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According to the World Health Organization (WHO), cancer claimed 8.2 million lives worldwide in 2012. Perhaps no other disease highlights the need for improved diagnostic and treatment options better than cancer—which is why it’s good news there continue to be promising developments in the lab.

Here are a few early studies we’ve covered this year.

A Cancer Blood Test for Earlier Diagnosis?

University of Bradford scientists, led by Dr. Diana Anderson, hypothesized that DNA in white blood cells from cancer patients wouldn’t be able to withstand or repair UV damage as well as DNA from healthy volunteers. Why? Because cancer patients’ immune systems would be working overtime even in the disease’s earliest stages.

pancreatic-cancer-blood-test-1After subjecting samples to ultraviolet light, the scientists pulled their DNA apart in electrophoresis gel (a traditional DNA analysis tool). They found white blood cell DNA from healthy patients showed up in short streaks whereas the DNA from precancerous or cancer patients had longer streaks, indicating more damage from the UV light.

Though the samples were randomized and coded, the researchers correctly identified 94 healthy subjects, 58 patients with cancer, and 56 patients in the precancerous stage of disease. The samples were from patients with melanoma, colon cancer, and lung cancer—next steps include broader trials over more types of cancer.

Another study of 1,500 patients at MIT found elevated levels of particular amino acids—leucine, isoleucine, and valine—in the blood may help practitioners spot notoriously difficult-to-diagnose pancreatic cancer 1 to 10 years before current methods.

Though the latter biomarkers may only prove useful in pancreatic cancer diagnosis—they have not been observed in other cancers—taken together, the studies suggest that the body may show subtle signs of the disease well before more obvious symptoms.

In the future, these and other biomarkers may improve our ability to take the fight to cancer earlier and allow for better results with less invasive tests and treatments.

Buy Time by Slowing Cancer’s Spread

Locating a consistently accurate biomarker of cancer in the blood could improve diagnosis—but what then? Cancer is dangerous in one organ, but deadly when it spreads to others. What if we could freeze the disease in its tracks?

stanford-cancer-fighting-protein-1In a recent preclinical study, Jennifer Cochran, a Stanford associate professor of bioengineering, and Amato Giaccia, professor of radiation oncology, say they significantly slowed cancer metastasis in mice using a lab-designed decoy protein.

Tumors metastasize when bristly Axl proteins on a cancer cell’s surface interact with Gas6 proteins. When these two proteins link up, the cell is able to break off from the main tumor and move to other locations in the body.

The Stanford scientists bioengineered a decoy Axl protein designed to be up to a hundred times as effective at binding with Gas6 than the natural version. Deployed in the mice, the decoy protein binds Gas6 proteins in the blood before they can link up with and activate Axl proteins on the cancer cells.

The scientists say they found a 78% reduction in metastatic nodules in mice with breast cancer and a 90% decrease in metastatic nodules in mice with ovarian cancer.

Seek-and-Destroy Cancer Cells—and Only Cancer Cells

After finding and slowing cancer—we need to eliminate it from the body. Current cancer treatments employing radiation and chemotherapy are a bit like a shotgun blast or carpet bombing run. They lack precision and collateral damage is significant. A better option would be something like a laser-guided missile destroying only cancer cells.

MIT-SuperNanoparticle-magnetic-2A recent Rice University study tagged gold nanoparticles—particles only a few billionths of a meter across—with cancer-specific protein antibodies that guided them to tumors and caused them to cluster inside the cancerous cells. Once in position, the researchers blasted the particles with a laser, causing them to burst and destroy host cells.

In addition to the physical destruction of cells, the particles were loaded with cancer-fighting chemotherapy drugs which were released after the laser zap. Finally, the particles, also served to locally magnify X-ray radiation at the site of the tumor.

In a preclinical study, this four-pronged approach (nanoparticles, laser, drugs, and radiation) required only 3% and 6% the standard drug and radiation dose to destroy tumors in mice within a week with minimal damage to surrounding healthy cells.

The team’s antibody method of targeting the particles isn’t the only method on the table. Another study out of Rice showed that iron oxide nanoparticles can be precisely maneuvered inside the body using magnetic fields, and a recent MIT video shows just what the technique looks like using magnetic, fluorescent nanoparticles.

