NASA goes green.

The agency is currently testing two technologies borrowed from the realm of science fiction. If they prove successful, humankind could go farther than before with much less fuel.

The NASA budget request for the fiscal year 2015 is studded with nuggets indicative of how the behemoth space agency plans to take its space exploration program forward. In total, it is asking for $17.5 billion, about 1% less than what it received in 2014 and up $600 million from what it receiving in 2013. Broken down, the biggest chunks are for human exploration operations ($7.8 billion) and scientific research ($4.9 billion).

Some of the more resplendent nuggets among the request are development of an asteroid sampling mission, the proposed launch of a spacecraft to study Europa (one of Jupiter’s moons that was recently seen ejecting plumes of water vapour) in the mid 2020s, more Mars missions, and keeping the James Webb Space Telescope launch on track for 2018 (after multiple overruns in the last few years). With the exception of the Europa mission, none of these are surprising.

The NASA ion thruster in action.

But take a closer look at the request and you’ll see that the space agency is also developing a slew of greener alternatives to various existing systems, notably propulsion. Under the space technology category, the agency is proposing development of “high-powered solar electric propulsion capability”, “higher-performing alternative to toxic hydrazine”, and the launch of a propellant-free spacecraft called the “Sunjammer Solar Sail”.

The Sunjammer is named for the Arthur C. Clarke story of the same name, published in 1963. The mission itself aims to launch a spacecraft equipped with a 13,000-square foot sail which will use sunlight to tug the craft like the wind pulls along a sailboat. Despite its big size, it weighs about 32 kg because it is only 5 μm thick, made from a synthetic fabric called kapton. It is expected to be launched in January 2015.

Although the Sunjammer sail is the largest solar-sail to have been built, the idea is not new and has been tested before. In 2010, the Japanese space agency JAXA launched Ikaros, which sailed toward Venus equipped with a sail that became the first successful demonstration of the technology in interplanetary space. In 2011, NASA itself deployed the Nanosail-D, a nanosatellite that floated around our planet powered by a 9.2-square meter solar sail.

If the 2015 mission is successful, NASA has said it will look at more ambitious missions. This will be alongside other greener propellants it is considering as an alternative to hydrazine. A liquid fuel which is highly corrosive to the touch, hydrazine’s use incurs higher transportation costs, and the rocket can be loaded with hydrazine only at the launchpad, not anytime before. In July last year, NASA announced one such alternative it was developing had passed a critical test, paving the way for its first deployment in 2015.

Dubbed AF-M315E, the liquid is simply hydroxyl ammonium nitrate. Although ammonium nitrate is an explosive substance, the presence of the ‘hydroxyl’ means that its melting point drops from around 170 degrees Celsius to around 70 degrees Celsius, making it harder to ignite. On the counts more relevant to rocket fuels, however, NASA has said it is way more efficient than hydrazine. A propulsion system to work with M315E is being developed by Utah-based Ball Aerospace and a subcontractor, Aerojet Rocketdyne.

The third piece of technology – electric propulsion – is being geared for orbit transfer manoeuvres of satellites, and to “accommodate” their “increasing power demands”. Perhaps you’ll remember apopular video in September, 2013, that demonstrated an ion drive in action, which is basically an electric propulsion system. Such a system accelerates ions using electric and magnetic fields, and uses their resultant kinetic energy to cause thrust of about 15-50 km/s.

The ion drive, encompassed by the NASA Evolutionary Xenon Thruster (NEXT) project, burns less than one-tenth the volume of fuel than do conventional fuels to generate the same momentum. This means more space is available on board the spacecraft for scientific payloads.

Aside from the fact that NASA’s decision to go greener signals the start of the decoupling of distance and quantity of fuel, the progress is made more fortuitous by being accompanied by more space- and fuel-efficient spacecraft design. In the words of the British essayist J.G. Ballard: “Everything is becoming science fiction. From the margins of an almost invisible literature has sprung the intact reality of the 20th century.” Let’s make that the 21st as well.

Hubble captures giant asteroid’s disintegration.

In a never-seen-before incident in the asteroid belt, NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope has recorded break-up of an asteroid into as many as 10 smaller pieces.

