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Jeff Bezos and his brother to be on first Blue Origin passenger flight



Jeff Bezos has announced that he and his brother Mark will be aboard the first passenger-carrying Blue Origin flight on July 20, joining the winner of the continuing auction for the first paid seat, which now stands at US$2.8 million. If all runs to plan, this means Bezos will beat his fellow billionaires with space ambitions, Elon Musk and Sir Richard Branson, into space courtesy of technology developed by his own company.

Today’s announcement signals confidence on the part of the Blue Origin founder regarding the odds of success for the first passenger flight of the Reusable Space Ship First Step crew capsule atop the New Shepard booster, which will lift off next month for a 10-minute suborbital flight into space from the company’s Launch Site One in West Texas.

During the mission, the capsule will separate from the booster and coast to an altitude of over 62 miles (100 km), letting the passengers experience weightlessness and see the curvature of the Earth, before returning to the ground by parachute.

The run up to the flight is marked by the auction for the first paying passenger seat, which has attracted almost 6,000 people from 143 countries. Opening bidding will run until June 10 and will continue as a live online auction on June 12 at 1 pm EDT for registered and verified bidders.

If you have a few million dollars going spare, auction details can be found on the Blue Origin site. Proceeds from the auction will go to Blue Origin’s Club for the Future, which encourages young people to enter the STEM field.

Jeff Bezos discusses the flight in the video below.

Bezos Flight

Source: Blue Origin

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“Rogue planet” exomoons could potentially harbor water and life



Contrary to popular belief, not all planets orbit stars – some drift freely through the cosmos on their own. These cold, dark worlds don’t make great candidates for hosting life, but a new study suggests that their moons could be more habitable than they might seem.

Since Earth is the only place we know for sure has life, it makes sense to focus the hunt for extraterrestrial life on exoplanets with the most Earth-like conditions. Liquid water and pleasant temperatures top the list, both of which require the planet to orbit its host star at just the right distance.

But what if a planet doesn’t orbit a star at all? So-called rogue planets have been discovered floating untethered to any stars, which may seem to immediately rule them out in the search for aliens. But maybe we’re being too hasty, say astrophysicists in Germany and Chile.

The team created simulations of a Jupiter-sized rogue planet orbited by an Earth-sized moon. The latter body was where they focused their attention, modeling the thermal structure of the atmosphere of this exomoon based on its composition, as well as outside forces from the planet and space beyond.

Surprisingly, the researchers found that conditions there could be comfortable enough to sustain enough water to allow life to thrive. This moon would be far drier than Earth, though – the amount of water would be just one 10,000th of that contained in our oceans, but that’s still 100 times more than can be found in Earth’s atmosphere.

While there may not be a star to drive vital chemical reactions, cosmic rays could fill the role instead. Tidal forces from the planet’s gravitational influence could generate heat, and if the atmosphere is 90 percent carbon dioxide, the greenhouse effect could be strong enough to retain that heat.

That’s an awful lot of “coulds” though, and just because it’s possible doesn’t mean it actually exists anywhere. And even if there is a watery moon orbiting a rogue planet somewhere out there, that doesn’t mean there’s life on it. But the fact that it could (there’s that word again) happen implies that we shouldn’t rule out more extreme environments just because we wouldn’t want to live there ourselves.

After all, even here on Earth life constantly turns up in places long presumed to be inhospitable.

The research was published in the International Journal of Astrobiology.

Source: Ludwig Maximilians-Universität München

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The problem at the heart of modern psychedelic clinical research



For around half a century the randomized controlled trial (RCT) has been considered the gold standard in evaluating the effectiveness of any new medical intervention. The process involves recruiting a group of participants with a certain condition and randomly separating them into at least two groups.

One group receives the experimental intervention while the other group, known as the control, receives a placebo. To eliminate any bias the RCT would ideally also be blinded, meaning not only do the participants not know what group they are in but neither do the caregivers or researchers assessing the trial. All of this ultimately should lead to a robust trial that delivers clear empirical evidence as to whether a novel treatment fundamentally works.

