Medicine

'Living Drug' That Fights Cancer By Harnessing The Immune System Clears Key Hurdle (npr.org) 73

An anonymous reader shares an NPR report: A new kind of cancer treatment that uses genetically engineered cells from a patient's immune system to attack their cancer easily cleared a crucial hurdle Wednesday. A Food and Drug Administration advisory committee unanimously recommended that the agency approve this "living drug" approach for children and young adults who are fighting a common form of leukemia. The agency doesn't have to follow the committee's recommendation but usually does. The treatment takes cells from a patient's body, modifies the genes, and then reinfuses those modified cells back into the person who has cancer. If the agency approves, it would mark the first time the FDA has approved anything considered to be a "gene therapy product." The treatment is part of one of the most important developments in cancer research in decades -- finding ways to harness the body's own immune system to fight cancer. And while it has generated much hope, there are some concerns about its safety over the long term -- and its cost.
NASA

NASA Finally Admits It Doesn't Have the Funding To Land Humans on Mars (arstechnica.com) 247

For years, NASA has been chalking out and expanding its plans to go to Mars. The agency's Journey to Mars project aims to land humans on the red planet during the 2030s. For years, the agency has been reassuring us that it will be able to make do all those audacious projects within the budget it gets. Until now, that is. From a report: Now, finally, the agency appears to have bended toward reality. During a propulsion meeting of the American Institute for Aeronautics and Astronautics on Wednesday, NASA's chief of human spaceflight acknowledged that the agency doesn't really have the funding it needs to reach Mars with the SLS rocket and Orion spacecraft. These vehicles have cost too much to build, and too much to fly, and therefore NASA hasn't been able to begin designing vehicles to land on Mars or ascend from the surface. "I can't put a date on humans on Mars, and the reason really is the other piece is, at the budget levels we described, this roughly 2 percent increase, we don't have the surface systems available for Mars," said NASA's William H. Gerstenmaier, responding to a question about when NASA will send humans to the surface of Mars. "And that entry, descent and landing is a huge challenge for us for Mars." This seems like a fairly common sense statement, but it's something that NASA officials have largely glossed over -- at least in public -- during the agency's promotion of a Journey to Mars.
NASA

NASA Releases Juno's First Stunning Close-Ups of Jupiter's Giant Storm (theverge.com) 55

NASA's Juno spacecraft has sent back the first photos from its close flyby over Jupiter's famous Great Red Spot. These images offer the closest ever view of the massive storm. The Verge reports: Juno has been orbiting Jupiter for a little over a year on a mission to study the planet's interior, atmosphere, and magnetosphere. Its elliptical orbit around the planet takes the probe close to the surface for a few hours every 53 days. These are called perijove passes -- and on July 10th, Juno completed its seventh. A little after its closest approach, Juno's camera, JunoCam, snapped a few shots of the storm from about 5,000 miles above. Typically, a team of NASA scientists chooses which images a spacecraft collects on its path around a planet. But with Juno, NASA's opened up the process to the public: space fans can weigh in on the photos JunoCam shoots by ranking their favorite points of interest. After the photos are taken, NASA releases the raw images for the public to process. People can crop them, assemble them into collages, and change or enhance the colors. The results are mesmerizing. You can view even more photos here.
Moon

Private Company Plans To Bring Moon Rocks Back To Earth In Three Years (arstechnica.com) 66

mi writes: Moon Express, founded in 2010 to win the Google Lunar XPRIZE, says it is self-funded to begin bringing kilograms of lunar rocks back to Earth within about three years. "We absolutely intend to make these samples available globally for scientific research, and make them available to collectors as well," said Bob Richards, one of the company's founders, in an interview with Ars. From the report: "The privately held company released plans for a single, modular spacecraft that can be combined to form successively larger and more capable vehicles. Ultimately the company plans to establish a lunar outpost in 2020 and set up commercial operations on the Moon."
Earth

Era of 'Biological Annihilation' Is Underway, Scientists Warn (theguardian.com) 359

