Currently, stem cell based treatments are still mostly experimental, and while some results are encouraging, several clinical trials have failed. (Shutterstock)

Katharine Sedivy-Haley, University of British Columbia

When I was applying to graduate school in 2012, it felt like stem cells were about to revolutionize medicine.

Stem cells have the ability to renew themselves, and mature into specialized cells like heart or brain cells. This allows them to multiply and repair damage.

If stem cell genes are edited to fix defects causing diseases like anemia or immune deficiency, healthy cells can theoretically be reintroduced into a patient, thereby eliminating or preventing a disease. If these stem cells are taken — or made — from the patient themselves, they are a perfect genetic match for that individual, which means their body will not reject the tissue transplant.

Because of this potential, I was excited that my PhD project at the University of British Columbia gave me the opportunity to work with stem cells.

However, stem cell hype has led some to pay thousands of dollars on advertised stem cell treatments that promise to cure ailments from arthritis to Parkinson’s disease. These treatments often don’t help and may harm patients.

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The world’s smallest frog can fit on a dime. E.N. Rittmeyer et al. (2012)

Nicola Di Girolamo, Oklahoma State University

The biggest animal in the world is easy to see, if you know where to look. Living in every ocean except the Arctic, the blue whale is the largest animal on Earth — weighing as much as 200 tons with a heartbeat that can be heard up to two miles away.

But the smallest animal in the world? Even if you knew where to look, could you see it? To track down the tiniest creature, scientists had to first decide what they were looking for and then, where they might find it. The first question – “What is an animal?” – is something that scientists have debated for centuries.

I am an exotic animal veterinarian especially fascinated by these types of questions.

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Ghost particles: how galaxies helped us weigh the lightest neutrino – and why it matters

The Crab Nebula is a remnant of a supernova, a source of neutrinos. NASA, ESA, J. Hester and A. Loll (Arizona State University)

Arthur Loureiro, UCL

Even when you close your eyes at night, 100 billion neutrinos produced in the sun will pass through them – travelling close to the speed of light, but never hitting anything. Neutrinos are extremely elusive and only weakly interact with matter around them: nature’s true ghosts. Until very recently, these tiny particles were believed to be massless.

In the late 1990s, researchers demonstrated that neutrinos constantly change between three different types (flavours or species), which affects how they interact with matter. This is something they can only do if they have mass – a discovery that was granted the Nobel Prize in 2015. From these particle physics experiments, we know that at least two of the three neutrino species have mass.

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Kepler’s forgotten ideas about symmetry help explain spiral galaxies without the need for dark matter

M81 spiral galaxy. NASA/JPL-Caltech/ESA/Harvard-Smithsonian CfA

Chris Jeynes, University of Surrey and Michael Parker, University of Essex

The 17th-century astronomer Johannes Kepler was the first to muse about the structure of snowflakes. Why are they so symmetrical? How does one side know how long the opposite side has grown? Kepler thought it was all down to what we would now call a “morphogenic field” – that things want to have the form they have. Science has since discounted this idea. But the question of why snowflakes and similar structures are so symmetrical is nevertheless not entirely understood.

Modern science shows just how fundamental the question is: look at all the spiral galaxies out there. They can be half a million light years across, but they still preserve their symmetry. How? In our new study, published in Scientific Reports, we present an explanation.

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Cameron Webb, University of Sydney

A new school year, and another battle between bloodsucking parasites and the kids they love to live on. But the real casualties are the stressed-out parents and carers trying to keep their kids free of lice. Here are some tips for delaying the inevitably tricky task of lice treatment for as long as possible.

Remind me, what are head lice?

Head lice (Pediculus capitis) are insects found almost exclusively in the hair on human heads. These parasites aren’t found anywhere else on the planet.

They’re perfectly designed to scuttle up and down strands of hair, feeding on blood from the scalp of those infested. They typically feed about three times a day, spending up to 15 minutes on each occasion.

While their bites may cause some mild irritation, lice don’t spread bugs that make us sick.

