In a week mostly dominated by NASA’s announcement of the discovery of organic molecules on Mars, some other important science stories may have slipped under the radar. In the Science Dispatches for the first week of June 2018; a possible breakthrough in the treatment of cancer, the self-consuming rocket and counting bees.
A new approach to immune therapy raises hopes of cancer treatment breakthrough
Researchers at the National Institutes of Health have revealed this week the use of a novel immunotherapy technique to reduce the size of tumours, halving their size or even ridding patients of them altogether. Dr Steven Rosenberg, a researcher on the medical trial of the treatment, discussed its use in the case of patient, Judy Perkins. Perkins had been suffering from breast cancer which had spread to other organs. Before starting the treatment her prognosis was grim. “It probably would have killed her within the next two to three months,” Rosenberg said.
Perkins had, at the time of enrolling in the trial, tried seven other more conventional cancer treatments to no avail. Six weeks after the trial began, Perkins’ doctors reported that the tumours had reduced by half. A year later the team claim the tumours have completely disappeared leaving Perkins able to resume her life before the terrible illness struck.
The method used by the team involves targeting genetic mutations that cancer cells collect as they grow. Although these mutations can trigger the immune system to target cancer, this response generally isn’t powerful enough to have an effect. Like many other newer treatments, the team’s strategy works to boost this natural defence. Previously this approach of stimulating the immune system has not worked particularly well for cancers like breast cancer which have fewer mutations.
Rosenberg and his team take immune cells called lymphocytes from their subject and screen them for cells which have become primed to recognise mutations. The lymphocytes are also tested to see which mutations are more likely to trigger a response. This enabled the research team to find and multiply lymphocytes that could recognise the mutations causing Perkin’s cancer and infuse 80 billion of them into her body in conjunction with a drug that boosts immune response. The same approach has also been used to treat cases of colon, liver and cervical cancer showing some promising results.
Whilst the results of the trial should be treated with the utmost caution as this is one singular case, the outcome does offer some hope in treating advanced cancers which thus far have been difficult for doctors to tackle.
Commenting on the research published in Nature Medicine on 4th June, doctor Simon Vincent, director of research at Breast Cancer Now, who was not involved in the study, said the research was “world class”. He told the BBC “We think this is a remarkable result. It’s the first opportunity to see this sort of immunotherapy in the most common sort of breast cancer at the moment it has only been tested in one patient. There’s a huge amount of work that needs to be done, but potentially it could open up a whole new area of therapy for a large number of people.”
Hopefully this research, in its very earliest stages, can go on to offer hope to cancer suffers at the most desperate stage of the illness.
The self-consuming rocket. A novel solution to fuel requirements
One of the major problems engineers have faced when launching satellites into space is balancing the huge amount of fuel required for such a mission and the weight of that fuel. Thus far such missions have favoured liquid fuel despite the mass associated with it. In addition to this fuel, there are various mechanisms required to deal with it, such as tanks, pumps and valves.
These considerations have been addressed in an extremely novel way by a group of researchers led by Patrick Harkness of Glasgow University, in Britain, and Vitaly Yemets of Oles Honchar Dnipro National University, in Ukraine, who have begun development of an ‘autophage’ rocket. In layman’s terms, a rocket that consumes itself for fuel.
The rocket has a cylindrical body made of solid fuel, polypropylene, a plastic hard and strong enough to form a rocket’s outer casing. The middle of the cylinder is filled with a powdered mixture of ammonium perchlorate and ammonium nitrate, the oxidants. The engine begins at launch at the base of the cylindrical body. During its flight, the engine works its way up the body consuming the solid fuel. Such a concept clearly reduces significantly the launch weight of the vessel as all it needs to consist of is a body, engine and payload. The reduced launch weight in-turn reduces the amount of required fuel.
The concept proposed in Journal of Spacecraft and Rockets may sound strangely familiar to you. That’s because it’s not at all unsimilar to the design of a firework. This leads to one particular problem with the system. Much like with a firework, one would expect such a solid fuelled system to be ‘light and go’ with little accessibility after launch. With liquid-fueled rockets, the flow of propellant can be controlled making it easier to direct the rocket to deliver its payload to an exact position. Dr Harkness argues this issue can be overcome with the use of thrust to slow the speed at which the engine consumes its fuel.
Test launches have already been conducted by the team but the research is at an incredibly early stage and whilst it is hardly likely to threaten liquid-fuelled rockets as of yet, the future may be promising for such a system.
Can bees understand the concept of zero?
The invention of zero is regarded as a vital turning point in the development of mathematics, but research involving various animal species has shown that other members of the animal kingdom also have the capability to comprehend the concept of nothing as a number. The research in this area thus far has concentrated on parrots and primates, but a new study published in Science has indicated that some insects may also have the ability to understand zero and its position in a number sequence.
Honey bees have previously been understood to possess the ability to ‘count’ to four, a skill which aids them in navigation. Researchers at institutes based in Australia and France took a selection of bees and trained them to recognise smaller numbers. Science reports ” Across a series of trials, they showed the insects two different pictures displaying a few black shapes on a white background. If the bees flew to the picture with the smaller number of shapes, they were given delicious sugar water, but if they flew toward the larger number, they were punished with bitter-tasting quinine.”
Once the bees are shown to have learnt to select the smaller numbered panels on a regular basis, researchers provided them with a white background with no black shapes printed on it. The authors report that 64% of the time bees were offered with the choice representing zero they chose this option. To ensure this wasn’t just a case of the bees being attracted to the empty picture, another set of bees were trained to avoid small numbers and select larger numbers. This group tended to avoid the zero panel.
In a further series of experiments, bees were also shown to possess the ability to distinguish between one and zero, a skill which has challenged even other animals with cognition of zero.
This discovery has some significance for evolutionary biology. Biologists have long suspected that the ability to count carries benefits to species through better comprehension of predators and food sources. The research also implies that the understanding of zero may be far more common in the animal kingdom than previously suspected.