic micro-organism afterwards, our defences are prepared for it. This has been so effective that we succeeded in eliminating a few diseases completely, such as smallpox. Now, a team of scientists from Harvard Medical School has created a new version of the vaccine that is supposed to perform a hundred times better than conventional ones. If it proves to be effective in humans, we might be able to get rid of more life-threatening diseases.

Monday, November 28, 2011

3D imaging gives hope for improved face transplants

Combining all sorts of relevant medical data in a complex 3D computer model should improve the way we do face transplantations. This is much needed, as accidents leaving patients with a disfigured face often leave permanent marks. Because we use our face to express and present ourselves, being able to perform better reparations can give disfigured people a much better life.

Engineers find a way to turn insects into cyborgs

Cyborgs can be used for various tasks. Especially ones that involve risk and danger. With this idea in mind, the University of Michigan has developed a way to load up an insect with various tools that turn it into a machine that we can control. The biggest hurdle was finding a method to provide it with enough energy so it can sustain itself. The researchers managed to find a way, creating an insect robot that we could send into dangerous situations to perform tasks we'd rather not leave to humans. 

Sunday, November 27, 2011

NASA launches Mars rover to search for life

The American space organisation NASA has just launched its latest piece of machinery to a foreign planet. The Mars rover Curiosity is supposed to find evidence for the existence of life and possible habitable environments. According to NASA, the 2,5 billion dollar launch was successful, and Curiosity is now on its way to the Red Planet, where it is supposed to arrive in August next year. You can find a video of the launch after the break.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Drug found efficient in incurable muscle disease

Huntington's disease is a severe muscle disease that slowly degenerates muscles and cognitive functions over time. There is no cure, but a study with an existing drug performed by the University of Texas shows that we might be able to slow the disease down, and protect the brain cells that are involved with the disease. While the compound has not yet been tested on humans, patients may be given more years with good life quality when it eventually finds its way to the clinic.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Brain cell transplant found to counter obesity

A study conducted by Harvard University yielded a surprising result, as they managed to decrease obesity in mice by transplanting a bunch of cells to their brain. These so-called neurons were placed in a part of the brain that is known to regulate food intake behaviour. Transplanted cells were found to survive, and contribute to brain function. Mice receiving the treatment ended up weighing about 30 percent less than their counterparts, who did not receive treatment. Brain cell transplants are not being performed in humans, but this could have important implications for the treatment of disorders which's underlying pathology starts in the brain.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Gene helps you to maintain a balanced weight

New research reveals that those striving to obtain a healthy, balanced weight can benefit more from genes than what was previously thought. One gene in particular seems to be involved with maintaining energy balance, which is known as homeostasis. MC3R helps mice to keep balance between energy input and expenditure. But when it is dysfunctional, the animals were found to increase in weight, leading to obesity. This has important implications for research on one of mankind's biggest problems, the ever-increasing weight of the population that leads to all sorts of complications. It is however not the first time genetic factors have been implicated in diabetes.

Yeast reveals how we might prolong our lifespan

A molecular mechanism discovered in yeast has implication on research that focuses on prolonging lifespan. It was found that a certain protein has the capability to significantly affect the lifespan of yeast. The question remains whether the same mechanism applies to humans. But if it does, we may have found a target to develop therapies to prolong our own lifespan. Of course, much more research would be required to find out whether we can do so in a healthy and pleasant way. Previously, scientists already discovered that longer life span is something that can be inherited.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Brain stimulation reverses shrinkage in Alzheimer's

Alzheimer's disease is marked by progressive degeneration of certain brain areas and associated loss of memory. There is no cure, but a recent study with a technique called deep brain stimulation (DBS) shows we might be able to treat the symptoms, by reversing some of the brain shrinkage found in Alzheimer's. A key brain part involved in the disease was found to grow, and the neurological deteroriation that is accompanied with it was found to be slowed. This shows using DBS may alleviate the symptoms and possibly keep the disease from progressing once it is finetuned. It was already shown that stimulating a part of the brain involved with the disease was able to let cells grow back, but this is the first time clinical improvement was found.

New strategy makes antibiotics much more effective

Bacteria are known to produce hydrogen sulfide, which was long believed to be a by-product of cellular activities. However, scientists from NYU School of Medicine have shown that it is actually involved in an important process. Their findings reveal that the chemical compound is used in a mechanism that we can target to make antibiotics more effective. If we can develop adequate drugs based on this finding, we can improve treatment of bacterial infections, and perhaps reduce the number of deaths related to bacteria that are resistant to our current range of antibiotics.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

The most detailed video of the moon ever made

German astronomers have released a video showing the structure of the moon in very high detail. They used a wide-angle camera that took over 70,000 pictures. Stitched together into a 3d movie, the viewer gets an overview of nearly the full surface of the moon, and all its craters and mountains. Red colour depicts high areas on the moon, while blue is an indicator for low-lying areas. The movie, that also provides more close-up images, reveals a crater of over 9000 meters deep, and a mountain with a height surpassing 10,000 meters. In addition, the landing sites of a few lunar landers are highlighted. While the video, which you can find after the break, does not provide any new insights, it is interesting to get a detailed view of Earth's only satellite companion.

