Jeff Nesbit (contributor)

The complicated ethics of womb transplants

The delivery of a baby born to a woman who received a uterus transplant at Baylor University Medical Center in Dallas. Photo: Baylor University Medical Center at Dallas

The first baby has been born to a mother in the United States from a transplanted uterus as part of a clinical trial conducted at Baylor University Medical Center in Dallas, TX.

Why it matters: Although it may mean more options for parents who can’t have children due to medical reasons or complications, it also raises some ethical questions.

The concerns:

  • The procedure is complicated, risky, and still experimental. It may be difficult to explain that risk adequately to women in order to receive informed consent for the procedure. But that shouldn’t halt progress on it, the trial's principal investigator Giuliano Testa argued on NPR this week.
  • There are also potential risks to the baby in a procedure that is still experimental. One is the use of strong immunosuppresive drugs in the mothers. Liza Johannesson, who pioneered the procedure in Sweden where eight babies have been born to mothers with transplanted uteruses in recent years and who has now joined the Baylor team, tells NPR: “Females have been giving birth after kidney and liver transplants for many, many years on immunosuppressive drugs. So we know what the effect of immunosuppressive drugs has on pregnancies, on babies, on recipients.”
  • The cost: Testa estimates $200,000 - $250,000, which could limit who can receive the procedure. And, there are other safe and less costly options including surrogacy and adoption. “We have other options that are safer for the fetus and the would-be mom. I’m not ready to say ‘Don’t do it,’ but you have to really proceed with caution here," bioethicist Arthur Caplan from the New York University School of Medicine told STAT in 2016, after the first uterus transplant in the U.S.

Bacteria found on space station likely came from Earth not outer space

The International Space Station seen from space shuttle Atlantis in 2011. Photo: NASA

In an interview Monday, Russian cosmonaut Anton Shkaplerov reported bacteria had been found on the outside of the International Space Station (ISS) — and it hadn't been there when the ISS modules launched. Instead, the microorganisms swabbed from the cracks and crevices of the space station had come from outer space, he said.
But, but, but: The details of the analysis are so far thin. And, in a previous mission, bacteria from Earth made it to the space station via a tablet, supporting the possibility of contamination this time, too. Recent research also seems to indicate microbes can get kicked high above Earth in space dust and by other space weather events, which offers another very plausible reason for how bacteria wound up on the ISS hull.
The bottom line: The bacteria probably came from Earth itself. "Microbes are still partying at 9 miles up and have been found as high as 47 miles above the surface," Mary Griggs wrote in Popular Science.

Why there are so few words for blue

Color pigments. Photo: Anka100 / iStock

Some languages have a word for green, others don't. Nearly all have one for red. A new study across 100 different languages suggests whether colors are assigned a name depends on how useful the label is.

  • Red, yellow, orange and other "warmer" colors are easier to precisely communicate than "cooler" ones like green and blue because there tend to be more words for warmer colors. That's because warm colors tend to describe objects whereas cool ones more often apply to backgrounds.
  • The researchers also found being able to name an object a specific color is more useful in industrialized parts of the world where an object's color can be what distinguishes it from others (i.e. green shirt v. blue shirt).

Why it matters: While the researchers at MIT, the National Institutes of Health and the University of Rochester didn't resolve the question of whether color is universal or shaped by individual cultures, their research suggests across languages the naming colors depends on how useful it is in communicating.

Interesting note: The researchers also compared the naming of colors in Tsimane' — a language spoken by the non-industrialized, indigenous Amazonian Tsimane' people — to colors for objects in English and Bolivian-Spanish. They discovered the Tsimane' were less likely to use color in reference to familiar objects compared to English and Spanish speakers, which seems to indicate the use of color for natural objects may not be as important to the Tsimane' people as it is for people in more industrialized parts of the world. "Industrialization, which creates objects distinguishable solely based on color, increases color usefulness," the researchers wrote.

Go deeper: The researchers say they are going to repeat the experiment with populations that live in different colored landscapes like snowy or desert regions. The Atlantic notes some limitations of the study: in some languages color conveys something other than hue (for example, calling a banana green indicates it is unripe) and "most languages don't have a single term for the concept of color" which could make it difficult to replicate the study across cultures.


This new device could someday cool your smartphone

Flexible cooling device made by UCLA engineers. Photo: UCLA Engineering

Researchers from UCLA and SRI International have developed a flexible, lightweight, cooling system that — if it can be mass-produced cost-effectively —could become a competitive cooling technology for small devices.

