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Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Less salicylate in plants = more cancer?

Wonder drugs come and go, but aspirin does seem to be the real deal.

Its medical benefits, including protecting against heart attacks and strokes, have been well-documented since it became commercially available around 100 years ago. But thanks to a new study, we now know it could dramatically cut cancer rates, too. As revealed in the medical journal The Lancet, the anti-inflammatory properties of aspirin may help directly repair damaged DNA that can trigger cancers.

The natural chemical from which it is formed - salicylate - appears to assist “apoptosis”, or the programmed death, of cells which might otherwise grow into tumours.

Its newly discovered anti-cancer properties may help shed light on the cancer epidemic we face today. Rates of the disease have been rising dramatically for years, despite the advent of modern medicine.

Some point to lack of exercise, food additives and modern pollutants, but the intriguing suggestion is that modern farming techniques are stripping salicylate from the plants we eat. Our desire for perfect, shiny fruit and vegetables means we protect most of our food crops from the ravages of nature in various ways, and so their flesh ends up being poor in the protective chemical.

Higher cancer rates are, therefore, possibly caused by the lack of salicylate in our diets, and taking aspirin would help to remedy this.

The irony is that were aspirin to be discovered today, it would almost certainly not be licensed.

Clinical trials would reveal the side-effects - such as stomach ulcers and bleeding - long before the dramatic benefits became clear; no drug firm would touch the stuff.

It seems we have the robust attitudes of an earlier age to thank for the fact you can buy this amazing drug for a penny a pop.

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Theoretical physics breakthrough: Generating matter and antimatter from the vacuum

Under just the right conditions -- which involve an ultra-high-intensity laser beam and a two-mile-long particle accelerator -- it could be possible to create something out of nothing, according to University of Michigan researchers.

The scientists and engineers have developed new equations that show how a high-energy electron beam combined with an intense laser pulse could rip apart a vacuum into its fundamental matter and antimatter components, and set off a cascade of events that generates additional pairs of particles and antiparticles.

"We can now calculate how, from a single electron, several hundred particles can be produced. We believe this happens in nature near pulsars and neutron stars," said Igor Sokolov, an engineering research scientist who conducted this research along with associate research scientist John Nees, emeritus electrical engineering professor Gerard Mourou and their colleagues in France.

At the heart of this work is the idea that a vacuum is not exactly nothing.

"It is better to say, following theoretical physicist Paul Dirac, that a vacuum, or nothing, is the combination of matter and antimatter -- particles and antiparticles. Their density is tremendous, but we cannot perceive any of them because their observable effects entirely cancel each other out," Sokolov said.

Matter and antimatter destroy each other when they come into contact under normal conditions.

"But in a strong electromagnetic field, this annihilation, which is typically a sink mechanism, can be the source of new particles," Nees said, "In the course of the annihilation, gamma photons appear, which can produce additional electrons and positrons."

A gamma photon is a high-energy particle of light. A positron is an anti-electron, a mirror-image particle with the same properties as an electron, but an opposite, positive charge.

The researchers describe this work as a theoretical breakthrough, and a "qualitative jump in theory."

An experiment in the late '90s managed to generate from a vacuum gamma photons and an occasional electron-positron pair. These new equations take this work a step farther to model how a strong laser field could promote the creation of more particles than were initially injected into an experiment through a particle accelerator.

"If the electron has a capability to become three particles within a very short time, this means it's not an electron any longer," Sokolov said. "The theory of the electron is based on the fact that it will be an electron forever. But in our calculations, each of the charged particles becomes a combination of three particles plus some number of photons."

The researchers have developed a tool to put their equations into practice in the future on a very small scale using the HERCULES laser at U-M. To test their theory's full potential, a HERCULES-type laser would have to be built at a particle accelerator such as the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory at Stanford University. Such infrastructure is not currently planned.

This work could potentially have applications in inertial confinement fusion, which could produce cleaner energy from nuclear fusion reactions, the researchers say.

