Researchers find ‘blood test biopsy’ can detect cancer


Research Report

By Lynne Friedmann

Scientists from The Scripps Research Institute, Scripps Health, and collaborating cancer physicians have demonstrated the effectiveness of an advanced blood test for detecting and analyzing circulating tumor cells (CTCs); the breakaway cells from patients’ solid tumors.

The new test labels cells in a patient’s blood sample distinguishing possible CTCs from ordinary red and white blood cells. A digital microscope and an image-processing algorithm then isolate suspected cancer cells that differ from healthy cells by their size and shape. Just as in a surgical biopsy, a pathologist can examine the images of suspected CTCs to eliminate false positives.

The findings are published in the journal Physical Biology. (

Alzheimer’s neurons in a dish

Researchers at UC San Diego School of Medicine have developed a first-of-its-kind laboratory model that replicates the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease (AD) found in human brain cells. The feat was accomplished by reprogramming skin tissue fibroblasts (cells in ordinary connective tissue essential for normal

development and repair

) taken from AD patients into induced pluripotent stem cells (adult cells genetically reprogrammed to an embryonic stem cell-like state) then differentiating them into working neurons.

Heretofore, researchers have had to mimic aspects of the disease in non-neuronal human cells or have used limited animal models. With the ability to create highly purified and functional human Alzheimer’s neurons in a dish, scientists have an important new tool for developing and testing drugs to treat the disorder. But, researchers are quick to caution that what they’ve created aren’t perfect models but an important first step.

The research is reported in the journal Nature. (

Rip in giant slab of Earth

For years scientists who study the processes underlying the planet’s shifting tectonic plates and how they shape the planet have debated the origins of sudden, massive eruptions of lava at the planet’s surface. Such eruptions are thought to occur when a mushroom-shaped upwelling of hot rock rising from deep within the earth’s interior, reaches the surface.

Now, a Scripps Institution of Oceanography (SIO) at UC San Diego researcher has proposed an alternative origin for the volcanic activity of Oregon’s Columbia River flood basalt – an outpouring of magma forced out of a breach in a massive slab of Earth.

Around 17 million years ago the tectonic plate underneath the western United States began ripping apart. The new model of lava formation describes a dynamic rupture lasting two million years across the so-called Farallon slab, where the rupture spread across 559 miles along eastern Oregon and northern Nevada.

When the slab is first opened there is a little tear, but because of the high pressure underneath, the material is able to force its way through the hole. Lending the theory credence is data from USArray, the National Science Foundation’s transportable seismic network of 400 sensor stations across the United States.

The findings appear in the journal Nature. (

Heart hormone helps shape fat metabolism

In addition to exercise, a study at Sanford-Burnham suggests that the heart plays a role in breaking down body fat. According to the research, hormones released by the heart stimulate fat-cell metabolism by turning on a molecular mechanism similar to what’s activated when the body is exposed to cold and burns fat to generate heat.

The metabolic effects caused by these heart hormones (so-called cardiac natriuretic peptides) depend largely on the ratio of two different kinds of receptor s— message-receiving proteins — on the surface of fat cells.

In addition to providing a better understanding of the breakdown of fats, more information about how this system works could also give hope to patients suffering from

cardiac cachexia

, a severe body wasting that can occur in chronic heart failure. High levels of natriuretic peptides are characteristic of heart failure and are used as diagnostic markers of the severity of the disease.

The findings appear in the

Journal of Clinical Investigation

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—Lynne Friedmann is a science writer based in Solana Beach.