Astronomers look inside the heart of a dying star for the first time.


Observations by the NuSTAR telescope have given new insight into the “sloshing” pressure that form star explosions

For the first time ever astronomers have been able to look inside the heart of an exploding star, using a space telescope to peer into the radioactive corpse of Cassiopeia A, a star that was once eight times the size of the Sun.

“This has been a holy grail observation for high energy astrophysics for decades,” said Steven Boggs, chair of physics at UC Berkeley and co-author of the paper published in the journal Nature.

“For the first time we are able to image the radioactive emission in a supernova remnant, which lets us probe the fundamental physics of the nuclear explosion at the heart of the supernova like we have never been able to do before.”

Supernovae are a key mechanism in the formation of the Universe as we know it, creating a wide array of ‘heavy’ elements via nucleosynthesis and ejecting this matter deep into the cosmos. In fact, the shock waves from supernovae can even trigger the formation of new stars – making these explosions part of the Universe’s most awe-inspiring ‘life cycle’.

“People should care about supernova explosions because that’s where all the stuff that makes us comes from,” Brian Grefenstette, lead author on the paper and a research scientist at the California Institute of Technology, told CNN.

“All of the iron in your blood and  calcium in your bones and teeth, and gold in your wedding band, that all comes from the center of a supernova explosion.”

Superimposed images of the Cas A supernova remnant taken by NASA’s Chandra and NuSTAR orbiting telescopes. Red and green patches are iron and silicon/magnesium, respectively, while blue shows the distribution of titanium. However, although scientists have long known about the importance of supernovae in creating matter, they’ve been unable to get a closer look at the process that causes them to explode.

Supernovae occur when stars many time the size of our Sun run out of fuel, leaving behind a dense iron core that collapses in on itself, a process that can happen at velocities reaching 70,000 km/s and that causes a shockwave, expelling  gas and dust into space. We can see existing stars and supernova remnants but the moments in between are much more mysterious.

“It’s like you blink your eyes twice, and the whole thing has exploded, and we’re seeing it three or four hundred years later, preserved in the radioactive ash,” said Grefenstette.

This latest research used the NuSTAR telescope (short for Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array) astronomers have been able to analyse a previously unexamined section of the X-ray spectrum in supernova remnant Cassiopeia A, a well-observed stellar explosion first spotted in 1947.

Other telescopic arrays such as the Hubble Space Telescope and Chandra X-Ray Observatory are only capable of looking at low-energy X-ray trails from elements like iron, but the NuSTAR was able to map the movement of the high-energy element, titanium-44, within the cosmic explosion of Cassiopeia A.

The observations captured by NuSTAR have led the astronomers to believe that the explosion was shaped by pressure inside the iron core of the dying star “sloshing” about; an asymmetrical process (below) that could explain why supernova remnants look so crooked compared to the spherical stars they once were.

Grefenstette compares the process to the top blowing off a pressure cooker, with the subsequent shockwave tearing the matter of the star apart and leaving behind the uneven splashes and smears of matter we now see.

“We think that these large bubbles, which were formed in the first fraction of a second as the star collapsed, have been preserved for hundreds of years like a fossil record in the radioactive ash of the explosion,” said Grefenstette, describing the trails of titanium-44 that have been newly mapped.

These observations have helped astronomers rule out previous theories about how stars explode, but NuSTAR’s measurements have also raised further questions. The astronomers found that the map of titanium-44 recorded by the telescope does not match up with the map of iron created by other telescopes – even though both elements are supposed to have come from the same ‘bubbles’ of pressure.

This may mean that there is simply some iron that hasn’t been detected by the telescopes (they can only observe the element when it is hot) or that there some other process within the supernova creating these elements. It is perhaps unsurprising that even when we can look within the heart of a dying star, it creates more questions than answers.

Advertisements

Lemurs could be extinct ‘very soon’ experts warn.


The primates are the most endangered mammals in the world, say scientists

Lemurs could “very soon” be extinct, some of the world’s leading experts on the primates warned as they unveiled a three-year plan to save them, on Thursday.

A combination of the destruction of their habitat and bush meat hunting by impoverished local people, means that Lemurs are now the world’s most threatened mammal group.

