Study: Honeybee Venom Contains a Chemical (Melittin) That Kills Breast Cancer Cells

A very real study out of Australia’s Harry Perkins Institute of Medical Research once again confirms that there are ways animal venom is applicable for medicine. This finding about honeybee venom is obviously significant since breast cancer is the most common cancer among women.

A groundbreaking discovery in Australia is giving new meaning to the term natural remedy. Using hundreds of honeybees, a new study reveals the venom in these insects’ stingers quickly kills breast cancer cells.

Dr. Ciara Duffy says honeybee venom destroys multiple types of breast cancer, even the hard to treat triple-negative variety. Her study in the journal npj Precision Oncology finds the venom not only eradicates these cancers, it also breaks up a cancerous cell’s ability to reproduce. It also contains a compound called melittin which researchers say helps this natural remedy stop the disease with remarkable speed.

“The venom was extremely potent,” the researcher from the Harry Perkins Institute of Medical Research says in a media release. “We found that melittin can completely destroy cancer cell membranes within 60 minutes.”

In just 20 minutes, melittin breaks down the chemical messages breast cancer cells transmits to trigger both cell growth and cell division. The compound suppresses the receptors that commonly overexpress themselves in triple-negative breast cancer and HER2-enriched breast cancer.

Venom was also tested against hormone receptor positive breast cancer cells and normal breast cells. With a specifically concentrated dose of the venom, researchers are able to kill 100 percent of cancer cells. At the same time, the study finds bee venom does little harm to normal cells.

“This study demonstrates how melittin interferes with signaling pathways within breast cancer cells to reduce cell replication. It provides another wonderful example of where compounds in nature can be used to treat human diseases,” Professor Peter Klinkenhe from the University of Western Australia says.

Do all bees carry this special venom?

Although there are around 20,000 different species of bees, the study finds not every insect can fight cancer. Dr. Duffy’s tests on 312 honeybees and bumblebees from Perth, Western Australia reveal bumblebee venom does not induce cancer cell death. Honeybees from other regions however, share this special ability to rapidly stop the disease.

“I found that the European honeybee in Australia, Ireland and England produced almost identical effects in breast cancer compared to normal cells,” Duffy reports.

Researchers add Perth bees are some of the healthiest members of their species. While the study dissects live bee stingers to extract melittin, it finds this compound can be successfully reproduced in labs.

“The synthetic product mirrored the majority of the anti-cancer effects of honeybee venom,” the Australian scientist adds.

Adding honeybee venom to chemotherapy treatments

Study authors say melittin can also help current cancer treatments like chemotherapy. The report discovers melittin also forms numerous pores (tiny holes) in the breast cancer cell membrane. Duffy suspects other cancer drugs may be able to use these openings to penetrate the cells and kill the disease.

“We found that melittin can be used with small molecules or chemotherapies, such as docetaxel, to treat highly-aggressive types of breast cancer. The combination of melittin and docetaxel was extremely efficient in reducing tumor growth in mice.”

Using bee venom as a medical remedy has been studied since the 1950’s, but Duffy’s team says it’s only been considered as treatment for cancer during the last two decades. More research needs to be done to find out what kind of a dose human patients will require.

How Air Pollution Can Harm Brain Health

It has long been rather stunning to me how careless many people are about air pollution. One of the most important things that people shouldn’t do is drive with their windows down in areas with significant traffic (and thus significant amounts of air pollution from vehicles). The motive for caring is rather simple — air pollution’s negative impact on brain health means possibly reduced performance on a variety of tasks, and that can negatively correlate with achieving life goals, which in turn is detrimental to human happiness and satisfaction.

Long thought to primarily harm the lungs and cardiovascular system, air pollution is now catching the attention of neuroscientists and toxicologists.

The buzz of a leaf blower and its gaseous fumes fill the air outside a lab facility at the University of Washington in Seattle. Inside the building, neurotoxicologist Lucio Costa is investigating how polluted air—such as garden tool exhaust—could be bad for the brain.

Next to the building sits a 5,500-watt diesel generator, enclosed in a metal box. Pipes carry the diesel exhaust—the same stuff emitted by diesel engines in vehicles and heavy equipment—into the facility, across an exposed ceiling and into a room where plastic cages of mice are stacked high against the wall. Tubes filter the diesel exhaust through the cages, Costa explains, in an effort to mimic the contaminated air you might breathe while sitting in traffic or living near a busy road.

After spending most of his career studying mercury, pesticides, and flame retardants, Costa knows well that many toxins in the environment can hurt the brain. But only in the last several years has the possibility of air pollution as a culprit crossed his mind. A growing body of literature on the topic inspired him to begin research in this diesel lab. “For a long time, I thought that air pollution was affecting mostly the lungs and the cardiovascular system and not the brain,” says Costa. “So I stayed away from any issue related to air pollution.”

