. Scientific Frontline: September 2021

Thursday, September 30, 2021

US Army backs ‘sleeping cap’ to help brains take out the trash


Rice University engineers, in collaboration with Houston Methodist and Baylor College of Medicine, are developing a noninvasive skullcap to better understand how the brain disposes of metabolic waste while the wearer sleeps. Signals will be acquired will be through electroencephalogram (EEG), rheoencephalography (REG), orbital sonography (OSG) and transcranial doppler (TCD), with modulation through transcranial/transcutaneous brain and nerve electrical simulations (TES) and low-intensity focused ultrasound pulses (LIFUP).
Illustration courtesy of the NeuroEngineering Initiative

How well does your sleeping brain prepare you for a new day? Researchers at Rice University backed by the U.S. Army Military Operational Medicine Research Program (MOMRP) are poised to find out.

Engineers at Rice University’s NeuroEngineering Initiative in partnership with the Institute of Biosciences and Bioengineering (IBB) and physicians at Houston Methodist Hospital and Baylor College of Medicine will develop a “sleeping cap” to analyze the cleansing flow of fluid that drains the brain of common metabolic waste during sleep.

Rice University engineers, in collaboration with Houston Methodist and Baylor College of Medicine, are developing a noninvasive skullcap to better understand how the brain disposes of metabolic waste while the wearer sleeps. Signals will be acquired will be through electroencephalogram (EEG), rheoencephalography (REG), orbital sonography (OSG) and transcranial doppler (TCD), with modulation through transcranial/transcutaneous brain and nerve electrical simulations (TES) and low-intensity focused ultrasound pulses (LIFUP). Illustration courtesy of the NeuroEngineering Initiative

Mars’ Surface Shaped by Fast and Furious


Craters and river valleys on the surface of Mars.
A breached crater lake and outlet valley are outlined in white.
On Earth, river erosion is usually a slow-going process. But on Mars, massive floods from overflowing crater lakes had an outsized role in shaping the Martian surface, carving deep chasms and moving vast amounts of sediment, according to a new study led by researchers at The University of Texas at Austin.  

The study, published in Nature, found that the floods, which probably lasted mere weeks, eroded more than enough sediment to completely fill Lake Superior and Lake Ontario.  

“If we think about how sediment was being moved across the landscape on ancient Mars, lake breach floods were a really important process globally,” said lead author Tim Goudge, an assistant professor at the UT Jackson School of Geosciences. “And this is a bit of a surprising result because they’ve been thought of as one-off anomalies for so long.”  

Crater lakes were common on Mars billions of years ago when the Red Planet had liquid water on its surface. Some craters could hold a small sea’s worth of water. But when the water became too much to hold, it would breach the edge of the crater, causing catastrophic flooding that carved river valleys in its wake. A 2019 study led by Goudge determined that these events happened rapidly.  

Remote sensing images taken by satellites orbiting Mars have allowed scientists to study the remains of breached Martian crater lakes. However, the crater lakes and their river valleys have mostly been studied on an individual basis, Goudge said. This is the first study to investigate how the 262 breached lakes across the Red Planet shaped the Martian surface as a whole. 

Geologists solve half-century mystery with a rock from almost two billion years ago


Quartzite with traces of burrowing animals. The scale is marked in centimeters.
Credit: Stefan Bengtson/Swedish Museum of Natural History

Geologists have been baffled by perforations in an Australian quartzite (rock), identical in shape to burrows made in sands by crustaceans; the original sandy sediment is a billion years older than the oldest known animals. An international team of scientists has now resolved the mystery.

When animals move, they leave traces, such as dinosaur footprints or the burrows of worms. These reveal how ancient animals moved, how they foraged and how they interacted with one another. Trace fossils are as old as the animal world.

Geologists were therefore stunned by the discovery in Western Australia of traces of burrowing animals in ancient quartzite, a rock type that was formed when sandy sediments were subjected to high pressures and temperatures.

“Quartzite is as hard as concrete and impossible for burrowing animals to penetrate,” said Bruce Runnegar, UCLA professor emeritus in the Department of Earth, Planetary, and Space Sciences and co-author of the new research, published today in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. “The traces would therefore have had to be made while the sand was still loose. But the sand was deposited 1.7 billion years ago — a billion years prior to the appearance of the first animals in the fossil record, and its transformation to quartzite occurred more than 1.2 billion years ago, much earlier than the oldest animal fossils, which are less than 0.6 billion years old.”

A Swedish-Australian-Chinese-American team has now offered a solution to this riddle. The scientists present an explanation that does not require unreasonably ancient animals or concrete-chewing worms with diamond teeth.

The team measured the age of sand in the burrows using unusual radioactive minerals.

“The age turned out to be more than a billion years younger than the enclosing quartzite,” said co-author Birger Rasmussen, adjunct professor at the University of Western Australia. “The burrows could therefore have been made by animals.”

But how can animals burrow through hard quartzite? The answer was given by microscopic investigations, which showed that the grains had first separated at contact surfaces, resulting in a friable matrix, and then been fused again through later deposition of quartz, returning the rock to the state of hard quartzite.

“A similar process produced the stuff of the standing stones of Stonehenge,” Runnegar said.

A window in time had thus been opened to enable burrowing, the researchers report. Through comparisons with surrounding sedimentary strata, the scientists could date this window to about 40 million years ago, during the Eocene epoch of Earth’s history.

“Most likely, the traces were made by crustaceans, which invaded southwestern Australia during a short-lived marine transgression associated with the opening of the Southern Ocean,” said senior author Stefan Bengtson, professor emeritus and paleontologist at the Swedish Museum of Natural History.

“These trace fossils in the ‘wrong’ rocks have been a mystery for half-a-century,” Bengtson said. “We are glad to have been able to demonstrate geological processes that resolve this conundrum.”

Source/Credit: UCLA / Stuart Wolpert


Staying on long-term antidepressants reduces risk of relapse

When people stop taking antidepressants after a long period of use, just over half (56 per cent) experience a relapse within a year, compared to 39 per cent of those who stay on medication, finds a new study led by UCL and involving researchers from the universities of Bristol, Southampton, York and McMaster University in Canada.

The researchers say their findings, published in The New England Journal of Medicine, can help doctors and patients to make an informed decision together on whether or not to stop their antidepressants after recovery from a depressive episode.

The study is the first publication from a large discontinuation trial of people taking antidepressants for multiple years in primary care.

Lead author Dr Gemma Lewis (UCL Psychiatry) said: “Prescriptions of antidepressants have increased dramatically over recent decades as people are now staying on antidepressants for much longer. Until now we didn’t know whether antidepressant treatment was still effective when someone has been taking them for many years.

“We have found that remaining on antidepressants long-term does effectively reduce the risk of relapse. However, many people can stop their medication without relapsing, though at present we cannot identify who those people are.”

Wednesday, September 29, 2021

Over a third of COVID-19 patients diagnosed with at least one long-COVID symptom

37% of people had at least one long-COVID symptom diagnosed in the 3-6 month period after COVID-19 infection. The most common symptoms were breathing problems, abdominal symptoms, fatigue, pain and anxiety/depression.

