Thanks to a New Study, We May Be Able to Stop HIV in Its Tracks

Stuck in Place

There are several steps HIV-1 must go through in the process of infecting the body, but the most important is the invasion of an immune cell and enters its nucleus. From there, HIV-1 can take control of the cell and begin to replicate, which allows it to spread. Knowing this, one question that researchers have been asking for quite some time is, what if HIV-1 could be stopped before it makes it into a cell? Or even if the virus could be slowed down enough that the body’s immune system, and treatments that support it, had time to could get a head start on its attempts to destroy it?

A recent study conducted at Loyola University Chicago suggests this could be done, and it starts with the microtubules tracks the virus uses to get to the nucleus, as well as a protein known as bicaudal D2. The findings were published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

HIV-1 tends to move quickly through the body. So quickly, in fact, that it doesn’t give the body enough time to react to or even detect its presence. The virus reaches the immune cell’s nucleus by way of microtubules and attaches itself to bicaudal D2, which calls upon a molecular motor called a dynein to move along the microtubules. You could say that HIV-1 uses bicaudal D2 as a boarding pass for the biological train that will take it nonstop to its final destination within the cell: the nucleus.

That being said, if HIV-1 doesn’t have that protein, it essentially becomes stranded.

“By preventing its normal movement, we essentially turned HIV-1 into a sitting duck for cellular sensors,” explained Edward M. Campbell, Ph.D., corresponding author of the study and associate professor in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology of Loyola University Chicago Stritch School of Medicine.

Unwanted Exposure

The study carried out by Campbell and his team opens up the possibility of creating a drug that can prevent HIV-1 from binding to bicaudal D2. As explained by Medical Express, the introduction of such a drug would leave HIV-1 stranded in the cytoplasm — an area within the immune cell that’s thick with proteins and mitochondria. The virus must navigate through the cytoplasm to reach the nucleus, but it’s not an easy journey.

“Something the size of a virus cannot just diffuse through the cytoplasm,” said Campbell. “It would be like trying to float to the bathroom in a very crowded bar. You need to have a plan.”

Interrupting that trajectory could play a key role in future HIV treatments, or a cure. As Kristen Lanphear, Manager in Community Health Initiatives at Trillium Health, previously told Futurism, “No one tool is going to be enough to do the job because every tool doesn’t work the same for every person or every country.”

This new development is notable in that it could, theoretically, be used in combination with treatments that already exist, such as the vaccine being tested in Africa, or the antibody capable of fighting off 99 percent of HIV strains.

For the nearly 40 million people living with HIV, this research is promising. Of course, as with any new drug, the one proposed in Campbell’s study still needs more testing to determine its effectiveness and safety, particularly in terms of how it might interact with other treatments.

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Voyager 1 Just Fired Its Thrusters for the First Time in 37 Years

Good Morning

Voyager 1 just fired up a set of thrusters that have been dormant for 37 years. The aging spacecraft, first launched in 1977, is the fastest and most well-traveled spacecraft ever launched by NASA. It is also the first object made by humans to reach interstellar space, the vast world beyond our solar system.

The satellite relies on “attitude control” thrusters to orient itself so it can communicate with Earth using the Deep Space Network. The Voyager team had noticed diminishing returns on these thrusters since 2014, with the thrusters needing to fire up more often to give off the same amount of energy. To extend the life of the mission, researchers came up with the novel idea of reactivating the craft’s “trajectory correction maneuver” (TCM) thrusters.

Communication’s Next Frontier
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The TCM thrusters are identical to the degrading attitude control thrusters, only they are located on the back side of the satellite. They also hadn’t been switched on since the craft’s encounter with Saturn in 1980 and had never been used for the purpose of orienting the craft for communication.

Still, the team though the TCM thrusters might suit their purposes, so on November 28, they decided to fire them up with 10-millisecond pulses to test if they could be a viable replacement for the nearly spent thrusters. The team was delighted when the results of their test were resoundingly positive.

“The Voyager team got more excited each time with each milestone in the thruster test,” said Todd Barber, a NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) propulsion engineer, in a JPL news release. “The mood was one of relief, joy, and incredulity after witnessing these well-rested thrusters pick up the baton as if no time had passed at all.”

Voyager’s Voyage

The TCM thrusters will officially take over for the attitude control thrusters in January, and the Voyager team predicts that the backup thrusters will add another two to three years to Voyager 1’s mission. However, the TCM thrusters operate with the use of heaters, which drain Voyager 1’s limited power, so it is not a permanent switch. Once their ability to utilize the backups is diminished, the team will switch back to the original thrusters for the remainder of the mission.

And Voyager 1 has enjoyed a storied mission, indeed. The craft provided us with highly detailed images of our solar system’s largest planet, Jupiter, in 1979, followed by images of Saturn in 1980. The gravity of one of Saturn’s moons, Titan, disrupted the trajectory of Voyager 1, so instead of flying by the rest of the solar system, the craft headed toward interstellar space. Thirty-four years after launching, Voyager 1 became the first spacecraft to travel beyond our solar system.