Progress But No Miracles

It’s important to stress that while these results are promising, it is too early to know how effective they will be in the clinic. Cancer diagnostic tests and even treatments can show great potential early on, only to crumble when put through more rigorous testing.

Further, this isn’t a comprehensive of list of the latest cancer fighting tools—it’s a big, well-funded area of research. But generally, earlier diagnosis and better targeted, more personalized therapies, however they’re accomplished, may drastically alter the fight.

As we’re better able to effectively employ these strategies—the probability of survival should increase, even as the treatments themselves become easier to bear.

Article written with contributions from Peniel Dimburu. 

Image Credit: MIT, Shutterstock.com

Ikea, in general, is a frightening place, a bizarre isolated world unto itself filled with sad, desperate people. Sometimes I feel like I’ll never make it out of that maze alive. That’s what makes this ad from Ikea Singapore, promoting its late-night shopping hours, one of the best Halloween ads I’ve ever seen.

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How NASA Deals With Odor Inside the International Space Station

Space may be a vacuum, but at least aboard the International Space Station, smells still have plenty of room to waft. And considering the ISS has 6 living, breathing, excreting human beings living in such close proximity, some of those smells could get to be a major problem. Fortunately, NASA’s accounted for that.

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The internet is a little bit like an organism—a really huge organism, made up of over four billion IP addresses networked across the globe. How does the internet behave day to day? What are its natural cycles?

USC Viterbi School of Engineering project leader and computer science assistant professor, John Heidemann, decided to find out.

In collaboration with Lin Quan and Yuri Pradkin, Heidemann pinged 3.7 million IP address blocks—representing almost a billion unique IP addresses—every 11 minutes for two months earlier this year. They asked the simple question: When are these addresses active and when are they sleeping?

The team found some interesting trends. IP addresses using home WiFi routers in countries like the US and Western Europe were consistently on (or awake) around the clock, whereas addresses in Eastern Europe, South America, and Asia tended to cycle more regularly with day and night.

Why is this important? Think of it as a method for differentiating between a “sleeping” internet and a “broken” internet.

“This data helps us establish a baseline for the internet,” says Heidemann, “To understand how it functions, so that we have a better idea of how resilient it is as a whole, and can spot problems quicker.”

The simplest use of the data may be akin to a health checkup, but there might be other interesting research outcomes too. For example, an “always on” internet may correlate with economic development. Over the years, we might be able to track how countries are doing, adding internet data to other broad statistics like GDP.

You might also have noticed there are big holes in the map in Africa, Asia, and South America. These in part correlate to low-population areas—but they also show where internet coverage is still spotty. Indeed, billions around the world still lack regular internet access (a situation Google and Facebook are intent on remedying).

Heidemann’s map is intriguing, in part, because it’s a striking visual representation of just how connected the planet already is—and just how much more connected it is likely to become over next few years and decades.

Image Credit: USC Viterbi School of Engineering

The Man Who Makes Movie Posters Into Modern Art

Drew Struzan is a movie poster master. If you have seen a film—any film—considered to be a classic in the last three decades or so, chances are good that he painted the art that made you excited to hit the theater. Star Wars! Indy! The Goonies! E.T.! Muppets galore! Police Academy! All those and lots and lots of others, too.

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Unearthing 91-Year-Old Sphinxes From the Buried Ten Commandments Set

Hollywood lore and biblical history have been buried together for almost a century under the coastal sands of California, but archaeologists recently unearthed a massive 15-foot-tall Sphinx built for Cecil B. DeMille’s 1923 black-and-white epic The Ten Commandments.

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In recent years, the surprising idea that we’ll one day merge with our technology has warily made its way into the mainstream. Often it’s couched in a combination of snark and fear. Why in the world would we want to do that? It’s so inhuman.

That the idea is distasteful isn’t shocking. The imagination rapidly conjures images of Star Trek’s Borg, a nightmarish future when humans and machines melt into a monstrosity of flesh and wires, forever and irrevocably leaving “nature” behind.

But let’s not fool ourselves with such dark fantasies. Humans are already technological animals; tight integration with our inventions is in our nature; and further increasing that integration won’t take place in some distant future—it’s happening now.

To observe our technological attachment, we need simply walk out the door. It’s everywhere, all around us—on the bus or train, at work, at home, in the bathroom, in bed—people gazing into screens, living digital lives right next to their ordinary ones.