Genetic drug can treat disease causing infant death

A recent animal study has revealed that new drugs interfering with our genes can reduce mortality of the leading cause of infant death worldwide: a disease called spinal muscular atrophy. It is caused by a dysfunctional gene, but fortunately, our genome provides a backup. However, it needs to be modified before it can produce a functional protein, that is able to take over the function of the original one. Spinal muscular atrophy affects 1 in 6000 children, who mostly die young because their body is unable to control muscle function. Scientists have also recently discovered key proteins that are involved with another severe muscle disease, called Lou Gehrig's disease, or ALS. In addition, the genetic basis for a more rare, but not less severe, form of muscle disease has recently been uncovered.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Inhibition of just one molecule makes treatment of both tumours and wounds possible

A newly discovered cellular mechanism provides clues to both how our body tries to fight off tumours, as well as killing micro-organisms in wounds. Both processes involve the immune system, which's first line of defence consists of a group of cells called neutrophils. These cells are first to be on site, and the mechanism by which they are activated has recently been discovered by a group of scientists from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. A tumour, or a wound, generates large amounts of hydrogen peroxide, which causes neutrophil activation, which basically jump-starts the immune response. Discovering how this mechanism can be utilized could be beneficial to developing new methods to improve wound healing and tumour killing.

Bacteria have survival mode for antibiotic resistance

When bacteria are unable to find enough food to supply them with energy, they are able to switch to a survival mode, which renders them capable of sustaining themselves with far less In addition, bacteria that transform themselves into this low-energy mode are found to have a far greater resistance to antibiotics. While scientists have argued that this is caused by a lack of metabolism needed for the drugs to work, a recent study has shown that this feature is actually acquired by means of an active process. This is an important discovery, because resistance to antibiotics is an emerging problem that renders our drugs ineffective.

Gene deficiency underlies severe muscle disease

The cause of one the most severe form of diseases humans can suffer from has just been uncovered. A large British family with a muscle disease was found to have a mutation in a gene that is important for muscle function. The so-called MEGF10 gene was found to be dysfunctional, in a study conducted by the University of Leeds. It plays an important role in a population of adult stem cells required for muscle repair, which hints at the possible underlying pathology for this particular form of muscle disease. More importantly, the discovery can aid doctors in the diagnosis, and provide a new angle for scientists to develop new therapies to cure muscle diseases, which are often incurable and frequently lead to early death.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Molecular net can capture cancer cells in blood

A highly branched synthetic device, that functions as a net in the blood, could be beneficial in detecting the spread of cancer throughout the body. The branching makes sure it covers a lot of surface, which is populated with certain molecules able to recognize cells, and consequently bind to them. These antibodies recognize an adhesion molecule on the cell surface, which is often found to be upregulated in cancer cells. The device also consists of adhesion molecules found on the interior of blood vessels. In this way, the net mimics the vascular wall which the cancer cells use to bind and invade new organs. The scientists from the University of Illinois who created the device have shown that the binding strength is increased by a million-fold and the detection efficiency by sevenfold compared to conventional detection methods.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Light is being created out of 'nothing'

Scientists have demonstrated that they can produce photons, the individual particles that make up light, out of  vacuum. While vacuum is often described as being empty, consisting of nothing, it appears that photons are constantly appearing into existence, only to disappear again a short while after. Particles that constantly come in and out of existence have been predicted many years ago, and are dubbed virtual particles. This concept of particles that are both existent and non-existent seems like science fiction. Though, it's the result of quantum theory, which is known to produce counterintuitive laws of physics, and which are found to be true every time they are tested.

Microscope can see inside cells, predict cancer

A newly developed nanomicroscope differs from conventional light microscopy by the fact that it allows us to 'see' what is inside our cells. Because cellular structures are too small to see with ordinary light waves, scientists from the Northwestern University in Illinois used a trick that allows them to reconstruct an image from the reflection of the light that passing through a cell. Light waves are altered in accordance with the density of the material it passes through, and the difference in reflection is what the images are based upon. By constructing a view of what is going on inside a cell, it should be easier to spot changes that can eventually lead a cell to become cancerous. If this proves to be effective in the clinic, we can kill cancer before it starts.

Studies find beneficial health effect for probiotics

Two studies have independently shown that probiotics, dairy products with added bacteria, could have clinical relevance after all. While many studies have failed to produce a positive outcome of probiotics treatment, scientists from Utrecht University recently found that they can reduce the severity of pancreatitis, which is characterized by severe inflammation of the pancreas by using a bacterial shake. In addition, American researchers in St. Louis revealed that pre-treatment with probiotics ameliorates the damage caused by radiation therapy.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Gamers have bigger 'reward area' in their brain

By using a scanning technique called fMRI, scientists found that frequent gamers have a bigger ventral striatum, a brain area involved with reward. This part of the brain responds to the chemical messenger dopamine, which was already found to be involved with a feeling of reward for certain actions. In addition, they found that there are differences on a functional level as well. For example, gamers with an enlarged ventral striatum were found to have decreased deliberation times when playing a game that involved betting. It is however unknown whether gaming induces changes in the brain, or that a changed brain makes tempts people into playing games.

Weighing scales are beneficial for cancer treatment

A microscopic weighing scale is able to measure the weight of cells with an accuracy of a few trillionths of a gram. This incredibly delicate weighing scale could play a role in the treatment of cancers, the creators at MIT noted. By constantly measuring the weight of cells, it is possible to observe growth in time, and that gives you an idea about how effective your cancer treatment is. Specifically, the response of cells to a chemical compound, in terms of growth rate, gives doctors more information about individual responses to cancer treatment.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Signals from the blood are key to cancer metastasis

Metastasis of cancer is the spreading of tumour cells to other organs. This often adds to the deadliness of the disease, and therefore is an important feature to study. Scientists from MIT have shown that a component of the blood aids spreading of cancer cells throughout the body. Blood platelets function in blood clotting, but also seem to produce chemical signals that turn tumour cells into travellers, which are consequently able to find a home in a different organ. The findings are relevant, because if we are able to develop drugs that inhibit this process, we could greatly reduce the deadliness of some cancers.