This new study from the University of Oxford and the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) Oxford Health Biomedical Research Centre (BRC) investigated long-COVID in over 270,000 people recovering from COVID-19 infection, using data from the US-based TriNetX electronic health record network.

The study reports on how commonly nine core long-COVID symptoms were diagnosed, and how this rate compared to people recovering from influenza. The nine core long-COVID symptoms, occurring 90-180 days after COVID-19 was diagnosed, comprise:

Sandia-developed solar cell technology reaches space


This photo shows what DragonSCALES look like today. Formerly known as solar glitter when initially developed at Sandia National Laboratories, the technology has evolved since being transferred to mPower Technology.(Photo courtesy mPower Technology)

Somewhere among the glitter of the night sky is a small satellite powered by innovative, next-generation solar cell technology developed at Sandia National Laboratories.

mPower Technology’s DragonSCALES, consist of small, highly interconnected photovoltaic cells formerly known as solar glitter at Sandia. They are orbiting Earth for the first time on a Lynk Global Inc. satellite that supports direct connection to unmodified mobile phones. The satellite was launched this summer.

The technology is being evaluated as a potential solar power solution for the Lynk Global constellation fleet. Data collected will provide valuable feedback to validate the product’s performance in space.

“It’s been amazing to watch this technology emerge from the labs and become a product sought after by satellite companies and federal agencies,” said Mary Monson, Sandia’s senior manager of technology partnerships and business development.

Research finds grave concern for coral reefs


Sabine evaluating a potential deployment site for a mooring in Palau.
Similar to a giant sponge, the ocean absorbs a quarter of the excess CO2 produced every year from human activities (anthropogenic carbon) around the world. Carbon dioxide dissolves in the surface water and through the overturning circulation of ocean currents and mixing processes, is slowly transported into the ocean’s interior—which allows the surface ocean to absorb more CO2. In this cycle, CO2 reacts with the water molecules in the ocean to form carbonic acid in a process known as ocean acidification. Like ocean warming, an increase in ocean acidification can also have a profound impact on marine ecosystems.

University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa Oceanography Professor Christopher Sabine has devoted his life to understanding the connections between the ocean and anthropogenic carbon. After earning his PhD in chemical oceanography at UH Mānoa in the early 1990s, Sabine spent the next decade conducting high-quality carbon measurements in an effort to better understand where inorganic carbon is stored in the ocean.

Tuesday, September 28, 2021

Largest trial of antibiotic amoxicillin for treating chest infections in children finds little effect

 The largest randomized placebo-controlled trial of the antibiotic amoxicillin for treating chest infections in children - one of the most common acute illnesses treated in primary care in developed countries, has found it is little more effective at relieving symptoms than the use of no medication. The study, published in The Lancet and funded by the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR), was led by researchers from the University of Southampton and supported by centers at the Universities of Bristol, Oxford and Cardiff.

Although viruses are believed to cause many of these infections in children, whether or not antibiotics are beneficial in treatment of chest infections in children is still debated. While research so far in adults has shown that antibiotics are not effective for uncomplicated chest infections until now, there has not been the same level of research in children.

Researchers sought to test whether amoxicillin reduces the duration of moderately bad symptoms in children presenting with uncomplicated (non-pneumonic) lower respiratory tract chest infections in primary care. The trial recruited 432 children aged six months to twelve years-old with acute uncomplicated chest infections from primary care practices in England and Wales who were then randomly assigned to receive either amoxicillin or a placebo three times a day for seven days. Doctors or nurse-prescribers assessed symptoms at the start of the study and parents, with help from their children where possible, completed a daily symptom diary.

Researchers target key protein to fight inflammatory disease

Photo by Ivan Samkov from Pexels
For the first time, researchers have identified key molecules within the immune system that may help fight the inflammation that drives chronic diseases including cancers, sepsis and brain disease.

The University of Queensland collaborated with the Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur on the study.

UQ Professor Trent Woodruff said the research investigated the part of the immune system responsible for the body’s natural response to pathogens and injury, known as the ‘complement system’.

“When activated inappropriately, the system drives inflammatory diseases such as sepsis, COVID-19, stroke, heart attacks, cancers and brain illnesses,” Professor Woodruff said.

A key protein, known as C5aR2, is a potential therapeutic target for treating chronic disease, due to its ability to moderate many immune and inflammatory processes.

“It’s been really challenging for researchers to understand how this protein is activated due to its unusual structure,” Professor Woodruff said.

“Instead of coupling with cell-signaling proteins, C5aR2 instead relies on signal regulating proteins known as β-arrestin proteins.”

“Our study investigated interactions between the C5aR2 and β-arrestin proteins, while screening for molecules that activated a connection between the two”, Professor Woodruff said.

“We found key and specific cell signals present when the C5aR2 was activated, which may act to boost the immune system’s response in inflammation.”

Co-investigator Professor Arun Shukla said the findings provided a framework for further exploration of β-arrestin proteins for their therapeutic modulation in disease.

“We are now working to progress these research findings into disease models and potentially enable scientists to design novel drug molecules targeting C5aR2 to treat inflammatory disorders”.

This study is the journal Molecular Cell, as part of an international collaboration with Professor Arun Shukla, based in India, and researchers Asuka Inoue, based in Japan, and Stéphane A. Laporte in Canada.

Source/Credit: University of Queensland


Dinosaurs' ascent driven by volcanoes powering climate change

 The rise of dinosaurs coincided with environmental changes driven by major volcanic eruptions over 230 million years ago, a new study reveals.

The Late Triassic Carnian Pluvial Episode (CPE) saw an increase in global temperature and humidity - creating a major impact on the development of animal and plant life, coinciding with the establishment of modern conifers.

Researchers analyzed sediment and fossil plant records from a lake in northern China’s Jiyuan Basin, matching pulses of volcanic activity with significant environmental changes, including the CPE’s ‘mega monsoon’ climate, some 234 million to 232 million years ago.

The international research team, including experts at the University of Birmingham, today published their findings in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) – revealing four distinct episodes of volcanic activity during this time period, with the most likely source being major volcanic eruptions from the Wrangellia Large Igneous Province, the remnants of which are preserved in western North America.

Monday, September 27, 2021

Journey to Landsat 9


The first Landsat satellite launched in 1972. Since then, NASA has always kept a Landsat in orbit to collect images of the physical material covering our planet’s surface and changes to land usage. Those images allow researchers to monitor phenomena including agricultural productivity, forest extent and health, water quality, coral reef habitat health, and glacier dynamics.

Hyena scavenging provides public health and economic benefits to African cities


Hyenas are frequently vilified and often feared. Hemingway once described the hyena as a stinking, foul devourer of the dead, with jaws that crack the bones the lion leaves.

But a new study concludes that spotted hyena scavenging provides significant public health and economic benefits to the African cities they roam.

