Greetings all and I apologize for the long silence here. As always we ladies are busy with many things outside this blog that enrich us and make us more entertaining and enlightening to all of you. I'm so thrilled by the dialogue that goes on and charmed by the great community that lives here at the cocktail party. I wish I could bask in it more often.
This week my excuse, however, adds up to a little buffet of science stories from the American Institute of Physics Industrial Physics Forum, where I blogged the week away in Anaheim, California. This year's meeting collaborated with the annual meeting of the American Association of Medical Physicist, with a theme focused on quantitative medical imaging for cancer detection and treatment. It was inspiring and sobering listening to very talented people talk about science that has such high stakes, and also to hear about the amazing advances they're making. You can read more about my adventures at the AIP blog, but here are a few of my favorites:
Karl Deisseroth, an assistant professor of bioengineering and psychiatry at Stanford University was the closest thing I saw to a mad scientists at the meeting, although I believe his intentions are good. He and his team have implanted mouse brains with halo rhodopsin pumps that they found in algae. Algae don't have brains, and they rely on light cues to tell them when to move. It's these halo rhodopsin pumps that respond to light and send a chemical message to do something different. By injecting these into mouse brains, then inserting an optical light fiber into the mouse, the team can control the mouse's behavior by turning the light on and off. So far they can get the mice to run in a circle or wake from a deep sleep. They've found different pumps that could make different colors induce different behaviors.
You gotta have faith in basic research and the Industrial Physics Forum usually reminds me why. Scientists at CERN, in their hunt for more and more tiny tiny particles, pushed photon counter technology ahead by a factor of 100. Photon counters are just light detectors that count individual photons and measure their energy. So, if you only have one second to take a picture, you need a high photon count detector to gather as many photons as possible and provide information about them. In the optical range the energy tells you a photon's color, so you can see how knowing photon energies can provide useful information. New results at the meeting showed the first human trials of a CT scanner with one of these individual photon counters. Most CT scans don't need photon counters, but eventually they hope to use them to detect early cancer cells or other disease indicators.
The grand imaginations of particle physicists and accelerator scientists will continue to push for larger and larger accelerators in the world (like the planned 31 kilometer ILC); but to spare money and resources, ther eis also a push for smaller accelerators. This comes especially from medicine, where things like proton cancer therapy are burdened by the large size and high cost of accelerators. Plasma wakefield physics is the front runner amid theories on ways to accelerating particles to higher energies over shorter distances, but I also heard about another technique in the works that still uses plasma, but accelerates the particles slightly differently. The details are rough, and I'm just going to point you to the AIP blog post. But if this new technique pans out, the advantages will include, yes, smaller size as well as no need for magnets.The scientists working on it are gearing it specifically toward proton therapy, which is perhaps unique to plasma wakefield acceleration.
Also in the range of accelerator science, Joseph Lykken of Fermilab gave a great overview talk on the challenges for next generation accelerators. He mentioned a type of accelerator technology that could drive nuclear reactors run on thorium, rather than uranium or plutonium. The advantages are that the waste product decays in about 60 years instead of millions. But to do this we'll need very powerful accelerators that don't exist yet. Apparently this technology has been on the table for a few years (see the articles in Wired and COSMOS, where I got this absolutely stunning image courtesy of Justin Randall).
I also heard from the Chief Technology Officer of Pacific Biosciences, a company that is planning to release a commercial DNA sequencing tool that will be 20,000 times faster than current technologies. Using at totally new technique, they've found a way to peek in on DNA polymerase as it sequences DNA in real time. The technology will also turn around results in minutes as opposed to days. In four or five years they say new technology will become available that will advance their technique even further. In, say, ten years, you might be able to sequence your entire genome in 15 minutes.
On another front in cancer treatment, I learned about thermal therapy, or the simple notion that if nothing else seems to work, try killing a tumor by pointing a laser at it. You cook the cells, with the main risk of damaging nearby cells as well. So to focus the heat and increase the gradient, scientists from Wake Forest University deposited multi-walled carbon nanotubes into tumors and used them to conduct heat. The tumors in mice deposited with these MWCN's were not only obliterated but came back far less often. MWCN's aren't approved by the FDA yet so clinical human trials can't begin for a while.
With many major meetings held during the summer months, there's a smorgasbord of good science stories to read by the pool. If you've read good story, blog post or other internet tid bit that has whet your science palate in the hot summer sun, I'd love to hear about it.