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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!

Sep 14, 2017

Long time, no see! After a long hiatus the Blue Streak Science Podcast has returned with the most dangerous team in podcasting; Sophie McManus, Tom Di Liberto, Nevena Hristozova, and JD Goodwin. We look forward to reconnecting with you, too.

We are certainly a little rusty, but still this episode hits all the marks. Gene therapy for cancer, crashing space probes, body farms, and even a story about puppy dogs. And of course, Tom connects the dots between the past weeks' horrifically destructive weather and the reality of anthropogenic global warming.

Oh, and Pub Quiz!

It's good to be back, and even better to reconnect with our awesome audience.

Science News with Sophie McManus and Nevena Hristozova

These are summaries of our discussions on the podcast. For the full conversation please listen to this episode of the Blue Streak Science Podcast

U.S. Food and Drug Administration Approves First CAR-T Cancer Drug
The American FDA has approved a treatment for a type of leukaemia, or blood cancer, in young people. This is a treatment with a difference - it’s been termed a ‘living drug’.

How exactly does a ‘living drug’ work?

It isn’t the typical pill or injection route. It uses the patient’s OWN cells - in effect, taking T cells (highly specialised cells which are involved in the body’s immune response - warriors of the immune sys) and ‘supercharging’ them before injecting them to fight the patient’s cancer. The T cells are harvested from the sick person, they are then modified in the lab - they are programmed to recognise and kill cancer cells. They are grown up in the lab and subjected to rigorous QC testing before injection into the patient. The hope is then that the genetically modified T cells will kill the patient’s cancer.

88 patients with relapsing, treatment resistant leukaemia (specifically, acute lymphoblastic leukaemia), were given this treatment, receiving injections of their own modified T cells. They were eligible for the trial because they really had no hope of a cure otherwise. Of course there has to be understanding in the patients that this therapy could cause severe side effects, basically from these modified T cells running riot in the body and doing things they shouldn’t. 88 patients were treated and 73 are in remission - their cancer has receded.

This treatment, Kymriah, was developed by Novartis. They hope to have 32 treatment centres running by 2018’s end. “I think this is most exciting thing I’ve seen in my lifetime,” said Dr. Tim Cripe, an oncologist with Nationwide Children’s Hospital, at an FDA meeting on Kymriah in July.

Cassini's Last Moments
Today we seem to know a lot about the universe, at yet very little about our own solar system. In the case of Saturn, we don't even know much about its structure - is it really an entirely gassy giant or does it have a dense liquid core like the other giants we know? Or may be even a solid one? How long is a day on the planet? How old are the rings? What’s their origin?

For the past 10 years the Cassini has been orbiting the gas giant and observing its moon to try and answer some of these questions.

[caption id="attachment_2476" align="alignright" width="500"] Cassini and Saturn[/caption]

Today, Cassini is going strong on the path to its inevitable death - excitedly expected and at the same time heartbreaking.  The scientists from NASA's JPL made sure that the Grand Finale (as this final stage is now called) is as spectacular and as dramatic as it possibly could. The spacecraft will take photos for the last time of Titan - the biggest moon of Saturn, whose gravity will be instrumental for the final plunge into Saturn's atmosphere. And just a day before it touches the giant planet's atmosphere, Cassini will turn to Earth one last time in an emotional goodbye, taking one last photo with its camera of everything that has ever existed and still exists today on this Pale Blue Dot. The picture of Earth will be the last Cassini takes, so be sure to look up a wave goodbye!

Once all cameras are off, other sensors and measuring devices will remain functional until the spacecraft inevitably burns into the planet's atmosphere. This was the planned ending of the mission. The reasons to crash it into the planet are mainly practical and of safety considerations. Cassini is running low on fuel and keeping it going for longer will pose a palpable risk of it going out of the control of JPL and possibly crashing into one of Saturn's moons. This would be the last thing any scientist would want to see.

Cassini discovered the hydrocarbon lakes of Titan or the pristine ice of Enceladus. Since we cannot be 100% sure that this will not contaminate either one with Earthly chemicals, the engineers and scientists behind the mission decided it's safest to let it burn up in the atmosphere of its ultimate target - Saturn. Once it touches the top layers of Saturn, Cassini will turn its antennae to Earth to transmit as fast as possible for as long as possible the measurements its detectors are recording. Just over 60,000km above the planet's center, the atmospheric pressure will be higher than the one of Earth and the thrusters of the craft will probably not be able to compensate. Cassini will start to tumble and we will lose contact with it for good.

Within 4 minutes of the point at which we have lost contact, Cassini will melt and disintegrate in a flash of hydrogen plasma (the term burn up is technically incorrect, since Saturn's atmosphere doesn't have oxygen). Since Saturn is so far from Earth, we should receive its final radio transmission only an hour and half after it had ceased to exist.

'Body Farm' In The U.K.?
So our next story is about a body farm. Yes. A dead body farm. In the UK. No, this isn’t Shaun of the Dead. Please stop eating.

Side note, this BBC article starts with ‘you’re dead. Now what?’... Anyway, the question presented here is whether we need a human body farm to get up and running to help us learn more about decomposition, the processes that allow dead tissue to break down (taphonomy is the sciencey word).

You may well wonder why we would really want to know about this. It isn’t just a gruesome curiosity, there are practical applications, e.g. in helping the police in solving murders. Yes, we know about processes like rigor mortis and forensic scientists can work a lot of info out from a corpse, but there are gaps in our knowledge and this of course can impact a murder investigation.

