The Science Week in Review: January 11-17

This was a big week for big news…literally. Fossils of the largest dinosaur, largest saltwater crocodile, and largest giraffe all made headlines. The World Health Organization announced on January 14 that the Ebola epidemic was “officially over,” only to unfortunately announce a new flare-up less than 24 hours later. In the US, President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden have a big medical goal on their mind: curing cancer. The announcement has researchers both excited and wary, since cancer is not a single disease, and using the word “cure” may not be appropriate. And finally, I have a roundup of my favorite science reads from around the web this week, including an article about using Prozac to treat Down syndrome, a doctor’s opinions on concussions in the NFL, and a feature on the science of boredom. (I promise it is anything but boring.)

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Biden’s Cancer “Moonshot”

In his January 12, 2016 State of the Union address, President Barack Obama appealed to the American nostalgia of space exploration by calling for a “moonshot” to cure cancer, placing Vice President Joe Biden in charge of “mission control.” If there is any issue to unite polarized American politics, it seems like “curing cancer” would be a safe bet. But Obama’s aspirations were swiftly followed by countless online editorials commenting on the difficult reality of such a task ,since medical professionals view cancer as a collection of over 200 different diseases. Others worry about the administration’s lack of specific policy recommendations to make the dream a reality.

A national calling to fight cancer is not new to 2016. The “war on cancer” traces back to President Richard Nixon’s signing of the National Cancer Act of 1971. Suffice to say, war was waged, but it was not won. The genetic landscape that causes cancer is amazingly complex. One person may smoke their whole life and never develop lung cancer, while another person that never smoked once does develop lung cancer. Of course, that example exemplifies the extremes, but a successful campaign against cancer takes more than ingenuity, money and gusto.

“For the loved ones we’ve all lost, for the family we can still save, let’s make America the country that cures cancer once and for all,” President Obama said in his January 2016 State of the Union address. Image credit: Photo by Evan Vucci–Pool/Getty Images

Biden’s charge in the war on cancer is certainly a personal one. His eldest son, Joseph Robinette “Beau” Biden III, died from brain cancer on May 31, 2015 at the age of 46.  On January 15, Biden paid a visit to the University of Pennsylvania’s Abramson Cancer Center partly because of their emphasis on immunotherapy research for fighting cancer. In his post on Medium, Biden indicated that immunotherapy, a complex treatment that involves using cells from a patient’s own immune system to attack their cancer, is one of the recent advancements that makes the current time ripe for a national mission to bring down cancer.

Cancer research, as well as many other fields of life sciences, could be improved with better data sharing and infrastructure for collaboration. And while immunotherapy holds promise as an effective cure, it may be premature to view it as the end-all treatment. As Jeffrey Kluger noted in his post for TIME, calling cancer a moonshot “actually makes the challenge seem easier than it is.” We’ve already been to the moon over 40 years ago, and it took over a decade of dedicated work to make it happen. To play off the space-analogy, many scientists have said curing cancer is more like going to Mars. We can make goals and timelines, but it remains to be seen whether we will achieve them.

A Big Week for Big Critters

On January 15, the American Museum of Natural History in New York unveiled its new exhibit featuring the largest dinosaur to ever walk the earth: the 122-foot long titanosaur. As news coverage by The New Yorker noted, that’s 28 feet longer than a NBA basketball court. The cast of the titanosaur is so large, its back grazes the 19-foot tall ceiling and its head protrudes outside the gallery that encases it, greeting guests with its toothy grin.

The new titanosaur exhibit showcases the largest land animal ever known. It doesn’t even fit in one room! Image credit: D. Finnin and the American Museum of Natural History

The titanosaur belongs to the group of dinosaurs called sauropods, or more affectionately known as “long-necks.” Its discovery is actually so recent that “titanosaur” is not even the official scientific name, which has yet to be determined. The species was discovered by a farmer in Argentina in 2014 when he realized a rocky outcropping was actually an 8-foot femur. Since then, paleontologists have discovered remains from seven different individuals in the same area that all died about 100 million years ago.  From those remains, 122-foot cast was completed, and the living dinosaur is estimated to have weighed 70 tons.

The titanosaur wasn’t the only large prehistoric animal to hit the news this week. A newly described species of marine crocodile called Machimosaurus rex—or M. rex for short—was a 3 ton, nearly 30 meter long beast living 120 million years ago, as described in the journal Cretaceous Research. Originally discovered in December 2014 in the Tataouine (not Tatooine) basin of southern Tunisia, the 31-foot M. rex is the largest saltwater crocodilian ever discovered. The freshwater species Sarcosuchus imperator, more affectionately known as “SuperCroc,” still holds the title for biggest croc ever though. The 110 million year old SuperCroc species grew to 40 feet in length.