“This is a rock, and seeing it fall apart before our eyes is pretty amazing,” said David Jewitt of the University of California at Los Angeles.

The crumbling asteroid, named ‘P/2013 R3’, was first noticed as an unusual, fuzzy-looking object late last year.

This combination image made available by NASA on Thursday, March 6, 2014 shows a series of photos from the Hubble Space Telescope recording the disintegration of an asteroid from Oct. 29, 2013 to Jan. 14, 2014.

A follow-up observation revealed three bodies moving together in an envelope of dust nearly the diameter of earth.

“With its superior resolution, space telescope observations showed there were really 10 embedded objects, each with comet-like dust tails. The four largest rocky fragments are up to 400 yards in diameter, about four times the length of a football field,” explained Jewitt.

It is unlikely the asteroid is disintegrating because of a collision with another asteroid.

This leaves a scenario in which the asteroid is disintegrating due to a subtle effect of sunlight, which causes the rotation rate of the asteroid to gradually increase.

For this scenario to occur, ‘P/2013 R3’ must have a weak, fractured interior — probably as the result of numerous non-destructive collisions with other asteroids.

The asteroid’s remnant debris, weighing about 200,000 tonnes, would provide a rich source of meteoroids in the future.

Most would eventually plunge into the sun, but a small fraction of the debris may one day blaze across the Earth’s skies as meteors, scientists say.

LSD study shows positive therapeutic results.

Scientists described the study as “pilot” intended to dispel the stigma surrounding the drug

The first study of the therapeutic effects of LSD in more than 40 years has shown positive results, with test subjects showing “statistically significant reductions in anxiety”.

The double-blind pilot study measured the effects of LSD-assisted psychotherapy on twelve individuals suffering from life-threatening diseases, mostly terminal cancer. Several died within a year of the tests.

“The study was a success in the sense that we did not have any noteworthy adverse effects,” said Swiss psychiatrist Peter Gasser, who led the research. “All participants reported a personal benefit from the treatment, and the effects were stable over time.”

Eight subjects received a full 200-microgram dose of LSD while four others received one-tenth as much. Participants then took part in two LSD-assisted therapy sessions two to three weeks apart. Subjects who took the full dose experienced reductions in anxiety averaging 20 per cent while those given the low dose reported becoming more anxious.

When subjects taking the low dose were switched to the full dose they too showed reduced anxiety, with the positive effects lasting for up to a year. The effects of the drug itself lasted for up to 10 hours with participants talking to Dr Gasser throughout the experience.

“These results indicate that when administered safely in a methodologically rigorous medically supervised psychotherapeutic setting, LSD can reduce anxiety,” the study concludes, “suggesting that larger controlled studies are warranted.”

Speaking to The New York Times, Dr Doblin, one of the study’s co-authors, described the work as “a proof concept” that he hoped would “break these substances out of the mold of the counterculture and bring them back to the lab as part of a psychedelic renaissance.”

LSD was first synthesized in 1938 by the chemist Albert Hoffman. The drug was regularly used in the 1950s and 1960s to enhance psychotherapy but was shunned by the establishment after it became popular as a recreational narcotic.

“This study is historic and marks a rebirth of investigation into LSD-assisted psychotherapy,” says Doblin. “The positive results and evidence of safety clearly show why additional, larger studies are needed.” However, Gasser noted that the trial was far too small to be conclusive.

The results of the study were published today in The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease.

Quantum computing explained: harnessing particle physics to work faster

Work is underway around the world to revolutionise computers using the principles of quantum mechanics.
D-Wave quantum-computer

The D-Wave, the world’s only commercially available quantum computer.

Around the world teams of scientists are working on the next technological revolution: quantum computing. But what makes it so special? And why do we need it? We ask physicist Dr Ruth Oulton of the Bristol University to explain.


In a normal computer, information is stored as bits. How is it different in a quantum computer?

A normal computer has bits and each bit [is either] zero or one. A quantum computer has quantum bits. These are made out of quantum particles that can be zero, one, or some kind of state in between – [in other words they can have both values] at the same time.


So a quantum bit is made from a physical particle?

