Scientists say they've reached a major breakthrough in cancer research, genetically engineering a patient's T cells — a type of infection-fighting white blood cell — to effectively attack cancer cells. In a small clinical trial, three patients with an advanced form of leukemia were given doses of these designer T cells, and two of them have been cancer-free for more than a year. The study was reported Wednesday in two scientific journals, and is already being heralded as a milestone because its methods could potentially be adjusted to kill a variety of cancers.

"This is a huge accomplishment — huge," the dean for clinical and translational research at Harvard Medical School tells the Los Angeles Times. The technique relies on gene therapy, which involves hijacking a virus's ability to insert DNA into the cells it infects. Scientists can engineer viruses to deliver helpful rather than harmful DNA, and over the past two decades gene therapy has showed promise in treating a wide range of diseases, including cancer. But in previous studies, these designer T cells' success was short-lived — following a brief and usually weak battle against cancer cells, they were always suppressed by the body's natural immune system. In the new study, however, the T cells multiplied a thousandfold, wiped out the cancer's malignant B cells and then matured into "memory" T cells, which remain programmed to target a specific threat in case it returns. The researchers dubbed these "serial killer" T cells because each one killed at least 1,000 cancer cells on average. 

"We knew [the therapy] could be very potent," says Dr. David Porter, a co-author of both papers, which were published in the New England Journal of Medicine and Science Translational Medicine. "But I don't think we expected it to be this dramatic on this go-around." There are side effects, namely the buildup of dead B cells — up to 2 pounds in one case — that can clog the kidney and liver. "It was serious," one of the researchers tells the Philadelphia Inquirer. "But it was something we had anticipated as a possible side effect and we were prepared for it." The cancer's defeat ended up overshadowing that temporary problem, and now the researchers say the next step is to apply this success to other, even deadlier forms of cancer. "We're trying to put the immune system on steroids," the lead investigator tells the Wall Street Journal. "We're trying to make it do things that it couldn't do before."

(Sources: Los Angeles Times, Philadelphia Inquirer, Wall Street Journal)


Hydraulic fracturing, aka fracking, should be made safer and more transparent, according to a federal advisory panel tasked with making recommendations to improve deep drilling practices for natural gas. The seven-member Department of Energy panel issued its 41-page report today, calling for better monitoring and disposal of fracking byproducts, stronger air pollution standards, and the creation of a federal database so citizens can keep tabs on drilling activity in their communities.

"The public deserves assurance that the full economic, environmental and energy security benefits of shale gas development will be realized without sacrificing public health, environmental protection and safety," the report says. It recommends that U.S. officials finance the development of cleaner, more efficient drilling methods, and suggests levying fees and taxes on the gas-drilling industry as an appropriate way to pay for more robust regulation. It also calls for a "manifest system" that can track waste from gas wells, which has been a problem for years in Pennsylvania, the epicenter of a recent shale-gas boom. "Better data will help the industry focus its investments, give the public the information it needs to effectively engage, and help regulators identify and address the most important problems," says John Deutch, chairman of the panel. "We're issuing a call for industry action, but we are not leaving it to industry alone."

The report largely calls on the drilling industry to police itself, the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review points out, a concept that rankles many environmentalists and public-health advocates. "Every fox wants to take the lead in guarding that henhouse," says Gloria Forouzan, a spokeswoman for the anti-drilling group Marcellus Protest. "We have a lot of issues with the way that committee was formed and who's on it." Deutch, for example, is a board member of Cheniere Energy Inc., which has plans to export natural gas. But Barry Russell, CEO of the Independent Petroleum Association of America, says he welcomes the panel's recommendations. "The report stands in stark contrast to the strident, hysterical demands for moratoria on hydraulic fracturing," he says in a statement. "IPAA believes that the report presents a useful starting point for further discussions on achieving the various goals targeted by the subcommittee."

(Sources: New York Times, Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, Reuters)


More than seven years after it landed on Mars, NASA's Opportunity rover is still making news. The golf-cart-sized vehicle arrived this week at the red planet's Endeavour crater (pictured), a 14-mile-wide pit where clay minerals may have formed during a warmer, wetter period in Mars' past. "Clay minerals form in wet conditions, so we may learn about a potentially habitable environment," NASA explains in a news release.

Opportunity is now perched at Spirit Point, a ridge named after NASA's Spirit rover, which also landed on Mars in 2004 but went silent in March 2010. Spirit Point overlooks Endeavour crater, where NASA reports that minerals appear to be significantly different from the younger, drier rocks that Opportunity has encountered during its previous journeys across the Martian landscape. The rover set out on a 13-mile drive to Endeavour crater three years ago, after data from NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter detected signs of clay minerals, which could have formed when liquid water was flowing over the planet's surface.

If Opportunity can confirm the minerals formed in the presence of water, it would add to growing evidence that the red planet isn't as dry as it seems. Water ice and vapor have already been found at multiple locations, and earlier this month scientists reported that dark streaks near the Martian equator are "most likely" some kind of seasonal saltwater streams — the clearest sign yet of liquid water on present-day Mars. While Opportunity continues to impress NASA with its longevity, the space agency also plans to launch another, larger rover named Curiosity later this year. That rover is expected to land at Mars' Gale crater in August 2012.

(Sources: Associated Press, PhysOrg, NASA)


After a brief hiatus, humanity's hunt for alien life in deep space is about to resume, reports. The SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) Institute announced Wednesday that it has raised more than $200,000 to restart its Allen Telescope Array (pictured), a collection of 42 large dish antennae that scan the skies for radio signals. "We are so grateful to our donors," SETI co-founder Tom Pierson tells the Los Angeles Times. "We believe we will be back on the air in September."

One of those donors is the actress Jodie Foster, who played fictional SETI scientist Ellie Arroway in the 1997 movie "Contact" (Arroway's character was based on real-life SETI co-founder Jill Tarter). "Just like Ellie Arroway, the ATA is 'good to go' and we need to return it to the task of searching newly discovered planetary worlds for signs of extraterrestrial intelligence," Foster wrote in a note accompanying her donation. "The Allen Telescope Array could turn science fiction into science fact, but only if it is actively searching the skies." As SETI senior astronomer Seth Shostak explains to, "Its main advantage is that we can use it 24/7. In principle it's always available to us. When you're using someone else's antenna you get a certain amount of time on the instrument. That makes for very inefficient observing."

The Allen Telescope Array first went online in 2007, but had to be shuttered in April of this year due to a lack of funding. But via its online SETIStars program, SETI raised $206,000 from more than 2,000 private donors, 103 percent of its goal. In addition to Foster, other notable contributors include sci-fi writer Larry Niven and Apollo 8 astronaut Bill Anders, who wrote "It is absolutely irresponsible of the human race not to be searching for evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence."

(Sources:, CNN, Los Angeles Times)


A hurricane wipes out "Lost Island," John Stossel apologizes for misrepresenting organic food, and more.

Russell McLendon

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Photo (T cell): Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory

Photo (natural gas well at sunset): U.S. EPA

Photo (west rim of Endeavour crater): NASA

Photo (SETI's Allen Telescope Array): NASA

Russell McLendon ( @russmclendon ) writes about humans and other wildlife.

Daily Briefing: Thurs.
'Huge' step in cancer fight, Mars rover sends new pics, actress boosts alien hunt, and more.