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How an 18th-Century Mutiny May Help Explain Migraine Headaches

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On April 28, 1789, Fletcher Christian and 18 other sailors aboard the HMS Bounty wrested control of the ship from their commanding officer, Lieutenant William Bligh. The mutineers sent Bligh and the members of the crew loyal to him off in a lifeboat in the South Pacific, then set sail to some nearby islands for new lives in a tropical paradise. Over 220 years later, their actions may help researchers unlock the mysteries of the migraine.

A 1,222 Hour Tour

Without charts or a compass, and relying only on a quadrant and his pocket watch, Bligh navigated the lifeboat on a 47-day, 3,618-nautical-mile voyage and safely landed at Timor in the Dutch East Indies. From there he returned to England, two years after he left, and reported the mutiny. He eventually achieved the rank of Vice Admiral of the Royal Navy.

Meanwhile, the mutineers didn’t fare as well. They first attempted to settle on the island of Tubai, but abandoned it after three months of near constant harassment and attack by the natives. Some of the men settled in Tahiti, and the rest moved on to Pitcairn Island, where they burned the ship in what is now called Bounty Bay.  As the mutineers settled into island life, the Crown dispatched the HMS Pandora to retrieve the men and bring them home for trial. The Pandora arrived at Tahiti in early 1791 and 14 of the mutineers were arrested within a few weeks. The ship collided with a part of the Great Barrier Reef during its return trip, losing 31 crew and four of the prisoners, but the remaining ten mutineers eventually made it back to England, where they were tried in a naval court.

The mutineers on Pitcairn managed to avoid detection. Some of them married natives or Tahitians who had hopped aboard the boat when it stopped there. They started families. By 1855, they numbered around 200, and the 88 acres of usable land on the island could no longer sustain the population. Queen Victoria provided some relief and granted the mutineers' descendants Norfolk Island, a former penal colony a few thousand miles west. The next year, they abandoned Pitcairn and settled their new home. Some eventually went back to Pitcairn, and today about 50 people live there. All but a handful -- the pastor, the schoolteacher, and few others -- are direct descendants of the mutineers. The rest stayed at Norfolk, and today’s inhabitants include approximately 1,000 Bounty descendants, about half the island’s population.

No Day at the Beach

Life on Pitcairn and Norfolk can be tough. The only real way to reach Pitcairn is by boat, and storms and rough waters have derailed many of its thrice-annual supply ships. Mail service takes approximately three months, and for medical attention, islanders have to make a several-thousand-mile trip by boat to a New Zealand hospital. Norfolk, which eventually became an external territory of Australia, recently saw a drop in tourism and had to petition the Australian government for financial aid in 2010. As a result, the islanders had to pay income tax for the first time in their history.

And the Bounty descendants on both islands have another problem: headaches.

Migraine affects ~12?% of the Caucasian population worldwide, but among Bounty descendants, the number jumps to 23%, with approximately 12% of males and 33% of females afflicted. This prevalence, combined with their history and living situation, makes the children of the mutiny very attractive to scientists.

Migraine has a strong genetic basis but it’s what medical researchers call a “multifactorial disorder,” meaning that it involves a combination of genes plus environmental triggers, which makes it difficult to study. Two hundred years of geographic isolation, well-kept genealogical records, and restrictions on immigration have left Norfolk and Pitcairn Islands with relatively genetically homogeneous populations where environmental and genetic diversity is reduced enough for effective gene mapping studies, and the islanders are an ideal study sample for studying migraine.

X Marks the Spot?

A team of genomics researchers at Griffith University in Queensland recently studied the islanders at Norfolk, and confirmed earlier research suggesting that at least part of migraine’s genetic cause could be hidden on the X chromosome. Their analysis of the genetics of 377 Bounty descendants associated two mutations on the X chromosome with migraine, which helps explain its increased prevalence among women. Their results also implicated a few other genes with functions as varied as RNA packaging, cell change regulation, protein folding and lipid assembly. They’re now looking harder at these genes and trying to figure out where things are going wrong.

They also think that there’s more where this came from, and that even more genes -- dozens or maybe hundreds -- are involved. More studies like this could eventually isolate other potential migraine susceptibility genes and build up a catalogue of them that could paint a decent picture of the underlying biological pathways of migraine inheritance and susceptibility. In turn, that would help doctors develop better means of migraine diagnosis and treatment, and relieved migraine sufferers might ultimately be able to thank Bligh’s angry crew for putting an end to their misery.

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Penn Vet Working Dog Center
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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
New Program Trains Dogs to Sniff Out Art Smugglers
Penn Vet Working Dog Center
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

Soon, the dogs you see sniffing out contraband at airports may not be searching for drugs or smuggled Spanish ham. They might be looking for stolen treasures.

K-9 Artifact Finders, a new collaboration between New Hampshire-based cultural heritage law firm Red Arch and the University of Pennsylvania, is training dogs to root out stolen antiquities looted from archaeological sites and museums. The dogs would be stopping them at borders before the items can be sold elsewhere on the black market.

The illegal antiquities trade nets more than $3 billion per year around the world, and trafficking hits countries dealing with ongoing conflict, like Syria and Iraq today, particularly hard. By one estimate, around half a million artifacts were stolen from museums and archaeological sites throughout Iraq between 2003 and 2005 alone. (Famously, the craft-supply chain Hobby Lobby was fined $3 million in 2017 for buying thousands of ancient artifacts looted from Iraq.) In Syria, the Islamic State has been known to loot and sell ancient artifacts including statues, jewelry, and art to fund its operations.

