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Restoring Sight with Wireless Implants

From Nature News

The development of retinal implants has been dogged by problems of unwieldiness since the first implantable stimulator for vision restoration was developed in 1968. Sticking a mess of electronics, with wires, cables and inductive coils, into the human visual system was always going to be a tricky business.

James Loudin and his colleagues at Stanford University in California have developed a solution that overcomes many of these problems by the use of special glasses that fire infrared signals into the eye and onto an implanted array of silicon photodiodes. The system simplifies what needs to be implanted and both transmits visual data and power directly to the implants, eliminating the need for any bulky external power source. Their work is published today in Nature Photonics.

In order to explain how the set-up would work, Loudin regularly uses the Star Trek character Geordi LaForge as an analogy. "I'm not well versed in Star Trek any more, and I don't think Geordi had implants," he says. "However, like his visor, our patients cannot see without the goggles."

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Study Links Biodiversity and Language Loss

from BBC News Online

The decline of linguistic and cultural diversity is linked to the loss of biodiversity, a study has suggested. The authors said that 70% of the world's languages were found within the planet's biodiversity hotspots.

Data showed that as these important environmental areas were degraded over time, cultures and languages in the area were also being lost.

The results of the study have been published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

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Rise and Fall of Underwater Volcano Revealed

from BBC News Online

The violent rise and collapse of an underwater volcano in the Pacific Ocean is captured in startling clarity for the first time.

Researchers studying the Monowai volcano, near Tonga, recorded huge changes in height in just two weeks. The images, gathered by sonar from a research ship, shed new light on the turbulent fate of submarine mountains.

Published in the journal Nature Geoscience, the findings were made during a seabed survey last year.

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Landmark Alzheimer's Summit Launches Monday

from USA Today

A push to find new treatments and preventions for Alzheimer's disease begins today at the largest-ever government-sponsored summit for the disease, bringing together nearly 600 researchers from around the world.

And new treatments are long overdue, says Neil Buckholtz, chief of the Dementias of Aging Branch at the National Institute on Aging (NIA), part of the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md. The last drug therapy designed to ease symptoms of the brain-wasting illness was developed in 2003. Buckholtz drew up the agenda for the two-day NIA meetings.

"Not much has worked so far," Buckholtz says. "This is a major public health problem that is going to get worse over time, and we have to do a better job of developing trials and treatments."

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Proton Beams vs. Radiation

from the Boston Globe (Registration Required)

Massachusetts General Hospital in the next few weeks will launch a large, long-awaited test of whether a controversial cutting-edge proton beam therapy is more effective than standard radiation treatment for prostate cancer. Proton beam therapy, a targeted and controlled way to administer radiation to a tumor, has become a flashpoint in the debate over health care reform.

The expensive therapy is being used across the country and in some cases advertised directly to the general public before it has been deemed superior to standard radiation treatment, which costs about half as much. For years, doctors and federal health agencies have called for a scientific study like the one led by Mass. General, which will enroll its first patients by early June.

The five-year study will take place at a half-dozen centers across the country, including the University of Pennsylvania.

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Studying How Birds Navigate by Magnetic Field

from San Francisco Chronicle

Birds are famously good navigators. Some migrate thousands of miles, flying day and night, even when the stars are obscured. And for decades, scientists have known that one navigational skill they employ is an ability to detect variations in the Earth's magnetic field.

How this magnetic sense works, however, has been frustratingly difficult to figure out.

Now, two researchers at Baylor College of Medicine, Le-Qing Wu and David Dickman, have solved a central part of that puzzle, identifying cells in a pigeon's brain that record detailed information on the earth's magnetic field, a kind of biological compass.

