Scientists racing to save vital medical isotopes imperiled by shabby reactors

There’s a mad dash for a vital radioactive isotope that’s used in about 50,000 medical procedures every day in the US, including spotting deadly cancers and looming heart problems. Currently, access to it hinges on a shaky supply chain and a handful of aging nuclear reactors in foreign countries. But federal regulators and a few US companies are pushing hard and spending millions to produce it domestically and shore up access, Kaiser Health News reports.

The isotope, molybdenum-99 (Mo-99), decays to the short-lived Technetium-99m (Tc-99m) and other isotopes, which are used as radiotracers in medical imaging. Injected into patients, the isotopes spotlight how the heart is pumping, what parts of the brain are active, or if tumors are forming in bones.

But, to get to those useful endpoints, Mo-99 has to wind through a fraught journey. According to KHN, most Mo-99 in the US is made by irradiating Cold War-era uranium from America’s nuclear stockpile. The US Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration secretly ships it to aging reactors abroad. The reactors—and five subsequent processing plants—are in Australia, Canada, Europe (Netherlands, Belgium, Poland, and the Czech Republic), and South Africa, according to a 2016 report by The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine. Private companies then rent irradiation time at the reactors, send the resulting medley of isotopes to processing plants, book the final Mo-99 on commercial flights back to the US, and distribute it to hospitals and pharmacies.

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Delays to NASA’s commercial crew program may be worse than feared

Publicly, both Boeing and SpaceX maintain that they will fly demonstration missions by the end of this year that carry astronauts to the International Space Station. This would put them on course to become certified for “operational” missions to the station in early 2019, to ensure NASA’s access to the orbiting laboratory.

On Wednesday, during a congressional hearing, representatives from both companies reiterated this position. “We have high confidence in our plan,” Boeing’s commercial crew program manager John Mulholland said. SpaceX Vice President Hans Koenigsmann said his company would be ready, too.

However their testimony before the US House Subcommittee on Space was undercut by the release of a report Wednesday by the US Government Accountability Office. The lead author of that report, Christina Chaplain, told Congress during the same hearing that she anticipated these certification dates would be much later. For SpaceX, operational flights to the station were unlikely before December, 2019, and Boeing unlikely before February, 2020, Chaplain said.

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How gold nanoparticles may make killing tumors easier

One of the ways to kill a cancer is to cook it, since heat can kill cells. The trick, of course, is to only cook the cancer and not the surrounding tissue. To do this, you need to have an accurate idea of the extent of a tumor, a precise mechanism for delivering heat, and a damn good thermometer. It may surprise you to learn that gold nanoparticles do a pretty good job of achieving the first two. The third—a good thermometer—has eluded researchers for quite some time. But, now it seems that gold nanoparticles may provide the full trifecta.

Drowning a tumor in molten gold

Some cancers—the ones most people imagine when they think of cancer—form lumps of tissue. At some point, these lumps require a blood supply. Once supplied with blood vessels, the tumor can not only grow, but it has a readily available transport system to deliver the cells that can spread the cancer throughout the body. For the patient, this is not good news.

The development of a blood supply opens up new imaging and treatment options, though. Cancer tumors are not well-organized tissues compared to healthy tissue like muscle or kidney tissue. So there are lots of nooks and crannies in a tumor that can trap small particles. And this disorganization is exactly what researchers hope to take advantage of. Gold nanoparticles are injected into the blood stream; these exit the blood supply, but, in most of the body, they get rapidly cleaned out. Except that, inside tumors, the nanoparticles lodge all over the place.

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DNA from an escaped slave who ended up in Iceland ID’d in his descendants

Hans Jonatan left Denmark in 1802 and eventually started a new life as an immigrant in Iceland. But he was an unusual Icelander. Unlike most Icelanders—and even most immigrants to Iceland—Hans Jonatan was mixed-race and a former slave. By piecing together genetic information from his descendants, scientists in Iceland have now reconstructed a substantial portion of Jonatan’s own genome and genetic history.