Patient-own cells help restore pumping of the heart

Using stem cells to regenerate functionality of damaged organs is something that has caught the attention of many researchers. Especially the patient's own stem cells have gained interest over the years: when harvested, these could be more easily transplanted back because the immune system does not recognize them as foreign. In a clinical trial, scientists have shown that using adult stem cells in patients that have suffered from a heart attack, can revive the heart's pumping function. Over time, the scientists noted that the damaged pump was slowly being restored after being treated with stem cells that were derived from the patient's own inventory.

Monday, November 14, 2011

New class of drugs can selectively kill cancer cells

Killing cancer cells without the side-effect of hurting healthy cells is one of the most important features of cancer drugs that are in development. A recent study has yielded surprising results, as a new way of inhibiting a much studied enzyme seems to be very effective in selectively killing cancer cells. The enzyme, dubbed RAF, is involved the cell cycle: a process that regulates growth and proliferation of the cell. This is obviously an interesting feature for cancer cells, that wish to grow and proliferate as fast as possible. A new drug inhibits RAF in an unusual way. But it does so without side-effects, making it a very interesting therapeutic agent.

NASA releases stunning time-lapse of the Earth

Space organisation NASA has released a time-lapse video shot from the International Space Station. Over the course of several months, they compiled a video which stunningly shows the planet we live on. The effect of human beings populating the Earth is clearly visible: many parts of the world are lit up when they are not being illuminated by the sun. In addition, the Aurora Borealis, commonly known as the Northern Lights, are clearly visible, giving a surrealistic view over the Earth. The video, found below, was shot by a highly sensitive camera that records in 4k resolution.

High resolution brain recording for mind control

With a new device, comprising of many electrodes, scientists have become one step closer to developing a convenient brain-computer interface. The recorder, that consists of 360 recording channels, can be fit in the brain more easily than previous versions with conventional electrode arrays. It was developed by the University of Pennsylvania, and can record information in 360 channels with the use of 720 nanotransistors. Because it is very small and foldable, surgeons can place the brain recorder in areas that could previously not been reached by using conventional arrays of electrodes. Animal studies have already revealed that the new recorder is able to generate data that we have not seen before.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

New drugs to significantly decrease heart attacks

Several pharmaceutical companies are betting on a gene that, when its transcription is inhibited, increases the filtering of cholesterol by the liver. Less cholesterol means less chance of atherosclerosis, in which fatty deposits can lead to blocking of coronary arteries, resulting in a heart attack. Therefore, it is seen as a big opportunity in medicine, especially because heart attacks caused by building up fat in artery walls are increasing in frequency because of our eating habits. It will, however, still take years to develop a working drug for use in human patients.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Genome modification used for treating cancer

A novel treatment that focuses on altering the structure of our DNA was found to be effective in patients suffering from lung cancer. It works on an epigenetic level. That means it works by altering the activity of genes, without actually touching the genetic code. The epigenetic treatment was given in concert with ordinary treatment, in cancer patients that suffered from metastasis, and were already pretreated for a long time. The epigenetic therapy was found to prolong patient life, and one participant even fully recovered and is still alive, two years after he joined the study.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Gene blocking improves metabolism and endurance

One gene makes a significant difference in the health status of mice, two groups of scientists have determined in collaboration with each other. A Swiss group of scientists showed that knocking out the NCoR1 gene renders mice able to run for much longer than normal. In fact, their endurance doubles, as the mice in the experiment where found to run twice as far as without the genetic adaptation. A group of scientists from California found, in collaboration with those in Switzerland, that knocking out the same gene results in a decreased chance of developing diabetes. That is an interesting duality, for just a single gene.

Remnants of The Big Bang discovered in gas clouds

Two pristine gas clouds have been discovered which were created during the first minutes after The Big Bang. That is what chemical analysis of their contents reveals. The composition of the clouds matches theoretical predictions about the first moments after The Big Bang, further reinforcing the theory about the creation of the universe, which has already been investigated and tested rigorously.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Unborn child senses the mother's mood in the womb

It is known that mothers should be careful when pregnant. Not only because they are physically carrying an unborn child around, but also because their health status can affect the foetus. Doctors advice to not take any alcohol or drugs during pregnancy, and pharmaceuticals should be avoided as much as possible. Ignoring it can cause serious brain damage to the foetus, leading to severe troubles during life. A new study reveals that not only consumption pattern is relevant for foetal development: unborn babies can also sense when a mother is depressed, scientists from the University of California-Irvine have found. And peculiar enough, for the baby's development after birth it was found to be beneficial that a depressed mother stays depressed.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Thoughts improve electrical brain stimulation

Deep brain stimulation (DBS) is a technique that has already shown efficacy in a number of diseases, notably parkinson's disease. In addition, it is found to be useful to improve the memory, though this has not yet been tested on human patients. It works by sticking electrodes into the brain and electrically stimulating brain cells, called neurons. In an effort of optimization, scientists have shown that the process of thinking in addition to DBS is found to increase the efficiency of the therapy. Parkinson's patients who were instructed to think about movement, which is problematic in this particular disease, showed a 37 percent decrease in typical symptoms, such as rigidity and tremors after two months. Which is not bad, given the fact that it is all about thought.

