Blog Biology 27 September 2016

Shingles, caused by the reactivation of the virus that causes chickenpox, is common in older people.
Science Photo Library / Getty Images

An experimental vaccine for shingles is 90% effective in people over 70, according to a clinical trial published in the New England Journal of Medicine.

Herpes zoster is caused by the same virus that is responsible for chickenpox – varicella zoster. After contraction of chickenpox, this virus sits in the nerve cells of the body. Sometimes it reactivates and causes shingles – a skin rash typified by pain and blistering which usually subsides after the rash has cleared.

But sometimes the pain does not go away when the rash does. This is called post-herpetic neuralgia and can last months or years.

A trial gave nearly 15,000 participants – average age 75.6 years – across 18 countries either the vaccine or a placebo in two doses, three months apart. They were then monitored for three years.

There were 223 confirmed cases of shingles. Only 23 of these were in the vaccinated group.

Lead researcher Tony Cunningham from the Westmead Institute for Medical Research in Sydney, Australia, says more trials will need to determine the efficacy of the vaccine beyond three years.

Blog Technology 26 September 2016

The Great Barrier Reef stretches 2,300 kilometres down Australia's east coast – that's a lot of area to monitor.
Andrew Watson / Getty Images

Aerospace manufacturer Boeing and the Australian Institute of Marine Science have signed a five-year agreement to develop advanced monitoring capabilities to better understand the health of the Great Barrier Reef.

Brisbane-based engineers from Boeing will team up with marine scientists to develop innovative sea-to-space technologies including unmanned aerial vehicles, satellites and autonomous underwater vehicles.

These will safely and quickly collect marine data while at the same time reducing the environmental impact normally caused by marine research using larger vessels.

“Working with Boeing will provide an ideal platform from which we can paint a detailed picture of what is happening on the reef,” AIMS chief John Gunn, a member of the Great Barrier Reef Foundation’s International Science Advisory Committee, said in a press release.

The technology and research created by this partnership will help support the Reef 2050 integrated Monitoring and Reporting program which aims to develop strategies to manage and protect the Great Barrier Reef.

Blog Society 23 September 2016

Cotton pants, polyester pants or no pants?
Dave Broscha / Getty Images

Rocks with personalities and rats in pants helped researchers bag Ig Nobel prizes, which honours studies that “make you laugh, then make you think”.

The 26th annual ceremony, held at Harvard University, awarded each winner a trillion Zimbabwe dollars (worth around 0.4 US cents).

Here are just a few of the winners:

The reproduction prize went to late Egyptian doctor Ahmed Shafik put pants on rats to see how different materials affected the rodents’ sex life and fertility.

The Ig Nobel for economics was awarded to Mark Avis and Shelagh Ferguson from New Zealand and Sarah Forbes from the UK. They analysed the perceived personality of rocks from a marketing perspective.

Why white horses are most horsefly-proof and why dragonflies are fatally attracted to black tombstones netted Gábor Horváth, Miklós Blahó, György Kriska, Ramón Hegedüs, Balázs Gerics, Róbert Farkas, Susanne Åkesson the physics prize.

The much-maligned Volkswagon automobile company gained the Ig Nobel in chemistry for “solving the problem of excessive automobile pollution emissions by automatically, electromechanically producing fewer emissions whenever the cars are being tested”.

Got an itch on the left side of your body? Look in a mirror and scratch the right side to alleviate it – this discovery gave Christoph Helmchen, Carina Palzer, Thomas F. Münte, Silke Anders and Andreas Sprenger the medicine Ig Nobel.

The prize in literature went to Swedish Fredrik Sjoberg who wrote three books on dead and not-yet-dead hoverflies.

The full list will be published on the Ig Nobel website.

Blog Biology 23 September 2016

An artist's impression of a HIV virus particle in the bloodstream.
Ian Cuming / Getty Images

Human immunodeficiency virus causes acquired immunodeficiency syndrome which, through advancing failures of the immune system, allows life-threatening cancers and infections to thrive.

Without treatment, people who contract AIDS typically survive for around three years, but currently antiretroviral therapy can reduce HIV levels in the body to very low or even undetectable levels.