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Can You Call a 9-Year-Old a Psychopath?

from the New York Times (Registration Required)

One day last summer, Anne and her husband, Miguel, took their 9-year-old son, Michael, to a Florida elementary school for the first day of what the family chose to call "summer camp." For years, Anne and Miguel have struggled to understand their eldest son, an elegant boy with high-planed cheeks, wide eyes and curly light brown hair, whose periodic rages alternate with moments of chilly detachment. Michael's eight-week program was, in reality, a highly structured psychological study--less summer camp than camp of last resort.

Michael's problems started, according to his mother, around age 3, shortly after his brother Allan was born. At the time, she said, Michael was mostly just acting "like a brat," but his behavior soon escalated to throwing tantrums during which he would scream and shriek inconsolably. These weren't ordinary toddler's fits. "It wasn't, 'I'm tired' or 'I'm frustrated'--the normal things kids do," Anne remembered. "His behavior was really out there. And it would happen for hours and hours each day, no matter what we did." For several years, Michael screamed every time his parents told him to put on his shoes or perform other ordinary tasks, like retrieving one of his toys from the living room. "Going somewhere, staying somewhere--anything would set him off," Miguel said. These furies lasted well beyond toddlerhood. At 8, Michael would still fly into a rage when Anne or Miguel tried to get him ready for school, punching the wall and kicking holes in the door. Left unwatched, he would cut up his trousers with scissors or methodically pull his hair out. He would also vent his anger by slamming the toilet seat down again and again until it broke.

When Anne and Miguel first took Michael to see a therapist, he was given a diagnosis of "firstborn syndrome": acting out because he resented his new sibling. While both parents acknowledged that Michael was deeply hostile to the new baby, sibling rivalry didn't seem sufficient to explain his consistently extreme behavior.

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Method to Find New Moons Uncovers Hidden Planet

from San Francisco Chronicle

The search for distant planets in the Milky Way is now so sophisticated that astronomers are searching for unseen moons around the planets that the Kepler mission's scientists have discovered.

A team of astronomers hunting for those moons reports that in their quest they have unexpectedly detected a hidden planet--and probably two--by using a technique that promises to aid the search for smaller planets much like Earth.

The technique is already in use by the Kepler team at the Ames Research Center in Mountain View, and was being used by astronomers at the Southwest Research Institute in Colorado and Harvard when they detected a curious kink in the orbit of one planet they were tracking in search of a possible "exo-moon." The orbit was curiously irregular, the astronomers noticed, and after carefully tracking it, they determined that the gravity of some unknown object too massive to be a moon must be tugging at the planet they were observing.

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Tiger Shrimp Are Jumbo Threat to Native Species

from San Francisco Chronicle

New Orleans (Associated Press) -- A big increase in reports of Asian tiger shrimp along the U.S. Southeast coast and in the Gulf of Mexico has federal biologists worried the species is encroaching on native species' territory.

The black-and-white-striped shrimp can grow 13 inches long and weigh a quarter-pound, compared to 8 inches and a bit over an ounce for domestic white, brown and pink shrimp. Scientists fear the tigers will bring disease and competition for native shrimp.

Shrimp are all bottom feeders, eating detritus and small animals. Bigger shrimp would eat more and these get so big they also eat small shrimp and fish, marine ecologist James A. Morris said. Reports of tiger shrimp in U.S. waters rose from a few dozen a year - 21 in 2008, 47 in 2009 and 32 in 2010 - to 331 last year, from North Carolina to Texas.

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Science at the Top of the News for May 7-11

The most-viewed news story last week by subscribers to Science in the News involved an investigation by the Chicago Tribune into flame-retardant chemicals. Also popular were news items on the "Top Ten Mysteries of the Universe" and a way to guarantee complete randomness in a flow of information, such as the numbers generated by a roulette wheel. Subscribe for free daily updates.

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Stem Cells Boost Brain Tumor Treatments for Some Patients, Study Finds

from CBS News

Patients with brain cancer may face devastating side effects from chemotherapy, but a new study offers a possible solution: stem cells.

The stem cells form a shield of sorts against the toxic side effects from chemo, according to the researchers behind the study. It was a small trial that involved only three patients with glioblastoma, the most aggressive and common form of a malignant brain tumor that's usually fatal.

