. Scientific Frontline

Sunday, February 6, 2022

Widely-used hormone drug associated with increased risk of benign brain tumor at high doses

A generic image of a CT scan showing a
meningioma, brain tumor.
High doses of a widely-used drug used in the hormonal treatment of conditions such as excessive hair growth, early puberty, prostate cancer is linked to an increased risk of meningioma — the most common type of benign brain tumor, finds a University of Bristol-led study of over 8-million patients. The study is published in Scientific Reports.

Typically slow-growing, meningiomas are benign tumors, which are often revealed incidentally by imaging but can cause significant disability due to compressing or squeezing the adjacent brain, nerves and vessels and pressure effects within a fixed cranial vault.

Recent studies have reported an association between the growth of meningiomas and hormonal treatments, particularly prolonged and high dose use of the drug, cyproterone acetate (CPA).

High doses of cyproterone acetate (> 50 mg/day) is usually prescribed to male patients with inoperable prostate cancer, a condition which leads to excessive hair growth known as hirsutism, or male-to-female transsexual hormonal therapy. Lower doses (2-10 mg/day) of the drug are typically used in combination with estradiol to treat androgen-associated alopecia or female seborrhea.

Given the drug’s widespread use, researchers at the Universities of Bristol, Cambridge and the National University of Singapore, conducted a systematic review and meta-analysis study using four studies comprising a sample of 8,132,348 patients, to assess the evidence of the association between cyproterone acetate and incidence of meningiomas.

Researchers capture first snapshot of dissolved chemicals from coral reefs

Reefscapes of the Moorea backreef.
Photo credit: Shayle Matsuda/ UH SOEST

Coral reefs are hotspots of biodiversity and are amazingly productive with a vast number of organisms interacting simultaneously. Hundreds of molecules that are made by important members of the coral reef community were recently discovered by a team of scientists. Together, the compounds—modified amino acids, vitamins and steroids—comprise the “smell” or “taste” of corals and algae in a tropical reef, and will help scientists understand both the food web dynamics and the chemical ecology of these ecosystems.

The study, led by researchers at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego, University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa and the NIOZ Royal Netherlands Institute for Sea Research was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. It provides the first snapshot of the diversity of dissolved chemicals floating among coral reefs and a window into the interactions among organisms that scientists are just beginning to understand.

Although coral and seaweed (limu) are fixed to the seafloor, these organisms interact via chemicals dissolved in the water. Despite knowing the importance of these molecules built during photosynthesis and released into the seawater environment, their quantity, energy content and structural diversity have always been a mystery to biologists.

Gone forever – two-thirds of Australia has lost its unique birdlife

Vulnerable Goshawk.
Credit: James Watson

Researchers have revealed that threatened birds have disappeared from almost 70 per cent of Australia since European colonization.

The study – led by The University of Queensland, Charles Darwin University, WWF Australia and Australian Wildlife Conservancy – mapped the pre-European (1750) habitats of Australia’s most threatened birds, comparing those with current habitats.

Dr Michelle Ward, from UQ’s School of Earth and Environmental Sciences and WWF Australia, said Australians should be extremely alarmed by the findings.

Tuesday, February 1, 2022

Mission to find lunar ice

Artistic concept of CoRaLS mission.
Photo credit: A. Romero-Wolf, JPL

A University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa project to detect ice deposits below the surface of the Moon received a major boost from NASA. Five scientists in the Department of Physics and Astronomy and Hawaiʻi Institute of Geophysics and Planetology (HIGP) have been awarded a three-year, $2,945,704 grant to develop technology for the NASA Cosmic Ray Lunar Sounder (CoRaLS) mission, which was initiated by UH Mānoa and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab.

CoRaLS hopes to be the first mission to detect subsurface ice below the first meter, therefore having a unique opportunity to further lunar science and identify crucial resources for future manned and unmanned missions to the Moon.

History of ice deposits

Extensive ice deposits have been found in the permanently shadowed regions (PSRs) of Mercury, but so far only traces of ice have been found on the surface of lunar PSRs, and active radar measurements sensitive to the top meter or so of the regolith (5–10 meter layer of debris on the Moon’s surface) show no clear signal yet from extensive ice deposits.