With careful management many people with HIV don’t progress to AIDS and live near normal life spans. But the virus’ tendency to lay dormant in the body prevents it from ever being fully eliminated.

Analyses by researchers in Australia, Denmark and the US have found that a class of drugs called histone deacetylase inhibitors could one day be used with other drugs to “flush out” the remaining virus and be swept away.

The work was published in Nature Communications.

Blog Biology 22 September 2016

Poisonous marine snail (Conus geographus) with toxic proboscis cone extended.
Jeff Rotman / Getty Images

Venom from a marine cone snail contains fast-acting insulin that could be used to treat diabetes in humans.

Type 1 diabetes is treated with injections. Currently, rapid-acting insulin starts working in just 10-20 minutes, but diabetes patients face the problem of having to time their meals to avoid hypoglycaemic shock (where blood sugar levels fall bellow an appropriate level).

A 2015 study reported that the aquatic snail Conus geographus used an insulin-based venom that froze its fish prey in a state of hypoglycaemic shock.

Building on this research, Mike Lawrence from the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research in Melbourne, Australia and colleagues discovered how this fast acting protein is able to bind to human insulin receptors, indicating the potential for development into a human treatment for diabetes.

These findings were published in Nature Structural and Molecular Biology.

Blog Biology 21 September 2016

Andrew Brookes/Getty Images

New rules governing clinical trials will come into force in the US in the New Year, which mean even disappointing results of testing therapies and devices must be disclosed. There will be big penalties for universities and other research institutions that do not comply.

The changes are important. Most trials that fail in the early stages are never published which can skew information about the potential harm of experimental therapies.

The new regime will be welcomed by activists such as Ben Goldacre, a British doctor campaigning for root and branch reform to the ways clinical trials are conducted and reported – he was interviewed by Cosmos about his mission in August.

“From the perspective of consumers and science, failures are as important as successes,” Christopher Gill, a health researcher at Boston University in Massachusetts, told Nature.

“We, as a community, have a disappointing record of making those results available,” Francis S. Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, said in a briefing for reporters.

“This is about maintaining the trust that we have with participants in clinical trials who volunteer to take part in these efforts with the expectation that it will add to the body of knowledge.”

The rules, laid down by the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the US National Institutes of Health (NIH), apply only to work done through agency grants but acknowledge the ethical issues of making clinical trials transparent.

“I think a lot of major universities just miss the point that if you do an experiment on a person and get consent, you really have the obligation to make the results known,” Robert Califf, head of the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) told Nature. “This is fundamentally an ethical issue.”

The new rules were brought in partly in response to a study that showed that, of 600 randomly selected trials the result of only 50% were published.

The new regimen comes into force from 18 January.

Blog Biology 20 September 2016

Found a feather at an Australian wetland? Don't throw it away!
Auscape / UIG / Getty Images

Birdwatching can be a relaxing pastime but where do they go after they leave the nest and fly away?

For Kate Brandis at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia, knowing where waterbird species venture after nesting is important in preserving their habitats – but she needs your help.

Brandis and her fellow researchers at the University of New South Wales and Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation are studying dropped feathers using advanced X-ray and isotope analysis to decipher the habitat and diet of these birds.

Using this information, they wish to create a “feather map” that Brandis hopes will be used to better guide water management and protect waterbird habitats.

If you're in Australia, you can help the team by collecting and sending in feathers you find in wetland areas. Check out the feather map website to find out more about how you can get involved.

And everyone can find out more about the science behind the project.

Blog Mathematics 16 September 2016

Stephen McCormick uses mathematics to better understand the universe – astounding given he almost failed the subject in high school.

“I was always good at maths when I wanted to be, but for the most part I found it just as boring as everybody else,” he says.

“In fact, I nearly failed maths in year 10 because I had so little interest in schoolwork [in general].”

But he put in the time and effort and was later accepted into an engineering and science double degree at Monash University in Melbourne. He ended up dropping the engineering side to focus on physics, but it was in the final stages of his degree that he happened to take high-level maths electives. It was these that intrigued him.

