FDA approves trials of drug ‘ecstasy’ for treatment of PTSD

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has given the go-ahead to the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) to conduct clinical trials of the drug methlyenedioxymethamphetamine — better known as MDMA, or ‘ecstasy’ — for use in the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

The FDA granted Breakthrough Therapy Designation status to MDMA because preliminary clinical evidence shows that “this treatment may have a meaningful advantage and greater compliance over available medications for PTSD,” a MAPS statement said, as reported by Forbes.

MAPS is a non-profit organization that has spent about 30 years investigating the medical uses of MDMA. Researchers found the drug helps PTSD sufferers better cope with their residual trauma by, in part, producing feelings of intense happiness and empathy — emotions that are often inaccessible to someone afflicted with PTSD.

According to MAPS, it has agreed with the FDA under a special protocol for the design of two Phase 3 trials for MDMA-assisted psychotherapy for patients with severe PTSD.

“For the first time ever, psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy will be evaluated in Phase 3 trials for possible prescription use, with MDMA-assisted psychotherapy for PTSD leading the way,” said MAPS founder and executive director Rick Doblin, in a statement, as reported by Forbes. “Now that we have agreement with FDA, we are ready to start negotiations with the European Medicines Agency.”

The Phase 3 trials, which will be randomized and placebo-controlled, will test the safety and efficacy of MDMA-assisted psychotherapy for a group of 200 to 300 participants with PTSD at sites in the U.S., Canada, and Israel.

Trials could start as early as next spring if MAPS can raise the estimated $25 million required to conduct them.

NONE SCI Science

Record-size ‘sea dragon’ rediscovered in museum collection

As paleontologist Dean Lomax of the University of Manchester in the UK said on confirming that a fossil on display at a museum in Hanover, Germany, was the largest Ichthyosaurus, or ‘sea dragon,’ ever found: “You don’t necessarily have to go out in the field to make a new discovery.”

The fossil was first spotted at the Hanover museum by paleontologist Sven Sachs, according to BBC News. He then got in touch with Lomax, who is an expert on Ichthyosaurs.

The reptile, dating to the Jurassic period, belongs to the species Ichthyosaurus somersetensis — named after England’s southwest county of Somerset where many remains of the ancient marine creatures have been discovered. It was unearthed in the 1990s at Doniford Bay, Somerset, and ultimately ended up in the Lower Saxony State Museum in Hanover.

The record-breaking specimen, which measures more than 11 feet (3.5 meters) long, is of a remarkably well-preserved female Ichthyosaur that is not only remarkably well-preserved, but also contains the remains of a developing fetus.

“It amazes me that specimens such as this can still be ‘rediscovered’ in museum collections,” said Lomax, in a statement, as reported by Gizmodo. “You don’t necessarily have to go out in the field to make a new discovery. This specimen provides new insight into the size range of the species, but also records only the third example of an Ichthyosaurus known with an embryo. That’s special.”

Ichthyosaurs were dolphin-like marine reptiles that died out about 90 million years ago. Not true dinosaurs, they roamed the planet long before the emergence of their more ferocious cousins and, like mammals, gave birth to live young.

The study is published in the journal Acta Paleontologica Polonica.


Mars rover finds more evidence that Mars was habitable

Mars was even more life-sustaining than researchers had thought, a team of Canadian scientists concluded based on new data from NASA’s Mars Curiosity rover. In a study published in the latest edition of Journal of Geophysical Research, the scientists reported finding signs of life-sustaining minerals and geothermal activity—i.e., water warm enough to sustain microbes—in the rover’s analyses of Martian rock.

‘We’ve found all sorts of things that people thought were impossible for a boring, basalt planet,” said Jeff Berger, a University of Guelph geologist and lead author of the study.

Curiosity has a Canadian-built spectrometer device that inspects rocks and identifies what elements they contain. Berger and colleagues examined data from the spectrometer and determined that it had found heavy concentrations of zinc and germanium in the Gale Crater, where Curiosity has been exploring since landing on the planet in 2012.

