Science Sunday #31
Posted by Don McLenaghen on January 22, 2012
– and on the seventh day we learn.
Each week I hope to give a synopsis of the interesting science stories I have heard on my plethora of science podcasts I listen to each week plus anything I pick up scanning the inter-web. This week’s top stories:
This week’s top stories:
A home with multiple sunrises –
“Once again, we’re seeing science fact catching up with science fiction,” said co-author Josh Carter of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics as he discussed new work published in the journal Nature about the discovery of two planters that orbit a binary star system.
The two new planets, named Kepler-34b and Kepler-35b, are both gaseous Saturn-size planets. Kepler-34b orbits its two Sun-like stars every 289 days, and the stars themselves orbit each other every 28 days. Kepler-35b revolves around a pair of smaller stars (80 and 89 percent of the Sun’s mass) every 131 days, and the stars orbit one another every 21 days. Both systems reside in the constellation Cygnus the Swan, with Kepler-34 located 4,900 light-years from Earth and Kepler-35 at a distance of 5,400 light-years.
In such a different system than our own, it’s interesting to know that the amount of energy the planets get via its stellar partners varies greatly throughout its orbit. “It would be like cycling through all four seasons many times per year, with huge temperature changes,” explained Welsh. “The effects of these climate swings on the atmospheric dynamics, and ultimately on the evolution of life on habitable circumbinary planets, is a fascinating topic that we are just beginning to explore.”
“It was once believed that the environment around a pair of stars would be too chaotic for a circumbinary planet to form, but now that we have confirmed three such planets, we know that it is possible, if not probable, that there are at least millions in the Galaxy,” said Welsh.
Questions raised about pandemic weapon of last resort –
As many way remember, during the SARs pandemic, countries began to stock up on Tamiflu. Tamiflu was the only know ‘antibiotic’ that worked on virus. Nations around the world have spent billions creating stockpiles of Tamiflu in preparation for the next virus pandemic. New research, published in The Cochrane Library by Tom Jefferson et al, has raised some troubling questions as to its efficacy. After piecing together information from over 16,000 pages of clinical trial data and documents used in the process of licensing oseltamivir (Tamiflu) by national authorities, a team of researchers has raised critical questions about how well the drug works and about its reported safety profile.
The new analysis shows inconsistencies with published reports, and describes possible under-reporting of drug-related side-effects in some published trial reports. While the drug did reduce the time to first alleviation of symptoms by an average of 21 hours, it did not reduce the number of people who went on to need hospital treatment. Results from the reanalysis of data also raise questions about how the drug works as an influenza virus inhibitor.
In line with World Health Organization (WHO) recommendations made in 2002, governments around the world have spent billions of dollars stockpiling neuraminidase inhibitors such as oseltamivir and zanamivir (Relenza). The agents’ proposed mode of action is to limit the proliferation of viruses within an infected person, which in turn reduce the duration of a person’s symptoms, and consequently reduce the chances of passing the disease to another person.
“We identified that a large number of studies, including data from 60% of the people who have been involved in randomized, placebo-controlled phase III treatment trials of oseltamivir have never been published. This includes the biggest treatment trial ever undertaken on oseltamivir that on its own included just over 1,400 people of all ages,” says Jefferson. “We are concerned that these data remain unavailable for scrutiny by the scientific community.”
When the team compared published data with the more complete unpublished trial records, they found inconsistencies in the published record of the trials. For example, while unpublished trial reports mentioned serious adverse events (some even classified as possibly related to oseltamivir), one of the two most cited publications makes no mention of such effects, and the other states .” .. there were no drug-related serious adverse events”.
The researchers conclude that there is an urgent need for independent research on both of these drugs. There is continuing uncertainty about their effects beyond the initial reduction in symptoms, mainly because full access to the data needed has still not been provided. Until this information is available and these studies performed, officials and medical professionals should review their use of Tamilflu.
Mental maps point north –
“Our memory for our city of residence shows a map-like character,” says Tobias Meilinger, a research scientist at the institute. “And that map seems to be oriented towards the north”. A new study published in Psychological Science, a journal published by the Association for Psychological Science, which asked how do you the direction from one place to another yielded a surprising answer, one its authors (Julia Frankenstein, Betty J. Mohler, Heinrich H. Bülthoff, and Tobias Meilinger) did not expect.
The study does not support these theories. In it, 26 residents of Tübingen (who had lived there for at least two years) were put into a virtual-reality headset and seated in a chair that didn’t allow them to swivel. Participants found themselves in the virtual three-dimensional photorealistic model of their hometown, at locations familiar to them, surrounded by fog masking all but the near distance. Then they had to point to an invisible location — say, the main gate of the university or the fire station. The scenes changed, and so did the participant’s spatial orientation. After 60 three-location trials, participants were asked to draw a map of the town including all the locations they’d pointed to.
