New Cancer Treatment “Remembers” Tumors and Won’t Let Them Regrow

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Researchers have found a way to train the immune system to eradicate cancer cells and “remember” them in case they try to return. A report of the technique was published today in the journal Science Immunology.

Cancer is a stealthy invader. Rather than facing the body’s defenses head-on, it manipulates the sentries of our immune system, shutting them down or even turning them against us.

One commonly hijacked sentry is called the CD4+ T regulatory (Treg) cell. When they’ve been bamboozled by cancer, Treg cells tell our defenses to leave tumors alone. So if we could find a way to shut those Treg cells up, our immune systems would, theoretically, treat cancer like the intruder it is. The problem is that Treg cells are themselves kind of slippery and hard to target with drugs.

One possible way in is a molecule called LAP, which has previously been linked to worse outcomes for people with cancer.

To learn more, researchers examined interactions between Treg cells and LAP in mice with melanoma, colon cancer, and brain cancer. They found that zapping the molecule with special anti-LAP antibodies did the trick, effectively shutting the hijacked cells down so the immune system could do its work. Mice treated with these antibodies had lower levels of Treg cells and cancer cells.

Better yet, when the researchers mixed the anti-LAP antibodies with tumor vaccines, they discovered that tumors wouldn’t grow, even in mice exposed to cancer-causing proteins. The effects of this cocktail lasted for months.

Best of all, the treatment seemed to create “memories” of the tumors in the rodents’ immune systems, enabling them to recognize cancer cells more quickly and prevent relapse.

Before you get too excited, we should mention a few things about these experiments. First, as we’ve said before and will say again, mice are not people. Second, the treatments were tested under the mice’s skin, not in the places where these tumors would naturally grow.

Still, the researchers say, the anti-LAP molecules are a good step, and they are eager to explore them further.

This 'Time-Traveling Illusion' Is Designed to Trick Your Brain

A team of researchers from the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) have designed an illusion that might trick your brain into seeing things that aren’t there, the New Atlas reports.

Dubbed the Illusory Rabbit, it provides instructions that are simple enough to follow. Start playing the YouTube video below and look at the cross in the middle of the screen while also watching for flashes that appear at the bottom of the screen. Most importantly, you’ll want to add up the number of flashes you see throughout the video. (And make sure your volume is up.)

We don’t want to spoil the fun, so before we explain the science of how it works, check out the video and try it for yourself.

Did you see three flashes paired with three beeps? You’re not alone. This is due to a phenomenon called postdiction, which is a little like the opposite of prediction. According to a paper outlining these findings in the journal PLOS ONE, postdiction occurs when the brain processes information retroactively [PDF]. This occurs in such a way that our perception of earlier events is altered by stimuli that come later. In this case, you might think you missed the flash paired with the second of the three beeps, so your mind goes back and tries to make sense of the missing information. That's why you may see an “illusory flash” in the middle of the screen, sandwiched between the two real flashes.

For this reason, the researchers call the mind trick a “time-traveling illusion across multiple senses” (in this case, vision and hearing). It’s successful because the beeps and flashes occur so rapidly—in less than one-fifth of a second. The senses essentially get confused, and the brain tries to fill in the gaps retroactively.

"Illusions are a really interesting window into the brain," the paper’s first author, Noelle Stiles, said in a statement. "By investigating illusions, we can study the brain's decision-making process.” Researchers wanted to find out how the brain “determines reality” when a couple of your senses (in this case, sight and hearing) are bombarded with noisy and conflicting information. When the brain isn’t sure of what’s going on, it essentially makes up information.

“The brain uses assumptions about the environment to solve this problem,” Stiles said. “When these assumptions happen to be wrong, illusions can occur as the brain tries to make the best sense of a confusing situation. We can use these illusions to unveil the underlying inferences that the brain makes."

[h/t New Atlas]

How Did 6 Feet Become the Standard Grave Depth?

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It all started with the plague: The origins of “six feet under” come from a 1665 outbreak in England. As the disease swept the country, the mayor of London literally laid down the law about how to deal with the bodies to avoid further infections. Among his specifications—made in “Orders Conceived and Published by the Lord Mayor and Aldermen of the City of London, Concerning the Infection of the Plague”—was that “all the graves shall be at least six feet deep.”

The law eventually fell out of favor both in England and its colonies. Modern American burial laws vary from state to state, though many states simply require a minimum of 18 inches of soil on top of the casket or burial vault (or two feet of soil if the body is not enclosed in anything). Given an 18-inch dirt buffer and the height of the average casket (which appears to be approximately 30 inches), a grave as shallow as four feet would be fine.

A typical modern burial involves a body pumped full of chemical preservatives sealed inside a sturdy metal casket, which is itself sealed inside a steel or cement burial vault. It’s less of a hospitable environment for microbes than the grave used to be. For untypical burials, though—where the body isn’t embalmed, a vault isn’t used, or the casket is wood instead of metal or is foregone entirely—even these less strict burial standards provide a measure of safety and comfort. Without any protection, and subjected to a few years of soil erosion, the bones of the dearly departed could inconveniently and unexpectedly surface or get too close to the living, scaring people and acting as disease vectors. The minimum depth helps keep the dead down where they belong.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

This article originally appeared in 2012.

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