Top stories in science this week

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1. Anti-heroin vaccine developed for drug addicts found effective in non-human primates

Researchers believe that blocking the high of heroin will help eliminate the motivation for many recovering addicts to relapse into drug use. In recent years, public health officials around the world have labeled heroin use as an epidemic. The vaccine works by exposing the immune system to a part of the heroin molecule’s telltale structure. This teaches the immune system to produce antibodies against heroin and its psychoactive products. The antibodies neutralize heroin molecules, blocking them from reaching the brain to cause a feeling of euphoria.

Reference: Journal of the American Chemical Society

2. New drug target identified for treatment of an aggressive brain cancer

Scientists have discovered that the BCL6 protein could potentially be used as a marker to predict clinical outcomes of patients suffering from Glioblastoma Multiforme (GBM), the most malignant cancer of the brain. GBM is aggressively cancerous as the cells reproduce rapidly and spread extensively in the brain, and is also highly resistant to conventional therapy. This makes treatment exceptionally tough and challenging. GBM patients usually survive less than 15 months after diagnosis. The study suggests BCL6 as a possible target for GBM treatment — controlling the levels and activities of the BCL6 protein could potentially contribute to treatment of the disease.

Reference: PNAS

3. A new mechanism behind the progression of type 2 diabetes has been discovered

A newly discovered mechanism behind reduced insulin production in type 2 diabetes is now being presented. Scientists describe how insulin-producing cells regress in their development, become immature, and do not work properly. A finding that opens the doors to new clinical treatments. According to Anders Rosengren, it will not be long until we see medicines that restore the maturity of insulin-producing cells. They may already exist in the form of medicines used for other diseases. At the same time, he emphasizes the importance that healthy lifestyle habits play in type 2 diabetes.

Reference: Nature Communications

4. Pregnancy after breast cancer does not increase chance of recurrence

Findings from a retrospective study of 1,200 women provide reassurance to breast cancer survivors who are contemplating pregnancy. In the study, women who became pregnant after an early breast cancer diagnosis, including those with estrogen receptor (ER)-positive tumors, did not have a higher chance of cancer recurrence and death than those who did not become pregnant.

Reference: American Society of Clinical Oncology

5. Scientists have artificially recreated photosynthesis in the lab

Photosynthesis is one of nature’s most efficient phenomena: aside from providing much of the oxygen human beings need to breathe, this naturally occurring process gives plants the food and energy they need to survive. It utilizes visible light — which the Earth has an abundance of — to provide the “fuel” they need. Researchers have been working on ways to artificially recreate this natural process in labs, in the hopes of producing fuel, too — specifically methane. Now, a team of chemists from the Brookhaven National Laboratory and Virginia Tech have designed two supramolecules, each made up of a number of light-harvesting ruthenium (Ru) metal ions attached to a single catalytic center of rhodium (Rh) metal ions.

Reference: Journal of the American Chemical Society

6. A complete bird caught in amber 100 million years ago has been discovered

Lida Xing, Jingmai K. O’Connor, Ryan C. McKellar, Luis M. Chiappe, Kuowei Tseng, Gang Li, Ming Bai

Insects are not the only creatures that got stuck in amber during the time of the dinosaurs. Bits of ancient birds and dinosaurs have been found too — and now the most complete bird yet has been found. A 100-million-year-old chunk of amber found in Myanmar contains the head, neck, wing, tail and feet of a hatchling. It was just a few days old when it fell into a pool of sap oozing from a conifer tree.

Reference: Gondwana Research

7. New fossils suggests our species may be 150,000 years older than we thought

Researchers have used new dating techniques to confirm that human fossils unearthed in Morocco are roughly 300,000 years old. The landmark discovery is forcing a rethink not only on how the first populations of Homo sapiens developed at least 100,000 years earlier than previously thought, but how these early human populations spread themselves across the continent before setting off to conquer the world.

Reference: Nature

8. New research shows that cannabinoids can help treat leukemia

Researchers from St. George’s, University of London have found that combining chemotherapy with cannabinoids can effectively treat leukemia. Though the tests were done in vitro, it showed that it could potentially lower the needed dose for chemo.

Reference: International Journal of Oncology

9. Baby brain scans can predict who is likely to develop autism

A machine-learning algorithm has analysed brain scans of 6-month-old children and predicted with near-certainty whether they will show signs of autism when they reach the age of 2. The finding means we may soon be able to intervene before symptoms appear, although whether that would be desirable is a controversial issue.

Reference: Science Translation Medicine

10. Human tests suggest young blood cuts cancer and Alzheimer’s risk

Older people who received transfusions of young blood plasma have shown improvements in biomarkers related to cancer, Alzheimer’s disease and heart disease. These results come from blood tests conducted before and a month after plasma treatment, and imply young blood transfusions may reduce the risk of several major diseases associated with ageing.

Reference: New Scientist

11. A simple blood test can predict cancer years before symptoms appear

A new type of non-invasive cancer test has just delivered promising results in an early-stage feasibility study, paving the way for a future when we’ll be able to get highly accurate cancer screening with a simple blood test. The technology, which involves scanning the blood for bits of DNA shed by tumours, is also referred to as a ‘liquid biopsy’, and these new results are getting us one step closer to a major upgrade in cancer diagnostics.

Reference: Journal of Clinical Oncology

12. An additional sixth sense has been detected on the tongue

For millennia, scientists have been trying to figure out if the mammalian tongue can specifically taste water, or if our brains are responding to the after-effects of something we tasted earlier. Now, we might finally have an answer, because researchers have located what appears to be a sixth sense on the tongue that’s evolved to perceive water.

Reference: Nature Neuroscience

13. SpaceX successfully launched a used cargo capsule to the ISS for the first time

On 3 June, SpaceX successfully launched a used Dragon cargo capsule to the International Space Station for the first time. Then, in a feat that is becoming routine, the first stage of the Falcon 9 rocket returned to land at Cape Canaveral, Florida. The Dragon capsule brought supplies to the ISS for the first time in September 2014, splashed down in the Pacific Ocean and was recovered. To go back into space, it needed a new heat shield and parachutes among other smaller refurbishments, but this marks the first time any private company has sent the same vehicle into orbit twice.

Reference: New Scientist

14. Scientists have discovered the hottest planet on record (4,300°C)

Scientists have found one of the craziest exoplanets yet. It’s a huge gas giant not unlike our Solar System’s own Jupiter, but it travels around its star in just 1.5 days, with a surface hotter than most stars. The planet orbits a blazing star called KELT-9, which is some 650 light-years away. It’s the first time astronomers have detected a planet near a star this hot, and it’s different from anything they’ve seen before.

References: Nature

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