Category: Science

Breathing in air that has even low levels of pollution poses a threat to older adults’ heart and lungs, a new study warns.

Researchers analyzed medical records of more than 63 million Medicare patients from 2000 to 2016. They found that long-term exposure to low levels of air pollution could increase the risk of pneumonia, heart attack, stroke and the irregular heart rhythm known as atrial fibrillation, or a-fib.

The threat to the seniors’ heart and lungs was seen even at levels of air pollution below national standards, according to findings published Monday in the journal Circulation.

Researchers assessed three components of air pollution — fine particulate matter, nitrogen dioxide and ozone. Each unit of increase in levels of those pollutants was associated with thousands of hospital admissions a year, the study found.

The findings show that air pollution should be considered a risk factor for heart disease and lung disease, the researchers said.

“People should be conscious of the air quality in the region where they live to avoid harmful exposure over long periods of time, if possible,” said lead author Mahdieh Danesh Yazdi, a postdoctoral research fellow at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

“Since our study found harmful effects at levels below current U.S. standards, air pollution should be considered as a risk factor for cardiovascular and respiratory disease by clinicians, and policymakers should reconsider current standards for air pollutants,” she added in a journal news release.

Air pollution can harm the heart and lungs by triggering inflammation in the heart and throughout the body, the researchers said.

In terms of specific pollutants, higher risks of heart attack, stroke, a-fib and flutter, as well as pneumonia were associated with long-term exposure to particulate matter.

Long-term exposure to nitrogen dioxide was associated with an increased risk of stroke and a-fib.

Pneumonia was the only condition associated with long-term exposure to ozone. Researchers noted there are no national guidelines for safe or unsafe long-term ozone levels.

“When we restricted our analyses to individuals who were only exposed to lower concentrations of air pollution, we still found increased risk of hospital admissions with all of the studied outcomes, even at concentration levels below current national standards,” Danesh Yazdi said.

More than half of the study population is exposed to what U.S. benchmarks deem low levels of these pollutants, she said.

-upi

The company’s New Shepard rocket passed its 14th test, carrying a dummy nicknamed ‘Mannequin Skywalker’ 300,000 feet into the air.

The life-sized flight dummy sat in one of the six crew capsule seats to measure the vehicle’s overall performance during the test flight. Both the New Shepard rocket and the capsule landed successfully.

‘The success of this flight puts us one really big step closer to flying astronauts,’ launch commentator Ariane Cornell said from company headquarters in Kent, Washington. ‘There’s going to be a lot of fun ahead in 2021.’

Blue Origin plans to launch paying passengers – tourists, scientists and professional astronauts – on brief flights over remote desert in west Texas.

It is also working on a bigger rocket, New Glenn, that would blast off from Cape Canaveral as well as a lunar lander for astronauts under Nasa’s Artemis moon programme.

The capsule soaring on Thursday featured the latest crew upgrades: microphones and push-to-talk buttons for the six seats, wall panels to muffle engine noise, a safety-alert system, and temperature and humidity controls to keep passengers comfortable and the big windows free of fog.

The launch and landing team was scaled back because of the pandemic. New Shepard is named after the first American in space, Alan Shepard. New Glenn honours John Glenn, the first American in orbit.

Bezos founded Blue Origin in 2000 and established the launch facility in West Texas in 2015. Like Elon Musk’s SpaceX, it plans to shuttle humans into space for tourist trips and also transport astronauts to the moon.

-metrouk

Unlike many other vaccines that contain an infectious pathogen or a part of it, viral vector vaccines use a harmless virus to deliver a piece of genetic code to our cells, allowing them to make a pathogen’s protein. This trains our immune system to react to future infections.

When we have a bacterial or viral infection, our immune system reacts to molecules from the pathogen. If it is our first encounter with the invader, a finely tuned cascade of processes come together to fight the pathogen and build up immunity for future encounters.

Many traditional vaccines deliver an infectious pathogen or a part of it to our bodies to train our immune system to fight off future exposures to the pathogen.

Viral vector vaccines work differently. They make use of a harmless virus to deliver a piece of genetic code from a pathogen to our cells to mimic an infection. The harmless virus acts as a delivery system, or vector, for the genetic sequence.

Our cells then make the viral or bacterial protein that the vector has delivered and present it to our immune system.

This allows us to develop a specific immune response against a pathogen without the need to have an infection.

However, the viral vector itself plays an additional role by boosting our immune response. This leads to a more robust reaction than if the pathogen’s genetic sequence was delivered on its own.