It pretty much could be any fundamental particle, so it could be a photon or an electron or it could be a nucleus, for example. It’s a particle that can have two different properties [at once]. [For example], the particle can be in both one place and the other place at the same time.


How does this help with computing?

In a normal computer, a particular calculation might go through all the different possibilities of zeros and ones for a particular calculation. Because a quantum computer can be in all the states at the same time, you just do one calculation [testing a vast number of possibilities simultaneously]. So it can be much quicker.


What’s the biggest challenge?

You need a very good control over individual particles. You can’t just shove [all the particles] together because they would interact with each other [in an unpredictable way]. You need to be able to trap and direct them, but when the particles interact [with the trap itself] it makes them lose their information, so you need to make sure that you design the trap well.


What are the applications?

The biggest and most important one is the ability to factorise a very large number into two prime numbers. That’s really important because that’s what almost all encryption for internet computing is based on. A quantum computer should be able to do that relatively quickly to get back the prime numbers and that will mean that basically anything that has been with [that] encryption can be de-encrypted. If you were to do it with the classical computers we have now, it would take longer than the age of the universe to go back.


Are there other scientific uses?

Calculating the positions of individual atoms in very large molecules like polymers and in viruses. The way that the particles interact with each other – there’s so many different possibilities that normally they say that you can’t calculate anything properly [with] more than about 10 atoms inside the molecule. So if you have a quantum computer you could use it to develop drugs and understand how molecules work a bit better.


Are there commercial quantum computers?

There is a commercial computer out there but it’s very expensive ($10m), it has very limited computing power and it hasn’t yet been verified by anybody externally [as to] what it’s actually doing.


Will quantum computers look like our desktops and laptops do now?

We are completely re-designing the computer. The very first quantum computers will probably fill a room. It’s going to take us a while to get to desktops. Really, actually what is going to happen [is] you are going to have a hybrid laptop with a quantum chip and a classical chip.

HIV gene therapy using GM cells hailed a success after trial.

Radical treatment helps patients’ defences against virus by replacing immune cells with genetically modified versions
  • HIV under microscope
Scientists were cautious not to draw strong conclusions from the small scale trial, which was designed to assess the safety of the therapy, but the early signs have raised their hopes. Photograph: Geostock/Getty Images

A radical gene therapy to combat HIV using genetically modified cells that are resistant to the virus has been declared a success by scientists following the first clinical trial.

The treatment, which has never been tested on humans before, raised patients’ defences against HIV by replacing some of their natural immune cells with GM versions.

Tests on people enrolled in the trial found that the disease-resistant cells multiplied in their bodies.

Half of patients were taken off their usual drugs for three months and scientists recorded reduced levels of the virus.

Scientists were cautious not to draw strong conclusions from the small scale trial, which was designed to assess the safety of the therapy, but the early signs have raised their hopes.

“We are absolutely encouraged by these results,” said Bruce Levine, who helped to run the trial with a colleague, Carl June, at the University of Pennsylvania. “This is potentially a new therapy for HIV.”

A few shots of modified immune cells, or perhaps even one large infusion, could become an alternative for HIV patients who currently face spending the rest of their lives on antiretroviral drugs. But Levine said any improvement in the patients’ health would be welcome, even if the therapy had to be used alongside existing treatments.

“People diagnosed in their 20s are on antiretroviral therapy for the rest of their lives. There are side effects. People miss days. And there is drug-resistance. This is a continuing problem,” he said. “Cure is a four letter word. We don’t like to use it, particularly with HIV. We are looking at improving the health and immune function of people with HIV,” he added.

The therapy mimics a rare but natural mutation that makes about 1% of the population resistant to the most common strains of HIV. To infect cells, the virus must latch on to proteins that poke up from the surfaces of the cells. But people with the mutation lack the right protein, called CCR5, so HIV cannot get inside their immune cells. The trial centred on 10 men and two women, aged 31 to 54. All were HIV positive, and had been diagnosed between three and 23 years ago.

The scientists began by collecting white blood cells from each of the HIV patients. They then used a procedure called gene editing to modify the cells, so that they carried the rare mutation that makes people resistant to HIV. Finally, they multiplied these cells in the lab and infused a batch of 10 billion back into each patient.

