Archive for August, 2011

A Ten-Year Check-Up Shows Gene Therapy Patients are Alive and Well

By Veronique Greenwood | August 25, 2011 2:29 pm


What’s the News: Medicine in the age of genes overflows with daring new techniques and treatments, from personalized chemotherapy to prenatal genetic testing, each heralded as a game-changer. But rarely do we get an assessment of a treatment’s long-term good, which is why recent papers following up on one of the most controversial genetic treatments, gene therapy, are making waves: though one patient developed leukemia from the treatment, 13 of 16 kids treated with gene therapy for a severe immune disorder at least 9 years ago have been cured, adding to the sense that the field is on its way to recovery from early setbacks.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine, Top Posts

Why the Most Active Seismic Zone East of the Rockies Gets Ignored

By Veronique Greenwood | August 25, 2011 12:27 pm


The magnitude 5.8 quake that struck central Virginia on Tuesday was felt from Florida to Maine to Missouri. “This is probably the most widely felt quake in American history, even though it was less than a 6.0,” says Michael Blanpied, a USGS seismologist DISCOVER contacted after the event. The reason for this intensity is that the East Coast, like the controversial New Madrid Seismic Zone in the central U.S., is located amidst old faults and cold rocks in the middle of the North American tectonic plate, and seismic waves travel disturbingly far in such stiff, cold rock.

We would do well to take a hint from Tuesday’s expansive shake-up. It’s lucky that it struck in rural America. But a similar tremblor in the crowded cities of the central U.S. above the New Madrid zone is a matter of when, not if. And the region is woefully unprepared to mitigate the damage, as Amy Barth explores in a piece from an upcoming issue of DISCOVER:

The disastrous winter of 1811–12 is the stuff of legend in the Midwest. In the span of a few months, three major earthquakes rocked Missouri, Tennessee, and Arkansas, violently shaking 230,000 square miles stretching from St. Louis to Memphis. Witnesses claimed that the ground rolled in waves several feet high and the Mississippi River flowed backward. Some reports described buckling sidewalks in Charleston, South Carolina, and tremors that reached as far as Quebec. Had seismographs been available at the time, scientists believe those tremors would have registered magnitudes at least as great as the 7.0 quake that devastated Haiti in 2010 and possibly as high as 8.0. These would place them among the worst in U.S. history.

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Could Power-Scavenging Shoes Recharge Your Phone?

By Veronique Greenwood | August 24, 2011 2:56 pm


What’s the News: We’ve all fantasized about a cell phone battery that won’t quit. Now scientists hoping to harness the power generated when you walk are developing a device that might eventually use your footfalls to power small electronics. But will it overcome the hurdles of efficiency and cost?

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Technology, Top Posts

Ten Things You Should Know About the East Coast Quake

By Veronique Greenwood | August 23, 2011 3:48 pm

(1) First of all, in case you didn’t feel it, a magnitude 5.8 earthquake struck Mineral, Virginia at 1:51 pm.

(2) It was felt for miles around—as far away as Boston, with more reports pouring into the USGS every minute.

(3) The shaking lasted around 30 seconds in Washington, DC, according to the NYT liveblog, where the Capitol and the White House evacuated. No damage or injuries have been reported yet. The video above is the only one so far to show any damage.

(4) It’s the biggest earthquake to hit the East Coast since the 1890s—there was a 5.9 in 1897 in Virginia—and the third-largest since the USGS started keeping records; a 7.3 in 1886 in Charleston, South Carolina was the strongest.

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Is the Flu Behind China's Burst of Narcolepsy?

By Veronique Greenwood | August 23, 2011 3:41 pm


What’s the News: Things got very drowsy in China after the swine flu pandemic of 2009: narcolepsy, a neurological disease that involves sudden sleepiness, tripled in the months afterwards. Scientists have wondered whether additives in flu vaccines could be behind the spike of snooziness there and in other countries, but a new report says that even people who weren’t vaccinated came down with it. Could narcolepsy be caused by the flu virus itself?

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine, Top Posts
MORE ABOUT: narcolepsy

Ancient Whales' Twisted Skulls Were Useful: They Helped Them Hear Better

By Joseph Castro | August 23, 2011 1:28 pm

spacing is importantThree-dimensional model of an ancient whale skull.

What’s the News: Scientists have long held that archaeocetes, the precursors to modern cetaceans, had symmetrical skulls like most other mammals. Whale skulls only became asymmetrical as certain species evolved echolocation to hunt for food. But it turns out that archaeocetes actually had skewed skulls, which likely allowed the whales to hear better underwater, according a new study published in the journal PNAS.

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3 Billion-Year-Old Sulfur-Eating Microbes May Be the Oldest Fossils Ever Found

By Valerie Ross | August 23, 2011 12:21 pm

A cluster of 3.4 billion-year-old fossilized cells

What’s the News: Geologists have found fossils of microorganisms from 3.4 billion years ago, which may be the oldest fossils ever uncovered. Since these microbes date from a time when Earth’s atmosphere was still oxygen-free, astrobiologists could look for similarly structured microbes when searching for extraterrestrial life.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World, Space

Dogs Can Smell Lung Cancer on Your Breath, Even If You've Just Had Lunch

By Veronique Greenwood | August 22, 2011 12:24 pm

Specially trained sniffer dogs can smell something on the breath of lung cancer patients.

Dogs will sniff anything and everything, and can even tell identical twins apart by scent. And tumors, you may be surprised to learn, have their own very faint smells. To figure out how to diagnose internal cancers that are frequently overlooked until too late from just a breath sample, scientists have been working with dogs to see if these smells can be reliably differentiated from, say, the smell of breakfast, that last cigarette, or emphysema.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine

A Brainy New Chip Could Make Computers More Like Humans

By Valerie Ross | August 19, 2011 12:50 pm

One of IBM’s prototype cognitive computing chips

What’s the News: Researchers at IBM have developed a new “cognitive computing” microchip inspired by the brain’s computational tricks. These new chips, the researchers say, could make processors that are more powerful and more efficient than today’s computers—and better at the flexible learning and responses that are a struggle for current AI systems but a breeze for the human brain.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Mind & Brain, Technology, Top Posts

By Aligning Databases, Scientists Match Old Drugs with New Diseases

By Veronique Greenwood | August 18, 2011 4:33 pm


What’s the News: For all the testing we do, drugs are still mysterious things—they can activate pathways we never connected with them or twiddle the dials in some far-off part of the body. To see if drugs already FDA-approved for certain diseases could be used to treat other conditions, scientists lined up two online databases and discovered two drugs that, when tested in mice, worked against diseases they’d never been meant for, suggesting that mining of such information could be a fertile strategy for finding new treatments.

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