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Scientists Sequence DNA of Century-Old Pediatric Tumors

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In a development that may lead to better treatments for modern-day childhood cancers, researchers have found a way to reveal the genetics of tumor samples dating back to the 1920s. The team published their findings in The Lancet.

The good thing about rare childhood cancers is that they’re rare, which means that few children will get them. But the bad thing is that that same rarity produces very few samples, which makes them harder to study, which in turn makes them near-impossible to treat with any scientific confidence.

“The treatment regimens for children with rare cancers are essentially made up,” lead author Sam Behjati of the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute told Nature. “If you’ve got three or four patients nationally, how are you ever going to conduct a reasonable clinical trial?”

The ideal situation—more tumor samples but fewer sick kids—may be less paradoxical than it sounds, as Behjati and his colleagues have figured out a way to grab genetic information from old tissue samples. And when we say old, we mean really old.

The Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children in London—which was saved from closure shortly after it opened thanks to a fundraiser by Charles Dickens—has been collecting samples from young patients since the mid-19th century, long before we had the technology to preserve them in any useful way. Then, in the early 20th century, scientists started dousing their samples in a chemical called formalin and embedding them in paraffin wax. The technique worked so well that researchers still use formalin-fixed paraffin-embedding (FFPE) today.

DNA is delicate stuff, and it tends to fall apart over time. Previous researchers have had some luck extracting DNA from FFPE tissue samples, but the oldest of these was only 32 years old.

The authors of the recent paper wondered if they could sample older specimens. They pulled three potential tumor samples from the hospital’s archives dating to the 1920s. One had been tentatively diagnosed as a lymphoma; one as a skeletal muscle cancer called rhabdomyosarcoma; and another as a blood-vessel tumor called cellular capillary hemangioma.

They scraped a tiny bit of tissue from each and ran them through a comprehensive genetic sequencing program.

The old-school preservation technique had done its job “remarkably,” the authors write, and each old sample’s genetic code matched the profile of its modern-day counterpart. This development “paves the way” for studying rare tumors, they say, and could shed light on the long-ago mutations that led to the cancers we face today.

[h/t Nature]

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Mysterious 'Hypatia Stone' Is Like Nothing Else in Our Solar System
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In 1996, Egyptian geologist Aly Barakat discovered a tiny, one-ounce stone in the eastern Sahara. Ever since, scientists have been trying to figure out where exactly the mysterious pebble originated. As Popular Mechanics reports, it probably wasn't anywhere near Earth. A new study in Geochimica et Cosmochimica Acta finds that the micro-compounds in the rock don't match anything we've ever found in our solar system.

Scientists have known for several years that the fragment, known as the Hypatia stone, was extraterrestrial in origin. But this new study finds that it's even weirder than we thought. Led by University of Johannesburg geologists, the research team performed mineral analyses on the microdiamond-studded rock that showed that it is made of matter that predates the existence of our Sun or any of the planets in the solar system. And, its chemical composition doesn't resemble anything we've found on Earth or in comets or meteorites we have studied.

Lead researcher Jan Kramers told Popular Mechanics that the rock was likely created in the early solar nebula, a giant cloud of homogenous interstellar dust from which the Sun and its planets formed. While some of the basic materials in the pebble are found on Earth—carbon, aluminum, iron, silicon—they exist in wildly different ratios than materials we've seen before. Researchers believe the rock's microscopic diamonds were created by the shock of the impact with Earth's atmosphere or crust.

"When Hypatia was first found to be extraterrestrial, it was a sensation, but these latest results are opening up even bigger questions about its origins," as study co-author Marco Andreoli said in a press release.

The study suggests the early solar nebula may not have been as homogenous as we thought. "If Hypatia itself is not presolar, [some of its chemical] features indicate that the solar nebula wasn't the same kind of dust everywhere—which starts tugging at the generally accepted view of the formation of our solar system," Kramer said.

The researchers plan to further probe the rock's origins, hopefully solving some of the puzzles this study has presented.

[h/t Popular Mechanics]

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Ocean Waves Are Powerful Enough to Toss Enormous Boulders Onto Land, Study Finds
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During the winter of 2013-2014, the UK and Ireland were buffeted by a number of unusually powerful storms, causing widespread floods, landslides, and coastal evacuations. But the impact of the storm season stretched far beyond its effect on urban areas, as a new study in Earth-Science Reviews details. As we spotted on Boing Boing, geoscientists from Williams College in Massachusetts found that the storms had an enormous influence on the remote, uninhabited coast of western Ireland—one that shows the sheer power of ocean waves in a whole new light.

The rugged terrain of Ireland’s western coast includes gigantic ocean boulders located just off a coastline protected by high, steep cliffs. These massive rocks can weigh hundreds of tons, but a strong-enough wave can dislodge them, hurling them out of the ocean entirely. In some cases, these boulders are now located more than 950 feet inland. Though previous research has hypothesized that it often takes tsunami-strength waves to move such heavy rocks onto land, this study finds that the severe storms of the 2013-2014 season were more than capable.

Studying boulder deposits in Ireland’s County Mayo and County Clare, the Williams College team recorded two massive boulders—one weighing around 680 tons and one weighing about 520 tons—moving significantly during that winter, shifting more than 11 and 13 feet, respectively. That may not sound like a significant distance at first glance, but for some perspective, consider that a blue whale weighs about 150 tons. The larger of these two boulders weighs more than four blue whales.

Smaller boulders (relatively speaking) traveled much farther. The biggest boulder movement they observed was more than 310 feet—for a boulder that weighed more than 44 tons.

These boulder deposits "represent the inland transfer of extraordinary wave energies," the researchers write. "[Because they] record the highest energy coastal processes, they are key elements in trying to model and forecast interactions between waves and coasts." Those models are becoming more important as climate change increases the frequency and severity of storms.

[h/t Boing Boing]

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