Now, mounting evidence seems to link a variety of neurological problems to dirty air. Troubling recent findings include hallmarks of Alzheimer’s disease found in the brains of children living in Mexico City (1) and a nearly doubled risk of dementias for older women in highly polluted parts of the United States (2). Costa’s own research has identified autism-like social and behavioral issues in mice exposed to diesel exhaust (3). Today, Costa is among a growing cadre of biologists, toxicologists, and doctors raising the alarm over this pervasive yet overlooked menace to our memory, attention, and behavior.

A Global Threat

Although the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic and associated “shelter in place” policies have reduced fossil fuel use to offer a temporary respite from extreme pollution in some places, most countries face an ongoing epidemic of dirty air as a result of growing urban congestion and an uptick in climate-driven wildfires, among other factors. Indoor air pollution further plagues many of the world’s poorest communities. Around 3 billion people cook indoors over open fires or stoves fueled by wood, biomass, kerosene, or coal. In 2018, the World Health Organization (WHO) identified air pollution as the second-largest risk factor for noncommunicable disease worldwide. And the WHO’s stats don’t include the full range of neurological effects now being discovered, notes neurotoxicologist Deborah Cory-Slechta at the University of Rochester in New York.

Globally, more than 90 percent of people breathe air that fails to meet WHO standards. That includes an estimated four in 10 people in the United States, although efforts such as the US Clean Air Act and its amendments of 1990 have helped. Between 2000 and 2016, the average concentration of particulate matter (PM) with a diameter of less than 2.5 micrometers (PM2.5), tiny particles produced by combustion, fell by around 40 percent in the United States. But the country’s overall air quality has worsened since 2016. Partly to blame is a rise in wildfire smoke, which is now responsible for an estimated 40 percent of particulate matter pollution.

Yet cleaner, healthier air remains achievable, notes Dean Schraufnagel, a pulmonologist at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “There are no death certificates that say air pollution exposure,” he says. “But we know that air pollution affects every organ in the body. If we stop the air pollution at its source, we can get strikingly important health benefits.”

Schraufnagel, also the director of the Forum of International Respiratory Societies, points to one easy target: idling diesel-powered school buses. A 2019 study out of Georgia in the United States found that districts that retrofitted school buses to reduce diesel emissions reported significant increases in students’ English test scores as well as smaller improvements in math (4).

The havoc air pollution can wreak on the brain is also a new area of interest for Schraufnagel, whose research and clinical practice has long focused on lung disease. Today, he is working with international organizations to get air pollution on the minds of not just pulmonologists but also neurologists and other medical experts. “This should be a call to action,” adds Schraufnagel.

Air pollution is a cocktail of suspended gases, solids, and liquid particles. While this mix contains numerous hazardous ingredients, such as ozone, sulfur dioxide, and carbon monoxide, the component that appears most concerning for the brain is PM.

The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulates PM10 and PM2.5, defined as particles less than 10 and 2.5 micrometers in diameter, respectively. PM2.5, also known as fine particulate matter, generally comes from smoke, dust, and vehicle exhaust. Because PM2.5 is so tiny—30 times smaller than the width of the average human hair—it can remain airborne for long periods of time, infiltrate buildings, and penetrate the body. Ultrafine particles, which measure less than 0.1 micrometer across, may be even worse offenders. Yet the miniscule mass of these particles makes them difficult to monitor. They remain unregulated by the EPA.

Fine and ultrafine particulate matter tends to circumvent the mechanisms that the human body has evolved to deflect, detain, and destroy unwelcome visitors. “The health effects of air pollution are all about particle size,” says Cory-Slechta. Studies suggest that these tiny particles can even go up the nose and be carried straight to the brain via the olfactory nerve (5)—hence bypassing the blood–brain barrier. And they don’t travel alone. On their surfaces these particles carry contaminants, from dioxins and other chemical compounds to metals such as iron and lead. “PM is simply acting as a vector,” says Masashi Kitazawa, a molecular neuropathologist at the University of California, Irvine. “It might be a number of chemicals that get into the brain and act in different ways to cause damage.”

Because of their large surface area relative to their volume, the smallest particles are the biggest offenders. Cory-Slechta’s research has largely focused on lead and mercury, neurotoxic metals that are abundant in air pollution. “Ultrafine particles are like little Trojan horses,” she says. “Pretty much every metal known to humans is on these.”

Metal-toting particles that reach the brain can directly damage neurons. Both the particles themselves and their toxic hitchhikers can also cause widespread harm by dysregulating the activation of microglia, the immune cells in the brain. Microglia may mistake the intruders for pathogens, releasing chemicals to try to kill them. Those chemicals can accumulate and trigger inflammation. And chronic inflammation in the brain has been implicated in neurodegeneration (6).

Particles may also afflict the brain via the bloodstream. Research shows that small particles can slip through the plasma membrane of alveoli—the tiny air sacs in the lungs—and get picked up by capillaries. The particles are then distributed around the body in the blood. Although some of these particles may eventually breach the blood–brain barrier, a pollutant need not enter the brain to cause trouble there. The immune system can react to particles in the lung or bloodstream, too, triggering widespread inflammation that affects the brain.