At the start of the trial, all of the patients were on standard antiretroviral therapy. But after infusing them with modified immune cells, six were taken off their usual drugs. As expected, the amount of HIV virus in their bodies began to rise. But as the freshly-injected immune cells multiplied and circulated, they pushed levels of the virus back down again.

Two of the patients were put back on their usual drugs early, because their HIV came back very quickly. But the remaining four showed improvements. In one patient, levels of HIV fell so low they could not be detected. The scientists later found out that he had inherited the rare resistance mutation from one parent, but not the other. “That effectively gave his immune system a head start,” Levine said.

As expected, the infusions led to a rapid rise in the number of immune cells circulating in the patients, but the number of modified cells fell over time, halving roughly once every year. But in patients taken off their drugs, the modified cells fared better than their natural immune cells, presumably because they were more resistant to the virus. Some of the modified cells have lasted for several years. The trial has been running since 2009. All of the participants in the trial are now back on antiretroviral drugs.

Scientists have been excited about the prospect of genetically modifying patients’ immune cells to make them resistant to disease since doctors effectively cured an HIV patient in 2008. Timothy Brown, also known as the Berlin patient, had a bone marrow transplant to treat his leukaemia. Spotting their chance to treat both conditions, his doctors found a donor who carried the rare mutation that made their immune cells resistant to HIV. Immune cells are made in the bone marrow. Since the operation, Brown has had no detectable level of HIV in his body and no longer takes anti-HIV drugs.

Bone marrow transplants are risky operations and cannot be given to everyone with HIV. But modifying patients’ immune cells might be the next best thing. One shortcoming of the latest therapy is that the patients still make normal immune cells, which can and will be infected by the HIV virus.

Levine said one hope for the future was to genetically modify stem cells in the patient’s bone marrow that grow into immune cells. Those patients might then produce a steady flow of resistant immune cells, leaving HIV nowhere to hide.

The World Health Organisation estimated that in 2012, 35.3 million people globally were infected with HIV. Some 2.3 million became infected that year, with more than 1.5 million dying from Aids-related causes. Around 100,000 people live with HIV in the UK, though an estimated fifth are undiagnosed and do not know about their condition.

The latest treatment was not without its problems. Writing in the New England Journal of Medicine, the authors report a total of 130 mild or moderate side effects, 32 of which were linked to the modified cells rather than the infusion procedure. The most common reactions were fever, chills, headaches, muscle and joint pain. One patient was taken to the hospital’s emergency department after falling ill. The scientists note too that the patients’ body odour took on the smell of garlic, a consequence of them breaking down dimethyl sulfoxide, used to preserve the genetically modified cells.

The results of the trial were welcomed by other scientists. Angus Dalgleish, an expert in HIV at St George’s hospital in London, who was not involved in the study, said the cost of antiretroviral drugs over a patient’s lifetime, and the side effects some patients face, meant there was a real need for an alternative therapy.

“Anything that will prevent patients being on drugs the whole time, that allows you to manage the infection without those drugs, is a serious contender,” he said.

The research team now hopes to begin larger trials to see how well the therapy works in more patients, and to test the benefits of different doses.

George Church, a geneticist at Harvard University said that the Pennsylvania team’s therapy was “very important” because it showed that gene editing could be used to help large sections of the population. He and others are working on new forms of gene editing that could allow more precise genetic modification of human cells.

In an editorial accompanying the report, Mark Kay and Bruce Walker at Stanford and Harvard Universities wrote: “The tantalising question raised by the transient treatment interruption is whether it might actually have been partially effective. A definitive answer to this question will require additional studies.”

Widow wins high court fight to preserve dead husband’s sperm.

Judge rules in favour of Beth Warren, who challenged storage time limit imposed by UK fertility regulator.

A 28-year-old widow has won her high court fight to preserve her late husband’s sperm to allow her to, if she chooses in the future, have his child.

Beth Warren, a physiotherapist from Birmingham, had challenged a storage time limit imposed by the UK fertility regulator, which meant she had just over a year to conceive.

Warren Brewer, 32, a ski instructor, had his sperm frozen before having radiotherapy treatment for cancer and signed forms saying his wife could use it if he died. He died two years ago.

