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Northwest science news roundup: COVID-detecting bubbles, bike safety, a vaccine for breast cancer

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Sarah Levine
/
Pacific Northwest National Laboratory
Researchers at the Pacific Northwest National Lab have developed a method to detect ambient COVID-19 viruses in the air. Tiny specially designed bubbles pop on contact with the virus, creating a faint electric pulse that's far easier to detect than the virus alone.

In this new monthly rundown from OPB, “All Science, No Fiction” creator Jes Burns features the most interesting, wondrous and hopeful science coming out of the Pacific Northwest.

And remember: Science builds on the science that came before. No one study tells the whole story.

A vaccine for breast cancer

It’s not often anyone can say they’ve cured cancer, but researchers at the University of Washington School of Medicine could be getting really close. They’re starting a phase 2 clinical trial on humans for a vaccine that targets so-called “HER2″ breast cancers — a particularly aggressive type that accounts for 20%-30% of breast cancers. The vaccine is designed to stimulate the body’s immune system to mount an attack on the cancer cells.

The 13-year phase 1 trial involving 66 women showed promising results: The vaccine was on par with COVID vaccines in terms of side effects, and anecdotally, it improved survival rates significantly. Given these results, the researchers say the vaccine has the potential to prevent or treat these cancers. The university is currently recruiting a larger cohort for the phase 2 trial; a phase 3 would then follow if the results continue to show promise.

Read the paper from the journal JAMA Oncology here.

Bike Boxes FTW

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David Hurwitz
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OSU College of Engineering
This virtual reality-esque setup allowed researchers to identify the safest intersection for bikes riding in traffic

Heaps of people in the Pacific Northwest commute via bike. Eugene, Portland and Corvallis have some of the highest numbers in the country. It’s great for the environment, but bike accidents aren’t uncommon.

Researchers at Oregon State University and Portland State University are trying to figure out how to make that commute safer. They looked at three different types of bike-friendly intersections: mixing zones where bikes and vehicles use the same lane, bike signals that allow only bikes to cross, and bike boxes that section off the front of a lane with paint to encourage vehicles to hang back. Using a virtual reality-esque setup with a stationary bike, the researchers tracked cyclists’ eye movements, stress levels and paths as they went through each kind of intersection.

Turns out bike boxes provided the best balance of safety without lulling the cyclist into a false sense of security.

Read the paper from the journal Accident Analysis & Prevention here.

How do we hear? No really. How do we hear?

What actually happens on a molecular level when the inner ear converts vibrations into sounds? Truth is, no one knew … until now.

Researchers at Oregon Health and Science University recently found the answer by studying roundworms, which on a fundamental level have very similar hearing bits to humans. Five years and 60 million worms later, the team was able to reveal and describe the “molecular machinery” that’s responsible for our sense of balance and what we perceive as sound.

The discovery opens up a whole new world of possible treatments for hearing loss, which affects nearly a half-billion people worldwide.

Read the paper from the journal Nature here.

Tiny bubbles … make me feel fine

3TWOBF5XM5DRPH5SNC4B7WXOSE.jpg
Sarah Levine
/
Pacific Northwest National Laboratory
Researchers at the Pacific Northwest National Lab have developed a method to detect ambient COVID-19 viruses in the air. Tiny specially designed bubbles pop on contact with the virus, creating a faint electric pulse that's far easier to detect than the virus alone.

Detecting viruses has been a challenge — they’re tiny, dispersed and require really sensitive sensors. But wouldn’t it be nice to know if there were, say, COVID-19 viruses floating around in the room you’re in?

Researchers at the Pacific Northwest National Lab have figured out a way to do just this — with teeny-tiny bubbles (200 bubbles = width of a human hair). When COVID interacts with the specially designed surface of a bubble, it causes the bubble to pop, releasing salts that were trapped inside. These salts, and the electronic signal they generate, are much easier to detect than the virus alone.

The scientists say their technology is faster, more sensitive and more accurate than other methods out there. And eventually the bubbles could be modified to detect other substances in the air as well.

Read the paper from the journal MRS Communications here.

A cure for the “Oh Dears!”

More than 11,000 deer and elk are hit by Oregon and Washington drivers every year. That’s a lot of damage to ungulates, people and cars alike. A research team at the University of Washington has identified a way to reduce those numbers: stick to daylight savings time year-round.

The team looked at trends in vehicle-deer collisions and how they corresponded with the twice-annual time change. The earlier it gets dark, the more deer get hit. This holds especially true in the autumn in the week after we “fall back.” Collisions rise by 16%, in part because deer rutting season’s in full swing. The analysis showed that collisions could be decreased by 2.3% — that’s approaching 40,000 deer nationwide — just by sticking to DST.

Oregon, Washington, Idaho and California have all indicated they want to cut out the time changes, but they need congressional approval to make it happen.

Read the paper from the journal Current Biology here.

Watch more videos from “All Science. No Fiction.” on the science of sleep, a drone that can smell things and how solar panels can help sheep and the farmers who raise them.