BBC quote: "Exciting new data published last year in the journal PLOS One suggests that the succession of bacteria that come and go, feeding on the decaying body, may help scientists to more accurately pinpoint post-mortem interval. This discovery was made by analysing bacteria scraped from the nose and ear canals of decomposing cadavers at the world's first body farm in Tennessee."

Scientists such as Dr Anna Williams of Huddersfield are pushing for a farm to help with this. She argues that forensic sciences are underfunded and says crowdfunding might be an option.

Other countries, mainly the US and Australia have body farms. In the UK up until now the scientific study of taphonomy has mainly been conducted on pigs. There are obvious advantages to this, namely the fact we can get hold of more pigs to study, we can replicate conditions easily, and it’s no small matter asking a community to accept a human body farm.

Doggy Sniff Test
For years now, we know that the great apes do also know if they are looking at themselves in the mirror or at another ape (if they have seen themselves in a mirror before). At the same time, monkeys do fail the mirror test and so do other animals we've tested. Yet, some researchers were convinced that some animals must possess a sort of self-recognition as it was indirectly implied by some behavioral studies in the past - they just didn't know how to prove it.

Now, a study was published from the Department of Psychology of the Barnard College which may have found the ultimate test for self-awareness of dogs. It does not rely on images, but on smell.

While we have up to five million scent receptors, dogs can have as many as 300 million, though this varies depending on the breed. So in other words, there are certain dog breeds that have a sense of smell that is ten million times stronger than that of humans! Thus, it's no surprise after all that they'd rather rely on their better senses.

The new study showed that a dog would "investigate" for longer its own smell if a certain additional odour has been added to it. In other words, if a dog is presented with its own smell only, it did not feel the need to sniff extensively to figure out where or from whom this smell came from - it knew it as its own and didn't need to look into it any longer. But if the odour was modified even slightly, the dog would spent much longer "investigating" it, allowing the researchers to conclude that it grabbed its interest more than its own pure smell.

These results come as confirmation that a paradigm shift is needed when scientists conduct studies regarding animals and especially their behavior - we can no longer afford to apply human-bound standards to animals who use very different sets of sensations to go about their day. Keeping this in mind for the development of future study protocols and for the reworking of some of the already established ones will certainly bring much more interesting and relevant data when we study animals from now on. It will allow us, after all, to truly understand them better.

The Climate Lounge with Tom Di Liberto

Hurricanes, Climate Change, and The Week That Was

In the US alone, the western half of the country is shrouded in smoke from over 60 wildfires, while the eastern half is either dealing with the aftermath of hurricane Harvey or Hurricane Irma. Meanwhile, Hurricane Jose is just doing a loopy-loop out there in the Atlantic. “But Tom… that’s weather” you say. “This is the climate lounge not the weather vestibule", you murmur.  Ahh, but we live in a climate-changed world already. And its fingerprints are all over the place.

Hurricanes by themselves don’t necessarily have anything to do with climate change. They are a natural by-product of our spinning planet and warm, moist tropics. Climate change did not CAUSE Harvey or Irma. But that is completely the wrong way to think about it. It’s like reading a book where all the characters are mentioned but at no point do you have any idea of where they are or why they are doing what they are doing. The world in which our natural climate works is one that has been changed by climate change. These storms weren’t caused by climate change, but they were made worse.

Let’s start with Harvey. Harvey is one of the wettest storms to have ever impacted the US, if not the wettest. Over 48 inches (1220mm) of rain fell around Houston, Texas, flooding a third of the city. This is after Harvey caused catastrophic damage when it made landfall as a major Category 4 storm with 130mph winds, the first major hurricane to hit the US since 2005. It dropped so much rain because after landfall it stalled, barely moving for several days, opening a firehose of water onto coastal Texas. 3-day rainfall totals in Houston were larger than the previous 65-day wettest period in the city’s history!

How did climate change play a part? For one, a warmer atmosphere can hold more water, which means heavier rain. It’s a pretty basic equation to determine this. It’s called the Clausius Claperyon equation.  From it, we know that for every 1C of warming, the air can hold 7% more water vapor, which can be turned into rain. But it wasn’t just the air that was warm, but the oceans. The warmer than average oceans also provided a steady supply of water to be squeezed out onto the coast. The warm oceans also helped increase the strength of Harvey since warm water provides the fuel for these heat engines known as hurricanes.

The same story goes for Irma. Irma was by some measures the strongest hurricane the Atlantic Ocean has ever seen. It was a category 5 storm with 185mph winds for over 30 hours straight, the longest ever...anywhere on the planet. It took advantage of warmer than average waters throughout the entire tropics, which exist in no small part to our climate-changed planet. One of the big stories with Irma will also be the storm surge. This is basically how much water is pushed by the wind and is calculated by taking the water levels at the shore and subtracting the tide. The storm surge itself may not be impacted by climate change but the sea levels surely are. Rising sea levels along the coast of Florida has already led to Miami flooding during high tide normally. Add a huge storm and you can see places flood that you just normally don’t see flood. And with huge amounts of coastal development… not good.

So the next time you hear someone try to say these storms weren’t caused by climate change? Casually remind that is a horrible way of framing the question. Because these events already have happened in a climate-changed world, and climate change made things worse.

Pub Quiz

Today's raucous installment of the Pub Quiz resulted in a tie between the two winners! Who were those winners? Who was the spoiler?

Have a listen to this episode and find out!

Since we have a Pub Quiz we think it's right to give a proper name to our virtual watering hole. Please send in your suggestions to name our pub to

In Closing

Follow the science!

The Blue Streak Science Podcast comes to you from Brussels; Cambridge; Washington; and San Francisco.