The regulations state sperm and eggs can be stored for decades but individuals must update their consent every few years.

The couple, who married in a hospice six weeks before his death in February 2012 and had been together for eight years, “had spoken of marriage, a lifelong commitment and the prospect of having children”, said Mrs Justice Hogg, sitting in the family division of the high court.

Ruling in Warren’s favour, she said the clinic had failed to give the couple the relevant information, and the fact he had not provided the requisite medical certificate was “through no fault of his own”. His sperm may now be stored for a period of 55 years, up until April 2060.

Officials from the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority said later that Mrs Justice Hogg’s ruling could have “wider implications”. It has been given leave to appeal, and is considering whether to do so.

A spokesman said “because the judgment acknowledges that written consent to store the sperm beyond April 2015 is not in place, the judgment may have implications for other cases in which the sperm provider’s wishes are less clear”.

Warren was disappointed. “Oh, dear. I thought it was all over”, she said.

Earlier Warren, who uses her late husband’s first name as her surname, burst into tears as the judgment was read, and mouthed the words “thank you” to the judge. Afterwards she said: “I am elated. Every good word in the dictionary … I hadn’t dared to let myself believe it would happen.”

A lawyer representing the HFEA told the judge at an earlier hearing that officials sympathised with Warren, but that Brewer had not given his written consent to his sperm being stored beyond 2015.

In her ruling Hogg said: “In 2008 Mr Brewer formally named Mrs Warren as his partner to enable her to use his sperm after his death, and for him to be named on the birth certificate of any child created with his sperm.

“He subsequently told Mrs Warren that he had done this as he wanted to enable her to have his children if she wishes. Thereafter it was an accepted matter between them.

“I have heard Mrs Warren in evidence and read statements from his parents and consultant oncologist who make it clear what he wished and intended.

“I am satisfied that after 2008 Mr Brewer never changed his mind and wanted Mrs Warren to have the opportunity to have his child, or children, after his death.”

The judge said under the Human Rights Act 1998, Warren had the right to family life. “I have held that Mrs Warren has a right under article 8 in that she has the right to decide to become a parent by her deceased husband, for which he had made provision and which would accord with his wishes and intentions.”

She said that in her view the state should not interfere with Warren’s rights.

“The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, while resisting Mrs Warren’s application, have expressed its sympathy for her. May I also add my great sympathy for her.

“She fell in love with a man, cared for him and loved him. He wanted her to have the opportunity to have his children if she wanted.

“She has suffered an enormous loss. I know she is supported by her parents-in-law. I wish her and Mr Brewer’s parents well, and ultimately, whatever her decision may be, I wish her and the family much happiness after such a difficult and sad time.”

Outside court, Warren said: “Warren was my life. I know we didn’t get that life we wanted, so we made this plan. Now I feel I can just move on in my life, with what I want to do, with this chance Warren left me.”

She said she would advise anyone in the situation she and her husband had been in to contact their clinic and make sure paperwork was properly completed.

She added: “I really want to make sure it doesn’t happen again. There have been tears, a lot of late nights, a lot of phone calls, emails. It has been so draining.”

Whether she had children or not was not the point, she said. “It was about fighting for the chance which Warren left for me.”

Warren’s brother had died in a car crash in December 2011, and within days Brewer, who was being treated for a brain tumour, was told his cancer had spread and he had “days, weeks or months only to live,” said the judge.

Initially the Human Embryo and Fertilisation Act 1990 allowed a maximum storage period of 10 years for sperm, but in 2009 regulations enabled that period to be extended subject to certain requirements.

In her ruling, the judge said: “Notwithstanding his wishes and intentions and various written consents Mr Brewer did not provide written consent as required by the regulations, nor did he provide the requisite medical certificate. This was through no fault of his own. The clinic upon which the obligation fell failed to give him relevant information as to the requirements of the regulations and failed to obtain the requisite long-term consent from him or the appropriate medical opinion.

“I am satisfied had he known what was required he would have done that which was necessary.”

She added: “I have been critical of the clinic in that respect.”

