Your body’s superpowers

The remarkable abilities already inside us.

Norovirus might have laid you low for a short while, but you’re recovering, aren’t you? Your immune system is to die for. Researchers are still getting to grips with how it works but at every turn it has thrown out marvellous surprises. In the early days of vaccination against tuberculosis, for example, it was noted that it protected you not only from TB, but a host of other diseases, too.

We still don’t know why; it’s clear that we have yet to understand the full power of the human immune system. Just in December, for instance, we learned that the system’s T-cells, which fight viruses and bacteria, are not all created equal. Almost all of our knowledge of human T-cells has come from blood samples. But research using T-cells harvested from the organs of New York cadavers has shown that each region of the body has its own particular way of fighting invaders. Columbia University’s Donna Farber, who led the study, believes this discovery may open up the path to tightly focused vaccines that can activate the most appropriate of the body’s immune responses.

Her optimism is supported by another surprise the immune system has just delivered. New Scientist reported this month that there is now hope for a vaccine against age-related macular degeneration (AMD), an incurable condition that blinds millions of people around the world.

AMD comes from the build-up of proteins and other debris on the retina. In healthy people this is cleared away by specialist cells. Those cells stop working in people with AMD. This appears to have two consequences: the build-up of debris continues and the light-sensitive cells of the retina beneath the debris start to die off. The result is a slowly widening black hole at the centre of your field of vision.

Pioneering treatments with a laser can stimulate the nonfunctioning cells to get them going again, which is exactly what Robyn Guymer of the University of Melbourne was trying to do in his trial on 50 patients. The idea was to try the laser treatment in one eye and leave the other eye as a control. Then tests on each eye would show what improvements the procedure could give.

So, you could imagine it was a little frustrating that in the tests the lasered eye didn’t seem to be that much better than the one that had been left alone. But Guymer soon realised this was because the vision of the untreated eye had also improved. The laser surgery had stimulated the patients’ immune system to respond to alarm calls from the eye.

Your eyes are usually offlimits to your immune system. It seems a sensible evolutionary trick, because the immune system’s standard response causes inflammation, which could be catastrophic in an instrument as sensitive as the eye. However, the cells destroyed by the laser appear to send out a signal so loud that the immune system overrides the safety mechanism and sends in the troops – to both eyes – to restore order.

There is now hope that AMD can be treated with a routine procedure at a very early stage, and that those most at risk of developing it can have their immune systems stimulated before the symptoms appear. But there is a wider lesson: with various successes in vaccines against cancer – particularly colon cancer – looking likely in the next few years, it’s becoming clear that the most profitable path for medicine might be to explore partnerships with the remarkable abilities that already lie within us.

Michael Brooks’s “The Secret Anarchy of Science” is published by Profile Books (£8.99)

There is now hope for a vaccine against age-related macular degeneration. Photograph: Getty Images

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 28 January 2013 issue of the New Statesman, After Chavez

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The best Instagram accounts to follow if you love space

As new space findings hit the news on an almost daily basis, the app offers an alternative window onto the universe.

If there’s anything that can break us away from the humdrum monotony of modern life, it’s space. It renders us awe-struck and captures our imagination with its vastness and surreal imagery, and as astronomy-related research expands, cosmic mysteries continue to unfold.

Whether it’s the occurrence of rare celestial events, the discovery of exoplanets that could potentially harbour life, or the confirmation of gravitational waves that ripple through the space-time continuum, it seems that there are new findings propelled onto our newsfeeds daily.  

Yet one of the best ways of keeping up to date with the latest research and projects at the frontier of space is on Instagram, the social media platform. Here are some of the accounts you should be following to get the greatest insight into space:

1. SpaceX (@spacex)

The aerospace company SpaceX designs spacecrafts and reusable rockets in the hope that their technology can one day make human life multi-planetary. Spearheaded be CEO Elon Musk, the company has the lofty ambition of one day colonising Mars. Below is a spectacular image of the company’s Falcon 9 rocket in its first-stage entry:

 

Photographer unexpectedly captures Falcon 9 second stage burn and first stage entry @slowcountrylife

A photo posted by SpaceX (@spacex) on

 

2. International Space Station (@iss)

The International Space Station, a habitable satellite whirling around the Earth approximately 16 times per day in low orbit, has an Instagram feed displaying the equipment on board as well as stunning pictures of the Earth from a distance. Here’s a picture from the station 250 miles above earth depicting the Earth as an azure blue marble:

 

The blue of the #bahamas can't be mistaken, even from 250 miles above. #YearInSpace #nasa #space #spacestation : @stationcdrkelly