To Sokolov, it's fascinating from a philosophical perspective.

"The basic question what is a vacuum, and what is nothing, goes beyond science," he said. "It's embedded deeply in the base not only of theoretical physics, but of our philosophical perception of everything---of reality, of life, even the religious question of could the world have come from nothing."

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Earth-like planet found

This is really exciting news - a planet only twenty light years away that looks as if it could sustain life as we know it. If there is a full functioning eco-system there, that might include intelligent beings, and if a more basic biology exists, it means there is a possible second home for us in reachable distance. After all, 20 light years is right next door in terms of the galaxy.

A new member in a family of planets circling a red dwarf star 20 light-years away has just been found. It's called Gliese 581g, and the 'g' may very well stand for Goldilocks.

Gliese 581g is the first world discovered beyond Earth that's the right size and location for life.

"Personally, given the ubiquity and propensity of life to flourish wherever it can, I would say that the chances for life on this planet are 100 percent. I have almost no doubt about it," Steven Vogt, professor of astronomy and astrophysics at University of California Santa Cruz, told Discovery News.

The discovery caps an 11-year effort to tease out information from instruments on ground-based telescopes that measure minute variations in starlight caused by the gravitational tugs of orbiting planets.

Planet G -- the sixth member in Gliese 581's family -- orbits right in the middle of that system's habitable region, where temperatures would be suitable for liquid water to pool on the planet's surface.

"This is really the first 'Goldilocks' planet, the first planet that is roughly the right size and just at the right distance to have liquid water on the surface," astronomer Paul Butler, with the Carnegie Institution in Washington, D.C., told reporters during a conference call Wednesday.

"Everything we know about life is that it absolutely requires liquid water," he added. "The planet has to be the right distance from the star so it's not too hot, not too cold... and then it has to have surface gravity so that it can hold on to a substantial atmosphere and allow the water to pool."

With a mass 20 percent to 50 percent bigger than Earth's, the newly discovered world has the muscle to hold atmosphere. Plus, it has the gift of time. Not only is its parent star especially long-lived, the planet is tidally locked to its sun -- similar to how the moon keeps the same side pointed at Earth -- so that half the world is in perpetual light and the other half in permanent darkness. As a result, temperatures are extremely stable and diverse.

"This planet doesn't have days and nights. Wherever you are on this planet, the sun is in the same position all the time. You have very stable zones where the ecosystem stays the same temperature... basically forever," Vogt said. "If life can evolve, it's going to have billions and billions of years to adapt to the surface."

"Given the ubiquity of water, it seems probable that this thing actually has liquid water. On the surface of the Earth, everywhere you have liquid water you have life," Vogt added.

The question wouldn't be to defend that there is life at Gliese 581g, says Butler. "The question," he said, "would be to demonstrate that there isn't."

Current technologies won't allow scientists to study the planet's atmosphere for chemical signs of life, but astronomers expect many more similar life-friendly planets to be discovered soon. If one or more of those cross the face of their parent star, relative to our line of sight, then it's possible to gather atmospheric data.

"This system is not in an orientation such that this planet would ever transit, so unfortunately this is not a case where nature has thrown us a bone," Vogt noted. "That being said, it is so close and we have found this thing so soon that it suggests we will start finding a lot of these things in the future and eventually we will find systems that do transit. This is a harbinger of things to come."

The research appears in this week's issue of Astrophysical Journal.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Live bridges, grown not built

This is appropriate eco-friendly tech if ever there is such a thing. Of course anywhere else in the world trees grow a bit slower than there, the warm wet jungles of the wettest place on earth.
Rubber tree roots are strung across streambeds, take root on the far bank, and held in place until they are thick enough to support weight.Over time they grow stronger, where a log from a felled tree would rot very soon.
My own neighbour, a cattle farmer here in Ontario, Canada,has a willow tree that fell across a stream with roots still in the ground as a living foot bridge, but that was accidental.

