Hunter-killer antibodies chasing down cancer

15th Jun 2013 | 08:00

Hunter-killer antibodies chasing down cancer

Plus, volcano energy, syrup cocaine and religion

This Week in Science promises to be yet another corker. From nuclear bomb blasts unveiling the hidden workings of our brains, to the prospect of volcanoes producing bountiful clean energy to power our world, it's all been rocking.

But, arguably the biggest news from the past month has been the amazing results shown in a number of small clinical trials by three separate anti-cancer drugs, all working using antibodies to unmask the deadly tumour cells, allowing your own immune system to get to work and kill the buggers off. Amazing stuff.

New antibody allows your own immune system to kick cancer's arse -- One of the avenues of cancer research currently being investigated is the re-targeting of your own immune system to attack and kill cancerous cells. Tumour cells normally manage to evade the immune system by camouflaging their cellular markers, essentially activating an ignore-me override switch in our T-cells, which would otherwise kill the cancer.

Results presented at the recent annual meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncology show three antibody-based drugs that can block the activation of this PD-1 override switch, allowing T-cells to correctly identify cancerous cells and target them for destruction. All three drugs showed impressive efficacy against both skin cancer and other cancers in small clinical trials, with some patients being entirely rid of their deadly advanced melanoma in record time, and are now entering much larger trials combating other forms of cancer.

While we can't quite count our chickens just yet, the results so far are extremely encouraging. By using your own immune system to combat cancer, this technique promises to be efficient at eradicating tumours with minimal side effects, nuking cancer with our own natural weaponry. [New Scientist]

Nuclear bomb reveals brain secret -- Thanks to a series of nuclear bomb tests, we've finally be able to categorically answer one of the biggest questions concerning the human brain: Do we generate new brain cells throughout our lives?

Using a radioactive isotope, carbon-14, expelled into the environment by the nuclear tests, a recent study has proven that humans do in fact continue to grow new brain cells in certain neural regions. Carbon-14 levels in the atmosphere were dramatically increased between 1945 and 1963 by above ground nuclear tests. By measuring the amount of C-14 locked within DNA in cells in the human body, it's possible to decipher when they were born matching known atmospheric levels at the time.

Nuke queue la

The researchers discovered that a small population of brain cells in the hippocampus, called the denate gyrus, creates about 700 new neurons every day, showing that neurogenesis continues well after we're children. The denate gyrus is thought to be involved in the formation of episodic memory, which indicates new cells could be important in the formation of memories, something that is known to be true in mice but that hasn't yet been proven in humans. [Cell]

Science is to atheists, what faith is to the religious -- For people of faith, turning to God or their beliefs is often found to be a coping mechanism for periods of stress or anxiety. Now it seems atheists have a very similar method for dealing with abnormal situations, except they turn to science rather than God.

A study of rowers in Oxford showed that in periods of stress, such as right before a big race, the non-religious among them rated their belief in science an average of 15 per cent higher than at other times. This small study reinforces a growing body of work that suggests people move closer to specific aspects of their worldview, be it political, religious or rationality, during times of stress. It seems a belief in rational thinking and science has replaced a belief in religion for those of the non-religious persuasion, showing that everyone has to have something to believe in, even if it's not pure faith. [JESP]

Could volcanoes provide us with limitless clean energy? -- When you think of volcanoes you could be forgiven for picturing disaster movies like Dante's Peak or the ancient Roman city of Pompeii, which was unceremoniously swallowed by the pyroclastic flow of Mount Vesuvius. But volcanoes represent a tremendous amount of thermal energy that could be harnessed to power our homes and cities.

Volcanoes - all that energy and a wicked nerve grip

Now engineers in Oregon are using 'enhanced geothermal engineering' (EGS) to see whether they can use water, pumped deep underground near Newberry Volcano in Deschutes National Forest, to siphon off some of the immense heat to generate electricity. The trouble with EGS is that it works by forcing new fissures, fractures, cracks and tunnels into the rock with water, potentially resulting in earthquakes.

The superheated water is then pumped up through turbines and recycled back into the ground, generating a large amount of renewable and clean energy in the process. It's early days in the project, but we could start seeing the results of the pioneering work in the next few years. One to keep an eye on then, because if all goes well, EGS projects of this scale could start springing up around the world adding to our renewable energy armoury. [Popular Science]

Cameras could be the new microphones -- Lip-reading is all very well, but you can't actually recreate a person's voice by watching their mouth's movements. Researchers from Japan now reckon that they can recreate a person's voice simply from high-speed camera footage of a neck.

I can hear you...

Essentially, the new technique records vibration data, just like a microphone or vibrometer does. The camera captures the motion 10,000s of times a second, and reconstructs the images into vibration data, which is then used to recreate the sound made. So far the scientists have been able to record and recreate a single word, but a whole sentence is on the agenda for before the year is out. It's not going to replace microphones any time soon, then, but it could make for much more accurate eavesdropping for spies in the near future. [ASoA]

High-fructose corn syrup is essentially like cocaine -- It seems there really is such a thing as food addiction on a neurobiological and behavioural level that matches the addictive effects of drugs like cocaine. Research into causes of the obesity epidemic we're currently being faced with has thrown up some curious results. It seems foods that contain unnaturally high concentrations of sugar, fats and "taste enhancers" create the same kind of neurochemical changes in the brains of rats that highly addictive drugs like cocaine do.

The data presented at the annual meeting of the Canadian Association for Neuroscience clearly demonstrates convincing neurobiological and behavioural evidence pointing to the possibility of a real addiction to food.

Pah - give me syrup any day

While the same effects haven't yet been proven in humans, the addictiveness of enhanced or processed foods would certainly go some way to explaining the increasing problem of obesity. It's possible that, by understanding the neurobiological processes involved in this kind of food addiction, we could develop drugs to block it, and therefore help people wean off unhealthy foods. [EurekAlert]

Opportunity finds evidence of drinkable water on Mars -- Following on from its younger, bigger brother Curiosity's water find, NASA's Opportunity Mars rover has found evidence of past water flow on the red planet. By analysing a rock, the rover discovered clay minerals that indicate water with a neutral pH, like that which flows out of your tap, once encased the rock in the first billion years of its existence.

The interesting thing is that this balanced water, which is neither alkaline nor acidic, is much more conducive to the formation of life than the kinds of acidic or alkaline water you'd associate with desert conditions. It's amazing to think that Opportunity, which was only built to last 90 Martian days, is about to hit its 3400th day or 10 years on the fourth rock from the Sun, and is still making remarkable discoveries. [NASA]

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