Enzyme 3D model provides basis for new drugs

A detailed model of an important enzyme in our body can aid us in the development of new drugs. An unprecedented high resolution picture shows individual atoms of a member of the MAP kinase family: enzymes that play an important role in cascaded signals that are sent throughout a cell, and regulate various cellular functions. They also play a role in disease, but because there are many MAP kinases with related structures, it is not easy to develop a drug that only inhibits one of them. Therefore, most drugs recognize multiple MAP kinases, which causes side-effects. Because of the stunningly high resolution of the investigated enzyme, researchers have found a seemingly unique area on a MAP kinase complex, which can possibly be used for the development of specific drugs.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Parasite affects brain chemistry to modify behaviour

T. gondii, a parasite found in mammals, is able to alter brain chemistry by increasing the levels of dopamine. This chemical messenger has a lot of functions in the brain, and the increase caused by the parasite correspondingly alters host behaviour. It can cause reduced fear in animals, especially rodents, which causes them to be eaten more frequent than animals who are not infected by of T. gondii. The findings are relevant because the parasite is also found in humans.

'Cell computer' will be used in attempt to make life

A research project by the University of Nottingham focuses on the ability to reprogram cells on the fly. For this, an equivalent of a computer's operating system needs to be developed, to give the right cellular cues to alter behaviour. The reprogramming system would be able to modify multiple cells at the same time, in order to build up artificial organs, or even new forms of life. Computer models that accurately predict cellular behaviour will be used to develop biological commands to instruct cellular differentiation, that can hopefully be used to create complex tissues, much like what is happening in our body during development.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Stem cells can finally be used to treat brain disease

By transforming stem cells into neurons, the cells of the brain, scientists have shown that they are able to treat parkinson's disease in monkeys. By this, they finally delivered some of the promises that stem cells have when it comes to treating diseases. Monkeys that have human-like parkinson's disease were treated with neurons that were derived from stem cells, and guided into producing the brain messenger dopamine. The cells integrated into the brain, and were able to restore movement that was lost due to the disease, while no side-effects were noted. This is an important step for the development of a cure for parkinson's, which currently can only be treated by reducing the symptoms.

Gene expression can be controlled with a computer

Combining a unique protein with computer-controlled rays of light, rendered scientists able to control gene expression in yeast. Because the micro-organism contains a light-sensitive protein called phytochrome, light pulses are able to modify its behaviour. A computer, that was programmed to produce red light, activated the phytochrome, which correspondingly lead to the onset of gene expression. The gene of interest was modified by the scientists, to contain a fluorescent label. Whenever this gene is translated into a protein, this would be marked by a detectable fluorescent label. By picking up the intensity of the fluorescent signal, the amount of protein that is being produced by the yeast is known, allowing the computer to be in full control over the process.

Probe detects early form of dangerous blood cloths

A new molecular probe developed by Massachusetts General Hospital seems able to detect changes in walls of arteries that reveal early deposits of substance that could later break loose and turn into a blood cloth. These, often fatty, deposits also cause the vascular wall to become narrow, thereby restraining blood flow. The newly developed probe is able to travel through the arteries, and because it has a fluorescent label attached to it, will light up the places in our vascular network where a possible dangerous placque is developing.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Viral molecule aids in treating lymphoma

A mouse study revealed that a peptide that is derived from viruses can kill cancer cells by targeting a specific protein inside the cell. According to the scientists that conducted the study, the molecule they used as treatment could be more effective than what is currently used in the clinic to treat lymphoma, a cancer of white blood cells. The viral molecule targets an enzyme in our cells that functions by inhibiting a protein called P53, that is important in regulating many cellular functions. P53 is the most well-known tumour-suppressor, and  loss of P53 is found in almost all cancers. By inhibiting the inhibiting factor of P53, the scientists found that the levels of the tumour-suppressor rise which in turn lead to death of the cancer cell. The benefits of this type of treatment is that there seem to be less side-effects than conventional attempts.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Bacteria cause tumours by altering genetic activity

A bacterial strain is able to modify the activity of a gene, which in response causes DNA damage and correspondingly increases the risk of cancer. In a study with cell lines, cells exposed to B. fragilis were found to have two to fourfold increase of the spermine oxidase (SMO) gene. The gene codes for enzymes that are involved with oxidation processes inside cells, which can cause damage when their activity is too high. It results in inflammaton and DNA damage, both severly increasing the risk of cancer. Because bacteria reside in the colon, that is also where the increase in cancer incidence is observed. While micro-organisms, especially viruses, were already implied in various forms of cancer, it is peculiar that this form of bacteria-induced cancer works by altering the activity of a gene, instead of just causing cellular damage by producing toxins, or other pathological mechanisms.

Brain cells that keep us awake uncovered

A group of cells located in a brain area called the hypothalamus, involved with receiving various sensory input, is responsible for keeping us awake, a new study has shown. By releasing a chemical messenger, they keep our body in an aroused state, under the influence of day light. It was already known that light influences our behavioural state, but the brain cells that are associated with translating day light to a message of keeping us awake were previously unknown. This study sheds light on why people are narcoleptic, a disease in which patients are always sleepy and drowsy, which is associated with a loss of this particular messenger.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

100 year old cells were turned back into stem cells, and given new life

Rejuvenation of our cells and organs has been long sought after, in an attempt to make our bodies live longer. While we are not yet able to constantly revitalize ourselves, scientists have found a way to turn cells from people over a 100 years old back into primitive stem cells, which then acquired the ability of self-renewal, and the capacity to differentiate into many different cell types. While genetic reprogramming in order to transform ordinary cells in the body back to stem cells has been done many times before, French scientists have shown that age is no barrier for reprogramming, highlighting the possibility to squeeze much more life out of our cells than nature provides us.