Even an ingested particle could have indirect neurological effects, via the gut. Researchers now recognize strong connections between the gut microbiome and the brain (7), and studies show that delivering fine particles to the gut can cause systemic inflammation (8).

In January 2010, Cory-Slechta received a surprising request from some University of Rochester environmental medicine colleagues. Typically, the group researched the effects of air pollution on the lungs and hearts of adult animals. But they had just exposed a group of newborn mice and asked Cory-Slechta’s team to look at the brains.

At first she didn’t think much of the request. Cory-Slechta was much more concerned about deadly lead exposure in children, her research focus at the time. “I didn’t think of air pollution as a big problem for the brain,” she says. Then she examined the animals’ tissue. “It was eye-opening. I couldn’t find a brain region that didn’t have some kind of inflammation.”

Her team followed up with their own studies. In addition to inflammation, they saw classic behavioral and biochemical features of autism, attention-deficit disorder, and schizophrenia in mice exposed to pollutants during the first days after birth. The mouse brains had noticeably less white matter, particularly in the corpus callosum connecting the right and left cerebral hemispheres. In work published last November, Cory-Slechta’s group further linked short-term exposures to air pollution with impaired learning and memory in aged mice, based on measures of spontaneous movement, navigation of a maze, short-term object recognition, and the ability to discriminate odors (9). The concentrations of particulate matter used, she notes, “easily include sitting in traffic in major cities.”

[…]

Research in Ontario, Canada, found that living farther away from a major road lowered the risk of developing dementia (13). A study of nearly 3,000 Barcelona schoolchildren found that those attending schools with more traffic pollution had slower cognitive development (14). And in the United States, a study found that living in locations where ambient particulate matter exceeded EPA recommendations nearly doubled women’s risk of developing dementia. When those researchers looked specifically at older women with two copies of the APOE4 gene variant, a strong genetic factor for Alzheimer’s disease, the dementia risk associated with living in those locations jumped almost threefold (2).

Widely Available Drug Dexamethasone Shown to Cut Deaths by a Third in Severely Ill COVID-19 Patients

The coronavirus pandemic remains severe, but dexamethasone (a steroid) is a cheap and relatively common drug that has apparently been shown in a rigorous trial to significantly reduce mortality rates in the most severely ill COVID-19 patients. This drug is not a cure and it wasn’t shown to help patients with moderate COVID-19 symptoms, but the drug has been shown to save lives, and that’s important since presumably more people will eventually be able to recover instead of dying to the coronavirus.

An inexpensive and commonly used steroid can save the lives of people seriously ill with COVID-19, a randomized, controlled clinical trial in the United Kingdom has found. The drug, called dexamethasone, is the first shown to reduce deaths from the coronavirus that has killed more than 430,000 people globally. In the trial, it cut deaths by about one-third in patients who were on ventilators because of coronavirus infection.

“It’s a startling result,” says Kenneth Baillie, an intensive-care physician at the University of Edinburgh, UK, who serves on the steering committee of the trial, called RECOVERY. “It will clearly have a massive global impact.” The RECOVERY study announced the findings in a press release on 16 June, but its researchers say that they are aiming to publish their results quickly and that they are sharing their findings with regulators in the United Kingdom and internationally.

The RECOVERY trial, launched in March, is one of the world’s biggest randomized, controlled trials for coronavirus treatments; it is testing a range of potential therapies. The study enrolled 2,100 participants who received dexamethasone at a low or moderate dose of six milligrams per day for ten days, and compared how they fared against about 4,300 people who received standard care for coronavirus infection.

The effect of dexamethasone was most striking among critically ill patients on ventilators. Those who were receiving oxygen therapy but were not on ventilators also saw improvement: their risk of dying was reduced by 20%. The steroid had no effect on people with mild cases of COVID-19 — those not receiving oxygen or ventilation.

Shortly after the results were released, the UK government announced that it had immediately authorized use of dexamethasone for patients hospitalized with COVID-19 who required oxygen, including those on ventilators.

Rigorous study

“It is a major breakthrough,” says Peter Horby, an infectious-disease specialist at the University of Oxford, UK, and a chief investigator on the trial. Use of steroids to treat viral respiratory infections such as COVID-19 has been controversial, Horby notes. Data from steroid trials during outbreaks of SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) and Middle East respiratory syndrome caused by related coronaviruses were inconclusive, he says. Nevertheless, given dexamethasone’s widespread availability, and some promising results from steroid studies in previous outbreaks, Horby says RECOVERY investigators felt it important to test the treatment in a rigorous clinical trial.

Treatment guidelines from the World Health Organization and many countries have cautioned against treating people with coronavirus with steroids, and some investigators were concerned about anecdotal reports of widespread steroid treatment. The drugs suppress the immune system, which could provide some relief from patients whose lungs are ravaged by an over-active immune response that sometimes manifests in severe cases of COVID-19. But such patients may still need a fully functioning immune system to fend off the virus itself.