A five-year political crisis in the Indian Ocean island Madagascar, the only place where lemurs live, and a subsequent breakdown of environmental law enforcement have worsened the situation for the roughly 100 species of lemurs, experts said.

“Extinctions could begin very soon if nothing is done,” said Christoph Schwitzer, head of research at the Bristol Zoological Society in Britain who led a team of 19 scientists that drafted the emergency lemur preservation plan published in the journal ‘Science’.

Only fifty of the rarest northern sportive lemurs remain, he added.

“One cyclone or other natural event could wipe out the entire population. In fact, anybody who decides to go out lemur hunting could tip the species over the edge,” Schwitzer stressed.

To stop lemur extinction, the team has identified 30 priority sites for lemur conservation, which will be managed at a local level.

Black-and-white ruffed lemurs native to the rainforests of Madagascar sit on a branch in their enclosure at the Tierpark Friedrichsfelde zoo in Berlin.

Black-and-white ruffed lemurs native to the rainforests of Madagascar sit on a branch in their enclosure at the Tierpark Friedrichsfelde zoo in Berlin.
A long-term research presence will also be put in place in key areas, while an expansion of ecotourism will help fund the projects, experts hope.

The scientists plan to tell world leaders that for the relatively small sum of $7.6 million in international aid, a significant portion of the lemurs’ habitat could be preserved.

Lemurs are one of the most primitive types of primate, less advanced than monkeys, apes and humans.

Arboreal creatures, they eat leaves, fruits and insects.

They appeared early in primate evolution, about 62 million years ago, not long after the dinosaurs went extinct. More advanced primates never made it to Madagascar, allowing lemurs to thrive and evolve into many different species.

But most of Madagascar’s forest land has been eliminated and 94 percent of lemur species are now considered vulnerable, endangered or critically endangered.

“I would certainly not want to tell my children in 10 or 20 years time, when they are old enough to travel to Madagascar, ‘Look, this island was once inhabited by creatures called lemurs, but they have gone extinct because your dad, along with many others, was unable to avert their extinction at the time,” Schwitzer said.

Belgium approves child euthanasia.


Parliament in Belgium has passed a bill allowing euthanasia for terminally ill children without any age limit, by 86 votes to 44, with 12 abstentions.

When, as expected, the bill is signed by the king, Belgium will become the first country in the world to remove any age limit on the practice.

It may be requested by terminally ill children who are in great pain and also have parental consent.

Opponents argue children cannot make such a difficult decision.

It is 12 years since Belgium legalised euthanasia for adults.

In the Netherlands, Belgium’s northern neighbour, euthanasia is legal for children over the age of 12, if there is parental consent.

Continue reading the main story

Conditions for child euthanasia

  • Patient must be conscious of their decision
  • Request must be approved by parents and medical team
  • Illness must be terminal
  • Patient must be in great pain with no treatment available to alleviate their distress

Under the Dutch conditions, a patient’s request for euthanasia can be fulfilled by a doctor if the request is “voluntary and well-considered” and the patient is suffering unbearably, with no prospect of improvement.

‘Immoral’ law

One man in the public gallery of Belgium’s parliament shouted “murderers” in French when the vote was passed, Reuters news agency reports.

Supporters of the legislation argue that in practice the law will affect an extremely small number of children, who would probably be in their teens, the BBC’s Duncan Crawford reports from Brussels.

The law states a child would have to be terminally ill, face “unbearable physical suffering” and make repeated requests to die – before euthanasia is considered.

Parents, doctors and psychiatrists would have to agree before a decision is made.

Protesters have lobbied politicians against the changes.

Church leaders argued the law is immoral.

“The law says adolescents cannot make important decisions on economic or emotional issues, but suddenly they’ve become able to decide that someone should make them die,” Brussels Archbishop Andre-Joseph Leonard, head of the Catholic Church in Belgium, said at a prayer vigil last week.

Some paediatricians have warned vulnerable children could be put at risk and have questioned whether a child can really be expected to make such a difficult choice.

Last week 160 Belgian paediatricians signed an open letter against the law, claiming that there was no urgent need for it and that modern medicine is capable of alleviating pain.

But opinion polls have suggested broad support for the changes in Belgium, which is mostly Catholic.