Bleeding disorder can be treated using gene therapy

Patients suffering from a rare bleeding disorder that prevent proper clotting of the blood during injury may very well be treated with a combination of stem cells with gene therapy in the near future. Experiments on sheep show that administering stem cells that posses a copy of a gene coding for a missing protein in haemophilia, ameliorate the disease. The injected stem cells produce a clotting factor, and are able to migrate to a site of inflammation, which is a sign for injury, and consequently bleeding. Although the therapy has not yet been tested on humans, it is a fine example of how controversial therapies such as stem cells and gene therapy can help us.

Organ transplants double risk of developing cancer

A large comparison study has found that patients who received an organ transplant, being kidney, lung, heart or liver, have a much bigger chance to develop cancer. The researchers found that receiving an organ significantly increases the chance of developing a tumour in that particular organ. However, lung cancer was not only elevated in lung recipients, but also in kidney, liver and heart recipients. In addition, kidney cancer was found to be increased in kidney, heart and liver recipients. The overall increased risk on cancer after transplantation was found to be doubled compared to the general population, highlighting the need for proper screening after patients receive a new organ, and new therapies to accompany transplanted patients to decrease the risks.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

There are less births on days like Halloween

Scientists have found a relationship between certain days of the year and the number of births, as part of the hypothesis that cultural representations of days influences the minds of women, which correspondingly can delay or speed up birth. On Halloween, scientists found a decrease of births by 5,3 percent, while cesarean births were down 16,9 percent. In contrast, Valentine's day was found to be associated with an increase of 3,6 percent, while cesarean births were up 12,1 percent. All differences were found to be statistically relevant.

Particle accelerator will recreate the Big Bang

In an effort to create a more detailed model of the early universe, scientists will let the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland perform collisions with lead ions, a positively charged version of the lead atom. This should recreate the conditions right after the Big Bang, which is commonly perceived as the start of our universe. Lead ions are chosen for the collision experiments, because earlier on, data revealed that they are able to create a so-called quark-gluon plasma. This is basically a soup of particles that are able to form the protons and neutrons that make up the core of an atom. During the Big Bang, these building blocks must have grouped together, to form atoms. The LHC will fire lead ions at higher energy than previously done, which will hopefully recreate the conditions of the Big Bang in more detail, so scientists can study the start of our universe.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Computer program found useful in cancer diagnosis

An algorithm developed to recognize people at risk for developing cancer has proven itself to be useful for use by general practitioners. The program combines risk factors and symptoms that are provided by patient data, which results in a warning when this combination could lead to cancer in the future. Specifically, the tool is able to predict lung cancer and gastro-oesophagael cancer. By raising awareness to GP's, the tool could save about 5000 lives each year. That is what scientists conclude after conducting experiments with the program, which seems quite high for a tool that just raises attention to known risk factors and symptoms.

The release of genetically modified mosquitoes in nature might prevent disease

A field trial has revealed that genetically modified organisms released in nature are able to, or at least partly, integrate with the native population. In a recent study, male mosquitoes that can carry the dengue virus were genetically altered to render them unable to survive without antibiotics. The arthropods were kept alive in the lab, whereafter they were released in nature, where they managed to mate with females and produce offspring, carrying the same genetic difference that causes them to die before mature age when left untreated. This shows releasing modified organisms into the wild can help us in reducing the numbers of disease carriers.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Massive library of possible cancer drugs made

Series of screening has created a library of possible new drugs that can be used to treat cancer. The activity of 178 enzyme inhibitors has been assessed, catalogued, documented and made available for the scientific community. While it is unsure whether these enzyme inhibitors can be used in cancer treatment, the enormous collection of data is a starting point for new research that could give rise to multiple new drugs for patients that suffer from cancer. The blocked enzymes, called kinases, all have the same basal function, but we were previously unable to systematically assess their function in the body.

Delivery system makes stem cell treatment easier

Therapies that focus on delivering cells to individual organs, for regenerative purposes, might just be much more effective with a new technique developed by scientists. To send cells to their respective organs effectively, researchers engineered certain receptors on the cellular surface, that function as a 'homing device'. By doing this, cells containing the receptors will only 'hook' on to tissue that is damaged. Being able to specifically target tissues that require cell treatment is a big step forward for cell-based therapies, for example with stem cells, that have been hallowed as a 'wonder drug' for several diseases.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Method to artificially produce blood is ready

We may very well be producing blood by ourselves soon, without the need to tap it from volunteers. Scientists in Edinburgh, Scotland have found a way to produce blood by using stem cells. They would only need two to three years to start tests in humans. If it all works, the artificial blood could be used in situations of acute blood loss, surgery, and other reasons that involve the rapid administration of extra blood to a patient. Because we currently rely heavily on donors, finding artificial ways for blood production is an important step forward.

Probiotics affect body without populating intestines

Lots of claims have been made about probiotics; dairy products that contain a set of bacteria that are supposed to improve our gut flora. It is claimed, mostly by the companies that produce them, that they improve our digestion and metabolism, but none of these effects have ever been properly shown in a scientific study. However, a recent study shows that there might be beneficial effect of probiotic products. While the ingested bacteria do not seem to stick in the gut, where a lot of other human populating bacteria are, the metabolism of people who consume yoghurt with micro-organisms may be altered. While the implications of this study are yet to be unraveled, it could be that probiotics have a beneficial effect after all, even though it might be small.