The RECOVERY trial suggests that at the doses tested, the benefits of steroid treatment may outweigh the potential harm. The study found no outstanding adverse events from the treatment, investigators said. “This treatment can be given to pretty much anyone,” says Horby.

And the pattern of response — with a greater impact on severe COVID-19 and no effect on mild infections — matches the notion that a hyperactive immune response is more likely to be harmful in long-term, serious infections, says Anthony Fauci, head of the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease. “When you’re so far advanced that you’re on a ventilator, it’s usually that you have an aberrant or hyperactive inflammatory response that contributes as much to the morbidity and mortality as any direct viral effect.”

“Finding effective treatments like this will transform the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on lives and economies across the world,” said Nick Cammack, head of the COVID-19 Therapeutics Accelerator at Wellcome, a UK biomedical research charity in London, in a statement. “While this study suggests dexamethasone only benefits severe cases, countless lives will be saved globally.”

Easy to administer

So far, the only drug shown to benefit COVID-19 patients in a large, randomized, controlled clinical trial is the antiviral drug remdesivir. Although remdesivir1 was shown to shorten the amount of time that patients may need to spend in the hospital, it did not have a statistically significant effect on deaths.

Remdesivir is also in short supply. Although the drug’s maker — Gilead Sciences of Foster City, California — has taken steps to ramp up production of remdesivir, it is currently available only to a limited number of hospitals around the world. And remdesivir is complex to administer: it must be given by injection over the course of several days.

Dexamethasone, by contrast, is a medical staple found on pharmaceutical shelves worldwide and is available as a pill — a particular benefit as coronavirus infections continue to rise in countries with limited access to healthcare. “For less than £50, you can treat 8 patients and save one life,” said Martin Landray, an epidemiologist at the University of Oxford, and another chief investigator on the RECOVERY trial.

The findings could also have implications for other severe respiratory illnesses, Baillie adds. For example, steroid treatments for a condition called acute respiratory distress syndrome are also controversial. “This really gives us a very good reason to look closely at that, because the mortality benefit is so extraordinarily large,” Baillie says. “I think this will affect patients well beyond COVID-19.”

Low Vitamin D Levels Associated With Higher Coronavirus Mortality Rates

Patients with severe vitamin D deficiencies have been found in research to experience more coronavirus-related complications. Exposure to 20 or 30 minutes of sunlight a day and a healthy diet are good ways to keep high vitamin D levels.

After studying global data from the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, researchers have discovered a strong correlation between severe vitamin D deficiency and mortality rates.

Led by Northwestern University, the research team conducted a statistical analysis of data from hospitals and clinics across China, France, Germany, Italy, Iran, South Korea, Spain, Switzerland, the United Kingdom (UK) and the United States.

The researchers noted that patients from countries with high COVID-19 mortality rates, such as Italy, Spain and the UK, had lower levels of vitamin D compared to patients in countries that were not as severely affected.

This does not mean that everyone — especially those without a known deficiency — needs to start hoarding supplements, the researchers caution.

“While I think it is important for people to know that vitamin D deficiency might play a role in mortality, we don’t need to push vitamin D on everybody,” said Northwestern’s Vadim Backman, who led the research. “This needs further study, and I hope our work will stimulate interest in this area. The data also may illuminate the mechanism of mortality, which, if proven, could lead to new therapeutic targets.”

The research is available on medRxiv, a preprint server for health sciences.

Backman is the Walter Dill Scott Professor of Biomedical Engineering at Northwestern’s McCormick School of Engineering. Ali Daneshkhah, a postdoctoral research associate in Backman’s laboratory, is the paper’s first author.

Backman and his team were inspired to examine vitamin D levels after noticing unexplained differences in COVID-19 mortality rates from country to country. Some people hypothesized that differences in healthcare quality, age distributions in population, testing rates or different strains of the coronavirus might be responsible. But Backman remained skeptical.

“None of these factors appears to play a significant role,” Backman said. “The healthcare system in northern Italy is one of the best in the world. Differences in mortality exist even if one looks across the same age group. And, while the restrictions on testing do indeed vary, the disparities in mortality still exist even when we looked at countries or populations for which similar testing rates apply.

“Instead, we saw a significant correlation with vitamin D deficiency,” he said.

By analyzing publicly available patient data from around the globe, Backman and his team discovered a strong correlation between vitamin D levels and cytokine storm — a hyperinflammatory condition caused by an overactive immune system — as well as a correlation between vitamin D deficiency and mortality.

“Cytokine storm can severely damage lungs and lead to acute respiratory distress syndrome and death in patients,” Daneshkhah said. “This is what seems to kill a majority of COVID-19 patients, not the destruction of the lungs by the virus itself. It is the complications from the misdirected fire from the immune system.”