Two of the patients survived longer than predicted with help from the stem cell treatment--an average of 22 months--and a third man from Alaska remains alive today with no disease progression almost three years following treatment.

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Oregon Norovirus Traced to Reusable Grocery Bag

from USA Today

PORTLAND, Ore. (Associated Press) - Oregon investigators have traced an outbreak of norovirus to a reusable grocery bag that members of a Beaverton girls' soccer team passed around when they shared cookies. The soccer team of 13- and 14-year-olds traveled to Seattle for a weekend tournament in October 2010.

At the tournament, one girl got sick on Saturday and spent six hours in a chaperone's bathroom. Symptoms of the bug, often called "stomach flu," include vomiting, diarrhea and stomach cramps. The chaperone took the girl back to Oregon.

On Sunday, team members had lunch in a hotel room, passing around the bag and eating cookies it held. On Monday, six girls got sick. Oregon scientists determined they had picked up the norovirus from the grocery bag.

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International Space Station: Critics Ask, Where's the Science?

from the Los Angeles Times (Registration Required)

WASHINGTON -- After more than 12 years and at least $100 billion in construction costs, NASA leaders say the International Space Station finally is ready to bloom into the robust orbiting laboratory that the agency envisioned more than two decades ago.

"The ISS has now entered its intensive research phase," said Bill Gerstenmaier, head of NASA operations and human exploration, in recent testimony to Congress in defense of the roughly $1.5 billion the agency spends annually on the outpost. But doubts linger.

More than a quarter of the area that NASA has designated for experiments sits empty. Much of the research done aboard the station deals with living and working in space--with marginal application back on Earth. And the nonprofit group that NASA chose to lure more research to the outpost has been plagued by internal strife and recently lost its director.

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Huge Asteroid Is Still the Central Villain in Dinosaurs' Extinction

from the New York Times (Registration Required)

For some 30 years, scientists have debated what sealed the fate of the dinosaurs. Was an asteroid impact more or less solely responsible for the catastrophic mass extinction at the end of the Cretaceous geological period, 65 million years ago? Or were the dinosaurs already undergoing a long-term decline, and the asteroid was merely the coup de grâce?

So three young researchers, led by Stephen L. Brusatte, a graduate student at Columbia University who is affiliated with the American Museum of Natural History, decided to test this hypothesis with a close examination of the fossil record over the 12 million years leading up to the mass extinction.

For the study, the researchers departed from the practice of focusing almost exclusively on raw counts of the number of species over time. Instead, they analyzed changes in the anatomies and body plans of seven large groups of late Cretaceous dinosaurs for insights into their evolutionary trajectory.

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James Webb Telescope's 'First Light' Instrument Ready to Ship

from BBC News Online

One of Europe's main contributions to the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) is built and ready to ship to the US. The Mid-Infrared Instrument (Miri) will gather key data as the $9bn (L5.5bn) observatory seeks to identify the first starlight in the Universe.

The results of testing conducted at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory in the UK have just been signed off, clearing Miri to travel to America. James Webb--regarded as the successor to Hubble--is due to launch in 2018.

It will carry a 6.5m primary mirror (more than double the width of Hubble's main mirror), and a shield the size of a tennis court to guard its sensitive vision from the heat and strong light of our Sun. The observatory has been tasked with tracking down the very first luminous objects in the cosmos--groupings of the first generation of stars to burst into life.

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Procedure Offers Hope in Type 1 Diabetes

from Science News

A three-pronged strategy--to knock out renegade immune cells, replace them and revitalize other cells that make insulin--might reverse type 1 diabetes. Scientists report in the May 9 Science Translational Medicine that seven of 12 diabetic mice treated with this combination were cured even after having lost the ability to make insulin for several weeks, the equivalent of a human patient who has needed insulin injections for a couple of years.