Aspirin found to dramatically cut down risk of cancer

Daily intake of aspirin has a beneficial effect in preventing cancer, as shown by a recent study in people with  increased risk on hereditary colorectal cancer, called Lynch syndrome. The participants all have a genetic predisposition that makes them prone to developing colorectal cancer, but in the study group that took daily aspirin, there was a dramatic decrease in cancer development. Even though the researchers focused on people that have a specific genetic disorder increasing the chance on colorectal cancer, they think that a daily dose of aspirin is beneficial for everyone that in some way has an elevated risk on cancer.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Life on earth might have originated in Greenland

Clues have been found that the very first biological molecules used to create life may have been produced in Greenland, almost four billion years ago. That's what a team of French scientists discovered, after they looked at mud volcanoes containing a specific element that is believed to be required to form the first biological molecules that roamed the earth. While volcanoes have already been touted as the creators of life's molecules, the French scientists believe the ones in Greenland are the most promising candidate to have sparked the creation of life on earth.

It's not the genes that seperate us from the monkeys

The difference between humans and chimpanzees is even smaller than originally thought. New genetic research indicates that there is no difference in the genes that we possess, compared to chimps. That is peculiar, because genes function as a blueprint for all the proteins, enzymes and other building blocks that we need to form life. Instead, differences are found in the so-called 'junk DNA', parts of our genome that do not code for genes. While the name of this part of the genome hints at useless pieces of code, there is evidence that sequences in junk DNA is important for regulating gene transcription. Nevertheless, this is another striking example in how the building plans between humans and monkeys are almost identical.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Strange quantum effects of water make life possible

Basically all life is made with water, and carbon molecules. In humans, water can reach up to 80 percent of body weight, highlighting the immense volumes that are used for life. But it seems that only small changes in the laws of physics are needed to completely eradicate the life-giving properties of water. A new study has shown that quantum effects cancel each other out, in order to stabilize the water molecule: H2O. Due to these complicated effects, water is more dense in liquid form, than in solid form, an unique feature that almost no other molecule possesses. The stability of H2O makes that our bodies can use it to maintain temperature, something that would otherwise be impossible.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Longer life span can be inherited

By doing research on a special kind of worm, scientists have found that factors determining the life span of an organism can be passed down to future generations. This would seem like a genetical inheritable pattern, but it is not. The alterations that were studied focus on modifications to the structure that 'winds up' the DNA: chromatin. By modifying the 'spool' that is used to keep our DNA neatly packed, it was possible to elongate the life span of C. elegans, a model organism often used in the lab. Future generations of this worm appeared also to increase in life span, shedding light on mechanisms that could possibly let us live longer.

Structure of 'Parkinson's protein' revealed

The protein that is thought to be the key component in Parkinson's disease has finally been modelled, revealing its structure to us. Now that we know what α-synuclein, the protein in question, looks like, we can start developing new therapies, that specifically target this compound. This could give rise to new drugs for Parkinson's disease, that hopefully reduce the symptoms, and maybe even cure the disease. Though, the question remains what the exact role of α-synuclein is in Parkinson's, as the underlying pathology has not yet been unravelled.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Living conditions are reflected in your DNA

A study linking social and economic factors to genetics revealed that your living conditions during the time you grow up have an impact on the way your genetic code functions. These alterations persist during life, and are still visible long after reaching adulthood. According to the researchers, based at the McGill University in Montreal, Canada, this is the first time a study is able to link social and economic factors to DNA structures. In the nature vs. nurture debate (which basically does not exist anymore), this is an important discovery, highlighting that the environment leaves a mark on the blueprint by which we create life's components.

Friday, October 21, 2011

A gene regulates coordinated embryo development

A single gene seems to play a major role in how our body develops all the different parts during the embryonic stage. While there are a lot of genes responsible for the development of an organism, there is one that rules them all, scientists have shown. Zelda (not the character from the videogame) turns groups of genes on during development, and does that at just the right moment, thereby controlling and coordinating the development of the embryo in time. The discovery adds to earlier findings, that showed that a group of genes called Hox get activated by a precisely timed, but unknown, mechanism to start development of the different body parts. Discovering the function of Zelda is a new step in unravelling the precise mechanisms of one of the most wondrous creations of nature: life.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

People with high stress levels die younger

A long-term population study has revealed that stress, in moderate or high levels, is a risk factor for mortality rate. Scientists followed almost a thousand healthy people starting in 1985, and found that the group that experienced moderate to high numbers of stressful events in their lives had a 50 percent higher mortality rate, which is measured as the number of deaths, corrected for the population size, per year. This means that someone with moderate or high stress levels is 50 percent more likely to die than someone without stress. The participants were examined for about 18 years in total, before the researchers concluded their study.

Computer building blocks made out of bacterial DNA

A British team of researchers have shown they can make the building blocks for a computer by using DNA from bacteria. These biological components could in time give rise to the first biological computer, that can be build on a molecular scale. Small computers give us new possibilities to use digital processing power, such as using it in the human body, where size matters. However, actually creating a computer with the biological building blocks is still years away.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

First malaria vaccination programme underway

Pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline has performed clinical trials to determine the effectiveness of a vaccine that is supposed to prevent the deadly disease malaria. Results show that a shot with the new drug halves the risk of acquiring a bad form of malaria, when it was tested in African children. Because of its effectiveness, it is very likely that the vaccine developed by the UK based company will be the world's first vaccine against malaria.