Head lice don’t live long – not much more than a month. The adults lay eggs (commonly known as nits), which typically hatch in around a week or so. This life cycle is simple, but crucial for identifying and eradicating infestations.

You want to remove the adult lice, then treat again two weeks later to get rid of the newly hatched lice before they have a chance to lay more eggs. By Blamb/Shutterstock
It’s worth investing in a lice comb. By Jiri Hera

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One in six healthy people report problems with bloating. Alice Day/Shutterstock

Vincent Ho, Western Sydney University

Your trousers fit when you put them on in the morning. But come mid-afternoon, they’re uncomfortably tight – and you didn’t even overdo it at lunchtime. Sound familiar?

Around one in six people without a health problem and three in four people with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) report problems with bloating. In fact, for people with IBS and constipation, bloating is their most troublesome symptom.

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Is medicine cure? Treatment? Healing? Understanding? Or a bit of all those things. Kenishiroti/Shutterstock

Alex Broadbent, University of Johannesburg

What is medicine? We recognise it in all societies past and present. But the nature of medicine differs so greatly from place to place and time to time that it’s difficult to offer a single answer. So what is it that we see in common between a traditional healer’s throwing of bones and the cardiologist’s incisions?

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zhu difeng/Shutterstock

Julie Broderick, Trinity College Dublin

The effect of exercise on health is profound. It can protect you from a range of conditions, including heart disease, type 2 diabetes and some cancers. But the type and amount of exercise you should do changes as you age. To ensure that you are doing the right type of exercise for your age, follow this simple guide.

Childhood and adolescence

In childhood, exercise helps control body weight, builds healthy bones and promotes self-confidence and healthy sleep patterns. The government recommends that children should get at least one hour of exercise a day. As a tip:

  • Children should try a variety of sports and develop skills, such as swimming and the ability to hit and kick a ball.

  • Lots of non–scheduled physical activity is great, too, such as playing in playgrounds.

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Increasing the amount of exercise is one way to use the energy stored in fat cells, or to ‘burn’ fat. HoonQ/

David Prologo, Emory University

Many of us may be considering “burning some fat” so we feel better in our bathing suits out on the beach or at the pool. What does that actually mean, though?

The normal fat cell exists primarily to store energy. The body will expand the number of fat cells and the size of fat cells to accommodate excess energy from high-calorie foods. It will even go so far as to start depositing fat cells on our muscles, liver and other organs to create space to store all this extra energy from calorie-rich diets – especially when combined with a low activity lifestyle.

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A fly’s eye view of a rapidly approaching swatter. Cameron Webb (NSW Health Pathology), Author provided

Cameron Webb, University of Sydney and Bryan Lessard, CSIRO

Summer in Australia is defined by sport, but the most-played sport isn’t cricket or tennis – it’s fly swatting. Have you ever tried to swat a fly? You can swipe, slap, slash or swoosh your hands at these sometimes-annoying backyard pests and almost always miss.

Fly swatting is as challenging a sport you’ll face this summer, but why is it so hard to squish these little beasts?

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By Chelsea Gohd

In Brief

After showing remarkable results in animal models, a new localized immunotherapy that targets the tumor with a simple injection is ready to enter clinical trials.

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by Elise Crull

In the summer of 1935, the physicists Albert Einstein and Erwin Schrödinger engaged in a rich, multifaceted and sometimes fretful correspondence about the implications of the new theory of quantum mechanics. The focus of their worry was what Schrödinger later dubbed entanglement: the inability to describe two quantum systems or particles independently, after they have interacted.

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The comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, seen up close. ESA/Rosetta/NavCam, CC BY-SA

Donia Baklouti, Université Paris Sud – Université Paris-Saclay; Anaïs Bardyn, Carnegie Science, and Hervé Cottin, Université Paris-Est Créteil Val de Marne (UPEC)

We are not used to considering dust as a valuable material – unless it comes from space. And more precisely, from the comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. An analysis of its dust has provided valuable information about this celestial object, and, more generally, on the history of the Solar System.