Eating disorders can be ‘fatal’


Laurence Nugent’s family said at first they did not realise how serious his condition was

The families of two young people who died from an eating disorder say sufferers do not realise the condition can be fatal.

It is hard to gauge how many people die from anorexia and bulimia as death certificates normally record heart or kidney failure instead.

Laurence Nugent, 24, from Belfast, kept his eating disorder a secret for years before confiding in his mother.

He died from a heart attack after suffering from bulimia.

‘Suicidal’

His mother, Pamela, said at first his family did not realise how serious the disorder was.

“We weren’t in despair at the beginning. We thought we’ll get him help, we’ll fix it as mummies and daddies do, but as time progressed we realised this is very serious,” she said.

“It was a mental health issue. His personality started to take the form of someone who was depressed, who was very angry, very afraid and suicidal.

“But we never thought in one million years that Laurence would die.”

But Laurence did die, after years of bulimia and starvation began taking their toll on his body.

Laurence Nugent
Laurence Nugent died of a heart attack after suffering from bulimia for years

‘Normal’

Mrs Nugent said: “We didn’t know who to turn to for help because Laurence wouldn’t allow us.

“It was his secret – he was totally ashamed of himself and he hated himself. He told us he hated the very look of himself.”

Laurence kept his secret within his immediate family, but continued to live what looked like a normal life to those outside the family circle.

His brother, Chris, said many of his friends were shocked to discover the truth.

“Start Quote

I’m saying to every young man out there in Northern Ireland – this can kill you. It killed my son, you need to get help”

Pamela Nugent

“After he died we told a lot of his friends what we’d been hiding for so long. They couldn’t believe it. They said to me, ‘why didn’t he tell us? We would have helped him. I can’t believe we’ve known him all this time and we didn’t know’.”

Mrs Nugent said she feels it is important to let young people know that an eating disorder can be fatal.

She said: “I’m saying to every young man out there in Northern Ireland – this can kill you. It killed my son, you need to get help.”

‘Starvation’

Danielle O’Neill was also 24 when she died. The fashion designer from Londonderry had only suffered from anorexia for several months.

Her mother, Adelaide, said she developed the condition after starting a diet that went too far.

“She said to me she never meant to get so thin,” she said.

“That’s the thing I can’t stress enough – how big a part your mind plays in this, it’s like it takes over and you can’t stop.”

Danielle had received treatment and was doing well, but her mother said an attempt to eat a normal meal had a terrible effect on her.

“She ended up in hospital on a drip and it seems her stomach ruptured, it just couldn’t cope with the food after months of starvation,” Mrs O’Neill said.

Mrs O’Neill said losing Danielle was like losing part of herself, but now hopes to raise awareness about eating disorders.

“She’s gone and we’ll never bring her back, but if this can help somebody else and raise awareness then that would be something good,” she said.

The Nugent family are setting up the Laurence Trust later this month to highlight the dangers of eating disorders, and to offer support to young men in particular.

Mrs Nugent said: “It’s too late for Laurence, but young people need to know the dangers.”

Danielle O'Neill
Danielle suffered from anorexia and died after her stomach ruptured as it could not cope with food any longer

Jacqui King, from the charity the Eating Disorders Association, said the problem needed to be taken more seriously in Northern Ireland.

“In 12 years of being in EDA I have approached each of the health ministers for a meeting about this and I’ve never had a meeting yet,” she said.

“We do need something more like a day hospital where people could go on a daily basis, where they could have different types of therapy and we definitely do need some in-patient facility, because people are just being put into general medical wards or psychiatric wards.

“There are two people that I know of who are seriously ill (due to eating disorders) but are not being treated for their eating disorder in hospital, only really being kept there to keep them safe.”

A spokesperson for the Department of Health said the minister had not received a meeting request from the Eating Disorders Association.

“There have been significant developments in eating disorder services for young people and adults across Northern Ireland in recent years,” they added.

“There are specialist community-based eating disorder teams in each health and social care trust area, with the Belfast Trust providing these services for the South Eastern Trust.”

Food packaging health risk ‘unknown’.


Plastic bottles
The health risks of chemicals in plastic bottles are the subject of some debate.

Scientists say “far too little” is known about the health risks of chemicals used in food packaging, and some could cause cancer.

