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Research Roundup: Astronauts and osteoporosis, fungi diversity and new cancer drug

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Each week, The Daily’s Science & Tech section produces a roundup of the most exciting and influential research happening on campus or otherwise related to Stanford. Here’s our digest for the week of Jan. 19 – Jan. 25.

Martian astronauts likely to develop osteoporosis

Future astronauts headed to Mars will likely develop osteoporosis, or brittle bones, by the time astronauts reach Mars or return to Earth, a study published on Jan. 22 in “Public Library of Science One” predicts.

“If you have a fracture on the surface of Mars, it will take at least a year to get back to Earth,” Eneko Axpe, a materials science and engineering postdoctoral fellow, told Stanford Medicine blog SCOPE. “It puts the astronauts’ lives and the mission at risk.”

Experimental models suggest that for a round trip of 400 to 600 days between Earth and Mars,  astronauts may lose 15 to 22% of their bone mineral density. An estimated two-thirds of returning astronauts would develop osteopenia, a precursor to osteoporosis.

“A lot of people focus on the technological challenges of getting to Mars, or the psychological challenges of being in a spacecraft for 1,000 days, but not necessarily the fact that your bones decay,” materials science and engineering assistant professor Eric Appel told Stanford Medicine blog SCOPE. “Can people even make it, or will they be jello by the time they get there?”

Fungi diversity predicted to decrease in the next 50 years

North American pine forests could stand to lose over a quarter of ectomycorrhizal fungi species by 2070 due to the effects of climate change, a study published on Jan. 21 in “Journal of Biogeography” found. 

Ectomycorrhizal fungi have a symbiotic relationship with trees and plants in forested areas. The fungi envelop a host root system to provide a larger surface area for resource absorption. 

“These are critical organisms for the functioning and the health of forests,” associate biology professor Kabir Peay told Stanford News. “We have evidence to suggest that these fungi are as susceptible to climate change as other kinds of organisms and their response may be even more important.”

The researchers collected 1,500 soil samples from 68 pine forests in North America, then compared geographical fungi against historical climate data. The findings suggested climate strongly predicted the fungi patterns in North America. The team then used the data and applied it to future climate projections to understand how future climate would affect fungi diversity.

“According to our models, climate change over the next 50 years could eliminate more than a quarter of ectomycorrhizal species inside 3.5 million square kilometers of North American pine forests,” Brian Steidinger, a postdoctoral research fellow in biology, told Stanford News. “That’s an area twice the size of Alaska.”

“One of the things that’s kind of shocking and a little bit scary is that we predict there will be some pretty significant decreases in diversity in western North America, well known culturally for fungal diversity and for people who are interested in collecting edible mushrooms,” Peay told Stanford News.

Newly developed cancer drug inspired by antiviral treatments

In developing treatments intended to fight viral diseases, collaborating researchers spanning different disciplines inadvertently developed a novel cancer drug class effective in mice, a study published on Jan. 22 in “Science Translational Medicine” reports.

“We’ve been working for many years on potent drugs that we had shown were important for viruses,” Jeffrey Glenn, medicine, microbiology and immunology professor, told Stanford Medicine News. “This is just an important target that hasn’t really been appreciated in cancer, and we had the perfect drugs to get this started.”

The cancer drug works by disrupting normal cellular functions that viruses and cancer cells utilize to grow and spread. The findings suggest the newly developed drug can shrink tumors and prevent spread in mice models.

“I think that’s the secret thing, having chemists physically in the lab with biologists, virologists and physician-scientists,” Glenn told Stanford Medicine News. “We’ve leveraged the special enabling environment of Stanford to create a unique group that has never existed before here or in academia. It’s allowed things to happen that just wouldn’t have happened otherwise.”

Contact Derek Chen at derekc8 ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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