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Obsession for Men - dangerous fragrance?

Guatemala City - Biologists tracking jaguars in the Guatemalan jungle might smell nice but it's all in the name of science, with researchers finding the Calvin Klein cologne Obsession For Men attracts big cats.

Biologists Rony Garcia and Jose Moreira from the Wildlife Conservation Society's (WCS) Jaguar Conservation Programme say they use hidden cameras as a primary source for observing and tracking jaguars in the Guatemala's Maya Biosphere Reserve.

But they also rely on Obsession For Men, a cologne known for its complex scent, to help lure then research and hopefully ultimately preserve jaguars in the Central American country.

"The method we are using to study the jaguars here in Guatemala is an invasive method which is based on photographing the individuals by using camera traps," Moreira told Reuters Television.

"It has been very useful using Obsession (For Men) to get the jaguars in front of these camera traps ... and that allows us to estimate with greater confidence the genders and the numbers that live in each studied site."

The discovery that Obsession For Men acted as a magnet for jaguars was the result of an experiment by the WCS's Bronx Zoo in New York.

The WCS was looking for ways to get cheetahs in front of camera traps, and, after several years of testing with different fragrances, found spraying the musky Obsession For Men near the heat-and-motion-sensitive cameras drew the cats for longer than other scents.

They also tried out about 23 other fragrances but Obsession For Men kept the cats' attention for longest, with Nina Ricci's L'Air du Temps coming second.

The practice made its way down to Guatemala, where Garcia and Moreira said they have been recording similar success in the wild since 2007, allowing them to track jaguars and even record their mating rituals.

Garcia said the results will be invaluable to conservation efforts.

"These camera traps help us to identify how many jaguars are living in this area ... (and) helps us to have control over the population and let's us say to the government, to the public, that Laguna del Tigre still deserves conservation," he said.

The WCS said it tentatively plans to expand the use of the cologne in programmes in Venezuela, Nicaragua, Bolivia, Peru and Ecuador in coming years. - Reuters

Monday, June 07, 2010

Harnessing honey's healing power

Harnessing honey's healing power
By Angie Knox

Professor Peter Molan of the Honey Research Unit
Professor Molan is trying to pin down the mystery factor
Honey has been known for its healing properties for thousands of years - the Ancient Greeks used it, and so have many other peoples through the ages.

Even up to the second world war, honey was being used for its antibacterial properties in treating wounds.

But with the advent of penicillin and other antibiotic drugs in the twentieth century, honey's medicinal qualities have taken a back seat.

But that might be about to change - thanks to one New Zealand based researcher.

Working in his Honey Research Unit at the University of Waikato, in the central North Island, biochemist Professor Peter Molan has identified one particular type of honey with extraordinary healing qualities.

Professor Molan has shown that honey made from the flowers of the manuka bush, a native of New Zealand, has antibacterial properties over and above those of other honeys.

Mystery ingredient

He said: "In all honeys, there is - to different levels - hydrogen peroxide produced from an enzyme that bees add to the nectar.

"In manuka honey, and its close relative which grows in Australia called jellybush, there's something else besides the hydrogen peroxide.

"And there's nothing like that ever been found anywhere else in the world."

That "something else" has proved very hard to pin down. Even now, after more than twenty years of research, Peter Molan admits he still has no idea exactly what it is.

But he has given it a name: unique manuka factor, or UMF.

And he has found a way to measure its antibacterial efficacy, by comparing UMF manuka honey with a standard antiseptic (carbolic, or phenol) in its ability to fight bacteria. The results are astonishing.

He said: "We know it has a very broad spectrum of action.

"It works on bacteria, fungi, protozoa. We haven't found anything it doesn't work on among infectious organisms."

