NEWS - SCIENCE INSIGHTS 2015; 12(1):358-366.

Southampton, UK

Breast Cancer Research Uncovers the Fountain of Youth


The Fountain of Youth has been discovered and it's not in Florida as Ponce de Leon claimed. Instead, it was found in the mammary glands of genetically modified mice. A research team led by Professor Rama Khokha has found that when two factors that control tissue development are removed, you can avoid the impact of aging. Think of tissue as a building that is constantly under renovation. The contractors would be "metalloproteinases," which are constantly working to demolish and reconstruct the tissue. The architects in this case, who are trying to reign in and direct the contractors, are known as "tissue inhibitors of metalloproteinases"—or TIMPs. When the architect and the contractors don't communicate well, a building can fall down. In the case of tissue, the result can be cancer. To understand how metalloproteinases and TIMPs interact, medical researchers breed mice that have one or more of the four different types of TIMPs removed. Khokha's team examined the different combinations and found that when TIMP1 and TIMP3 were removed, breast tissue remained youthful in aged mice. The results are presented in Nature Cell Biology. In the normal course of aging, your tissue losses its ability to develop and repair as fast as it did when you were young. That's because stem cells, which are abundant in your youth, decline with the passing of time. The U of T team found that with the TIMP1 and TIMP3 architects missing, the pool of stem cells expanded and remained functional throughout the lifetime of these mice. "Normally you would see these pools of stem cells, which reach their peak at six months in the mice, start to decline. As a result, the mammary glands start to degenerate, which increases the risk of breast cancer occurring," explains Khokha. "However, we found that in these particular mice, the stem cells remained consistently high when we measured them at every stage of life." The team also found that despite large number of stem cells, there was no increased risk of cancer. "It's generally assumed that the presence of a large number of stem cells can lead to an increased cancer risk," says Khokha. "However, we found these mice had no greater predisposition to cancer." The next step in this research is to understand why this is happening. Khokha is also working with her colleagues at Princess Margaret to see how altered tissue remodeling might prevent cancer development or lead to a new therapeutic treatment for patients. Khokha is a Professor in the departments of Medical Biophysics and Laboratory Medicine and Pathobiology, as well as a Senior Scientist at the Princess Margaret Cancer Centre. Her work is supported by the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation and the Canadian Cancer Society Research Institute. She was drawn to this research by the complexity of breast tissue. "It's a fundamental tissue that is constantly reorganizing. It develops at puberty. It goes through cycles of change in the adult female. New structures appear and regress," she explains. "It is therefore a good system to explore in order to understand tissue maintenance and epithelial cell turnover - the cells that underlie carcinomas, the most frequent type of cancer." By Liam Mitchell. The original article was from

Cardiff, UK

New Approach against Virus HIV


The first human trial of a new type of HIV therapy suggests it could be a promising weapon in the fight against the virus. Reports in the journal Nature show infusions of so-called broadly neutralising antibodies could suppress the amount of HIV in a patient's blood. The approach uses clones of immune proteins taken from a rare individual who has natural control of the disease. Scientists hope with further work this could bolster current treatments. People naturally mount a defence against the virus by producing an army of protein based weapons - antibodies. But in most cases these are not powerful enough to defeat it. The international research team harvested copies of unusually potent ones, capable of neutralising many different strains of HIV. Patients given the highest concentrations were able to fight the virus for some time, dampening the replication of HIV in their blood. The strength of this protection varied - in some it lasted more than four weeks. In the journal the authors said: "Our data establish that passive infusion of single broadly neutralising antibodies can have profound effects on HIV viraemia in humans." But because of the virus's ability to mutate rapidly, in some patients it was able to outwit the therapy by changing structure over time. To overcome this scientists suggest using this treatment alongside current drugs or together with other antibodies. Prof Michel Nussenzweig of the Rockefeller University in New York, told BBC News: "This is different to treatment out there already on two counts. "First because it comes from a human - so it is natural in that respect. "And secondly it opens up the possibility of giving the patient's own weakened immune system a jolt. "One part of the antibody could act as a red flag - pointing out to the body where the virus is hiding and sending signals to kill it." They are now exploring whether the infusion could shield people from getting the disease in the first place. But he cautioned that studies into the antibody are still small and at an early stage. "We have shown the approach is safe and effective. "What this trial is telling us is that it is now time to look at the possibilities - from prevention and treatment to even cure," he said. Commenting on the findings, Prof Vincent Piguet from Cardiff University, said: "This exciting novel study shows for the first time that antibodies may have a place in the line of therapies directed against HIV." He described it as an "important development in the fight against HIV" but said the costs of antibody therapy and the emergence of resistance must be taken into account. By Smitha Mundasad. The original article was from the BBC.

