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.