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Notebook Science

Kevin Van Paassen/Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre via AP

An Alzheimer’s patient is prepared for ultrasound treatment. (Kevin Van Paassen/Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre via AP)


Alzheimer’s opening?

Dementia gets the ultrasound treatment

Australian researchers say they are ready to begin testing a promising new treatment for Alzheimer’s disease. The technique, which involves guided ultrasound, could hold out hope for the 44 million people worldwide who suffer from the progressive brain disorder.

Scientists are unsure what causes Alzheimer’s, but they know it involves plaques that form when abnormal amounts of beta-amyloid protein clump together and collect between brain cells. Developing a treatment is difficult because the blood-brain barrier, which protects the brain from infections and toxins, also keeps out many drugs. Also, Alzheimer’s impairs microglial cells in the brain that usually clean up harmful proteins, and the blood-brain barrier blocks components of the immune system that could stimulate the cells back into action.

In 2015 University of Queensland scientists discovered that guided ultrasound could open spots on the blood-brain barrier of mice with Alzheimer’s. The researchers injected harmless microbubbles of air into the bloodstream of the mice, then used MRI to guide ultrasound waves to specific regions of the barrier. The sound waves caused the microbubbles to vibrate and enlarge, temporarily opening up the targeted areas. The procedure cleared almost all of the plaque from 75 percent of the mice, whose memory subsequently improved, the website IFLScience reported.

Another study, published July 25 last year in Nature, tested the safety of the method in five human patients with early to moderate Alzheimer’s. In all five patients the researchers safely opened the blood-brain barrier for less than 24 hours without the use of drugs. The procedure allowed the body’s own natural antibodies to cross the barrier and stimulate glial cells to clean out plaques. The researchers also discovered that the focused ultrasound increased the number of new brain cells in the hippocampus, a brain region involved in learning and memory.

In December the University of Queensland announced that researchers had received Australian funding to test the effectiveness of this approach and planned to begin human trials later this year.

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Pro-life in the lab

Pro-life advocates praise the Trump administration’s agency-level ban on fetal tissue research

In September, the Trump administration quietly banned scientists employed by the National Institutes of Health from acquiring new human fetal tissue for research. As effects of the ban began to reach research labs later in the year, outraged critics claimed the restraint would impede necessary medical research, such as studies to find a cure for HIV and the Zika virus. But pro-life advocates greeted the measure as a much-needed move to protect the unborn: Fetal tissue for research is usually obtained from aborted fetuses.

Congress approved the use of federal funds for fetal tissue research in 1993, during the Clinton presidency. In 2015, following the release of undercover videos that showed the sale of human fetal body parts by Planned Parenthood, the congressional Energy and Commerce Committee formed a panel to investigate human fetal tissue research.

The panel released a report in 2017 describing such research as unproductive and unnecessary for producing medical treatments. The panel’s investigators found that the overwhelming majority of current studies do not require fetal tissue, including studies of the Zika virus. The report advocated the use of other tissue types whenever possible, including adult tissue, stem cells obtained in an ethically uncontroversial manner, and fetal cells procured from the cadavers of stillborn or preborn babies who died naturally.

The NIH plans to invest $20 million toward the development of research alternatives to human fetal tissue, Science magazine reported. David Prentice, research director at the Charlotte Lozier Institute, believes this is a good first step and told me there are many ways scientists can accomplish current research goals without the use of fetal tissue.

Molecular and cell biologist Tara Sander Lee says ethical standards must always forbid the exploitation of one group of humans, such as unborn babies, for the benefit of another group. “Using the preborn as objects or means of experimentation, no matter what the outcome might prove or promise to be, constitutes an assault against their dignity as human beings created by God,” she told the Charlotte Lozier Institute.

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Climate faux pas

Researchers messed up the math

A recent global warming study shows there’s still a place for skeptics in the world of science.

After a team of climate scientists announced its newly published research showing that the oceans were warming much faster than previously thought, mainstream news outlets ran with the story.

But there was a problem: The study’s math was wrong.

The researchers had asserted that between 1991 and 2016, Earth’s oceans absorbed 60 percent more heat per year than current estimates. They concluded countries would need to slash global fossil-fuel emissions by an additional 25 percent above current proposals.

Soon after Nature published the study on Oct. 31, Nicholas Lewis, an independent climate scientist, discovered an error in the authors’ calculations. When the math was corrected, the results did not show an increase in ocean heat, Lewis wrote on the blog Climate Etc.

Some mainstream climate scientists defended the error as an example of science working the way it should. “Science is a human endeavor and it’s therefore imperfect. What’s important is that results are scrutinized and replicated by others so that we can assess what is robust and what isn’t,” Gavin Schmidt, director of the Goddard Institute for Space Sciences at NASA, told the AFP news service.

But the fact that the study passed peer review and was published in the first place suggests scientists may too quickly accept anything supporting the mainstream global warming narrative. The error wasn’t difficult to find, according to Lewis: “A quick review of the first page of the paper was sufficient to raise doubts as to the accuracy of its results.”

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