Week In Review: Spooky Science

UNC-TV Science Week In Review: October 31, 2013
Spooky Science

People often picture scientists as stuffy and erudite, not great at getting into the spirit of anything outside the factual world of their research. Science just has its own language though, which expresses the same thoughts and fears that we speak about every day.

So in the spirit of Halloween, here are a few spooky stories from North Carolina scientists this week.

The Tale of the Disappearing Results
There were two doctors, Timothy Platts-Mills and Christopher Jones at UNC Medical Center who, like other doctors, looked to clinical trials to determine the best up and coming drugs they could use to treat their patients. 

But one day they saw something fishy. They would hear about large scale drug trials on the federal government’s website clinicaltrials.gov, and after years of study, the results would never appear in academic journals. They decided to look back, examining 585 studies conducted before 2009 through clinicaltrials.gov, and look for the results.

But 29% of the results never made it to an academic journal, and 78% of those unpublished results never even made it back to clinicaltrials.gov. These results are important information for doctors and for patients who are looking forward to better medications.

Drs. Platts-Mills and Jones also found that a larger proportion of industry-funded (as opposed to government, non-profit or university-funded) results got lost on their way to publication. Their results found their way to the British Medical Journal, but whose will be the next to disappear?

The Magic ACL
You’ve probably heard of people tearing their ACL, which stands for anterior cruciate ligament. The ACL is a piece of connective tissue in your knee which keeps your shin bone (tibia) from sliding too far in front your thigh bone (femur). ACL injuries occur commonly in athletes but can happen to anybody. Just ask NC Science Now reporter and producer Frank Graff.

But it seems that by a regularly practiced ritual, one specific group of people are much less prone to ACL injuries - three to five times less prone. Ph.D. student Michele Pye from UNC Greensboro is examining this group, who through a repeated dance protect their ACLs. 

That group is professional dancers, and Pye is currently studying how their neuromuscular signals (in this case, what their brains tells their leg muscles to do while jumping to stabilize their knees) compare to those from other athletes. 

If Pye can identify a difference, then by using the same sorts of training that dancers use, other athletes may be able to harness some of that ACL-saving magic.

Pushing Back the Alzheimer’s Protein Horde
One way to think of how Alzheimer’s Disease, a form of dementia, affects the brain is sort of like a zombie movie. If you’ve ever seen The Walking Dead or Night of the Living Dead, there are always just a few zombies at the beginning, which are scary, but the heroes can usually deal with them without too much trouble. But as the movie goes on, more and more zombies show up and the heroes can’t deal with them.

Alzheimer’s Disease, Parkinson’s Disease and some other dementias are suspected to operate in a similar way. There are certain proteins, called amyloid betas, that can fold the wrong way, and when they fold the wrong way, they stick to each other. The amyloid betas are the zombies slowly building up into a press around a house until there’s no getting in or out. And the humans, they’re lysosomes, organs within our cells whose job it is to chew up dead or broken cell parts.

Some scientists, including Ben Bahr from UNC Pembroke, think the key to stopping the zombie amyloid beta’s from building up and disrupting brain connections lies in lysosomes. So he developed a method by which he can use a molecule called PADK to force the lysosomes to chew up more amyloid beta. He showed at the Alzheimer’s Europe Conference earlier this month that his system is effective in mice, and currently has a patent pending on the method.

And of Course There’s a Solar Eclipse...
What would a scary story be without the stars aligning? Scientists from the Pisgah Astronomical Research Institute say that, almost on cue, North Carolinians may get a glimpse of a solar eclipse on the morning of November 3, 2013. 

A solar eclipse occurs when the moon passes between Earth and the sun, and the moon casts a shadow on Earth. They occur about twice a year, but are only visible from specific points on the Earth. This one will occur right around dawn for a few seconds on November 3rd. Try and get a glimpse of this one if you like astronomy (through a hole in a box of course – safety first). The next solar eclipse viewable from North America will occur on August 21, 2017.

- Daniel Lane

Daniel Lane covers science, medicine and the environment as a reporter/writer. He is currently pursuing a master's degree in medical and science journalism at UNC - Chapel Hill.