Putting a price on new cancer treatments - Axios
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Putting a price on new cancer treatments

Laz Gamio / Axios

Last week, the FDA approved a new immunotherapy for treating a type of leukemia that affects children and young adults. The manufacturer, Novartis, expects it will cost about $475,000 for the one-time personalized treatment in which a patient's immune cells are removed, modified so they attack cancer cells and then infused back into the body. Other companies are working on similar therapies for other cancers —with tentative success and serious setbacks.

As these new drugs begin to enter the market, we asked researchers, economists and policy experts: how should their value be determined? Their answers:

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Albatross are in decline, mirroring drops in shorebirds around the world

Wandering albatross nest on Prion Island in South Georgia. Photo iStock / Burroblando

Populations of wandering albatross are half as large as they were in the 1980s, according to a paper published Monday in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

What's happening: According to the BBC, there are two main reasons for the bird's decline:

  • Fishing: The birds "often try to take the bait on longline fishing gear. They get snagged on hooks, are pulled under the water and are drowned."
  • The climate: The birds are vulnerable to shifts in feeding grounds caused by events like El Nino and climate change.

Why it matters: It's not just wandering albatross. A study published last year in Nature found seabird populations are crashing around the globe, and another published in PLOS One in 2015 found that seabird numbers have dropped 70 percent in 60 years.

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6-month-old infants may understand related words

Thomas Brunson-Pitts, 6 months, plays inside his home in Washington. Photo: Jacquelyn Martin / AP

New research suggests babies as young as six months old understand more about language than was previously believed, per the Atlantic.

In the study, babies were first shown two different pictures at a time, of things like a blanket and a dog. Researchers observed what image the babies looked at after their parents named an image. The babies had a harder time distinguishing the difference between pictures of related things, like nose and mouth, than they did of the unrelated pictures. Per the Atlantic, this difficulty of distinguishing related images shows "that they somehow understand that the concepts are related."

Why it matters: Further developing the findings could help doctors flag when a child has a language delay, which is sometimes an indicator of autism.

A different part of the study included the parents showing an object to the baby while they discussed it. Following this, the babies were able to "look more at the correct objects during the in-lab task," the Atlantic reports. Elika Bergelson, lead author of the study, said this shows that "babies are listening, and you should treat them as conversational partners."

What's next: Bergelson acknowledged that more work needs to be done, considering this study only used 51 children, and they were primarily from "white, middle-class, well-educated families."

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Ancient fortress found at bottom of lake in Turkey

The Akdamar church stands on the Akdamar Island on Lake Van, Turkey. Photo: Burhan Ozbilici / AP

Archaeologists have discovered the ruins of an ancient fortress believed to be about 3,000 years old at the bottom of Lake Van, located in eastern Turkey near Iran, per National Geographic.

How it remained hidden: Lake Van isn't connected to the ocean so it is highly susceptible to dramatic changes in water levels. Archaeologists believe the lake's water level was lower when the Uratu kingdom reigned from 860-590 BC. Locally, people talked about ruins from the Uratu kingdom at the bottom of the lake.

One fun thing: Tahsin Ceylan, the head of the diving team from Van Yuzuncu Yil University who led the expedition, told local press that most archaeologists and museum officials told them not to search the lake because they'd never find anything. The diving team proceeded with their search anyway, based on the local rumors. They then discovered the fortress.

Details of the ruins: Ceylan said the archaeological site is about a kilometer long, and roughly 10 to 13 feet of castle walls are visible beneath the water.

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Elon Musk's new truck said to have a revolutionary new battery

Musk with the Tesla semi truck. Photo: Tesla

When Elon Musk guaranteed that the new Tesla semi-truck would last 1 million miles without breaking down, experts assumed he was talking about the drive train, not the ultra-sensitive battery. But a person familiar with the truck tells Axios that he meant the battery, too.

Why it matters: A battery going that far would have multiple times the longevity of any commercial vehicle battery in use now or announced for release, and would help make Tesla's Semi competitive with diesel-burning competitors (since the battery is estimated to cost $170,000 on top of the $100,000-plus cost of the truck itself).

Musk announced his truck with typical showmanship (see photo above), but fleet owners who buy cargo trucks are not typically given to whims of cool and style. "They decide on the total cost of ownership," John Rapaport, a co-founder of Repower, a consultant to truck fleet owners, tells Axios. "They are very sophisticated buyers. They understand how to model out all of the variables."

By the numbers: In his Nov. 16 unveiling of the Semi, Musk said the truck will travel 500 miles on a charge when it goes on sale starting in 2019, which is a lot; Mitsubishi's new eCanter has 62.5 miles of range on a charge. Given that the standard lithium-ion battery lasts 1,000 charge-discharge cycles before replacement is recommended, that would add up to about 500,000 miles.

