Science stories to follow in 2015

Written by

With that in mind, there are some science and health stories that we followed only modestly in 2014, that will likely come up again in the coming year.

And KCRW’s Barbara Bogaev joined us with a round-up of some of those stories that we should be keeping an eye on.

Are bees making a comeback?

Honeybee colonies have been dying off in certain regions of the U.S. and Europe at an increased rate since the 1980s, especially in California. However, new numbers from the USDA and European agencies are showing an improvement. Only about 23% of hives died off last year, which is the lowest level since 2005 when colony collapse disorder (CCD) was first reported. So a concern, but perhaps not as much of a crisis as we once thought.

This threat to honeybees is still quite an issue, because it’s not clear why this all started. There is a correlation between Colony Collapse and the global spread of a certain mite, the Varroa destructor mite. But that’s not the only thing driving the phenomenon. And here’s where the myth busting comes in. One researcher, Chensheng Alex Lu, has gotten a lot of press for two studies that he says prove that CCD is caused by the use of a certain class of pesticides known as neonics or neonicotinoids. While many bee experts say his science is not credible, it’s getting a lot of attention because there’s a wider movement to ban neonics.

The upshot is that scientists still don’t know what is causing troublesome periodic high rates of honey bee deaths in commercial hives in some parts of the U.S. and Europe, and there are likely many causes behind this: parasites, pesticides, commercial honeybee industry practices of moving the hives around, etc. One scientist described it as “death by a thousand cuts.”

A new treatment for bladder cancer

For the first time in 30 years there’s a new treatment for bladder cancer, and it could be a new paradigm for cancer treatments. It’s an immunotherapy approach. Traditionally doctors treat cancers with chemotherapy, radiation and surgery. There are quite a number of promising clinical trials going on that use immunotherapy, especially for lymphoma, but so far this bladder cancer study might be the most promising evidence that this approach can be effective.

In the case of this bladder cancer study, in the U.K. scientists were able to strip cancer cells of a certain protein, PD-L1, which the cells use as a kind of camouflage to keep the body’s immune system from attacking the cancer. The researchers used a drug to block this camouflaging on 68 patients who had already gone through chemo and been given 6-8 months to live, and half of them showed signs of recovery. Two patients showed no signs of cancer after the treatment. This drug from Roche has been given breakthrough status in the U.S. and could be widely used next year if the next larger clinical trial gets the same results.

So some scientists are seeing this as a possible turning point for immunotherapy, that it is becoming part of the arsenal to treat many types of cancers. Another similar treatment to this one just showed improvement in people with advanced skin cancers.

Diagnosing autism more effectively

Carnegie Mellon researchers are doing some exciting work on diagnosing autism. Usually the diagnosis is based on clinical assessment of verbal and physical behavior, and it sometimes can be very difficult to pinpoint. But in this new study, scientists used brain mapping and cognitive neuroscience to predict autism diagnoses with 97 percent accuracy. Apparently, certain thoughts and emotions have what scientists call a similar and consistent neural signature among normal, non-autistic individuals. This is when you look at brain activation patterns, and these thoughts and emotions look very different in autistic brains. So this is the first biologically based tool to diagnose autism.