What Has Science Done For You Lately?

by by Ashton Strait & Joanna Zhang

illustration by by Charis Loke

It's Created Detonating Cancer Bombs
A group of scientists from Harvard, MIT, and a Swiss institute (ETH) in Zurich are now testing an early-phase technology that uses circuits, implanted in cells, to identify and destroy cancerous ones.

The circuits are first programmed to detect five different markers—various microRNA combinations that almost always signal cancer. If, and only if, a cell expresses all five criteria, the circuit will induce apoptosis, part of the ominously named process of “programmed cell death.”

Early testing in HeLa cancer cells has proven successful. Because the marker detection system is customizable, there are hopes to use the technology on a variety of cancers. But Professor Yaakov Benenson of ETH reminds the public in an ETH press article, "We are still very far from a fully functional treatment method for humans.” He recognizes it as an "important first step that demonstrates feasibility of such a selective diagnostic method at a single cell level."

The breakthrough is an exciting new step away from the current problem that most cancer therapy and treatments face—a lack of selectivity (i.e. chemotherapy, which destroys healthy and cancer cells indiscriminately). Consider it targeted warfare of experimental cancer treatments.-JZ

Supplemented Your Art History TextbookI
n 1503, Renaissance master Leonardo da Vinci received a commission to depict the Battle of Anghiari on one wall of Florence’s Palazzo Vecchio. According to long-dead Renaissance historian Vasari, Da Vinci was forced to abandon the project due to the technical difficulties of using oil paint on a fresco. However, this account has its skeptics, who believe that Vasari—hired to renovate the room in 1560 for the Medici family—may have intentionally covered up the at-least-partially-completed fresco. Historians’ suspicions arise from Vasari’s treatment of a Masaccio fresco in the church of Santa Maria Novella, which he preserved beneath a hollow panel upon which he painted a different mural.
Until now, Da Vinci’s lost fresco has lived on only in preliminary sketches, but scholar Carlo Pedretti has discovered a hollow space between the wall where the fresco once was and the newer brick reinforcing walls built by Vasari during the renovation. This space—like the one in the Santa Maria Novella—might have been created to preserve da Vinci’s work. Now art historians and physicists alike are working on a “gamma ray camera” that will shoot neutrons at the wall. These neutrons will excite the metal atoms used in Leonardo’s pigment, causing them to emit gamma rays (a type of high-energy electromagnetic radiation) that can then be read by the camera’s unique copper lens to create a map of the hidden fresco. The project still needs to raise several hundred thousand dollars in funds because of the high expense of creating a miniature particle accelerator (the device used to fire the neutrons), but they may begin work as early as next year on proving the existence of the lost masterpiece. —AS

Gone Under the River, and through the Amazon
Speaking of things hidden/below other things: scientists in Brazil have discovered what looks to be a river 2.5 miles beneath the Amazon—similar in length (4,000 miles) but four to eight times wider (some 125-250 miles wide).
Using data collected inside 241 abandoned mining wells and a mathematical model that analyzed temperatures from the wells, the team predicted the river's location, size, and flow—approximated at a glacial .04 inches an hour (compared to its top bunk neighbor clocking with speeds of 16 feet a second).
Critics argue the Hamza River, as it’s now being referred to, cannot be a river. It may not empty into any ocean and its water may be saline, potentially missing two important criteria for the coveted river status. "My colleagues and I think this work is very arguable—we have a high level of criticism," Jorge Figueiredo, a geologist with Petrobras, the Brazilian energy multinational who originally drilled the mining wells in 70s and 80s, told BBC News.
While its existence is still unconfirmed, it may not technically be a river, and even the scientists who discovered it put the word “river” in quotes in their report, Indy Science chooses to believe.
The finding, if confirmed, would put the Hamza among a club of subterranean rivers that include the Puerto Princesa in the Philippines and Mojave River in California–rivers that support dark-adapted forms of life like cave-dwelling troglobite species.—JZ

Given You Another Reason To Hop On The Probiotic Bandwagon
Lately it seems that probiotics, the healthy and beneficial bacteria that live naturally in most mammals’ digestive systems, have been the hot new thing on the nutritional supplement circuit. Where fiber additives were once the go-to for digestive regulation, probiotics are now being touted as a cure-all for gastro-intestinal problems. And while it has long been understood that the brain can influence the stomach (stress-induced ulcers, anyone?), scientists are now presenting empirical evidence that that relationship goes both ways. They’ve found that mice who take probiotics show significantly fewer behaviors associated with stress, depression, and anxiety than those mice on a normal diet. They also have lower levels of stress hormones in their brains.
Scientists suspect that the physical connection between gut and brain is the vagus nerve, which alerts the nervous system to changes in the gastrointestinal tract. Doctors also stimulate this nerve in severe cases to treat depression, but neuroscience researcher John Cryan of University College Cork in Ireland has proposed, "by targeting the gut with probiotics, we could indirectly target the vagus nerve without surgery." The only downside? The strain of lactobacillus bacteria used in the study isn’t commercially available in probiotic supplements, and the effects haven’t been studied in humans. Nevertheless, there might eventually come a day when scientists will be prescribing yogurt to cure the blues.—AS