Monday, December 31, 2012

The best of science in 2012

2012 was a very interesting year for science, but actually this can be said for pretty much every other year. The rate at which scientists discover new things about the universe, life and everything that surrounds it, is astonishing. This article will sum up some of the most interesting pieces of new knowledge and technology that has expanded our understanding of nature and life.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Viral therapy 'completely destroys' cancer

Cancer is a disease that is hard to treat. Most therapies aim at stopping growth and attempting to decrease the size of the tumour, but there are hardly any treatments that actually cure the patient. Most famous is of course the conventional chemotherapy which kills cancer cells just a bit faster than that it kills healthy cells. Novel therapies are more targeted, and one way to achieve that is by recruiting viruses. Curiously, HIV seems effective as a treatment for cancer, but scientists are also working with other viruses, such as those that appear effective in brain cancer patients. Now, it appears science has seen another breakthrough, as a group of scientists from the University of Sheffield developed a viral therapy that 'abolishes' prostate tumours.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Genetic variation influences sensitivity to pain

Sensitivity towards pain is not the same in all humans. Some of us are more sensitive to painful stimuli, while others are less affected. In order to find out why some people are more sensitive than others, a research consortium of Chinese and British scientists tried to unravel whether there are genetic factors that are of underlying influence. They found that there is a strong relationship between certain genes and sensitivity to pain. This may eventually lead to novel painkillers and ways to prevent chronic pain.

Scientists device a new computational model of the cell

Our bodies, and those of other animals, consist of many cells that all interact with each other in order to acquire the necessary complexity that makes us who we are. This network of cells is incredibly sophisticated, but there is also a lot going on inside an individual cell. Perhaps the insides of a single cell are even more complex than all of them working together. Cells create proteins to perform various functions, and they do so by reading the information present on the genes on our DNA. In a new attempt to uncover the relationships between genes, their output and their associated hierarchy, scientists from the University of California in San Diego created a computer model that automatically gathers this information.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Genetic modification yields biological pacemakers

Our heart pumps around blood by beating around 50-60 times per minute. It is controlled by electrical signals that come from the brain, and they have the capability to make the heart go faster or slower, depending on the required blood flow. If those signals do not work anymore, the heart stops. In the case of heart failure, patients often get an implant that we call a pacemaker. This is a device that provides rhythmic electrical signals in order to keep the heart going. Obviously, implanting an electric device has its downsides. A study by the Cedars-Sinai Heart Institute shows that we may actually be able to recruit the body's own cells as pacemakers.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Dog shown capable of sniffing bacterial infections

Bacteria are incredibly tiny, and that means that we need special techniques to determine whether a patient has been infected or not. That means taking samples of bodily fluids or tissues from the patient and analysing those in the lab. It takes a while before a sample is analysed, and that means the bacteria has the time to spread. It would be therefore be of great benefit if there was a method that could instantly tell us whether a patient is infected or not, enabling us to isolate them directly. Surprisingly, such techniques are actually realistic, but in quite a different way from what one would expect: instead of complex biotechnology, it appears to be as simple as getting a dog to sniff the patient.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Using foam to stop internal bleeding

The wages of war have resulted in the deaths of many people. For everybody's sake, it would be better to stop fighting altogether, but this does not seem to be realistic. That is why new technology is developed to keep people alive on the battlefield. A recent example is a piece of nanotechnology from MIT that is capable of stopping external bleeding almost instantly. Now, researchers affiliated with DARPA have developed something that could rapidly arrest internal bleeding, in an attempt to keep wounded soldiers alive and get them to a hospital.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

App gives people the motivation to lose weight

Obesity and its associated health problems, including diabetes and cardiovascular complications, are increasing in incidence at an alarming rate. It is typically a welfare disease, resulting from bad lifestyle choices such as unhealthy food, smoking and a lack of exercise. Lots of scientific studies are devoted to 'curing' obesity, but the best treatment is still to improve your lifestyle. It really pays off, a recent study showed: healthy living adds, on average, 14 years to your life. The problem is that people cannot find the required motivation to keep up with a healthy lifestyle, but there are ways to improve that. A recent study shows that an application for smartphones may be of benefit when trying to lose weight.