In a study conducted in and around the Ethiopian city of Mekelle, home to 310,000 people and 120,000 livestock animals, a University of Michigan conservation ecologist and two colleagues found that spotted hyenas annually remove 207 tons of animal carcass waste.

Mekelle is the capital of northern Ethiopia’s Tigray region. The carcasses of livestock animals that are slaughtered for food there, or that die naturally, are often dumped at the local landfill or on roadsides, where hyenas feed on the waste. The researchers wanted to know whether hyenas—by removing this waste from the environment—might also prevent pathogens from jumping into people and livestock.

They determined that hyena scavenging annually prevents five infections of anthrax and bovine tuberculosis in Mekelle residents and 140 infections in cattle, sheep and goats. This disease-control service potentially saves the city $52,000 annually in treatment costs and livestock losses avoided.

The study, published online Sept. 26 in the Journal of Applied Ecology, is the first to quantify the public health and economic benefits of scavenging by spotted hyenas.

Male giraffes are more socially connected than females


A team of researchers has constructed the social network of more than 1,000 Masai giraffes in Tanzania and found that, while female giraffes have closer “friends” than males, male giraffes have more “acquaintances.” Understanding the complex multilevel society could have important conservation implications for these endangered giraffes. 
Image Credit: Derek Lee

Although female giraffes have closer “friends” than male giraffes, male giraffes have more “acquaintances” than females, according to a new study by an international team that includes a Penn State biologist. The study demonstrates that giraffes form a complex multilevel society that is driven by differences in the social connections among individuals, which could have conservation implications for the endangered giraffes.

“The degree to which an animal is connected to others in its social network influences reproductive success and population ecology, spread of information, and even how diseases move through a population,” said Derek Lee, associate research professor at Penn State and an author of the paper. “Information about sociality therefore can provide important guidance for conservation.”

The research team examined social connectedness and social movements of endangered Masai giraffes in the Tarangire Ecosystem of northern Tanzania using data collected over 5 years. The work, led by Juan Lavista Ferres of the Microsoft AI for Good Research Lab, involved constructing the social network of more than 1,000 free-ranging giraffes. The team presents their results in a paper appearing Sept. 27 in the journal Animal Behaviour.

New membrane to make fresh water


Susan Rempe, right, a Sandia National Laboratories bioengineer, and Stephen Percival, a material scientist, examine their biologically inspired electrodialysis membrane for producing fresh water. By mimicking an algae protein, the membrane can remove salt from seawater and wastewater to make fresh water while using less electricity.
(Photo by Randy Montoya)

Scientists at Sandia National Laboratories and their collaborators have developed a new membrane, whose structure was inspired by a protein from algae, for electrodialysis that could be used to provide fresh water for farming and energy production.

The team shared their membrane design in a paper published recently in the scientific journal Soft Matter.

Electrodialysis uses electrical power to remove dissolved salts from water. Currently it is used to capture salt from seawater to produce table salt and remove salt from brackish water to make fresh water, but it could also be used to remove salt from wastewater to provide a new source of fresh water.

The researchers found that the addition of a common amino acid, called phenylalanine, to an electrodialysis membrane enabled it to better capture and remove positive ions, such as sodium.

“Adding phenylalanine to the electrodialysis membrane increased the selectivity for positive ions by a significant amount, to our pleasant surprise,” Susan Rempe, the lead bioengineer on the project, said.

Ensuring an adequate supply of fresh water is a national security problem, she said. Fresh water is essential for everything from drinking and farming to producing energy from nuclear-, coal- and natural-gas-based power plants.

COVID-19 has caused the biggest decrease in life expectancy

The COVID-19 pandemic triggered life expectancy losses not seen since World War II in Western Europe and exceeded those observed around the dissolution of the Eastern Bloc in central and Eastern European countries, according to research published today, led by scientists at Oxford’s Leverhulme Center for Demographic Science.

The research team assembled an unprecedented dataset on mortality from 29 countries, spanning most of Europe, the US and Chile – countries for which official death registrations for 2020 had been published. They found that 27 of the 29 countries saw reductions in life expectancy in 2020, and at a scale which wiped out years of progress on mortality, according to the paper published today in the International Journal of Epidemiology.

Women in 15 countries and men in 10 countries were found to have a lower expectancy at birth in 2020 than in 2015, a year in which life expectancy was already negatively affected by a significant flu season.

According to the study’s co-lead author Dr José Manuel Aburto, ‘For Western European countries such as Spain, England and Wales, Italy, Belgium, among others, the last time such large magnitudes of declines in life expectancy at birth were observed in a single year was during WW-II.’

A new phase of matter

 Researchers from the University of Cambridge used computer modelling to study potential new phases of matter known as prethermal discrete time crystals (DTCs). It was thought that the properties of prethermal DTCs were reliant on quantum physics: the strange laws ruling particles at the subatomic scale. However, the researchers found that a simpler approach, based on classical physics, can be used to understand these mysterious phenomena.

Understanding these new phases of matter is a step forward towards the control of complex many-body systems, a long-standing goal with various potential applications, such as simulations of complex quantum networks. The results are reported in two joint papers in Physical Review Letters and Physical Review B.

When we discover something new, whether it’s a planet, an animal, or a disease, we can learn more about it by looking at it more and more closely. Simpler theories are tried first, and if they don’t work, more complicated theories or methods are attempted.  

“This was what we thought was the case with prethermal DTCs,” said Andrea Pizzi, a PhD candidate in Cambridge’s Cavendish Laboratory, first author on both papers. “We thought they were fundamentally quantum phenomena, but it turns out a simpler classical approach let us learn more about them.”

DTCs are highly complex physical systems, and there is still much to learn about their unusual properties. Like how a standard space crystal breaks space-translational symmetry because its structure isn’t the same everywhere in space, DTCs break a distinct time-translational symmetry because, when ‘shaken’ periodically, their structure changes at every ‘push’.

Sunday, September 26, 2021



NASA's first lunar mobile robot, the Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover, or VIPER, will map the location and concentration of water ice and other frozen volatiles in an area west of Nobile crater, near the lunar South Pole. Understanding the distribution of water and other resources on the Moon is vital for sustaining human exploration there. Scheduled to be delivered in late 2023 as part of the Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) initiative, the rover will explore an area of about 36 square miles during its 100-day mission.

Source/Credit: NASA/SVS


Einstein Ring


This image, taken with the Hubble Space Telescope, shows a distant galaxy located in the constellation Fornax. It is the largest and one of the most complete Einstein rings ever discovered.

This object’s unusual shape is the result of gravitational lensing. Albert Einstein, in his general theory of relativity, first theorized that a large gravitational field could act as a lens.

Additional Acknowledgements and Credits:
ESA/Hubble & NASA, S. Jha, L. Shatz
Gravitational lensing in action video: NASA, ESA & L. Calçada
Albert Einstein video: Pond 5
Music Credits: "’Finder" by Jamal Steven Pilgrim [ASCAP] via Open Note [ASCAP], and Universal Production Music.