Using the COSIMA instrument aboard the European space probe Rosetta, a scientific team scrutinised the comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko (67P) in great detail from August 2014 to September 2016. They were interested in the dust particles ejected from the comet’s nucleus and captured by the spacecraft, and COSIMA made it possible to study their composition. The results of their research were published in December 2017 by the Royal Astronomical Society.

The study indicates that, on average, half of the mass of each dust particle consists of carbonaceous material with a mainly macromolecular organic structure; the other half being mostly composed of non-hydrated silicate minerals.

How is this result important or interesting? What does it imply? Was it expected by scientists or is it a total break pre-existing theories?

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Using sleep deprivation to lift people out of severe depression may seem counterintuitive, but for some people, it’s the only thing that works. Linda Geddes reports. 

The first sign that something is happening is Angelina’s hands. As she chats to the nurse in Italian, she begins to gesticulate, jabbing, moulding and circling the air with her fingers. As the minutes pass and Angelina becomes increasingly animated, I notice a musicality to her voice that I’m sure wasn’t there earlier. The lines in her forehead seem to be softening, and the pursing and stretching of her lips and the crinkling of her eyes tell me as much about her mental state as any interpreter could.

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CSIRO Parkes radio telescope has discovered around half of all known pulsars. Wayne England, Author provided

George Hobbs, CSIRO; Dick Manchester, CSIRO, and Simon Johnston, CSIRO

A pulsar is a small, spinning star – a giant ball of neutrons, left behind after a normal star has died in a fiery explosion.

With a diameter of only 30 km, the star spins up to hundreds of times a second, while sending out a beam of radio waves (and sometimes other radiation, such as X-rays). When the beam is pointed in our direction and into our telescopes, we see a pulse.

2017 marks 50 years since pulsars were discovered. In that time, we have found more than 2,600 pulsars (mostly in the Milky Way), and used them to hunt for low-frequency gravitational waves, to determine the structure of our galaxy and to test the general theory of relativity.

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by Bahar Gholipour

For a number of years in the 1980s, applicants to St George’s Hospital Medical School in London were selected with a high-tech method. A computer program, one of the first of its kind, took the first look at their résumés, carrying out the initial selection of about 2,000 candidates every year. The program analyzed the admissions records to learn the characteristics of successful applications, and was adjusted until its decisions matched those of the admissions team.

But the program had learned to look for more than good grades and signs of academic prowess. Four years after the program was implemented, two doctors at the hospital discovered the program tended to reject female applicants and those with non-European-sounding names, regardless of their academic merit. As many as 60 applicants each year could have been refused an interview simply because of their gender or race, the doctors found. The program had incorporated the gender and racial biases in the data used to train it — it was essentially taught that women and foreigners were not doctor material.

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Some medications increase our risk of blood clots. And so does flying.

Nial Wheate, University of Sydney

Every day, more than 10 million people take a flight somewhere in the world. While flying is relatively safe, the unique environmental conditions can put passengers at risk if they’re taking certain medications.

These include any hormone-based drugs, like the contraceptive pill and some fertility medicines, and drugs used to prevent heart attack and stroke. Antihistamines should also not be used to help passengers sleep during a flight.

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With so many varieties, it’s hard to know which bread is the most nutritious.

Leah Dowling, Swinburne University of Technology

Wholemeal, wholegrain, multigrain, sourdough, rye, white, high fibre white, low GI, low FODMAP, gluten free. With so many choices of bread available, how are we to know which is best for our health?

Bread has always been a dietary staple in Australian households. It’s a good source of carbohydrate, it’s low in fat, and wholegrain varieties are a good source of protein, fibre, vitamins and minerals, as well as healthy fats.

Wholegrains are high in dietary fibre, which helps keep us feeling full. Diets high in wholegrains are linked to a reduced risk of health conditions such as excess weight and obesity, heart disease, type 2 diabetes and some cancers. Dietary fibre is also beneficial for bowel health by preventing constipation and feeding the “good” gut bacteria which is likely to result in a number of health benefits. A recent study found a diet high in wholegrains was associated with a lower risk of bowel cancer.