Brewer’s sperm was being stored at Care Fertility (Northampton) Ltd. [CARE] . “CARE failed to provide relevant information to Mr Brewer as to the options available to him and the necessary requirements of him, and failed to give him any option other than to consent for a specified number of years less than 10 years,” said the judge. “It may be that other cliincs have fallen into the same trap”.

Researchers discover new group of quasicrystals.

A team of researchers working at the university of Notre Dame has discovered a whole new group of quasicrystals. In their paper published in the journal Nature, the team describes how they accidently created a new kind of quasicrystal as part of a series of experiments designed to learn more about electron distribution in ferrocenecarboxylic acids.

Quasicrystals are groups of molecules bonded together in structures that resemble crystals in that they are organized, but unlike crystals, the structures are not nearly as uniform. In fact, they are quite the opposite—though they are locally symmetric, they lack any sort of long distance periodicity. Because of their chaotic nature,  tend to feel slippery to the touch, which is why they have been used to coat the surface of non-stick frying pans. The first quasicrystal was made, also by accident, in 1982, by Daniel Shechtman (who later won a Nobel prize for his work). Since then many more of them have been made in various labs, (one was even found to exist in a meteorite) though most of them have had one thing in common, they were all formed from two or three metal alloys.

In this latest discovery, the quasicrystals self-formed after the researchers placed a layer of iron containing molecules of ferrocenecarboxylic acid on top of a gold surface. The team was expecting to see a linear group of stable molecules pairing up as dimers, but instead were surprised to find that they had formed into five sided rosettes—it was the rosettes that pushed other molecules into bonding forming crystalline shapes, resulting in the formation of 2D quasicrystals that took the form of several different shapes: stars, boats, pentagons, rhombi, etc., all repeated in haphazard fashion.

In studying the quasicrystals using scanning tunnelling microscopy, the researchers found that they were held together by weak hydrogen bonds rather that the strong ionic bonds found in other such molecules. Weak hydrogen bonds are generally more common in organic  that exhibit complex structures.

In their paper, the researchers suggest their discovery might lead to the creation or discovery of many other similar types of quasicrystals, though it’s still not clear to what use they might be put.

The process of molecular self-assembly on solid surfaces is essentially one of crystallization in two dimensions, and the structures that result depend on the interplay between intermolecular forces and the interaction between adsorbates and the underlying substrate1. Because a single hydrogen bond typically has an energy between 15 and 35 kilojoules per mole, hydrogen bonding can be a strong driver of molecular assembly; this is apparent from the dominant role of hydrogen bonding in nucleic-acid base pairing, as well as in the secondary structure of proteins. Carboxylic acid functional groups, which provide two hydrogen bonds, are particularly promising and reliable in creating and maintaining surface order, and self-assembled monolayers of benzoic acids produce structure that depends on the number and relative placement of carboxylic acid groups2, 3, 4, 5, 6. Here we use scanning tunnelling microscopy to study self-assembled monolayers of ferrocenecarboxylic acid (FcCOOH), and find that, rather than producing dimeric or linear structures typical of carboxylic acids, FcCOOH forms highly unusual cyclic hydrogen-bonded pentamers, which combine with simultaneously formed FcCOOH dimers to form two-dimensional quasicrystallites that exhibit local five-fold symmetry and maintain translational and rotational order (without periodicity) for distances of more than 400 ångströms.

Immune upgrade gives ‘HIV shielding’


IV budding out of a T-cell, part of the immune system.

Doctors have used gene therapy to upgrade the immune system of 12 patients with HIV to help shield them from the virus’s onslaught.

It raises the prospect of patients no longer needing to take daily medication to control their infection.

The patients’ white blood cells were taken out of the body, given HIV resistance and then injected back in.

The small study, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, suggested the technique was safe.

Some people are born with a very rare mutation that protects them from HIV.


This is a fascinating study and a significant development in tackling HIV.

But let’s be clear – this is not going to be a routine treatment any time soon.

Currently excellent drugs keep the virus in check, but if treatment stops then HIV runs rampant again.

Genetically modifying the immune system so that it can resist HIV’s attacks could eventually free people from medication.

However, for now this is just an early test and there will be questions about safety, cost and effectiveness as this treatment is developed.