Image credit: NASA/JPL
Image credit: NASA/JPL

New probes, like the planned Breakthrough Starshot, could actually reach the nearest star after the Sun, Alpha Centauri, within 20 to 50 years. The biggest problem facing future interstellar travel isn’t getting spacecraft to the stars, but slowing them down enough for the craft to gather meaningful data from their missions. Scientists are proposing ideas to help in this arena, including magnetic sails to slow satellites once they reach their destination.

Thanks to the innovation of dedicated scientists, Voyager 1 can continue its mission, and each additional year the craft is in operation, it has the potential to deliver new insights into the world beyond our solar system.

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Artificial Organs: We’re Entering an Era Where Transplants Are Obsolete

No More Heart Transplants

Around the world, lists of patients in need of an organ transplant are often longer than the lists of those willing (and able) to donate — in part because some of the most in-demand organs for transplant can only be donated after a person has died. By way of example, recent data from the British Heart Foundation (BHF) showed that the number of patients waiting for a heart transplant in the United Kingdom has grown by 162 percent in the last ten years.

Now, 50 years after the first successful heart transplant, experts believe we may be nearing an era where organ transplantation will no longer be necessary. “I think within ten years we won’t see any more heart transplants, except for people with congenital heart damage, where only a new heart will do,” Stephen Westaby, from the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford, told The Telegraph.

Westaby didn’t want to seem ungrateful for all the human lives saved by organ transplants, of course. On the contrary, he said that he’s a “great supporter of cardiac transplantation.” However, recent technological developments in medicine may well offer alternatives that could save more time, money, and lives.

“I think the combination of heart pumps and stem cells has the potential to be a good alternative which could help far more people,” Westaby told The Telegraph.

An Era of Artificial Organs

Foremost among these medical advances, and one that while controversial has continued to demonstrate potential, is the use of stem cells. Granted, applications for stem cells are somewhat limited, though that’s down more to ethical considerations more than scientific limitations. Still, the studies that have been done with stem cells have proven that it is possible to grow organs in a lab, which could then be implanted.

Science has also made it possible to produce artificial organs using another technological marvel, 3D printing. When applied to medicine, the technique is referred to as 3D bioprinting — and the achievements in the emerging technique have already been quite remarkable.

Thus far, scientists have successfully 3D-bioprinted several organs, including  a thyroid gland, a tibia replacement that’s already been implanted into a patient, as well as a patch of heart cells that actually beat. All of these organs were made possible by refinements to the type of bioink; one of many improvements to the process we can expect to see in the years to come, as there’s now an institution dedicated to advancing 3D bioprinting techniques.

Other technologies that are making it possible to produce synthetic organs include a method for growing bioartificial kidneys, the result of a study in 2016.

For his part, Westaby is involved in several projects working to continue improving the process: one uses stem cells to reverse the scarring of heart tissue, which could improve the quality of life for patients undergoing coronary bypass. Westaby is also working on developing better hardware for these types of surgical procedures, including inexpensive titanium mechanical heart pumps.

Together with 3D bioprinting such innovations could well become the answer to donor shortages. The future of regenerative medicine is synthetic organs that could easily, affordably, and reliably be printed for patients on demand.

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Scientists Experimentally Demonstrate the “Reversal of the Arrow of Time”

The Arrow of Time

The second law of thermodynamics states that in an isolated system, entropy will increase with time and the movement of heat will always flow from hotter bodies to cooler ones. However, a new experiment by an international team of researchers shows that this thermodynamic “arrow of time” is not an absolute concept.

For their experiment, the researchers looked at correlated particles. These are conceptually similar to the entangled particles at the core of quantum research, but they are not as closely bonded.

The researchers started their experiment with the molecule trichloromethane, which is made up of hydrogen and carbon. They then made the nucleus of the hydrogen atom warmer than the nucleus of the carbon atom and watched the flow of energy.

When the nuclei of the two atoms were uncorrelated, heat flowed from the hotter to the cooler nucleus, as expected. But when the nuclei were correlated, heat flowed “backwards” — the hotter nucleus grew hotter and the cooler nucleus grew cooler.

According to the researchers, their experiment doesn’t violate the second law of thermodynamics because the law doesn’t take into account correlated particles — their experiment simply reveals an exception to the rule. A paper outlining this research has been uploaded to the arXiv server.

The Quest for Understanding

This experiment is yet another example of science yielding previously unknown information about the mysterious world around us, and each new discovery seemingly leads to new questions.

As more and more research goes into quantum computing, scientists are finding that we still have a lot to learn about the quantum world, and the makeup of the universe — specifically, dark energy and dark matter — is still largely unexplained despite regular research. We’ve also yet to uncover the elusive theory of everything — a single equation that explains all natural physical processes in the universe — though we do have some solid leads.

Clearly, we still have much to learn about our universe. This remarkable exception to the second law of thermodynamics proves that even concepts that we think we understand quite well could have hidden intricacies that will continue to elude us until creative experiments, like those conducted by this international team of researchers, are developed and conducted.

However, with each individual experiment, we expand our collective knowledge and take another step down the path to truly understanding how our world functions.

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