Shail Bhatt summarises last month’s most interesting research developments in the biological sciences
10th: New matter, matters
50 years after it was theorised by Professor Bert Halperin, scientists have finally discovered a new form of matter, known as “excitonium”. Kogar and colleagues at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign discovered excitonium, which is made up of “excitons”: unique particles made from excited electrons and the holes they create when they leave a material due to their excitation. In order to create excitonium, the researchers cooled a transition metal to 190 Kelvin. When it neared the desirable temperature, they observed the soft plasmon phase via Momentum-Resolved Electron Energy Loss Spectroscopy (a technique used to measure the energies of electrons), a step that occurs just before the formation of excitonium. Although unsure about what properties this new form of matter could have, scientists believe it is like a superconductor, and will aid in clarifying and proving the many principles of quantum physics.
Research paper: https://science.sciencemag.org/content/358/6368/1314
15th: Superman sperm
Cervical cancer, the second most common type of cancer in women that claims 300,000 lives annually, may have found an unlikely, yet innovative, cure: sperm. Xu and colleagues at the Institute for Integrative Nanosciences have developed sperm to act as targeted drug-delivery systems. Here, sperm are modified and loaded with an anticancer drug, such as doxorubicin hydrochloride for cervical cancer, and their heads are coated with a thin layer of nickel and cobalt, allowing them to be directed to the site of the tumour using magnetism. They then release the drug as they fuse with the cancerous cells. Overall, the experiments have shown tremendous success, with the drug killing 87% of cancer cells within three days, thanks to the sperm’s accuracy. Therefore, sperm may prove to be effective ‘missiles’ of sorts, delivering the drug ‘explosives’ to the ‘warzone’ of the cancer!
Research paper: https://pubs.acs.org/doi/10.1021/acsnano.7b06398
18th: Bacteria scanners
Bacterial infections such as pneumonia, meningitis and those of the urinary tract are dangerous, terrifying and problematic. Diagnosing and treating them is an even bigger hassle. However, a revolutionary new gadget, the MolecuLight i:X, might be the solution to these problems. By simply taking two photographs with the gizmo, one in normal light, and the other in darkness using violet light, the handheld device can pick up signals from bacteria, allowing doctors to make precise measurements and accurate decisions. Specifically, the location of the bacteria is detected by its fluorescent signals, picked up in real-time. As a consequence, the results are 54% more accurate than using humans to carry out tests on the potential infection. This device may be the future of surgeries and medicine, and may well help doctors in strategising possible pathways towards treating infection.
19th: Hunting the cure for Huntington’s disease
Huntington’s disease (HD) is a truly horrific neurodegenerative disease. In affected individuals, the mutant huntingtin protein causes the death of brain cells, and leads to behavioural, physical and cognitive deficits. Specifically, cellular waste and dysfunctional proteins, including the mutant protein, aren’t broken down and pile-up, causing cell toxicity and death. Abd-Elrahman and colleagues, from the University of Ottawa, observed that by treating mice with CTEP, a drug that inhibits the mGluR5 glutamate receptor (a protein involved in neuronal network activity and normal brain function), there was less build-up of toxic waste, fewer mutant huntingtin proteins, and therefore fewer cell deaths. Thus, CTEP might be pivotal in helping cure this genetic disease by cleaning up toxic debris in cells.
Research paper: https://stke.sciencemag.org/content/10/510/eaan6387
20th: Grow your own bones
Fractures and broken bones hurt, and worst of all, they take a mighty long time to heal. They are also expensive to treat, and the long healing time causes further pain. Fortunately, Zreiqat and colleagues at the University of Sydney have used and modified 3D printing to create ceramic implants that fuse with bones over time, to replace the broken pieces. Using rabbits and sheep, the scientists have achieved significant success; within the population of sheep that had broken legs and fractures, nearly 25% of their fractures completely healed in three months, and they were able to walk immediately after surgery. Furthermore, the application of reforming bones and fixing broken limbs could be advantageous, not just in accelerating the healing period, but also by helping patients suffering from arthritis and osteoporosis.
Image credit: eu.moleculight.com