This is exactly where Backman believes vitamin D plays a major role. Not only does vitamin D enhance our innate immune systems, it also prevents our immune systems from becoming dangerously overactive. This means that having healthy levels of vitamin D could protect patients against severe complications, including death, from COVID-19.

“Our analysis shows that it might be as high as cutting the mortality rate in half,” Backman said. “It will not prevent a patient from contracting the virus, but it may reduce complications and prevent death in those who are infected.”

Backman said this correlation might help explain the many mysteries surrounding COVID-19, such as why children are less likely to die. Children do not yet have a fully developed acquired immune system, which is the immune system’s second line of defense and more likely to overreact.

“Children primarily rely on their innate immune system,” Backman said. “This may explain why their mortality rate is lower.”

Backman is careful to note that people should not take excessive doses of vitamin D, which might come with negative side effects. He said the subject needs much more research to know how vitamin D could be used most effectively to protect against COVID-19 complications.

“It is hard to say which dose is most beneficial for COVID-19,” Backman said. “However, it is clear that vitamin D deficiency is harmful, and it can be easily addressed with appropriate supplementation. This might be another key to helping protect vulnerable populations, such as African-American and elderly patients, who have a prevalence of vitamin D deficiency.”

Backman is the director of Northwestern’s Center for Physical Genomics and Engineering and the associate director for Research Technology and Infrastructure at the Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center at Northwestern University.

The Science Behind Friendship and Its Largely Overlooked Importance

Yes, there’s scientific research on that too.

For many of us, the top of our life priority list might look something like this: family, work—maybe exercise. Time with friends can sometimes end up near the bottom.

That’s a mistake, says Lydia Denworth, a science journalist and the author of the new book “Friendship,” which was published last month by W.W. Norton & Co. Ms. Denworth interviews animal biologists studying baboons and rhesus macaque monkeys, anthropologists and neuroscientists to uncover just how important friendship is not only for happiness and emotional health, but, she argues, physical health, too. In fact, friends are key to our very survival, Ms. Denworth asserts.

Here are edited excerpts from an interview.

What does studying how animals relate to each other tell us about human friendships?

At its simplest, it’s just how critical quality social bonds and friendships are. In animals, the big measures that evolutionary biologists study are reproductive success, which they count as either how many babies you have or how long those babies live, and longevity, or how long you survive. Nonhuman primates have very structured hierarchies that they exist in, and everyone assumed that that must have more importance for how long you live and how many babies you have and how healthy they are. And it wasn’t. The most important thing was the strength of the social bonds, how positively and well and regularly an individual animal interacted with other animals. Scientists really couldn’t believe it.

How does friendship affect physical health?

Friendship literally improves your body’s cardiovascular functioning, how your immune system works, how you sleep. You can imagine the food you put in your body makes you healthy or not. But sitting in a coffee shop with someone and just chatting about what’s going on with your life, we always thought emotionally that made you feel good. But actually it really is doing much more.

A big study at Harvard of men across their lives from 20 to 80 found that the single best predictor of your health and happiness at 80 was not your wealth or your professional success. It was your relationships at 50.

What makes a good friendship?

The simple definition that biologists use is a friendship is positive, it makes you feel good, it is long-lasting and stable and it has reciprocity and cooperation in it. So there’s a little give and take. Friendship is about setting up your life so you have people you can rely on when you need them. Literally, it was for when the lions came hunting for your friends. Baboons and monkeys do better when they are together. It’s why humans were never really alone.

There’s not one way to do friendship. Some people are introverts and that’s fine. The difference between not having any close friends and having one is enormous in terms of your emotional health and physical health. Quality matters so much more than quantity. Most people only have an average of four really close friends.

Why do we become friends with one person and not another?

There’s this interesting chemistry to friendship. Just like in romance, you are more drawn to some people than you are others. Some of it is very straightforward: You are interested in the same things, you spend time in the same place. That’s one reason why we are close to relatives, because you have a head start, you spend more time with them than you do anyone else. We do tend to be better friends with people who are more like us.

Having a shared world-view turns out to be important. Scientists looked at all these people in a social network, showed them the same sets of videos and looked at how their brains responded to these videos. They could predict just by looking at the brain processing who was friends with whom. Literally, you hear and see the world more like the people you are friends with. The big question is: Is it cause or effect? Are you drawn to people who already see and process the world more similarly from the start or do you become more similar? Of course, as with so many things, the answer is probably both.

What impact is digital communication and social media having on friendships?

With relationships, it usually is net positive. One reason is just because people who are active on social media tend to have wider, bigger, more diverse social networks. What the research is showing is we tend to use social media as just an extra way to communicate with your good friends. And older adults, relationally, they absolutely benefit from social media because they have a harder time getting out or getting around or they’re further from their families. It really has opened up a new channel for people.

That doesn’t mean if you only operate online, you get all those benefits. You don’t. You need a lot of face-to-face time to get the health benefits. But it’s just not true that being online is automatically this big negative. The people for whom social media has a clearer negative effect seem to be people who are already suffering from depression maybe or loneliness.

