. Scientific Frontline

Thursday, January 27, 2022

Chemist Identifies New Way of Finding Extraterrestrial Life

SDSU researchers Chris Harrison and Jessica Torres, seen above in Harrison's lab, are using lasers and liquids to detect amino acids in extraterrestrial rocks. In the background, an image of Mars.
Source: San Diego State University

Have we been looking for extraterrestrials in all the wrong places? San Diego State University chemists are developing methods to find signs of life on other planets by looking for the building blocks of proteins in a place they've never been able to test before: inside rocks.

After collaborating with researchers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in La Cañada Flintridge in 2019, Jessica Torres, a doctoral student studying chemistry at SDSU, is experimenting with ways to extract amino acids from porous rocks that could be used on future rovers.

Previous research has looked for evidence of other life forms in water and soil, but not from solid materials.

Current methods for identifying amino acids can’t differentiate versions created by a living organism from those formed through random chemical reactions. And existing techniques usually require water — which would freeze or evaporate if placed on a space probe traveling to Mars or Europa, the ice-covered saltwater moon of Jupiter that some regard as a prime candidate for extraterrestrial life because of its subsurface ocean.

Tumors dramatically shrink with new approach to cell therapy

Graphic of tumor-infiltrating lymphocites, natural immune cells that invade tumors.
Credit: Shana O. Kelley Lab/Northwestern University

Northwestern University researchers have developed a new tool to harness immune cells from tumors to fight cancer rapidly and effectively.

Their findings, published January 27 in the journal Nature Biomedical Engineering, showed a dramatic shrinkage in tumors in mice compared to traditional cell therapy methods. With a novel microfluidic device that could be 3D printed, the team multiplied, sorted through and harvested hundreds of millions of cells, recovering 400% more of the tumor-eating cells than current approaches.

Most treatments for cancer involve toxic chemicals and foreign substances, which cause harmful side effects and weaken the body’s immune response. Using tissue from one’s own body can eliminate side effects and risk of rejection, and many disease therapies in regenerative medicine and cancer treatment have gained traction in the clinic. But sometimes the wheels skid.

“People have been cured in the clinic of advanced melanoma through treatment with their own immune cells that were harvested out of tumor tissue,” said Shana O. Kelley, a pioneer in translational biotechnology and corresponding author on the paper. “The problem is, because of the way the cells are harvested, it only works in a very small number of patients.”

Uncontrolled Blood Pressure Is Sending More People to the Hospital

New research from the Smidt Heart Institute shows that more
people are being hospitalized for dangerously high blood pressure.
Photo by Cedars-Sinai.
The number of people hospitalized for a hypertensive crisis—when blood pressure increases so much it can cause a heart attack, stroke or other sudden cardiovascular event—more than doubled from 2002 to 2014, according to Cedars-Sinai investigators.

The increase occurred during a period when some studies reported overall progress in blood pressure control and a decline in related cardiovascular events in the U.S. The findings are published in the Journal of the American Heart Association.

“Although more people have been able to manage their blood pressure over the last few years, we’re not seeing this improvement translate into fewer hospitalizations for hypertensive crisis,” said Joseph E. Ebinger, MD, a clinical cardiologist and director of clinical analytics at the Smidt Heart Institute and first author of the study.

Ash trees may be more resilient to warming climate than previously believed

Students taking tree measurements in Penn State's green ash provenance trial are shown in this photo, circa 2000. Almost all the trees are dead and gone now, victims of the emerald ash borer. However, in the decades before they died — along with ash trees at other university trials and plantations and U.S. Forest Service installations — they offered an unprecedented perspective on how forests may be changed by a warming climate.
Credit: Kim Steiner / Penn State. Creative Commons

Since the 1990s, scientists have been predicting that North American tree species will disappear from portions of their ranges within the next 50 to 100 years because of projected changes in climate. A new study led by Penn State forest biologists found that when transplanted to warmer environments, ash trees can survive increased temperatures of 7 degrees Fahrenheit and sometimes even up to 18 degrees Fahrenheit, suggesting that these trees may be more resilient to climate warming than previously believed.