Research is needed to understand the effect on the human body and embryonic development of at least 4,000 chemicals used in packaging, they said.

Links between packaging and obesity, diabetes and neurological diseases need to be explored, scientists warned.

But critics have said that the call is alarmist.

Scientists Jane Muncke, John Peterson Myers, Martin Scheringer and Miquel Porta called for an investigation into the health risks of food packaging in a commentary piece published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health.

‘Lifelong exposure’

They noted that chemicals such as formaldehyde, which they said can cause cancer, were used in many materials, such as plastics used for fizzy-drink bottles and tableware.

Substances could leach into food, and they added that the risks of “lifelong exposure” to such chemicals were not documented, said the researchers.

“Whereas the science for some of these substances is being debated and policymakers struggle to satisfy the needs of stakeholders, consumers remain exposed to these chemicals daily, mostly unknowingly,” they said.

But carrying out analysis would not be easy, they said, as there are no unexposed populations for comparison.

The call for research has attracted criticism.

Dr Ian Musgrave, senior lecturer in pharmacology at the University of Adelaide, said it was “very hard to take seriously” the claims that formaldehyde in plastic bottles could cause cancer.

He said it was present in many foods naturally, and to consume as much formaldehyde as that in an apple someone would have to drink “at least” 20 litres of plastic-bottled water.

Dr Musgrave added: “Obviously the concern about formaldehyde from food packaging is significantly overrated, unless we are willing to place ‘potential cancer hazard’ stickers on fresh fruit and vegetables.”

‘High levels of fat’

Jon Ayres, Professor of Environmental and Respiratory Medicine at the University of Birmingham, said the scientists painted an “alarmist” picture.

He said there was “no denying” that ingesting lower doses of some substances could “in principle” be harmful, but the issue was how to recognise and quantify any effect.

Prof Ayres added: “But can these effects really be anything other than modest at worst when few have been recognised to date?”

He said that simply calling for a different approach to the chemicals “does not really help”.

Dr Oliver Jones, lecturer at the RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia, said: “More research is always welcome from a scientist’s point of view.

“But I would hazard a guess that the high levels of fat, sugar and salt in a lot of today’s processed food are more of a health concern than any migration of chemicals from the packaging.”

Fukushima leaks radioactive water.


Highly contaminated water leaked from a large storage tank is seen at the H6 area of the contaminated water storage tanks, Fukushima nuclear plant, 20 February 2014
The leak is thought to have occurred after a storage tank overflowed

Around 100 tonnes of highly radioactive water have leaked from a storage tank at Japan’s Fukushima nuclear plant, operator Tokyo Electric (Tepco) says.

The toxic water may have overflowed after a valve was left open by mistake, Tepco said.

However the water was unlikely to have reached the ocean, the operator added.

The plant, which was damaged by an earthquake and tsunami in 2011, has faced multiple problems including leaks and power cuts since the disaster.

The latest leak is the most serious since August, when the plant leaked 300 tonnes of water, prompting Japan’s nuclear agency to raise the incident’s alert level.

‘Contaminated earth’

The water from Wednesday’s leak was radioactive, with a reading of 230 million becquerels per litre of radioactive isotopes, Tepco spokesman Masayuki Ono told reporters.

A becquerel is a unit used to measure radioactivity. WHO guidance advises against drinking water with radioactivity levels higher than 10 becquerels per litre.

Tepco says the radioactive water overflowed from a storage tank on Wednesday, but the leak was not discovered for several hours, the BBC’s Rupert Wingfield-Hayes in Tokyo reports.

Previous Fukushima problems

  • 9 Oct 2013: Six workers are accidentally doused in radioactive water
  • 7 Oct 2013: A plant worker accidentally switches off power to pumps used for cooling damaged reactors
  • 3 Oct 2013: Tepco says there is a radioactive water leak after workers overfill a storage tank
  • 21 Aug 2013: Japan’s nuclear agency upgrades Fukushima alert level
  • 20 Aug 2013: Tepco says 300 tonnes of radioactive water has leaked from a storage tank into the ground
  • July 2013: Tepco for the first time admits radioactive water is going into the sea
  • June 2013: Tepco says radioactive water leaking from a storage tank to the ground
  • April 2013: Tepco suspects a fresh radioactive water leak at Fukushima
  • March 2013: Tepco suspects a rodent may have been behind a power cut that shut down cooling systems
  • Dec 2011 Contaminated water leaks from a treatment system, caused by a crack in the foundation

The operator says the leak occurred when contaminated water was accidentally pumped into a large storage tank that was already full, our correspondent adds.