Saturday, September 25, 2021

NASA Releases Interactive Graphic Novel “First Woman”


NASA released its first digital, interactive graphic novel on Saturday in celebration of National Comic Book Day. “First Woman: NASA’s Promise for Humanity” imagines the story of Callie Rodriguez, the first woman to explore the Moon.

While Callie’s story is fictional, the first woman and the first person of color will walk on the Moon, achieving these historic milestones as part of NASA’s Artemis missions. Through this graphic novel, NASA aims to inspire the next generation of explorers – the Artemis Generation.

Download, read, and interact with “First Woman” or listen to the audio version exclusively on NASA’s SoundCloud.

“The story of Callie captures how passion, dedication, and perseverance allow us to turn our dreams into reality,” said NASA Deputy Administrator Pam Melroy. “Callie, much like myself, grew her skills, seized learning opportunities, and overcame challenges to become a NASA astronaut. Her diversity is reflected in our own astronaut corps today – it's important we can see ourselves as the explorers among the stars.”

The 40-page comic book highlights NASA technologies for traveling to, landing on, and exploring the Moon. The digital format comes to life, letting readers engage and interact through augmented reality elements using the First Woman website or their mobile devices.

Readers can download the First Woman application for Android or iOS to explore life-sized environments and 3D objects, including NASA’s Orion spacecraft and the lunar surface. Additional content includes videos, games, challenges to earn collector badges, and ways to virtually participate in NASA missions.

“We crafted this graphic novel and digital ecosystem to share NASA’s work in a different and exciting way,” said Derek Wang, director of communications for the Space Technology Mission Directorate at the agency’s Headquarters in Washington. “We set out to make the content both engaging and accessible. From space fans of all ages to hardworking educators looking for new ways to get students excited about STEM, we hope that there is something for everyone to enjoy.”

NASA plans to release a Spanish version of the first issue of the comic book, “From Dream to Reality,” on the website in the future.

Source/Credit: NASA


Thursday, September 23, 2021

Vampire bats may coordinate with ‘friends’ over a bite to eat


Photo: Sherri and Brock Fenton
Vampire bats that form bonds in captivity and continue those “friendships” in the wild also hunt together, meeting up over a meal after independent departures from the roost, according to a new study.

Researchers attached tiny “backpack” computers to 50 vampire bats – some that had previously been in captivity together and others that had lived only in the wild – to track their movement during their nightly foraging outings. By day, the bats shared a hollow tree in Panama, and at night they obtained their meals by drinking blood from wounds they made on cows in nearby pastures.

Tracking data showed that vampire bats set out to forage separately rather than as a group – and those that had established social relationships would reunite during the hunt for what the researchers speculated was some sort of coordination over food.

The findings suggest “making friends” in the roost could create more interdependence among socially bonded vampire bats – meaning they could benefit from each other’s success at obtaining blood meals and join forces when competing with other groups of bats for food resources.

“Everything we’ve been studying with vampire bats has looked at what they’re doing inside of a roost. What nobody has really known up until now is whether these social relationships serve any function outside the roost,” said study co-author Gerald Carter, assistant professor of evolution, ecology and organismal biology at The Ohio State University.

“Understanding their interactions with a completely different group of bats out on the pasture can help us understand what’s going on inside the colony. If every time they leave the roost they’re getting into battles, that can increase the amount of cooperation within the colony.”

Co-author Simon Ripperger, a former postdoctoral researcher in Carter’s lab, later supplemented the tracking data by capturing video and audio of foraging vampire bats. He observed bats clustered together on one cow and others atop separate cows, some drinking from different wounds and some fighting over food access. He also made what are likely the first audio recordings of a specific type of vampire bat vocalization associated with foraging.

An experimental loop for simulating nuclear reactors in space

Will Searight is conducting research in nuclear thermal propulsion,
which could enable faster and more efficient space travel.
Nuclear thermal propulsion, which uses heat from nuclear reactions as fuel, could be used one day in human spaceflight, possibly even for missions to Mars. Its development, however, poses a challenge. The materials used must be able to withstand high heat and bombardment of high-energy particles on a regular basis.

Will Searight, a nuclear engineering doctoral student at Penn State, is contributing to research that could make these advancements more feasible. He published findings from a preliminary design simulation in Fusion Science and Technology, a publication of the American Nuclear Society. 

To better investigate nuclear thermal propulsion, Searight simulated a small-scale laboratory experiment known as a hydrogen test loop. The setup mimics a reactor's operation in space, where flowing hydrogen travels through the core and propels the rocket — at temperatures up to nearly 2,200 degrees Fahrenheit. Searight developed the simulation using dimensions from detailed drawings of tie tubes, the components that make up much of the test loop through which hydrogen flows. Industry partner Ultra Safe Nuclear Corporation (USNC) provided the drawings.

“Understanding how USNC’s components behave in a hot hydrogen environment is crucial to bringing our rockets to space,” Searight said. “We’re thrilled to be working with one of the main reactor contractors for NASA’s space nuclear propulsion project, which is seeking to produce a demonstration nuclear thermal propulsion engine within a decade.”

Advised by Leigh Winfrey, associate professor and undergraduate program chair of nuclear engineering, Searight used Ansys Fluent, a modeling software, to design a simulation loop from a stainless-steel pipe with an outer diameter of about two inches. In the model, the loop connects to a hydrogen pump and circulates hot hydrogen through a test section adjacent to a heating element. 

Peering into the Moon's shadows

The 17 newly studied craters and depressions are located near the South Pole. While the smallest of these regions (region 11) has a size of only 0.18 square kilometers, the largest (region 9) measures 54 square kilometers. Region 9 is not located in the section of the south polar region shown here, but a bit further to the North, in Schrödinger Basin. The representations of the lunar surface shown here are based on altimeter data from the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. 
Credit: MPS/University of Oxford/NASA Ames Research Center/FDL/SETI Institute

The Moon’s polar regions are home to craters and other depressions that never receive sunlight. Today, a group of researchers led by the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research (MPS) in Germany present the highest-resolution images to date covering 17 such craters in the journal Nature Communications. Craters of this type could contain frozen water, making them attractive targets for future lunar missions, and the researchers focused further on relatively small and accessible craters surrounded by gentle slopes. In fact, three of the craters have turned out to lie within the just-announced mission area of NASA's Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover (VIPER), which is scheduled to touch down on the Moon in 2023. Imaging the interior of permanently shadowed craters is difficult, and efforts so far have relied on long exposure times resulting in smearing and lower resolution. By taking advantage of reflected sunlight from nearby hills and a novel image processing method, the researchers have now produced images at 1-2 meters per pixel, which is at or very close to the best capability of the cameras.

The Moon is a cold, dry desert. Unlike the Earth, it is not surrounded by a protective atmosphere and water which existed during the Moon’s formation has long since evaporated under the influence of solar radiation and escaped into space. Nevertheless, craters and depressions in the polar regions give some reason to hope for limited water resources. Scientists from MPS, the University of Oxford and the NASA Ames Research Center have now taken a closer look at some of these regions.