Bacterium plays a role in colon cancer

A bacterium species called Fusobacterium has been found in high quantities in patients with colon cancer. This sheds new light on this form of cancer, as a role of potential harmful bacteria has never been shown before. While the scientists that made the discovery can not tell anything about a causal relationship of Fusobacterium prevalence and the onset of tumours in the colon, it provides a new angle for research. And that may lead to new ways to treat the disease, that currently kills around 600.000 people worldwide each year.

Monday, October 17, 2011

New form of genetic modification can cause obesity

Geneticists have not only discovered a new form of genetic modification, they have also shown that this process is involved with obesity, and the development of diabetes. When genes are being translated into functional proteins to help with various processes in the cell, a form of genetic code called RNA is formed. This is a 'transcript' of the gene, and can be used to make the actual translation to protein. What the scientists found, is that these RNA molecules, called mRNA to be exact, can be reversibly modified, impacting their function as a translate tool to make proteins. A protein that was shown to be involved with the modification of RNA, is also involved with obesity and diabetes. Not only could this discovery lead to a whole new field of research, it might also give rise to novel therapies to combat obesity and diabetes.

Test diagnoses Down syndrome early in pregnancy

A new test has made diagnosing Down syndrome in the unborn child much easier. Genetic screening assures that mothers-to-be do not need all sorts of unnecessary invasive tests to determine abnormalities that can lead to Down syndrome.  The new method works from about ten weeks of pregnancy, providing answers to mothers early in pregnancy. In addition, the genetic screening scores exceptionally high on reliability, rarely providing an incorrect reading. However, to confirm the outcome, some form of invasive testing is still necessary.

Self-replicating materials can be made by using DNA

A new production process enables us to create materials that have the capability to replicate themselves. The copy process relies on the same molecule that replicates itself in our bodies: DNA. Scientists succeeded in creating artificial materials based on a DNA-like structure that is able to copy itself in a way that is similar to how our genetic code is replicated in cells. In their experiments, the researchers made 'letters' that have a structure similar to DNA, which form a word. This word is placed in a chemical solution with other DNA-like molecules, sort of like a 'letter soup'. The molecular word is consequently copied, letter by letter, whereafter the copied word is the same as the original one. This replication process gives rise to new possibilities of creating materials, by making it cheaper and easier.

Global warming will cause animals to shrink

Scientists predict global warming will have an effect on the sizes of animals: they are expected to get smaller with higher temperatures. The predictions are based on a period of increased temperatures about 56 million years ago. Researchers have found that, during that time, animals, such as beetles, were between 50 and 75 percent smaller than they are today. A spectacular decrease in size, which would severely disrupt our ecosystem, if it were to happen again in present days. According to the National University of Singapore, the decrease in size of animals will continue during this century.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Development of many living beings starts with a clock

The discovery of a new type of biological clock has given us an astonishing insight into the development of many organisms, including ourselves. A genetic clock that 'unwinds' in a time-dependent fashion gives rise to the basic components of our body, that later become fully developed and distinguished parts. The so-called Hox genes are responsible for creating the basic layout of many animals, but it was not known how they are regulated and create the right body parts at the right time. A team of scientists have found that the Hox genes, that lay next to each other on the genome, 'unwind' with the precision of a clock, so that the right Hox gene has its effect at the right time. This mechanism reveals one of the most basic concepts of life, a mechanism that ultimately decides the development of an organism.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Spit bacteria could aid in cancer diagnosis

A new diagnostic tool works with spit of cancer patients, by focusing on the differences in bacterial composition when compared with healthy people. Researchers found that patients suffering from pancreatic cancer have a significantly different composition of bacteria in their spit, which could lead to a new method of diagnosis to discover this form of cancer. Diagnosing spit would have an advantage over conventional methods, as it is an easy, fast and non-invasive way of probing possible patients.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

A new drug passes the blood brain barrier to fight HIV

A new approach to cure HIV infection, which can cause AIDS, focuses on transporting a drug across the barrier that prevents molecules from entering the brain. Scientists have found a way to get two important features into a new drug: persuading the blood brain barrier (BBB) to open up and let the molecule in, and correspondingly kill the virus. Currently, one of the main issues in treating HIV infection is the fact that the virus can cross the BBB, while the drugs that are supposed to kill it, can not. The new drug adds to a series of new therapies that are in development to cure HIV.

Nature's sleeping pill can be used to treat Huntington's

Melatonin is best known for it's actions in the sleep-wake cycle: it's circadian production cycle makes us sleepy in the evening, whereafter the protein is broken down during the night, so that we may wake up in the morning. Surprisingly, researchers have found that melatonin can also play a role in Huntington's disease, a rare hereditary disorder that causes loss of control over muscles, and in a later stage loss of cognitive functions, eventually leading to death. There are virtually no drugs available to treat Huntington's, highlighting the importance of this discovery. Sadly, melatonin is no wonder drug. It only delays the onset of the disease and eases the symptoms.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Particle physics may shed light on reversal of time

Experiments on a simple particle that consists only of one proton and one neutron, elements that make up the core of an atom, could unravel a phenomenon called time reversal violation. This means, particles that travel through time in the opposite direction, compared to what we are used to, but with a little twist. Basically, what scientists think is that certain particles move through time the way we perceive, and other particles balance this by travel back in time as part of their 'natural course'. A violation in time reversal could explain why the universe consists of  the elements we see today, and why there is no balance between particles going through time the way we perceive it, versus particles moving in the opposite direction.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Creating stem cells can now be up to 100 times faster

By modifying an existing technique, scientists have found a way to increase the stem cell production in the lab by 100-fold. In addition, the created cells are of higher quality, compared to the old technique. By increasing quantity and quality, scientists gain more options to use stem cells in experimental treatments that focus on regeneration of tissues. Before, artifically creating cells with the capability to differentiate into many cellular lineages was a difficult and slow process with low yields. By updating the method to create stem cells, research in this field has just been made a whole lot easier, possibly speeding up development of novel stem cell treatments, for example to counter neurodegenerative diseases which we are currently unable to repair.