The Oxford-AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine uses a chimpanzee common cold viral vector known as ChAdOx1, which delivers the code that allows our cells to make the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein.

Viral vectors

Scientists have studied many different types of viral vectors, including adenoviral vectors. Adenoviruses can cause the common cold, and there are many different types of these viruses.

Originally, researchers worked with modified adenoviruses for the purpose of gene therapy. However, because they are able to stimulate our immune system, adenoviral vectors make good candidates for vaccine development.

The Oxford-AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine uses a chimpanzee adenoviral vector. It delivers the gene that encodes the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein to our cells.

Our cells then transcribe this gene into messenger RNA, or mRNA, which in turn prompts our cellular machine to make the spike protein in the main body, or the cytoplasm, of the cell.

Then our cells present the spike protein, as well as small parts of it, on the cell surface, prompting our immune system to make antibodies and mount T cell responses.

Researchers have shown that this vaccine is safe and can effectively prevent COVID-19 in most people.

Safety and immunogenicity

The ChAdOx1 viral vector in the Oxford-AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine has been genetically altered so that it cannot replicate. Therefore, it is unable to cause an adenovirus infection in people who have had the vaccine.

It also cannot cause COVID-19, as it does not carry enough of the SARS-CoV-2 genetic material for our cells to assemble the entire SARS-CoV-2 virus. It only carries the code to make the spike protein.

The vaccine does not cause any permanent changes in our cells, and the genetic code for the spike protein does not become part of our own DNA.

With all viral vectors, one issue to consider is preexisting immunity. If a person encountered the virus that serves as the vector in the past, they may have antibodies to the virus. This means that their body will try to fight and destroy the viral vector, potentially making a vaccine less effective.

The Oxford University research team behind the Oxford-AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine previously reported that levels of preexisting antibodies to the ChAdOx1 viral vector were low when they assessed this in samples from adults from the United Kingdom and Gambia.

Writing in Nature Medicine in December 2020, the researchers saw no correlation between immunity to the vector and how well the COVID-19 vaccine worked or whether the volunteers receiving it had side effects in a Phase 1/2 clinical trial.

Other COVID-19 vaccines that use viral vectors include the Russian Sputnik V vaccine and the Janssen single-dose vaccine candidate.

-newstoday

They’re staples in many people’s diets over the festive period, and if you love red wine and cheese, a new study will come as music to your ears.

Researchers from Iowa State University have revealed that drinking red wine and eating cheese can help to reduce cognitive decline.

In the study, the researchers analysed data from 1,787 adults aged 46 to 77, and asked them to complete questionnaires about their food and alcohol consumption

The results showed that cheese, by far, was shown to be the most protective food against age-related cognitive problems, even into late life.

Daily consumption of red wine was also shown to improve cognitive function, while weekly consumption of lamb was shown to improve long-term cognitive prowess.

However, excessive consumption of salt was found to increase the risk of cognitive problems.

Dr Auriel Willette, who led the study, said: “I was pleasantly surprised that our results suggest that responsibly eating cheese and drinking red wine daily are not just good for helping us cope with our current COVID-19 pandemic, but perhaps also dealing with an increasingly complex world that never seems to slow down.

“While we took into account whether this was just due to what well-off people eat and drink, randomized clinical trials are needed to determine if making easy changes in our diet could help our brains in significant ways.”

While the reason for the link remains unclear, the researchers believe that cheese and red wine may have protect some people from the effects of Alzheimer’s.

Brandon Klinedinst, an author of the study, added: “Depending on the genetic factors you carry, some individuals seem to be more protected from the effects of Alzheimers, while other seem to be at greater risk.

“That said, I believe the right food choices can prevent the disease and cognitive decline altogether.

“Perhaps the silver bullet we’re looking for is upgrading how we eat. Knowing what that entails contributes to a better understanding of Alzheimer’s and putting this disease in a reverse trajectory.”

-mirror

Malaysian scientist Dr Ng Kwan Hoong can add another feather to his cap after winning the prestigious Merdeka Award 2020 for Outstanding Scholastic Achievement.

Dr Ng, a senior professor at the University of Malaya’s (UM) Faculty of Medicine, is best known for his research in predicting breast cancer risk by measuring breast density in patients.

He told Malay Mail that he was humbled to join the list of eminent names that previously won the Merdeka Award for Outstanding Scholastic Achievement.