Extreme Weather Will Continue to Worsen as the Climate Crisis Becomes More Severe

The changing climate is already having dire consequences on global societies, and the effects will become much worse in the future unless political leaders suitably address the environmental crisis of rising temperatures.

The past decade has been the hottest on record, the UN said Wednesday, warning that the higher temperatures were expected to fuel numerous extreme weather events in 2020 and beyond.​

The World Meteorological Organization, which based its findings on analysis of leading international datasets, said increases in global temperatures had already had dire consequences, pointing to “retreating ice, record sea levels, increasing ocean heat and acidification, and extreme weather”.

WMO said its research also confirmed data released by the European Union’s climate monitor last week showing that 2019 was the second hottest year on record, after 2016.

“The year 2020 has started out where 2019 left off – with high-impact weather and climate-related events,” WMO chief Petteri Taalas said in a statement, pointing in particular to the devastating bushfires that have been raging in Australia for months.

The bushfires, unprecedented in their duration and intensity, have claimed 28 lives and highlighted the type of disasters that scientists say the world will increasingly face due to global warming.

The fires have already destroyed more than 2,000 homes and burnt 10 million hectares (100,000 square kilometres) of land – an area larger than South Korea or Portugal.

“Unfortunately, we expect to see much extreme weather throughout 2020 and the coming decades, fuelled by record levels of heat-trapping greenhouse gases in the atmosphere,” Taalas said.

The UN agency said that average global temperatures during both the past five-year (2015-2019) and 10-year (2010-2019) periods were the highest ever recorded.

“Since the 1980s each decade has been warmer than the previous one,” the UN agency said in a statement, warning that “this trend is expected to continue”.

The United Nations said last year that human-made greenhouse gas emissions needed to tumble 7.6 percent each year to 2030 in order to limit temperature rises to 1.5 Celsius – the more ambitious cap nations signed up to in the landmark Paris climate deal.

Current pledges to cut emissions put Earth on a path of several degrees warming by the end of the century.

Not a fluke

Taalas said that since modern records began in 1850, the average global temperature had risen by around 1.1 degrees Celsius, and warned of significant warming in the future.

“On the current path of carbon dioxide emissions, we are heading towards a temperature increase of 3 to 5 degrees Celsius by the end of the century,” he warned.

Gavin Schmidt, director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, which provided one of the datasets, added that the trend line was unmistakable and could not be attributed to normal climate variability – a position taken by US President Donald Trump.

“What’s happening is persistent, not a fluke due to some weather phenomenon: we know that the long-term trends are being driven by the increasing levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere,” he said.

Data from the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration meanwhile revealed that polar sea ice coverage continued its downward trend in 2019.

Both the Arctic and Antarctic oceans recorded their second-smallest average annual sea-ice coverage during the 1979–2019 period of record, the agency said.

Broken record

WMO also highlighted a new study published this week in Advances in Atmospheric Sciences with data showing that ocean heat content was at a record high in 2019.

The past five years were also the warmest on record in terms of ocean heat content, that study showed.

Since more than 90 percent of excess heat is stored in the world’s oceans, their heat content is a good way to quantify the rate of global warming, WMO said.

Conservationists said the UN agency’s findings were to be expected.

“It is no surprise that 2019 was the second hottest year on record – nature has been persistently reminding us that we have to pick up the pace,” said Manuel Pulgar-Vidal, leader of WWF’s global climate and energy practice, calling for dramatic measures to halt the warming trend.

“This is not so much a record as a broken record,” added Chris Rapley, a professor of climate science at University College London.

“The message repeats with grim regularity. Yet the pace and scale of action to address climate change remains muted and far from the need.”

In 2019, 27% of Denmark’s Power Was from Wind

A model of clean energy that other countries should take note of.

COPENHAGEN, Jan 2 (Reuters) – Denmark sourced almost half its electricity consumption from wind power last year, a new record boosted by steep cost reductions and improved offshore technology.

Wind accounted for 47% of Denmark’s power usage in 2019, the country’s grid operator Energinet said on Thursday citing preliminary data, up from 41% in 2018 and topping the previous record of 43% in 2017.

European countries are global leaders in utilising wind power but Denmark is far in front of nearest rival Ireland, which sourced 28% of its power from wind in 2018 according to data from industry group WindEurope.

Across the European Union, wind accounted for 14% of consumption last year, the group says.

The higher proportion of wind energy in Denmark last year was partly due to Vattenfall starting operations at the Horns Rev 3 offshore wind farm in the North Sea in August.

The share of power from wind turbines at sea increased to 18% last year from 14% in 2018, Energinet said. Onshore wind accounted for 29% last year.

The International Energy Agency (IEA) said in October that while power generated from wind turbines at sea only accounts for 0.3% of today’s global electricity generation, capacity is set to increase 15-fold over the next two decades.

Denmark aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 70% by 2030, with a new climate law passed late last year targeting an increase in the share of electricity sourced from renewable power to 100%.

