Cancer Immunotherapy, Fear in the Natural World, and Abolishing Time Zones

11:50 minutes

Cancer immunotherapy—which involves using a patient’s own immune system to combat cancer—has become a promising area of research, but only 20 percent of patients respond to current treatments. Scientists are fine-tuning the therapy by exploiting markers on the mutated cancer cells. Science writer Ed Yong bring us this story and other short topics in science.

Plus, is it time to abolish time zones? Astronomer Dean Regas gives the good and bad of a proposal to change how Earth keeps track of the time of day.

Segment Guests

Ed Yong

Ed Yong is a science writer for The Atlantic based in London, England.

Dean Regas

Dean Regas is outreach astronomer at the Cincinnati Observatory and co-host of the PBS program Star Gazers in Cincinnati, Ohio.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday, I’m Ira Flatow. A little bit later in the hour, naturalist E.O. Wilson is going to join us to talk about his plan for preserving the world’s biodiversity. But first, this past December, former President Jimmy Carter announced that he was cancer free. His brain scans showed no signs of melanoma. His treatment was a combination of radiation and immunotherapy, that is, using his own T-cells for treatment. Researchers are looking at how they can refine this promising therapy even further, so that it works for more people. Here to follow up on that story and other short subjects in science is Ed Young. He’s a science writer for The Atlantic. Welcome back, Ed.

ED YOUNG: Hi, Ira.

IRA FLATOW: So, what kind of progress are we making in immunotherapy?

ED YOUNG: So immunotherapy has been one of the great developments in cancer research in the last few years. Really advanced cases that seemed very bleak have gone into total remission. But the problem is that it doesn’t seem to work for everyone. So, a team of scientists from London looked at why. They wanted to see what immune cells actually recognize on tumors.

So as tumors grow, they develop new mutations which influence the molecules on their surface. And these molecules act as red flags to the immune system. They say, something is weird about these cells. And the more of these flags there are, the better people seem to do. But the thing is that not all mutations, not all of these flags are equal. Some develop very early on in a tumors life and are found in every one of its cells. So let’s call these trunk mutations. Others develop late and are only found in certain bits of a tumor. Let’s call these the branches. So if your tumor has a large number of trunk mutations, you tend to do better. If there’s loads of branches, you tend to do worse. And this sort of makes intuitive sense. If you want to chop down a tree, you want to go after the trunk. You don’t want to spend all your resources pruning back the branches.

IRA FLATOW: And progress? Looking promising?

ED YOUNG: Right, right, right. So, what they’re trying to do now is to find T-cells that go after these trunk mutations. And we know that those cells seem to exist in all kinds of different patients. So, it’s a question of finding them, expanding them, and finding ways of unleashing them. So it looks like tumors contain the seeds of their own destruction. They contain these trunk sensitive T-cells. And it’s just a case now of finding ways of activating them. But that does seem hopeful. This seems to suggest why some people respond to immunotherapy and others don’t, and ways of improving that proportion.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s talk about another story about the immune system and how viruses have actually helped to build our immune system.

ED YOUNG: Right. So about 8% of the human genome consists of viruses. Viruses that once infected our ancestors and whose DNA has become a permanent fixture of our genomes. This has been known for a while, and it’s been unclear what those sequences were actually doing. And a new study by Edward Chong and colleagues has shown that these sequences have been repurposed for controlling our immune system. So, they affect when and where genes involved in immunity are activated. So it seems like we took these ancient viruses and we used them to rewire our immune systems, to help us fight modern viruses.

IRA FLATOW: Is this what part where they used– the stuff they used to call junk DNA, but now we know it really has a purpose, turning things on and off?

ED YOUNG: I mean, it’s certainly part of that. It doesn’t mean that all of what was called junk DNA is purposeful, it just means that some bits of it seem to have found a use. So evolution has found ways of using this material to rewire the way our genes are activated.

IRA FLATOW: Could it be possible that we are still collecting viral DNA?

ED YOUNG: Yeah, It’s certainly possible. Modern viruses do insert their DNA, their genetic material into our genome. So this process could well still be ongoing. And we know that there are mobile elements, jumping genes, hopping around our genomes all the time.

IRA FLATOW: Kind of interesting. Let’s move on to an ecosystem– it is, of course, a delicate balance and now we have a group of scientists who looked at how fear contributes to this balance?

ED YOUNG: Yeah. So, if you think about predators, people usually think about predators affecting the world around them through killing. But predators obviously cause fear as well. They terrify their prey. They cause animals to move away from some areas which are very risky and to congregate to safer areas. And this idea, this landscape of fear, has been a longstanding one. And a bit controversial because for example, when wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park, some scientists suggested that they changed the ecosystem by causing fear. They frightened elk, which moved them away from certain trees, allowed trees to regrow, created material for beavers and song birds.

