Year in Health and Science: The top local research stories of the year


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Here are some of the top research projects carried out at local and state institutions this year.

Alzheimer's disease

Eating baked or broiled fish at least once a week seems to reduce the chances of getting Alzheimer's disease, doctors at UPMC found. By tracking people randomly selected from a heart study who documented their diets, Cyrus Raji and colleagues found that 10 years later, the ones who ate fish regularly had more gray matter and performed better on working memory tests. Eating fried fish did not seem to have the same impact, they found.

Astronomy

A Penn State University astronomer has discovered three new planets orbiting dying stars, tens of light-years away from our solar system. Alex Wolszczan and his team found the planets near three red giant stars, which are expanding and may have swallowed other planets in their paths. Our own sun will become a red giant in about 5 billion years, and one futuristic idea is that humans may decamp from Earth then and colonize Jupiter's moon Europa, which is icebound today, but in the far future "may melt and spend a couple billion years in the Goldilocks zone -- not too hot, not too cold -- covered by vast, beautiful oceans," he said.

Autism

One of the biggest challenges in autism is diagnosing the condition early. Now, scientists at Carnegie Mellon University and two other institutions have found one possible way of doing that. They discovered that when they did brain imaging of sleeping toddlers, the ones who had autism had much weaker synchronization of the language areas on either side of the brain. The weaker the links, the more language difficulties the children had, said Carnegie Mellon researcher Marlene Behrmann . The finding might one day allow diagnosis of children as young as 1.

Biology

In one of the more bizarre examples of evolution, a scientist at Penn State University and his colleagues have found that a certain fungus can turn one species of ants into zombies that commit suicide under the instructions of the fungus. Penn State entomologist David P. Hughes found that when the fungus infiltrated the bodies and nervous systems of carpenter ants in Thailand, it caused them to wander off their trails high in the trees, fall to the ground, and then clamp their jaws onto the underside of leaves that are at exactly the right height for the fungus to reproduce. The ants cannot reopen their jaws, and they die in that spot, after which the fungi sprout up through the ants' heads and wait for their next victims.

Brain science

In a dramatic demonstration of a device that may one day help severely paralyzed people regain their ability to function, doctors at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine laid a grid of electrodes directly onto the brain of a completely paralyzed man, which allowed him to guide a prosthetic arm with his thoughts, touching the hand of his girlfriend. Tim Hemmes of Butler County, a motorcycle accident victim, trained for months with the brain-computer interface to control the prosthetic arm. The project was overseen by Michael Boninger , director of the UPMC Rehabilitation Institute, and Andrew Schwartz , a neurobiology professor at the school of medicine.

Breast cancer

Doctors at Allegheny General Hospital announced two important breast cancer findings this year. In one study, they found that women who had a minor spread of cancer to their lymph nodes after their initial treatments did not need to get further therapy. In another, they found that women who had recurrences of breast cancer did just as well with a less damaging lumpectomy and implants of radioactive seeds as those getting a full mastectomy. Thomas Julian , associate director of Allegheny General's Breast Care Center, was the lead researcher in the lymph node study, while Mark Trombetta of the radiation oncology department led the lumpectomy study.

Cancer therapy

At Duquesne University , medicinal pharmacist Aleem Gangjee is developing anti-cancer compounds that target cancer cells but leave healthy cells alone. He has received a series of National Institutes of Health grants to create the compounds, including one that would hook up to receptors on the cells of ovarian, lung and pancreatic cancers that are not found on typical cells. The compounds will first be tested on animals at the University of Texas Health Science Center in San Antonio.

Climate change

By pulling a 6-foot-long plug of sediment out of a lake bed high in the Andes, University of Pittsburgh geologist Mark Abbott and colleagues at two other schools have found that global warming since 1900 has steadily reduced the amount of rainfall in the tropics, which threatens the ability of the rainforest to pull carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. The scientists measured the amount of an oxygen isotope in each annual layer of the lake bed -- the higher its concentration, the drier the year had been. As global temperatures rise, the storm zone between the northern and southern hemispheres shifts north, reducing the monsoon season in the tropics.

Computer science

What if you could use your forearm or the palm of your hand as a touchpad? That's the idea behind OmniTouch, a new Microsoft experimental project developed with the help of Carnegie Mellon University Ph.D. student Chris Harrison . A shoulder-mounted depth-detecting camera and laser projector allows the user to show a touch screen or keypad on any surface and then tap the keys or move objects just as he would with an iPad or similar device. Eventually, the system could be made as small as a deck of cards, so it could be carried easily or integrated into future devices.

Medicine

The secret to protecting patients during new procedures that cool down their bodies might lie with the ancient woolly mammoth, a team led by Carnegie Mellon University 's Chien Ho has found. The mammoths, which lived in Europe and Asia more than 1 million years ago, had special mutations that kept their blood functioning during icy temperatures. Mr. Ho and his colleagues were able to use fragments of mammoth DNA recovered from specimens found in Siberia to reconstruct a hemoglobin protein that was much less sensitive to cold temperatures, which could one day help patients whose bodies are cooled for brain and heart procedures.

Paleoanthropology

A jawbone found in an English cave in 1927 may be the oldest evidence of modern humans in Europe, new work by Penn State University scientists has concluded. By doing radiocarbon dating on objects found near the piece of upper jaw, Beth Shapiro and colleagues estimated it is 41,000 to 44,000 years old, which would firm up the idea that humans co-existed with Neanderthals, a now extinct species that also lived in Europe at the time.

Technology

Imagine a substance that would prevent ice from forming on power lines, wind turbines or airplane wings. That's the promise of a new nanoparticle coating developed by Di Gao , a chemical engineering professor at the University of Pittsburgh . By creating a coating with silica particles of 50 nanometers or less (20,000 of them could fit on the period in this sentence), the research team showed that super-chilled water would not form ice crystals on a metal surface, even at minus 4 degrees Fahrenheit. See www.pitt.edu/news2009/ice.html for a video demonstration.


Mark Roth: mroth@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1130. First Published December 26, 2011 5:00 AM


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