The problem: Vapor compression cooling systems used in air conditioners, cars and refrigerators are too large and bulky for much smaller applications like keeping smartphone batteries cool. Ceramic materials can be used but so far have been costly and less efficient than conventional cooling systems.

What they did: The researchers layered thin films of a polymer between two aluminum plates — one that was the source of heat (representing a smartphone battery, for example) and one that absorbed heat. As they applied and removed an electric field over the films, the polymer acts as the refrigerant — and moves heat back and forth between the plates. Repeating that process, they were able to cool a smartphone battery by more than 14 degrees Fahrenheit in 5 seconds.


Farming didn't erase genetic diversity in Papua New Guinea

Goroka village in the Eastern Highlands Province of Papua New Guinea. Photo: Papua New Guinea Institute of Medical Research

New genetic analysis of people living in Papua New Guinea shows a sharp genetic divide between 10,000 and 20,000 years ago that was likely determined by whether their ancestors lived a more nomadic life in the highlands or a more sedentary one in the lowlands.

Why it matters: The genetic divide began at about the same time people began farming in the lowlands. In other parts of the world during the Bronze and Iron Ages, migration and innovations were the prime forces that shaped human evolution. But that doesn't seem to be the case in Papua New Guinea, where the transition to cultivating crops had the opposite effect. Study author geneticist Chris Tyler-Smith told Science that "is a big surprise."

How they did it: Researchers analyzed the genetic makeup of 381 people from 85 different language groups across Papua New Guinea, and also analyzed 39 genome sequences that had been previously generated from people there.

What it means: The researchers say the findings may indicate technological advances in the Bronze Age — not earlier agricultural ones — may have wiped out genetic groups in Europe, per Science.


Humans have put an unprecedented amount of nitrogen into the earth

Associated Press

Nitrogen levels in the soil, water and atmosphere have increased fivefold globally in the past 60 years – largely due to human activities in the agricultural sector, according to a new study. Too much nitrogen can affect human health, reduce biodiversity and amplify global warming.

"Just as carbon fueled the Industrial Revolution, nitrogen has fueled an Agricultural Revolution," the study authors wrote. "The use of synthetic nitrogen fertilizers and the cultivation of nitrogen-fixing crops both expanded exponentially during the last century, with most of the increase occurring after 1960."

Where it is coming from: Nitrogen fertilizers are made by converting inert nitrogen in the atmosphere to a "fixed" chemical form plants can use as a nutrient. (The industrial process mirrors a natural one done by microbes on the roots of plants themselves.) But "fixed" nitrogen run-off can pollute neighboring land and water, and the fertilizers can spur the production of the greenhouse gas nitrous oxide by the microbes on the plants' roots. Earth has never seen this much fixed nitrogen in ecosystems worldwide, the researchers said.

Open questions: The researchers acknowledged further studies are needed to understand what such an increase in the nitrogen balance means, but preliminary estimates are unsettling. Just how much fixed nitrogen is released as greenhouse gas is still unclear but the authors said the increase in nitrogen could significantly add to problems the world is already facing from carbon and methane in the atmosphere.


Immigrant kids’ mental health increases when moms aren't threatened with deportation

Associated Press

The mental health and wellbeing of children of unauthorized immigrant parents increases by as much as 50% when their mothers are protected and not threatened with deportation, new research shows.

Why it matters: The study in the journal Science has important implications in the political debate in the Trump White House and Congress about whether to eliminate or expand the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA program created by President Obama to protect children of illegal immigrants. DACA currently offers temporary protection from deportation to roughly 750,000 children brought to the U.S. as children. There are 11 million unauthorized immigrants in America who are also parents to 4 million children who are U.S. citizens by birth.

How they did it: The researchers analyzed Medicaid claims data from Oregon, and matched that data with DACA eligibility among mothers on either side of a moment in time that identified them as legal or illegal immigrants. Immigrant mothers born after June 15, 1981, were granted status while those born before that date were not.

What it showed: The data showed that changes in parents' immigration status substantially impacted the mental well-being of their children. Broadly speaking, children of mothers who were no longer threatened with deportation had far fewer mental health problems. Conversely, children of mothers who were uncertain of their deportation status were more likely to suffer from adjustment and anxiety disorders. For example, "...mothers' DACA eligibility reduced adjustment and anxiety disorder diagnoses in their children by 4.3 percentage points from a baseline rate of 7.9% among children of ineligible mothers at the threshold," the authors wrote.

