Saturday, March 31, 2012

Applying quantum physical weirdness to the 'real world'

Ever since we have ventured into the subatomic world, the playground of quantum mechanics, we have found that particles behave in extremely weird ways. It is as if the classical view of the world does not apply to the world of quantum mechanics, and experimental results have repeatedly challenged our knowledge about reality. For example, we have discovered that the smallest things we can detect can behave as individual particles and as waves at the same time. Recently, scientists even proved that things can come into existence from what appears to be the nothingness we have come to know as vacuum. While the rules of quantum mechanics are almost impossible to imagine, because they are so radically different from what we experience on a day to day basis, we must accept them because they have been tried and tested. And even though we sometimes like to think that this weirdness only happens on very small scales, a few scientific groups have shown that it also applies to larger structures.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Hidden patterns in genes direct protein production

One of the most fundamental processes in biology is translation of genetic information into proteins, the building blocks of life. Cells have specialized machinery that read specific parts of the genetic code, called genes, and use that as a template to create an intermediate string of code that is consequently used by other cellular machines that turn the instructions into proteins. Effectively, DNA functions as a blueprint, and the intermediate form, called RNA is used as a messenger to tell the protein makers what to do. Scientists from the University of California in San Francisco have found hidden instructions in the messenger RNA that have a large impact on the speed by which cells produce proteins. Because proteins are used for basically all cellular processes, the findings may have big consequences for our understanding of elementary processes of life.

Being in a room adds 37 million bacteria per hour

Bacteria are all around us, and are impossible to get rid of. They cover our entire skin, float around in the air, and inhabit places that we would argue to be inhabitable. Scientists from Yale University have found another bacterial fun fact by discovering that your presence in a room adds 37 million bacteria per hour to the air. It is a good thing that most bacterial species do not cause disease.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

There are billions of Earth-like planets in our Milky Way

The notion that we are unique and alone in the universe is rapidly fading. Astronomers have already successfully identified several Earth-like planets, and even though we haven't found life yet, it is likely that it exists somewhere in the universe. We may even be able to find it in our own galaxy, as scientists now believe there are tens of billions of Earth-like planets in the Milky Way. How long will it take before we find the first forms of alien life?

Using a magnetic field to scorch tumours with heat

Cancer remains one of the biggest health problems worldwide, which is why scientists devote a lot of resources to developing new therapies. Various cunning new strategies are being explored, such as proteins that make cancer cells self-destruct or using a marker that makes a tumour light up, rendering us able to find tiny clumps of bad cells during surgery. A recently published attempt uses magnetic fields together with nanoparticles to create heat, effectively destroying cancerous cells.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Computer chip analyses effect of food on intestines

Processing the components from our food is quite a stressful event for our intestines. Various enzymes are needed to break down whatever it is we eat, and all the useful pieces need to be absorbed in the gut and find their way into the blood to be redistributed where needed. Tissues can become strained from all the work, and then send out distress signals which enable the immune system. In turn, this causes inflammation. Because processing food is naturally stressful, a little inflammation is normal. However, when food components continuously stress the intestines, inflammation can become chronic, and that is when trouble starts. To uncover which food components are more likely to cause stress in the intestines, French scientists developed a piece of computer hardware. Their chip is supposed to mimic our gut and tell us something about what individual food components do.

Genetics predict severity of the flu

The influenza virus comes in many forms, and is constantly changing. As a consequence, the world experiences new outbreaks of the flu each year. Our immune system builds up protection against the virus after infection, but because it changes its appearance so rapidly, we become susceptible again. It has been proven difficult to find a vaccine that remains effective in protecting against influenza infection, but our own body may actually hold clues for effective flu protection. Scientists from the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute have found how the activity of a specific gene correlates to severity of influenza infection. We may use this mechanism in future therapies.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Biomarker indicating autism found in patients' blood

By learning more about the mechanisms underlying a disease, we discover which molecules are responsible for the symptoms we observe. Often, proteins are disturbed in their function and behave in a way that damages the body. When we know which proteins indicate disease, that information can be used as a diagnostic tool. Measuring protein levels can indicate disease, sometimes even before symptoms actually manifest. We call such proteins biomarkers, and scientists managed to find one that seems to be an indicator for autism.