The list includes the late historian Tan Sri Khoo Kay Kim, economics professor Rajah Rasiah, and engineering professor Masjuki Haji Hassan.

“It was definitely a pleasant surprise and a humbling experience when you look at the calibre of the past recipients (as they are) excellent scientists, engineers, and more who have contributed so much to Malaysia and are experts of their respective fields.

“I’m also grateful to the board of trustees and the various nomination committees of the Merdeka Award who selected me.

“It was a brief respite to the very challenging year we have had and the win capped my year off on a positive note,” said Dr Ng.

The prominent academic has had a long and illustrious career, having penned and co-authored over 250 papers in peer-reviewed journals.

He’s also an accomplished speaker and has presented over 550 scientific papers with over 350 of them being invited lectures.

Despite his many achievements, Dr Ng believes there is still much for him to learn when it comes to advancing his work in medical physics.

The 66-year-old strongly advocates the philosophy of lifelong learning and often encourages his students to challenge themselves by stepping out of their comfort zones.

“When one stops learning, one stops living. The phrase ‘I am too old to learn’ is just a myth. In today’s world, learning is even easier.

“We can now learn almost anything with access to online courses and YouTube.

“I always encourage my students and the younger generation to learn something new and challenging.”

Dr Ng previously brought global acclaim to Malaysia when he received the Marie Sklodowska-Curie Award in 2018 for his research in breast cancer risk assessment and radiation medicine.

Named after the famed Nobel Prize laureate and French-Polish scientist Marie Curie, the award is given out by the UK-based International Organisation for Medical Physics (IOMP), which represents 25,000 medical physicists worldwide.

Since then, Dr Ng has continued to immerse himself in his work and recently led a multidisciplinary team to create an online resource for new and emerging Covid-19 research.

Dr Ng said he was motivated to start the project to combat misinformation and the need for accurate, timely, and reliable data on the pandemic.

He added that scientists have a crucial part to play in the war against the virus and he hopes that the online resource can make key research materials succinct and accessible to those who need it.

“Scientists and technicians at their bench-tops and computers in their research laboratories are racing to find solutions, create new protective equipment, and ideally develop a vaccine.

“The project aims to provide reliable and timely web updates on the relevant published literature so the information is trusted, up-to-date, of sound science, and focused on what health professionals and scientists need.”

Dr Ng cites his love for humanity as the driving force in his work and he finds fulfilment in seeing his research improving the lives of those with cancer.

“Whatever that I have done and can still do to improve a diagnosis, prognosis, and treatment of various diseases, I will be on board.

“It is very satisfying, rewarding, and joyful to see some of the research findings and techniques contributing to the healing process of the patients as well as the prevention and early diagnosis of diseases.”

The Merdeka Award was established by Petronas, ExxonMobil and Shell in 2007 to recognise individuals and organisations whose achievements have not only contributed to the nation’s growth but have also inspired greatness in the people of Malaysia.

The award is divided into five categories: Education and Community, Environment, Health, Science and Technology, Outstanding Scholastic Achievement, and Outstanding Contribution to the People of Malaysia.

This year, the National Cancer Council (Makna) won in the category of Education and Community while the South East Asia Rainforest Research Partnership (SEARRP) and The Lost Food Project founder Suzanne Mooney were named as recipients of the Environment and Outstanding Contribution to the People of Malaysia awards respectively.

A winner for the Health, Science, and Technology category was not named this year.

For more information on the Merdeka Award 2020, visit its official website.

-malaymail

Roughly 50 and 35 million years ago, the hidden continent of Zealandia sank into the sea.

Only a tiny fraction of the continent (an area that has been estimated to be half the size of Australia) now remains above the waves.

You may know it more commonly as New Zealand.

But centuries before humans walked the Earth and most of Zealandia disappeared from the surface of the ocean, another creature ruled the area.

They were the ancestors of modern-day penguins.

A recent discovery by scientists have found what could be the missing link between ancient and modern penguins.

It all began in August 2020, where well-preserved 3-million-year-old fossils were found on New Zealand’s North Island. The fossils were identified as a previously-unknown species of crested penguins and was then named Eudyptes atatu.

The name comes from two different things.

Eudyptes refers to crested penguins, the ones with feathery yellow stripes above their eyes. Meanwhile, the word ‘atatu’ comes from the Maori term “ata tú” which means dawn.

The key points of Eudyptes atatu was the markedly more slender upper beak and jaw compared with other crested penguins, both from the past and the present.