Man controls robot arm with his mind

A paraplegic man was able to control a mechanic arm using only his brain, paving the way for true robotic limbs that we can control as if they were our own. This was achieved by connecting electrodes in a chip to brain parts that normally control muscles. Because the brain output is wired through the electrodes, thoughts about movement can be translated into actual movement by the robotic arm. The hard part is, of course, to 'read' what the brain wants and turn that into movement that reflects what the patient thought. While we are able to determine, by imaging techniques, what brain area is used for specific thoughts, actually using the output as input for a mechanical device is new. Because the man with the brain chip was able to grab a ball and consequently let it go, the device seems to be suitable for complex movement.

Gene found to be involved with suicidal behaviour

A gene that codes for the protein brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) is linked with suicide, a new study suggests. People that have a mutated BDNF gene, that causes decreased functionality of the corresponding protein, are found to have an higher incidence of suicidal behaviour compared to those who have proper functioning BDNF. By pooling 12 studies together, scientists investigated the behaviour of a total of 3352 people.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Proteins can decrease damage after heart attack

A heart attack is characterised by death of tissue due to a lack of oxygen, for example due to blockage of blood vessels. With new treatment options, it seems possible to reduce the damage that occurs after the body responds to a heart attack. The immune system launches a response against the dead and damaged cells, to clear them from the body, and replace them with a filler, called scar tissue. Because of this inflammatory response from the body, a lot of extra tissue dies after the initial death due to lack of oxygen. For this secondary form of damage, a protein shake might be able to prevent most of it. Though we can never bring dead cells back to live, we might be able to prevent at least part of the damage in heart attack, which might just be enough to keep a patient alive, with more options for recovery.

Starvation might be the answer to treat breast cancer

A novel mechanism in order to kill cancer cells has yielded interesting results. When a process is blocked that causes cells to eat part of itself, tumour growth can be inhibited. This process, called autophagy, is important to allocate cellular nutrients elsewhere, so they can be harnessed for survival, for example in the case of starvation. Cancer cells abuse this process to allocate lots of resources to cellular growth. Blocking autophagy in breast cancer made tumour cells sensitive to tamoxifen, a drug often used in this type of cancer. Because resistance to tamoxifen is a major problem, the discovery could lead to better treatment of breast cancer. In addition, cancer cells that harness autophagy to stimulate growth are also found in the liver and pancreas.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Possible new treatment for cystic fibrosis found

A novel drug could be effective in treating cystic fibrosis (CF), a study on lung cells shows. The disease is characterised by a protein defect that causes build up of mucus along the walls of the airways, eventually leading to loss of lung function and death. The newly discovered drug was chosen from a screening of 164.000 chemical compounds, to assess whether it could interact with the defective CTFR protein in epithelial cells, which form the outer lining of the airways. They found that a chemical called VX-809 was effective in restoring the functionality of CTFR up to a level that is associated with mild CF. The drug is a promising new lead to prevent the build up of mucus and give CF patients a longer, high quality life.

Parasite worm can be treated by letting it kill itself

Parasitic fluke worms that cause the deadly disease schistosomiasis can be treated by making the worm kill its own cells. Scientists discovered a complex cell death program in these worms, which are dubbed schistosomes. This mechanism relies on a balance with molecules that promote cell death, and molecules that help the cells survive. With a little help, the balance could be tipped towards cell death, which could serve as a novel therapy for the disease that kills 200.000 people each year, and has already infected over 200 million people.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Geneticists turn liver cells into nerves

An important new step in the generation of cells from the nervous system, which we can possible use to restore functions in disabled patients. While scientists normally make use of stem cells that are consequently guided into becoming cells of choice, Stanford University used liver cells. These hepatocytes can be turned into neurons, the cells of the nervous system, with the introduction of just three genes. This seemingly simple operation brings the generation of neurons for tissue repair in disabled people one step forward.

The liver is essential to prevent autoimmunity

Scientists have discovered a new mechanism by which the body makes sure that the immune system does not turn against its own cells. The liver is found to be involved in the process of maintaining tolerance: making sure that immune cells tolerate the cells of the body, but will launch an immune response against anything that is foreign. What the liver seems to be doing is taking up T lymphocytes, that play a role in killing cells. These cells, named CD8+, are in a naive state when they enter the liver cell. That means, they are not yet activated, in order to become a fully-fledged killer cell. Clearing CD8+ lymphocytes in the liver appears to be essential, as blocking this process caused accumulation of the T cells, that consequently got activated and started attacking and destroying the body's own cells.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Brain cancer can be treated with nanoparticles

A new treatment has risen to combat an aggressive form of brain cancer, called glioblastoma. It consists of a nanoparticle coupled with a protein that only recognizes tumour cells, and a protein that is toxic to cells. The corresponding 'nanosystem' did not only directly and specifically target the malicious cells, they also destroyed them. The nanoparticle reduces toxicity for normal cells, because it guides the cell-killing protein directly to the cellular compartment where the drug is effective: the mitochondrium. This 'cell organ' is involved with the creation of energy, which the cell needs to survive. The combined drug was found to almost eradicate a tumour completely in one mouse model, while a different model showed significant delay in tumour growth.