Cancer’s Gene Struggles


It’s been a very productive week for cancer research. There’s been a new protein discovered which almost tricked everyone into thinking it was helpful against cancer, and scientists found that just by cancelling some genes tumour growth can occur. Seeing as interesting these discoveries are, let’s delve into them.

First and foremost, let’s talk about the p35 gene. This section of the DNA produces a protein, called p35 protein (who knows why), that can detect abnormal cells, and then start to kill them to prevent them from reproducing, therefore preventing a tumour from forming. This has been known for more than 30 years, and by now we thought we knew all there was to know about it. But the discovery of a variant of this gene hit the news this week. Said gene is called the p35-psi gene, which produces another protein, chemically similar to the p35 protein, which also caused an inflammatory reaction in mutated cells, just like p35 does. But after further study, scientists discovered it does the complete opposite of its cousin: it encourages the growth of cancerous cells. The mechanism works by p35-psi teaming up with another protein, cyclophilin D, which together change the mitochondria organelle so the whole cell itself transforms into a new type, similar-looking to a muscle cell, which usually precedes a cancer.

This opens up a door of possibilities for cancer treatments. New drugs could target cyclophilin D, to stop the transforming process from occurring. Or they could suppress the p35-psi gene to stop it from producing the harmful protein in the first place

 

Cancer Cells

Cancer cells divide uncontrollably, even if they have a mutation which would normally be eliminated

Now moving on to the second piece of news.

We all know how mutations can lead to cancers, but the novelty here was that inactivating genes also caused the disease. This can be done through a process called epigenetic methylation, because a methyl group is added to a gene and so prevents it from being transcribed.

Epigenetic methylation occurs naturally in our cells, and actually helps them repair their DNA. But when this process occurs over and over by continuously exposing the same genes to methyl groups, they might just end up permanently attached, effectively cancelling the gene.

The problem, however, is that it is not known for certain whether epigenetic methylation is a cause of cancer or if cancer causes this methylation. In the study carried out, scientists added a new gene into mice cells, a gene that specifically attracted methyl groups and caused methylation in nearby genes. And speaking of tumour suppressing genes, the team in this investigation concentrated on the effects of methylating gene p16, which also prevents the growth of tumours. Over the course of the experiment, those mice with the injected gene had an increased chance of developing cancer, especially in areas like the spleen or the liver.

Although this information does seem to indicate methylation causes cancer, some researchers argue that maybe when they added the new methylating-prone gene, they messed with the already existing genome so it mutated and turned the cell cancerous.

However, since methylation definitely has an effect on cancer, the group of researchers at Baylor College of Medicine in Texas, where the experiment was carried out, will now focus on investigating a way of reversing this process in cancer cells.

It is interesting to note that methylation occurrence can be linked to our diet, since methyl groups come from the food we consume. Some products like green tea and broccoli help decrease methylation rate, so it might be time you had a sip of some delicious tea just in case.

Pikachu Bacteria


Similar to Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein, scientists have discovered a type of bacteria that live only on pure electrons. Found in the seabed, in mud or rocks, these bacteria survive by extracting electrons from the surface of nearby materials, and after processing them and using their energy, they excrete them.

Although it sounds like a very simple and basic organism, its way of life is actually quite smart. In more evolved beings like us humans, we use many complex molecules to obtain energy: sugar and oxygen, which turn into ATP, and all this respiration process to end up with energy for survival. These bacteria manage to eliminate these useless (to them) intermediates, and just function with the basic electrons. They go for the easy route, whilst we masochists use larger molecules when all we really need are the electrons in those molecules.

electricity bacteria

These unimaginable bacteria live in electricty and from that they can extract everything they need to survive

However, these are not the first bacteria found to have this peculiar lifestyle. Other species, like the Shewanella or Geobacte bacteria do pretty much the same thing, but the novelty in this case is that the new bacteria can be found in large numbers by just applying a slight current through some seabed rocks. The fascinating experiment studied the microbiome of said rocks and analysed it, to determine how much voltage each of the new 8 bacteria species needed to survive. This eventually led to the recreation of those conditions in a culture, using a battery and an electrode to supply the energy to the bacteria. This simple way of life also raised a question: How much do these bacteria essentially need to survive? If all they need is electrons, by constantly feeding them these in a set of electrodes, they could theoretically live forever.

