How Blind Mole Rats Beat Cancer; Self-Powered Pacemakers

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Discovered: Blind mole rats can kill cancer; battery-less pacemakers; a prosthetic leg amputees can control with their minds; heart-related deaths rise in winter regardless of temperature.

Learning about cancer from the blind mole rat. Blind mole rats are ugly little critters, and on top of that they can't see. But they have one advantage over their cuter peers—the ability to nip the growth of cancer cells in the bud. New Yorker and Israeli researchers have studied the subterranean rodent, discovering that they don't use the cell-suicide method of apoptosis. They've adapted to oxygen-deprived underground habitat with a cancer-fighting protein called p53. The findings hold promise for cancer research, and University of Texas Health Science Center researcher Steven Austad comments, "there are probably many ways to prevent the out-of-control growth of cancer." [ScienceNews]

Self-powered pacemakers. Developments in biotech have made it likely that pacemakers of the future won't need batteries, instead relying on electricity generated by the natural beating of the human heart for power. The team led by University of Michigan researcher M. Amin Karami has engineered a energy harvesting device that converts the heart's vibrations into electrical energy. The researchers hope this will do away with the need to replace pacemaker batteries every five to seven years. "If we had a mechanism to generate this small amount of power, you’d never have to recharge it," says Karami, who presented his work at this year's American Heart Association's Scientific Sessions 2012 in Los Angeles. [Los Angeles Times]

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Mind-controlled prosthetic legs. Thanks to technological advancements in prosthetics, amputees are now able to do more physical activities than ever before. They're even able to out-run people with two legs in marathons. And soon, they may be able to control their prosthetic limbs in much the same way that able-bodied people do. Using a complicated mechanical leg developed by engineers from Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago and Vanderbilt University amputee Zac Vawter was able to climb 103 stories of Chicago's Willis Tower skyscraper. Mind-controlled prosthetics often sacrifice speed for fineness of motor movement, so the challenge for engineers going forward will be to increase responsiveness. [Discover]

Winter claims lives, no matter what temperature. Climate can often claim the lives of people with advanced heart problems. So it's not too surprising that, according to the American Heart Association, deaths from cardiovascular complications rise in the winter. But the surprising thing is that these deaths rise regardless of temperatures. Deaths rise anywhere from 26 percent to 36 from the lows in the summer to the highs in the winter. Lead author Bryan Schwartz, M.D. says, "people generally don't live as healthy in winter as they do in summer. They don't eat as well and don't exercise as much." Anyone who's eaten themselves into post-Thanksgiving food coma now understands what may be driving this trend. [American Heart Association]

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