Face transplants, Cone Snails and Cancer Fighting Strawberries

23 November 2003
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Anti-cancer sponge located after 20 year hunt, cone snails under threat, new non-invasive way to detect breast cancer, strawberries good for astronauts, US plan for carbon sequestration, face transplants, purpose of eyebrows, and special guest virologist Prof. Moira Brown describing "how genetically modified viruses can be used to treat cancers".

In this episode

Anti-cancer Sponge Found After 20 Year Hunt

20 years ago marine scientists in the Bahamas found a small piece of a sea sponge that harboured a powerful anti-cancer agent. But the amount of sponge they had to work with was so tiny that only limited research could be done at the time. Over the last 2 decades they have been searching for the mystery sponges hideout in order to gather more samples to help them unlock the secret of its cancer killing agent. Despite many dives, only a few more fragments of he sponge were found, until now. Marine biologist Amy Wright pieced together clues from where each of the fragments of the sponge had been found to build up a profile of the habitat in which it must live. The technique worked perfectly – on the first dive to an area in the Bahamas fitting the profile that the scientists had come up with, they found the sponge that had eluded them for 20 years, and were able to collect enough samples to complete their research into its anti-cancer properties. The next step will be for the researchers to try to establish breeding colonies of the sponge under artificial conditions. They also solved the mystery of why the sponge was so hard to track down – the sponge lives in an area over 1000 feet down called the "dead zone" because so little lives there. Hunters had previously avoided the area because they thought it too unlikely a place to look.

Threat To Cone Shells And The Potential Drugs They Contain

Scientists from the UK and America have warned this week that we might be loosing the most promising source of new drugs because of habitat loss and overexploitation. Cone snails are very pretty-looking sea-shells that live in the warm, shallow tropical seas, but are not to be played with, since they have a deadly sting that they inject prey with through a hollow, harpoon-like tooth. Each species of cone shell has it's own distinct cocktail of around 100 so called conotoxins which, like a gourmet chef, they mix in constantly changing proportions, preventing the evolution of resistance to the poison in their prey. Now it's these conotoxins that have been found to be a potentially incredibly important source of new medicines, because they are exquisitely selective in their cell receptor binding sites, that's the lock-and-key type mechanism on the surface of every cell that play crucial roles in all sorts of diseases. One discovery so far has been of a conotoxin that by blocking key neurological pathways is very effective in early detection and treatment of small cell lung cancer, one of the most devastating human cancers. Another has been found to have potent anti-epileptic properties. The problem is, that just as researchers are starting to appreciate the incredible pharmaceutical potential of cone shell toxins, these animals are coming under intense pressure in the wild. Cone shells live on coral reefs and mangroves, two habitats that are under massive threat throughout the tropics from coastal development, pollution, destructive fishing and global climate change. We've already lost half of the worlds mangroves and a quarter of the worlds coral reef are already seriously damaged. Cone shells are also being increasingly harvested for the ornamental shell trade, with millions of shells sold each year. Researchers are calling for increased planning for habitat protection and for the sustainable collection of the shells for ornaments as well as for biomedical research. There may be up 50 thousand conotoxins, so with such massive potential the extinction of cone shells could represent untold lost opportunities for modern medicine.

New Breast Cancer Detection Method

Scientists at the University of Minnesota have been investigating a new technique to diagnose breast cancer. MRI or Magnetic Resonance imaging using radiowaves is used to detect breast lumps and spectroscopy is used to detect tissue choline molecules (tCHO) which accumulate in cancer cells. This technique is known as MRS or magnetic resonance spectroscopy. In the future this technique may be used and could avoid the need for a breast lump biopsy. So far the scientists have looked at 105 women, and the study is ongoing, so watch this space. For now women in the UK will continue to be investigated by mammography, ultrasound, and FNA.