Winged microchip is smallest-ever human-made flying structure


Northwestern University engineers have added a new capability to electronic microchips: flight.

About the size of a grain of sand, the new flying microchip (or “microflier”) does not have a motor or engine. Instead, it catches flight on the wind — much like a maple tree’s propeller seed — and spins like a helicopter through the air toward the ground.

By studying maple trees and other types of wind-dispersed seeds, the engineers optimized the microflier’s aerodynamics to ensure that it — when dropped at a high elevation — falls at a slow velocity in a controlled manner. This behavior stabilizes its flight, ensures dispersal over a broad area and increases the amount of time it interacts with the air, making it ideal for monitoring air pollution and airborne disease.

As the smallest-ever human-made flying structures, these microfliers also can be packed with ultra-miniaturized technology, including sensors, power sources, antennas for wireless communication and embedded memory to store data.

The research is featured on the cover of the Sept. 23 issue of Nature.

“Our goal was to add winged flight to small-scale electronic systems, with the idea that these capabilities would allow us to distribute highly functional, miniaturized electronic devices to sense the environment for contamination monitoring, population surveillance or disease tracking,” said Northwestern’s John A. Rogers, who led the device’s development. “We were able to do that using ideas inspired by the biological world. Over the course of billions of years, nature has designed seeds with very sophisticated aerodynamics. We borrowed those design concepts, adapted them and applied them to electronic circuit platforms.”

Tuesday, September 21, 2021

Rates of infectious disease linked to authoritarian attitudes and governance


According to psychologists, in addition to our physiological immune system we also have a behavioral one: an unconscious code of conduct that helps us stay disease-free, including a fear and avoidance of unfamiliar – and so possibly infected – people.

When infection risk is high, this “parasite stress” behavior increases, potentially manifesting as attitudes and even voting patterns that champion conformity and reject “foreign outgroups” – core traits of authoritarian politics.

A new study, the largest yet to investigate links between pathogen prevalence and ideology, reveals a strong connection between infection rates and strains of authoritarianism in public attitudes, political leadership and lawmaking.

While data used for the study predates COVID-19, University of Cambridge psychologists say that greater public desire for “conformity and obedience” as a result of the pandemic could ultimately see liberal politics suffer at the ballot box. The findings are published in the Journal of Social and Political Psychology.

Researchers used infectious disease data from the United States in the 1990s and 2000s and responses to a psychological survey taken by over 206,000 people in the US during 2017 and 2018. They found that the more infectious US cities and states went on to have more authoritarian-leaning citizens.

Electric Bees

Image: Pexels
New research has found that the electrical charge created by visiting bumblebees stimulates some flowers to release more of their sweet-smelling scent. This is the first time a plant has been shown to use the presence of pollinators as a cue to emit more of its attractive perfume - increasing its chances of being visited.

The tiny electrical charge carried by bees is thought to help pollen stick to them during flight but the team of researchers from the University of Bristol, Rothamsted Research, and Cardiff University found that it can also announce their presence to the flowers they visit. 

According to lead author, Dr Clara Montgomery, who was funded by the BBSRC, the trait possibly evolved in plants to maximize the effectiveness of the attractive chemicals they release. 

“Flowers have a limited supply of these scents, so it makes sense they only release them when their pollinators are around.  Essentially, it is only worth advertising when you know you have an audience. Other cues they might use, such as daylight or temperature can be unreliable, as it might also be windy or raining, which would reduce pollinator presence. 

“These scents are also used by insects that want to eat or lay eggs on the plant, so increasing their chances of only attracting pollinators is vital.”  

Monday, September 20, 2021

Physicists probe light smashups to guide future research

The Compact Muon Solenoid experiment at the
European Organization for Nuclear Research’s
Large Hadron Collider.
Photo courtesy of CERN
Hot on the heels of proving an 87-year-old prediction that matter can be generated directly from light, Rice University physicists and their colleagues have detailed how that process may impact future studies of primordial plasma and physics beyond the Standard Model.

“We are essentially looking at collisions of light,” said Wei Li, an associate professor of physics and astronomy at Rice and co-author of the study published in Physical Review Letters.

Rice physicists teamed with colleagues at Europe’s Large Hadron Collider to study matter-generating collisions of light. Researchers showed the departure angle of debris from the smashups is subtly distorted by quantum interference patterns in the light prior to impact. Illustration by 123rf.com

“We know from Einstein that energy can be converted into mass,” said Li, a particle physicist who collaborates with hundreds of colleagues on experiments at high-energy particle accelerators like the European Organization for Nuclear Research’s Large Hadron Collider (LHC) and Brookhaven National Laboratory’s Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider (RHIC).

Accelerators like RHIC and LHC routinely turn energy into matter by accelerating pieces of atoms near the speed of light and smashing them into one another. The 2012 discovery of the Higgs particle at the LHC is a notable example. At the time, the Higgs was the final unobserved particle in the Standard Model, a theory that describes the fundamental forces and building blocks of atoms.

Impressive as it is, physicists know the Standard Model explains only about 4% of the matter and energy in the universe. Li said this week’s study, which was lead-authored by Rice postdoctoral researcher Shuai Yang, has implications for the search for physics beyond the Standard Model.

Coral reef biodiversity predicted to shift as climate changes


Experimental set up at HIMB with mesocosms. (Photo credit: Chris Jury)
Coral reefs are among the most biologically diverse, complex and productive ecosystems on the planet. Most of coral reef biodiversity consists of tiny organisms living deep within the three-dimensional reef matrix. Although largely unseen, this diversity is essential to the survival and function of coral reef ecosystems, and many have worried that climate change will lead to dramatic loss of this diversity.

New research led by scientists at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa reveals that the species which dominate experimental coral reef communities shift due to climate change, but the total biodiversity does not decline under future ocean conditions of warming and acidification predicted by the end of the century.

The study was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science.

“Rather than the predicted collapse of biodiversity under ocean warming and acidification, we found significant changes in the relative abundance, but not the occurrence of species, resulting in a shuffling of coral reef community structure,” said Molly Timmers, lead author who conducted this study during her doctoral research at the Hawaiʻi Institute of Marine Biology (HIMB) at UH Mānoa’s School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology (SOEST).

Important but overlooked organisms

“The tiny organisms living in the reef structure are known as the cryptobiota, which are analogous to the insects in a rainforest,” said Timmers. “They play essential roles in reef processes such as nutrient cycling, cementation and food web dynamics—they are an important diet of many of the fishes and invertebrates that make coral reef ecosystems so dynamic.”

Despite their critical importance to coral reef ecosystems, these cryptobiota are often overlooked in climate change research due to the challenges associated with surveying them using visual census and in identifying this highly diverse and understudied community.

“As a result, our perceptions of coral reef biodiversity across marine gradients and how biodiversity will respond to climatic change has been primarily based on a handful of observable surface-dwelling taxa, such as corals and fish,” said Timmers.

