Researchers Determine How Often Cancer Patients Develop Osteonecrosis Of the Jaw (Medicine)

A landmark study by researchers from the SWOG Cancer Research Network, a cancer clinical trials group funded by the National Cancer Institute (NCI), part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), has found that 2.8 percent of patients on average develop osteonecrosis of the jaw, or ONJ, within three years of starting a common treatment for cancer that has spread to the bone.

Dr. Catherine Van Poznak is the co-chair of a new SWOG Cancer Research Network trial that details, for the first time, the incidence of a common bone disease in cancer patients. © University of Michigan Rogel Cancer Center

Appearing in JAMA Oncology, the findings are important because the treatment, zoledronic acid, is prescribed to tens of thousands of patients whose cancer has spread to the bone. Almost all forms of cancer can spread, or metastasize, to bone but the most common are lung, breast, and prostate cancers and multiple myeloma. Zoledronic acid can protect bone, but is associated with a risk of ONJ, which causes exposed bone in the jaw that does not heal. This causes inflammation and pain in the mouth, and people with ONJ may have trouble speaking, eating, and smiling – small everyday acts that play a big role in patients’ quality of life.

No prior studies had reliably determined how common ONJ is. The SWOG study is the first, and largest, to follow cancer patients over time to determine the incidence of ONJ as well as its risk factors. It was conducted by SWOG through the NCI’s National Clinical Trials Network and its NCI Community Oncology Research Program.

Catherine Van Poznak, MD, the co-chair of the study, known as S0702, and a breast cancer physician at the University of Michigan Rogel Cancer Center, said an estimated 280,000 adults in the U.S. live with metastatic bone disease. If they’re all treated with zoledronic acid, according to S0702 findings, about 7,840 will develop ONJ in three years.

“Until now, we’ve never had good estimates of how many cancer patients get ONJ, and we’ve found that while a small percentage develop the condition, a significant number of people are at risk of being affected,” Van Poznak said. “It’s important for physicians and patients to have a better understanding not only of the incidence of ONJ, but what the risk factors are and how it impacts patients.”

Bone health is a major issue in cancer care, and zoledronic acid is the most frequently prescribed protective agent to treat bone metastases. The drug is beneficial because it reduces cancer’s ability to break down bone, a process that unfortunately also can cause fractures, pain, and other complications.

Van Poznak and her SWOG colleagues wanted to understand ONJ better, and launched S0702, a large-scale, prospective study designed to determine the incidence of the disease in cancer patients and to learn more about risk factors and impact on quality of life.

A total of 3,571 participants from 172 sites were registered onto the trial, and 3,491 patients were evaluated in the final results. All had metastatic bone disease and were prescribed zoledronic acid within 30 days of joining the study. Most of the patients had breast, prostate, lung cancers or multiple myeloma. In the study, medical, dental, and patient-reported outcome (PRO) forms were collected every six months. If patients were diagnosed with ONJ while participating in the trial, the dental exam was conducted and the paperwork was submitted every three months. Patients were followed for three years.

The key findings:

  • Among the 3,491 patients analyzed, 90 cases of ONJ were confirmed. The estimated cumulative incidence of confirmed ONJ at three years was 2.8 percent. At three years, the highest ONJ rates were among multiple myeloma patients and lowest among breast cancer patients.
  • Those most at risk for ONJ had pre-existing poor dental health, as defined by missing teeth, dentures, or prior oral surgery. Smokers were more likely to develop ONJ. Patients who received zoledronic acid in shorter dosing intervals – every five weeks or less – also were at greater risk for getting ONJ.
  • Participants who developed ONJ reported a much worse quality of life based on oral health symptoms such as pain.

Van Poznak said the findings may provide evidence to support less frequent use of zoledronic acid – such as every 12 weeks – to reduce the risk of cancer patients developing ONJ.

S0702 was supported by the NIH through NCI award CA189974 and also in part by Novartis.