In the Matrix, the experience is involuntary, a tool of control and oppression. In our world, it’s voluntary, and mostly about freedom, expansion, and expression. As Jason Silva recently noted, our devices augment our brains, like cognitive prosthetics.

In his latest video, Silva says we should go easy on those fervent fans lining up for the latest smartphone, “These are not trivial things, these are not fashion accessories—these are mindware upgrades.” The newest smart devices speed information processing, better organize our thoughts, more efficiently connect us with others.

Silva says a simple telephone collapses time and geography in a kind of “technologically mediated telepathy” as termed by David Porush. Smartphones and other connected devices do the same thing, of course, and at very nearly the speed of light. But the word smartphone fails to convey that the phone part is far less than half the equation.

Referring to Andy Clark’s book Natural-Born Cyborgs, Silva says, “The modern mind emerges in the feedback loops between brains and these tools that we create and the environment in which we create them. We’re thinking through our iPhones and Samsung phones. We’re thinking on the internet. We’re thinking on the page.”

This isn’t a physical merger with technology, but it is surely a psychological one.

Jason-Silva-Cognitive-Prosthetics-2And this deepening union of brains and devices—Silva’s feedback loops and mindware upgrades—is just the latest round. Man has been “merging” with technology since the beginning. It’s more or less our modus operandi. We exude technology. We live in it. It lives in us.

So, why is the concept so foreign?

When technology is accepted and absorbed into the culture, we no longer think of it as technology. Consider the café I’m sitting in as I write. What do I see?

Plates, cups, utensils, backpacks as extensions of our arms, hands, fingers. Chairs and bicycles extend and augment our legs and backs. Clothes as prosthetic fur—in the name of modesty, but also for warmth, camouflage, or sexual signaling. Glasses are eye prosthetics. Newspapers, books, and notepads are cognitive prosthetics.

All this without noting the most obvious items—laptops, smartphones, and tablets. Why are these latter so much more obviously technological? Because the older the technology, the more completely we’ve incorporated it, and the harder it is to see.

This techno-blindness is apparent in the way we approve of some technologies and not others. Worrying about social networks and internet addiction, we ask, “Why can’t people just pick up the telephone or read a book?” Maybe one day we’ll lament how much time people spend in virtual reality—television was so much healthier.

Indeed, already computing technology is rapidly being assimilated. I’m hemmed in by people enthralled by their devices, absorbed in another world for the moment. And at this point, it’s perfectly acceptable to balance a sense of awe with a note of skepticism.

What’s the downside? Might we not lose ourselves in our own creations, misplace our moral compass and wander the trackless paths of digital addiction? No doubt.

But this isn’t a good reason to end technological experimentation.

We’re free to make our own decisions about how to use technology. If you find your smartphone annoyingly ever-present—ban it in the bedroom. Leave it in your pocket at dinner. Go surfing, climbing, or camping. Use it wisely, don’t let it rule you.

Perhaps even greater technological integration—contact lens displays, embedded medical devices, brain-computer-interfaces—will rob us of the voluntary “off switch.” But I don’t think so. If a new technology is more trouble than it’s worth, few will adopt it.

In the meantime, choose wonder over fear and take a moment to marvel at the times we live in. As Louis CK says, “Even the shittiest cellphone in the world is a miracle.”

Image Credit: Shots of Awe

Dyson's Humidifier Uses UV Light To Kill Germs In its Water Reservoir

The slow but steady approach of winter means that it’s almost time for many of us to fire up our heaters—also heralding the return of of chapped lips and dry skin. Dyson’s new humidifier is one solution to the problem, but it doesn’t only prevent dry air. It also ensures your home isn’t being filled with bacteria-ridden moisture thanks to a germ-killing UV light.

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Our Favorite Android, iOS, and Windows Phone Apps of the Week

Welcome to another week of apps. We had some big additions to our smartphones from Skype and Microsoft recently, but iOS, Android, and Windows Phone once again has some new additions worth taking a look.

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Snapchat's First 'Non-Creepy' Ad Is For A Horror Movie

Snapchat recently announced that it was getting ads, and it’s followed through on that promise, with the first paid-for ephemeral advertisements landing this weekend. However, I’m not so sure that Snapchat’s made good on its promise for its ads to be ‘non-creepy’, since horror film Ouija was the first subject.

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