But add this finding to the vaccine trials taking place and the HIV baby ‘cures’ stories and there is a growing sense that a significant turning point for HIV is on the horizon.

It changes the structure of their T-cells, a part of the immune system, so that the virus cannot get inside and multiply.

The first person to recover from HIV, Timothy Ray Brown, had his immune system wiped out during leukaemia treatment and then replaced with a bone marrow transplant from someone with the mutation.

Now researchers at the University of Pennsylvania are adapting patients’ own immune systems to give them that same defence.

Millions of T-cells were taken from the blood and grown in the laboratory until the doctors had billions of cells to play with.

The team then edited the DNA inside the T-cells to give them the shielding mutation – known as CCR5-delta-32.

About 10 billion cells were then infused back in, although only around 20% were successfully modified.

When patients were taken off their medication for four weeks, the number of unprotected T-cells still in the body fell dramatically, whereas the modified T-cells seemed to be protected and could still be found in the blood several months later.

Replacement therapy?

The trial was designed to test only the safety and feasibility of the method, not whether it could replace drug treatment in the long term.


Prof Bruce Levine, the director of the Clinical Cell and Vaccine Production Facility at the University of Pennsylvania, told the BBC: “This is a first – gene editing has not to date been used in a human trial [for HIV].

“We’ve been able to use this technology in HIV and show it is safe and feasible, so it is an evolution in the treatment of HIV from daily antiretroviral therapy.”

He says the aim is to develop a therapy that gets people away from expensive daily medication.

“Start Quote

The idea of modifying a T-cell to make it resistant and showing it is feasible and they survive – that’s exciting in itself”

Prof Sharon LewinMonash University

“What if we can now take the leap to an upfront treatment that can last for years?”

Such a treatment will be expensive so any benefit will depend on how long people could be freed from drugs and how long that protection would last.

Prof Levine argues this could be several years, which might save money in the long term.

Commenting on the findings, Prof Sharon Lewin from Monash University in Australia, told BBC News: “The idea of modifying a T-cell to make it resistant and showing it is feasible and they survive – that’s exciting in itself.

“What most people are aiming for in HIV is a way you take treatment for a short period of time and that keeps the virus under control.”

She said drug treatment would not be replaced by this, especially in the early stages of the infection.

But it might lead to people eventually replacing drugs with an immune upgrade, but “it’s still a long way off”.

Cowboy ‘trick rope physics’ revealed


“Cowboy Craig” Ingram’s tricks in super-slow motion (Video courtesy of PT Brun)

A maths equation for a spinning lasso stunt performed by cowboys and cowgirls has been unravelled.

By studying trick roping as a science, a French physicist has taught himself to lasso like a rodeo veteran.

Anyone can teach themselves the famous “flat loop” by following some basic formulae, says Dr Pierre-Thomas Brun, of EPFL in Switzerland.

He showed off his “cowboy physics” skills at the American Physical Society meeting in Denver.

Trick roping has evolved from a straightforward cattle-catching tool into a performance art form, seen in western movies and at Mexican charreadas – competitions featuring traditional horsemen (charros).

It was made famous by vaudeville cowboy Will Rogers in the 1920s and 1930s.

PT Brun

Teach yourself the flat loop

  • Use the maximum amount of rope in your loop – about 70%.
  • Move your hands with a slow frequency – about two hertz.
  • With each turn, roll the rope between your thumb and forefinger

Flamboyant moves include the Merry-Go-Round, the Wedding Ring, and the Texas Skip – considered the most difficult.

But while these loops spellbind our imagination, they also harbour useful mathematical secrets.

“Elastic threads are everywhere in our daily lives – from hair and textile yarns to DNA and undersea broadband cables. Even the honey you pour on your toast,” said Dr Brun who worked on the research with his colleagues, Dr Basile Audoly and Dr Neil Ribe.

“All of these threads twist and coil according to the same equations as the cowboy’s lasso.”

Studying fancy tricks like “spoke-jumping” and the “Kansas Tornado” could actually help us unravel coiling problems which plague industries like yarn spinning.

To begin investigating, Dr Brun has created a mathematical recipe for the simplest trick – the flat loop.

“The physics boils down to a few simple rules,” he explained.

