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Science news digest – 22nd July 2013

In the science news this week, a knife that can smell cancer, scientists turn off the chromosome that causes Down’s syndrome, bright lights make people more honest, and finally... how exactly do astronauts wash their hair?

Cancer-smelling knife could reduce spread of leftover cancer

Surgeons often struggle to tell how much tissue to remove when trying to excise a tumour, but an invention from researchers at Imperial College London could significantly reduce the number of repeat operations. The iKnife detects cancerous cells as it cuts through flesh, notifying the surgeon when they have removed enough tissue.

In a study published in the journal Science Transitional Medicine, Dr Zoltan Takats reports that the knife has been used to analyse samples from 302 patients. Lord Darzi, Professor of Surgery at Imperial College London, who co-authored the study, said: “In cancer surgery, you want to take out as little healthy tissue as possible, but you have to ensure that you remove all of the cancer. There is a real need for technology that can help the surgeon determine which tissue to cut out and which to leave in. This study shows that the iKnife has the potential to do this, and the impact on cancer surgery could be enormous.”

Electrosurgical knives use electricity to heat and cut through tissue, giving off smoke. The iKnife vacuums this smoke into a mass spectrometer to analyse the contents and determine whether the cells are cancerous. The system effectively smells the burnt flesh at the cutting site and analyses the airborne particles in less than three seconds, reports Wired.

The knife was then used in the operating theatre to perform real surgeries, and although surgeons were unable to see the readings during the operation, the tissue identified by the iKnife matched the traditional post-surgery diagnosis. The knife could reduce the cancerous tissue left behind after surgery, decreasing the likelihood of further spreading.

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Scientists turn off extra chromosome in first step towards Down’s syndrome treatment

Researchers at the University of Massachusetts have deactivated the extra chromosome that causes Down’s syndrome, according to The Independent. The scientists took cells from people with the syndrome and silenced the chromosome, raising the prospect of future treatment.

“This will accelerate our understanding of the cellular defects in Down's syndrome and whether they can be treated with certain drugs,” Jeanne Lawrence, who led the team, told The Guardian.

“The long-range possibility – and it's an uncertain possibility – is a chromosome therapy for Down's syndrome. But that is 10 years or more away. I don't want to get people's hopes up.”

Healthy people are born with 23 pairs of chromosomes, and people with Down’s syndrome have an extra copy of chromosome number 21. This causes developmental issues such as learning difficulties and heart defects, and the disorder occurs in roughly one per thousand births. The researchers managed to insert a genetic switch called XIST into the extra chromosome, preventing it from being activated.

“Although development of any clinical gene therapy is a multi-step process, any prospect requires that the first step, functional correction of the underlying genetic defect in living cells, is achievable. We have demonstrated that this step is no longer insurmountable for chromosomal imbalance in Down's syndrome,” the researchers concluded.

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Bright lights may increase honesty and lead people to be charitable

A study undertaken at National Sun Yat-sen University in Taiwan suggests that a brightly lit room makes people more generous, honest and ethical. Researchers found that subjects donated more to a stranger when standing in a bright room, and were more likely to be honest about receiving too much money.

In one experiment, men and women were told they were playing a game in which they should share money with a stranger in the next room. People who stood in a brightly lit room gave 15 per cent more than those in a moderately lit room, and 30 per cent more than those in a dimly lit room, according to The Independent.

“We provide the first experimental evidence showing that brightness appears to heighten the salience of morality to the individual, thereby leading people to perform ethical deeds,” say the researchers. “We suggest that brightness may enhance the self-importance of morality and thereby increase ethical behaviour.”

The study, published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology, also tested the honesty of participants by overpaying them, and then prompting each participant to check their payment and confirm that it was correct. The researchers found that 85.2 per cent of participants in the brightly-lit room were honest and returned the extra money, and only 51.9 per cent returned it in the dimly-lit room.

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And finally…

How astronauts wash their hair in space

Without gravity, water doesn’t run and wet hair doesn’t drip. So how do astronauts manage to wash their hair in space? Karen Nyberg demonstrates her technique aboard the International Space Station, starting with a small amount of water at the roots, and some leave-in shampoo. The whole process is captivating, so have a look at this link provided by The Guardian.

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