The study team included Joseph M. Unger, PhD, SWOG Statistics and Data Management Center; Amy Darke, MS, SWOG Statistics and Data Management Center; Carol Moinpour, PhD, Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center; Robert A. Bagramian, DDS, PhD, University of Michigan School of Dentistry; Mark M. Schubert, DDS, MSD, University of Washington School of Dentistry; Lisa Kathryn Hansen, RN, MS, Legacy Good Samaritan Hospital; Justin D. Floyd, DO, FACOI, Heartland NCORP; Shaker R. Dakhi, Wichita NCORP; Danika L. Lew, SWOG Statistics and Data Management Center; James Lloyd Wade III, MD, Cancer Care Specialists of Illinois; Michael J. Fisch, MD, MPH, University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center; N. Lynn Henry, MD, PhD, University of Michigan Rogel Cancer Center; Dawn L. Hershman, MD, MS, NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia University Irving Medical Center’s Herbert Irving Comprehensive Cancer Center; and Julie Gralow, MD, of University of Washington, Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, and Seattle Cancer Care Alliance.

Provided by SWOG

Researchers Discover Protein Function That Could Improve Chemotherapy in the Future ( Medicine)

A protein responsible for orchestrating DNA key signaling and repair pathways could play a role in future chemotherapy treatment for cancer patients. The protein’s function has been described by researchers at University of Copenhagen.

Photo: Colourbox.

Chemotherapy attacks all cells in our body and not just cancer cells, which is why patients undergoing the treatment often experience side effects such as physical weakness, hair loss and nausea. However, because cancer cells divide and spread faster than most normal cells, cancer cells are more sensitive to chemotherapy, which kills cells by inhibiting their ability to spread. Chemotherapy often targets and damages DNA so that cancer cells can no longer replicate their genome, which is the process of copying the genetic information, and stop the growth and die.

However, cancer cells may find ways to escape the chemotherapy. When attacked by chemotherapy, cells – including cancer cells – will try to repair or bypass the damage.

A group of researchers at the Faculty of Health and Medical Sciences, University of Copenhagen, are trying to figure out how cells repair or bypass the lesions induced by chemotherapy, in the hope to provide new methods to inhibit these repair processes and make the chemotherapy more efficient.

In a new collaborative work with different laboratories at the Center for Protein Research, Associate Professor Julien Duxin and his group have revealed a protein that seems to play a vital role in recruiting DNA key repair and signaling factors. If they are right, the discovery could be important for future chemotherapy treatment.

‘We have found strong evidence that the protein RFWD3 is responsible for orchestrating the repair of different DNA lesions induced by chemotherapy. If we can inhibit this protein, we could potentially block cells from tolerating DNA lesions, which could lead to more effective chemotherapy in the future’, says Julien Duxin, group leader at The Novo Nordisk Foundation Center for Protein Research.

Uncovering the knowledge gap

The findings, published in Molecular Cell, is the culmination of three years of research at the Duxin Group. The group focuses on understanding the basic principles of DNA replication and DNA repair which allow cells to repair genomic lesions like the ones induced by chemotherapy says Julien Duxin.

‘Since the 1950s and the pioneer work from Sydney Farber, we have been treating cancer patients with different types of chemotherapeutic agents. These are extremely toxic agents, which have been approved in the clinic because they are effective at killing cancer cells. But the truth is that we still don’t know how cells can repair the damage caused by the treatment. It is a huge knowledge gap, which we are trying to fill in with our fundamental research’, he says.

Using egg extracts from African frogs, which contain the same repair factors than the ones present in our cells, the group was able to identify the protein RFWD3 as a critical coordinator of the repair events that happen when cells are replicating across from DNA lesions.

The group observed that the absence of the protein leads to a profound defect in recruitment of the components needed to repair and tolerate the damage.

‘Repairing DNA lesions is a complex sequence of multiple events. Our goal is to identify the proteins at each event, which are essential to do this type of repair’, says Julien Duxin.

Little is known about how repair works across different kinds of DNA damage. The group is now trying to set up simple systems so it becomes possible to molecularly study how these damages are repaired, Julien Duxin explains.

‘We have very little knowledge about how most of these lesions caused by chemotherapy are repaired inside our cells. We are setting up different model systems to study this in detail and identify the key enzymes essential to this process. And by knowing those key enzymes we also get key targets that companies can aim to inhibit’, he says.

The study ‘The ubiquitin ligase RFWD3 is required for translesion DNA synthesis’ is published in Molecular Cell.

Provided by University of Copenhagen

Scientists Unlock Promising Key to Preventing Cancer Relapse After Immunotherapy (Medicine)

Findings lay roadmap for future clinical trials to improve efficacy and survival after targeted immunotherapies.