But the problem spans across the world. Between 2007 and 2016, U.S. Customs and Border Control discovered more than 7800 cultural artifacts in the U.S. looted from 30 different countries.

A yellow Lab sniffs a metal cage designed to train dogs on scent detection.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

K-9 Artifact Finders is the brainchild of Rick St. Hilaire, the executive director of Red Arch. His non-profit firm researches cultural heritage property law and preservation policy, including studying archaeological site looting and antiquities trafficking. Back in 2015, St. Hilaire was reading an article about a working dog trained to sniff out electronics that was able to find USB drives, SD cards, and other data storage devices. He wondered, if dogs could be trained to identify the scents of inorganic materials that make up electronics, could they be trained to sniff out ancient pottery?

To find out, St. Hilaire tells Mental Floss, he contacted the Penn Vet Working Dog Center, a research and training center for detection dogs. In December 2017, Red Arch, the Working Dog Center, and the Penn Museum (which is providing the artifacts to train the dogs) launched K-9 Artifact Finders, and in late January 2018, the five dogs selected for the project began their training, starting with learning the distinct smell of ancient pottery.

“Our theory is, it is a porous material that’s going to have a lot more odor than, say, a metal,” says Cindy Otto, the executive director of the Penn Vet Working Dog Center and the project’s principal investigator.

As you might imagine, museum curators may not be keen on exposing fragile ancient materials to four Labrador retrievers and a German shepherd, and the Working Dog Center didn’t want to take any risks with the Penn Museum’s priceless artifacts. So instead of letting the dogs have free rein to sniff the materials themselves, the project is using cotton balls. The researchers seal the artifacts (broken shards of Syrian pottery) in airtight bags with a cotton ball for 72 hours, then ask the dogs to find the cotton balls in the lab. They’re being trained to disregard the smell of the cotton ball itself, the smell of the bag it was stored in, and ideally, the smell of modern-day pottery, eventually being able to zero in on the smell that distinguishes ancient pottery specifically.

A dog looks out over the metal "pinhweel" training mechanism.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

“The dogs are responding well,” Otto tells Mental Floss, explaining that the training program is at the stage of "exposing them to the odor and having them recognize it.”

The dogs involved in the project were chosen for their calm-but-curious demeanors and sensitive noses (one also works as a drug-detection dog when she’s not training on pottery). They had to be motivated enough to want to hunt down the cotton balls, but not aggressive or easily distracted.

Right now, the dogs train three days a week, and will continue to work on their pottery-detection skills for the first stage of the project, which the researchers expect will last for the next nine months. Depending on how the first phase of the training goes, the researchers hope to be able to then take the dogs out into the field to see if they can find the odor of ancient pottery in real-life situations, like in suitcases, rather than in a laboratory setting. Eventually, they also hope to train the dogs on other types of objects, and perhaps even pinpoint the chemical signatures that make artifacts smell distinct.

Pottery-sniffing dogs won’t be showing up at airport customs or on shipping docks soon, but one day, they could be as common as drug-sniffing canines. If dogs can detect low blood sugar or find a tiny USB drive hidden in a house, surely they can figure out if you’re smuggling a sculpture made thousands of years ago in your suitcase.

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Medicine
New Cancer-Fighting Nanobots Can Track Down Tumors and Cut Off Their Blood Supply
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iStock

Scientists have developed a new way to cut off the blood flow to cancerous tumors, causing them to eventually shrivel up and die. As Business Insider reports, the new treatment uses a design inspired by origami to infiltrate crucial blood vessels while leaving the rest of the body unharmed.

A team of molecular chemists from Arizona State University and the Chinese Academy of Sciences describe their method in the journal Nature Biotechnology. First, they constructed robots that are 1000 times smaller than a human hair from strands of DNA. These tiny devices contain enzymes called thrombin that encourage blood clotting, and they're rolled up tightly enough to keep the substance contained.

Next, researchers injected the robots into the bloodstreams of mice and small pigs sick with different types of cancer. The DNA sought the tumor in the body while leaving healthy cells alone. The robot knew when it reached the tumor and responded by unfurling and releasing the thrombin into the blood vessel that fed it. A clot started to form, eventually blocking off the tumor's blood supply and causing the cancerous tissues to die.

The treatment has been tested on dozen of animals with breast, lung, skin, and ovarian cancers. In mice, the average life expectancy doubled, and in three of the skin cancer cases tumors regressed completely.

Researchers are optimistic about the therapy's effectiveness on cancers throughout the body. There's not much variation between the blood vessels that supply tumors, whether they're in an ovary in or a prostate. So if triggering a blood clot causes one type of tumor to waste away, the same method holds promise for other cancers.

But before the scientists think too far ahead, they'll need to test the treatments on human patients. Nanobots have been an appealing cancer-fighting option to researchers for years. If effective, the machines can target cancer at the microscopic level without causing harm to healthy cells. But if something goes wrong, the bots could end up attacking the wrong tissue and leave the patient worse off. Study co-author Hao Yan believes this latest method may be the one that gets it right. He said in a statement, "I think we are much closer to real, practical medical applications of the technology."

[h/t Business Insider]

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