Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, October 6
PNAS was a grab bag of oddball findings this week. In one study, archaeologists argued that hoards of coins buried by ancient Romans not only serve as a measure for societal instability, they also provide clues about population changes in the republic. Since citizens presumably planned to dig up their hidden coins again in order to spend them, the researchers say, those hoards left behind indicate people who died or fled. In another study, a medical research team stirred together a bunch of buzzwords–nanotechnology, gene therapy, and stem cells–and found a promising way to aid potential stem cell therapies. While stem cells can rapidly grow into any kind of new tissue, they aren’t always able to encourage new blood vessels to grow so that the tissue stays alive. The team used nanoparticles to deliver a key gene, which spurs the growth of blood vessels, to the developing stem cells. The study suggests that this approach may be safer than using viruses as delivery agents.
Nature, October 8
The biggest news in Nature was really, really large: Astronomers working with the Spitzer Space Telescope found a ghostly new ring around Saturn, and say the entire volume of the huge, diffuse ring could hold 1 billion Earths. The ring was never spotted before because it’s far out from the planet, and it’s comprised of very few particles–but it’s there. Researchers say it’s made of debris ejected from Saturn’s outlying moon Phoebe during comet or asteroid impacts, and the study also notes that its particles probably account for the strange coloration of another nearby moon, Iapetus. That moon is darker on one side, as if it has been catching particles on one side “like bugs on a windshield.” In another report, genetics pioneer Craig Venter and friends penned an article about how to improve the direct-to-consumer genetics tests that have popped up recently. The scientists compared test results from two direct-to-consumer companies, 23andMe and Navigenics, and found they diverged widely on their assessment of health risks. Venter’s team argues that the companies should agree on which genetic markers to use for various diseases, and also says they should be more forthcoming about the limitations of such tests.
Science, October 9
In a surprising turn of events, researchers have linked the baffling ailment called chronic fatigue syndrome to a retrovirus. For years, people diagnosed with the syndrome have suffered not just from debilitating fatigue and an assortment of aches and pains, but also from suggestions that they’re malingering, and that whatever is wrong with them is all in their head. The new study didn’t outright prove that the retrovirus causes the syndrome, but since the virus was found in 67 percent of patients with the syndrome and only 4 percent of healthy people, it does prove that there’s a biological component of the ailment.
The Lancet, October 9
To conclude, a bit of happy news. A study of an experimental cholera vaccine had success in protecting Indian children from the infectious disease, giving world health officials fresh hope that they’ll soon be a way to combat cholera, which kills 120,000 people every year worldwide. The massive trial found that the vaccine was safe, and 67 percent effective in preventing infections. While scientists would obviously prefer a vaccine that’s 100 percent effective, the new drug can still be an important tool.