Large brain size favourable for having friends

It appears you need a large brain if you want to maintain a large social network. Especially one brain area seems to be of importance, as British scientists found a correlation between size of this area and the number of friends one has. According to the researchers, the ability to make friends and maintaining them is a complex process which calls for the need of a large social and cognitive brain. By discovering how it works, it also tells us something about how our social skills evolved.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

New breed of cells could treat autoimmune diseases

When a patient's immune system attacks its own tissues or cells, he or she suffers from an autoimmune disease. Normally, the immune system only attacks things that are foreign to our body, such as microbes and viruses. However, if something goes wrong during the development phase in early life, it is possible that some immune cells do not recognize tissues as body-own. Such is the case in diabetes type 1, in which insulin-producing cells are destroyed because our defensive systems think the tissues are foreign and need to be destroyed. In these cases, and in other situations where the immune response is too heavy, we need something that calms our defence mechanisms down. Scientists from Cardiff University may have found just the thing we need, and they found it by scraping cells of people's cheeks.

Gene-induced brain changes can cause autism

Autism is a developmental disorder with a wide range of symptoms. Most people suffering from it struggle in coping with social interaction. Additionally, those who have acquired a more severe form of autism can also display other symptoms such as behaving in a repetitive way. We know the cause is largely genetic, and that makes for an early age onset, often in kids just three years old. Scientists have previously shown that faulty wiring in the brain is one of the most important underlying causes. In addition, a large set of candidate genes have been discovered: these are likely to play a role in altering normal brain physiology. How it all fits together is unknown, but scientists from the Medical College of Wisconsin discovered how a particular gene can cause brain changes.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Nanotech enables radiation-induced tumour destruction

A new technique is set to greatly increase the power by which radiation therapy destroys tumour cells. Scientists at the University of Texas have found a way to create nanostructures that can be loaded with radiation and deliver them locally to brain tumours. By making sure it barely leaks, cancer cells get the full load, while healthy surrounding tissue remains intact. Because radiation therapy, despite the development of novel methods to combat brain cancer, is still the most widely used form of treatment, this could save many lives.

Technique turns yeast into little machines

We have many small organisms working for us. Among others, we have employed bacteria to produce various substances, such as insulin for diabetes patients. They can also be used as sensors to detect changes in the environment. Because we have the capability to modify microbes genetically, we can turn them into a lot of things that are useful for us. Scientists from the Imperial College London have found a way to greatly expand the possibilities to employ another small worker: yeast. A technique involving genetic engineering developed by the British turns them into small machines.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Biological glue is universal drug carrier and band-aid

With the help of chemical engineering, scientists were able to create a form of biological glue that sticks to the outer layer of a cell. By sticking cells together, the substance ought to be effective in stopping bleeding, but can also be used to deliver drugs directly to cells that require them. The scientists who developed the glue reckon it can be applied in many different situations.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Flies failing to get sex become alcohol abusers

Sometimes, researchers conduct studies that are seemingly useless, but provide surprising results. Such is the case of a study performed on male fruit flies that were observed in their efforts to find a female mate. Those who did not manage to find a partner to have sex with turned to consumption of alcohol instead. It appears as if they use it as a substitute for not being able to reproduce, which is what we would think to be typical human behaviour. The researchers from the University of California in San Francisco who performed the study suspect it has something to do with chemicals in the brain.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Brain scan reveals 'child care' centre in adults

We behave in a particular way because our brains are sending out signals. Brain cells, called neurons, communicate with each other, and certain areas have specialized themselves by focusing on specific tasks. We have found brain areas for movement, language, math and many other things that require our 'grey matter'. Scientists use scans that map activity in a certain area to find out which part is responsible for certain functions. Fine-tuning the technique resulted in the discovery of many more small parts with a specific function. Latest is a brain area that makes us take care of children. It appears as if providing care is hardcoded into our brain, which basically means we do not do it by choice.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Mobile phone radiation may influence pregnancy

How radiation coming from mobile phones affects our health has been subject to endless debate. Not just within the scientific community; rarely has something stirred up so much controversy despite a lack of scientific evidence to back up any real worries. However, scientists at Yale University have discovered something that will surely fuel this debate, as their research shows that mice can be affected by mobile phone radiation during embryonic development: it affects their behaviour during adult life.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

New human species found in China

Humans living today are of the species Homo sapiens, currently the only one in the genus 'Homo'. Several other species have died out thousands of years ago, including Homo erectus, Homo neanderthalensis and Homo heidelbergensis. None of these ancient hominids are around today, as only Homo sapiens managed to succeed in survival. We know of a fair few other species that are classified as hominids and therefore have, or had, the potential to turn into modern humans like ourselves. Careful analysis of a skull has recently revealed a human form we have never seen before. It has some characteristics that make it similar to us, but according to scientists, it represents a whole new species.