Resistant strains

A satisfied user
"I got bitten by an Alsatian. It grabbed my hand and gave me a five-stitch bite. So I went off to the doctors, and they solely used manuka honey, nothing else, no other treatment. I've got barely a scar now, and that's only three weeks ago. Now in the medical kit I carry in the truck, I have manuka honey and bandages, and that's all."
Chris Graham
In fact, he says UMF manuka honey can even tackle antibiotic resistant strains of bacteria - a growing problem for hospitals around the world.

"Staphylococcus aureas is the most common wound-infecting species of bacteria, and that's the most sensitive to honey that we've found.

"And that includes the antibiotic resistant strains - the MRSA - which is just as sensitive to honey as any other staphylococcus aureas."

Clinical trials at the Waikato Hospital have shown that even out of the lab, UMF manuka honey has amazing healing properties.

Nurse practitioner Julie Betts has successfully used honey to treat leg ulcers and pressure sores. And she says it helps healing after surgery - particularly for diabetic patients.

"It has an anti-inflammatory effect as well, so if I want to do several things apart from actually controlling the bacteria in that wound, then that's when I'll use honey."

Cancer treatment

Cancer specialist Dr Glenys Round has also found honey to be an effective treatment.

The honey is exported widely
"We've been using honey to treat fungating wounds, where the cancer has broken through the skin," she said.

"The results in that situation have been excellent."

Most recently, she has had success in using honey dressings on patients with wounds or ulcers resulting from radiation therapy.

"Most of these patients in the past had tried various other conventional treatments without good success, and that is the reason why at least initially honey was tried."

Most patients seem happy to try the honey treatment.

"They don't have a problem with it at all," said Julie Betts.

"Humans in general have a fondness I think for natural remedies, so they're quite happy to use them."

"I think the problem we encounter is when people don't understand how it works.

"They think that sourcing any honey will achieve the same outcome, and that's not always true."

Worldwide export

That's a view shared by beekeeper Bill Bennett a few kilometres up the road from the hospital.

He and his wife Margaret run the Summerglow Apiaries, one of just a handful of registered suppliers of UMF manuka honey in New Zealand.

They produce between eight and twelve metric tonnes of manuka honey every year, and sell it across the world.

The honey is rigorously tested three times during production for that elusive unique manuka factor; only then can it carry the label "UMF manuka honey".

"It just seems that manuka from a few areas within New Zealand produces a nectar that has this special property," said Bill Bennett.

"There is a lot of manuka honey out there that doesn't have this special property. That's why it's so important to look for the name UMF."

Now, a New Zealand natural health products company Comvita is taking UMF manuka honey one step further.


Comvita has set up a new medical products division to take hi-tech honey dressings developed by Peter Molan to the international market.

The new dressings have been designed to take the mess out of honey.

"It's like a sheet of rubber, you can touch it without it being sticky at all," he said.

Comvita has high hopes for the new product.

"Previously untreatable wounds of many types are now found to be treatable by honey," said Comvita's Ray Lewis.

"The global market for wound care is in the range of two to six billion US dollars. So if we can capture just a small percentage of that, we will obviously be doing very well."

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Bacteria in soil enhance mood and intelligence

Exposure to specific bacteria in the environment, already believed to have antidepressant qualities, could increase learning behavior according to research presented today at the 110th General Meeting of the American Society for Microbiology in San Diego.

"Mycobacterium vaccae is a natural soil bacterium which people likely ingest or breath in when they spend time in nature," says Dorothy Matthews of The Sage Colleges in Troy, New York, who conducted the research with her colleague Susan Jenks.

Previous research studies on M. vaccae showed that heat-killed bacteria injected into mice stimulated growth of some neurons in the brain that resulted in increased levels of serotonin and decreased anxiety.

"Since serotonin plays a role in learning we wondered if live M. vaccae could improve learning in mice," says Matthews.

Matthews and Jenks fed live bacteria to mice and assessed their ability to navigate a maze compared to control mice that were not fed the bacteria.