One of the key reasons for blinding a RCT is to minimize the influence of the placebo effect, that phenomenon whereby inactive drugs result in positive therapeutic outcomes. While the impact of the placebo effect can vary depending on the condition, it has been consistently shown that patient outcomes can be significantly influenced when they are primed with a certain expectancy. If 10 people suffering from a mild headache were given a sugar pill and told it was a cutting-edge new drug it could be expected at least one or two would have a positive response.

Placebo effects can be positive or negative. Often excessive warnings about a drug’s side effects can generate negative placebo responses. This so called nocebo effect can be seen in clinical trials where subjects in the placebo group still report side effects from an inactive drug.

For the most part, our modern RCT framework is a robust way to determine whether new drugs actually work, but what happens when you can’t effectively blind your trial? What happens when it is obvious to both participants and assessors whether someone has been given a placebo or not?

This is the problem at the center of the promising emerging field of modern psychedelic science. And according to Suresh Muthukumaraswamy, a psychopharmacologist from the University of Auckland, this is such a major issue that most modern psychedelic clinical trials are probably reporting over-estimated effect sizes.

Suresh recently co-authored a comprehensive article on the subject with colleagues Anna Forsythe and Thomas Lumley. While recognizing the promising research findings from psychedelic studies over the past 10 to 20 years the article presents a case for why many modern psychedelic clinical trials are flawed and suggests what can be done to deliver more rigorous results. Speaking to New Atlas about his latest article, Suresh, who is also running one of the world’s first placebo-controlled LSD microdosing trials, is skeptical there is enough good evidence to show any of these current psychedelic medicines are ready for full public approval.

“On the basis of the evidence that’s been collected, at this point, I don’t see any reason why you would think that these drugs and interventions are approvable with the current issues they have in terms of design,” Suresh says.

The psychotherapy problem

The blinding and expectancy problem in many psychedelic trials goes deeper than participants being able to simply tell they have been administered the placebo, according to Suresh. Many modern psychedelic drug trials involve comprehensive accompanying psychotherapy protocols. These interventions are not simply claiming a single psilocybin dose will cure a person’s depression, but instead they often incorporate two or three day-long active drug sessions into a larger multi-month psychotherapy framework.

Therapy sessions both precede and follow the drug sessions in order to help a patient effectively integrate the psychedelic experience into a positive therapeutic outcome. And the entire treatment protocol can span anywhere from 6 to 12 weeks.

Knowing one is part of a placebo group is more than just a momentary disappointment in this context. It often means both therapist and patient still have to engage in the entire treatment protocol with full awareness they are not part of the active drug cohort.

“So you imagine someone getting a therapist who’s potentially slightly motivated to treat this patient,” explains Suresh. “And so they’re sitting in a psychedelic therapy session with the patient. They don’t know what they’ve been given, but the patient quickly realizes that they’ve been given placebo, and the therapist is sitting there going like, this person’s been given a placebo. So is that therapist going to deliver as good a psychiatric intervention for the patient? Because one of the things we know about psychotherapy is that the build up of that relationship between the patient and the therapist is one of the strongest predictors of good outcome that we can have.”

Add to this the popular wave of media coverage heralding the revolutionary potential of psychedelic medicine and you have a perfect storm of bias and expectancy both enhancing the positive effects for those in the active group and amplifying the negative outcomes for those getting the placebo.

But how much of a problem is this really? According to Suresh there are hints in the literature quantifying how much this blinding problem could be influencing research findings. One of the clues comes from the growing body of research investigating the antidepressant qualities of ketamine.

Many of these ketamine trials use what is called an active placebo to try and help maintain blinding. A sedative known as midazolam is administered to the placebo group in the hopes that its mild psychoactive properties somewhat confuse some subjects into thinking they have been given ketamine. Metastudies comparing the results from ketamine trials using inactive placebos to those using midazolam suggests significant differences in efficacy when a subject is clearly aware they have been given an inactive placebo.

“When they compare ketamine to a saline placebo, the effect sizes that are reported are around D = 1.8. That’s a massive effect size. It’s just enormous. When they use midazolam as the active placebo, that effect size drops from 1.8 to 0.7,” says Suresh. “That is an absolutely enormous drop.”