Mount Sinai researchers have solved one of the enduring mysteries of cancer immunotherapy: Why does it completely eliminate tumors in many patients, even when not all the cells in those tumors have the molecular target that the therapy is aimed at?

The answer involves a protein called fas, and regulating fas may be a route to preventing cancer relapse, the researchers reported in a study published in Cancer Discovery in December.

Cancer immunotherapies target antigens, or proteins, on the surface of tumor cells. One common example is a protein called CD19. But even when most cells in a tumor express CD19 on their surface, some do not. And tumors are constantly evolving and often experience “antigen escape,” meaning that the target is no longer expressed, which can make the immunotherapy fail and the cancer relapse.

The researchers discovered that cancer immunotherapies that make use of immune system cells such as T cells and CAR-T cells kill not only tumor cells that express the drugs’ target, but also adjacent tumor cells that lack the targets, because of the presence of fas. This process, known as bystander killing, can be made more effective by adding therapeutics that turn off the regulation of fas proteins, the researchers said.

“This study should engender many clinical trials solving the common weakness of immunotherapies–antigen escape and relapse,” said Joshua Brody, MD, Director of the Lymphoma Immunotherapy Program at The Tisch Cancer Institute at Mount Sinai. “Specifically, by combining immunotherapies with small molecule inhibitors that increase fas-signaling, which are already being used in the clinic, bystander tumor cell killing may be potentiated and eliminate antigen-loss variants from heterogenous tumors.”

T cell-based immunotherapies–including CAR-T, bispecific antibodies, and anti-PD1 antibodies–have revolutionized cancer treatment. However, even with the remarkably high response rates of CAR-T-treated patients, most either progress or relapse within one year.

In this study, Mount Sinai researchers looked at tumors from patients in a large clinical trial studying CAR-T’s effectiveness in patients with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and found for the first time that the level of fas present in the tumors predicted the patients’ response to the drug and their long-term survival. Those with significantly elevated fas in their tumors had longer-lasting positive responses to the therapy.

Based on this, the researchers tested small-molecule therapies that increased the function of fas in the tumor cells, in turn increasing the targeted and bystander tumor cell killing induced by T cells, CAR-T cells, and bispecific antibodies.

Provided by Mount Sinai Hospital

About the Mount Sinai Health System

The Mount Sinai Health System is New York City’s largest academic medical system, encompassing eight hospitals, a leading medical school, and a vast network of ambulatory practices throughout the greater New York region. Mount Sinai is a national and international source of unrivaled education, translational research and discovery, and collaborative clinical leadership ensuring that we deliver the highest quality care–from prevention to treatment of the most serious and complex human diseases. The Health System includes more than 7,200 physicians and features a robust and continually expanding network of multispecialty services, including more than 400 ambulatory practice locations throughout the five boroughs of New York City, Westchester, and Long Island. The Mount Sinai Hospital is ranked No. 14 on U.S. News & World Report’s “Honor Roll” of the Top 20 Best Hospitals in the country and the Icahn School of Medicine as one of the Top 20 Best Medical Schools in country. Mount Sinai Health System hospitals are consistently ranked regionally by specialty and our physicians in the top 1% of all physicians nationally by U.S. News & World Report.

For more information, visit https://www.mountsinai.org or find Mount Sinai on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.

A New Means of Neuronal Communication Discovered In the Human Brain (Neuroscience)

In a new study published in Nature Communications, research groups of Professor J. Matias Palva and Research Director Satu Palva at the Neuroscience Centre of the University of Helsinki and Aalto University, in collaboration with the University of Glasgow and the University of Genoa, have identified a novel coupling mechanism linking neuronal networks by using human intracerebral recordings.

Neuronal oscillations are an essential part of the functioning of the human brain. They regulate the communication between neural networks and the processing of information carried out by the brain by pacing neuronal groups and synchronizing brain regions.

High-frequency oscillations with frequencies over 100 Hertz are known to indicate the activity of small neuronal populations. However, up to now, they have been considered to be exclusively a local phenomenon.

The findings of the European research project demonstrate that also high-frequency oscillations over 100 Hertz synchronize across several brain regions. This important finding reveals that strictly-timed communication between brain regions can be achieved by high-frequency oscillations.