What's needed: The researchers say their approach using Medicaid records addresses the challenges of collecting data from unauthorized people and should be used in further studies in other states to fully assess the mental health impacts of immigration policies.


First Harvey damage estimates off the charts

David J. Phillip / AP

A preliminary insurance analysis released Tuesday by RMS (which advises hundreds of insurers and financial institutions on their financial exposure from natural and human-made disasters and catastrophes) puts the economic loss from Harvey as high as $90 billion.

Why it matters: Because up to 80 percent of the homes and businesses in Houston aren't insured for flood damage (either privately or through federal flood insurance programs), the financial toll could be catastrophic. "The majority of these losses will be uninsured, given that private flood insurance is limited," said Michael Young, who heads RMS' climate risk modeling in the Americas. This will present a challenge to Congress and the Trump administration when it begins work on aid for the area.

RMS said Tuesday that hundreds of thousands of individual National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) policies will almost certainly be affected by the devastation in Houston. It could be the largest event ever directed at the federal flood insurance program managed by FEMA, the agency in charge of the program, RMS said. The majority of the economic loss is likely to be in the metropolitan Houston area, where there are more than 7 million properties worth $1.5 trillion.

Harvey has broken all U.S. records for a single extreme-rainfall event, with cumulative amounts in some regions as high as 51 inches. As a result, RMS estimates the economic losses caused by a combination of wind, storm surge and inland flooding could be as high as $70-90 billion. But the losses could be even higher. RMS won't issue its official insurance loss estimate for several weeks.


Tiny, twisted carbon coils can capture ocean's energy

Y. Zhang, A. Noy 2017

Two new studies in Science demonstrate potentially groundbreaking applications for carbon nanotubes: filtering water even better than nature itself, and harnessing energy from ocean waves.

Why it matters: Until now, efforts to capture energy from things that are constantly moving in nature (e.g. waves or the human body) and convert it into electricity has been limited to tiny circuits with small currents of electricity. Carbon nanotubes could allow natural sources of energy to be efficiently tapped because their atomic bonds are so strong and can be stretched and twisted into bigger structures.

What they're made of: carbon engineered at the nanoscale level. The nanotubes are 10,000 times finer than a human hair. The bonding between the carbon atoms is also extraordinarily strong – which is why researchers have tested them for so many different applications. Scientists had high hopes, for instance, that carbon nanotubes could create an elevator to space, until studies in 2016 showed that such a massive structure would likely create too many critical weak points.

The new research:

  1. In one study, researchers compared the water-filtering potential of different sized carbon nanotubes against biological proteins — the carbon nanotubes effectively filtered water six times better than the proteins."The results could pave the way to new water filtration systems, at a time when demands for fresh water pose a global threat to sustainable development," the researchers wrote.
  2. A second set of experiments has equally important implications for self-powered devices. Researchers twisted nanosheets of carbon so tightly they formed coils that, like a spring, were able to store and transfer energy. They found the twisted nanotubes' were able to harvest energy from ocean waves (a 10-cm-long device had an average output power of 1.79 mW). They also showed it could convert mechanical energy into electricity in self-powered devices (like a shirt that has carbon nanotubes sewn into it and uses the natural process of breathing to continuously convert mechanical energy into electricity).

Cholesterol-lowering drugs may work against typhoid

Salmonella typhi / Wikipedia

Medical researchers and pharmaceutical companies are constantly looking for new uses for existing and proven medications, but it's likely no one saw this coming: cholesterol-lowering drugs might also work against typhoid and other infectious diseases, according to a new study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Why it matters: There are more than 21 million cases of typhoid fever every year, killing more than 200,000 people annually — mostly in countries with poor sanitation and limited access to clean water. "The findings raise the intriguing possibility that cholesterol-lowering drugs, combined with vaccines, might help protect against typhoid," the researchers wrote.

What they found: Duke University researchers accidentally discovered that statins — which can lower cholesterol and hedge against the risk of heart attacks — might also work against typhoid while they were studying ways in which bacteria infected cells in some people and not others.

  • They found that a genetic variation is associated with whether bacteria that cause typhoid could enter cells — and the cells it could enter had higher levels of cholesterol on their membranes.
  • The same variation was associated with a risk for typhoid fever in a group of 1000 Vietnamese people whose DNA they tested.
  • The researchers also treated zebrafish with a cholesterol-lowering drug and found it reduced their susceptibility to typhoid infection.