Suresh adds that midazolam is not even a strongly convincing active placebo, with many trial participants still effectively guessing which group they ultimately were randomized into. And while active placebos certainly may be a factor in helping deliver better results moving forward it could be challenging, if not impossible, to find an active placebo that is comparable to drugs such as LSD or psilocybin.

Despite these challenges Suresh does not suggest we need to abandon RCTs for psychedelic research … at least not yet. High dose/low dose groupings could be a way around the active placebo problem, offering extra insights into treatment outcomes for different doses. But in general he calls for more rigor and transparency in the ways psychedelic trials are designed and reported.

More detailed reporting of how effective the blinding was in any given trial is one suggestion. Another is more pre-publishing of trial protocols before the trials are actually conducted. Suresh says it is shocking how few psychedelic clinical trials are clearly pre-publishing study protocols and it is a massive problem leading to unsuccessful trials being buried, or worse, being spun with positive outcomes by cherry-picking effect measures.

Alongside this he calls for more clarity into exactly how trial designs are communicated to prospective subjects. Just describing likely outcomes to trial participants has been shown to influence treatment effects. In the past these factors have not generally been acknowledged in great detail, after all, if your blinding is strong it shouldn’t really make much of a difference.

But in the world of psychedelic science things seem to play out a little differently. A compelling study published last year from a team of Canadian researchers set out to try and experimentally quantify the psychedelic placebo effect by inventing a fictional psychedelic drug and staging a fake party.

Tripping on nothing

The study recruited a cohort of subjects under the pretense of testing the effect of psychedelic drugs on creativity in a natural environment. The subjects were introduced to a drug called iprocin, described as a fast-acting psychedelic similar to psilocybin.

The entire experience was staged to give participants the impression they were taking part in a serious psychedelic drug experiment, from amplified security procedures upon entering the research facility, to undercover research assistants wandering around the simulated party environment pretending to be other trial participants feeling the effects of the fictional drug.

The results were striking, with over 60 percent of subjects reporting feeling some kind of psychedelic effect. Only 35 percent of the cohort correctly guessed the drug was a placebo, and 50 percent of those who reported feeling a psychedelic effect actually had previous experience with psychedelic drugs.

One conclusion from the study was a call for psychedelic researchers to better describe the experimental conditions of any given trial. If the behavior of those overseeing psychedelic experiments can influence outcomes to such a significant degree then we certainly need more transparency in detailing these factors. It may be unconventional to describe these factors in a study reporting data from a RCT, but there is nothing conventional about psychedelic science.

On the basis of the evidence that’s been collected, at this point, I don’t see any reason why you would think that these drugs and interventions are approvable with the current issues they have in terms of design

Moving forward, Suresh is frank about the problems psychedelic researchers are facing. He is quick to point out the myriad of problems in his own prior research, often citing his mistakes as examples instead of referencing others. But he says the most important takeaway is now that we know what the problems in the research are, from here on in we should start tightening up practices and improving protocols.

“It’s a new field of science,” he says. “The first wave of stuff is likely to be flawed. So the question is how can we make it better? We may not be able to achieve perfection, but we can at least try harder.”

The new article was published in the Expert Review of Clinical Pharmacology.

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ESA selects EnVision orbiter to uncover mysteries of Venus



ESA has selected EnVision as its next Venus orbiter. Scheduled to launch atop an Ariane 6 rocket between 2031 and 2033, the robotic deep-space probe will carry out a comprehensive survey of Earth’s sibling planet to learn why the two turned out so very different.

One of the great surprises of the Space Age was the discovery by the Early NASA Mariner probes that Venus and Earth, which seem so similar, are actually dramatically different. One common speculation in the first half of the 20th century was that, because Venus is a little smaller than the Earth and inside what we now call the habitable zone, the band in the solar system where liquid water can exist, it was very likely habitable. Some of the more imaginative ones even speculated that Venus was covered with tropical swamps inhabited by Venusian dinosaurs.

Instead, the flyby and orbiter probes revealed a dry world with a carbon dioxide atmosphere 90 times denser than the Earth’s, sulfuric acid rains, and a surface temperature that is hot enough to melt lead. The question is, why? What factors led to Earth becoming a wet, habitable world, while Venus became so toxic?