"We found that mice that were fed live M. vaccae navigated the maze twice as fast and with less demonstrated anxiety behaviors as control mice," says Matthews.

In a second experiment the bacteria were removed from the diet of the experimental mice and they were retested. While the mice ran the maze slower than they did when they were ingesting the bacteria, on average they were still faster than the controls.

A final test was given to the mice after three weeks' rest. While the experimental mice continued to navigate the maze faster than the controls, the results were no longer statistically significant, suggesting the effect is temporary.

"This research suggests that M. vaccae may play a role in anxiety and learning in mammals," says Matthews. "It is interesting to speculate that creating learning environments in schools that include time in the outdoors where M. vaccae is present may decrease anxiety and improve the ability to learn new tasks."

Provided by American Society for Microbiology

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Brain implant- recorder or controller?

A brain-recording device that melts into place
April 18, 2010

Neural electrode array wrapped onto a model of the brain. The wrapping process occurs spontaneously, driven by dissolution of a thin, supporting base of silk. Credit: Please credit C. Conway and J. Rogers, Beckman Institute
Scientists have developed a brain implant that essentially melts into place, snugly fitting to the brain's surface. The technology could pave the way for better devices to monitor and control seizures, and to transmit signals from the brain past damaged parts of the spinal "These implants have the potential to maximize the contact between electrodes and brain tissue, while minimizing damage to the brain. They could provide a platform for a range of devices with applications in epilepsy, spinal cord injuries and other neurological disorders," said Walter Koroshetz, M.D., deputy director of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS), part of the National Institutes of Health.
The study, published in Nature Materials, shows that the ultrathin flexible implants, made partly from silk, can record brain activity more faithfully than thicker implants embedded with similar electronics.
The simplest devices for recording from the brain are needle-like electrodes that can penetrate deep into brain tissue. More state-of-the-art devices, called micro-electrode arrays, consist of dozens of semi-flexible wire electrodes, usually fixed to rigid silicon grids that do not conform to the brain's shape.
In people with epilepsy, the arrays could be used to detect when seizures first begin, and deliver pulses to shut the seizures down. In people with spinal cord injuries, the technology has promise for reading complex signals in the brain that direct movement, and routing those signals to healthy muscles or prosthetic devices.
"The focus of our study was to make ultrathin arrays that conform to the complex shape of the brain, and limit the amount of tissue damage and inflammation," said Brian Litt, M.D., an author on the study and an associate professor of neurology at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine in Philadelphia. The silk-based implants developed by Dr. Litt and his colleagues can hug the brain like shrink wrap, collapsing into its grooves and stretching over its rounded surfaces.
The implants contain metal electrodes that are 500 microns thick, or about five times the thickness of a human hair. The absence of sharp electrodes and rigid surfaces should improve safety, with less damage to brain tissue. Also, the implants' ability to mold to the brain's surface could provide better stability; the brain sometimes shifts in the skull and the implant could move with it. Finally, by spreading across the brain, the implants have the potential to capture the activity of large networks of brain cells, Dr. Litt said.
Besides its flexibility, silk was chosen as the base material because it is durable enough to undergo patterning of thin metal traces for electrodes and other electronics. It can also be engineered to avoid inflammatory reactions, and to dissolve at controlled time points, from almost immediately after implantation to years later. The electrode arrays can be printed onto layers of polyimide (a type of plastic) and silk, which can then be positioned on the brain.
To make and test the silk-based implants, Dr. Litt collaborated with scientists at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign and at Tufts University outside Boston. John Rogers, Ph.D., a professor of materials science and engineering at the University of Illinois, invented the flexible electronics. David Kaplan, Ph.D., and Fiorenzo Omenetto, Ph.D., professors of biomedical engineering at Tufts, engineered the tissue-compatible silk. Dr. Litt used the electronics and silk technology to design the implants, which were fabricated at the University of Illinois.
Recently, the team described a flexible silicon device for recording from the heart and detecting an abnormal heartbeat.
In the current study, the researchers approached the design of a brain implant by first optimizing the mechanics of silk films and their ability to hug the brain. They tested electrode arrays of varying thickness on complex objects, brain models and ultimately in the brains of living, anesthetized animals.
The arrays consisted of 30 electrodes in a 5x6 pattern on an ultrathin layer of polyimide - with or without a silk base. These experiments led to the development of an array with a mesh base of polyimide and silk that dissolves once it makes contact with the brain - so that the array ends up tightly hugging the brain.
Next, they tested the ability of these implants to record the animals' brain activity. By recording signals from the brain's visual center in response to visual stimulation, they found that the ultrathin polyimide-silk arrays captured more robust signals compared to thicker implants.
In the future, the researchers hope to design implants that are more densely packed with electrodes to achieve higher resolution recordings.
"It may also be possible to compress the silk-based implants and deliver them to the brain, through a catheter, in forms that are instrumented with a range of high performance, active electronic components," Dr. Rogers said.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Magnetic morality