And as always, what some would call ‘greedy scientists’ are looking for ways to earn some profit out of their discoveries. In this case, it’s the possibility of automated biomachines, where these robots could carry out jobs with no necessary electrical input, only their ability to use power from their surroundings.

Unruly HIV


HIV is still fighting back. After famous claims of having rid a baby of the HIV virus and therefore ‘curing’ it, a few months later the child seems to be affected again.

The news an 18 months old baby had been ‘cured’ from HIV spread like wildfire in the scientific community. This promising medical feat was accomplished by treating a newly-born baby, daughter of an HIV-sufferer, with three antiretroviral drugs (those drugs used to treat HIV). But after a period of 18 months, the treatment was stopped, and the baby left, and nothing more was known of her. Or at least that was the case until March this year, when during blood analysis, after almost a year with no drugs, the girl was found to have no HIV virus circulating in her blood.

This was praised by many scientists as being the solution to the HIV problem- providing the drug in the very early stages of the disease, a tactic which was already known to help treat more effectively the disease. But their hopes were crushed this week when in another check up the patient had plenty of the viruses in her body. This, together with high levels of the antibodies for this virus and a decrease in white blood cells, concluded she was no longer ‘cured’ from the disease.

A possible reason for this reappearance is the fact that HIV virus, although mostly found in the blood, can sometimes hide in other tissues, so when a person is treated with antiretroviral drugs, it only kills those virus cells in the blood. The effect the medicine had on the infant was of wiping out the virus in her blood, so that there were so few virus cells hidden in the rest of her body that her own immune system was capable of handling the rest. Obviously though, this balance was unstable and it was interrupted, setting off an increase in the virus population so the disease was in effect again.

hiv virus

This is an example of an HIV virus, which causes HIV and can lead to AIDS. Its cure has been sought after for a long time, and it seems we still have to work towards it

Researchers have concluded that there are other factors that control the limitations of the virus in the body, not only numbers, so it is their goal to find these and exploit them to increase the effect of antiretroviral drugs. This could ultimately lead to more effective drugs which could be taken less regularly but still maintain the virus at bay. Another objective is to develop a new treatment that targets the hidden virus cells too, so that the numbers can be reduced even further and maybe someday the virus can be completely wiped out from the body.

Superviruses: Worth the Risk?


We can all recall the swine flu pandemic in 2009 which managed to kill over 500,000 people in just a year. Fortunately, most of us are now partially immune to said virus, and can now be treated as the normal winter flu. But this isn’t the end of the story.

Professor Kawaoka is the lead researcher at the Wisconsin University’s Institute for Influenza Virus Research, and is also known for previously re-creating the Spanish flu virus. For the last 4 years, he has been working the H1N1 virus to modify it so it can completely evade the human immune system. His mechanism was to isolate those strands of the original influenza virus that weren’t affected by our antibodies and allow them to reproduce, to create a group that, due to its viral protein content, doesn’t cause any immune response.

Now, the reason for this study is that it could have real applications, because a model of how viruses can mutate to evade our system could be used to design new and more efficient vaccines, or other methods to prevent mass infection.

The original H1N1 virus, which Professor Kawaoka has modified to make it even more dangerous

The original H1N1 virus, which Professor Kawaoka has modified to make it even more dangerous

The biosafety committee responsible of approving such studies is mostly in favour of Kawaoka’s investigation, but other scientists are not as happy. Through this experiment, the researcher has effectively created a virus strain that if released, could infect most of the population who would also be unarmoured to defend themselves from it. It is the first time someone has allowed a dangerous virus to be mutated over and over again to change its characteristics, so the consequences could be very grave. However, Kawaoka argues that viruses with special proteomes that can escape immune system detection already exist in nature, so the investigation is relevant to possible dangers we face by the natural world.