San Diego, USA

Overconnected Sensorimotor Regions of the Brain in Children with Autism


In early childhood, the neurons inside children’s developing brains form connections between various regions of brain “real estate.” As described in a paper published last week in the journal Biological Psychiatry, cognitive neuroscientists at San Diego State University found that in children and adolescents with autism spectrum disorder, the connections between the cerebral cortex and the cerebellum appear to be overdeveloped in sensorimotor regions of the brain. This overdevelopment appears to muscle in on brain “real estate” that in typically developing children is more densely occupied by connections that serve higher cognitive functioning. The study represents the first ever systematic look at connections between the entire cerebral cortex and the cerebellum using fMRI brain imaging, and its findings provide another piece in the puzzle that could one day lead researchers to develop a reliable brain-based test for identifying autism. Several decades ago, scientists reported findings that certain regions of the cerebellum—a brain region involved in motor control, but also in cognitive, social, and emotional functions—were often smaller in people with autism than in typically developing people. That sparked a brief flurry of research activity exploring the cerebellum’s potential role in the disorder. Unfortunately, the direction never truly panned out for researchers hoping for a big breakthrough in understanding, said the study’s corresponding author, SDSU psychologist Ralph-Axel Müller. “Eventually, interest in the cerebellum waned due to a lack of consistency in the findings,” he said. Hoping that advances in brain imaging technology would reveal new insights, Müller, working with the study’s first author Amanda Khan, looked back to the cerebellum for their study. Khan is a former master’s student at SDSU and now a doctoral candidate at Suffolk University in Boston. The researchers directed 56 children and adolescents, half with autism and half without the disorder, to fixate on a focal point while thinking about nothing in particular, using fMRI brain imaging technology to scan the children’s brains as they produced spontaneous brain activity. Capturing this spontaneous activity is crucial to honing in on what are essentially baseline neuronal patterns. The imaging results revealed that the participants with autism had far stronger neuronal connectivity between sensorimotor regions of the cerebellum and cerebral cortex than did their counterparts without autism. Conversely, the participants with autism had less connectivity between regions involved in higher-order cognitive functions such as decision-making, attention and language. The sensorimotor connections between the cerebral cortex and cerebellum mature during the first few years of life, when the brains of children with autism grow larger in volume than typically developing children, Müller explained. Connections that serve higher cognitive functions develop later, after this period of overgrowth. “Our findings suggest that the early developing sensorimotor connections are highly represented in the cerebellum at the expense of higher cognitive functions in children with autism,” he said. “By the time the higher cognitive functions begin to come online, many of the connections are already specialized. If a particular part of the brain is already functionally active in one domain, there may be no reason for the brain to switch it over to another domain later in life.” Returning to the real estate metaphor, it’s as if most of the available land has already been scooped up by sensorimotor connections before the higher-order cognitive function connections have a chance to move into the neighborhood. The findings could help scientists and clinicians better understand exactly how abnormalities during brain development lead to various types of autism spectrum disorder. Müller hopes his work will not only contribute to a brain-based diagnosis of autism, but also be a step towards identifying its various subtypes and underlying genetic factors. “We still don’t understand what in the brain makes a kid autistic,” he said. “You can’t look at a scan and say, ‘There it is.’ We’re doing the groundwork of finding brain variables that might be biomarkers for autism and its subtypes.” The original article from the NEUROSCIENCE NEWS.

