Tag Archives: Science

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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An AI Finds Superbug-Killing Potential in Human Proteins

WIRED

A team scoured the human proteome for antimicrobial molecules and found thousands, plus a surprise about how animals evolved to fight infections.

MARCELO DER TOROSSIAN Torres lifted the clear plastic cover off of a petri dish one morning last June. The dish, still warm from its sleepover in the incubator, smelled of rancid broth. Inside it sat a rubbery bed of amber-colored agar, and on that bed lay neat rows of pinpricks—dozens of colonies of drug-resistant bacteria sampled from the skin of a lab mouse.

Torres counted each pinprick softly to himself, then did some quick calculations. Untreated for the infection, the samples taken from an abscess on the mouse had yielded billions of superbugs, or antibiotic-resistant bacteria. But to his surprise, some of the other rows on the petri dish seemed empty. These were the ones corresponding to samples from mice that received an experimental treatment—a novel antibiotic.

Torres dug up other dishes cultured from more concentrated samples, taken from the same mice who had gotten the antibiotic. These didn’t look empty. When he counted them up, he found that the antibiotic had nuked the bacterial load so that it was up to a million times sparser than the sample from the untreated mouse. “I got very excited,” says Torres, a postdoc specializing in chemistry at the University of Pennsylvania. But this custom antibiotic wasn’t entirely his own recipe. It took an artificial intelligence algorithm scouring a database of human proteins to help Torres and his team find it.

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Researchers Want to Restore ‘Good Noise’ in Older Brains

WIRED

Aging people lose variation in brain oxygen levels—a sign of declining cognitive flexibility. A new drug study probes whether that loss can be reversed.

TO EAVESDROP ON a brain, one of the best tools neuroscientists have is the fMRI scan, which helps map blood flow, and therefore the spikes in oxygen that occur whenever a particular brain region is being used. It reveals a noisy world. Blood oxygen levels vary from moment to moment, but those spikes never totally flatten out. “Your brain, even resting, is not going to be completely silent,” says Poortata Lalwani, a PhD student in cognitive neuroscience at the University of Michigan. She imagines the brain, even at its most tranquil, as kind of like a tennis player waiting to return a serve: “He’s not going to be standing still. He’s going to be pacing a little bit, getting ready to hit the backhand.”

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