“We know that species distribution models based only on climate are biologically imperfect,” said lead researcher Kim Steiner, professor emeritus of forest biology in the College of Agricultural Sciences. “However, they are the best we have for predicting where species would be found in a climatically different future, and it is extremely difficult — especially with trees — to experimentally test and possibly refute such predictions."

Male carriers of BRCA1 and BRCA2 gene mutation also at risk of multiple cancers

The BRCA1 and BRCA2 gene mutations are well known for their female carriers to have increased risk of cancers, but new research reveals the increased risk of various cancers for male carriers.

People who carry the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene mutation have an increased risk of pancreatic, stomach and prostate cancers, as well as the previously well-known risk of breast and ovarian cancers – but not for melanoma, according to new University of Melbourne led research calling for increased testing in male carriers to detect the cancers early.

The study used the largest sample size ever in a cancer study of the same kind worldwide, critiquing 22 cancers to establish that in addition to female breast and ovarian cancers, BRCA1/2 carriers are at risk for male breast, pancreatic, stomach and prostate (BRCA2 carriers only) cancers, but not other cancers as previously thought. Significantly, the study team found that BRCA1/2 carriers did not have higher risk of melanoma.

Lead author and Victorian Cancer Agency Early Career Research Fellow Dr Shuai Li said the research suggested male relatives of known BRCA1/2 carriers should be informed about their individual cancer risk.

“They should be informed about cancer risk and encouraged to be tested, because male and female carriers have the same cancer risks for pancreatic and stomach cancers, and male BRCA2 carriers also have increased risk of prostate cancers. Male carriers can also have increased risk of developing breast cancer. BRCA-related cancers are not a ‘female only’ thing,” Dr Shuai Li said.

Wednesday, January 26, 2022

Current anti-COVID pills work well against omicron, but antibody drugs are less effective

Yoshihiro Kawaoka
The drugs behind the new pills to treat COVID-19 remain very effective against the omicron variant of the virus in lab tests, according to a new study.

However, lab tests also showed that the available antibody therapies — typically given intravenously in hospitals — are substantially less effective against omicron than against earlier variants of the virus. The antibody treatments by Lilly and Regeneron have entirely lost their ability to neutralize omicron at realistic dosages. The Food and Drug Administration recently removed these two drugs from approved treatment lists because they are ineffective against the variant.

If the ability of the antiviral pills to combat omicron is confirmed in human patients, it would be welcome news. Public health officials expect the pills to become an increasingly common treatment for COVID-19 that will reduce the severity of the disease in at-risk patients and decrease the burden of the pandemic.

For now, the pills remain in short supply during the current omicron wave, which has broken case records in the U.S. and other countries.

The findings corroborate other studies that show most available antibody treatments are less effective against omicron. Drug makers could design, test and produce new antibody drugs targeted at the omicron variant to overcome the limitations of current therapies, but this process would take months.

“The bottom line is we have countermeasures to treat omicron. That’s good news,” says Yoshihiro Kawaoka, the University of Wisconsin–Madison lead of the study and virologist at the UW School of Veterinary Medicine and the University of Tokyo. “However, this is all in laboratory studies. Whether this translates into humans, we don’t know yet.”

Studying the Big Bang with Artificial Intelligence

A quark gluon plasma after the collision of two heavy nuclei
Credit: Technische Universität Wien

Can machine learning be used to uncover the secrets of the quark-gluon plasma? Yes - but only with sophisticated new methods.

It could hardly be more complicated: tiny particles whir around wildly with extremely high energy, countless interactions occur in the tangled mess of quantum particles, and this results in a state of matter known as "quark-gluon plasma". Immediately after the Big Bang, the entire universe was in this state; today it is produced by high-energy atomic nucleus collisions, for example at CERN.

Such processes can only be studied using high-performance computers and highly complex computer simulations whose results are difficult to evaluate. Therefore, using artificial intelligence or machine learning for this purpose seems like an obvious idea. Ordinary machine-learning algorithms, however, are not suitable for this task. The mathematical properties of particle physics require a very special structure of neural networks. At TU Wien (Vienna), it has now been shown how neural networks can be successfully used for these challenging tasks in particle physics.

