Scientific News (August 2018)

Cancer cure closer

Scientists based in Australia have taken a giant step forward in cancer research since their discovery of a new drug, which when tested on animals appears to send cancerous cells into permanent states of stasis. The new drug stops the cells from reproducing without any of the painful side effects that are often caused by the conventional methods of cancer treatments. The team surrounding this ground-breaking research include researchers and scientists from the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research, Monash University, Cancer Therapeutics CRC, The University of Melbourne, Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre and CSIRO.

Research published this week, shows the drugs actively stopping the advancement of blood and liver cancers in small mammals, including the delay of some recurring cancers. Tim Thomas from Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research co-led the investigations. It is known that medicines which are conventionally used for the treatment of cancerous cells can also cause irreversible DNA damage to healthy cells. It is with these complications that we see the side effects of radiotherapy and chemotherapy.

The new Australian drugs have been designed to eliminate the production of certain proteins that encourage the growth of cancers. The compounds stop the cells dividing, disabling their ability to start a cell cycle. Researchers involved in the investigations are hoping that the drugs will have the same effects within humans.

“The drug we’ve developed is a proof of concept”…”the next step is to develop more suitable compounds that work in the same way but that can be used in cancer patients”, said Thomas. “We can imagine there would be certain cancers where this mechanism we are targeting is really the driver of cancer, and then in other situations it may be more useful as a therapy to prevent relapse.”

The team are sceptical about whether the treatment will be effective for all cancers, due to the team targeting specific areas rather than just the growth of the cells. Previous attempts by other pharmaceutical experts have tried and failed to develop drugs that prevent cell mechanisms operating. Thomas’s team have taken 10 years to develop their research to this level of success, and have screened approximately 0.25 million compounds. The specific compound development took several years to complete, which was then followed by more years based in the laboratory developing and trialling the drug.

52 scientists and research experts have been involved in the project over the last ten years. The next step is to find partnerships with companies within the pharmaceutical industry who want to take the drug to the next level – this naturally would involve human trials.

Darren Saunders a Cancer Biologist from the University of New South Wales agrees that this research into the growth of cancer cells is “particularly significant”, due to number of genes involved, and understands that it will be difficult to make drugs that will tackle each gene. The research will need to cover an elementary and full understanding of the “biology of the disease”. Groundwork will still be required before they will be ready to trial a drug on humans. The team of scientists firmly believe that they are one step forward, and are looking to introduce clinical tests sooner rather later.

Google Glass helps autistic children understand facial expressions

A small group of autistic children have completed a trial using Google Glass technology, and an app that enables the user to recognise facial expressions in a bid to enhance their understanding of others and the emotions that they are expressing, helping their integration within social settings.

Google Glass was originally introduced on to the market as a high-tech fashion trend, but has since been recognised as an aid to help children with autism and their ability to deal with social interaction.

14 children between the ages of 3 to 17 on the autistic spectrum took part in the pilot trial. The results showed that after 10 weeks, each child showed improved social skills and interaction, as well as improved eye contact and the ability to recognise various states of emotion and facial expressions.

Parent Donji Cullenbine has praised the described the technology as “remarkable”, after seeing her son Alex’s social interaction skills improve just after a few weeks. Most children from a very young age learn to how to read facial expressions naturally when they interact with family, friends, teachers, other children or grownups around them. Autistic children are unable to recognise these skills and are often taught these instead through the application of behavioural therapies. These therapies could involve structured activities using flash card systems, that show examples of facial expressions – unfortunately this treatment is not readily available on the NHS, and can often lead to the child ending up on an 18 month waiting list.

Biomedical Data Scientist Dennis Wall, based at Stanford University specialises in paediatrics. Wall and a team of other scientists have developed the new program for use with Google Glass, for children who have been diagnosed with autism. The program offers help at home, on-demand and is designed to augment behavioural therapy. The built-in camera captures expressions of the people in the child’s view; this information is then sent to the smartphone app. The uploaded app can recognise eight fundamental expressions: happiness, sadness, anger, disgust, surprise, fear, contempt and calm. Once the app has recognised the meaning of the expression, the processed information is sent to the child wearing the Google Glass technology. The headset then relays audibly or visually the information to the child about the other persons expression, either as a word, or a small display of an emoticon in the corner of the glass frame.

