Tag Archives: Science

A Real-Life Body Clock

GROW

A blood test says you’re aging too fast. Now what?

HOLLY MANN remembers a time — it must have been twelve years ago — when she started feeling old. Then 27, the US Army veteran found that she could no longer comfortably exercise. She was sapped of energy, and carried pain in her shoulders, hip, knees, and wrists. “I had a lot of issues that I would frankly associate with somebody who was two decades older than me,” she says. The doctors said that her symptoms stemmed from months of undetected carbon monoxide poisoning. They couldn’t tell her any more than that. Ms. Mann was desperate to feel better — really, she says, to feel younger.

Consulting the internet, she started tinkering with her diet. She tried new workouts. She ordered capsules of Vitamin This and Supplement That. And a few years in, after incremental ups and downs, she started to see real improvements. Though she still faced her share of low-energy days, by 2020, Mann felt noticeably better. She was curious: how much better? Had she, possibly, turned back the hands of time?

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Can Disgusting Images Motivate Good Public Health Behavior?

WIRED

Graphic images have long been tools of campaigns against smoking and STDs. Researchers want to know if they can work for infectious diseases like Covid.

EVERY NOW AND then, I remember the Slideshow. This presentation about sexually transmitted infections was infamous among my fellow South Florida seventh graders. If you got your middle school sex ed elsewhere, it might be hard to imagine just how graphic its slides were. But being gross was the point: If kids saw the symptoms of untreated gonorrhea, the reasoning went, then disgust would sway them from reckless decisions.

Down in the basic wiring of our brains, disgust motivates avoidance. You’re less likely to go on a second date with a first date who smells bad. If a pigeon picks at your sandwich, you might opt to go hungry. Public health data backs this up: When cigarette packaging shows graphic pictures of smokers’ diseased organs, attempts to quit smoking double. “A vivid image is much more powerful than just abstract numbers,” says Woo-kyoung Ahn, a professor of psychology at Yale University. “Disgust is a powerful emotion rooted as an evolutionary adaptation that helps us expel and avoid harmful substances.”

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This Blood Test Detects Cancer in Dogs. But Do You Want to Know?

WIRED

A startup just showed that its OncoK9 test accurately sounds the alarm for aggressive and advanced cancers. The catch? These often have no cure.

IT WAS TIME for Cici Pepperoni’s annual check-up, but Marina Inserra, the 7-year-old pit bull mix’s owner, wasn’t worried. Inserra worked as a veterinary assistant at the San Diego office where Cici was getting her exam, and as far as she knew, Cici was perfectly fine.

Along with the checkup, Inserra agreed to enter Cici in a clinical study by a company called PetDx that had partnered with her office. The company wanted healthy dogs to donate blood to help validate a test to screen for multiple cancers at once—a liquid biopsy.

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When Robots Multiply

GROW

These scientists created living robots out of frog cells. Now these “Xenobots” are reproducing.

IT WOULD PROBABLY have been the science story of the year—any other year. In January 2020, a team of biologists, roboticists and computer scientists announced that they had created the world’s first living robots. These Xenobots were cells culled from a frog, sculpted with the help of an evolutionary algorithm, and then set free to roam under the microscope. Liberated from the constraints of frogness, these cells had designs of their own. They collaborated. They interacted. They performed basic tasks. And eventually, in more recent experiments, they started to multiply.

This is the team’s latest revelation: Xenobots can autonomously assemble identical copies of themselves from individual cells floating in the spring water around them.

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To Test Cancer Drugs, These Scientists Grew ‘Avatars’ of Tumors

WIRED

Growing organoids in dishes and xenografts in mice lets scientists recreate a living person’s tumor—and test dozens of drugs against them at the same time.

IN 2018, ALANA Welm found herself in an exciting, yet burdensome, position. The University of Utah breast cancer research lab where she leads joint projects with her husband, Bryan Welm, had created lab-grown versions of real tumors isolated from living cancer patients. Each cancer had been translated into two kinds of biological models: xenografts, made by implanting tissue into mice, and organoids, miniature clumps of tissue grown in plastic dishes.

Each simulated cancer was a way to test which of about 45 drugs, some experimental and others approved by the US Food and Drug Administration, might perform best for the real patient. During testing on one patient’s organoids, the researchers isolated a drug that effectively killed its cancer cells. That was the exciting bit. The burden: Welm had no right to do anything about it. She couldn’t tell the patient or her doctor. “We were just doing this for research,” says Welm.

This particular drug had already earned FDA approval to be used against breast cancer, but it wasn’t approved for this patient’s type of cancer. So Welm dialed up her university’s Institutional Review Board, an ethics oversight group.“We called them and said: We found this, we really think we need to let them know,” Welm recalls. The board agreed; the team could bring the patient’s physician into the loop. “That really was an eye-opener,” Welm says. “Wow, we can actually make a difference!”

Yet by the time Welm reached the physician, it was too late. The patient passed away shortly after. “It was heartbreaking,” she says. But it was also motivating: The Welms’ team doubled down on efforts to refine their methods and turn their research into a clinical tool.