  • But a typical tractor-trailer in the U.S. will travel 100,000 miles a year or more, according to industry data. Meaning that, if Musk's truck operates like most electrics including Tesla's own passenger vehicles, it would deliver only about five years of use before the battery needs replacing.
  • Truck drivers are also likely to use Tesla's 30-minute fast-charging technology almost every time their battery runs out, and not the slower recharging system, thus subjecting the pack's physics to regular, enormous stress, said Venkat Viswanathan, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University.
  • Musk has not disclosed his planned sticker price, but experts estimate that the Semi could be $300,000, about twice the cost of new diesel trucks. Very few fleet owners would spend that kind of money if the battery needs replacing so soon, even if they do save about $100,000 in diesel over the five years of ownership, as Tesla estimates.

That Musk instead plans to guarantee 1 million miles of travel, as we have been told, suggests his team has tinkered with the truck in unprecedented ways so that the battery can undergo 2,000 charge-recharge cycles, twice the usual number, Viswanathan said.

In a series of tweets, Nikola Motor Company, a rival truckmaker, yesterday speculated that Musk is modeling his battery pack not on his passenger vehicles, but on his stationary batteries — the Powerwall that he markets for use in buildings and homes. Such a configuration — installing many more battery cells than actually required, and running them at relatively low charging voltage — would make the system much more durable, Viswanathan said.

In an email exchange, Tony Seba, who teaches at Stanford University, adds that self-driving technology will make the Semi more efficient, and suggests that drivers may not be permitted to fully discharge the batteries. "If you don't fully charge and discharge a battery, it's going to last far longer than if you do," Seba said.

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There might not be flowing water on Mars

Mars' recurrent slope linnea, or RSL, may have been caused by flowing sand and not water.

Photo: NASA / JPL-Caltech / UA / USGS

Hopes of flowing water on Mars are evaporating. In 2015, scientists announced they had found dark streaks on mountains on Mars. At the time, they believed the streaks were formed by running water. However, a paper published Thursday in Nature Geosciences suggests the streaks were instead shaped by falling sand.

Why it matters: It seems counterintuitive, but this could make plans to travel to Mars a little easier. If there's running, liquid water on Mars, there could also be life. And that means that any missions would have to go to great lengths to avoid contaminating it. The authors note any water that is present would likely be "inhospitable to known terrestrial life, alleviating planetary protection concerns."

  • That doesn't mean there isn't life on Mars, but it's even less likely than before — and it probably won't be contaminated by any bacterial hitchhikers humans might send along.

What they saw: The researchers compared the patterns left by flowing sand on Martian sand dunes to the dark streaks, which are called recurring slope linnea, or RSL. The patterns on the dunes were startlingly similar to the patterns on the RSL. And, although the streaks do look like they contain some salts associated with liquid water, other salts can't be seen. Previous studies had suggested that if there was water in the streaks, there was little of it.

Yes, but the streaks do seem to lengthen during the warm season, suggesting liquid water under the surface could play a role in starting the sand on its journey downhill.

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First asteroid seen from outside our solar system has bizarre shape

An artist's illustration of the first interstellar asteroid, `Oumuamua. Credit: European Southern Observatory.

Astronomers today confirmed that an asteroid first spotted zipping through our solar system last month came from another star system. 'Oumuamua — Hawaiian for "a messenger from afar arriving first" — is one of the most elongated cosmic objects known to date.

Why it matters: 'Oumuamua's bizarre shape is unlike any other asteroid seen yet, and could "provide new clues regarding into how other solar systems formed," according to a NASA press release.

'Oumuamua's distinguishing characteristics, detailed by a team of astronomers led by Karen Meech from the Institute for Astronomy in Hawaii, and published Monday in the journal Nature:

  • 'Oumuamua's orbit isn't possible in our solar system, the researchers concluded, meaning it came from another solar system.
  • The cigar-shaped asteroid is dark and reddish, and is about ten times long as it is wide.
  • Unlike comets, it doesn't have any gas or dust surrounding it. But it is similar to some comets and asteroids. "This is important because it suggests that planetary compositions like ours could be typical across the Galaxy," Stuart Clark writes in the Guardian.
  • According to NASA, these properties "suggest that 'Oumuamua is dense, comprised of rock and possibly metals, has no water or ice, and that its surface was reddened due to the effects of irradiation from cosmic rays over hundreds of millions of years."

Timeline:

  • The object was first discovered Oct. 19 by the University of Hawaii's Pan-STARRS1 telescope. Soon after, telescopes around the globe, including the European Southern Observatory's s Very Large Telescope in Chile, began measuring the asteroid's characteristics.
  • The asteroid can still be seen by large ground-based telescopes, but it is rapidly fading from view as it travels away from Earth. It is expected to no longer be detectable around mid-December.
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Why experts are quietly concerned about bird flu

Chickens on a farm chicken on the outskirts of Shanghai, China, on April 3, 2013. Photo: Gillian Wong / AP

Global health officials are quietly ratcheting up concern about H7N9 bird flu, per the New York Times. "The number of human infections reported in [this epidemic] is almost as many as were reported during the previous four epidemics combined," notes the CDC of this years' flu season, though they believe this is due to increased spread among birds, not improved human transmission.