Experimental designs

To assess the responses of the understudied cryptobiota to future ocean conditions, Timmers and colleagues at HIMB devised an experiment wherein tiered settlement plates were placed in experimental flow-through tanks. These mesocosms received unfiltered seawater from a nearby reef slope off the shore of HIMB and were treated with end-of-the-century predicted ocean warming and/or ocean acidification conditions. After two years of exposure, the team examined the organismal groups that had developed on the settlement plates using DNA metabarcoding techniques.

“This two-year experimental mesocosm study is unprecedented for climate change research and is the first one to examine the diversity of the entire coral reef community from microbes and algae to the corals and fishes,” said Chris Jury, the author who developed and maintained the mesocosm system.

Source/Credit: University of Hawaiʻi


Major advance in race for SARS-CoV-2 inhibitor drugs

Mpro dimer from SARS-CoV-2 in complex with the inhibitory peptide (13)
 following 100 ns of molecular dynamics simulation.
Credit: University of Bristol
A new advance towards the development of drugs specifically designed to inhibit a key SARS-CoV-2 enzyme is reported in the Royal Society of Chemistry's leading journal, Chemical Science. The international team, led by scientists from the Universities of Oxford and Bristol, has designed new peptide molecules and shown that they block (inhibit) the virus’s main protease [Mpro] - a prominent SARS-CoV-2 drug target.

Once SARS-CoV-2 invades a healthy human cell, the virus's own genetic material commandeers the infected cell's machinery, forcing it to make new copies of the virus. A vital step in this viral life cycle involves cutting a very long 'polyprotein' into its constituent viral proteins. SARS-CoV-2 has two molecular machines called protease enzymes that act as 'molecular scissors'. One of these, called the main protease, or 'Mpro' for short, has the vital role of chopping up the polyprotein, cutting it at 11 different places.

In the early days of the pandemic lockdown, Professor Garrett Morris at the University of Oxford, brought together a group of scientists to try to understand Mpro, with the aim of helping develop drugs against COVID-19. Meeting weekly over many months by Zoom, this group combined their computational and experimental expertise, and grew to include scientists from several different countries. From Bristol, this included Professors Adrian Mulholland and Jim Spencer, Dr Deborah Shoemark, PhD student Becca Walters, and other colleagues. Using a wide array of computational molecular modelling techniques including interactive molecular dynamics in virtual reality, quantum mechanics, peptide design and protein-ligand interaction analysis, the scientists were able to build an atomic level picture of the structure, dynamics and interactions of Mpro.

From these models, the team were able to find how the viral Mpro 'molecular scissors' work. They then designed new peptides, which are short pieces of protein, as inhibitors, to bind tightly to Mpro and prevent it from working, stopping the virus dead in its tracks. But did they work?

All 11 protein cut sites and four of these designed peptides were synthesized and tested in the Chemistry Research Laboratory at the University of Oxford. Experiments, led by Professor Chris Schofield at Oxford, showed that the novel peptides - designed by Dr Deborah Shoemark, with software developed in Bristol - not only bound to the molecular scissors, but they outcompeted the natural protein cut sites and so inhibited Mpro.

Adrian Mulholland, Professor of Chemistry at the University of Bristol and one of the study's lead authors, said: "Despite the development of successful vaccines in record time, new antiviral drugs are desperately needed. To date there are no drugs designed specifically to target COVID-19. Computational molecular modelling can really help with this. As we’ve shown here, computational design can produce molecules that actually stop the Mpro enzyme from working."

Dr Deborah Shoemark, Senior Research Associate (Biomolecular Modelling) in the School of Biochemistry, added: "It has been great to work together on this, combining our ideas and methods to get a really detailed picture of how this viral enzyme works – and to design molecules that actually stop it from working. Understanding Mpro specificity provides the potential to exploit vulnerabilities of the SARS-CoV-2 virus that may provide routes to new antivirals."

Professor Mulholland added: "This collaboration has really shown how sharing of models, data and expertise can help get understanding and make progress much more quickly. Garrett (Morris) built a fantastic team, and it has been exciting to work together on this. It’s how science should be done – particularly in the face of pressing problems like the COVID-19 pandemic."

The study was funded through several grants including support from the EPSRC, BBSRC and the Wellcome Trust.

Source/Credit: University of Bristol


High-speed alloy creation might revolutionize hydrogen’s future

Researchers from Sandia National Laboratories and international collaborators used computational approaches, including explainable machine learning models, to elucidate new high-entropy alloys with attractive hydrogen storage properties and direct laboratory synthesis and validation.

A Sandia National Laboratories team of materials scientists and computer scientists, with some international collaborators, have spent more than a year creating 12 new alloys — and modeling hundreds more — that demonstrate how machine learning can help accelerate the future of hydrogen energy by making it easier to create hydrogen infrastructure for consumers.

Vitalie Stavila, Mark Allendorf, Matthew Witman and Sapan Agarwal are part of the Sandia team that published a paper detailing its approach in conjunction with researchers from Ångström Laboratory in Sweden and Nottingham University in the United Kingdom.

“There is a rich history in hydrogen storage research and a database of thermodynamic values describing hydrogen interactions with different materials,” Witman said. “With that existing database, an assortment of machine-learning and other computational tools, and state-of-the art experimental capabilities, we assembled an international collaboration group to join forces on this effort. We demonstrated that machine learning techniques could indeed model the physics and chemistry of complex phenomena which occur when hydrogen interacts with metals.”

Having a data-driven modeling capability to predict thermodynamic properties can rapidly increase the speed of research. In fact, once constructed and trained, such machine learning models only take seconds to execute and can therefore rapidly screen new chemical spaces: in this case 600 materials that show promise for hydrogen storage and transmission.

“This was accomplished in only 18 months,” Allendorf said. “Without the machine learning it could have taken several years. That’s big when you consider that historically it takes something like 20 years to take a material from lab discovery to commercialization.”

Autistic individuals are more likely to be LGBTQ+

The findings have important implications for the healthcare and support of autistic individuals. The results are published in the journal Autism Research.  

For many years it was wrongly assumed that autistic individuals are uninterested in sexual or romantic relationships, but this is not the case. In recent years, small studies have suggested that autistic individuals are more likely to experience a wider diversity of sexual orientations and are less likely to have sexually transmitted infections (STIs). However, the existing evidence has been limited in size and scope.

In the largest study to date on these topics, the team at the Autism Research Center used an anonymous, self-report survey to study the sexual activity, sexual orientation, and sexual health of autistic adults. Overall, 1,183 autistic and 1,203 non-autistic adolescents and adults (aged 16-90 years) provided information about their sexual activity, sexual orientation, and medical history of STIs.

The results showed that the majority of autistic adults (70% of autistic males and 76% of autistic females) engage in sexual activity—although they do so to a lesser degree than their non-autistic peers (89% of both non-autistic males and females report engaging in sexual activity). In contrast to previous findings, the results also found that there were no differences in likelihood of ever contracting an STI, or the age at which participants first engaged in sexual activity, between autistic and non-autistic individuals.