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This Plastic Dot Sniffs Out Infections Doctors Can’t See

WIRED

Keeping wounds covered can help them stay clean. But if bacteria grow beneath the bandages, things can get dangerous.

LIFE, AT ALL scales, leaves behind chemical fingerprints. Some are scents we can pick up with our noses: Jasmine petals lend their sweet aldehydes; an upstairs neighbor leaves his noxious amines in the stairwell. “But there are also gasses that we can’t smell, because they’re just that basic kind of background,” says Andrew Mills, a professor of chemistry at Queen’s University Belfast, United Kingdom. “Things basically undergoing life, turning oxygen into carbon dioxide.”

Mills specializes in detecting volatile chemicals, from stinky sulfides to odorless CO2. His lab has focused on sensing gasses as signatures of strange life in undesirable places: Think contaminated ground beef and—more recently—infected wounds. In a study published last month in the journal Chemical Communications, Mills unveiled a simple CO2 detector that can be inserted into dressings for chronic wounds. It changes color when it senses rising concentrations of the gas, a tell-tale sign of dangerous infections.

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A Twist on Stem Cell Transplants Could Help Blood Cancer Patients

WIRED

Cell grafts can help people fighting leukemia—but they risk a dangerous immune reaction. An experimental way to filter donors’ cells might offer a solution.

CATHY DOYLE FELT fine. And in April 2016, when she logged in to a web portal to check the results of some routine blood work, the little numbers on the screen agreed—mostly. But her white blood cell count looked low. She called the doctor’s office. “What’s going on?” the chatty, spiritual 58-year-old from Pittsburgh remembers saying.

The staff asked if she’d recently been sick. She had. Doyle caught a bad cough on a family cruise, but it had passed. That might be it, they agreed, but it would be best to come in for more blood tests. “Bless the doctor,” Doyle says. “He just kept hoping it wouldn’t be leukemia.”

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The Brutal Reason Some Primates are Born a Weird Color

WIRED

When species have babies with conspicuous fur, it can attract good attention—or bad. A new theory could explain why.

THE FIRST THING you might notice about the Delacour’s langur is its color. It’s got a jet black torso, limbs, and head, with a shaggy white butt sandwiched in the middle. (These monkeys—Trachypithecus delacouri if you want to get technical—quite literally look like Oreos.) But that’s just how the adults look. The babies are a different story: They’re orange.

This is their distinct “natal coat,” which fades after a few months. Babies from dozens of other primate species also have fur that’s a different color from that of adults. “One of the big questions has always been why—why would they have distinct coats?” asks Ted Stankowich, an evolutionary ecologist and Director of the Mammal Lab at California State University Long Beach.

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Why Some Animals Can Tell More from Less

WIRED

Researchers find that densely packed neurons play an outsize role in quantitative skill—calling into question old assumptions about evolution.

AT AN UPSTATE New York zoo in 2012, an olive baboon sat with her baby at a table opposite a mesh screen and a curious grad student who was holding some peanuts. In one hand, the student had three peanuts. In the other, eight. The mother baboon could see both hands through the mesh, and she chose the one with eight. The student noted the correct choice. But she also noticed the baby, who followed along and interfered by reaching to make choices itself.

“It was clear that the baby understood what the theme was,” says Jessica Cantlon, who studies the evolution of cognition at Carnegie Mellon and led that Seneca Park Zoo study. In a second version of the test, her team found that even tiny baboon infants, at less than a year old, chose the bigger quantity on their own. The team concluded that both adult baboons and their babies could, in a sense, count.

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Surprise! The Pandemic Has Made People More Science Literate

WIRED

Despite rampant misinformation, Covid-19 has pushed science into the zeitgeist, as people have absorbed new words and how scientific discovery actually works.

FOR THREE GENERATIONS, Betsy Sneller’s family has sipped something they call “Cold Drink.” It’s a sweet mix of leftover liquids, stuff like orange juice and the remnants from cans of fruit, a concept devised by Sneller’s grandmother during the Great Depression. “All the little dregs get mixed together, and it tastes like a fruity concoction,” Sneller says. Cold Drink is an idea—and a name—born from crisis.

Sneller is now a sociolinguist at Michigan State University who studies how language changes in real time. For nearly two years, Sneller has analyzed weekly audio diaries from Michiganders to understand how the pandemic has influenced language in people of all ages, a project initially called MI COVID Diaries. “We find very commonly that people will come up with terms to reflect the social realities that they’re living through,” they say. “New words were coming up almost every week.” As Covid-19 sank its spikes into daily life, people added words and phrases to their vocabularies. Flatten the curve. Antibodies. Covidiots. “Shared crises, like the coronavirus pandemic, cause these astronomical leaps in language change,” Sneller says.

But Sneller has also noticed a more substantive trend emerging: People are internalizing, using, and remembering valuable scientific information. “Because the nature of this crisis is so science-oriented, we’re seeing that a broad swath of people are becoming a little bit more literate in infectious diseases,” they say.

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