Tatiana Schlossberg reports via The New York Times (Warning: source may be paywalled, alternate source): From the common barn swallow to the exotic giraffe, thousands of animal species are in precipitous decline, a sign that an irreversible era of mass extinction is underway, new research finds. The study, published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, calls the current decline in animal populations a "global epidemic" and part of the "ongoing sixth mass extinction" caused in large measure by human destruction of animal habitats. The previous five extinctions were caused by natural phenomena. Dr. Ceballos emphasized that he and his co-authors, Paul R. Ehrlich and Rodolfo Dirzo, both professors at Stanford University, are not alarmists, but are using scientific data to back up their assertions that significant population decline and possible mass extinction of species all over the world may be imminent, and that both have been underestimated by many other scientists. The study's authors looked at reductions in a species' range -- a result of factors like habitat degradation, pollution and climate change, among others -- and extrapolated from that how many populations have been lost or are in decline, a method that they said is used by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. They found that about 30 percent of all land vertebrates -- mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians -- are experiencing declines and local population losses. In most parts of the world, mammal populations are losing 70 percent of their members because of habitat loss.
Science

Iceberg the Size of Delaware, Among Biggest Ever Recorded, Snaps Off Antarctica (marketwatch.com) 305

A giant iceberg about the size of Delaware that had been under scientists' watch has broken off from an ice shelf on the Antarctica Peninsula and is now adrift in the Weddell Sea. From a report: The 2,200 square-mile, trillion metric-ton section of the Larsen C ice shelf "calved" off sometime between Monday and Wednesday, a team of researchers at Swansea University's Project MIDAS has reported, citing imaging from NASA's Aqua MODIS satellite instrument. Scientists have tracked the crack for more than a decade and they warned in June that the section was "hanging by a thread." Its break, from Antarctica's fourth-largest ice shelf, changes the border shape of the peninsula forever even though the remaining ice shelf will continue to grow. "The iceberg is one of the largest recorded and its future progress is difficult to predict," said professor Adrian Luckman of Swansea University, lead investigator of the MIDAS project. "It may remain in one piece but is more likely to break into fragments. Some of the ice may remain in the area for decades, while parts of the iceberg may drift north into warmer waters."
Science

Plants Can Turn Caterpillars Into Cannibals To Avoid Getting Eaten (nationalgeographic.com.au) 56

An anonymous reader quotes a report from National Geographic: A new study published in the Nature Ecology and Evolution journal found that when some plants are under attack from hungry herbivores, they emit defenses that make themselves incredibly foul-tasting to caterpillars, which spurs the caterpillars to eat each other. "Plants can defend themselves so much that they food-stress the herbivore, and then the herbivores determine that rather than have plants on their menu, they should have caterpillars at the top of their menu," said John Orrock, the author of the study and a researcher in the Department of Zoology at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Orrock and his research team sprayed tomato plants with methyl jasmonate -- a substance plants produce in response to environmental stresses -- to trigger the plants' defense mechanisms. This chemical allowed the plant to change its chemistry, which made it less appetizing to the beet armyworm caterpillars that were placed on a treated plant. This phenomenon has been documented in a variety of plants, and research has suggested that plants can sense when surrounding plants are under attack, which can spur the production of methyl jasmonate in entire communities of plants.
Medicine

Coffee Cuts Risk of Dying From Stroke and Heart Disease, Study Suggests (theguardian.com) 165

Research suggests that people who drink coffee have a lower risk of dying from a host of causes, including heart disease, stroke and liver disease. "The connection, revealed in two large studies, was found to hold regardless of whether the coffee was caffeinated or not, with the higher among those who drank more cups of coffee a day," reports The Guardian. From the report: The first study looked at coffee consumption among more than 185,000 white and non-white participants, recruited in the early 1990s and followed up for an average of over 16 years. The results revealed that drinking one cup of coffee a day was linked to a 12% lower risk of death at any age, from any cause while those drinking two or three cups a day had an 18% lower risk, with the association not linked to ethnicity.

The second study -- the largest of its kind -- involved more than 450,000 participants, recruited between 1992 and 2000 across ten European countries, who were again followed for just over 16 years on average. After a range of factors including age, smoking status, physical activity and education were taken into account, those who drank three or more cups a day were found to have a 18% lower risk of death for men, and a 8% lower risk of death for women at any age, compared with those who didn't drink the brew. The benefits were found to hold regardless of the country, although coffee drinking was not linked to a lower risk of death for all types of cancer. The study also looked at a subset of 14,800 participants, finding that coffee-drinkers had better results on many biological markers including liver enzymes and glucose control. But experts warn that the two studies, both published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, do not show that drinking coffee was behind the overall lower risk, pointing out that it could be that coffee drinkers are healthier in various ways or that those who are unwell drink less coffee.