Type 1 diabetes often strikes at an early age and relegates a person to a lifetime of blood sugar tests and insulin shots. The condition results when one's own immune cells kill insulin-making cells called beta cells housed in the pancreas. A few of these beta cells usually survive, but don't produce adequate insulin to process sugars.

In the new study, researchers used specially designed antibodies in the mice to first wipe out rogue beta-cell-killing T cells from the immune system.

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Map of Life Goes Live

from Nature News

Map of Life--an interactive resource for global biodiversity analysis--launched Thursday, promising a new era in the visualization of species distributions.

On first glance, Map of Life may seem just one more in the dozens of biodiversity databases online, but it has a novel capability--a web-mapping tool that integrates disparate data types, from single-occurrence records in museum collections to expert-derived ranges found in field guides.

Funded in part by the U.S. National Science Foundation, Map of Life will soon allow users to add or update species data, thereby becoming the first two-way portal of biodiversity information.

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Knowing More--And Less--About Science

from ScienceInsider

U.S. eighth graders did slightly better last year on a national science test than did their counterparts in 2009. But what that result says about the state of science in U.S. schools is open to debate.

A 2-point rise to 152 (on a scale from 0 to 300) is part of what Jack Buckley, head of the National Center for Education Statistics, calls the "uniformly positive" results from the 2011 Science National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) at Grade 8. The pronounced racial gap in scores narrowed by a small but significant amount, says Buckley, from 36 points to 35 points for white students compared with black students, and from 30 to 27 for white students compared with Hispanic students. And all three groups did better. At the same time, he notes that the gap in scores between boys and girls grew from 4 to 5 points.

However, some science educators strongly disagree with Buckley's self-declared "optimism" that things are moving in the right direction. "It's pretty hard to get excited about these results," says Gerald Wheeler, interim executive director of the National Science Teachers Association. "It's like when a student who is flunking every subject finally comes home with a D."

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Sun's Shock Wave Goes Missing

from Science News

The sun isn't quite the speed demon scientists once suspected. It chugs around the galactic center at a relatively pokey 83,500 kilometers per hour--or roughly 11,000 kilometers per hour slower than expected, says a report appearing online May 10 in Science.

While that might not sound like a big deal, the sun's slower pace clashes with theories describing the solar system's local environment--a protective, sun-blown bubble called the heliosphere. The sun's speed helps shape the size and boundary of this elastic bubble, along with the interstellar dust and gas clouds it moves through.

In particular, scientists thought a shock wave--called the bow shock--preceded the bubble's journey through space. "We've spent the last quarter-century assuming there was a bow shock," says study coauthor David McComas, a space scientist at the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio.

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Top Ten Mysteries of the Universe

from Smithsonian Magazine

What Are Fermi Bubbles? No, this is not a rare digestive disorder. The bubbles are massive, mysterious structures that emanate from the Milky Ways center and extend roughly 20,000 light-years above and below the galactic plane. The strange phenomenon, first discovered in 2010, is made up of super-high-energy gamma-ray and X-ray emissions, invisible to the naked eye. Scientists have hypothesized that the gamma rays might be shock waves from stars being consumed by the massive black hole at the center of the galaxy.

Rectangular Galaxy. "Look, up in the sky! It's a...rectangle?" Earlier this year, astronomers spotted a celestial body, roughly 70 million light-years away, with an appearance that is unique in the visible universe: The galaxy LEDA 074886 is shaped more or less like a rectangle. While most galaxies are shaped like discs, three-dimensional ellipses or irregular blobs, this one seems to have a regular rectangle or diamond-shaped appearance. Some have speculated that the shape results from the collision of two spiral-shaped galaxies, but no one knows for now.

