Supernova Flashes and Silver Linings

New research from the Weizmann Institute of Science reveals that “cells in our brain form little hexagonal grids that keep us oriented, map-like, in our surroundings.” Weizmann’s resident blogger describes this finding as “a pyrotechnic flash of insight that changes how we understand the brain to work.” Game developers delight; this discovery shows “that you can really apply mathematical models to understand how our mammalian brains get their bearings.” It may also have immediate implications for understanding human brain disorders such as vertigo. Meanwhile, on ERV, Abbie Smith explores a silver lining emerging from ongoing research into the viral scourge known as HIV. Abbie explains that HIV viruses genetically reprogrammed by scientists to “modify relapsed acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) patients T-cells” are prolonging and possibly saving the lives of kids. Continued genetic modification could transform HIV into a powerful tool for fighting cancer and other diseases. Finally, on The Pump Handle, Elizabeth Grossman writes that rapid job growth in oil and gas industry is shining a light on some of the most dangerous jobs on the planet. Elizabeth writes, “Last year, 112 oil and gas industry workers were killed on the job and about 9,000 suffered non-fatal, work-related injuries and illnesses.” Hazards include toxic chemicals, respirable silica, and radiation exposure, not to mention “motor vehicle crashes, fires, electrocution and explosions.” But a new alliance between OSHA, NIOSH, and the National STEPS Network promises to fight for better workplace safety for these very important employees. Oh and for those not satisfied with a metaphor: some real supernova goodness from Ethan Siegel.

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Making Cancer, and Making It Worse

On Pharyngula, PZ Myers says that cancer, unlike an infectious bacterium or virus, is not the product of millions of years of evolution. Instead, PZ writes, “Cancer misuses and perverts existing processes in your cells to send them out of control.” But what causes cancer? Well, it happens about 20,000 times a day in your body. Luckily, it is almost always repaired. It is the mutation of DNA during cell division. Just one base out of place, and suddenly the gene that made a protein to tightly regulate cell division is making a protein that encourages the cell to divide continually. Depending on what other mutations this cell line, by chance or carcinogen, accumulates, it can grow to destroy the body. PZ also explains the role of tumor suppressor genes, which generally stop uncontrolled cell division.  Sexual beings have two copies of every gene in their bodies, and for some cancers to be successful, both copies of a tumor suppressor gene must be knocked out.  On the other hand, new research at the Weizmann Institute suggests that for leukemia cells to proliferate, one copy of a cancer-causing gene must remain healthy even though the other must be mutated.  And on Respectful Insolence, Orac takes another look at the endless parade of cancer quackery in the media, in this case a talk-show host praising a doctor whose treatment regimen (including 150 pills per day and a coffee enema) appeared in a clinical trial to make pancreatic cancer patients die sooner.

Posted to the homepage on September 23, 2013.