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Spanning the globe to bring you the constant variety of science... the thrill of discovery... and the agony of failed experiments... the human drama of scientific advancement... This is the Blue Streak Science Podcast!

Oct 4, 2018

Last week it was the fun stuff, but this week it's that most serious of awards ceremonies, The Nobel Prize Awards. Sophie gives us the low-down on this year's winner in the category of Medicine and Physiology. JD breaks in with a newsflash, as one does, with Nobel Prize in Physics.

On This Week’s Show

  • Nobel Prize Week
  • Scientists De-Code How the Brain Processes Speech
  • Hayabusa Rovers Send New Pics of Comet
  • CDC: 80,000 Died From Flu In 2017
  • The Climate Lounge
  • Pub Quiz

Science News with Sophie McManus and Chris MacAlister

Cancer Immunologists Win Nobel Prize in Medicine

Sophie McManus

The Ig Nobels took place recently, but now it’s time for the Nobels. The winners for the Nobel Prize in medicine are two scientists who have pioneered immunotherapy for cancer.

Their names are James Allison and Tasuku Honjo. They separately discovered proteins that act as a brake on the immune system. They later found that releasing these brakes would allow the immune system to attack cancer cells. Drugs called checkpoint inhibitors have resulted from this discovery and immunotherapy is considered a hugely promising way to treat cancer.

Honjo was inspired to cure cancer back in the 1960s after a classmate died from gastric cancer. By the 90s, he had discovered a protein with the name PD1. This protein is a checkpoint in the immune system, or a ‘brake’ - when PD1 is disabled then the immune system goes into overdrive. It was discovered also that some cancers can produce PD1 interactors which enable them to dodge the immune system. Hence BLOCKING PD1 can give the immune system a boost - to tackle abherrant  cancer cells. Today, PD-1 inhibitors such as nivolumab and pembrolizumab have been found to shrink tumours far more effectively than chemo- and radiotherapy and crucially also have much milder side effects.

Working independently of Honjo, James Allison, then at the University of California, Berkeley, was one of several scientists who studied a ‘checkpoint’ protein, CTLA-4, that acts as a brake on immune cells called T cells. In 1997, Allison and his colleagues engineered an antibody that could bind to CTLA-4, removing the brakes on T-cell activity and unleashing them to attack cancer cells in mice. A clinical study in 2010 found that the antibody had a striking effect on people with advanced melanoma, a form of skin cancer.

Allison was woken at 5.30 by his son delivering the good news and by 6.30 his group had turned up with champagne for an impromptu party - before the Committee had even got through to him!

Thanks to Honjo and Allison immunotherapy is regarded as a strong pillar in the work to treat cancer.


The Nobel Prize in Physics was just awarded this morning at the time of this podcast recording on Tuesday. It was awarded to three scientists for their work in using super intense lasers to capture incredibly fast processes, and to accurately manipulate objects as small as cells and viruses .

The scientists are Donna Strickland of the University of Waterloo in Ontario; Gerard Mourou, a former colleague of Strickland who is currently at Ecole Polytechnique in Paris, and Arthur Ashkin of Bell Laboratories in New Jersey.

Together Strickland and Mourou developed techniques to create the highest frequency, and most intense light pulses ever. These light pulses are now being used in many fields of science to probe physical processes once considered to be instantaneous.

In separate research Arthur Ashkin developed “optical tweezers” using lasers. These beams of light are used to manipulate and move objects as small as viruses.

One more thing; Donna Strickland is the first woman recipient of the Physics Prize in 55 years. I look forward to the day when I don’t have to make mention of such facts...the day when there’s gender equality across all the sciences.

European Scientist, Nature

New Scientist, Nature

Scientists De-Code How the Brain Processes Speech

Chris MacAlister

It feels like we have stories every week that just leave you bewildered about what humanity can achieve and for me, this is another one of those stories.

Whilst the human brain remains one of the great enigmas of nature, we have moved yet another step closer to getting a handle on what is going on in there.

Brain scanning technologies have allowed us to map our brains and link certain functions, such as movements, senses and emotions to particular parts of the brain and over time the precision of these scans has improved. One of the most impressive applications of this understanding has been the production of prosthetics that respond directly to brain signals. So it is now possible for people who have lost limbs to control their prosthetic with the power of their mind alone, not entirely unlike how they would have controlled their original limb.

