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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  • susanpub

    Okay – this time zone idea is STUPID! Period.

  • Laura

    Revolutionizing time is a great idea. We would just need to figure out what time the sun usually rises and make that our ‘morning’. The ‘start’ of the day could begin at the prime meridian. Would be much better than having locations 10 miles apart have a difference of an hour.

    • John Chambers

      One of my fun clock-related experience was driving around in northern Arizona a few years ago. Much of that area is Navajo/Hopi reservations, which observe DST, while Arizona is MST year-round. Both of our cell phones got their time from the nearby cell towers, and as we drove around, they kept jumping back and forth between MST and MDT, depending on which tower they last talked to. The people around there told us they never allowed their phones to get the time from the phone company, because of this phenomenon. It’s one of the more fun examples of the insanity that our current system encourages.

    • Mark Henwood

      The sun rises at different times in different places due to the rotation of the earth. This is the basis for time zones to start with (the sun also rises at different times throughout the year.)
      Note I am not saying all zones are determined my the sun, politics can always be depended on to mess things up.

  • AJCinDayton

    Here’s the problem with getting rid of time zones: Right now, I can quickly look at a map and make a very good guess about local conventions such as the time people will be at work. Without a time zone, then the “business hours” convention will be fairly arbitrary — some companies in a town might pick 3:00 as the starting time; others might pick 4:00 (or perhaps on the half hour). So, we either end up with the same confusion that the early railroads faced, or we’ll simply replace the “Time Zone” with a “Time Convention Zone” that says what the “normal” start of business hours is for that region.

  • swiftnyc

    Save the time zones! They are one of the few remaining indicators that we live on a large planet. Most of the rest of the world is now at our fingertips – we no longer have to travel to experience different environments and cultures and ways of being (though it’s still fabulous to do so), and the difference in time zones makes it still feel special to be somewhere else, to communicate with people in different areas. I find it exciting when I’m in, say, the Middle East, and text someone in NYC a pic of the early-morning scene at a cafe, and hear back “it’s 2 am here! Why are you texting me? But that looks amazing!” It’s a reminder that you are somewhere else.

    And besides, who wants everyone, everywhere to be on the same page, all the time? Too dull. Too easy. Besides, Americans – who would no longer need to calculate what 3:30 pm in L.A. means in Atlanta – will lose even more of our math skills! And we certainly can’t afford that.

    • susanpub

      Why is that person allowing him/herself to be awakened at 2 AM to receive a text? That speaks volumes. If it’s an emergency, then maybe the phone should ring – otherwise phone owner can keep on sleeping peacefully.

      Kiss that ability goodbye. How many people already rely on their phones to tell them what time it is in Atlanta? And if you think Americans were resistant to a switch to the metric system, imagine getting them to completely restructure their concept of time of day.

  • Xer

    I’m not sure how getting rid of time zones would actually lessen confusion. It seems like you’re just trading “what time is it on the other side of the planet” to “is this an okay time to schedule something for the other side of the planet?”

    Knowing that it’s noon everywhere on Earth doesn’t mean I know that noon in Bangalore is a good time to schedule a cross-continent meeting. No matter which system you choose, you still have to know the number of “hours” between you and the other location.

    It might be even more confusing for international travelers. Right now, if I travel to another continent I can just reset my watch and go about my business at the same hours I’m used to. Under a single time system I’d have to constantly reframe my time. Just buying plane tickets would be more difficult. Would arriving at 6 am mean that I have a whole day ahead of me, or is that the late afternoon? If I schedule my departure flight for 3 pm, will I have to travel to the airport in the middle of the night?

    • susanpub

      Excellent argument.

  • susanpub

    But I’m all for eliminating daylight savings time. I think we should move by 30 min. (either ahead or back, whatever time of year we finally do it, & make it permanent. That splits the difference & balances things.

  • John Chambers

    The topic is slightly mischaracterized by the suggestion that we need to change to a more logical time system. We did that long ago with the GMT-based system,. Then we made it very easy to used inside computers with the “seconds since 1970-1-1 0:0:0 UTC” count. Those work well, because they’re fairly easy to translate into any of the other time systems that people use (as long as they can tell you what time zone they want to be in). But getting non-techies (the other 99.99%) to adopt GMT/UTC/Zulu time seems hopeless. Everyone else likes their sun-based local time, whatever they think that is. So the most practical approach is probably to maintain the seconds-since-1970 approach, with software that translates to whatever the user/client likes. Anything better than that is facing a hopeless battle overcoming the general population’s confused ideas of what time is and how it works, and just wants their clocks to behave “the way they always have”. You might get them to do away with DST, but there’s little chance the public will accept anything better than that.