Scientists Regrow Frog’s Lost Leg

A normal African clawed frog. “It’s exciting to see that the drugs we selected were helping to create an almost complete limb,” said Nirosha Murugan.
Photo: Pouzin Olivier, via Creative Commons

For millions of patients who have lost limbs for reasons ranging from diabetes to trauma, the possibility of regaining function through natural regeneration remains out of reach. Regrowth of legs and arms is the province of salamanders and superheroes.

But in a study published in the journal Science Advances, scientists at Tufts and Harvard University’s Wyss Institute have brought us a step closer to the goal of regenerative medicine.

On adult frogs, which are naturally unable to regenerate limbs, the researchers were able to trigger regrowth of a lost leg using a five-drug cocktail applied in a silicone wearable bioreactor dome that seals in the elixir over the stump for just 24 hours. That brief treatment sets in motion an 18-month period of regrowth that restores a functional leg.

Many creatures have the capability of full regeneration of at least some limbs, including salamanders, starfish, crabs, and lizards. Flatworms can even be cut up into pieces, with each piece reconstructing an entire organism. Humans are capable of closing wounds with new tissue growth, and our livers have a remarkable, almost flatworm-like capability of regenerating to full size after a 50% loss.

Future forests will have smaller trees and soak up less carbon, study suggests

There is no crystal ball to tell ecologists how forests of the future will respond to the changing climate, but a University of Arizona-led team of researchers may have created the next best thing.

By combining tree-ring data with U.S. Forest Service inventory data on Arizona's ponderosa pines, the team captured a more complete picture than traditional models have provided of what drives future tree growth. The researchers predict a 56 to 91% decline in individual tree growth, according to a new study published in Global Change Biology.

"The growth declines we're forecasting will mean less uptake of atmospheric carbon dioxide in the future by Arizona's forests," said lead study author Kelly Heilman, a postdoctoral research associate in the UArizona Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research. "While Arizona's forests are relatively small in terms of their contribution to the total U.S. carbon sequestration, our approach can be used to make the same predictions for forests around the world."

Forests remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, which offsets some greenhouse gas emissions globally and helps to mitigate climate change.

"It's a free service that forests provide, so forests have been touted as one of the many natural climate solutions that countries rely on to offset their emissions," Heilman said. "But competition between trees, droughts and disturbances can reduce forest carbon uptake. Knowing how much carbon forests take up globally is essential to addressing the climate crisis and planning for a resilient future."

Many countries, including the U.S., maintain national forest inventory programs in which foresters take a census of trees in 1/6-acre plots to track forest status and change. These censuses are taken as frequently as every five years, but in the western U.S. they're done every 10 years. Among the data collected is the number of trees, their diameters and soil quality.

Southern Ocean storms cause outgassing of carbon dioxide

Researchers have examined the inaccessible waters around Antarctica using unique robot technology, and find that ocean storms in the region lead to outgassing of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Credit: Fred Fouri

Storms over the waters around Antarctica drive an outgassing of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, according to a new international study with researchers from the University of Gothenburg. The research group used advanced ocean robots for the study, which provides a better understanding of climate change and can lead to better global climate models.

The world's southernmost ocean, the Southern Ocean that surrounds Antarctica, plays an important role in the global climate because its waters contain large amounts of carbon dioxide. A new international study, in which researchers from the University of Gothenburg participated, has examined the complex processes driving air-sea fluxes of gasses, such as carbon dioxide.

Storms bring carbon dioxide-rich waters to the surface

The research group is now delivering new findings that shed light on the area's important role in climate change.

“We show how the intense storms that often occur in the region increase ocean mixing and bring carbon dioxide-rich waters from the deep to the surface. This drives an outgassing of carbon dioxide from the ocean to the atmosphere. There has been a lack of knowledge about these complex processes, so the study is an important key to understanding the Southern Ocean's significance for the climate and the global carbon budget”, says Sebastiaan Swart, professor of oceanography at the University of Gothenburg and co-author of the study.

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