Another criticism is the laboratory where this research is being conducted. It now has a level-3 biosafety rating, which is still one lower than the maximum rating, reserved only for the most dangerous pathogens. Even worse, the bulk of the experiment, where the virus was handled, was carried out in a level-2 lab, increasing the risk of an accidental release of the virus.

The results haven’t been published yet, but are written and ready to go. This is another danger, because all this information could also be used for research in the fabrication of new weapons in biological warfare.

In my opinion, it is clear that scientists need more information in the viral field. We need to prepare for the unknown dangers and this can only be achieved through research, which many times involves some sort of danger. But to minimise these, we should not only focus on investigating the viruses, but also in improving the safety in our laboratories, making sure the risk of a leak is virtually zero. Furthermore, the information obtained from said research should be carefully dealt with to prevent any danger of a deliberate release to cause a pandemic.

Happy Selfie, Curiosity!


The iconic robot has joined the trend and taking this peculiar image of itself to celebrate his first Martian year in the red planet. He arrived there the 5th of August of 2012, but since a year in Mars takes longer to happen than in Earth, only now has Curiosity reached this milestone. It has been plenty of time for the machine to surprise scientists everywhere with its discoveries, which we will recount in its honour.

Curiosity Selfie

The acclaimed robot takes the first selfie on Mars

On the 27th of September, it was announced the Rover had discovered an ancient riverbed. Of course, there was no water in it, so how did they know it was a river bed? This conclusion was reached because the robot found small, rounded boulders, instead of the sharp ones with jagged edges that usually occur, and the most common explanation for rocks being smooth and curved is due to flowing water transporting them for long distances and eroding them. However, doubt lies as to whether it was actually water flowing, and not some other liquid or maybe even a gas like CO2, but since there are hydrated minerals in Mars, it is most likely water was the liquid. But even if it was an actual river, it doesn’t immediately mean life on Mars exited, because there were no traces of carbon in the area so it is impossible to say if there had actually been living organisms in the area.

September was a busy month, since at that time Curiosity also shone more light into the methane mystery in Mars. In past studies, some scientists had concluded there was a high abundance of methane in Mars, and since methane is mostly produced by living beings, such as cows and rice, some though this was proof of the existence of extraterrestrial life on Mars. But after 8 months of analysing the atmosphere, the rover concluded there was little to none methane there. In fact, it estimated there was only 1 part per billion of methane in Mars. However, it is arguable that some methane is trapped in the planet, so Curiosity will be doing more detailed investigations in the future.

Those are the main ventures pursued by Curiosity, and it has plenty of time to investigate further, since the original 2-year-mission was prolonged indefinitely. For now, please join me on wishing the rover a late Happy Birthday!

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(By the way, this is my 50th post in Science for Scientists after 2 and a half years of blogging. It was about time, right?)

The Heroine of Tanning


It’s summer: the time for ice cream, spending the day in the beach, and therefore, sun bathing. But apparently this relaxing activity is not as simple as you may think.

When people are exposed to ultra violet radiation, like that coming from the sun, it causes melanocyte cells in the skin to produce melanin, a pigment which absorbs radiation to protect the skin. So when people sun bathe, they produce more melanin which darkens their skin. It also increases Vitamin D production, but can lead to skin cancer and faster ageing skin.

512px-Alpha-neoendorphin.svg

An endorphin, a substance which gives pleasure, and can be released due to exercise, food and now sunlight!

