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The Vanguard

The 5 Coolest Things on Earth This Week

Amanda Schupak
November 02, 2022

Fighting cancer from the inside out, sacrificing sensitivity for tenderness, and rewriting lunar history. This week’s coolest things flip the script.


Inside Job

pancreatic cancer
Researchers have developed a two-prong approach to treating pancreatic cancer that has produced the best results ever seen in mouse trials. Credit: Pratt School of Engineering

What is it? Duke University researchers developed a cancer treatment that irradiates tumors from within the body.

Why does it matter? Chemotherapy and radiation are often used in conjunction to fight cancer; the chemo makes cells more susceptible to radiation. But radiation can be applied only for short periods and results in damage to healthy surrounding tissues.

How does it work? The researchers encased radioactive iodine-131 (a common isotope used in medicine) in an amino acid–based substance that forms a gel when injected into a warm human body. The iodine-131 emits beta radiation that escapes the gel and attacks the tumor without reaching surrounding tissues. In tests, the implant eliminated tumors in 80% of mice with notoriously hard-to-treat pancreatic cancer, without causing radiation-related side effects. Jefferey Schaal, first author of a paper in Nature Biomedical Engineering, said he believes the implant’s constant radiation improves the chemo’s effects. “That makes us think that this approach might actually work better than external beam therapy for many other cancers, too.”


Soft Touch

Video credit: Harvard Microrobotics Lab/Harvard SEAS


What is it? Harvard engineers made a robotic tentacle gripper that can grasp delicate objects.

Why does it matter? Getting robots to grab and hold fragile objects is a complicated task requiring sensors, feedback, and operator skill. The tentacle robot offers a simple and gentle solution that could be used for picking produce, medical procedures, or handling of delicate artifacts.

How does it work? Inspired by jellyfish tentacles, the gripper consists of about a dozen thin, foot-long rubber tubes that engage when inflated. One side of each tube is made of thicker rubber than the other. When they’re filled with air, the tubes curl up, ensnaring whatever they’re in touch with. Though each one is weak, they entangle with the object and one another, strengthening the grip. “We designed a gripper that is greater than the sum of its parts and a grasping strategy that can adapt to a range of complex objects,” said Kaitlyn Becker, first author of a study in PNAS.


Safer Pain Relief

Philipp Seemann
Doctoral candidate and co-lead author Philipp Seemann was one of the FAU researchers who discovered substances that provide effective pain relief without the addictive and sedative effects of drugs currently available. Credit: FAU/Stefan Löber

What is it? An international group of researchers identified two molecules that dampen pain without the dangerous side effects of opioids.

Why does it matter? Medications that target opioid receptors are highly effective at relieving pain, but they are addictive and sedative, and can fatally slow breathing. “We are particularly pleased about the fact that none of the new compounds caused sedation, even at considerably higher doses than those that would be required for pain relief,” said Peter Gmeiner, of Germany’s Friedrich-Alexander-Universität.

How does it work? The team searched a large molecular database for compounds that bind to other receptors also involved in pain response. They whittled the candidates down from 300 million to 48 by performing binding-site docking simulations. Two showed effective pain reduction in animal tests. The results were published in Science. Gmeiner stressed that the research is preliminary but offers a potential avenue toward alternatives to opioid pain treatments.


First Family

Neanderthal father daughter
A Neanderthal father and daughter. Credit: Tom Bjorklund.

What is it? Max Planck Institute researchers sequenced the genomes of the first known Neanderthal family.

Why does it matter? Ancient DNA has helped broaden our understanding of when and where early humans lived. This is the first time researchers have identified DNA from multiple members of a group of Neanderthals. “For the first time, we can use genetics to study the social organization of a Neanderthal community,” said Laurits Skov, first author of a study in Nature.

How does it work? The researchers sequenced the genomes of 13 individuals whose remains were found in a cave in Siberia, where Neanderthals lived 54,000 years ago. They identified two sets of relatives, including a father and his teenage daughter. Genetic analysis suggested that the community consisted of 10 to 20 individuals, and that women introduced diversity into the gene pool, having moved from other communities.


Moon Dance

Video and top image credit: NASA’s Ames Research Center

What is it? NASA scientists have a new theory on how — and how quickly — the moon was formed.

Why does it matter? It is understood that the moon was formed when a Mars-size object called Theia collided with Earth. But no theory of how it happened accounts for every aspect of the moon’s composition and orbit. A new NASA simulation seems to fill in some gaps. “This opens up a whole new range of possible starting places for the Moon’s evolution,” said Jacob Kegerreis, lead author of a study in The Astrophysical Journal Letters

How does it work? Previous theories suggest that it took months, even years, for the debris of the collision to coalesce into what we now know as our moon. The high-resolution simulation shows that the moon may have formed within mere hours and been launched directly into orbit. The model could also explain why the moon’s composition is so similar to Earth’s and why its orbit is tilted.