M. rex crocodile
M. rex is the largest saltwater crocodile to have ever lived, measuring nearly 30 feet. Image credit: Illustration by Davide Bonadonna

And finally, while not as massive as the titanosaur or as ferocious as M. rex, paleontologists also described the largest giraffe to ever live in the journal Biology Letters. The not-so-discreetly named Sivatherium giganteum lived in Africa and Asia about 1 million years ago. S. giganteum was actually first discovered 180 years ago, but this new study provides a thorough reconstruction of what a complete skeleton may have looked like, as well as new estimates for its body mass. The species has previously been compared to the size of an elephant, but the new computer-based analysis estimates that S. giganteum weighed on average 2,750 pounds. A lot less than a 14,000 pound elephant, but probably still making it the largest giraffe species.

S. giganteum is not your typical giraffe, looking more like a cross between an okapi and a moose, but it is probably the largest giraffe species to ever live. Image credit: Basu C. et al. Biology Letters, 2016.

Ebola Outbreak “Officially Over”…for Less Than a Day

The Ebola epidemic began in the West African country of Guinea in December 2013, but only gained global attention in the second half of 2014. On January 14, 2016, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared an end to the most recent Ebola outbreak. The announcement is specific to the country of Liberia, since Sierra Leone and Guinea have already been Ebola-free for several months.

42 days before the announcement, the last confirmed Ebola patient in Liberia tested negative for the disease twice. The incubation cycle of Ebola is 21 days, so after exactly two incubation cycles have passed with no re-emergence of the disease, and country can be effectively declared “disease-free.” Ebola struck Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone the hardest, and the WHO reports that this is the first time that all three countries have had zero reported Ebola cases for 42 days.

Except that good news didn’t last long.

On January 15, 2016, a day after Liberia was declared Ebola-free, a new flare-up was discovered in Sierra Leone.  A 22-year-old woman died from the disease, resulting in dozens of people she had contact with being quarantined. By January 21 her aunt had contracted the disease as well.

Ebola virus virion
The ebola virus was known to exist before 2014, and there have even been several smaller outbreaks since the initial discovery in 1976. Exactly where and how the current outbreak spread to major cities is unknown, but scientists suspect the disease is carried in a small percentage of bats, which are a common food source in the region. Image credit: Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s Public Health Image Library

Scientists have some ideas about where the Ebola virus arises (bats seem to be a probable reservoir), but no consensus has been reached. The Ebola virus is spread between humans via bodily fluids, so even when there are no outbreaks in Liberia, Guinea, or Sierra Leone, some creature out in the wild is still carrying the disease. While the WHO’s January 14th announcement was cause for some celebration, it was also an urge to maintain vigilance. From the WHO’s report, Dr. Bruce Aylward said, “The risk of re-introduction of infection is diminishing as the virus gradually clears from the survivor population, but we still anticipate more flare-ups and must be prepared for them.”

It is unfortunate that such a flare-up occurred only hours after the report was released, but perhaps it will serve as a vital sign to West African countries and health systems that their guard must not be let down.

Great Science Reads from around the Web:

  • Last week, the American Museum of Natural History unveiled their latest exhibit, a new dinosaur skeleton called the titanosaur, measuring 122 feet long. The skeleton literally doesn’t even fit in one room. But FiveThirtyEight reporter David Goldenberg set out to sift the truth from the flack and investigates whether “The Biggest Dinosaur in History May Never Have Existed.” The 122-foot Titanosaur isn’t the focus of his questioning though, but the very, very long-necked Amphicoelias fragmillimus that would amount to 190 feet in length, nearly twice the size of an adult blue whale.
  • One mom looks to make science education more fun for her kids by turning the periodic table of elements into a game of battleship. I can hear it playing out now: “You sunk my cobalt-nickel-copper-zinc-selenium battleship!”
  • MIT Technology Review reports that “Parents Turn to Prozac to Treat Down Syndrome.” Early studies might indicate that taking Prozac during pregnancy after the fetus has been diagnosed with Down syndrome may help improve cognitive development. The research is in its early days, but the mechanism could involve the increased release of serotonin in the developing brain. Proper levels of serotonin are not only important for combatting depression, but also for proper brain development.
  • In an opinion piece for The Washington Post, a lifelong NFL fan that treats concussions comes to a hard conclusion: “the whole football enterprise—especially on the professional level—is unethical at its core.”
  • “There are so many ways for researchers to bore people with tasks,” Maggie Koerth-Baker reports in her feature for Nature, “Why boredom is anything but boring.” Neuroscientists and psychologists may be ramping up studies on “your brain on boredom,” as the mental state is continually linked to risky behaviors, depression, and even traumatic brain injury. Read on to learn about a man named Paul who became bored with his hobby of drumming after suffering head trauma in a car accident, as well as a science experiment with “the most boring video ever.”

Thanks for reading! Check in next week for more of the latest science news!

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