“First, use the maximum amount of rope in your loop – about 70%.

“Then, move your hands with a slow frequency – about two hertz.

“And crucially – with each turn of the rope, roll it between your thumb and forefinger, to avoid accumulating twist.”

Science and artistry

But is science really a good approach to learn trick roping?

BBC News spoke to “Cowboy Craig” Ingram, a champion roper who performs around Colorado.

“Absolutely, there’s a lot of science to trick roping: geometry, speed, timing and centrifugal forces,” he told BBC News.

“Cowboy Craig” Ingram performs a classic rope routine (Video courtesy of PT Brun)

“But it’s also more than science. It’s about artistry. When I perform it’s like dancing with a partner – I feel the fluidity of the rope spinning around me and I respond to its movements.”

Dr Brun agrees that, beyond the flat loop, the science quickly becomes more complicated.

“When Craig’s tricks get more fancy, you have to come up with a more dynamic model,” he explained.

“The flat loop equation is a simple, steady state solution. The rope is stationary in a reference frame that rotates with the hand. And exploiting this, we can derive a model in which line tension is balanced by the centrifugal force and the rope’s weight.

“But when you watch Craig’s routine – even in slow-motion – his stunts are way more gifted and skilled than our theories can follow at this point.”

To advance his model, he wishes to build a “robo-cowboy” that can self-adapt to the evolution of a spinning rope.

“With a robot, we can simulate more complex movements. And those could be of interest to the computer graphics industry – animation companies like Disney and Pixar,” he believes.

To animate a whirling skirt or the bounce of curly hair, you can follow similar equations to those governing the lasso, Dr Brun explains.

“The nice thing about physics, is we can apply maths to our favourite interests – like movies,” he says.

“As a child in France, I always enjoyed westerns. So I’m happy that as a scientist, I can explore the things that made me dream when I was young.”

Malaria ‘spreading to new altitudes’

Malaria-infected red blood cells
Malaria parasites – seen here infecting red blood cells – and mosquitoes do not like cold temperatures

Warmer temperatures are causing malaria to spread to higher altitudes, a study suggests.

Researchers have found that people living in the highlands of Africa and South America are at an increased risk of catching the mosquito-borne disease during hotter years.

They believe that temperature rises in the future could result in millions of additional cases in some areas.

The research is published in the journal Science.

Prof Mercedes Pascual, from the University of Michigan in the US, who carried out the research, said: “The impact in terms of increasing the risk of exposure to disease is very large.”

Vulnerable to disease

Areas at higher altitudes have traditionally provided a haven from this devastating disease.

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This expansion could in a sense account for a substantial part of the increase of cases we have already observed in these areas”

Professor Mercedes PascualUniversity of Michigan

Both the malaria parasite and the mosquito that carries it struggle to cope with the cooler air.

Prof Pascual said: “The risk of the disease decreases with altitude and this is why historically people have settled in these higher regions.”

But the scientists say the disease is entering new regions that had previously been malaria-free.

To investigate, scientists looked at densely populated areas in the highlands of Colombia and Ethiopia, where there are detailed records of both temperature and malaria cases from the 1990s to 2005.

They found that in warmer years, malaria shifted higher into the mountains, while in cooler years it was limited to lower elevations.

“This expansion could in a sense account for a substantial part of the increase of cases we have already observed in these areas,” said Prof Pascual.

Ethiopian Highlands
The highlands of Ethiopia could be more vulnerable to malaria if temperatures rise

The team believes that rising temperatures could cause a further spread.

In Ethiopia, where nearly half of the population live at an altitude of between 1,600m (5,250ft) and 2,400m, the scientists believe there could be many more cases.

“We have estimated that, based on the distribution of malaria with altitude, a 1C rise in temperature could lead to an additional three million cases in under-15-year-olds per year,” said Prof Pascual.

The team believes that because people living in areas that have never been exposed to malaria are particularly vulnerable to the disease, attempts to stop the spread should be focused on areas at the edge of the spread. The disease is easier to control there than at lower altitudes where it has already established.

According to the latest estimates from the World Health Organization, there were about 207 million cases of malaria in 2012 and an estimated 627,000 deaths. Most deaths occur among children living in Africa.