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Health & Science

A comet’s extreme close-up; A shocking way to learn math; Self-testing for STDs; Creating new blood—from skin

A comet’s extreme close-up
A NASA spacecraft recently intercepted a comet 23 million miles from Earth and has beamed back detailed images of its icy surface. The Deep Impact spacecraft came within 435 miles of the comet Hartley 2, a cylindrical, mile-long chunk of ice and dirt; photos show that it “looks like a cross between a bowling pin and a pickle,” says project manager Tim Larson of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Streaming out of the comet are dozens of carbon dioxide–fueled jets of gas and dust. Comets, like asteroids, were formed 4.5 billion years ago as leftovers in the process that created the planets, and they offer insights into the history and composition of the early solar system. “If we understand the comets really well, it will tell us how the planets got made,” Michael A’Hearn, of the University of Maryland, tells The New York Times. “The images are full of great cometary data, and that’s what we hoped for.” The spacecraft, meanwhile, is enjoying something of a second life. After visiting the much larger comet Tempel 1 in 2005, it was redirected to rendezvous with Hartley 2, which it will continue to follow until Thanksgiving, providing scientists with some 120,000 close-up images.

A shocking way to learn math
Applying a light electrical current just above the right ear can improve a person’s math abilities for as long as six months, a new study has found. The electrical current is transmitted through a helmet-like device placed over the head, and targets the right parietal lobe—a region associated with mathematical processing. Researchers at the University of Oxford in the U.K. found that after 20 minutes of electrical stimulation, subjects improved at learning several math-related tasks. The current presumably helps the requisite neurons to fire faster, so the subject learns information more easily; for reasons that are not well understood, the improvement lingered for months afterward. Study author Roi Cohen Kadosh, a cognitive neuroscientist, tells ScienceNOW.org that he tried the procedure on himself before subjecting anyone else to it, and that it involves just a “tingling sensation” around the electrodes on the scalp. The finding suggests that electrical stimulation may one day improve the skills of people who’ve suffered a stroke or a degenerative brain disease, or the 20 percent of the population who struggle badly with math. “We are not advising people to go around giving themselves electric shocks,” Cohen Kadosh says. “But we are extremely excited by the potential of our findings and are now looking into the underlying brain changes.”

Self-testing for STDs
People will soon be able to test themselves for a wide variety of sexually transmitted diseases at home, with a diagnostic urine stick that functions like a home pregnancy test. British researchers are developing the at-home test in response to an epidemic among young people of STDs such as herpes, chlamydia, and gonorrhea. People who suspect they’re infected would be able to spit or urinate on a diagnostic stick implanted with a specialized computer chip. The chip then could be connected to a mobile phone or computer for analysis, and would reveal the results in minutes. “Your mobile phone can be your mobile doctor,” project leader Tariq Sadiq, a physician and sexual-health expert at St. George’s University of London, tells the London Guardian. The testing system could be programmed to recommend where people could get treatment for their STDs, and could be sold for as little as a dollar in pharmacies and bathroom vending machines. The stick is still in development, but is “very close to becoming a reality,” Sadiq says.

Creating new blood—from skin
Canadian scientists have managed to transform human skin cells directly into blood cells—the first time one kind of human cell has been converted into another, says the Los Angeles Times. Converting one cell type into another has typically required “rewinding” it to first become a stem cell before turning it into the second cell type. That method is complex and risky, because stem cells can go awry and become cancer cells. The Canadian team skipped that step by tweaking a single gene in the skin cells, then bathing them in growth factors; the cells were transformed into the three types of blood cells—red, white, and platelets. If the method can be perfected and approved, it will revolutionize medicine—providing limitless supplies of blood and healthy blood cells to leukemia patients. “Since this source would come from a patient’s own skin, there would be no concern of rejection of the transplanted cells,” team leader Mick Bhatia, a stem-cell expert at McMaster University, tells the Los Angeles Times. British regenerative-medicine specialist Ian Wilmut, who was not involved in the study, said the breakthrough is “a step along the line to believing that you can produce anything from almost anything.”
 

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