cancer

Did Anton the AI find a new treatment for a deadly cancer?

Researchers used a supercomputer to learn about the subtle movement of a cancer-causing molecule, and then they found the precise drug that can recognize that motion.

Matthew Monteith

Bile duct cancer is a rare and aggressive form of cancer that is often difficult to diagnose. Patients with advanced forms of the disease have an average life expectancy of less than two years.

Many patients who get cancer in their bile ducts – the tubes that carry digestive fluid from the liver to the small intestine – have mutations in the protein FGFR2, which leads cells to grow uncontrollably. One treatment option is chemotherapy, but it’s toxic to both cancer cells and healthy cells, failing to distinguish between the two. Increasingly, cancer researchers are focusing on biomarker directed therapy, or making drugs that target a particular molecule that causes the disease – FGFR2, in the case of bile duct cancer.

A problem is that in targeting FGFR2, these drugs inadvertently inhibit the FGFR1 protein, which looks almost identical. This causes elevated phosphate levels, which is a sign of kidney damage, so doses are often limited to prevent complications.

In recent years, though, a company called Relay has taken a unique approach to picking out FGFR2, using a powerful supercomputer to simulate how proteins move and change shape. The team, leveraging this AI capability, discovered that FGFR2 and FGFR1 move differently, which enabled them to create a more precise drug.

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Sarah Philip
Sarah Philip is a London-based freelance journalist who writes about science, film and TV. You can follow her on Twitter @sarahph1lip.
Air pollution can lead to lung cancer. The connection suggests new ways to stop cancer in its tracks.

Researchers at Francis Crick Institute found that air pollution can "wake up" existing mutations, triggering them to turn into lung cancer. The scientists used their new understanding about this connection to prevent cancer in mice.

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Forget taking a deep breath. Around the world, 99 percent of people breathe air polluted to unsafe levels, according to data from the World Health Organization. Activities such as burning fossil fuels release greenhouse gases that contribute to air pollution, which could lead to heart disease, stroke, asthma, emphysema, and some types of cancer.

“The burden of disease attributable to air pollution is now estimated to be on a par with other major global health risks such as unhealthy diet and tobacco smoking, and air pollution is now recognized as the single biggest environmental threat to human health,” wrote the authors of a 2021 WHO report.

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Robin Donovan
Robin Donovan is a science journalist based in Portland, Oregon. Her work has appeared in Vice, Neo.Life, The Scientist, Willamette Week and many other outlets.
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Naked Mole Rats Defy Aging. One Scientist Has Dedicated Her Career to Finding Out How.

Naked mole rats have extraordinarily long lifespans and are extremely resistant to cancer.

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Rochelle "Shelley" Buffenstein has one of the world's largest, if not the largest, lab-dwelling colonies of the naked mole rat. (No one has done a worldwide tabulation, but she has 4,500 of them.) Buffenstein has spent decades studying the little subterranean-dwelling rodents. Over the years, she and her colleagues have uncovered one surprising discovery after another, which has led them to re-orient the whole field of anti-aging research.

Naked mole rats defy everything we thought we knew about aging. These strange little rodents from arid regions of Africa, such as Kenya, Ethiopia and Somalia, live up to ten times longer than their size would suggest. And unlike virtually every other animal, they don't lose physical or cognitive abilities with age, and even retain their fertility up until the end of life. They appear to have active defenses against the ravages of time, suggesting that aging may not be inevitable. Could these unusual creatures teach humans how to extend life and ameliorate aging?

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Eve Herold

Eve Herold is a science writer specializing in issues at the intersection of science and society. She has written and spoken extensively about stem cell research and regenerative medicine and the social and bioethical aspects of leading-edge medicine. Her 2007 book, Stem Cell Wars, was awarded a Commendation in Popular Medicine by the British Medical Association. Her 2016 book, Beyond Human, has been nominated for the Kirkus Prize in Nonfiction, and a forthcoming book, Robots and the Women Who Love Them, will be released in 2019.

Podcast: The Inner Lives of Human Breasts

In today's episode, Leaps.org interviews Camila dos Santos, a molecular biologist at Cold Spring Harbor Lab, about her research on breasts and what makes them unique compared to any other part of the body.

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My guest today for the Making Sense of Science podcast is Camila dos Santos, associate professor at Cold Spring Harbor Lab, who is a leading researcher of the inner lives of human mammary glands, more commonly known as breasts. These organs are unlike any other because throughout life they undergo numerous changes, first in puberty, then during pregnancies and lactation periods, and finally at the end of the cycle, when babies are weaned. A complex interplay of hormones governs these processes, in some cases increasing the risk of breast cancer and sometimes lowering it. Witnessing the molecular mechanics behind these processes in humans is not possible, so instead Dos Santos studies organoids—the clumps of breast cells donated by patients who undergo breast reduction surgeries or biopsies.