Global elimination of meat production could save the planet

Photo by Kat Smith from Pexels

A new study of the climate impacts of raising animals for food concludes that phasing out all animal agriculture has the potential to substantially alter the trajectory of global warming.

The work is a collaboration between Michael Eisen, professor of molecular and cell biology at the University of California, Berkeley, and Patrick Brown, professor emeritus of biochemistry at Stanford University and the CEO of Impossible Foods Inc., a company that sells plant-based meat substitutes.

Eisen, who consults for Impossible Foods, and Brown used a simple climate model to look at the combined impact of eliminating emissions linked to animal agriculture and of restoring native vegetation on the 30% of Earth’s land surface currently used to house and feed livestock.

They found that the resulting drop in methane and nitrous oxide levels, and the conversion of 800 gigatons (800 billion tons) of carbon dioxide to forest, grassland and soil biomass, would have the same beneficial impact on global warming as cutting annual global CO2 emissions by 68%.

“Our work shows that ending animal agriculture has the unique potential to significantly reduce atmospheric levels of all three major greenhouse gases, which, because we have dithered in responding to the climate crisis, is now necessary to avert climate catastrophe,” said Eisen, who is also a Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) investigator at UC Berkeley.

Novel Nanoparticle SARS-CoV-2 Vaccine Combines Immune Focusing and Self-assembling Nanoparticles to Elicit More Potent Protection

Dr. Dan Kulp, associate professor in Wistar's Vaccine & Immunotherapy Center
Credit: The Wistar Institute

The first generation of COVID-19 vaccines have been highly effective, but also have limitations: their efficacy can wane without a booster shot, and they may be less effective against some variants. Now scientists at The Wistar Institute have developed a more targeted vaccine that, in animal studies, shows stronger, broader, and more durable protection in a single, low dose.

The vaccine combines three technologies – immune focusing, self-assembling nanoparticles, and DNA delivery – into a single platform for the first time. In addition to its other advantages, the vaccine could be stored at room temperature, making it potentially easier to transport to remote or developing locations than existing mRNA vaccines, which require specialized cold storage.

“This is among the first next-generation vaccines that will have more advanced features and broader protection,” said Daniel Kulp, Ph.D., associate professor in the Vaccine & Immunotherapy Center at The Wistar Institute and corresponding author of the study.

The paper, “Nucleic acid delivery of immune-focused SARS-CoV-2 nanoparticles drive rapid and potent immunogenicity capable of single-dose protection,” was published in the journal Cell Reports.

How Omicron escapes from antibodies

Image: CDC; Christine Daniloff, MIT
A new study from MIT suggests that the dozens of mutations in the spike protein of the Omicron variant help it to evade all four of the classes of antibodies that can target the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes Covid-19.

This includes antibodies generated by vaccinated or previously infected people, as well as most of the monoclonal antibody treatments that have been developed, says Ram Sasisekharan, the Alfred H. Caspary Professor of Biological Engineering and Health Sciences and Technology (HST) at MIT.

Using a computational approach that allowed them to determine how mutated amino acids of the viral spike protein influence nearby amino acids, the researchers were able to get a multidimensional view of how the virus evades antibodies. According to Sasisekharan, the traditional approach of only examining changes in the virus’ genetic sequence reduces the complexity of the spike protein’s three-dimensional surface and doesn’t describe the multidimensional complexity of the protein surfaces that antibodies are attempting to bind to.

“It is important to get a more comprehensive picture of the many mutations seen in Omicron, especially in the context of the spike protein, given that the spike protein is vital for the virus’s function, and all the major vaccines are based on that protein,” he says. “There is a need for tools or approaches that can rapidly determine the impact of mutations in new virus variants of concern, especially for SARS-CoV-2.”

Sasisekharan is the senior author of the study, which appears this week in Cell Reports Medicine. The lead author of the paper is MIT HST graduate student Nathaniel Miller. Technical associate Thomas Clark and research scientist Rahul Raman are also authors of the paper.