These zinc and germanium concentrations are so heavy that the scientists are convinced they could only have come about from movement of heated water—like the heated vents on Earth’s ocean floor. Earth’s deep-ocean vents teem with microbial life, and Berger suggests Mars’ hot underwater currents could have enabled the rise of microbes, as well.
“Hydrothermal sites are one of the top five and even top two targets for exploring Mars and finding evidence of ancient microbial life,” said Berger. “Those are sites on Earth where we think that life probably started.”
Curiosity is now traveling toward Mount Sharp, which is at the center of the crater. This site will be the rover’s final target site, according to the researchers, who said that they will continue to monitor the zinc and germanium in the rocks along the way.


NASA using Morse Code and old-fashioned mechanics to make a rover that could survive Venus

Today’s spacecraft can withstand some brutal environments in outer space, but Venus has all of them beat—no robotic mission has survived more than three hours in the planet’s extreme heat, air pressure, and acidity. NASA is accordingly considering an extreme new design approach for its next Venus mission, one that incorporates elements of both World War I-era tanks and nineteenth-century computational devices while having no visible resemblance to any twenty-first-century space vehicle ever launched.

NASA calls its new concept Venus explorer the Automaton Rover for Extreme Environments, or AREE, and is funding a study of its workability under the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts program.

It has retro tank-like treads and no exterior electronics, only gears and levers. The electronics-free surface gives it the look of nineteenth-century “clockwork” computational devices that made calculations with moving cogs instead of electronic circuits. But it aims to a present-day problem: Venus’ atmosphere, which fries any electronic devices that enter it.

“Venus is too inhospitable for kind of complex control systems you have on a Mars rover,” said Jonathan Sauder, who first proposed the new design concept in 2015. “But with a fully mechanical rover, you might be able to survive as long as a year.”

Radio transmissions are also extremely difficult from Venus’ surface, but AREE’s engineers hope to work around it using the twentieth-century communications relic Morse code. The rover will flash radar signals at an orbiting satellite, which will translate them for human researchers back on Earth.

The Soviet Union’s Venera robot missions attempted numerous landings on Venus from the 1960s until the early 1980s, but the majority suffered fatal system breakdowns before they could transmit any data. The last two, Venera 13 and 14, touched down in 1982 and lasted for about an hour, during which they conveyed the first-ever color photographs of Venus.


African space programs making rapid growth

As many African nations look for ways to boost economic development, a few have found a potential catalyst for it in the development of new space programs. Space-satellite launches and construction of new space-research facilities are under way around the continent, with organized planning in the works for future launches of the first-ever human missions out of Africa.
“In general, African countries accept that developing technology drives growth and that space is a great area for technology development. It’s accepted as a new market we can still get into,” said Carla Sharpe, business manager for the Square Kilometre Array.

The Square Kilometre Array is a telescope that will be constructed in South Africa. It will be the world’s largest radio telescope, if completed, and will offer the world’s astronomer community a new vantage point in the southern hemisphere for viewing the center of the Milky Way galaxy.

South Africa, Nigeria, Egypt, Ethiopia, Algeria, and Zambia have all had national space programs for the past decade or longer. Ghana and Kenya launched their own in the last few years.
Ghana sent its first-ever satellite into orbit this year, while Nigeria already has already launched five satellites into space and has been using them to improve agricultural practices, monitor global climate patterns, and aid defense and security. Nigerian officials used their satellites’ data to find Boko Haram hostages last year.

Ethiopia plans to launch a satellite in the next three to five years and use it to track the weather. The country opened a multi-million-dollar space-research facility, the Entoto Observatory and Research Center, near its capital last year.


HIV status of thousands inadvertently revealed by Aetna

Health care giant Aetna mailed letters to thousands of customers in a number of states that revealed their HIV status through windows on the envelopes. According to Aetna, the letters were sent to some 12,000 customers.

Now, the Legal Action Center in New York and the AIDS Law Project of Pennsylvania have become involved, saying in a statement they have been contacted by a number of people “demanding the health insurer Aetna immediately stop a practice they say violates federal and state privacy laws and exposes them to potential discrimination.”