“We apologise for worrying the public with such a leak,” Mr Ono said. “Water is unlikely to have reached the ocean as there is no drainage in that tank area.”

“We are now in the process of recovering the leaked water and the earth it has contaminated,” he added.

On 11 March 2011, an earthquake and tsunami crippled the plant. Waves knocked out cooling systems for the reactors, leading to meltdowns at three of them.

Water is being pumped in to cool the reactors. However, this creates large amounts of contaminated water that must be stored securely.

The Fukushima nuclear power plant suffered a number of setbacks last year, including worker errors and a series of toxic water leaks that have lead to concerns contaminated water is mixing with groundwater that is flowing into the sea.

Prostate tests ‘will predict risk’


Prostate cancer

DNA testing can predict which men face the highest risk of deadly prostate cancer, scientists say.

The team at the Institute of Cancer Research, in London, say men could soon be offered genetic screening in a similar way to breast cancer in women.

“Start Quote

I can see in two to three years offering screening to men with prostate cancer and to men worried about their family history”

Dr Zsofia Kote-Jarai Institute of Cancer Research

They have shown 14 separate mutations can greatly increase the odds of aggressive prostate cancers, which could form the basis of a test.

Prostate Cancer UK said such testing could “revolutionise” care for men.

Prostate cancer is the commonest cancer in men in many countries, including the UK – where more than 40,000 people are diagnosed each year.

But not every patient has, or needs, invasive therapy that results in severe side-effects.

Identifying which men will need treatment – those who are likely to develop the most aggressive and deadly form of the cancer – is a huge challenge.

Danger genes

The researchers took blood samples from 191 men with prostate cancer and at least three close family members with the same condition.

Each was tested for risky mutations – this included the BRCA genes that are involved in repairing DNA and already linked to breast and ovarian cancers.

The results, published in the British Journal of Cancer, show that 7% of the men had one of 14 high-risk mutations.

The researchers said that it was also these men who had the aggressive prostate cancer that had started to spread around the body.

“Start Quote

We urgently need to understand more about which men are at risk of developing prostate cancer and in particular aggressive forms of the disease”

Dr Iain Frame Prostate Cancer UK

One of the researchers, Dr Zsofia Kote-Jarai, told the BBC: “I can see in two to three years offering screening to men with prostate cancer and to men worried about their family history.”

However, she said it was unlikely these men would immediately opt to have their prostate removed.

Many women with a high risk of breast cancer, for example Hollywood actress Angelina Jolie, opt to have their breast tissue removed.

“A mastectomy is removing an organ we don’t really need, and there is excellent plastic surgery afterwards. Radical prostatectomy has really big side-effects. It is more likely men will be monitored more closely.”

The side-effects include infertility, difficulty maintaining and keeping an erection, and uncontrolled urination.

‘Exciting’

However, the screening is not ready yet. The research group is already running a larger trial involving 2,000 men and testing 192 genes.

Dr Iain Frame, the director of research at the charity Prostate Cancer UK, said: “We urgently need to understand more about which men are at risk of developing prostate cancer, and in particular aggressive forms of the disease.

“Genetic testing to predict risk could revolutionise how we treat the 40,000 men diagnosed with the disease every year in the UK.

“These results are exciting as they add to the growing weight of evidence that men with a family history of prostate cancer who possess certain genes may be at higher risk, providing us with another crucial piece of the jigsaw.”

Google unveils 3D sensor smartphone.


Google Tango phone
Google has offered a limited number of prototype phones as part of a development kit to software companies.

Google has unveiled a prototype smartphone with “customised hardware and software” that enables it to create 3D maps of a user’s surroundings.

The device’s sensors allow it make over 250,000 3D measurements every second and update its position in real-time.

Google said potential applications may include indoor mapping, helping the visually-impaired navigate unfamiliar indoor places unassisted and gaming.