    As a network programmer, I routinely keep my computers’ clocks showing UTC. It’s the best way to stay sane while testing software on machines in several time zones. I can translate it to my local time almost without thought. But I long ago gave up on the idea that such a system might be practical for most of humanity. I like to remark that the world will change to a single universal clock about the same time that the US fully transitions to the metric system. It doesn’t matter how sensible it might be; human organizations aren’t sensible.

    (I’d be happy to be proved wrong, of course.)

  • Mark Henwood

    Time zones: at least from an US point of view, I believe that the present system is driven, for the most part, by the activities of people. Due to things like the hours of sun light and the ” biological clock” this change would not work. People would rebel against this change making it highly disruptive and while it might be 12:00pm everywhere, it would impossible to tell if it was “normal working hours” at some point half way around the world.
    In the scientific arena this is a non issue as Coordinated Universal Time is used by most systems including personal computing, cell phones and cryptography transparently.


  • Teresa

    Don’t see the point of eliminating time zones, keeping time based on Sun should be more strongly emphasized and practiced for circadian health reasons, which also support eliminating DST.

  • Tanya Geyer

    There are some scientists who are hoping we can somehow standardize time across the globe, using the same clock everywhere all the time. For example, if it is 12 o’clock in New York people would also say it is 12 o’clock in San Francisco, and Tokyo, and Bombay. Some say this may not be practical because we would not want to have sunrise at 12 midnight, but I say we would not say “midnight” at sunrise as the word “night” or “day” would now have its meaning separate from the clock.
    Night and day has always been in flotation in relation to the clock as not a single day on the calendar has sunset and sunrise at the same time as the day before. As for the practicality of changing something so fundamental worldwide, it would be better if we started with something we do recognize and build with it. Many people speak already using Greenwich time as their reference point, no matter where on earth they live. If someone wished to make this change they could simply adopt this method of using Greenwich time wherever you live. It would be as easy as setting your clock on your iPad or other device to Greenwich time and learning to live with it. Sure there would be a learning curve but what doesn’t have one?

  • Miranda831

    Universal Time Zone = good for robots but bad for people! Humans respond to sunlight, the incidence of sunlight is what seems to be best for our health, sooo it doesn’t seem to me that interrupting my sleep (at night where I live) to be online with coworkers would be a good thing!…

  • Franny Moore-Kyle

    I don’t think we should adopt a universal time, but it’s definitely time to do away with Daylight Saving Time. It’s bad enough keeping track of when to Spring Forward and Fall Back, but when other nations are on a different schedule, it makes international communications challenging, to say the least.

  • John H

    Any timezone more than about 8 hours away from GMT would have a date change in the middle of the working day. This would cause an interesting problem. It would make it difficult to know what the date is, expiry dates and commencement dates would happen in the middle of the day. Interest payments would happen in the middle of the day! Even worse birthdays would start and end in the middle of the day – this would be interesting for any age based restrictions. Eg no smoking for under 18s, or driving licenses expire at the age of 70!

  • Oz

    One time zone. Stupid and impossible. It would simply result in everyone talking about two times: universal and local. We already have GMT or zulu time. That’s enough.

  • iabervon

    I think it would be great if everybody had clocks that showed both local time and UTC. Personally, I’d format them differently, so if you wrote 17°00, people in New York would know you mean local noon, and people in Chicago would know it would be 11:00 for them; for each person, it’s based on one of the two clocks they’re comfortable with. That would also mean that you could set your alarm for 2:00 PM and get your mid-afternoon snack wherever you are at that time, while your alarm set for 20°00 will get you to your international conference call at the right time, no matter where you are.

    Doing conversions through UTC is more useful than doing them directly from one local time zone to another, because when your time zone changes, you only need to make one correction, rather than learning to do all of your offsets differently. If you’re in New York and also know people in California and Japan, and you know differences, you need 2 pieces of information, but you need 3 new pieces of information when you go to Chicago. If you know UTC offsets instead, you originally need 3 pieces of information, but you only need one more when you’re in Chicago.

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