“Aetna’s privacy violation devastated people whose neighbors and family learned their intimate health information,” said Sally Friedman, Legal Director of the Legal Action Center in New York City, in the statement. “They also were shocked that their health insurer would utterly disregard their privacy rights.”

Ronda B. Goldfein, Executive Director of the AIDS Law Project of Pennsylvania, is working with Friedman to coordinate efforts of attorneys with eight organizations to address the problem and notes Aetna’s mistake by disclosing customers’ HIV status is much more than a legal technicality.

“It creates a tangible risk of violence, discrimination and other trauma,” Goldfein said.

Revealing customers’ HIV status also can make people reluctant to seek health care, Friedman said.

“People with HIV need to feel they can seek medical help without their private information being illegally shared with neighbors, family, etc.,” observed Friedman, in a report by CNN. “So when an insurance company breaches confidentiality in this fashion, it can deter people from getting health care.”

Aetna has issued an apology as well as a promise to undertake a complete review of company procedures “to ensure something like this never happens again.”

NONE NWT_Biology NWT_Earth SCI Science TECH

Ancient Babylonian tablet contains oldest use of trigonometry

After spending two years analyzing a mysterious 3,700-year-old Babylonian clay tablet, researchers have concluded that it holds the oldest evidence ever found of a trigonometric table.

The study is published in the journal Historia Mathematica.

The tablet, dubbed Plimpton 322, was discovered in the early 1900s in what is now Iraq and suggests the Babylonians beat Greek astronomer Hipparchus of Nicaea (120-190 BCE) — previously thought to have invented trigonometry — by more a millennium.

Trigonometry is the study of the relationships between the angles and sides of triangles.

After the tablet was first discovered, an American antiquities buff named Edgar Banks bought it from a dealer. Banks worked as the American consul in Baghdad, but also was an amateur archaeologist who is believed to have inspired the famous film character Indiana Jones, a report by Live Science said.

Banks sensed the importance of the tablet and eventually sold it to New York publisher George Arthur Plimpton, with whom it remained until Plimpton’s death in 1936. It was then donated to Columbia University, where it still resides.

Prior to the new analysis, researchers had determined that the notations on the tablet displayed a particular numerical pattern of three positive integers, called Pythagorean triples.

Because Babylonian mathematicians used a numerical system based on 60 instead of 10, the researchers used the 60-based system to show how the ancient scribes would have calculated the numbers pressed into the clay.

“The huge mystery, until now, was its purpose — why the ancient scribes carried out the complex task of generating and sorting the numbers on the tablet,” said co-author Daniel Mansfield said, in the Live Science report.

Using information from missing pieces of the tablet that had been reconstructed by other researchers, Mansfield and his colleague, mathematician Norman Wildberger, found that the original six columns of figures on the tablet represented a different type of trigonometry that used ratios rather than angles and circles.

“The tablet not only contains the world’s oldest trigonometric table; it is also the only completely accurate trigonometric table, because of the very different Babylonian approach to arithmetic and geometry,” Mansfield said.

NONE SCI Science

Extinct dodo bird’s secrets revealed by bone study

Scientists studying the bones of the extinct dodo bird are revealing long-held secrets of its biology and behavior, including when it molted, when it reached adulthood, and when it laid eggs.

The dodo, which was native to the island of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean, was driven to extinction during the 1600s after Dutch sailors arrived on the island. Habitat destruction, competition for food, and hunting by the settlers and the animals they brought with them all contributed to their demise.

One puzzling aspect seen in 17th century reports about the dodo is how contemporary descriptions of the bird vary significantly. For example, some said dodos were covered in soft downy feathers, while others described it with gray or black plumage. Now, researchers can explain the discrepancies.

The study is published in the journal Scientific Reports.

“It was usually believed that the descriptions are different because they were wrong,” said first author Delphine Angst, a paleontologist from the University of Cape Town in South Africa, in a report by The Guardian. “But the descriptions are not wrong. Actually they describe the dodo in different states of moulting.”