The bottom line: This particular lineage of H7N9 has long been "ranked as the influenza virus with the highest potential pandemic risk," according to the CDC. But there isn't yet a pandemic, and there might never be one. H7N9 could continue to be a small, regional problem like another influenza virus known as H5N1 has, or it could spread (comparatively) harmlessly, like H1N1/swine flu. Regardless, those who study the disease are watching it closely.

The CDC summarized recent developments in a September update of the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, and in October the World Health Organization noted a seasonal uptick in cases.

Since October 2016:
  • 1600 people have tested positive for the virus.
  • 40% of those who tested positive have died.
  • The virus has become fatal in birds, which means it's potentially more deadly in humans.
  • The virus has split into two strains, which could interfere with vaccine development.
  • Research has shown it can transmit easily in ferrets. Viruses that succeed in ferrets are often successful in humans.

Reality check: Most of the infected humans caught the virus directly from birds. But it's not clear where a small number of people contracted the illness, raising concerns about human-to-human transmission. It's worth noting that bird flu strain H5N1, which first appeared in 2005, still can't successfully pass from person to person, so public health officials are slow to raise alarm.

Also worth watching: Australia just had one of their worst flu seasons on record, and the strains that circulated there are slated to be prevalent in the U.S. this flu season. But the U.S. has much higher vaccination rates than Australia, so the season may not be as bad, notes the NYT's Donald G. McNeil, Jr.

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Watch the wind blow...

Simulation of aerosols and 2017 hurricanes. Credit: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

Using NASA mathematical models and satellite observations of sand, sea salt and smoke moving across the Western hemisphere, researchers at Goddard Space Flight Center created this visualization of the 2017 hurricane season.

What you're seeing: Sand and dust from the Sahara (seen in brown), sea salt picked up by the winds of hurricanes Irma, Harvey, Jose and Maria (blue) and smoke from wildfires in the western U.S. (gray) travel thousands of miles on wind. Across the Atlantic, Hurricane Ophelia takes form off the coast of Africa.

Why it matters: Simulating currents — in this case, from July 31, 2017 to November 1, 2017 — can be used to better understand the conditions under which storms form and evolve.

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Ancient engravings depict dogs on leashes

A dog carving found on a cliff in M.Guagnin. Credit: Journal of Anthropological Archaeology, 2017

Ancient sandstone engravings found in the Arabian desert depict dogs wearing leashes, according to a paper published Thursday in the Journal of Anthropological Archaeology and reported by David Grimm at Science.

Why it matters: It's difficult to date these carvings, but "based on the sequence of carving, the weathering of the rock, and the timing of switch to pastoralism" the pictures are likely 8,000-9,000 years old, writes Grimm, who notes that this would make them the oldest known depictions of dogs.

Modern resemblance: The dogs depicted have curly tails, like the Canaan dogs that live in the Middle East today.

Yes, but before the age of these engravings can be confirmed, they'll need to be tied to a well-dated archaeological site. Melinda Zeder, an archaeologist at the Smithsonian Institute of Natural History tells Grimm doing so could be difficult because "the archaeological record in this region is really spotty." Even if these aren't the oldest dog depictions we've found, they're definitely the oldest of leashes.

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How evolution shaped passenger pigeons' DNA — and their fate

Martha, the last known passenger pigeon before dying in 1914, can be seen at the Smithsonian's Natural History Museum. Photo: Susan Walsh / AP

A new study suggests passenger pigeons, which once covered North America with massive flocks before their extinction in the early 20th century, may have maintained stable populations for thousands of years until human hunters came along, per The Washington Post. That counters previous research that found the species had already taken a downturn by that time.

The double whammy: Besides the sudden influx of human predators, the birds' genome had been tuned to the size of its population. It had surprisingly low genetic variation in some parts of its genome, which "provided few avenues for the bird to respond to human pressures, which ultimately drove it to extinction," according to the study, published Thursday in Science.

Role of genetics: One way genomes evolve is via random mutation (also called neutral evolution). Those mutations don't necessarily have an immediate benefit but sometimes can in the long run. Another process is selection in which one version of a gene is preferred — or not — over another because it influences survival. Researchers found the passenger pigeon's genome was diverse overall compared to other birds but that diversity wasn't uniform across their chromosomes. The researchers think that suggests their large population size allowed them to adapt quickly to their environment (via selection) but the cost was that there wasn't much neutral evolution happening, which left them with little genetic variation.

"Large population size appears to have allowed for faster adaptive evolution and removal of harmful mutations, driving a huge loss in their neutral genetic diversity," the researchers wrote. "These results demonstrate the effect that selection can have on a vertebrate genome and contradict results that suggested that population instability contributed to this species's surprisingly rapid extinction."

The bottom line: The study says having a huge population was initially a key survival mechanism for the passenger pigeon. However, the birds' surprisingly low genetic variation caused it to be unable to recover from humanity's overhunting practices. As one of the study authors told WashPost, "It's impossible to adapt to gunfire."

Editor's note: This story has been updated to provide further information.