NASA

NASA Is Studying the Fungus Among Us Before Humans Take It To a New Planet (fastcompany.com) 60

From a new report: As humanity starts packing for a trip to Mars, NASA scientists are studying what not to bring along for the journey. In short, leave the fungus at home. NASA researchers created a closed habitat -- similar to where humans would have to live to survive long space travel or on a new planet -- and looked at fungi and how they grew, publishing their findings in the journal Microbiome. Fungi are "extremophiles" that can survive in the harshest conditions, but in the closed environment of a space station, they can wreak havoc. To see exactly what kind of fungi might colonize astronauts while they colonize Mars, researchers set up an Inflatable Lunar/Mars Analog Habitat, which simulates the closed environment of the International Space Station. They found that certain kinds of fungi increased in number while humans were living inside the habitat, and the weakened immune systems that come with living in a bubble make people more vulnerable to fungi.
Science

First Object Teleported From Earth To Orbit (technologyreview.com) 212

Researchers in China have teleported a photon from the ground to a satellite orbiting more than 500 kilometers above. From a report: Last year, a Long March 2D rocket took off from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Centre in the Gobi Desert carrying a satellite called Micius, named after an ancient Chinese philosopher who died in 391 B.C. The rocket placed Micius in a Sun-synchronous orbit so that it passes over the same point on Earth at the same time each day. Micius is a highly sensitive photon receiver that can detect the quantum states of single photons fired from the ground. That's important because it should allow scientists to test the technological building blocks for various quantum feats such as entanglement, cryptography, and teleportation. Today, the Micius team announced the results of its first experiments. The team created the first satellite-to-ground quantum network, in the process smashing the record for the longest distance over which entanglement has been measured. And they've used this quantum network to teleport the first object from the ground to orbit. Teleportation has become a standard operation in quantum optics labs around the world. The technique relies on the strange phenomenon of entanglement. This occurs when two quantum objects, such as photons, form at the same instant and point in space and so share the same existence. In technical terms, they are described by the same wave function.
Businesses

Only 100 Companies Are Responsible For 71 Percent of Global Emissions, Says Study (theguardian.com) 180

An anonymous reader quotes a report from The Guardian: Just 100 companies have been the source of more than 70% of the world's greenhouse gas emissions since 1988, according to a new report. The Carbon Majors Report (pdf) "pinpoints how a relatively small set of fossil fuel producers may hold the key to systemic change on carbon emissions," says Pedro Faria, technical director at environmental non-profit CDP, which published the report in collaboration with the Climate Accountability Institute. The report found that more than half of global industrial emissions since 1988 -- the year the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was established -- can be traced to just 25 corporate and state-owned entities. The scale of historical emissions associated with these fossil fuel producers is large enough to have contributed significantly to climate change, according to the report. ExxonMobil, Shell, BP and Chevron are identified as among the highest emitting investor-owned companies since 1988. If fossil fuels continue to be extracted at the same rate over the next 28 years as they were between 1988 and 2017, says the report, global average temperatures would be on course to rise by 4C by the end of the century. This is likely to have catastrophic consequences including substantial species extinction and global food scarcity risks.
NASA

New Sharpened Images From Hubble Telescope Contradict Post-Big Bang Theories (nasa.gov) 98

An anonymous reader quotes NASA: By applying a new computational analysis to a galaxy magnified by a gravitational lens, astronomers have obtained images 10 times sharper than what Hubble could achieve on its own. The results show an edge-on disk galaxy studded with brilliant patches of newly formed stars... The galaxy in question is so far away that we see it as it appeared 11 billion years ago, only 2.7 billion years after the big bang... The resulting reconstructed image revealed two dozen clumps of newborn stars, each spanning about 200 to 300 light-years. This contradicted theories suggesting that star-forming regions in the distant, early universe were much larger, 3,000 light-years or more in size. "There are star-forming knots as far down in size as we can see," said doctoral student Traci Johnson of the University of Michigan, lead author of two of the three papers describing the research.
AI

Former Oculus Exec Predicts Telepathy Within 10 Years (cnet.com) 202

Mary Lou Jepsen is a former MIT professor with 100 patents and a former engineering executive at Facebook, Oculus, Intel, and Google[x] (now called X) -- and "she hopes to make communicating telepathically happen relatively soon." An anonymous reader quotes CNET: Last year Jepsen left her job heading up display technology for the Oculus virtual reality arm of Facebook to develop new imaging technologies to help cure diseases. Shortly thereafter she founded Openwater, which is developing a device that puts the capabilities of a huge MRI machine into a lightweight wearable form. According to the startup's website, "Openwater is creating a device that can enable us to see inside our brains or bodies in great detail. With this comes the promise of new abilities to diagnose and treat disease and well beyond -- communicating with thought alone."