It has offered 200 prototypes to developers keen to make apps for it.

Google said its Advanced Technology and Projects (ATAP) unit developed the phone as part of a project called Project Tango with help from researchers at various institutions.

“We are physical beings that live in a 3D world. Yet, our mobile devices assume that physical world ends at the boundaries of the screen,” the firm said.

Tech savvy blind people have excitedly embraced GPS apps, especially on the iPhone which has built-in speech screenreading.Finding your way independently is a highly-prized ability but GPS only works when you’re outside with a clear line of sight to satellites orbiting the earth.Though GPS is only accurate to within a few metres, and not necessarily powerful enough to help you find the front door of a shop, it can put you in the general vicinity and people are finding it very useful.But as soon as you walk into a shopping centre, a school or a museum, for instance, you lose your ability to find your way because your satnav connection is cut.3D sensor navigation could give directions to a checkout, the meat counter or screen 5 at the local cinema either by the user dropping markers or points of interest, or by an establishment providing their own digital indoor maps to aid accessibility.

“The goal of Project Tango is to give mobile devices a human-scale understanding of space and motion.

“We’re ready to put early prototypes into the hands of developers that can imagine the possibilities and help bring those ideas into reality,” it added.

‘Smart’ technology

Various firms, including Google, have been looking at developing niche technology.

For its part, Google has already unveiled its Google Glass – the intelligent specs due to go on sale later this year.

Earlier this year, the firm said it is also working on a “smart contact lens” that can help measure glucose levels in tears.

Also in January, it bought DeepMind, a UK firm that specialises in artificial intelligence, for £400m.

According to DeepMind’s website it builds “powerful general-purpose learning algorithms”.

Analysts say that firms have been looking at ways to help bring the advances made in technology to practical use in every day life in an attempt to attract more customers.

“The focus is not just on the hardware or the device, but on what the gadget can actually do,” Bryan Ma, associate vice president at research firm IDC told the BBC.

“It is all about taking it to the next level of usage – be it augmented reality, help with basic healthcare or even just creating better maps.”

Mr Ma added that once fully developed such gadgets could have huge commercial applications as well – which would help drive demand not only among individual consumers but also businesses and corporate users.

“There could be a lot of opportunity waiting to be exploited in this area,” he said.

Last year, Japanese firm Sony filed a patent for a “SmartWig”, with healthcare cited as one of its potential uses along with the ability to help blind people navigate roads.

It said the wig could use a combination of sensors to help collect information such as temperature, pulse and blood pressure of the wearer.

‘Living drug’ beats leukemia in nearly 9 out of 10 cases.


Reuters/Eric Gaillard

A new technique of treating leukemia using a patient’s own immune system which is being called a ‘living drug’ has worked in 88 percent of adults a team of researchers in the US has found.

Scientists in New York published a report in Science Magazine in December 2013, hailing the treatment as a breakthrough in the field of cancer immunotherapy, AFP reports.

The latest trial, which was published in the journal Science Translational Medicine, involved 16 people with adult B acute Lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL).

In the trials 14 of the 16 patients achieved complete remission after their T cells – which play a crucial role in the body’s immune system – were genetically engineered so they could focus on beating back the cancer.

The longest remission among the 14 patients is so far about two years according to the lead author of the report, Renier Brentjens, director of cellular therapeutics at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York.

The process involves removing some of a patient’s T-cells and altering them with a gene to make them recognize a protein on the cancer cells called CD19, so that they can attack them but not other cells. Without this genetic alteration T-cells will attack other harmful invaders in the body, but will allow cancer cells to grow.

“Basically, what we do is re-educate the T-cell in the laboratory with gene therapy to recognize and now kill tumor cells, it seems to really work in patients with this particular type of cancer,” said Brentjens.

The treatment, known as tumor-targeted chimeric antigen receptor-modified T-cells, has been in development for 15 years. Without it only 30 percent of relapsed patients would be expected to respond to salvage therapy.

All the patients in the trial – whose average age was 50 – were on the brink of death when they started it and had already relapsed, or discovered that traditional chemotherapy techniques were no longer working.

