This Week in Research: The Genetics of Mass Murder; Nano-Worms; Curing Peanut Allergies

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genetics
Something about this creeps me out:  writing in the Hartford Courant, Hopkins professor Nathaniel Comfort wonders whether a genetic analysis of the Sandy Hook shooter Adam Lanza might identify a biological defect that would explain his shooting rampage.

Comfort comes up with a list of possible genetic syndromes that might be used to explain Lanza’s killing spree:  personality disorders; the “violent-drunk” gene; the “warrior” gene. However, he notes, “A sophisticated genetic explanation, however, would not feature a single ‘massacre’ gene. It would involve a complex profile — a constellation of alleles, or particular forms of a gene, which, acting in combination and in certain environments, give a high risk of violent action.”

But even if we did identify some deep flaw in Lanza’s genetic code, what then? Should we enact “genetic surveillance” programs? Comfort suggests that we need not worry about dystopian futures:  “Should genetic risk factors be identified, steps could theoretically be taken to avert another massacre. These could include lifetime surveillance (perhaps merely informally, by family members, teachers and employers) counseling, medication and, in cases of extreme likelihood, pre-emptive institutionalization. Chilling steps toward genetic prevention, then, needn’t involve science-fiction scenarios involving prenatal diagnosis and gene therapy. They could be accomplished by means of existing conditions of law and sentiment.” Um, lifetime surveillance and preemptive detention sounds kind of dystopian to me…

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nanocenterinchwormmotor
Nanobots aren’t just toys for kids anymore:  two engineers at the University of Maryland have created a tiny (we mean tiny) nano-inchworm with tiny, flexible arms. Why would a robot want tiny, flexible arms? Why, in order “to alternately grab and pull a tiny silicon beam thousands of times per second, moving only a couple micrometers at a time” in the style of a person hauling a rope hand-over-hand. And, according to UMD, those tiny arms might be used to power insect-sized robots — or even to provide autofocus and zoom functions in smartphone cameras.

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Peanut allergies can be scary. Not only are they a common cause of severe food-induced allergic reactions, but they’re also difficult to avoid, since peanuts are everywhere. And this type of allergy has become increasingly prevalent over recent years. But a new study (co-authored by researchers from the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine) reports tentative steps toward treatment for this sometimes-fatal allergy.

Over more than a year, several subjects with peanut allergies were given liquid sublingual immunotherapy (SLIT) to hold under their tongue for two minutes. Forty-four weeks into the study, 70 percent of subjects could consume 10 times as much peanut powder without symptoms as before the study. In other words, they’d been desensitized to peanut powder. Researchers are careful to note that this isn’t a cure… but it’s certainly a step in the right direction.



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