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Science news digest – 3rd April 2013

In the science news this week, pesticides are damaging the brains of bees, Italian hospital continues its stem cell research, there’s yet another twist in the story of Henrietta Lacks, and finally… termites are to blame for ‘fairy circles’.

Neonicotinoid pesticides may cause brain damage to bees

Commonly used pesticides may be damaging the brains of honey bees, scientists have suggested. Two studies published last week have found that two types of chemicals, called neonicotinoids and coumaphos, are interfering with the insects’ ability to learn and remember, reported the BBC.

However, a company that produces the pesticides have claimed that these laboratory-based studies do not always apply to bees in the wild.

And a report from Defra’s Food and Environment Research Agency (Fera) has also said that there is no link between a bee’s health and its exposure to neonicotinoids.

The researchers looked at two common pesticides – neonicotinoids, which are used to control pests on oil seed rape and other crops, and coumaphos, a type of organophosphate chemical, which is used to kill the varroa mite, a parasite that attacks honey bees.

Work from the University of Dundee found that if the pesticides were applied directly to the brains of the bees, then they caused a loss of brain activity.

Dr Christopher Connolly said: "We found neonicotinoids cause an immediate hyper-activation - so an epileptic type activity - this was proceeded by neuronal inactivation, where the brain goes quiet and cannot communicate any more. The same effects occur when we used organophosphates.

"And if we used them together, the effect was additive, so they added to the toxicity: the effect was greater when both were present."

Another group of researchers at Newcastle University found that bees that were exposed to the pesticides were unable to remember the floral smells associated with a sweet nectar reward – an essential skill for bees to be able to find food and pollinate plants.

Dr Sally Williamson said: "It would imply that the bees are able to forage less effectively, they are less able to find and learn and remember and then communicate to their hive mates what the good sources of pollen and nectar are.

"At the moment, the initial tests for bee toxicity are giving the bees an acute dose and then watching them to see if they die.

"But because bees do these complex learning tasks, they are very social animals and they have a complex behavioural repertoire, they don't need to be killed outright in order not to be affected."

But Dr Julian Little, the communications and government affairs manager at Bayer Crop Science Limited, which produces some of the pesticides, warned against taking these laboratory-based results and applying them directly to the field.

"If you take an insecticide and you give it directly to an insect, I can guarantee that you will have an effect - I am not at all surprised that this is what you will see," he explained.

"What is really important is seeing what happens in real situations - in real fields, in real bee colonies, in real bee hives, with real bee keepers."

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Italy continues with controversial stem cell treatments

Italian health officials have allowed the Stamina Foundation to continue treating a number of patients at the public hospital Spedali Civili of Brescia with stem cell therapy, despite protests from scientists that the treatments are unproven and unsafe, reported New Scientist.

The treatments have been given to people with a range of degenerative diseases. The Stamina Foundation have been using mesenchymal stem cells, derived from bone marrow, which can become mature bone and connective tissue.

In 2011 the hospital agreed to host the research and assist with the cell extraction and treatments, causing a number of protests from members of the medical community.

Michele de Luca, the director and gene therapy programme coordinator at the Centre for Regenerative Medicine in Modena, said: “The hospital is not even listed among the 13 Italian authorised stem cell factories.”

The Italian drug regulator, AIFA, inspected the hospital in 2012 and ordered an immediate halt to the treatments. The AIFA report said that the Stamina Foundation’s treatment did not follow the country’s official route for clinical approval, and so far there have been no scientific publications on the treatment or its effectiveness.

However, the report was met with strong opposition from patients’ families who believe the treatment is working.

This led to the courts approving the treatment for the patients who had already started the treatment at the hospital, unless they were experiencing serious side effects.

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Yet another twist in the story of Henrietta Lacks

Henrietta Lacks died of cervical cancer aged 31 in 1951, a horribly sad but not uncommon story. She was a poor black tobacco farmer living in America, at a time when black people had little or no rights, and this included in medical research.

What is so astonishing about Lacks’ story is that before she died, her doctors took some cancer cells from her, without her consent, and they were used for ongoing cancer research, long after she had died.

Her story was the basis of the bestselling book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, published in 2011, and revealed the important role that Lacks’ cells had played in modern cancer research – including being the foundation for two Nobel prizes.

However, Lacks and her family were never informed that her living cells were being used by researchers around the world, or of the profits being made by giant corporations as they used the HeLa cells, as they are known in the medical research community. Her family were even asked to provide blood samples two decades after Lacks’ death, and her children’s medical records were studied and published, again without their knowledge.

Following the publication of the book, written by Rebecca Skloot, Lacks’ contribution to medical science has now been recognised.

However, it would now seem that history is repeating itself, as a group of scientists from the European Molecular Biology Laboratory in Heidelberg have recently published the entire genetic sequence of a HeLa cell, reported the Observer.

Surprisingly, they failed to tell the Lacks family about their intentions to do so, let alone ask them their permission.

Rebecca Skloot, author of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, was outraged.

“The publication of the HeLa genome without consent isn't an example of a few researchers making a mistake. The whole system allowed it. Everyone involved followed standard practices. They presented their research at conferences and in a peer-reviewed journal. No one raised questions about consent," she wrote in a column in the New York Times.

The scientists at EMBL insisted that the genome sequence couldn’t be used to make any sensitive medical conclusions about Lacks or her living family members, but one researcher told Skloot that that was exactly what they were able to do, having downloaded the genome and provided proof of their deductions to Skloot confidentially. This led to the EMBL revising their publication, removing the full details of the genome, and apologising for their actions.

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And finally…

Termites are responsible for mysterious ‘fairy circles’

The strange rings that cover the grassy lands in southwestern Africa, known as fairy circles, have been a mystery until now, claims one researcher.

Norbert Juergens, from the University of Hamburg believes that the circles can be explained by the presence of sand termites, who have engineered the rings in order to maintain a supply of water in their environment.

By clearing a patch of ground by eating the roots of the grass, water becomes trapped just below the surface, reported the BBC.

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