The scientists examined thin cross-sections of 22 leg and wing bones believed to be from 22 different dodos.

Among their other findings, the researchers learned that dodo bones have three layers of tissue — just like modern birds. They also were able to distinguish between juvenile and adult bones, could see the slow way bone tissue developed as the young birds reached sexual maturity, and determined the times of year the dodos molted or ovulated.

Dodo chicks probably reached full size by November before cold weather set in, molted between March and July, and ovulated in early August, Angst says.


Diamonds in the sky on Neptune and Uranus

According to scientists’ calculations, the pressure beneath the surfaces of the icy gas giants Uranus and Neptune is so powerful that tightly packed carbon atoms form diamonds, which rain through the interior of the planet towards its solid core. But nobody has actually seen the phenomenon — until now, that is.

In a study published in the journal Nature Astrophysics, an international team of researchers describe recreating this diamond rain in the laboratory.

Using the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory at Stanford University in California, the team led by Dominik Kraus from the Helmholtz Zentrum Dresden-Rossendorf Research Center subjected the plastic polystyrene to shockwaves produced by SLAC’s X-ray free-electron laser, known as the Linac Coherent Light Source. And presto! Nearly all the carbon atoms in the polystyrene combined into tiny diamond-like structures.

“Previously, researchers could only assume that the diamonds had formed,” said lead author Kraus, in a report by Cosmos. “When I saw the results of the experiment, it was one of the best moments of my scientific career.”

While the diamonds raining down inside Neptune and Uranus could weigh gazillions of carats, the gems created by Kraus’s team were ephemeral —lasting a fraction of a second — and only a few nanometers in diameter.

Being able to create diamonds in the laboratory has uses that go beyond planetary science.

According to co-author Dirk Gericke from the University of Warwick, the new technique could be used to make diamonds for industrial applications, such as polishing.

“There is a need to actually create artificial diamonds, even small ones, and the technique now is by explosives,” said Gericke, in a report by The Guardian. “The question is can you make the same thing by lasers, a little bit more efficiently.”


Starshades could enable direct imaging of exoplanets

As a means of enabling direct imaging of exoplanets, scientists are exploring the use of starshades, spacecraft that would block the light of a star, creating an artificial eclipse and allowing a second spacecraft equipped with a telescope to directly observe orbiting planets.

A majority of the 3,500 exoplanets discovered have only been indirectly observed. Potential Earth-like planets in stars’ habitable zones cannot be directly detected because of the glare of their host stars, which can be up to 10 billion times brighter than the planets themselves.

In order to successfully image an Earth-sized planet, a starshade would have to have a diameter of tens of meters placed several Earth diameters apart from the telescope. Both would have to be deployed beyond Earth’s orbit.

“With indirect measurements, you can detect objects near a star and figure out their orbit period and distance from the star,” explained Simone D’Amico of Stanford University, who serves as director of the university’s Space Rendezvous Laboratory.

“This is all important, but with direct observation, you could characterize the chemical composition of the planet and potentially observe signs of biological activity–life.”

To illustrate the benefit of this technology, D’Amico, and colleague Bruce MacIntosh has created a smaller version of these objects, hoping to showcase them to scientists in a low-cost flight demonstration.

They labeled the system, which includes a three-meter-diameter starshade and a 10-cm-diameter telescope, both of which sit on separate 10-kg tiny satellites, as mDOT, which stands for miniaturized distributed occulter/telescope.

The starshade will be folded at launch, then open up while in Earth orbit. Both it and the telescope will be placed in high-Earth orbit separated by less than 1,000 km.

Although the test starshade will not be powerful enough to directly image Earth-like exoplanets, it may be capable of observing planets the size of Jupiter.

Still in development, the test system would cost several million dollars, in contrast to several billion for the actual spacecraft.

MDOt is one of the several projects that involve multiple spacecraft flying in formation now under development at the Space Rendezvous Laboratory.