Even though Omicron is able to evade most antibodies to some degree, vaccines still offer protection, Sasisekharan says.

World-record lightning “megaflashes” detected using space-based technology

Satellite image of the record lightning flash over Uruguay and Argentina on June 18, 2020, which lasted 17.102 seconds.

A researcher at Los Alamos National Laboratory has detected two world-record lightning “megaflashes.” The longest-distance flash was detected in the southern United States on April 29, 2020 and spanned more than 477 miles from Mississippi to Texas. The longest-duration lightning strike was detected over Uruguay on June 18, 2020 and lasted 17.1 seconds.

“We are now at a place where we have excellent lightning measurements, which allows us to discover surprising new aspects of its behavior,” said lead author Michael Peterson, of the Space and Remote Sensing group at Los Alamos. “Now that we have a robust record of these massive flashes, we can better understand how they occur and the impact that they have.”

These megaflashes are incredibly rare events. In order to record one from the ground, or from an aircraft or satellite in a low orbit, the sensor has to be exactly in the right place at the right time, which is very unlikely.

Scientists discover link between high blood pressure and diabetes

The long-standing enigma of why so many patients suffering with high blood pressure (known as hypertension) also have diabetes (high blood sugar) has finally been cracked by an international team led by the universities of Bristol, UK, and Auckland, New Zealand.

The important new discovery has shown that a small protein cell glucagon-like peptide-1 (GLP-1) couples the body’s control of blood sugar and blood pressure.

Professor Julian Paton, a senior author, and Director of Manaaki Mãnawa - The Centre for Heart Research at the University of Auckland, said: "We've known for a long time that hypertension and diabetes are inextricably linked and have finally discovered the reason, which will now inform new treatment strategies."

The research, published online ahead of print in Circulation Research today, involved contributions from collaborating scientists in Brazil, Germany, Lithuania, and Serbia, as well as the UK and New Zealand.

LP-1 is released from the wall of the gut after eating and acts to stimulate insulin from the pancreas to control blood sugar levels. This was known but what has now been unearthed is that GLP-1 also stimulates a small sensory organ called the carotid body located in the neck.

The University of Bristol group used an unbiased, high-throughput genomics technique called RNA sequencing to read all the messages of the expressed genes in the carotid body in rats with and without high blood pressure. This led to the finding that the receptor that senses GLP-1 is located in the carotid body, but less so in hypertensive rats.

Hepatitis E virus defies alcoholic hand disinfectants

The hepatitis E virus (HEV) can cause serious inflammation of the liver and is the most common cause of acute virus-mediated hepatitis worldwide. The infection can be prevented by suitable hygiene measures. Scientists from TWINCORE, Center for Experimental and Clinical Infection Research, the Hannover Medical School (MHH) and the Ruhr University Bochum (RUB) have examined the effectiveness of various common hand disinfectants against HEV together with partners from industry. They could show that most formulations do not completely inactivate the virus. They publish these results in the Journal of Hepatology.

Pork infection

In Germany and Europe, HEV has its natural reservoir in pigs. The infection can pass from the animals to humans, one speaks here of a zoonosis. This is often done by meat products that are not fully heated or raw, such as Mett. In tropical regions of the world, contaminated water leads to infections with sometimes larger outbreaks. "Some of these infections may have been prevented by the right hygiene measures," says Dr. Patrick Behrendt, doctor in the clinic for gastroenterology, hepatology and endocrinology at MHH and head of the junior research group "Translational Virology" at TWINCORE. This includes correct hygienic hand disinfection, especially in everyday clinical practice in dealing with hepatitis E patients and infected animals.

Together with the team of Prof. Dr. Eike Steinmann, head of the Department of Molecular and Medical Virology at RUB, examined Behrendt whether common hand disinfectants can render the virus harmless. "We tested the effects of the alcohols ethanol and propanol, both individually and in the mixing ratios recommended by the WHO, as well as commercial hand disinfectants," says Steinmann. “However, only one product that contained another component was effective."

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