This most recent study by Northwestern Medicine and the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences has looked at language and how the brain encodes that information. This study has precisely mapped how the brain works when we speak. Not only has it mapped the physical motions made by our mouths and tongues; they’ve be been able to correlate this with another part of the brain that generates the cues for the movements. So just to be clear, they have directly witnessed the brain speaking; the very intent of language, clear and unflustered by tongue-ties or twisters.

So to feed back to what I said earlier. The plan now is generate an algorithm that can translate these brain signals directly into speech. If they can manage this then they will have created a neurally controlled prosthetic voice box. A machine like this could literally speak your mind for you. And whilst this may sound like a pretty cool party trick, imagine how much more important it would have been for someone like Stephen Hawking. Few people appreciate just how long it took for Hawking to form a sentence using the technology that was available to him. Imagine the difference it would have made for him to just think those words for them to be sent to his computer.

And this is what really inspires me about stories like these. The time, effort and money that is put into helping other people; not just ourselves. No sooner have we discovered something remarkable and new about the brain and the first question that the people involved ask themselves is “how do we use this to help people?”

Northwestern University, Xinhuanet, Journal of Neuroscience (abstract)

Hayabusa 2 Rovers Send New Images Ryugu Surface

Sophie McManus

I am going to jump to talking about hopping robots on a space rock! (agh, worst attempt at a pun ever).

So, the Japanese space agency (JAXA) sent spacecraft (Hayabusa II) over to an asteroid called Ryugu. The journey - all 319 million km of it - took three and a half years and the spacecraft finally arrived in June. For a couple of months, Hayabusa took images from above Ryugu, before descending 60 metres above it to deploy two rovers on the 21st September. Their mission was to explore Ryugu’s rocky surface.

This is the first time rovers have successfully landed and sent back videos of an asteroid’s surface. What’s extra special about these rovers is that they hop, rather than travel on wheels. There is low gravity on the asteroid surfaces, so hopping takes them pretty far. (As a side note, it’s known that our most famous Earth-bound hoppers, kangaroos, are amongst the most efficient travellers on Earth - I don’t know if Hayabusa engineers were inspired by marsupials in their rover design though).

There were concerns that the rocky surface of Ryugu might hamper the rovers’ transport, but it seems they are working well despite the challenge - they can hop up to 15 metres, staying airbourne for up to 15 minutes at a time!

It is hoped that studying the surface of Ryugu might teach us more about the formation of our own planet. Asteroids such as Ryugu are made from the cloud of gas and dust debris (solar nebula) that arose from the formation of the Sun. A quote from Helena Bates, a PhD student at London’s Natural History Museum who studies asteroid formation ‘[Asteroids] are little snapshots of what the solar nebula looked like before there were planets'.

The two rovers will be joined at the beginning of October by a third lander called MASCOT to measure the structure of the minerals, thermal behaviour and magnetic properties of the asteroid. Towards the end of the month, Hayabusa2 itself will descend and touch Ryugu to pick up its first sample.

“The image taken by MINERVA-II1 during a hop allowed me to relax as a dream of many years came true,” said Hayabusa 2 spokesperson Takashi Kubota.

Very cool...

New Scientist, BBC Science and Environment

CDC: 80,000 People Died From Influenza In 2017

Chris MacAlister

I’ve actually got 2 stories in 1 here.

The first one is somewhat sombre as last year has officially been a stinker for influenza infections with an estimated 80,000 deaths in the US. As if that wasn’t shocking enough, there were also some 900,000 hospitalisations due to flu. It has been the worst season for flu in 11 years.

The big problem with flu is it’s compulsion to change and this makes the flu a bit of a lottery every year, the lottery being how severe the symptoms of your flu will be. Which brings us on to the second story which is the discovery of what makes some flus so dangerous.

Really, it makes no sense for viruses to be fatal. Unlike bacteria they are 100% reliant on their host for survival, so killing your host makes bad news for you. Now, this new study, looking at the great flu pandemic of 1918, points to these strains of flu as being bad viruses.

