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The good stem cells

Parkinson’s patient receives the first successful stem cell transplant

George Lopez YouTube/University of Colorado School of Medicine

The good stem cells

A decade of battling Parkinson’s disease left 69-year-old George Lopez unable to bike, swim, fish, or even tie his shoes. Constant pain plagued the physician, businessman, and inventor, and he struggled just to push himself out of a chair, Stat News reported. But thanks to an experimental new procedure, Lopez can once again enjoy many of those activities.

Parkinson’s, a degenerative brain disease that affects 6 million people worldwide, progressively destroys the brain cells that produce the neurotransmitter dopamine. As dopamine levels drop, patients experience worsening symptoms such as tremors, slow movement, stiffness, loss of balance, and speech difficulties.

In the late 1980s, surgeons stooped to transplanting dopamine-producing brain cells from aborted babies into the brains of scores of Parkinson’s patients. They used as many as 16 aborted infants per transplant, but the cells died in the patients’ brains.

Now researchers have developed a way to use a patient’s own skin cells to accomplish what fetal cells could not. They reprogrammed Lopez’s skin cells into stem cells designed to develop into dopamine-producing neurons. In 2017, doctors transplanted about 4 million of the stem cells into the three regions of his brain involved with movement. By using Lopez’s own cells, the researchers avoided the ethical problems of using fetal tissue, as well as the likelihood of triggering an immune response in which the body would reject the foreign cells.

Two years later, brain scans show the transplanted cells functioning as normal, dopamine-producing transmitters, the scientists reported on May 14 in The New England Journal of Medicine. The cells have even formed long-term connections with other cells. Lopez experienced no side effects and can swim, ski, bike, and tie his shoes again.

Though the experiment avoided the ethical and moral problems of using cells from aborted babies, it has raised other concerns about whether Lopez had an unfair advantage in accessing the treatment. He gave $2 million to support early research that laid the groundwork for the stem cell transplant he received.

The researchers cautioned that, even though the results are exciting, the procedure did not cure Lopez. He still needs to take nearly as much medication as before. And they don’t know if the procedure will work for everyone. The researchers will need to demonstrate the technique’s efficacy in much larger human clinical trials.

“Parkinson’s patients should understand that this therapy is not currently available and there is a lot of work still required to prove this is an effective treatment,” said Todd Herrington, the study’s lead neurologist.

A crater on Mars

A crater on Mars Associated Press/NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell University/Arizona State University

A promising campsite—on Mars

Mars offers an unfriendly welcome to future astronauts with low oxygen levels, an extremely arid climate, rapidly fluctuating temperatures, and potentially lethal doses of unfiltered radiation from the sun. But humans on Mars could find a degree of safety in an unlikely place: Martian lava tubes, Live Science reported.

Mars does not have a powerful magnetic shield to protect the surface from the sun’s radiation like Earth does. Even a few days of exposure to the sun’s harsh electromagnetic energy would damage cells and DNA and could cause headaches, flashes of light in the eyes, and cataracts. A sudden solar flare could result in a burst of deadly doses of radiation.

The red planet receives the most intense radiation at its poles, according to a scientific paper recently accepted and peer-reviewed by The Journal for the Washington Academy of Sciences. The Hellas Planitia, a basin more than 23,000 feet deep created by ancient meteors crashing into the surface, lies close to the equator and receives about 50 percent less radiation. A string of lava tubes branching throughout the basin could offer a safer campground for human explorers.

The tubes form when molten rock from a volcano hardens on the surface while rivers of lava continue to flow beneath the upper crust. When the flow stops, the molten lava drains out of the tunnels, leaving long, underground caves.

Researchers have suggested the lava tubes could potentially protect astronauts from radiation exposure, although the levels would still exceed safe recommendations. —J.B.

A crater on Mars

A crater on Mars Associated Press/NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell University/Arizona State University

Dangerous imposters

Federal health officials have revoked authorization for some imported face masks that did not meet standards for protecting medical personnel.

The Food and Drug Administration initially allowed 60 Chinese manufacturers to export masks under emergency-use guidelines, relying on the companies’ testing data because of severe supply shortages due to the coronavirus pandemic. But new tests found dozens of varieties of Chinese-made N95 masks did not filter 95 percent of particles. Some filtered as little as 20 percent, and only 14 versions of the masks met U.S. standards. In addition to filtration failures, the FDA and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found some imported masks used ear loops instead of the tight-fitting headbands the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health requires.

“We weren’t protected,” Massachusetts nurse Lynn Risacher told The Wall Street Journal. She began exhibiting COVID-19 symptoms days after wearing an imported mask with ear loops.

The FDA warned healthcare facilities about the deficient masks but said they could still be used as face coverings to reduce droplet spread.

In April, U.S. manufacturers sounded the alarm over dangerous counterfeit masks and respirators bearing unauthorized certifications. Fakes may have decorative fabric, add-ons, claims of special approval for children, or ear loops, and they could lack markings on the respirator and approval numbers, according to the CDC. Before the pandemic, a division of the CDC tested and certified all masks before they could be sold in the United States. —Julia A. Seymour

A crater on Mars

A crater on Mars Associated Press/NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell University/Arizona State University

Jupiter’s close up

The teams behind NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope and the Gemini Observatory in Hawaii collaborated to capture stunning new images of Jupiter’s atmosphere and its huge, ongoing storms. Images included a dolphin-shaped cloud, multiple cyclones at each magnetic pole, and a jack-o’-lantern-like mosaic showing heat escaping Jupiter’s cloud cover.

The scientists combined observations and images from the Juno spacecraft now orbiting Jupiter, the Hubble telescope, and the Gemini North telescope in Hawaii. By capturing data in three wavelengths, they hope to better understand weather patterns on the gas giant.

“We want to know how Jupiter’s atmosphere works,” said Michael Wong of the University of California, Berkeley, who led the research team.

Juno probed the deep cloud layers with high-frequency radio waves, allowing scientists to discover thunderheads 40 miles tall and lightning three times as strong as the Earth’s most powerful “superbolts.”

With the Gemini North telescope, they used “lucky imaging” to create an infrared mosaic. They took multiple short exposures and combined only the ones with the least turbulence to create the sharpest images of Jupiter ever taken from Earth. —J.A.S.

A crater on Mars

A crater on Mars Associated Press/NASA/JPL-Caltech/Cornell University/Arizona State University

Buy me the moon

If you ever wanted to own a piece of the moon, now is your chance. Christie’s auction house in London just listed a football-sized moon rock for private sale. Experts value the silvery meteorite at about $2.5 million, Reuters reported.

Weighing more than 30 pounds, the meteorite is the fifth-largest piece of the moon ever found on Earth. Someone discovered the rock in the Sahara Desert. Experts believe it likely broke off the moon during a collision with a giant asteroid or comet long ago.

Scientists identified the rock’s lunar origin by comparing its composition to that of rock samples from the Apollo space missions in the 1960s and 1970s, said James Hyslop, Christie’s head of science and natural history. —J.B.

Julie Borg

Julie is a WORLD contributor who covers science and intelligent design. A clinical psychologist and a World Journalism Institute graduate, Julie resides in Dayton, Ohio.

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