Its beak suggests that it had a much different diet compared to its modern day successors, most of whom consume mostly small fish, krill, and crustaceans.

“Eudyptes atatu provides an important new window into the evolution and paleobiology of crown penguins and reinforces the importance of Zealandia for seabird evolution,” scientists said to Paleontology World.

Why is this important?

Previously, studies had only dated the pesence of crested penguins on New Zealand back to roughly 7,000 years.

But now, the new timeline suggests that Zealandia could be the place of origins for all penguin species, zoologist Daniel Thomas at Massey University, said.

“We propose that New Zealand is likely to be where the earliest ancestor to all crested penguins lived, and where the ancestor of all penguins lived,” Thomas said to Business Insider.

It’s being hypothesized that penguins once wandered around the continent of Zealandia when its surface had still remained above sea level long ago.

The ancient penguins would have stood 5 feet 8 inches tall (roughly 172 centimeters), looming over most humans today, and weighed 220 pounds.

-mashable

A recent study that analyzed the COVID-19 outbreak in Brazil found a link between the virus and previous outbreaks of the dengue fever.

It suggests that exposure to dengue may possibly provide some level of immunity from COVID-19.

The unpublished study, exclusively shared with Reuters, was spearheaded by Miguel Nicolelis, professor at Duke University.

The study draws parallels with geographic distribution of COVID-19 and the spread of dengue in 2019 and 2020.

It found that places with lower coronavirus infection and growth rates were also places that suffered dengue outbreaks recently.

Nicolelis said that the results of the study are fascinating because of how previous studies have found that people with dengue antibodies in their blood have a tendency to test falsely positive for COVID-19 antibodies although they’ve never been infected by the virus.

“This indicates that there is an immunological interaction between two viruses that nobody could have expected, because the two viruses are from completely different families.”

“If proven correct, this hypothesis could mean that dengue infection or immunization with an efficacious and safe dengue vaccine could produce some level of immunological protection against the coronavirus,” he said.

According to Nicolelis, his team came across the connection between the two viruses by accident while researching COVID-19 in Brazil.

A breakthrough came when the team began to compare the COVID-19 free areas to dengue dense areas.

“It was a shock. It was a total accident,” Nicolelis said.

“In science, that happens, you’re shooting at one thing and you hit a target that you never imagined you would hit.”

Although this is very promising, further studies are needed to prove and solidify the connection.

-mashable

A study jointly funded by the European Union and Japanese government suggests robots programmed with the ability to carry on conversations can positively impact the mental health of seniors in care homes.

The authors of the CARESSES study said a “culturally competent robot” named Pepper was tested on residents of elderly care homes in Britain and Japan over the course of three years. Pepper’s artificial intelligence was designed to allow the robot to carry on culturally specific conversations with seniors.

Residents who interacted with Pepper for up to 18 hours over the course of two weeks “saw a significant improvement in their mental health” as well as “a small but positive impact on loneliness severity,” the study’s authors said.

Chris Papadopoulos, a public health lecturer at Britain’s University of Bedfordshire and the lead researcher in the study, said the findings have become even more timely amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

“When we kicked off the project it was clear that loneliness in older adults was a really big problem that is increasing all the time and one that we were keen to tackle,” Papadopoulos told CNN. “Social care is incredibly stretched and we have an aging society.”

“Of course we could never have predicted how relevant this issue has become today, where we have enforced isolation in many care homes and selective isolation for many others which has resulted in feelings of loneliness,” he said. “Our system really couldn’t have come at a better time to try and reduce some of those issues.”

Papadopoulos said researchers estimate it will be another two or three years of research and development before the robots can be introduced to nursing homes and other facilities on a full-time basis.

-upi

Facebook has launched a new resource to help in the fight against climate change.

On Tuesday, ahead of the annual Climate Week summit in New York City, the company announced the launch of its Climate Science Information Center, a special Facebook Page that offers information and resources on climate change.

The company says the new climate info center will provide information on climate change from the world’s leading climate organizations, with Facebook News curators publishing posts from “quality publishers and other relevant sources.” The page will also provide viewers with steps they can take to prevent climate change.

The info center is modeled after the platform’s COVID-19 Info Center, which Facebook launched earlier this year to provide accurate information about the pandemic. The company claims more than 2 billion people have been directed to that info center, with 600 million clicking through to find more information.

The climate info center will first be available in the U.S., UK, Germany, and France, and will be rolling out to other countries “soon.”