Denmark, home to wind turbine giant Vestas and the world’s largest developer of offshore wind Orsted, has favourable wind conditions and began investing heavily in wind power in the 1970s.

AI System Shows Somewhat Human-Like Creativity In Chess, In a Possible Landmark AI Moment

Artificial intelligence’s power brings with it the possibility of doing immense good or immense harm to humanity, and it is going to be up to society to ensure that AI functions in benevolent ways. Stockfish has also been the most dominant chess engine for quite some time, and to see it defeated consistently by a human-like, dynamic chess engine is both amazing and unsettling.

DeepMind’s artificial intelligence programme AlphaZero is now showing signs of human-like intuition and creativity, in what developers have hailed as ‘turning point’ in history.

The computer system amazed the world last year when it mastered the game of chess from scratch within just four hours, despite not being programmed how to win.

But now, after a year of testing and analysis by chess grandmasters, the machine has developed a new style of play unlike anything ever seen before, suggesting the programme is now improvising like a human.

Unlike the world’s best chess machine – Stockfish – which calculates millions of possible outcomes as it plays, AlphaZero learns from its past successes and failures, making its moves based on, a ‘nebulous sense that it is all going to work out in the long run,’ according to experts at DeepMind.

When AlphaZero was pitted against Stockfish in 1,000 games, it lost just six, winning convincingly 155 times, and drawing the remaining bouts.

Yet it was the way that it played that has amazed developers. While chess computers predominately like to hold on to their pieces, AlphaZero readily sacrificed its soldiers for a better position in the skirmish.

Speaking to The Telegraph, Prof David Silver, who leads the reinforcement learning research group at DeepMind said: “It’s got a very subtle sense of intuition which helps it balance out all the different factors.

“It’s got a neural network with millions of different tunable parameters, each learning its own rules of what is good in chess, and when you put them all together you have something that expresses, in quite a brain-like way, our human ability to glance at a position and say ‘ah ha this is the right thing to do’.

“My personal belief is that we’ve seen something of turning point where we’re starting to understand that many abilities, like intuition and creativity, that we previously thought were in the domain only of the human mind, are actually accessible to machine intelligence as well. And I think that’s a really exciting moment in history.”

AlphaZero started as a ‘tabula rasa’ or blank slate system, programmed with only the basic rules of chess and learned to win by playing millions of games against itself in a process of trial and error known as reinforcement learning.

It is the same way the human brain learns, adjusting tactics based on a previous win or loss, which allows it to search just 60 thousand positions per second, compared to the roughly 60 million of Stockfish.

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The new analysis was published yesterday in the journal Science, and the DeepMind team are now hoping to use their system to help solve real world problems, such as why proteins become misfolded in diseases such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.

The new results suggest that it could come up with new solutions that humans might miss or take far longer to discover.

AI System Successfully Predicts Alzheimer’s Years in Advance

Important research of Alzheimer’s disease since it’s one of those diseases where the treatment will be more effective the earlier it’s caught.

Artificial intelligence (AI) technology improves the ability of brain imaging to predict Alzheimer’s disease, according to a study published in the journal Radiology.

Timely diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease is extremely important, as treatments and interventions are more effective early in the course of the disease. However, early diagnosis has proven to be challenging. Research has linked the disease process to changes in metabolism, as shown by glucose uptake in certain regions of the brain, but these changes can be difficult to recognize.

“Differences in the pattern of glucose uptake in the brain are very subtle and diffuse,” said study co-author Jae Ho Sohn, M.D., from the Radiology & Biomedical Imaging Department at the University of California in San Francisco (UCSF). “People are good at finding specific biomarkers of disease, but metabolic changes represent a more global and subtle process.”

The study’s senior author, Benjamin Franc, M.D., from UCSF, approached Dr. Sohn and University of California, Berkeley, undergraduate student Yiming Ding through the Big Data in Radiology (BDRAD) research group, a multidisciplinary team of physicians and engineers focusing on radiological data science. Dr. Franc was interested in applying deep learning, a type of AI in which machines learn by example much like humans do, to find changes in brain metabolism predictive of Alzheimer’s disease.

The researchers trained the deep learning algorithm on a special imaging technology known as 18-F-fluorodeoxyglucose positron emission tomography (FDG-PET). In an FDG-PET scan, FDG, a radioactive glucose compound, is injected into the blood. PET scans can then measure the uptake of FDG in brain cells, an indicator of metabolic activity.

The researchers had access to data from the Alzheimer’s Disease Neuroimaging Initiative (ADNI), a major multi-site study focused on clinical trials to improve prevention and treatment of this disease. The ADNI dataset included more than 2,100 FDG-PET brain images from 1,002 patients. Researchers trained the deep learning algorithm on 90 percent of the dataset and then tested it on the remaining 10 percent of the dataset. Through deep learning, the algorithm was able to teach itself metabolic patterns that corresponded to Alzheimer’s disease.

