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Beautifully detailed blood clots provide benchmarks for scientific understanding

This award-winning photo portrays the fantastic landscape within a blood clot, the major trigger behind heart attacks and strokes.

Using a scanning electron microscope, a team at the University of Leeds were able to produce the photo exposing the unusual structures developed during blood clotting.

The grey background is used to reveal the clot itself, whereas the coloured blobs emphasise the significant structural details. These include: red representing red blood cells, turquoise representing platelets, and purple, blue, green and yellow representing different types of white blood cell.

Despite providing a beautiful representation, the photo also proves very useful in supporting scientists’ understanding of the way in which blood clots form. This could potentially lead to novel drug production in the future.

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Insulin might not be so great after all…

...well, for fish anyway. Insulin is widely known as the hormone used to treat diabetic sufferers. It is responsible for countering the effects of another hormone, called glucagon, to restore blood sugar levels within a number of animal species.

Until recently, insulin’s affiliation with murder was only seen through fiction. However, a team in Salt Lake City has now proved that this might not be as fictional as first thought.

Certain types of mollusc, known as cone snails, have been found to use insulin as one of their many weapons to capture fish. The snails that use this technique – Conus geographus and Conus tulipa ­– release a cocktail of toxins, including insulin, into the water to confuse and weaken the fish. This then causes the fish to go into hypoglycaemic shock and allow the snail to ingest the fish whole.

The insulin used by the snails differs in structure to the insulin inside our bodies. In fact, it is the smallest insulin molecule ever found by scientists before. However, this small size is thought to explain why it it’s so fast and effective in deactivating the fish’s movement.

The team behind the work were very shocked by the findings. Safavi-Hemami, the leading researcher, said, "It was very surprising to us since it had never been shown before and people have worked on animal venoms for decades."

They now plan on investigating the genetic make up of the insulin produced by the snails. This would determine whether they developed the weaponised insulin from scratch or evolved it from their own insulin.

Safavi-Hemami stated, "It's believed that vertebrate insulins have evolved from ancestral invertebrate genes. Whether this is also true for the insulin we found cannot be answered yet."

To see the snail in action, click here.

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Chew on this: Chocolate found to enhance memory function

Don’t get too excited just yet.

Whilst research has shown that chocolate can boost memory and blood flow, the quantity of chocolate needed to deliver an effect is vast. You might have an improved memory but it will come at the cost of a much larger waistline.

The research is on going and mainly focuses on a component within the chocolate itself: a chemical known as a flavanol. These are naturally occurring anti-oxidants commonly found in cocoa beans, blueberries, green tea and red wine. In recent years there has been a large amount of controversy surrounding the true functions of flavanols, with many believing that the media has exaggerated them.

Nonetheless, this study aimed at unearthing the truth.

Using a team of thirty-seven volunteers aged between 50 and 69, nineteen of these were given a high flavanol content drink per day, whilst the the other eighteen received a similar drink containing a much lower quantity of flavanols. The study ran for three months, with assessment carried out at both the start and the finish.

Assessment was taken through a memory test and a functional MRI brain scan. The results from these found that patients of the higher flavanol group had a 20% faster blood flow to a section of the hippocampi known as the dentate gyrus. Intriguingly, this region has been linked to age-related memory decline in people.

The memory test also found that the use of flavanols gave the patients enhanced reaction times, allowing their brains to perform as though they were three decades younger.

However, to replicate the quantities of flavanols using chocolate, you would need to eat at least two whole bars of 100g dark chocolate per day. I’m sure there are many who wouldn’t mind this though but, as it is well known, excessive chocolate consumption can lead to many other medical difficulties.

Future work is now looking into the optimal dose of flavanols to administer its beneficial effects, and other healthier forms of flavanol administration are now also being developed for use.

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Could radio signals treat diabetes?

Genetically altered mice have shown that diabetes can be effectively managed using a radio signal.

During the studies, three separate genes were inserted into the mice. The first of these encoded an iron-containing protein called ferritin, due to the reliance on iron particles during the research. These particles respond in a certain way to the radio signals by absorbing specific radio wave frequencies and altering cell behaviour.

The second of these genes was placed next to this first gene and encoded a protein that acted like a heat-sensitive door for the third gene. This third gene was the one that coded for insulin, which became activated whenever there was a flood of calcium.

In other words, whenever a radio signal sounded, iron particles would have been produced. These particles would have then altered the behaviour of cells around them and initiated a release of calcium. This calcium would then surge through the ‘heat-sensitive door’ of the second gene into the third gene where insulin was subsequently produced.

These functions were replicated during the study, with the mice showing a significant drop in blood glucose after being exposed to the radio signal.

However, gene therapies are a controversial area of research. Many argue that they should be avoided due to their irreversible and high-risk nature. As such, the scientists are remaining cautious.

But researcher Jeffrey Friedman of Rockefeller University disagrees and says that radio control could make gene therapies safer, as the introduced genes could be turned on and off at will. Additionally, a ‘suicide gene’ could be added to effectively kill off the implanted stem cells if dangerous side effects started to develop.

A large amount of further work needs to be carried out to confirm the results and alleviate safety concerns. However, this study provides an exciting and innovative area of research for the effective management of diabetes.

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