Fighting Metastasis, Going to the Ice Giants, and Finding New Planets | Vol. 4 / No. 35

Interleukin 6 and Interleukin 8 | Image: Ramin Herati, CC0 (Public Domain)

This week we’ve got stories on a new way to fight cancer, a report on potentially going to Uranus and Neptune, and ten more “Earth-like” planets found in the Kepler data! It’s the weekly roundup for Sunday, June 25, 2017.

Fighting Metastasis

Nine out of ten cancer deaths have one thing in common: metastasis, the process by which parts of a single, localized tumour spread throughout the body. And now it looks like we can fight it. Hasini Jayatilaka and a team of researchers at Johns Hopkins have identified key steps in the process and are identifying drugs that can delay, prevent, or otherwise interfere with it. Metastasis, they’ve found, isn’t the result of a tumour getting too large, but rather too dense. Once it reaches a certain density, it produces two key proteins that tell its outer cells to break off and go find a new home, often in the lungs, brain, liver, bones, kidneys, and so on. Most cancer deaths are not the result of a localized tumour, but of these cells spreading to more potentially fatal areas—most people do not die, for example, of a single growth in the breast or prostate or skin. By preventing the signalling that leads to these cells spreading, cancer could be turned into a chronic illness rather than an acute one. What’s more, the scientists have found that there are already two drugs approves and on the market that happen to target these proteins, and now that they’ve been identified, they can be added to current chemotherapy regimens to improve survival rates. It’s a really great piece of health news. If you want more on the story, you can go look up the details at the Chicago Tribune.


Two views of Uranus | Photo: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, CC BY 2.0

Ice Giants

Science, especially planetary science, takes a lot of planning. A LOT. And most of it starts with studies commissioned in the lead-ups to what are called the “Decadal Surveys,” specifically, the Planetary Science Decada Surveys. Scientists periodically get together and bring their best analyses on what we don’t know, what we want to know, and what would be the best bang for our scientific buck, and use these reports as a way of steering planetary science for the next ten years or so. And so it’s with a mixture of excitement and patience that I’m reporting the publishing this month of a pre-decadal survey report on going back to Uranus and Neptune, the so-called “ice giants.”Basically, the last time we went was with Voyager II back in 1986, and we just sorta flew by. But as we’ve seen with the incredible science coming from Juno as it takes its rather long trips around Jupiter, our understanding of the larger members of our solar system was… let’s say not complete. Great for thirty years ago. But it’s 2017, and now holy cow is Jupiter terrifyingly cool or what? So now we need (need) to send something to visit the ice giants, which have extremely different properties from Jupiter and Saturn (the “gas giants”), including a very different composition, possible oceans under the gas, and of course Uranus’s totally bizarre sideward tilt. The pre-decadal report explores launch dates from 2024 to 2037 with an 11-year flight time, so we’re talking in the not-exactly-near future, but these kinds of missions take a long time to build, launch, and get there, so if we want to know more we need to start pronto. I really hope the work of these scientists convinces the scientific community of the need to go. You can find the (Very Long) report here and the much more readable executive summary here.


Kepler | Image: NASA Blueshift. CC BY 2.0

Kepler Data Dump 8

In the eighth release of processed data from the Kepler mission, NASA announced this week the discovery of 219 more planets, with ten of those being roughly Earth-sized and in the habitable zones of their host stars, and with five of those around stars roughly comparable to our own. The most Earth-like of these would probably be KOI (Kepler Object of Interest) 7711, which is 1.3 times the size of Earth and orbits a G-type star (like ours) at roughly the same distance we do. Which is good, but not a guarantee of life—as Kepler scientist Susan Thompson pointed out, looking our way you’d see three “Earth-sized” planets in our star’s habitable zone, “but I’d only want to live on one of them.” This brings the total number of “habitable-zone” “Earth-sized” Kepler planets to 49, which out of a total of 2,335 confirmed planets really isn’t that bad. The results continue to shore up the idea that environments that could potentially support life as we know it are statistically far likelier than we used to think, and also help us fill in our best guesses in the Drake Equation. The K2 mission is now continuing through 2018 and beyond, collecting yet more data which will be processed to find yet more planets. In the meantime you can read about the latest results at the Washington Post.


Best of the Rest

As always, there’s only so much news I can pack into one weekly roundup, so here’s a whole lot of links for your perusal, in case you need more reading material.

That’s all for today, have a great week.


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Richard Ford Burley is a human, writer, and doctoral candidate at Boston College, as well as Deputy Managing Editor at Ledger, the first academic journal devoted to Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies. In his spare time he writes about science, skepticism, feminism, and futurism here at This Week In Tomorrow.