Up until know, doctors had tried to raise awareness of the dangers of this practice, but it seems things are getting worse. A new study published in ‘Cell’ suggests that constant and prolonged exposure to UV light can be addictive. This theory had already been proposed, with some known cases, but it has now been explained and backed up with an experiment on mice. These were shaved to expose their skin and were then subjected to UV light exposure for a controlled period of time a day, similar to the amount a human would get when sun bathing on the beach. After weeks of this practice, it turned out the mice had produced more beta-endorphin, a substance similar to morphine and heroine, which results in a positive feeling when detected by the sensors in the brain. The pleasant nature of this is what makes the mice crave it more, causing an addictive response, where the mice seek out the stimulus that is causing the endorphins to be released.

It was also found out that the mice showed tolerance to the UV radiation, just as an addicted person does to a drug after using it for a while. Scientists found that over time, they needed to increase the amount of UV light they shone for the mice to produce as much endorphins as before.

It is definitely an interesting study, which adds up to the dangers of being exposed to too much sunlight. That’s why we should be careful with the light exposure we go through everyday, taking care of using sunscreens and trying to reduce as much as possible the time we spend directly under the sun.

Welcome Ununseptium


The periodic table is like a big family, where every now and then a new member appears and joins the fun. Well it looks like we may have found this new character which could possibly become the largest element ever created.

ununseptium

Ununseptium has 7 shells, and belongs to the halogen group

This is Element 117, which was confirmed in an experiment who wasn’t even searching for it. It happened in Germany, where a group of scientists lead by Mr. Düllmann were actually looking to create element 119, an even heavier element. But it takes time to analyse the data produced by that experiment, so meanwhile they decided to try and make some Element 117, as a check to see if their detectors were working correctly. They certainly were, and in the process they created this interesting element for about a tenth of a second, until it decayed. It was made by bombarding atoms of calcium (atomic number 20) with atoms of berkelium (atomic number 97), which would then fuse together to form a heavy 117 atom.
However, this is not the first time this element has been synthesised. It has occurred twice before, in Russia, where scientists made the element in 2010 and once again in 2012.

The confirmation of this element’s creation means the organisations responsible for new elements (both The International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry and that of Physics) will have to revise the data collected, to ultimately add this element to the Periodic Table. But don’t get too excited about this; it took 3 years of revision for them to accept elements 114 and 116. So we still have time to carry out new experiments and find out more about it.

Unfortunately, research in this element can be quite slow. As I said before, you need berkelium, an extremely rare element which only occurs in nuclear reactions, but has a short half life so it can take a lot of time to gather the necessary amounts.

A major surprise of this experiment is the discovery of a new Lawrencium isotope. Symbol Lr, Lawrencium has an atomic number of 103, and while element 117 was decaying, they discovered a new form of this element, which although doesn’t have many applications, can be used to expand our knowledge on the magnificent elements of the Periodic Table.

Blender Potion for Graphene


Graphene is quickly rising to become one of the most useful substances on Earth. It is an extremely hard substance, an excellent conductor of heat and electricity, and only 1 atom layer thick. Even better, it is as abundant as graphite, the black substance found in pencil leads, as graphene stuck together in many layers is in fact graphite.

But up until now, there had been a problem with this amazing material: its production. Obtaining some graphene is relatively easy: you get a piece a graphite from any pencil, and using some tape, stick and unstick it to the surface of the graphite continuously. This way, you will end up with a very small of graphene. This surprising method was discovered by two students at the University of Manchester: Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov, who won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry precisely for this technique.

graphene

This is graphene, a layer of atoms made of hexagonal carbon rings

The problem is that although this tape method works perfectly fine to produce some graphene, it’s not an efficient way to manufacture amounts large enough to meet the demand for this product. So scientists have been working non-stop to find a solution to their problem, and indeed they have found a very curious one.

Just as the original technique, its fairly straightforward. You just need some graphite, some water, soap and a blender. Now just add it all into the blender and turn it on. After a few seconds of work, you have produced a decent amount of graphene. The blades manage to cut between the layers of graphene in graphite and produce individual graphene.
The bright side of this process is that it produces 5 grams of graphene an hour, whilst previous methods produced only half a gram an hour. On the downside, however, is the fact that its not really as easy as this, and to get the best results you need to use more sophisticated substances and to get a decent amount the experiment would have to be scaled up.