Whether that’s true or not has been subject to debate. This new study weighs in on that by looking at racoons. So some racoons on the Gulf Islands near Vancouver are notoriously bold, and by playing these animals the sounds of barking dogs on speakers, scientists showed that they did respond to the fear of dogs, and that their response changed the world around them. So their prey in these islands grew in number. The prey of their prey shrunk away. So this entire web of life on the beach changed, just because of fear of predators. And that has implications for other parts of the world too.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. Quite interesting. Finally, scientists are trying to figure out how to harvest water from air, and they look to beetles for inspiration, and perspiration perhaps?

ED YOUNG: Right, yeah. So there are beetles that live in the Nomid Desert in Southern Africa, one of the driest parts of the world. And they drink by moving into fog, raising their backs, and allowing water to condense in their bodies and trickle into their mouths. And by mimicking some of the structures on these beetles, scientists have created this material that’s excellent at harvesting water from fog. And not just the beetles, it takes inspiration from cactus spines and from flesh eating pitcher plants, which trap insects with super slippery leaves. And it uses those to create the material that the surface that collects water far more effectively than other state of the art alternatives.

IRA FLATOW: Wow, quite interesting. Thank you, Ed.

ED YOUNG: Thanks Ira.

IRA FLATOW: Ed Young is a science writer for The Atlantic. And now, it’s time to play Good Thing, Bad Thing.


Because every story has a flip side. Time check. It’s about 14 minutes past the hour, but which hour? Dealing with time zones can be a pain. So, why not just get rid of them all? Well, two professors at Johns Hopkins, Richard Henry and Steven Hanke, have proposed doing away with all time zones and instead, using one universal time clock everywhere. They also want to change the calendar so that the days of the month would always be the same. So, if your birthday is on a Wednesday one year, it will be on a Wednesday every year. Here to talk about whether it’s time for a change is someone who’s given a lot of thought about how our planets move around the sun. Dean Regas, outreach astronomer at the Cincinnati Observatory, co-host of the PBS program Star Gazers. Welcome back, Dean.

DEAN REGAS: Thanks for having me.

IRA FLATOW: All right. Let’s talk about the good news. What’s the good thing about doing away with time zones?

DEAN REGAS: Yeah, Ira. Well, you can go with the philosophy, it’s right now, everywhere. I mean we can all agree with that. But it’s really chaotic right now. That’s the situation, is that every country has their own kind of political will to this. North Korea has their own time zone. Nepal has a time zone that’s 45 minutes off kilter of anybodies. And China, for how big of a country, only has one time zone. So it’s really, really complicated to keep up with all this. And one single unifying, universal time zone could save a lot of hassles.

IRA FLATOW: And so the bad thing?

DEAN REGAS: Oh well, the bad thing. Oh well, when I first looked at this, I thought, OK, this is all bad. I mean, first of all, if it’s sunrise, sunrise for everybody would be at a different time. So you could be– the sun would rise at midnight for you, according to this plan. And I was looking at this as, who gets to decide? Who gets to be the zero point? Does it get to be Greenwich? Do they get to have sunrise at normal times and everybody else gets kind of messed up? And I was looking at New York. This is great. If Greenwich was the zero point, like it is now for universal time, the sun would rise in New York at midnight on certain months, and 1:00 AM other times. You could start your day at midnight. How does that sound?

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. Yeah. You know, I’m used to eating around noon. But I wouldn’t be doing that. Right?

DEAN REGAS: No, no. What it is, the bad part about this is humans and time. We have a thing about this. I mean, look at how we tell time. We have 60 minutes in an hour, 60 seconds in a minute. That goes back to the Babylonian days. Changing time, we’re not good at changing things when it comes to time, that’s for sure. We’re still following the Babylonians. This is going to be a hard sell, I think.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, well, you know, I think that you may be just a bit biased because I understand that a former director at the Cincinnati Observatory helped establish time zones.

DEAN REGAS: Oh, Ira you found my bias, my time bias. Our second director, his name is Cleveland Abbe, he was one of the proponents– the early proponents– of setting up time zones in the United States, because railroads– you know, trains would be going from town to town, and each town would have their own local time. So you could go from one town to the other, and who knows what time–

IRA FLATOW: Oh. Seems like we lost Dean there a second. Time zones. Are they a good idea? Go to our website, leave your ideas about time zones. Good idea, bad idea, what do you think? Would you like to have one time zone? You know. So if I said to somebody, let’s talk at 3 o’clock, it would be 3 o’clock for everybody. I wouldn’t have to say, gee, east coast, west coast. I talked to Dean over there in Cincinnati. Go to our website at sciencefriday.com and then let us know what you think. Sorry Dean. Dean Regas was outreach astronomer at the Cincinnati University Observatory, excuse me, and co-host of Star Gazers.

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