Gene can both prevent and promote cancer

Cancer is primarily a disease of the DNA, as cells need their genomes modified in order to acquire the capability for malicious growth. Our genetic code, which consists of thousands of individual genes, is used as a blueprint for the production of proteins that together perform all of the body's functions. When the blueprint is modified, several proteins can either be disabled, or increased in activity. Cells need a mixture of inactivated proteins and more highly active proteins in order to become cancerous. This is because some of them protect against cancer development, while others can increase uncontrolled growth if they become more active. However, one gene appears to be surprisingly ambiguous, as it can protect against tumours, but also aid in cancer development.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

New drug therapy targets 'shape-shifting' enzymes

Enzymes are catalysts for chemical reactions that take place in the body. Its shape determines its catalytic features, and every enzyme has an 'active site' which is responsible for enabling the chemical reaction it is responsible for. However, scientists have discovered that enzymes can change their appearance for an almost immeasurably short period of time, in which they perform their catalytic duties. Such behaviour is problematic for researchers that wish to develop drugs based on enzyme inhibition: science has mostly focused on unravelling molecular shapes present during their non-catalytic phase, which is their normal state. Because enzyme shape-shifting takes place in a timespan of femtoseconds, it is hard to study their catalytic forms. However, scientists from the Yeshiva University in New York succeeded in using computer models to calculate these structures, which can be used to make a large variety of new and highly efficacious drugs.

Monday, March 12, 2012

'Blood guardian' to prevent cardiovascular disease

In the circulatory system, a specific protein has been tasked with recognizing toxic compounds and enabling the body's defence system to cope with them. This protein, named pregnane X receptor (PXR), deals with harmful stuff coming from outside, but also a couple of things that are produced by the body itself. British researchers have discovered PXR has an additional feature: it protects against factors known to cause cardiovascular disease. The findings reveal we may possess a guardian in our blood vessels, that we can enable to prevent diseases.

The gut as an insulin factory to treat diabetes

Scientists attempt to come up with treatments for diabetes by trying many different options. One of those is using stem cells to restore the insulin-producing cells that are being destroyed by the body's own immune system in type 1 (but not type 2) diabetes. This is being done to restore the normal body metabolism, in which insulin regulates the uptake of glucose by cells, and keeps it in balance. An important process, as without proper regulation of our body's glucose, which is used as fuel, increasing concentrations can become harmful and eventually lethal. At the Columbia University Medical Center, an attempt is being made to restore insulin production in patients with type 1 diabetes by trying to get the gut to produce it. Cells from the intestine are supposedly able to take over this function, and it may help therefore help to counter the disease with body-own assets.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Female genes make males more masculine

Differences between males and females are not always straightforward. In some situations, female hormones are used by men, while male hormones can do their job in a female body. In our DNA, there are various blueprints for male and female hormones. Now, scientists from the University of Virginia have shown that sex-specific genes have unexpected effects. It appears that a certain female genetic setup actually makes males more masculine. It is an interesting find, considering the fact that scientists have long thought that hormones, and not the genetic setup, are the deciding factors between male and female behaviour.

Fast mutations explain why HIV is so dangerous

One of the ways by which viruses evade our immune system is mutation. They change parts of their genetic code, which results in small differences in the production of molecules that make up the 'body' of the virus. These changes often render the body 'blind' for the threat, because it is set to respond against predetermined molecular signatures. Scientists from MIT and Harvard have revealed that HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, undergoes several mutations in the first few weeks after infection. This may be the reason why HIV is so effective in destroying our bodily defences, and it is important information for vaccine development.

How bacteria break down our walls of defence

Bacteria have devised several ways to circumvent protection mechanisms built into the body. For starters, microbes have to get around physical barriers such as skin or mucosal surfaces, such as our eyes, before they can think of infecting our tissues and organs. Scientists have discovered how bacteria break down protecting layers of mucus in order to get into our bodies. This discovery could lead to new treatments in order to get them to stay out and keep us healthy.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Vaccine promises long-lasting protection against HIV

Scientists are getting closer to developing a vaccine that protects against HIV infection. Despite years of research, full protection against the devastating virus is still not possible. A study performed in primates shows a new vaccine might succeed where others have failed. Naturally, it remains to be seen whether we can reproduce the same results in humans, but it is a promising development.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Putting the brain in overdrive can help lose weight

It is the dream of many people that are a little too fond of eating unhealthy food: a pill that simply keeps you from getting fat. While such ideas have never been realized, a newly discovered mechanism may actually aid in getting it this work. A certain brain process can be put in overdrive which greatly increases the energy use: we can use that to get rid of all the extra energy people are taking in from eating too much. If we'll really see a diet pill on the market anytime soon remains to be seen, however.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Gaseous aspirin is a very potent anti-cancer drug

Aspirin is a wondrous drug. It was originally developed to reduce minor pain and for use as a minor anti-inflammatory drug. While developed decades ago, it is still well-known and we keep finding new uses for it, peculiar enough. A while back, scientists showed that aspirin is able to significantly reduce the incidence of colon cancer. A new study by The City College of New York found a way to make it a lot more effective: they added two chemicals the the aspirin molecule that are normally found in gas form. Apparently, this shape protects the healthy tissues from side effects, and makes aspirin about 100.000 times more potent as anti-cancer drug in colon cancer.