Ann Arbor, USA

Using Forks and Knives Has Changed the Human Face


From the time we’re born to when we're old and grey, the food we eat plays a major role in how we look and feel. It’s not just our daily dietary habits, though. The way our ancestors began eating their food hundreds of years ago has a lot to do with how the human face looks today, and not in a good way. One example is the overbite, which is a common dental abnormality that developed relatively recently in human history. Before 250 years ago, Europeans were overbite-free. American anthropologist Charles Loring at the University of Michigan thinks this had much to do with how and what they were eating. That was a revelation that took an important discovery, though. For most of his career, Brace thought, like many other scientists in his field, that the overbite was the result of a gradual, evolutionary change in human jaw size that began at the dawn of agriculture, around 12,000 years ago. But all of that changed when Brace learned, in 1977, that the Chinese population developed the overbite 900 years before the Europeans. He discovered this by comparing Chinese skulls that exhibited an overbite with the oldest known European skulls with the same dental abnormality, and the discrepancy in the age of the skulls, 900 years, was a surprise. Brace also knew that the Chinese began using chopsticks 900 years before Europeans took up the knife and fork. The difference between the age of the overbite and the advent of utensils between the two cultures could not be ignored. The most logical explanation, which still stands today, that Brace found was that the overbite was a relatively quick change in the human jaw not because of evolution but because of lazy eating brought on by silverware. Ancient Europeans chowed down raw fruits and vegetables and ripped meat from bone with their hands. But around 250 years ago, they picked up the fork and knife and began eating smaller, bite-sized foods, which put less strain and stress on their jaw muscles. The muscles in our jaws need exercise like any other muscle. Otherwise, they will weaken. This weakness, Brace concluded, is what leads to overbites. Furthermore, Brace concluded that the overbite was not a gradual evolutionary trait at all but an abrupt change brought on by how we use our teeth and jaw muscles. Brace's conclusions were a shock to some. "The first time I read Brace's work, I was truly astonished" Bee Wilson, a British food writer and historian, told The Atlantic. "So often, we assume that the tools we use for eating are more or less irrelevant — at most, a question of manners. I found it remarkable that they could have this graphic impact on the human body." Brace's hypothesis has since been corroborated with other studies. In the early 2000s, a team of scientists at Harvard did an experiment on baby rock badgers. Some of the animals were fed raw and dried foods while others were on a strict diet of soft, cooked foods. They found that the rock badgers raised on cooked food had approximately 10% less growth in their upper and lower jaws than the badgers eating the raw, dried food. The scientists reported their findings in the Journal Human Evolutions. So, the next time you're at the dentist, reading that crappy, old magazine, dreading whatever work you are about to have done, you're well within your right to blame your parents for cooking you hot meals and making you cut your food into bite-sized pieces to eat with silverware. By Jessica Orwig. The original article from YAHOO.

Cambridge, UK

Human DNA Features Genes from Plants, Microorganisms


Genes will regularly jump ship, linking up with another organism, if given the chance. It's a process known as horizontal gene transfer. But previously, scientists believed this was mostly a strategy of smaller organisms. A new study, however, suggests natural transgenics is equally common among larger species like humans. In fact, it's now clear that humans regularly swap genes with the germs they host and the plants they eat. "This is the first study to show how widely horizontal gene transfer occurs in animals, including humans, giving rise to tens or hundreds of active 'foreign' genes," explained lead author Alastair Crisp, a researcher in chemical engineering and biotechnology at the University of Cambridge. "Surprisingly, far from being a rare occurrence, it appears that this has contributed to the evolution of many, perhaps all, animals and that the process is ongoing," Crisp said. "We may need to re-evaluate how we think about evolution." Researchers analyzed the genomes of several dozen species, including several types of fruit fly, nematode worm, and primate, including humans. After comparing genomes of similar species, scientists were able to isolate genes most likely to have come from foreign origins. Scientists found at least 145 genes likely to have been acquired via horizontal gene transfer, only 17 of which had been previously identified. Many of these genes are believed to be involved in metabolic processes, but many more have an undefined purpose. Bacteria and protists, a class of microorganisms, are pegged as the most frequent donors, but fungi and plants have also shared their genes readily. Researchers say it's likely their study actually underestimates natural trangenics among species. Even so, they say just one percent of the human genome is made up of transferred genes. By Brooks Hays,The original article was from the UPI..