The Moon's Magnetic Field. One of the moon's greatest mysteries--why only some parts of the crust seem to have a magnetic field--has intrigued astronomers for decades, even inspiring the buried mythical "monolith" in the novel and film 2001: A Space Odyssey. But some scientists finally think they may have an explanation. After using a computer model to analyze the moon's crust, researchers believe the magnetism may be a relic of a 120-mile-wide asteroid that collided with the moon's southern pole about 4.5 billion years ago, scattering magnetic material. Others, though, believe the magnetic field may be related to other smaller, more recent impacts.

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Psychiatry Manual Drafters Back Down on Diagnoses

from the New York Times (Registration Required)

In a rare step, doctors on a panel revising psychiatry's influential diagnostic manual have backed away from two controversial proposals that would have expanded the number of people identified as having psychotic or depressive disorders.

The doctors dropped two diagnoses that they ultimately concluded were not supported by the evidence: "attenuated psychosis syndrome," proposed to identify people at risk of developing psychosis, and "mixed anxiety depressive disorder," a hybrid of the two mood problems.

They also tweaked their proposed definition of depression to allay fears that the normal sadness people experience after the loss of a loved one, a job or a marriage would be mistaken for a mental disorder.

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How a Humongous Garbage Patch in the Pacific Breeds New Bugs

from the Christian Science Monitor

The great Pacific garbage patch is giving sea striders a place to breed out on the open ocean, changing the natural environment there, new research suggests.

The great Pacific garbage patch, known to scientists as the North Pacific Subtropial Gyre, is a large patch of mulched up plastic and other garbage, often said to be the size of Texas, floating in the Pacific Ocean.

"This paper shows a dramatic increase in plastic over a relatively short time period and the effect it's having on a common North Pacific Gyre invertebrate," study researcher Miriam Goldstein, graduate student at the University of California San Diego, said in a statement. "We're seeing changes in this marine insect that can be directly attributed to the plastic."

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FDA Moves to Cut Kids' Radiation Exposure

from ABC News

WASHINGTON (Associated Press) - The government is taking steps to help ensure that children who need CT scans and other X-ray-based tests don't get an adult-sized dose of radiation. Too much radiation from medical testing is a growing concern, especially for children, because it may increase the risk of cancer later in life.

Wednesday, the Food and Drug Administration proposed guidelines urging manufacturers to design new scanners to be safer for the youngest, smallest patients--and put new advice on its website to teach parents what to ask about these increasingly common tests.

"We are trying to ensure that patients get the right dose at the right time, and the right exam," FDA physicist Thalia Mills told The Associated Press. The use of CT scans, which show more detail than standard X-rays but entail far more radiation, and other medical imaging has soared in recent years. The tests can be lifesaving, and specialists say people who really need one shouldn't avoid it for fear of future risk from radiation.

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Strokes: Drawing Test 'May Predict Risks in Older Men'

from BBC News Online

A simple drawing test may help predict the risk of older men dying after a first stroke, a study in the journal BMJ Open suggests. Taken while healthy, the test involves drawing lines between numbers in ascending order as fast as possible.

Men who scored in the bottom third were about three times as likely to die after a stroke compared with those who were in the highest third. The study looked at 1,000 men between the ages of 67 and 75 over 14 years.

Of the 155 men who had a stroke, 22 died within a month and more than half within an average of two-and-a-half years. The researchers think that tests are able to pick up hidden damage to brain blood vessels when there are no other obvious signs or symptoms.

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Ecosystems Thrive High in the Sky

from the New York Times (Registration Required)

Looming over the northern edge of the Amazon rain forest are some of the most remarkable mountains on earth. Known as tepuis, or tabletop mountains, they are typically ringed by sheer cliffs that rise thousands of feet from the surrounding lowland jungles. Instead of peaks, tepuis have enormous flat expanses at their tops. To reach the tops of many tepuis, the only choices are scaling the cliffs or flying in a helicopter.

For all their isolation, the tops of tepuis are not barren. They are like islands in the sky, covered with low forests and shrublands that support a diversity of animals likes frogs and lizards. Many of the species that live on top of the tepuis are found nowhere else on the planet.