A photo posted by International Space Station (@iss) on

 

3. Tim Peake (@astro_timpeake)

Currently aboard the International Space Station is Tim Peake, a British astronaut. As he has carried out his work on Expedition 46/47 on the station, he has shared a range of photos of Earth that he has shot with his Nikon D4 from the vantage point of space, from reefs off the coast of Mozambique to the glint of sun highlighting Vancouver Island. Here we have a clear image of the Pacific “Ring of Fire”:

 

3/3: The Pacific ‘Ring of Fire’ clear to see amongst the volcanoes of Kamchatka, Russia

A photo posted by Tim Peake (@astro_timpeake) on

 

4. Scott Kelly (@stationcdrkelly)

Scott Kelly is an engineer and a retired American astronaut who recently spent a year commanding the International Space Station, travelling 143,846,525 miles around our globe in the process. A quick scroll through his profile will demonstrate just how profound his experience must have been at the shores of space, and includes a host of images of the aurora borealis:

 

#GoodMorning #aurora and the Pacific Northwest! #YearInSpace #northernlights #beautiful #morning #space #spacestation #iss

A photo posted by Scott Kelly (@stationcdrkelly) on

 

5. Nasa Goddard (@nasagoddard)

Nasa’s Goddard Space Flight Centre was the company’s very first flight centre. It’s the largest of its kind, and the official Instagram account for the centre serves as a highlight reel for everything NASA is working on. There are behind-the-scenes looks at the James Webb Space Telescope under construction, computer-simulated images of supermassive black holes, and clear views of distant galaxies captured by the Hubble Space Telescope:

 

Observations by the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope have taken advantage of gravitational lensing to reveal the largest sample of the faintest and earliest known galaxies in the universe. Some of these galaxies formed just 600 million years after the big bang and are fainter than any other galaxy yet uncovered by Hubble. The team has determined for the first time with some confidence that these small galaxies were vital to creating the universe that we see today. An international team of astronomers, led by Hakim Atek of the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, Switzerland, has discovered over 250 tiny galaxies that existed only 600-900 million years after the big bang— one of the largest samples of dwarf galaxies yet to be discovered at these epochs. The light from these galaxies took over 12 billion years to reach the telescope, allowing the astronomers to look back in time when the universe was still very young. Although impressive, the number of galaxies found at this early epoch is not the team’s only remarkable breakthrough, as Johan Richard from the Observatoire de Lyon, France, points out. “The faintest galaxies detected in these Hubble observations are fainter than any other yet uncovered in the deepest Hubble observations.” By looking at the light coming from the galaxies the team discovered that the accumulated light emitted by these galaxies could have played a major role in one of the most mysterious periods of the universe’s early history — the epoch of reionization. Reionization started when the thick fog of hydrogen gas that cloaked the early universe began to clear. Ultraviolet light was now able to travel over larger distances without being blocked and thus the universe became transparent to ultraviolet light. Credit: NASA/ESA #nasagoddard #Hubble #HST #space #galaxy

A photo posted by NASA Goddard (@nasagoddard) on

 

6. Roscosmos (@roscosmosofficial)

Roscosmos is the Russian Federal Space Agency at the heart of all space endeavours in Russia. The agency is involved in the maintenance and progression of the International Space Station, and is working on its own research projects such as a planned robotic mission to one of Mars’s moons.  Here’s the launch of a rocket from the Vostochny Cosmodrome which is under construction:

 

7. Nasa (@nasa)

Over the years, Nasa has firmly committed to pushing the boundaries of space exploration, and, as its 12.3m Instagram acolytes would agree, it has been successful. As part of the Frontier Fields campaign investigating galaxy clusters, a recent deep field image from the Hubble revealed bounds of galaxies in the constellation of Leo:

 

Nearly as deep as the Hubble Ultra Deep Field, which contains approximately 10,000 galaxies, this incredible image from the Hubble Space Telescope reveals thousands of colorful galaxies in the constellation of Leo (The Lion). This vibrant view of the early universe was captured as part of the Frontier Fields campaign, which aims to investigate galaxy clusters in more detail than ever before, and to explore some of the most distant galaxies in the universe. Galaxy clusters are massive. They can have a tremendous impact on their surroundings, with their immense gravity warping and amplifying the light from more distant objects. This phenomenon, known as gravitational lensing, can help astronomers to see galaxies that would otherwise be too faint, aiding our hunt for residents of the primordial universe. Image credit: ESA/Hubble & NASA, Acknowledgement: Judy Schmidt #nasa #hubble #astronomy #science #space #galaxy #galaxies

A photo posted by NASA (@nasa) on