1,400 people die of ALL leukemia every year in the US, and while it is among the most treatable cancers, patients often become resistant to chemotherapy and then relapse.

Overall in the US, Brentjens estimates that between 60 and 80 people have started the experimental trials, which are also being carried out in Europe.

In December last year, experts from hospitals across the US, which are carrying out the trials, presented their findings at the annual meeting of the American Society of Hematology (ASH).

The University of Pennsylvania is also studying the technique in adults with another type of cancer known as chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL), while the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia is enrolling pediatric patients in T-cell therapy trials.

The other US hospitals carrying out the trials have shown similar remission rates.

“This is a real phenomenon, demonstrating that this isn’t a fluke. This could be a paradigm shift in the way we approach cancer therapy,” said Brentjens.

Kanti Rai, chief of the CLL Research and Treatment Program at North Shore-LIJ Health System in New York, who was not involved in the research, hailed the study as “a major service to all of us.”

“In the present report, we are told that equally dramatic and excellent results were obtained when a more frightening and fatal disease, such as adult ALL was the enemy,” he said.

Researchers are still trying to find out why the treatment doesn’t work in all patients, and to identify cancer-specific receptor cells so the technique can be used to fight other kinds of tumors.

But the therapy is expensive at $100,000 per patient, although experts believe the price will come down when pharmaceutical companies get involved and the treatment becomes more widespread.

Can stem cells heal broken hearts?


The biggest ever stem cell trial involving heart attack patients has got under way in London. The study, which will involve 3,000 patients in 11 European countries, should show whether the treatment can cut death rates and repair damaged tissue after a heart attack.

All the patients will have standard treatment to widen their narrowed arteries, which involves inserting a small tube called a stent. In addition, half the patients will have stem cells taken from their bone marrow and injected into their heart.

This will happen within days of them suffering a heart attack.

“Start Quote

Neal Grainger

It’s fantastic to be part of this trial”

Neal Grainger

“It’s fantastic to be part of this,” said Neal Grainger, 54, from Essex, who was the first patient in the UK to be treated.

UK’s biggest killer

He had an infusion of his bone marrow stem cells at the London Chest Hospital just days after his heart attack last month.

“It’s strange having something taken out of you and then put back, but I hope it helps me and a lot of others.”

Cardiovascular disease is the biggest killer in the UK.

During a heart attack, a fatty plaque causes a blood clot inside an artery, starving heart muscle of oxygen and leaving scar tissue.

Although more and more patients are surviving heart attacks, they can be left considerably weaker because heart muscle has been permanently damaged.

Fluid build-up on the lungs is another problem and patients are often on medication for life.

There have been dozens of smaller trials using stem cells to treat heart attack patients.

‘Definitive trial’

An analysis by the Cochrane Collaboration in 2012 suggested the treatment offered “modest improvement”.

stem cells
The patient’s stem cells ready for use

But many trials involved just small numbers of patients.

“This is the definitive trial,” said Prof Anthony Mathur, director of cardiology at Barts Health NHS Trust and chief investigator for the trial.

“After 15 years of research we will now have a clear answer. We hope to show that stem-cell injections can cut the number of people dying from heart attacks by 25%.

“If it works, it would open up a whole new branch of medicine, and give heart attack patients an entirely new treatment.”

It is unclear exactly how a patient’s own bone marrow stem cells might help repair their heart.

Donor adult stem cells have been used successfully for decades in bone marrow transplants, but in that situation it is a like-for-like replacement.

Expecting these cells to survive in the heart and transform into specialised heart cells is a huge challenge.

‘Could save NHS money’

One theory is that they release chemical signals that enhance the activity of the heart’s own stem cells.

University College Hospital in central London and King’s College Hospital in south London are the two other centres in Britain taking part.

The trial includes hospitals in other major European cities such as Paris, Frankfurt, Barcelona, Milan and Copenhagen.

John Martin, professor of cardiovascular medicine at University College London and adjunct professor of medicine at Yale, said: “This trial does not have the backing of the pharmaceutical industry as there is no money in it for them. You can’t patent a patient’s own cells.

“So not only could this treatment save lives it could also save the NHS money.”

The study, known as the BAMI (bone acute myocardial infarction), has received nearly £5m from the European Commission.

The results will be announced in five years.