This week Jepsen went further and suggested a timeframe for such capabilities becoming reality. "I don't think this is going to take decades," she told CNBC. "I think we're talking about less than a decade, probably eight years until telepathy"... Jepsen, who has also spent time at Google X, MIT and Intel, says the basic idea is to shrink down the huge MRI machines found in medical hospitals into flexible LCDs that can be embedded in a ski hat and use infrared light to see what's going on in your brain. "Literally a thinking cap," Jepsen explains... The idea is that communicating by thought alone could be much faster and even allow us to become more competitive with the artificial intelligence that is supposedly coming for everyone's jobs very soon.

Jepsen tells CNBC, "If I threw [you] into an M.R.I. machine right now... I can tell you what words you're about to say, what images are in your head. I can tell you what music you're thinking of. That's today, and I'm talking about just shrinking that down."
Space

Congressmen Propose a New Military Branch: The 'US Space Corps' (gizmodo.com) 228

An anonymous reader quotes Gizmodo: This week, the House Armed Services Committee voted 60 to 1 in favor of the creation of a new military branch to be called the United States Space Corps... The United States Space Corps would be the first new branch of the military since 1947, when the Air Force was formed. The current proposal would classify the USSC under the Air Force in a way that mirrors the Marines classification under the Navy. The Space Corps' chief of staff would be ranked as equal to the Air Force chief of staff and would report to the Secretary of the Air Force...

According to CNN, the Air Force's secretary and chief of staff are opposed to the plan. One reason is that we already have the Air Force Space Command and the military believes that the creation of the Space Corps would just cause more complications. Secretary Heather Wilson told reporters that "this will make it more complex, add more boxes to the organizational chart, and cost more money."

The bill charges the division of the military with providing "combat-ready space forces," though CNN adds "There are still plenty more congressional hoops for the Space Corps to jump through before it would become official. But, hey, at least the name sounds cool." And Gizmodo's reporter thoughtfully weighs the pro's and cons before concluding, "Yeah, this is probably stupid."
Cellphones

Researchers Have Developed A Battery-Free Mobile Phone (hothardware.com) 83

An anonymous reader quotes HotHardware: Researchers from the University of Washington are looking to make batteries a thing of the past when it comes to mobile phones. The team has developed a phone that uses "almost zero power" according to associate professor Shyam Gollakota, who co-authored a paper which detailed the breakthrough... The researchers designed the phone to harvest microwatts of power from RF signals transmitted from a base station that is 31 feet away. Additional power is harnessed via ambient light through the use of miniature photodiodes that are about the size of a grain of rice. While in use, the phone consumes about 3.5 microwatts of power and is capable of communicating with a custom base station that is up to 50 feet away to send and receive calls... The phone ditches the traditional analog-to-digital converter, which turns your voice into data, in favor of a system that uses the vibrations from a microphone or speaker to perform the same task. An antenna then converts that motion into radio signals in such a way that very little power is consumed.
There's two drawbacks. First, modern smartphones "need a lot more than a 3.5-microwatt power budget for blazing fast processor, copious amounts of RAM and internal storage, and power-hungry displays." And more importantly, "you have to press a button to switch between transmissions and listening modes with the phone."
Medicine

Personalized Cancer Vaccines Safely Fight, Kill Tumors In Early Human Trials (arstechnica.com) 73

Emily Mullin reports via MIT Technology Review: Now two personalized cancer vaccine approaches appear to have safely prevented cancer relapse in a dozen patients with late-stage skin cancer. In recent years, scientists have realized that each patient's tumor harbors a unique set of genetic characteristics, or mutations. So for cancer vaccines to be effective, they'll probably also have to be unique. Two clinical trials, detailed today in separate papers in Nature, are among the first to show that this might be possible. In one trial, eight of 13 melanoma patients who got a personalized cancer vaccine were tumor-free nearly two years after being treated. In a smaller study, four of the six patients who received a vaccine had no detectable cancer for more than two years after treatment. All patients had their tumors surgically removed before getting the vaccine. The customized vaccines are an emerging class of therapies that take advantage of neoantigens, proteins that appear on tumors and seem to be specific to each cancer patient. To make the vaccines, researchers first sequenced DNA and RNA extracted from each patient's tumor. They then used computer algorithms to analyze the mutations on each tumor and predict the best targets that code for neoantigens. Based on that data, they created a personalized vaccine containing up to 20 of these neoantigens. Each patient received several injections of the vaccine over a few months.
Science