The Secret of Jonny's Golden Kick

After yesterday's fabulous performance of England in the Rugby World Cup final, I can't resist finding some science in there somewhere. And indeed there is. Researchers from University College Worcester have developed a mathematical formula for Jonny Wilkinson's world cup winning kick. They've studied hours of TV footage of his successful conversions and penalties and to gain insight into the world's best rugby kick. Apparently the key to Jonny's success is his methodical approach- he always approaches the ball from the same angle with the same speed, and even uses the same leg power and foot position. The only other factors that need to be considered are the match conditions, including Jonny's psychological state, which might be influenced by cheers from the crowd, the match score and the time of the match. And like yesterday with the drizzling rain, the environmental conditions are also important- you might have noticed Jonny yesterday dropping bits of grass to try and work out the direction and speed of the wind. But as long as those other factors are not all against him, then his consistent skill will see the ball through those posts… as indeed it did, just enough yesterday!

Strawberries Boost Astronaut's Performance

Snacking on strawberries may help astronauts to perform better on long space missions. A daily dose of the frozen fruit boosts the brain function in rats exposed to a lab version of cosmic radiation, according to a study from the University of Maryland, in Baltimore. If you travel outside the earth's protection magnetic field you get bombarded by cosmic rays- energetic particles left over from the big bang- and extended exposure to these rays can have dangerous physical and mental affects. Unfortunately, the research team still don't know why eating strawberries is boosting these lab rats but it's possible that antioxidant molecules could help shield the brain from harmful cosmic rays. Similar chemicals in blueberries have been shown to slow age-related memory decline in rats.

Usa Carbon Sequestration Plan

America has steadfastly refused to sign up to the Kyoto agreement – a worldwide drive to cut carbon dioxide emissions from cars and industry to stop the acceleration of the greenhouse effect. Instead they are looking into the possibiility of sequestering carbon dioxide under the sea in geologic formations, or deep under the ocean. The plan involves capturing carbon dioxide emissions from power plants and injecting deep under the sea. But environmentalists are extremely concerned about the effects that this could have on the marine ecosystem, pointing out that shallow-living sea creatures like corals and molluscs are already being affected by high levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. This is because when carbon dioxide dissolves in water it produces an acid which can dissolve coral reefs and stop shellfish from producing shells. And deep-sea creatures may be even more sensitive suffering decreased growth and reproduction.

Face Transplants a Step Closer To Reality - But Do We Want Them ?

Did you see the film Face Off a few years back where John Travolta and Nicolas Cage swap faces? Well, we might not be far off that procedure being a reality… Surgeons in France and the United States say that they are now ready to graft the face of a dead person onto someone who's been facially disfigured. But doctors in Britain say they need public support before they will carry out the highly controversial operation and are hoping to spark a public debate following a report due out soon from the Royal College of Surgeons. They acknowledge that while the technological hurdles can now be overcome, transplanting faces raises major moral, ethical and psychological issues.

Why Do We Have Eyebrows ?

Have you ever noticed that the Mona Lisa painting at the Louvre is of a lady with no eyebrows? The Mona Lisa was painted in 1503 by Leonardo da Vinci, and is thought be a portrait of an Italian widow. In the 1500's it was fashionable for ladies to shave off their eyebrows. Eyebrows are thought to be useful as they keep rain and sweat out of your eyes. This may be of evolutionary advantage as this would help you find shelter in the rain or when running from danger.

Pisa Once Like Venice

Archeologists have unearthed a ghost fleet of ships buried in mud outside the Italian city of Pisa. This had led them to think that Pisa was built on a lagoon similar to Venice, with a river delta where freshwater met sea water. Pisa is now 10km from the sea, but in Roman times it was only 3.5km from the sea. A ship was found 5 years ago by accident, by a bulldozer involved in some work to build some railway offices near San Rossore Station. The ship was 30ft deep. An archeological dig began and they have now found 21 ships! They are thought to include a Roman warship dating from 200BC – 500AD. The ships will be put on display in the future in a new museum in Pisa's old shipyards. The find has led to much more information and data on Roman shipbuilding, cargoes, classical trade and naval life. Some of the ships were adapted for river and sea navigation. Navigational instruments, human remains, wicker baskets, clothing, oil lamps and scraps of leather have been found.


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