In a paper to be published in the journal Evolution, a team of scientists report the first DNA-based study to address an age-old question about the tepuis: How did animals and plants end up in such an inaccessible place?

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Fear Fans Flames for Chemical Makers

from the Chicago Tribune (Registration Required)

Dr. David Heimbach knows how to tell a story. Before California lawmakers last year, the noted burn surgeon drew gasps from the crowd as he described a 7-week-old baby girl who was burned in a fire started by a candle while she lay on a pillow that lacked flame retardant chemicals.

"Now this is a tiny little person, no bigger than my Italian greyhound at home," said Heimbach, gesturing to approximate the baby's size. "Half of her body was severely burned. She ultimately died after about three weeks of pain and misery in the hospital."

Heimbach's passionate testimony about the baby's death made the long-term health concerns about flame retardants voiced by doctors, environmentalists and even firefighters sound abstract and petty. But there was a problem with his testimony: It wasn't true.

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Smallest Mammoths Found on Crete

from BBC News Online

The smallest mammoth ever known to have existed roamed the island of Crete millions of years ago, researchers say. Adults were roughly the size of a modern baby elephant, standing over a metre tall at the shoulders.

Remains were discovered more than a century ago, but scientists had debated whether the animal was a mammoth or an ancient elephant. A new analysis of the animal's teeth suggests it falls closer to the mammoth lineage.

Palaeontologists Victoria Herridge and Adrian Lister, from London's Natural History Museum, report their findings in the Royal Society journal Proceedings B. "Dwarfism is a well-known evolutionary response of large mammals to island environments," said Dr Herridge. This evolutionary phenomenon is thought to be driven by the relative scarcity of food sources or by the absence of predators.

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Study Links Genes to Melanoma Development

from Nature News

Researchers have found a set of gene mutations that seem to play a part in some cases of skin cancer.

Cancer geneticist Michael Berger of the Broad Institute of Harvard and MIT in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and his colleagues sequenced the genomes of 25 melanoma tumours that had been donated by patients and compared them to the patients' normal cells.

They found that one gene, PREX2, was mutated in 11 of the 25 tumour samples, and that genetic rearrangements occurred near this gene in nine patients. PREX2 produces a protein that curtails the action of another protein called PTEN, which is involved in preventing cancer development.

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Partisan Psychology: Why Do People Choose Political Loyalties Over Facts?

from NPR

When pollsters ask Republicans and Democrats whether the president can do anything about high gas prices, the answers reflect the usual partisan divisions in the country. About two-thirds of Republicans say the president can do something about high gas prices, and about two-thirds of Democrats say he can't.

But six years ago, with a Republican president in the White House, the numbers were reversed: Three-fourths of Democrats said President Bush could do something about high gas prices, while the majority of Republicans said gas prices were clearly outside the president's control.

The flipped perceptions on gas prices isn't an aberration, said Dartmouth College political scientist Brendan Nyhan. On a range of issues, partisans seem partial to their political loyalties over the facts. When those loyalties demand changing their views of the facts, he said, partisans seem willing to throw even consistency overboard.

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A Shield Against Chemotherapy

from ScienceNOW Daily News

Chemotherapy saves lives, but it can take a considerable toll on the body. Now, by inserting a mutated gene into cancer patients, researchers have found a way to protect them against the side effects of chemotherapy and boost their odds of surviving a particularly aggressive type of cancer.

Patients with glioblastoma, a fast-growing and usually fatal brain cancer, face overwhelming odds. Half die within 13 months of diagnosis, and very few survive long-term. Treatment is part of the problem. Many glioblastomas are resistant to chemotherapy because they harbor an overactive gene called MGMT, which repairs the cancer cells after chemotherapy damages them.

To counteract the gene, physicians sometimes add an MGMT-blocking drug, benzylguanine, to the chemotherapy regimen to make the cancer cells easier to kill. But benzylguanine also makes healthy blood and bone marrow cells easy to kill.

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