Scientists Have Detected a New Particle At the Large Hadron Collider At CERN (bbc.com) 86

New submitter ag144 writes: First time witnessed, the Large Hadron Collider finds predicted double-heavy particle. BBC reports: "Nearly all the matter that we see around us is made of neutrons and protons, which form the centers of atoms. These are made up of three smaller particles called quarks which can be either light or heavy. There are, however, six different types of quarks which combine in different ways to form other kinds of particle. Those that have been detected so far contain at most, one heavy quark. This is the first time that researchers have confirmed the existence of one with two heavy quarks. The research team will now measure the properties of the Xi-cc++ to establish how this new arrangement of quarks behaves and how the strong force holds the system together. They also expect to find more double heavy quark particles. Another unusual property of the particle is that it has two positive charges double that of the proton and it is four times heavier."
Transportation

Getting Rid of Carpool Lanes Could Double Travel Times (sciencemag.org) 245

An anonymous reader quotes a report from Science Magazine: Eliminating carpool lanes could almost double drivers' traveling times, according to a new study. The findings come thanks to an unusual decision made by the government of Jakarta last year. Following allegations that drugged babies from poor households were being used as "jockeys," or passengers for hire, Indonesian lawmakers repealed the so-called three-in-one restriction. The law had required cars driving on the business district's main roads to carry at least three passengers during rush hours. To determine the impact on the city's drivers, Benjamin Olken, an economist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, and colleagues queried Google Maps for real-time driving-speed data before and after the new policy went into effect. Following the policy lift, travel delays, defined as the time it takes to travel 1 kilometer, increased by 46% in the morning and almost 90% in the evening, the team reports today in Science. But the most startling result is that phasing out the three-in-one policy led to worse traffic during times of the day and on roads where there had never been restrictions in place, Olken says. One possible explanation, he says, is that the three-in-one restriction led fewer people to drive into the city. "Maybe they carpooled, took public transit, or worked from home."
Mars

NASA Seeks Nuclear Power For Mars (scientificamerican.com) 165

New submitter joshtops shares a report from Scientific American: As NASA makes plans to one day send humans to Mars, one of the key technical gaps the agency is working to fill is how to provide enough power on the Red Planet's surface for fuel production, habitats and other equipment. One option: small nuclear fission reactors, which work by splitting uranium atoms to generate heat, which is then converted into electric power. NASA's technology development branch has been funding a project called Kilopower for three years, with the aim of demonstrating the system at the Nevada National Security Site near Las Vegas. Testing is due to start in September and end in January 2018. The last time NASA tested a fission reactor was during the 1960s' Systems for Nuclear Auxiliary Power, or SNAP, which developed two types of nuclear power systems. The first system -- radioisotope thermoelectric generators, or RTGs -- taps heat released from the natural decay of a radioactive element, such as plutonium. RTGs have powered dozens of space probes over the years, including the Curiosity rover currently exploring Mars. The second technology developed under SNAP was an atom-splitting fission reactor. SNAP-10A was the first -- and so far, only -- U.S. nuclear power plant to operate in space. Launched on April 3, 1965, SNAP-10A operated for 43 days, producing 500 watts of electrical power, before an unrelated equipment failure ended the demonstration. The spacecraft remains in Earth orbit.
NASA

NASA Is Going To Crash a Satellite Into an Asteroid (fortune.com) 89

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is moving ahead with plans to try out deflection techniques on a passing asteroid to prepare for future, threatening space matter. From a report: The space agency has entered the preliminary design phase for its Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART). This represents the first trial of what's called the "kinetic impactor technique" of asteroid deflection. Put another way, NASA hopes that by hurling a refrigerator-sized spacecraft at one of the space rocks at a speed roughly nine times that of a bullet, it can knock the asteroid off course and save the Earth. The plan is to launch the first DART satellite at a binary asteroid called Didymos ("Twins"); the twin asteroids are scheduled to pass by earth in 2022 and 2024. (Neither pass poses any threat, according to NASA.) By striking one of the two asteroids, scientists will be able to measure the impact of the collision.

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