The children that took part in the experiment used the Google Glass program for 20 minutes within their family homes up to 3 times per week. In addition to this, the parents of the participants were asked to complete questionnaires to evaluate their own child’s social skills.

In normal circumstances, these are charted using a system called a Social Responsiveness Scale. Scores of 60 or under are classified within a normal range; scores from 60-65, 65-75, and 75 plus will be recorded as indicative of autism on either a mild, moderate or severe scale. The results following the treatment showed the children’s average score drop from 80.07 to 72.93. 11 children within the group took part in an examination that tested their responses to recognising states of emotions. An examiner acted out each of the fundamental emotions. This was repeated 5 times, with the children that took part in the examination having to identify each emotion. Before the Google Glass therapy, the children averaged a score of 28.45 for correct answers. After treatment, the average score was significantly higher at 38.

Although the results sound promising, the study omitted a further group of children who were not in receipt of the treatment, leaving questions if it were really the assisted aid of Google Glass that helped the children improve their social skills. Ned Sahin a Neuroscientist from Brain Power, a US based company that has already developed technology that can be worn to assist people with autism remains sceptical.

The next step for Wall and his team of scientist is to extend the experiment using a larger number of children, ranging from the ages of 6-12 years old. If it proves that the Google Glass therapy again demonstrates good performance results, it is hoped that the technology will be made widely available as a powerful learning – and life changing – tool and aid for children living with autism.

Bottled greenhouse gas in the sea?

High concentrations of methane have been accidentally found by Sarah-Jeanne Royer, a young research scientist. Royer initially wanted to measure the amounts of methane gas that was produced by biological activity in sea water, but instead Royer and her team stumbled across an outcome they had not expected.

The team were expecting to find biological emissions of methane. Their work proved that the gases exceeded those of the biological results, and that they were in fact seeping from the teams own high-density polyethylene bottles that were being used to conduct their experiment.

Royer graduated from the University of Barcelona, and went on to lead teams of volunteers on the beaches of Hawaii to remove plastic waste, alongside her work within the chemistry lab. It is from her recent experiments that Royer and her team discovered that plastic materials that are used to manufacture shopping bags are in fact one of the largest plastic group that create such greenhouse gases.

Royer’s experiments took place over a period of approximately 18 months. Within her published work she describes how, after testing many samples of different plastics both in and out of seawater for their emissions for traces of methane and ethylene, that after 212 days in the sun, each plastic showed emission levels of 176 times more methane that at the beginning of the experiment.

The results showed that when plastics were exposed to dry conditions, the methane concentration was double of that measured from the sea. With this information, the team concluded that it is the reaction of solar radiation upon the surface of the plastic waste that causes the acceleration of gas production.

It is the use of fossil fuels like gas and oil that have been the focus to date of research into the sources of greenhouse gases making a direct impact to climate change. The new research suggests that these gases are not the only culprits. The research has been welcomed by experts, with further proof that gases are being released by plastic waste which is ever growing around the globe.

Professor Ashwani Gupta based at the University of Maryland said of the new conclusions “Low density polyethylene (LDPE) does emit ethylene, methane and propane, even at low temperatures that contribute to greenhouse gas emissions”…”It is nice to see some quantified emissions on greenhouse gases for the selected polyethylene. The results clearly show variation in gas emission levels among the different polyethylene sources.”

Methane and ethylene levels that have been produced from plastics initially are small; however, it is believed that as the plastic starts to deteriorate and break down, the surface area will be greater and more exposed, leaving a larger surface for gases to be produced and drift into the earth’s atmosphere. According to Royer, plastic items made in the 1950s are still in existence and are still decaying to this day generating gases. Plastic is still manufactured in high quantities, so the assumption is that over the next 30 years greenhouse gases will consequently be on the rise.

Royer has tried talking to companies and businesses within the plastic industry, but has had very little response. “I told them I was a scientist and I was trying to understand the chemistry of the plastic.”  According to Royer, these companies have kindly asked her not to contact them again. “I think the plastic industry absolutely knows, and they don’t want this to be shared with the world.”

Chemist, Dr Montserrat Filella from the University of Geneva believes that the current research into plastic and plastic waste seems to be unveiling a “Pandora’s Box”, which includes hidden pollutants, and described the plastics in question to be “insidious”.

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Scientific News (July 2018)

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