HIV shown to be promising as a treatment for cancer

A couple of months ago, a group of French scientists reported that they found a way to use HIV as a means to treat cancer. They showed some promising results in the lab, indicating that the virus could be a lot more effective than conventional treatments. Now, the first clinical trial has been performed with a similar technique, and it appears as if HIV may indeed be useful in the development of a decent cancer treatment.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Making an old skin look young again

Companies spend a lot of time on convincing us to buy products that boost the skin. They make ludicrous claims about their product and its contents, while most of the skin care products that are on the market have yielded anything but scientifically valid evidence for their claims. Despite all that, scientists are performing research in order to find out how to keep the skin looking healthy. And it appears that some cosmetic products actually may have some therapeutic value, but perhaps not in the way that the companies that produce them originally thought.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Brain implant to aid patients with Alzheimer's disease

Our brain consists of many wires that all connect to each other and communicate by means of electricity. Small electrical pulses travel along the wires and the patterns result in all kinds of behavioural changes in the brain cells that receive these signals. That means electricity is essential for adequate brain function, and therefore it is something that is being investigated as a potential therapy. Previous studies with a technique called deep brain stimulation (DBS) showed that it has the potential to reverse brain damage caused by Alzheimer's disease. Now, researchers have developed a brain implant that can be worn by patients for permanent DBS.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

NASA unveils plans for a new Mars rover in 2020

NASA is betting big time on its expeditions to Mars. A while back, Curiosity landed on the planet and in the wake of the success, the space organisation swiftly announced a follow-up mission planned for 2016. Now, another plan has been unveiled: in 2020, a to-be-developed Mars rover will be sent to the Red Planet to replace Curiosity. However, the plans still need to be given the green light by the American congress.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Brain cooling reduces epileptic seizures

Epilepsy is something like a temporary overload of the brain. The seizures that accompany the disease are defined as "abnormal excessive or synchronous neuronal activity in the brain", which basically means that the thing lights up like a Christmas tree. Seizures can have various causes, but in patients with epilepsy, a cause is often hard to establish. A cure is also not available; with medication it is possible to control the symptoms, but so far it remains impossible prevent seizures. A novel attempt by scientists from the Yamaguchi University to treat epileptic seizures is based on something completely different: they found a way to ameliorate the symptoms by cooling down the brain.

Monday, December 3, 2012

MIT builds foldable Transformers robots

Sometimes science fiction turns into reality. That is the case with the recent success in building a cyborg and achieving teleportation. Speaking of science fiction, everybody knows that the robots from Transformers are not real. However, it could very well be that we will be capable of building such robots in the future. The required technology has been delivered by engineers from MIT.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Cells pull themselves apart during division

Cell division is needed to create multicellular forms of life, such as us human beings. Division creates 'daughter' cells that enable tissue renewal by replacing old and dying cells, and it is the driving force behind embryonic development. For example, human beings start as a single fertilized cell, but grow into a collection of billions of cells that all work together. We know a great deal about how cells split off from each other, but it remains a peculiar and interesting phenomenon. New research shows that cell division is similar to the rope-pulling game 'tug of war'.

Making stem cells out of urine

Stem cells are controversial, but the reason for their controversy is slowly being eliminated as science progresses. In the early days, stem cells were gathered from embryos, but nowadays, we can create them ourselves; we are capable of 'reverting' ordinary cells back to a stem cell status, after which they are capable of self-renewal and become any kind of tissue that exists in the body. It is possible to revert skin cells back to stem cells, but scientists have now found a way to make it even easier: kidney cells found in urine are suitable for being transformed to functional stem cells.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Longer sleep time reduces pain sensitivity

A good night's sleep is necessary to function properly, but the exact function of this peculiar state of hibernation is still unknown. It is hypothesized that sleep is needed to give the brain the ability to process memories, as well restore several other functions. Recent research has shown that, if we do not sleep well, it makes us want to eat more, as well as crave for more unhealthy food. Now, a study has shown that an increase in sleep time is able to reduce pain sensitivity.