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Lina Zeldovich
Lina Zeldovich has written about science, medicine and technology for Scientific American, Reader’s Digest, Mosaic Science and other publications. She’s an alumna of Columbia University School of Journalism and the author of the upcoming book, The Other Dark Matter: The Science and Business of Turning Waste into Wealth, from Chicago University Press. You can find her on http://linazeldovich.com/ and @linazeldovich.
How Genetic Testing and Targeted Treatments Are Helping More Cancer Patients Survive

Scientists are studying cancer genomes to more precisely diagnose their patients' diseases - offering hope for targeted drug treatments.

Late in 2018, Chris Reiner found himself “chasing a persistent cough” to figure out a cause. He talked to doctors; he endured various tests, including an X-ray. Initially, his physician suspected bronchitis. After several months, he still felt no improvement. In May 2019, his general practitioner recommended that Reiner, a business development specialist for a Seattle-based software company, schedule a CAT scan.

Reiner knew immediately that his doctor asking him to visit his office to discuss the results wasn’t a good sign. The longtime resident of Newburyport, MA, remembers dreading “that conversation that people who learn they have cancer have.”

“The doctor handed me something to look at, and the only thing I remember after that was everything went blank all around me,” Reiner, 50, reveals. “It was the magnitude of what he was telling me, that I had a malignant mass in my lung.”

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Christopher Johnston
Christopher Johnston has published more than 3,500 articles in publications including American Theatre, Christian Science Monitor, History Magazine, and Scientific American. His book, Shattering Silences: Strategies to Prevent Sexual Assault, Heal Survivors, and Bring Assailants to Justice (Skyhorse) was published in May 2018. He is a member of the Board of the American Society of Journalists and Authors.
Naked Mole Rats Defy Aging. One Scientist Has Dedicated Her Career to Finding Out How.

Naked mole rats have extraordinarily long lifespans and are extremely resistant to cancer.

Adobe Stock

Rochelle "Shelley" Buffenstein has one of the world's largest, if not the largest, lab-dwelling colonies of the naked mole rat. (No one has done a worldwide tabulation, but she has 4,500 of them.) Buffenstein has spent decades studying the little subterranean-dwelling rodents. Over the years, she and her colleagues have uncovered one surprising discovery after another, which has led them to re-orient the whole field of anti-aging research.

Naked mole rats defy everything we thought we knew about aging. These strange little rodents from arid regions of Africa, such as Kenya, Ethiopia and Somalia, live up to ten times longer than their size would suggest. And unlike virtually every other animal, they don't lose physical or cognitive abilities with age, and even retain their fertility up until the end of life. They appear to have active defenses against the ravages of time, suggesting that aging may not be inevitable. Could these unusual creatures teach humans how to extend life and ameliorate aging?

Keep Reading Keep Reading
Eve Herold

Eve Herold is a science writer specializing in issues at the intersection of science and society. She has written and spoken extensively about stem cell research and regenerative medicine and the social and bioethical aspects of leading-edge medicine. Her 2007 book, Stem Cell Wars, was awarded a Commendation in Popular Medicine by the British Medical Association. Her 2016 book, Beyond Human, has been nominated for the Kirkus Prize in Nonfiction, and a forthcoming book, Robots and the Women Who Love Them, will be released in 2019.

How mRNA Could Revolutionize Medicine
Photo by the National Cancer Institute on Unsplash

In November 2020, messenger RNA catapulted into the public consciousness when the first COVID-19 vaccines were authorized for emergency use. Around the same time, an equally groundbreaking yet relatively unheralded application of mRNA technology was taking place at a London hospital.

Over the past two decades, there's been increasing interest in harnessing mRNA — molecules present in all of our cells that act like digital tape recorders, copying instructions from DNA in the cell nucleus and carrying them to the protein-making structures — to create a whole new class of therapeutics.

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David Cox
David Cox is a science and health writer based in the UK. He has a PhD in neuroscience from the University of Cambridge and has written for newspapers and broadcasters worldwide including BBC News, New York Times, and The Guardian. You can follow him on Twitter @DrDavidACox.
Scientist hand holding red blood bag in storage refrigerator at blood bank
Photo by arcyto

Stacey Khoury felt more fatigued and out of breath than she was used to from just walking up the steps to her job in retail jewelry sales in Nashville, Tennessee. By the time she got home, she was more exhausted than usual, too.

"I just thought I was working too hard and needed more exercise," recalls the native Nashvillian about those days in December 2010. "All of the usual excuses you make when you're not feeling 100%."

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Christopher Johnston
Christopher Johnston has published more than 3,500 articles in publications including American Theatre, Christian Science Monitor, History Magazine, and Scientific American. His book, Shattering Silences: Strategies to Prevent Sexual Assault, Heal Survivors, and Bring Assailants to Justice (Skyhorse) was published in May 2018. He is a member of the Board of the American Society of Journalists and Authors.