It is still an enormous improvement compared to the previous methods that will for sure make this outstanding material more approachable, and all the technological revolutions it will bring closer to our reach.

On Z(4430) the Tetraquark


Scientists are always finding new particles or new phenomena that enlarge our existing pool of knowledge. And said pool has just become larger thanks, once again, to the LHC, which now says they have found a new type of matter.

Matter can be found in many forms, from solids in a macroscopic level, to protons, and even further down, to quarks. These last ones are the most primary building blocks in our universe. They make up protons and neutrons, which then form atoms, which then form elements and then everything we see nowadays.
But quarks don’t exist just by themselves. The come together in groups of two, called mesons, or in groups of three, which form protons and neutrons. But now, the LHC has supposedly found a new particle that consists of 4 quarks, forming a tetraquark. This mythical particle is being called Z(4430), due to the current naming system which says all ‘tetraquarks’ need to have names starting with a Z, for organisational purposes.

Z(4430)

Graph of results proving the existence of Z(4430)

Up until now, they had only been theorised, never actually proved, since the necessary calculations were far too complicated for even our most modern computers to attempt. But even then, this is not the first time a tetraquark has been presumably found. It has happened only once before, in the Belle Detector in Japan, where they also thought they had detected a tetraquark. In that case, other labs tried to find the particle, but since they were unable to do so, the particle’s existence was severely questioned.
The difference this time is that the LHC has detected Z(4430) for over 4000 times, in over 10 times the amount of data the Belle Detector had, undoubtedly proving this particle something worth studying.

There is, however, a slight problem with this particle. The basic theoretical models, (those that can be carried out without the use of complex computers), predict that tetraquarks should have a decay time of 10 times the decay time of Z(4430). This nagging little obstacle will have to be passed with more research into this particle, to finally unravel the mystery of whether this particle is just another mistake in the history of science, or if it is in fact one of the basic fragments of nature.

Embracing New Organs


There is a wide variety of diseases, such as cystic fibrosis, kidney failure… that can be treated or even cured with an organ transplant. However, a disadvantage of this otherwise great cure is the fact that since the new organ doesn’t really come from you, your immune system might attack it. The current solution to this problem is a mixture of immunosuppressant drugs, which although work in making the body accept foreign organs, they can cause very uncomfortable and serious side effects.

This problem is what lead Allan Kirk, scientist at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, to look for possible alternatives. His team and himself eventually managed to create a small group of drugs, only three, to substitute the previous cocktails of medicines. What’s even better is that his drugs can even reset the immune system so that the patient must only take one drug every month instead of daily, as they do now.

Well then let’s meet his three drugs and learn how they work. The first one is alemtuzumab, and has to be given at the same time the organ transplant is happening. What it does is it completely destroys all white blood cells in the patient’s body that might attack the organ. It’s like making the immune system and its army of defenders start from 0.
The following drug is belatacept, and is given to the patient when new white blood cells start to appear. This drug acts in a way that makes the new cells accept the new organ as part of the patient and leave it in peace.
Lastly, a dose of sirolimus is administered. It is a normal, immunosuppressant drug whose function is to prevent any of the white blood cells that survived the original massacre from the alemtuzumab from damaging the organ.
Altogether, most patients would only have to take the initial drugs, and after those, only one injection a month, which is considerably more comfortable than the current treatment.

pills

This cocktail of drugs has been replaced by only 3 drugs

Kirk has been carrying his experiments in a group of 13 people, and a year after they started the treatment none of them have shown signs of rejection. But Kirk has had to ask them if they wanted to stop taking the sirolimus and most did. The ones who chose to keep with it are perfectly fine, and those who got off of it are also fine, but now have to take monthly belatacept injections.

The implications of this revolutionary treatment are incredible. Up until now it has only been tested on a small sample of people, and all with kidney transplants, but Kirk and his team plan on doing larger groups with other organ transplants.