The results: Although participants drew differently oriented maps, everyone performed most accurately when facing north and got worse the further they deviated from north. The only explanation the researchers could figure was that they’d all seen, and internalized, a map of Tübingen at some point, and Western maps are all oriented the same way — north on top.
Meilinger conjectures that we rely on this mental map out of cognitive laziness. Frankenstein refines: “The memory of a map does not need to be updated by further experience, as it depicts all spatial relations undistorted within one reference frame. It therefore provides a very reliable source of spatial information
Chinese tree extract could stops you getting drunk –
Extracts of a Chinese variety of the oriental raisin tree (Hovenia dulcis) could be the answer to help cure alcoholism and just last longer at the bar. The extracts have been used for 500 years to treat hangovers in China. Now dihydromyricetin (DHM), a component of the extract, has proved its worth as an intoxication blocker in a series of experiments on boozing rats. It works by preventing alcohol from having its usual intoxicating effects on the brain, however much is in blood.
The drug has first been tested on rats. A drunk rat, like a drunk person has difficulties righting themselves when on their backs. After researchers injected rats’ abdomens with a dose of alcohol proportionate to the amount a human would get from downing 15 to 20 beers in 2 hours by a human, they took about 70 minutes, on average, to right themselves. However, when an injection of the same amount of booze included a milligram of DHM per kilogram of rat body weight, the animals recovered their composure within just 5 minutes.
DHM also stopped rats in a maze from behaving in ways resembling anxiety and hangovers. Rats given heavy doses of alcohol cowered away in corners of the maze, whereas those given the extract with their alcohol behaved normally and were as inquisitive as rats given no alcohol at all, exploring the more open corridors of the maze.
Finally, DHM appeared to discourage rats from boozing when they had a free choice between drinking a sweetened solution of alcohol or sweetened water. Over a period of three months, rats will normally get addicted to increasing volumes of the hard stuff. Rats given DHM, though, drank no more than about a quarter of the amount that the “boozers” eventually built up to. Moreover, boozy rats that had worked up to the higher levels suddenly dropped down to a moderate intake when given DHM after seven weeks.
All the benefits of DHM were lost instantly when pharmacologist Jing Liang (who did the rat study) also gave the rats a drug called flumazenil, which is known to block receptors in the brain for a neurotransmitter called gamma aminobutyric acid (GABA). According to Liang, this proved that DHM works by stopping alcohol from accessing the same receptors.
Preparation containing DHM will be tested for the first time in people. “I would give it to problem drinkers who can’t resist going to the pub and drinking,” says Liang. Some alcohol experts fear that the availability of a “sobriety pill” could encourage more, not less drinking. “There was a lot of philosophical worry that an ‘alcohol antidote’ would entice people to consume alcohol and then count on being able to terminate the intoxicating effects on demand,” said Markus Heilig, clinical director of the US National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.
FBI crackdown on unproven stem cell therapies –
The US federal government is cracking down on clinics that charge desperately ill people thousands for unproven stem cell “cures”. One of the most notorious includes as a defendant a scientist at a leading research university.
Vincent Dammai, of the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston, is named in a federal indictment as part of a team that allegedly received more than $1.5 million from people with cancer and neurodegenerative diseases.
Stowe was filmed, by a CBS investigative news crew, claiming that infusions of stem cells, given by his associate Francisco Morales at a clinic in Mexico, could reverse symptoms of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis – a fatal and incurable form of motor neuron disease. Dammia’s role was to extract the stem cells and supply then to Stowe. Demmia also provided the academic credentials that help make the operation seem legitimate.
Now there are two real stories here, first the FBI is beginning to crack down on quack medicine but there is also the call for scientist and researches to be careful how their expertise/work is used by others.
The case underlines concerns that some mainstream researchers could be abetting clinics offering unproven stem cell therapies. “I’m personally very happy that the FBI and the Food and Drug Administration has stepped in,” says Larry Goldstein, a stem cell biologist at the University of California, San Diego. “I hope that it serves as a warning signal.”
While Dammai is alleged to have been a knowing participant, other scientists may have been duped into supplying cells that are later used by rogue clinics. To avoid this, biologists should ask for credentials when responding to requests for stem cell samples, argued bioethicists Zubin Master. They should also make recipients sign contracts detailing how the cells will be used, the pair added.
Internet searches reveal several hundred clinics offering unproven stem cell treatments, says Douglas Sipp of the RIKEN Center for Developmental Biology in Kobe, Japan. How many, if any, have obtained cells from mainstream biologists remains a mystery. “By nature these clinics are opaque and secretive,” says Sipp. “We really don’t know what’s in the vials.”