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Nicole Steinmetz
Nicole Steinmetz

Plant Virus Shows Potential as a Cancer Treatment

Nicole Steinmetz
Nicole Steinmetz

The cowpea mosaic virus (CPMV) is made up of a potent center covered by a thin coating. The outer shell is harmless, but not useless: Researchers at Case Western Reserve University and Dartmouth University have found that exposure to tiny pieces of CPMV shell can prompt the immune system to begin attacking tumors.

The cowpea, also known as the black-eyed pea, is a bean-like plant that grows in Africa, Asia, Europe, and South America. Cowpeas infected with CPMV develop a patchy pattern on their leaves (hence the name). The virus only infects plants, so we’re safe, even when we get up close and personal with virus particles. 

Our immune systems are pretty good at nipping cancerous cells in the bud. But as tumors get larger, they can effectively shut off a person’s immune system, which allows cancer to continue to grow and spread. Researchers were looking for a way to give the immune system a good poke and startle it into working again. 

As it turns out, CPMV shells do this pretty well. "The cowpea virus-based nanoparticles act like a switch that turns on the immune system to recognize and fight against the tumor—as well as to remember it," said Nicole Steinmetz, assistant professor of biomedical engineering at Case Western Reserve and the study's co-author, in a press release.

Steinmetz and her colleagues administered microscopic shell particles to mice with lung cancer and melanoma. The treatment prompted an incredibly successful immune response, and several of the mice were declared cancer-free. 

The research team also applied CPMV shell particles to tumors in breast, ovarian, and colon tissue. Again, the reactivated immune response destroyed the tumors. It also was able to prevent metastasis—the spreading of tumors throughout the body.

"The particles are shockingly potent," added co-author Steven Fiering, a professor of microbiology and immunology at Dartmouth's Geisel School of Medicine. "They're easy to make and don't need to carry antigens, drugs, or other immunostimulatory agents on their surface or inside."

The treatment seems incredibly effective, and the side effects are minimal. This is not the case with most cancer treatments, which can often be as grueling for patients as the disease itself. 

The researchers published their findings in the journal Nature Nanotechnology. Their next steps will include trying to figure out just why and how the CPMV shells are so effective.

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science
New Patient Test Could Suggest Whether Therapy or Meds Will Work Better for Anxiety
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Like many psychological disorders, there's no one-size-fits-all treatment for patients with anxiety. Some might benefit from taking antidepressants, which boost mood-affecting brain chemicals called neurotransmitters. Others might respond better to therapy, and particularly a form called cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT.

Figuring out which form of treatment works best often requires months of trial and error. But experts may have developed a quick clinical test to expedite this process, suggests a new study published in the journal Neuropsychopharmacology.

Researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago have noted that patients with higher levels of anxiety exhibit more electrical activity in their brains when they make a mistake. They call this phenomenon error-related negativity, or ERN, and measure it using electroencephalography (EEG), a test that records the brain's electric signals.

“People with anxiety disorders tend to show an exaggerated neural response to their own mistakes,” the paper’s lead author, UIC psychiatrist Stephanie Gorka, said in a news release. “This is a biological internal alarm that tells you that you've made a mistake and that you should modify your behavior to prevent making the same mistake again. It is useful in helping people adapt, but for those with anxiety, this alarm is much, much louder.”

Gorka and her colleagues wanted to know whether individual differences in ERN could predict treatment outcomes, so they recruited 60 adult volunteers with various types of anxiety disorders. Also involved was a control group of 26 participants with no history of psychological disorders.

Psychiatrists gauged subjects’ baseline ERN levels by having them wear an EEG cap while performing tricky computer tasks. Ultimately, they all made mistakes thanks to the game's challenging nature. Then, randomized subjects with anxiety disorders were instructed to take an SSRI antidepressant every day for three months, or receive weekly cognitive behavioral therapy for the same duration. (Cognitive behavioral therapy is a type of evidence-based talk therapy that forces patients to challenge maladaptive thoughts and develop coping mechanisms to modify their emotions and behavior.)

After three months, the study's patients took the same computer test while wearing EEG caps. Researchers found that those who'd exhibited higher ERN levels at the study's beginning had reduced anxiety levels if they'd been treated with CBT compared to those treated with medication. This might be because the structured form of therapy is all about changing behavior: Those with enhanced ERN might be more receptive to CBT than other patients, as they're already preoccupied with the way they act.

EEG equipment sounds high-tech, but it's relatively cheap and easy to access. Thanks to its availability, UIC psychiatrists think their anxiety test could easily be used in doctors’ offices to measure ERN before determining a course of treatment.

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Food
A Pitless Avocado Wants to Keep You Safe From the Dreaded 'Avocado Hand'
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The humble avocado is a deceptively dangerous fruit. Some emergency room doctors have recently reported an uptick in a certain kind of injury—“avocado hand,” a knife injury caused by clumsily trying to get the pit out of an avocado with a knife. There are ways to safely pit an avocado (including the ones likely taught in your local knife skills class, or simply using a spoon), but there’s also another option. You could just buy one that doesn’t have a pit at all, as The Telegraph reports.

British retailer Marks & Spencer has started selling cocktail avocados, a skinny, almost zucchini-like type of avocado that doesn’t have a seed inside. Grown in Spain, they’re hard to find in stores (Marks & Spencer seems to be the only place in the UK to have them), and are only available during the month of December.

The avocados aren’t genetically modified, according to The Independent. They grow naturally from an unpollinated avocado blossom, and their growth is stunted by the lack of seed. Though you may not be able to find them in your local grocery, these “avocaditos” can grow wherever regular-sized Fuerte avocados grow, including Mexico and California, and some specialty producers already sell them in the U.S. Despite the elongated shape, they taste pretty much like any other avocado. But you don’t really need a knife to eat them, since the skin is edible, too.

If you insist on taking your life in your hand and pitting your own full-sized avocado, click here to let us guide you through the process. No one wants to go to the ER over a salad topping, no matter how delicious. Safety first!

[h/t The Telegraph]

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