EnVision in orbit around Venus
EnVision in orbit around Venus


ESA’s fifth medium-class mission for its Cosmic Vision plan, Envision will work with upcoming NASA Venus orbiters and the US agency’s Deep Space Network to study the planet from its core to its upper atmosphere to build up a comprehensive profile of Venus and its evolution, as well as answer questions like, is Venus still geologically active with live volcanoes?

For the survey, Envision will carry NASA’s Venus Synthetic Aperture Radar (VenSAR) for mapping the surface, and the VenSpec-M, VenSpec-H and VenSpec-U spectrometers from various European space organizations, which will study trace gases in the atmosphere and on the surface that might be linked to volcanic activity. In addition, France will provide the Subsurface Sounding Radar (SRS) for probing the interior of the planet’s crust, and France and Germany will conduct a radio science experiment to probe the structure of Venus and its gravitational field.

EnVision now moves into the Definition Phase, when the satellite’s basic design and instruments will be selected before formal designing begins. After launching, the spacecraft will take 15 months to reach Venus and another 16 months to go into its final 92-minute circular orbit at an altitude between 138 and 336 miles (220 and 540 km) through a series of aerobraking maneuvers.

Venus as seen from the Venus Express orbiter
Venus as seen from the Venus Express orbiter


“EnVision benefits from collaboration with NASA, combining excellence in European and American expertise in Venus science and technology, to create this ambitious mission,” says Günther Hasinger, ESA Director of Science. “EnVision further strengthens Europe’s role in the scientific exploration of the Solar System. Our growing mission fleet will give us, and future generations, the best insights ever into how our planetary neighborhood works, particularly relevant in an era where we are discovering more and more unique exoplanet systems.”

The animation below shows EnVision deploying its instruments


Source: ESA

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Microspheres coated in stem cells could help mend broken hearts



It’s a cruel reality that the heart has such a limited capacity to heal itself, meaning that people who survive heart attacks often go on to have more. Now, researchers at the University College London (UCL) have grown heart cells from stem cells, embedded them onto microspheres and injected them into damaged hearts to help repair them.

After a heart attack, the vital organ patches up the damage with scar tissue, which keeps its structure intact but at the crucial expense of rhythm. Because this tissue doesn’t beat, eventually the stress can lead to heart failure.

The problem seems to be that heart stem cells don’t exist, so heart muscle cannot be replenished. That complicates stem cell therapies, which have proven promising in regenerative medicine in other parts of the body. Some success has been found using more general stem cells, but frustratingly they seem to have a hard time staying in the right place in the heart long enough to get to work.

And that’s the issue that the new study set out to address. Other teams have attempted to keep stem cells in place by embedding them in hydrogels or combining heart muscle and supportive cells, but this time the UCL researchers used biodegradable microspheres.

Each measuring just a quarter of a millimeter wide, these microspheres have a very porous structure, giving cells plenty of surface area to attach to. Heart cells are then grown from stem cells on these microspheres, where they’re able to form connections and develop into new heart tissue that can beat. The spheres are small enough that they could be injected into heart muscle.

Stem cells growing on the surface of the microspheres
Stem cells growing on the surface of the microspheres

University College London

In lab tests, the new cells were able to beat for up to 40 days in a dish, and when injected into rat hearts they stayed in place for up to six days. Obviously that still leaves a lot of room for improvement, but it’s a promising start.

“To truly mend broken hearts, it is important that stem cells are delivered in a way that allows them to survive within their new environment and turn into heart muscle cells,” says Daniel Stuckey, lead researcher on the study. “Our technology provides a new way of ensuring that the cells injected into the heart are working as they should. We hope this research will give us the information essential for making stem cell therapy a realistic treatment for people with heart disease.”

Other recent research has tackled the problem of repairing damaged hearts by using things like cardiac progenitor cells, placental stem cells, stem cell “messengers” called exosomes, or healing cells in the fluid around the heart, while some have reprogrammed structural cells into ones that beat.

The new research was presented at the British Cardiovascular Society Conference.

Source: UCL

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