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By Wendy Orent

We all know what Neanderthals looked like: the beetling brow ridges, thick nose, long skull, massive bone structure—and probably red hair and freckled skin. You might do a double take if you saw one on the subway, wearing a suit, or you might not. But you would surely look twice at the hunter-gatherers that populated Europe between 7,000 and 8,000 years ago, whose DNA scientists are analyzing now. They had dark skin and, very likely, bright blue eyes, like the beautiful child from Afghanistan you see in the photograph above. This combination essentially vanished from ancient Europe, replaced by light-skinned, brown-eyed farmers who moved in from the Middle East over the course of several centuries, and who looked like most of the population of southern Europe today.

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Modern diets are changing the compositions of our gut microbiota, and with that, our personalities. from

Amy Loughman, RMIT University and Tarsh Bates, University of Western Australia

We have long believed that “good” immune cells recognise and defend against “bad” invaders. That’s why a large proportion of medicine has been directed at killing microbial enemies and conquering microbial infections.

This militaristic understanding of immunity reflected the culture of the 20th century, which was dominated by nation building and world wars between “us” and “them.” It was a time when “survival of the fittest” came to be seen as the driver of evolution and competition and war were considered a natural part of what it is to be human.

But a radical shift in understanding the relationship between humans and microorganisms occurred with the discovery that only 50% of the cells in our bodies are human. The rest are microbes, such as bacteria, yeasts (members of the fungus family), viruses, and even insects. Together, these make up the microbiome.

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Influenza victims crowd into an emergency hospital near Fort Riley, Kansas in 1918. AP Photo/National Museum of Health

Richard Gunderman, Indiana University

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the great influenza pandemic of 1918. Between 50 and 100 million people are thought to have died, representing as much as 5 percent of the world’s population. Half a billion people were infected.

Especially remarkable was the 1918 flu’s predilection for taking the lives of otherwise healthy young adults, as opposed to children and the elderly, who usually suffer most. Some have called it the greatest pandemic in history.

The 1918 flu pandemic has been a regular subject of speculation over the last century. Historians and scientists have advanced numerous hypotheses regarding its origin, spread and consequences. As a result, many of us harbor misconceptions about it.

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Cimex lectularius. CDC/Wikimedia

Romain Garrouste, Muséum national d’histoire naturelle (MNHN) – Sorbonne Universités

If some insects could save the world, others do their best to seriously complicate life on earth. Among them the prize perhaps goes to the bed bug, which after decades of absence has returned to our homes, hotels and public facilities to seriously disturb us.

These intrepid little insects aren’t picky about where they set up shop – luxury suites and hospitals, public housing and rich neighbourhoods are all equally attractive to them. Given that bed bugs like to hang out where people congregate in the largest numbers, however, they prefer the city over the country.

So why have bed bugs returned, why are they so successful and what solutions exist to help us get rid of them? And beyond our fears and phobias, what is the true impact of these little demons?

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For the first time ever, working muscle tissue was created from stem cells. Engineering muscle from non-muscle could open the door to a host of advanced treatment and research opportunities.

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The inventor at rest, with a Tesla coil (thanks to a double exposure). Dickenson V. Alley, Wellcome Collection, CC BY

Richard Gunderman, Indiana University

Match the following figures – Albert Einstein, Thomas Edison, Guglielmo Marconi, Alfred Nobel and Nikola Tesla – with these biographical facts:

  • Spoke eight languages
  • Produced the first motor that ran on AC current
  • Developed the underlying technology for wireless communication over long distances
  • Held approximately 300 patents
  • Claimed to have developed a “superweapon” that would end all war

The match for each, of course, is Tesla. Surprised? Most people have heard his name, but few know much about his place in modern science and technology.

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Rural China sheds light on the role of witchcraft in society. Ruth Mace, Author provided

Ruth Mace, UCL

From medieval witch hunts in Europe to contemporary “witch doctors” in Tanzania, belief in witchcraft has existed across human societies throughout history. Anthropologists have long been fascinated by the phenomenon, but have struggled to study it with quantitative methods – our understanding of how and why it arises is therefore poor.

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