New Hope against viruses

Common cold Virus (Wikipedia)

Microbiologists have reported that they have found a protein (SETD3) in humans that is essential to enable a wide range of viruses to replicate. That range includes the common cold, polio, cocksackie and viruses that cause paralysis and brain inflammation – these are all in the genus enteroviruses.

Currently we can try to counter these viruses with vaccines – very difficult when there are over a hundred different strains of common cold virus and the virus is continually evolving new strains. Or we may treat serious viral infections with anti-viral medications – but these are often expensive and the virus is free to evolve resistance to them. Thus this new discovery opens the possibility of taking a single medication that disables the human protein and stopping a large group of viruses in their tracks – they cannot evolve resistance because the medication is addressing the human protein, not one of their own. So the potential is very exciting.

However, the big question is whether disabling that human protein (albeit temporarily) would have deleterious effects on the human themself. A study in mice showed no ill-effects except that the mice had trouble giving birth because of interference with smooth muscle contraction. It is still possible the protein has other unidentified functions, and the exact method in which the virus uses the protein is still not clear, so there is much research still to be done.

Scientific American Article

Research Paper


Life from Chemistry looks more likely

A recent paper in the publication PNAS shows that the particular 20 amino-acids that are involved in life processes have a natural tendency to react together to produce peptide-bonded chains i.e. proteins. This compares with the hundreds of other possible amino-acids that do not display this natural tendency. The implication of course is that the origins of life naturally flow from chemistry rather than requiring serendipitous and rare or unusual events.
One qualification to this proposition is that the experiments only involved a subset of the bio amino-acids and more work needs to be done to demonstrate that this is a general principle for all 20 bio amino-acids. However this makes a lot of sense and it will be interesting to see if a similar principle is evident for nucleic acids.

Life on star-free planets?

It is possible for planets to get gravitationally ejected from a developing solar system and thenceforth wander alone through the galaxy. Current estimates are that there are a lot of these. Of course we normally think that a planet would need the energy from a sun, a star, to power any possibility of life. But a new study has raised the intriguing possibility that a supermassive black hole or Active Galactic Nuclei (AGN) gives off sufficient ultra-violet light to produce a Goldilocks zone from maybe 100 to 140 light-years from a Sag A* size AGN in where the radiation is not so severe that it would strip any atmosphere from the planet but sufficient UV would be available to power photosynthetic life. Moreover copious UV could break apart molecules to make the building blocks of life more available. The paper estimates that there could be a billion free-floating planets in the Goldilocks zone of our own galaxy. article

Alzheimer’s – good, bad and more news

There is no still no scientific consensus on the causal mechanism of Alzheimer’s disease, or at least on the correct target for medicinal intervention – the four main contenders are:

(a) build-up of amyloid-beta fibrils

(b) build-up of tau protein tangles

(c) inflammation in the brain

(d) reaction to a virus infection

The Bad News: Last week the antibody drug “aducanumab” was withdrawn from clinical trials because of poor results – this was an anti-amyloid-beta drug. This follows other disappointing drugs aimed at amyloid-beta.

The Good News: However today there has been more positive news – a drug which has already been approved for clinical use against Hepatitis-D, called Lonafarnib, has been found to dramatically ameliorate the progress of dementia in a mouse model of the disease. The drug seems to block an enzyme (called farnesyltransferase) that facilitates the activity of the protein Rhes ultimately enhancing lysosome activity. Lysosomes are cellular waste-clearance systems that break down the toxic proteins, including tau. Research into this pathway and mechanism may open the door on further possible drugs.

Scientific American article

Update 29th May 2019:  Research published today seems to have established the mechanism by which the Herpes virus can facilitate Alzheimers. Essentially proteins from fluids within the body tend to stick to the virus surface, comprising what is termed a protein corona. It seems that there is enzymatic activity within that corona that facilitates the aggregation of amyloid plaques. It is suggested that this may not be the only causal factor leading to Alzheimers but certainly is capable of speeding up the disease process.

New Atlas article

Nature article

New Theory on Dark Matter, Dark Energy

Fg indicates the force, a indicates the acceleration

A fascinating new paper released today suggest that both dark matter and dark energy can be explained by a single phenomenon – particles of matter with negative mass. I give a link to the paper below, but I will attempt a quick layman’s explanation.

Fundamentally, orthodox positive-mass attracts other positive-mass, and negative-mass would repel other negative-mass. The interesting part is the interaction between positive-mass and negative-mass particles. The positive-mass particle is repelled, but the negative-mass particle is attracted i.e. the positive-mass ‘runs away’ but the negative-mass ‘follows’.

The scientist behind this new theory, has run computer simulations which show that a galaxy would indeed become surrounded by a halo of negative mass particles, and that this halo would exert a kind of pressure on the orthodox matter galaxy, maintaining, for example, its spiral shape in rotation. This is important because it is understood that without some kind of dark matter influence, the spiral arms of a galaxy would not rotate fast enough to maintain their shape, indeed not fast enough to be consistent with observations. This is one of the reasons dark matter is theorised in the first place.

The other aspect of this theory is that because the negative mass particles, outside of the halos, are repelling each other, they exert an outward pressure, like a gas, which can be interpreted as the cause of the expansion of the universe. However this would require continual creation of such particles to keep up the expansive pressure. My gut feeling is that this is the weakest proposal in the theory, particularly since the author points out the beauty of having negative mass particles to balance the orthodox positive mass particles – everything else of course has balance – positive and negative electrical charges, magnetic poles…

Link to scientific article


Dark matter wind blowing past the Sun

When galaxies collide, and several have merged into our own Milky Way, there are imprints that show as streams of stars, which are all moving in the same direction, but not yet equilibrated into the usual spiral arm rotation.

Artists impression: C. O’Hare; NASA/Jon Lomberg

One such stream, the S1 stream, is of particular interest since it crosses the path of our sun. Thinking about the dark matter from the merged galaxy, this would imply that there is a dark matter “wind” blowing past us at about 500km/s. This could potentially help in our efforts to detect the components of dark matter in earth-bound experiments.

However it is possible that the dark matter from a merger would follow a different trajectory from the stars, since we know that the dark matter in a galaxy does not occupy the same geometric shape as the stars in that galaxy. Indeed dark matter may not have the same equivalence of gravitational and inertial mass.

Phys. Rev. D 98, 103006 (2018)

Our Galaxy is atypically positioned in the cosmos

The overall grand structure of the universe is that galaxies are scattered along filaments surrounding voids as illustrated in the simulation below:

The large-scale structure of the universe.     Credit: Millennium Simulation Project

Two studies, one from 2013 and one from 2017, now confirm that not only is our own galaxy,  the Milky Way, located atypically in a void rather than a filament, but also that it is located in the largest known void – about 7 times larger than an average void.

The original study came to this conclusion on the basis of galaxy catalogues, whereas the new study measures the motions of galaxies by measuring changes to the energy of Cosmic Background Radiation which has passed through those galaxies. The motions of galaxy clusters indicates those regions of higher gravitational attraction. The two studies, by different means, are consistent.

This, statistically, is a very surprising result. It might suggest that there is something wrong with the underlying theory behind astrophysical measurements, it might be a statistical fluke, or there might be an, as yet, unthought-of explanation.

Live Science article