The sort of mathematics he works with is very different to what people typically experience in school. Struggling with it then does not mean you will not enjoy and thrive with it later.

“Most maths that people learn in school is just learning to follow a recipe – sometimes a complicated recipe, but a recipe nevertheless,” he says.

“To say that you need phenomenal grades to pursue higher maths is like saying that you need to master colouring inside the lines before pursuing art. Sure, you need to have some level of basic skills, but after that there are other more important factors.”

Under the guidance of his mentor, Australian mathematician Robert Bartnik, McCormick parlayed his newfound interest in maths into an honours project and PhD.

Today at the University of New England in Armidale, New South Wales, he works on the problem of mass – or energy – within the framework of Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity.

The gravitational field around a massive object should contain energy itself – indeed, we can calculate the total energy of the object and its entire gravitational field.

But here’s the catch: within the framework of general relativity, the gravitational field itself cannot have an energy density.

So mathematicians such as McCormick try to find ways to measure "quasilocal energy" or "quasilocal mass" – the energy of, for instance, a metre-cubed piece of space within an object’s gravitational field.

And although McCormick works in a field explored by the likes of Roger Penrose and Stephen Hawking, his biggest inspiration is French mathematician and physicist Yvonne Choquet-Bruhat.

In 1952, Choquet-Bruhat published a groundbreaking proof. Roughly speaking, she showed that given the state of a system at some time, we could indeed determine what it will look like at a later time within the framework of general relativity.

She still writes research papers to this day at 92 years old.

When asked about ambitions, McCormick says there is no grand plan.

“Every step along the way has really just been to keep doing what I love doing and seeing where it takes me. I guess as long as I can keep learning new things and proving new results then I'll be happy,” he says.

For more, see Stephen McCormick speak on the communication of complicated ideas in Twitter's 140 characters.

Blog Technology 15 September 2016

Mars harbours plenty of dry ice – could it be used to power Mars colonies?
NASA / JPL-Caltech / University of Arizona

Two North Carolina high school students have created an engine that runs on dry ice to aid Martian exploration and colonisation.

Chase Bishop and James Thompson developed the project as part of the TIME 4 Real Science Program, a research platform in North Carolina which teams high school students with teachers and volunteer scientists.

Through this program, Bishop and Thompson spent more 250 hours thinking: could dry ice, as it sublimates from solid to gas, create enough energy to drive a piston?

Not only is dry ice readily available on Mars, it exists at a temperature close to it sublimation point. As Bishop and Thompson point out in their paper, this allows for massive pressures to be reached with only a small amount of dry ice.

This is the background for the idea, but the task remains: building an engine that can harness the energy released by sublimation of dry ice. With the help of retired NASA electrical engineer Wes Branning, the pair fashioned an engine using common, off the shelf materials.

And the result? In their words, “it is now apparent, that with further research and refinement, a dry-ice-powered pressure engine has the potential to power humankind’s advance on our neighbour planet, Mars”.

A big sentence for a couple of high school students.

For more information on the project, check out Mars for the Many.

Blog Biology 14 September 2016

Wildlife tissue samples will be stored at -185 °C.
Ben Healey / Museum Victoria

The Ian Potter Australian Wildlife BioBank in Melbourne, Australia is officially open.

The state-of-the-art facility will serve as a sort of seed bank for fauna, particularly threatened and endangered species, by storing animal tissue samples from Australia and around the world.

The BioBank is considered vital to the conservation of Australian wildlife and will be housed in the basement of the Melbourne Museum.

It will hold Museum Victoria’s current collection of 44,000 samples but will also be available to organisations such as Zoos Victoria that wish to store reproductive materials such as eggs, sperm and embryos from endangered species.

The BioBank will use cryotanks cooled with liquid nitrogen to store the tissues.

While most animal tissue collections are stored in freezers at -80 °C, the new BioBank’s cryotanks will store them at -185 °C – preserving them better, longer.

The BioBank can currently accommodate 160,000 samples, but space has been provided for additional cryotanks.

If installed, these would lift the capacity of the storage centre to 400,000 samples.