In addition, the study found that autistic adults and adolescents are approximately eight times more likely to identify as asexual and ‘other’ sexuality than their non-autistic peers. And there were sex differences in sexual orientation: autistic males are 3.5 times more likely to identify as bisexual than non-autistic males, whereas autistic females are three times more likely to identify as homosexual than autistic females.

When comparing autistic females and males directly, autistic females were more likely to be sexually active; more likely to identify as asexual, bisexual, and ‘other’ sexuality; and were less likely to identify as heterosexual.

Elizabeth Weir, a PhD candidate at the Autism Research Center in Cambridge, and the lead researcher of the study, said: “Understanding the intersectional identities of autistic individuals who are asexual, bisexual, homosexual, or ‘other’ sexuality is key. It is particularly important that healthcare providers and educators use language that is affirming and accepting of all sexual orientations and gender identities when providing sexual education and sexual health screening checks to autistic and non-autistic people alike.” 

Dr Carrie Allison, Director of Strategy at the Autism Research Center and a member of the team, said: “We must ensure that autistic individuals are receiving equal access to healthcare and support in their choices in their personal lives, to enjoy fulfilling lives and good mental health.”

Professor Simon Baron-Cohen, Director of the Autism Research Center and a member of the team, said: “This new study is an important example of applied health research with policy relevance for health and social care services.”

Source/Credit: University of Cambridge


Pandemic Has Triggered a Cycle of Mental Health Struggles and Physical Inactivity

Photo by Liza Summer from Pexels

 A large, multi-state study highlights how the COVID-19 pandemic has created a cyclical public health problem by both exacerbating mental health challenges and making it more difficult for people to maintain physical activity. The study also reveals that lower-income households struggled more with both mental health challenges and maintaining physical activity levels.

“We know that physical activity is important for helping people maintain their mental health, but this study reveals the unforgiving cycle that the pandemic has imposed on many people,” says Lindsey Haynes-Maslow, co-author of the study and an associate professor of agricultural and human sciences at North Carolina State University.

“The pandemic has increased psychological distress, which makes it more difficult for people to maintain their physical activity levels. This, in turn, further hurts their mental health, which makes them less likely to be active, and so on. Once you get on this roller coaster ride, it’s hard to get off. And all of this is exacerbated by the pandemic making it harder for people to find safe spaces in which to exercise.”

For this study researchers were focused on two questions: How is the pandemic influencing physical activity and mental health status? And how, if at all, do physical activity and mental health status relate to each other?

To address those questions, the researchers conducted an in-depth, online survey of 4,026 adults in Louisiana, Montana, North Carolina, Oregon and West Virginia. The survey was conducted between April and September of 2020.

The researchers found that the more physically active people were, the better their mental health status. That held true even when accounting for an individual’s race/ethnicity, household income and other socioeconomic demographic variables.

Treatments that may protect eggs against ageing

The spindle is responsible for separating the chromosomes equally when the oocyte goes through specialist meiotic cell divisions. The spindle is made of fibers called microtubules (green) to which the chromosomes (red) are attached. The use of MitoQ or BGP-15 improves the organization of the microtubules and alignment of the chromosomes to the center of the spindle. The oocyte has an improved chance of properly separating chromosomes and thereby avoiding aneuploidy when the egg is activated by the fertilizing sperm.

A woman’s fertility decreases as she ages – largely because of fewer healthy oocytes or eggs, and those that are available for fertilization often have chromosomal abnormalities which result in a higher incidence of miscarriage and genetic disorders such as Down’s syndrome.

Now a team at the Monash Biomedicine Discovery Institute (BDI) and Robinson Research Institute, collaborating with Monash IVF, has found a potential treatment that targets mitochondria to help prevent these chromosomal errors in mouse and human eggs.

In a paper published in the journal Human Reproduction, researchers led by Professors John Carroll and Rebecca Robker used two mitochondria-targeted therapeutics – called MitoQ and BGP-15 – which appeared to protect eggs from the chromosomal disturbances seen in older or abnormal eggs.

In particular, the addition of these agents improved how immature human eggs organize their chromosomes when matured in laboratory conditions. If this effect holds true for eggs maturing in the body it may also prevent chromosomal abnormalities in human eggs, effectively protecting them against miscarriage or genetic consequences such as Down’s syndrome.

The first author, Dr Usama Al-Zubaidi from the Monash BDI says: “Given that increasing numbers of women delay childbearing there is an imperative to improve fertility and reduce miscarriage and chromosomal anomalies associated with maternal ageing.”

The study identified “two excellent candidates that may one day help to improve fertility in older women.”

The age-related decline in fertility is strongly attributed to ovarian ageing, diminished ovarian reserves, and a decline in oocyte quality. One cause of this is due to increased oxidative stress within the oocytes.

Mitochondria – whether in an oocyte or any other cell in the body - use oxygen to create energy and one of the by-products is the production of free radicals. Oocytes are made during fetal life so have a lot of time to accumulate oxidative damage. Also, as eggs age, their defenses against oxidative damage become compromised. MitoQ and BGP-15 appear to be protecting eggs at least in part by improving mitochondrial function and minimizing oxidative stress during critical periods when the eggs are dividing their chromosomes.

Next steps involve finding the best conditions for these therapies to work when eggs are maturing inside the ovary and if the effects seen on chromosome organization translate into healthier eggs that have a better chance to develop into healthy pregnancies.

“Increasingly, fertility science is turning to therapies that specifically target these mitochondria with a view to preventing the chromosomal abnormalities that occur due to ageing and oxidative stress,” Professor Carroll said.

“Our study looked at two of these candidates to see whether they in fact made a difference to older eggs from humans and mice and found they can make the older eggs ‘younger’ again.” They were very effective at one level, but we are now working on seeing if this approach can work in patients.”

Both MitoQ and BGP-15 are used in humans already, – with MitoQ used to treat age associated hypertension while BGP-15 has been used in clinical trials for diabetes where it was given orally.

Medical Director Monash IVF, Professor Luk Rombauts said that improving function of the mitochondria, which he calls “the little energy factories within the eggs”, is one of the potential strategies to enhance egg quality and reproductive success, even more so in older women. “Monash IVF is keen to continue its collaboration with Professor John Carroll’s lab to find meaningful ways to turn this research into new treatment strategies.”

Source/Credit: Monash University


Sunday, September 19, 2021

Plasma doesn’t help severely ill COVID-19 patients


Giving severely ill COVID-19 patients a transfusion of blood from donors who have already recovered from the virus did not help them improve — and in some cases made them sicker, according to a major Canadian-led clinical trial reporting results in Nature Medicine.

“Convalescent plasma had been found to boost immunity in patients infected with some other viral entities, including SARS, in the past,” said local principal investigator Susan Nahirniak, professor of laboratory medicine and pathology in the University of Alberta’s Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry and medical/scientific lead for the Alberta Precision Laboratories transfusion and transplantation medicine program.