Jonatan’s history has been a subject of fascination, not only because he was an unexpected person to find in 19th-century Iceland, but because of his role in Danish legal history. His journey started in the Caribbean, where he was born to an enslaved mother in the then-Danish colony of St. Croix. Jonatan and his mother were brought along when the plantation-owning family returned to Denmark, but Jonatan managed to escape and ended up joining the Danish Navy.

When he was eventually caught and imprisoned, his lawyer argued for his emancipation on the grounds that slavery was illegal in Denmark, albeit still legal in Danish colonies. Jonatan lost the case, and the judge ordered that Jonatan should be returned to the Caribbean. He escaped again and disappeared from Denmark, turning up in 1805 in Iceland.

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Neuron cascade may be akin to neutral selection in evolution

“I am sorry, but your brain suffers from avalanches” is a diagnosis that should be a thing. The cure should involve a St. Bernard digging neurons out from under piles of neurotransmitters. Unfortunately, everyone’s brain suffers from avalanches. Indeed, I can safely diagnose anyone who does not suffer from avalanches as dead. (And you thought the barriers to graduate school were intellectual?)

An avalanche in the brain is basically a small, generally inconspicuous event that triggers a massive cascade of neuronal activity. These are observed to occur without any external triggers.

So why do they occur? It has been thought that these avalanches should confer some sort of benefit, but new research suggests that it might just be a noisy accident.

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Beware a bottled booger blast—they can blow up your throat, doctors warn

Ah… AHHH… Choose wisely when it comes to handling that impending sneeze. Holding one in can lead to some serious damage, British doctors report Monday in BMJ Case Reports.

In their rare-disease case report, they relay the tale of an otherwise healthy 34-year-old male who managed to tear a hole the back of his throat trying to extinguish a snot explosion.

The man showed up in an emergency room with an alarming popping sensation and swelling in his throat. He was also in terrible pain and could barely talk. Subsequent X-rays and CT scans revealed that he had bubbles of air throughout his neck, including along his spine. The doctors also noted a crackling, grating sound coming from both sides of his throat down to his chest, which is a sign of gas trapped inside tissue.

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Gut bacteria linked to cataclysmic epidemic that wiped out 16th-century Mexico

In the wake of the Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire in 1521, waves of epidemics slammed Mexico. By 1576, the population, which had been more than 20 million before the Spanish arrived, had crashed to two million. One brutal outbreak in 1545 was estimated to have killed between five and 15 million alone—or up to 80 percent of the population.

But, like the other epidemics, the disease behind the 1545 outbreak was a complete mystery—until now.

Genetic evidence pulled from the teeth of 10 victims suggests that the particularly nasty bacterium Salmonella enterica subsp. enterica serovar Paratyphi C contributed to the scourge of fever, bleeding, dysentery, and red rashes recorded at the time. The genetic data, published Monday in Nature Ecology and Evolution, offers the first molecular evidence to try to explain what’s “regarded as one of the most devastating epidemics in New World history,” the authors conclude.

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Whatever causes fast radio bursts is sitting in an intense magnetic field

The Arecibo Observatory may be suffering along with the rest of Puerto Rico, but some of its data made a big appearance in last week’s edition of Nature. The data comes from the only object of its type we’ve identified yet: a repeating source of fast radio bursts. And, while the new observations don’t definitively tell us what’s creating the bursts, they do suggest that whatever it is, it’s buried in an extremely energetic cloud of material that’s generating some of the most intense magnetic fields we’ve yet found in the Universe. So intense, in fact, that if the source of the magnetic field is a black hole, then it is as massive as 10,000 Suns.

What is that?

A bit over a decade ago, we didn’t even know that fast radio bursts existed. Then a radiotelescope accidentally captured a sudden spike of immense energy that vanished within an instant. That might be dismissed as a hardware glitch, except the observatory eventually caught a few more; over time, dedicated searches revealed that fast radio bursts are a regular, if rare, phenomenon.

The amount of energy produced in a fast radio burst typically comes from a cataclysmic event, one that destroys its source. And indeed, there was no indication of a second burst from any of these sources—but no sign of anything interesting at their location in any other wavelength. The source of fast radio bursts remained a mystery.

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