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Science news digest – 26th March 2013

In the science news this week, Voyager 1 leaves the Solar System, breast cancer drug does not give value for money, argue NICE, abused women are more likely to have autistic children, and finally… what is Britain’s greatest innovation?

Voyager 1 leaves the Solar System…probably

Launched in September 1977, the Voyager 1 probe is the furthest reaching human made object ever built. It has travelled more than 18 billion km from the Earth, the equivalent to travelling to the Sun from Earth 123 times.

However, in recent years the readings sent back from the probe have changed. This is because the probe has entered the fringes of our Solar System, known as the heliopause.

The probe has been detecting a rise in cosmic rays from interstellar space and a decrease in energetic particles from behind, from our Sun. The biggest change was noticed on 25 August last year when the probe appeared to reach some sort of “heliocliff”, reported the BBC.

"Within just a few days, the heliospheric intensity of trapped radiation decreased, and the cosmic ray intensity went up as you would expect if it exited the heliosphere," explained Prof Bill Webber from New Mexico State University in Las Cruces.

However, a statement from NASA explained that although the probe could well have left the Solar System, not everyone working on the project agreed with this assessment, and further long-term data was needed to confirm it.

“It's outside the normal heliosphere, I would say that," said Prof Webber. "We're in a new region. And everything we're measuring is different and exciting."

Voyager 1, and its sister craft Voyager 2, were launched in the late seventies to study the outer planets of our Solar System – Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune – a task they completed just over a decade later in 1989.

Both have now been set on a course out into interstellar space, and there are still 10-15 years left of the plutonium power sources onboard both the crafts.

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Breast cancer drug doesn’t give value for money, says regulator

The National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) has said that a new drug, called everolimus, used to treat breast cancer does not provide “value for money”.

It has recommended that the drug is not made available for widespread use on the NHS as a treatment for a form of advanced breast cancer, reported the Guardian.

The drug, also known as afinitor, is licensed for use in post-menopausal women with HER2 negative, hormone-receptor-positive advanced breast cancer if their disease has returned following a type of hormone therapy.

NICE's chief executive, Sir Andrew Dillon, said: "For a treatment to be recommended by NICE, it must be shown to be cost-effective.

"That means it must work as well as, or better than, current NHS treatment, taking into account any associated side-effects and the cost that the NHS is being asked to pay.

"While the independent appraisal committee acknowledged that everolimus may offer a step change in treatment by restoring sensitivity of the tumour to hormone therapy, the evidence highlighted uncertainty relating to how much the treatment extends overall survival.

"Using the most appropriate estimates, the committee concluded that everolimus is not a cost-effective treatment option for the NHS.

"NICE has now opened a consultation on this draft guidance for everolimus and we welcome comments which will help the appraisal committee develop the guidance further."

The charity, Breakthrough Breast Cancer, has urged NICE and the manufacturers of the drug, Novartis Pharmaceuticals, to find a solution to the cost of the drug, stating that although the drug is not a cure, it does provide patients extra time that they wouldn’t otherwise have.

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Women abused as children are more likely to have autistic children

A new epidemiological study suggests that women abused in childhood are more likely to have children with autism, reported New Scientist.

Andrea Roberts from the Harvard School of Public Health suspected a link between childhood abuse and having an autistic child because women abused in their early life are more likely to smoke, suffer from gestational diabetes and have premature babies – all factors that may affect foetal brain development.

Roberts and her colleagues looked at the Nurses’ Health Study II, which includes almost 55,000 women who had answered whether they had a child with autism spectrum disorder and about their experience of abuse in childhood.

The researchers developed a scale, rating all the women for the intensity of abuse they had experienced. The team found a clear link between the intensity of abuse and the risk of having an autistic child.

"The associations get stronger as the level of abuse increases," Roberts said.

The study found that the two per cent of women who had reported the most serious childhood abuse were about 3.5 times as likely to have a child with autism as those who reported no abuse at all.

"I think it's a really interesting, innovative and well-conducted study," says Hannah Gardener at the University of Miami in Florida. "There aren't a lot of risk factors with that magnitude."

However, Gardener emphasised that autism is still a relatively rare condition, and these findings shouldn’t discourage women who have been abused from having children. Less than 1 in 50 of the women in the highest-risk group who became mothers had a child with autism.

There still needs to be further research to determine exactly what the link is – whether it is caused by environmental or epigenetic factors, for example.

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And finally…

Turing’s Universal Machine is voted the best British innovation

The theoretical “Universal Machine” proposed by Turing in the 1930s has been voted the greatest British innovation from the past 100 years in an online poll run as part of National Science & Engineering Week, reported the Telegraph.

The model that Turing developed provided the mathematical foundation that modern computing is based on.

There were more than 50,000 votes cast, and the Universal Machine won with 18 per cent of votes, narrowly beating the British Motor Corporation’s Mini with 17 per cent.

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