Finally, the researchers tested the algorithm on an independent set of 40 imaging exams from 40 patients that it had never studied. The algorithm achieved 100 percent sensitivity at detecting the disease an average of more than six years prior to the final diagnosis.

“We were very pleased with the algorithm’s performance,” Dr. Sohn said. “It was able to predict every single case that advanced to Alzheimer’s disease.”

Although he cautioned that their independent test set was small and needs further validation with a larger multi-institutional prospective study, Dr. Sohn said that the algorithm could be a useful tool to complement the work of radiologists — especially in conjunction with other biochemical and imaging tests — in providing an opportunity for early therapeutic intervention.

“If we diagnose Alzheimer’s disease when all the symptoms have manifested, the brain volume loss is so significant that it’s too late to intervene,” he said. “If we can detect it earlier, that’s an opportunity for investigators to potentially find better ways to slow down or even halt the disease process.”

Oceans Have More Heat Than Previously Thought, Making Climate Change More Threatening

Climate change is one of the most serious problems facing humanity this century, and unless there is action to avert its damaging consequences, the world faces a dark future.

Offering a stark warning that humanity may have even less time to drastically cut carbon emissions than the United Nations suggested in its latest alarming report on the climate crisis, new research (pdf) published in the journal Nature on Wednesday shows that Earth’s oceans have retained 60 percent more heat each year over the past 25 years than scientists previously believed.

“We thought that we got away with not a lot of warming in both the ocean and the atmosphere for the amount of CO2 that we emitted. But we were wrong,” Laure Resplandy, a geoscientist at Princeton University who led the new study, told the Washington Post. “The planet warmed more than we thought. It was hidden from us just because we didn’t sample it right. But it was there. It was in the ocean already.”

The U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change argued in its report released earlier this month that humanity must cut carbon emissions in half by 2030 in order to avert climate catastrophe by 2040—but that timeframe was based on previous and possibly conservative estimates of global warming.

As the Post‘s Chris Mooney and Brady Dennis noted, “higher-than-expected amount of heat in the oceans means more heat is being retained within Earth’s climate system each year, rather than escaping into space.”

“In essence,” they added, “more heat in the oceans signals that global warming is more advanced than scientists thought.”

Improving and Extending Phone Battery Life

It is a regular complaint among smartphone users that their batteries fade too quickly. With how integral battery life is, along with how expensive newer phones have become and how having an uncharged phone could be a problem in certain dire situations, it is worth briefly addressing how to get more usage out of phone batteries.

Phones use lithium-ion batteries, which means that batteries gradually lose their capacity as the number of charge and discharge cycles grows. There are ways to lessen this degradation, but it will occur over time nonetheless.

Battery life depends on how you’re using the phone on a specific day along with how you’ve previously used it. So there’s value in adopting better charging habits to retain more battery in the future.

First of all, keeping phones plugged in once they reach full charge damages the battery in the long-run. Keeping phones plugged in like that puts them in a high-tension state that does harm to the battery’s internal chemistry. When possible, it’s also better to just charge the phone regularly instead of all the way to 100 percent charge, as the high voltage state puts stress on the battery.

The majority of battery degradation occurs during the more fully charged into discharged cycles . This means that it’s better to limit battery discharge (outside of on and fully charged) in the cycles when possible so that the battery doesn’t go into a deep discharge cycle.

Additionally, it should be noted that the fast charge option often available today can significantly reduce the battery life in a cycle, using wifi is less power-intensive than using 4G data, and reducing screen brightness, avoiding excessive heat, and limiting video use are all ways to extend battery life in a given cycle.

There will eventually be much stronger batteries, just as there eventually be battery protections from water. (Something called F-POSS — which repeals water and oil from sticking to it by having low surface energy — is already in development.) Until then though, users will probably want to handle their somewhat energy-fragile phone batteries with care.

11 EU Countries to Supposedly Make Public Science Research Results Freely Available by 2020

Science should be much less about profit for paywalls and more about positively advancing humanity. More openness can enable more collaboration, which is beneficial to scientific researchers. If research is closed off, it may also be the case that more than one group of highly competent researchers is working on a specific problem, which can be inefficient since those people could be working on another important problem.

The UK, France, Italy, and eight other countries have formed a bold pact called cOAlition S, designed to ensure that from 1 January 2020, all publicly funded scientific research is freely, immediately available and fully open access (OA).

For the nations taking part, the plan represents the imminent realisation of an open access dream that began decades ago, and looks destined to signify the end of the paywall as we know it.

“‘Knowledge is power’ and I firmly believe that free access to all scientific publications from publicly funded research is a moral right of citizens,” the EU’s Commissioner for Research, Science and Innovation, Carlos Moedas, said in a statement.

“It is one of the most important political commitments on science of recent times and puts Europe at the forefront of the global transition to open science.”

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The key principle of Plan S is that from 2020 forward, all scientific research funded by public grants awarded by the 11 nation funders must be published in compliant Open Access journals or on compliant Open Access platforms – immediately, and with no restrictions.