“But this trial did not demonstrate any benefit in terms of changing the course for patients who were admitted to hospital needing oxygen for SARS-CoV-2,” Nahirniak said. “It did not prevent intubation or death.”

The randomized controlled study followed 921 COVID-19 patients in Canada, the United States and Brazil who were admitted to hospital within 12 days of the onset of their respiratory symptoms. Two-thirds (614 patients) received convalescent plasma transfusions and one-third (307 patients) did not.

Of the convalescent plasma group, 199 of the patients required intubation or died, while 86 patients in the control group had these outcomes. Patients in the convalescent arm also experienced more serious adverse events such as needing more oxygen or worsening respiratory failure. The trial was terminated early when researchers realized the outcomes were not positive.

Varying immune responses

Another finding of the trial was that the level of neutralizing antibodies, or titres, in the blood of recovered COVID-19 patients was highly variable, which may have implications for how the population responds to vaccination.

“We were finding that several of the people who had signed up as donors were dropping their titres fairly quickly, so maintaining that donor pool was a challenge,” said Nahirniak. 

“It is proof that just because you’ve had COVID once doesn’t mean you can’t have it again,” she said. “It reinforces the need to be vigilant and possibly give boosters, similar to what we do with influenza.”

At the same time, the research team found that some donors had higher levels of non-functional antibodies against the virus’s spike protein. They reported that recipients of this plasma seemed to have poorer outcomes and recommended continued research on the prevalence and impact of these antibodies.

“If COVID is part of our lives going forward and there are certain antibodies that could be potentially harmful, is that something we need to be testing for and screening out for plasma donors?” Nahirniak posited.

Nahirniak noted that participating in the trial during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, when few treatments had been identified, helped to boost morale for both patients and clinical staff.

“We felt like we could do nothing, so at least this was an option, identifying the patients early on and getting them monitored.”

Nahirniak noted she was surprised by the disappointing results, but “that’s why we do a trial — we anticipated better success against the virus.”

The study was funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research and numerous local health agencies, including the University of Alberta Hospital Foundation and Alberta Health Services.

Source/Credit: University of Alberta


Targeting tickborne diseases

"Benedict Khoo" Source: University of Minnesota

For Benedict Khoo, making a breakthrough discovery in health-related research doesn’t mean much if it can’t be put to use bettering people’s lives.

For Benedict Khoo, making a breakthrough discovery in health-related research doesn’t mean much if it can’t be put to use bettering people’s lives.

He knows from experience. When he worked in a research lab in Ohio, he felt “divorced from having a tangible impact,” due largely to regulatory hurdles in the field.

But that all changed when he turned to public health. There, he says, however his work turns out, he learns something that could help people make their own health decisions or influence policies. 

“That’s what drove me—to have that impact on the world and feel like I’m doing something,” says Khoo, a doctoral student in the School of Public Health (SPH). 

He found his niche with Jonathan Oliver, an assistant professor of environmental health sciences in SPH, who is now his adviser. Together they study the prevalence of Lyme disease and other tickborne diseases of humans, in a study area comprising Minnesota and adjacent northern Iowa and western Wisconsin. 

Saturday, September 18, 2021

How a plant virus could protect and save your lungs from metastatic cancer

Nanoparticles engineered from the cowpea mosaic virus have shown efficacy
in treating and greatly reducing the spread of metastatic cancers in the lungs of mice.
Using a virus that grows in black-eyed pea plants, nanoengineers at the University of California San Diego developed a new treatment that could keep metastatic cancers at bay from the lungs. The treatment not only slowed tumor growth in the lungs of mice with either metastatic breast cancer or melanoma, it also prevented or drastically minimized the spread of these cancers to the lungs of healthy mice that were challenged with the disease.

The research was published in the journal Advanced Science.

Cancer spread to the lungs is one of the most common forms of metastasis in various cancers. Once there, it is extremely deadly and difficult to treat.

Researchers at the UC San Diego Jacobs School of Engineering developed an experimental treatment that combats this spread. It involves a bodily injection of a plant virus called the cowpea mosaic virus. The virus is harmless to animals and humans, but it still registers as a foreign invader, thus triggering an immune response that could make the body more effective at fighting cancer.

The idea is to use the plant virus to help the body’s immune system recognize and destroy cancer cells in the lungs. The virus itself is not infectious in our bodies, but it has all these danger signals that alarm immune cells to go into attack mode and search for a pathogen, said Nicole Steinmetz, professor of nanoengineering at UC San Diego and director of the university’s Center for Nano-ImmunoEngineering.

To draw this immune response to lung tumors, Steinmetz’s lab engineered nanoparticles made from the cowpea mosaic virus to target a protein in the lungs. The protein, called S100A9, is expressed and secreted by immune cells that help fight infection in the lungs. And there is another reason that motivated Steinmetz’s team to target this protein: overexpression of S100A9 has been observed to play a role in tumor growth and spread.

“For our immunotherapy to work in the setting of lung metastasis, we need to target our nanoparticles to the lung,” said Steinmetz. “Therefore, we created these plant virus nanoparticles to home in on the lungs by making use of S100A9 as the target protein. Within the lung, the nanoparticles recruit immune cells so that the tumors don’t take.”

“Because these nanoparticles tend to localize in the lungs, they can change the tumor microenvironment there to become more adept at fighting off cancer—not just established tumors, but future tumors as well,” said Eric Chung, a bioengineering Ph.D. student in Steinmetz’s lab who is one of the co-first authors on the paper.

To make the nanoparticles, the researchers grew black-eyed pea plants in the lab, infected them with cowpea mosaic virus, and harvested the virus in the form of ball-shaped nanoparticles. They then attached S100A9-targeting molecules to the surfaces of the particles.

The researchers performed both prevention and treatment studies. In the prevention studies, they first injected the plant virus nanoparticles into the bloodstreams of healthy mice, and then later injected either triple negative breast cancer or melanoma cells in these mice. Treated mice showed a dramatic reduction in the cancers spreading to their lungs compared to untreated mice.

In the treatment studies, the researchers administered the nanoparticles to mice with metastatic tumor in their lungs. These mice exhibited smaller lung tumors and survived longer than untreated mice.

What’s remarkable about these results, the researchers point out, is that they show efficacy against extremely aggressive cancer cell lines. “So, any change in survival or lung metastasis is pretty striking,” said Chung. “And the fact that we get the level of prevention that we do is really, really amazing.”

Steinmetz envisions that such a treatment could be especially helpful to patients after they have had a cancerous tumor removed. “It wouldn’t be meant as an injection that’s given to everyone to prevent lung tumors. Rather, it would be given to patients who are at high risk of their tumors growing back as a metastatic disease, which often manifests in the lung. This would offer their lungs protection against cancer metastasis,” she said.

Before the new treatment can reach that stage, the researchers need to do more detailed immunotoxicity and pharmacology studies. Future studies will also explore combining this with other treatments such as chemotherapy, checkpoint drugs or radiation.

Source/Credit: UC San Diego Jacobs School of Engineering


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