Egg maturation can help women become pregnant

There are various reasons for normal pregnancy to fail. To aid with the fertilisation process, where an egg and a sperm cell come together, scientists have developed in vitro fertilisation (IVF). With this technique, an egg and sperm cell are put together in a tube to be fertilised artificially. After that, the embryo-to-be is placed back in the uterus. It yields result similar to a normal pregnancy, though with IVF there is higher risk of multiple births. And the pregnancy technique does not always work: if a woman fails to produce fully matured egg cells, scientists are unable to fertilise it outside of the womb. However, at the University of Gothenburg a mechanism was found that aids in creating fully-fledged eggs that can be used to get pregnant. This ought to be a great help for couples that, despite IVF, cannot reproduce. 

Monday, March 5, 2012

Study shows animals evolved 'half an eye'

An argument that is often thrown against the evolutionary basis of life is the absence of likeliness that animals develop complex structures such as an eye. If evolution develops gradually, then how did eyes develop? What good is half an eye? Despite reasonable counterarguments that show that gradual steps of improvement can indeed lead to the improbable event of the creation of an eye, physical proof in the animal was still lacking. At the University of California in Santa Barbara scientists have proven what every evolutionist has already been proclaiming, by showing that there are animals with an intermediate form of vision. Not quite an eye, but certainly something that points in that direction.

One of Saturn's moons contains oxygen

Oxygen is required for all animal life on Earth. Plants on the other hand, require carbon dioxide and produce oxygen. Therefore, the substance is of great interest for astronomers attempting to find extraterrestrial life. Discovery of oxygen provides clues, and increases the chances of us finding life outside Earth. NASA has discovered oxygen on a moon that orbits Saturn. While it is unable to harbour life in a form that is familiar for us, it is a promising find.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Chocolate restores 'energy factories' in the body

Patients suffering from type II diabetes or advanced heart failure often have trouble finding the energy for exercise. It is a result from their disease, which impairs the function of mitochondria, which are the energy factories inside cells. Especially muscle cells rely greatly on these cellular structures because of their energy requirement. Scientists from the University of California in San Diego have discovered a way to increase functionality of the mitochondria: a compound found in dark chocolate helps revive these energy facilities.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

New antibiotics to reduce resistance and side effects

It is getting harder and harder to fight off bacterial infections, because of resistance to our antibiotics. Over the years, several bacterial species have become increasingly dangerous, because the drugs we have to fight them have no effect anymore. The call for new antibiotics is therefore getting louder and louder. A research group from St. Jude Children's Research Hospital have made a discovery that could very well lead to the development of new anti-bacterial drugs. This ought to reduce the number of bacterial strains that are hard to kill due to resistance. Moreover, it promises a decrease in side effects.

Patient group with rare diseases gets a genome scan

Many rare diseases still have not been properly investigated. It means we often do not know what the exact cause is, and there are hardly any drugs available for treatment. In an effort to learn more about a variety of rare diseases, Washington University is about to unravel the entire DNA of 99 patients. By doing that, they hope to learn more about what causes certain rare diseases. In turn, that hopefully makes designing new treatments more appealing.

Friday, March 2, 2012

From stem cell to tissue: mechanism discovered

Stem cells are classified as cells that have the capability to morph themselves in various tissues, a process known as differentiation. Almost every organ has a supply of 'adult' stem cells that have committed to a certain lineage, but still have the flexibility, or plasticity, to turn into various cell types. The famous embryonic stem cells, however, are the most plastic of them all. They have the capability to turn into anything, which makes them of great interest to scientists to develop new therapies for tissue regeneration. So far, not much was known about what makes a stem cell stay in its 'primitive' shape, and which signals make it divide or differentiate into a cell of a specific tissue. Scientists from the University of Georgia claim to have made a discovery that explains this.

Treatment of brain cancer with viruses underway

Many novel therapies are being developed for the treatment of brain cancer. Tumours of these kind are relatively hard to treat, because they reside in very delicate tissue. Also, there's the issue of getting a specific drug into the brain: the body is working hard to prevent any foreign stuff coming in. A new concept developed by the University of California in San Diego in collaboration with Tocagen Inc. makes use of viruses to treat patients with an aggressive form of brain tumour. It is currently in clinical trials, which means it is not that far from actual clinic use.