Chicago, USA

What is Going on at the Inner-Inner Core of Earth's Center


The newly discovered core at the center of the Earth has a different polarity than its surrounding core, represented by the purple lines. Though the seismic waves from earthquakes are best known for their destructive capabilities, in the hands of geologists, they can be powerful tools of discovery. A research team at the University of Illinois has just used the rumbles from quakes to more closely examine the inner core of our planet, and what they found there was quite a surprise. It seems there's another core inside the inner core that measures about half its diameter. What demarcates this "inner-inner core" is that the iron crystals it contains are oriented on an east-west axis, unlike the iron crystals in the "outer-inner core" which organize along a north-south axis. "The fact that we have two regions that are distinctly different may tell us something about how the inner core has been evolving," Xiaodong Song, a professor of geology at UI who worked on the project with visiting postdoctoral researcher Tao Wang, said in a University of Illinois report about the findings. "For example, over the history of the Earth, the inner core might have had a very dramatic change in its deformation regime. It might hold the key to how the planet has evolved."  While multiple components of the inner core have been suggested before, this is the first time the difference in polarity has been noted. "Indeed, the layering of the inner core has been suggested more than 10 years ago, at shallow depths of the inner core and at deeper parts of the inner core as well," Song told Crave. "Everyone assumed before the crystal alignment was north-south. But here we found alignment in the inner-inner core to be nearly east-west." If all this inner and inner-inner talk sounds confusing, perhaps a quick geology refresher is in order. The Earth consists of three layers: the crust where we live; the mantle, a layer of scalding-hot liquid rock; and the core. The core consists of a liquid outer core containing mainly nickel and iron and a solid inner core made up mostly of iron. Even though the inner core is even hotter than its surroundings, the intense pressure at the Earth's center means the inner core is unable to melt and remains solid, according to a National Geographic entry about the topic. And now we can add another layer to our Earth's composition: the inner-inner core, which is still mostly solid iron, but has a different polarity than the substance surrounding it. In "unearthing" the inner-inner core, the research team relied on seismic sensors that pick up the waves that penetrate the planet after an earthquake hits, known as the quake's coda. "The earthquake is like a hammer striking a bell; much like a listener hears the clear tone that resonates after the bell strike, seismic sensors collect a coherent signal in the earthquake's coda," the report says. "It turns out the coherent signal enhanced by the technology is clearer than the ring itself," said Song. "The basic idea of the method has been around for a while, and people have used it for other kinds of studies near the surface. But we are looking all the way through the center of the Earth." By Michael Franco, the original article was from CNET.

Edmonton, CANADA

50-Foot-Long 'Dragon' Dinosaur Species Discovered in China


The long-necked Qijianglong lived about 160 million years ago in the Late Jurassic period. Sauropods, a category of dinosaurs that includes the Diplodocus, typically had necks that comprised up to a third of their body size. A new species of dinosaur described in a recent Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology had a neck that could stretch up to 25 feet long, which is half its body length. The dino has been named Qijianglong (pronounced "CHI-jyang-lon"), which means "dragon of Qijiang." Its bones were discovered near China's Qijiang City by construction workers in 2006. It belongs to a family of sauropods known as mamenchisaurids. Miraculously, when the beast was unearthed, its head was still attached to its vertebrae, something extremely unusual in the paleontology world. "It is rare to find a head and neck of a long-necked dinosaur together because the head is so small and easily detached after the animal dies," explains Tetsuto Miyashita, a University of Alberta paleontologist who, along with former master's student Lida Xing and professor Philip Currie, discovered the new species. Also of note is that the dinosaur's vertebrae were filled with air, much like the skeletons of birds. This made their necks fairly lightweight for their massive size (and no doubt, kept them from face-planting when they were being chased by other big baddies). The vertebrae were also found to be interlocking in such a way that would have allowed the dinosaur to lift its head up and down like a construction crane, but not move it very easily from side to side. The dragon of Qijiang is thought to have lived about 160 million years ago during the Late Jurassic period, when dinosaurs like the Stegosaurus also roamed Earth. Its unusually long neck hints at the breadth of evolutionary adaptations, says Miyashita. "Qijianglong is a cool animal. If you imagine a big animal that is half neck, you can see that evolution can do quite extraordinary things," he said in a statement. The paleontologist also wonders if ancient residents of China -- the only place where mamenchisaurids are found -- once stumbled upon the remains of a Qijianglong, which could have contributed to legends of dragons in the region. "China is home to the ancient myths of dragons," said Miyashita. "I wonder if the ancient Chinese stumbled upon a skeleton of a long-necked dinosaur like Qijianglong and pictured that mythical creature." by Michael Franco, the original article was from UOFA.