Much viral variation comes from mutation and most mutations are not beneficial. What this means that you end up with some strains of flu that struggle to reproduce themselves. This struggle creates a by-product which is a mini-RNA molecule. Whilst viruses go around trying not to be spotted, this RNA byproduct is actually very conspicuous and your immune system goes to town on it. Since flu infects the respiratory tract, this can lead to people drowning in their own immune response.

The thing that makes this the good news story of the two is that now we understanding this mechanism we can now start looking for treatments that could save lives.]

Science News

The Climate Lounge

Game Night

Tom Di Liberto

It may be stormy outside (and I mean that in any literal or figurative sense you’d like. Good lord the news has been horrid. I believe Dr. Ford.), but in the climate lounge, it’s time for GAME NIGHT! With a twist.

So leave your settlers at home. Don’t even bother opening Carcassonne. And you’ll have to prove how “funny” you are at Cards against Humanity at a later date because today, we are talking Climate games.

First, let’s talk about a game for all of us! Regardless of age. The only requirement is a desire to be incredibly nerdy. Scientists with the nonprofit Climate Interactive have developed a role playing game based upon World Climate Negotiations. Players have to save the world from climate change as participants to a United Nations conference. Every single decision made by the players is then fed into a climate policy model called CROADS. It takes the policy decisions and uses current climate science to shows the impact on the global climate system. That includes economic prosperity, health, safety from natural disasters. You win if you save the world. That’s a pretty good thing to try and win at.

This game is supposed to be run with 8 to 50 people but has been scaled for up to 500 people. And has a game time of 2-3 hours (although a truncated version lasts 45 minutes.)

The scientists survey over 2000 players before and after the game and found that the knowledge of climate change causes and impacts increased, as even more importantly the players sense of urgency increased.81% said their desire to learn and do more about climate change had increased.

Now if you follow the social science research on climate change, you’d know that one of the hardest things to do is get people who otherwise understand and accept climate change to get up and actually do something about it. To have that sense of urgency. With all that goes on in the short term in a person’s life, it’s hard for a long-term problem like climate change to crack that top 10. But this game seemed to do that. Which is good, cause, um guys, climate change is like an urgent problem.

Ok, one more quick climate game to round out a fun evening of playing in the lounge. And this one is particularly good because it made me feel like ancient. Climate FORTNITE! You may know the online playing battle royale game climate fortnite. Perhaps, you have kids who play it. Perhaps you play it. Either way, you’ve heard of it. For those who haven’t, it’s sorta the current hotness when it comes to the pop culture zeitgeist. People by the 10s of thousands watch other people play this game at places like Twitch (for livestreaming video games) and on youtube. Basically, numbers that you’d wish would exist for climate science based youtube videos but instead go to vids of people doing epic kills. (God I’m old). Anyways, some climate scientist thought, Hey, let’s take advantage of that and do live-streams and videos of us playing fortnite but also talking climate change. And that’s what they’ve done.

It started with a MIT graduate student named Henri Drake and has included a bevy of climate scientists including folks like Andrew Dessler who plays with his kids (his kids are much much much better than he is). So while their squad works to kill ‘em all, the scientists end up talking about how climate models work, the latest arctic research or how ice ages came about. It’s an incredibly creative way to do climate communication so check them out. They play every Tuesday 830-1030pm Eastern and you can check out more updates from them at the twitter and Twitch handle ClimateFortnite.

Climate game, fortnite

Pub Quiz

  1. A very rare animal was photographed for the first time ever in Semuliki National Park in Uganda. What animal?
  2. Bird watchers in the UK are being urged to give up 20 minutes every week to listen out for the "twit-twoo" call of what species?
  3. A study in 27 September issue of Frontiers in Environment and Ecology suggests that what method of rat control in New York City simply does not work?
  4. Speaking of rats, A man in Hong Kong recently became the first human to be infected with a type of infection that's only been seen in rats. What infection?
  5. The European particle-physics laboratory, CERN, home of the Large Hadron Collider, has suspended recently suspended a theoretical physicist. Why?

That’s it for the Pub Quiz.

How did YOU do?

In Closing

That concludes this episode of the Blue Streak Science Podcast.

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This show is produced by the Blue Streak Science team, and edited by Pro Podcast Solutions.

Our hosts today were Sophie McManus, Chris MacAlister, and Tom Di Liberto.

I’m JD Goodwin.  

Thank you for joining us.

And remember...follow the science!