Facebook also said it plans to achieve net zero carbon emissions for its global operations in 2020, and aims to reach net zero emissions for its entire value chain in 2030. Facebook’s examples of these efforts include the company’s data center in Odense, Denmark, which is fully supported by wind energy, and the data center in Clonee, Ireland, where the company has added a variety of native plants to support bee populations in the area and introduced a program to cultivate half a million bee hives.

All that sounds great, though it’s also worth noting that climate change denial and conspiracy theories have been running rampant on Facebook in recent years, with the social media company on at least one occasion overruling climate scientists’ fact checking on the matter.

-mashable

Venus is one of the most inhospitable places in the solar system, but astronomers have long speculated that microbes might be able to survive in the planet’s upper atmosphere, according to a study published Monday in the journal Nature Astronomy.

Now, scientists have confirmed the presence of phosphine molecules, featuring hydrogen and phosphorus, inside Venusian clouds — a possible signature of airborne, extra-terrestrial life.

Astronomers initially discovered the molecule using Hawaii’s James Clerk Maxwell Telescope. After the discovery, researchers used the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array, in Chile, to gather additional observations.

Both observatories field images in the electromagnetic spectrum, measuring light with wavelengths longer than those of infrared waves or x-rays but shorter than the wavelengths of radio waves or microwaves.

“This was an experiment made out of pure curiosity, really — taking advantage of JCMT’s powerful technology, and thinking about future instruments,” lead researcher Jane Greaves said in a news release.

“I thought we’d just be able to rule out extreme scenarios, like the clouds being stuffed full of organisms,” said Greaves, a professor of astronomy at Cardiff University in Wales. When we got the first hints of phosphine in Venus’ spectrum, it was a shock!”

Greaves first discovered the phosphine signature while working as a visiting research professor at the University of Cambridge’s Institute of Astronomy.

Observations using ALMA failed to reveal the phosphine signature in great detail, but the observatory’s images did confirm the molecule’s presence in Venusian clouds.

“We found that both observatories had seen the same thing — faint absorption at the right wavelength to be phosphine gas, where the molecules are backlit by the warmer clouds below,” said Greaves.

On Earth, phosphine is produced by industrial processes, as well as by microbes that thrive in oxygen-poor environs.

Models designed to simulate Venus’ atmosphere helped scientists interpret the data collected by ALMA and JCMT. Their analysis suggests the gas is relatively scarce, comprising just twenty molecules in every billion.

Researchers ran models to see if natural causes — including sunlight, minerals drafted upwards from the surface, volcanoes or lightning — might explain the presence of the rare molecule in Venus’ upper atmosphere. The simulations showed natural causes can explain, at most, just one ten-thousandth of the amount of phosphine found by ALMA and JCMT.

If microbes are indeed responsible for the production of the phosphine found in Venusian clouds, they likely look much different than the microbes that make phosphine on Earth.

“Phosphine is very hard to make in the oxygen-rich, hydrogen-poor clouds of Venus and fairly easy to destroy,” said study co-author Paul Rimmer, researcher at Cambridge’s Cavendish Laboratory. “The presence of life is the only known explanation for the amount of phosphine inferred by observations.”

“Both of these facts lie at the edge of our knowledge: the observations could be caused by an unknown molecule, or could be caused by chemistry we’re not aware of,” Rimmer said. “Ultimately, the only way to find out what’s really happening is to send a mission into the clouds of Venus to take a sample of the droplets and look at them to see what’s inside.”

Akatsuki, the Japanese space agency probe that entered orbit around Venus nearly five years ago, is currently mapping a series of dark streaks where ultraviolet light is absorbed. Scientists have suggested that colonies of microbes might explain the unusual streaks.

NASA is also working on plans to send unscrewed spacecraft to Venus.

“Two of the next four candidate missions for NASA’s Discovery Program are focused on Venus, as is Europe’s EnVision mission, in which NASA is a partner,” the space agency said in a news release. “Venus also is a planetary destination we can reach with smaller missions.”

Even if Venus’ toxic clouds are slightly more forgiving than its scorching-hot surface, they’re not exactly inviting — because they’re quite acidic.

“On Earth, some microbes can cope with up to about 5 percent acid in their environment — but the clouds of Venus are almost entirely made of acid,” said co-author Clara Sousa Silva from MIT.

Scientists are currently conducting follow-up experiments to better understand how microbes might be able to shield themselves from the acidic environs inside protective cloud droplets.

-upi

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