Edmonton, CANADA

Oldest Snake Fossils Show They Thrived In the Age of Dinosaurs


Researchers have unearthed the fossil remains of four snakes that are 70 million years older than the oldest snake previously discovered. The finds rewrite what scientists know about the creatures, showing that they were slithering alongside pterodactyls and other dinosaurs as early 167 million years ago. "We've nearly doubled the geological range for a group," said Michael Caldwell, a professor in the Faculty of Science at the University of Alberta, and lead author of a new study in Nature Communications. Not only do his findings offer clues on how these reptiles may have evolved, they also reveal that the snakes of the dinosaur age probably didn't look all that different than their modern-day relatives. Though dating from 140 million to 167 million years ago, the fossilized skulls, jaws, ribs and teeth share many features seen in today's snakes, such as the flexible jaws and sharply-angled, backward-pointing teeth which are instrumental in helping them devour their prey. They also have features found in lizards such as its vertebrae. Caldwell said he was surprised snakes had changed so little over such a long period of time and that they were still so clearly "identifiable ... as snakes." Normally you would expect to dig up something that shared traits with modern animals, but looked different, perhaps more like some sort of chimera of two familiar beasts, he said. "You know like the bird-dinosaur idea. You wouldn't be looking for a modern duck in the middle of the Cretaceous." The oldest of the fossils (the diminutive Eophis underwoodi) came from southern England. The largest, Portugalophis lignites, came from coal deposits in Portugal, and was a much bigger individual at nearly a meter or more in length. Around 150 million years ago, the locations in England and Portugal were swampy coastal areas on large island chains in the Jurassic seaway that covered most of what is now Western and Central Europe. The one North American species identified, Diablophis gilmorei, was found in river deposits in Western Colorado. The locations offer evidence that the snakes came from a marine environment. "Is it possible, like a lot of other animals today, they moved around the planet by swimming? Yep, it's very possible. Almost all modern snakes are perfectly comfortable in the water," Caldwell said. Caldwell also believes these snakes probably had four limbs - though there aren't the fossils to prove it. An earlier discovery from Caldwell and his colleagues turned up 100- to 90-million-year-old marine snakes from the West Bank, Lebanon, and Argentina that still possessed small but well developed rear limbs. They also varied in size: A snake fossil from 60 million years ago called Titanoboa was probably about 10 times bigger than snakes today. "It could very well be that what you would see in terms of the missing link features is that this animal would have had four legs and a short body," Caldwell said. "Body-wise, it wouldn't have looked like a modern snake but the skull is clearly demonstrating very snaky features." Caldwell said the latest discoveries probably aren't going to settle a long-running debate about how snakes evolved. Some said they evolved from burrowing animals - based on primitive, blind snakes alive today that live in burrows - while Caldwell and his supporters have argue they evolved from four-legged, lizard-like ancestors that thrived in the oceans and emerged onto land. "I suspect we will never put that debate to rest," he said. "It's a very fine scale question and an interesting one ... We have an anatomical and a relationship problem and then we have to find that point in time in the fossil record where we would actually recognize one of these animals as a snake ... If I can find you a four-legged animal with a snake head, will you call it a snake or will we call it a snake-like lizard?" To really shore up the theory, researchers need a snake fossil further back that has four legs which could take snake evolution to 200 million years. They also need to shore up the fossil record from 167 million to 100 million years ago. That means expanding the area they have searched for snake fossils. Since the latest crop of fossils came from the Northern Hemisphere and what was then the supercontinent Laurasia, researchers will go in search of fossils in the southern Hemisphere in South America, Africa and Australia or what was then Gondwana. "We are trying to fill in those bits and pieces of the story," Caldwell said. The original article was from CBS.