Recent research has found that moral judgement is governed by an area of the brain just above the right ear. This can be 'turned off' by applying a magnet to the head in this area.

Turning off someone's moral compass is as easy as holding a magnet up to their head, new research from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology suggests.

Would this effect result from the field generated by a hairdryer in a salon? Or the smaller field from a phone?? Now there's a scary prospect.

Rather than judging people based on their actions, most people tend to judge based on the intent of those actions, too.

If a man trips his girlfriend on the sidewalk, for example, we determine if he is morally wrong based on whether it was by accident or on purpose.

But when a small area of the brain just above the right ear, called the right temporo-parietal junction, is disabled, we lose that ability entirely.

Instead, we judge the morality of an action based solely on its outcome. In this case, whether the girlfriend was hurt. If she came out of the trip unharmed, then the boyfriend was, morally speaking, in the clear regardless of whether he meant to injure her.

In the research project, led by Liane Young at MIT, people were asked to evaluate different scenarios like the one above and grade the morality of each person in question. Then a magnet was applied to the outside of their head just above the temporo-parietal junction, disabling the subject's ability to interpret intent.

The results astounded the researchers.

"Subjects were asked to judge how permissible it is for someone to let his girlfriend walk across a bridge he knows to be unsafe, even if she ends up making it across safely," said Anne Trafton, a spokeswoman at MIT.

"In such cases, a judgment based solely on the outcome would hold the perpetrator morally blameless, even though it appears he intended to do harm."

“You think of morality as being a really high-level behaviour,” she continued. “To be able to apply [a magnetic field] to a specific brain region and change people’s moral judgments is really astonishing.” Next, researchers want to examine perceptions of luck in moral judgment. A drunk driver, for example, may or may not kill someone as a result of their actions and whether they do is largely considered to be up to luck.

But the unlucky driver tends to be judged "more morally blameworthy,"

researchers suggest, even though both drivers did the same thing.

Young now hopes to discover if disabling the same part of the brain that determines intent has any effect on peoples' perceptions of luck.


Monday, March 01, 2010

I'm back, after more than a year inactive on this blog

Time to get doing again. I have recently uploaded the latest version of 'Eland Dances' on There are quite a few other aspiring writers, together with some published authors, who frequent the site.
The carrot is the long-shot possibility of some browsing agent or editor noticing your work and perhaps signing a contract. There is the even more unlikely possibility of Harper Collins, who run the site, liking something they see. The top five books in any given month get a review by Harper Collins editors.
Oh yes, everyone reads and 'backs' work they like. Each backing earns points, and these accumulate. The top five have each been backed by at least 1,200 others. After 2 weeks, mine has been backed by 97.
I don't expect to reach the top rating, but have had feedback from some, either praise or minor critique. Essentially if someone just plain doesn't like your stuff, you don't hear of it, because they simply pass over to something else.