The researchers observed that high-frequency oscillations were synchronized between neuronal groups with a similar architecture of brain structures across subjects, but occurring in individual frequency bands. Carrying out a visual task resulted in the synchronization of high-frequency oscillations in the specific brain regions responsible for the task execution.

These observations suggest that high-frequency oscillations convey within the brain ‘information packages’ from one small neuronal group to another.

The discovery of high-frequency oscillations synchronized between brain regions is the first evidence of the transmission and reception of such information packages in a context broader than individual locations in the brain. The finding also helps to understand how the healthy brain processes information and how this processing is altered in brain diseases.

References: Arnulfo, G., Wang, S.H., Myrov, V. et al. Long-range phase synchronization of high-frequency oscillations in human cortex. Nat Commun 11, 5363 (2020). https://www.nature.com/articles/s41467-020-18975-8 https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-020-18975-8

Provided by University of Helsinki

Cataract Surgery In Infancy Increases Glaucoma Risk (Ophthalmology)

Children who undergo cataract surgery as infants have a 22% risk of glaucoma 10 years later, whether or not they receive an intraocular lens implant. The findings come from the National Eye Institute (NEI)-funded Infant Aphakic Treatment Study, which today published 10-year follow-up results in JAMA Ophthalmology.

The meshwork and angle are structures that allow fluid to exit the eye, as shown. Scientists speculate that surgery to remove the cataract interferes with the maturation of this “drainage” system that removes fluid from the infant’s eye, leading to increased eye pressure and damage to the child’s eye. Credit: National Eye Institute

“These findings underscore the need for long-term glaucoma surveillance among infant cataract surgery patients. They also provide some measure of assurance that it is not necessary to place an intraocular lens at the time of cataract surgery,” said Michael F. Chiang, M.D., director of NEI.

“The results challenge the notion that replacing the child’s lens with an implanted one protects the child from developing glaucoma, a belief among some pediatric ophthalmology surgeons,” said the trial’s principal investigator, Scott R. Lambert, M.D., professor of ophthalmology at Stanford University, Palo Alto, California.

At the time of cataract removal, the 114 study participants (ages 1-6 months) had been born with cataract in one eye. In the operating room, the infants were randomly assigned to receive an artificial lens implant or go without a lens, a condition called aphakia.

Annually, fewer than 2,500 children in the U.S. are born with cataract, a clouding of the eye’s lens. Surgery is used to remove and replace the cloudy lens. To allow the child’s eye to focus light properly following removal of the cataract, an intraocular lens implant may be placed at surgery, or the eye may be left aphakic, and a contact lens (or glasses, if both eyes have had a cataract removed) may be used to provide the needed correction.

“I tell patients’ parents that implanting a lens in the infant’s eye is like buying your child’s wedding shoes when they’re an infant. It is hard to predict what final power the intraocular lens should have, without knowing how that eye will grow over the years, so placing a lens at the time of cataract removal in an infant involves estimation, and may not turn out to be correct. Hence the eye may end up needing strong glasses or even replacement of the original lens implant.,” said the lead author on the paper, Sharon F. Freedman, M.D., a pediatric glaucoma specialist at Duke University, Durham, North Carolina.

Children who undergo cataract removal have an increased risk of glaucoma, a sight-threatening condition that damages the optic nerve—the connection between the eye and brain. Scientists speculate that surgery to remove the cataract interferes with the maturation of how fluid flows out of the infant’s eye leading to increased eye pressure and optic nerve damage in some of these eyes.

Among the 110 children who were available for re-examination at 10 years, 25 eyes (24%) had developed glaucoma, and 21 eyes (20%) were glaucoma suspects due to elevated eye pressure. However, visual acuity was similar among those eyes that developed glaucoma compared to those eyes that had not. The researchers found no evidence of glaucoma-related eye damage, assessed by imaging of the optic nerve head to measure the retinal nerve fiber layer thickness.

The investigators attribute the absence of glaucoma-related eye damage to close patient monitoring, as any sign of glaucoma was aggressively treated.

While the lifetime glaucoma risk trajectory for patients who have cataract removal as infants remains unknown, this study found that the risk of glaucoma after cataract removal rose from 9% at 1 year, to 17% at 5 years, and to 22% at 10 years.

“Any child who has had a cataract removed needs to be seen by an eye care provider once a year at a minimum,” said Freedman. “Any child diagnosed with glaucoma or above-normal intraocular pressure without signs of ocular damage—what we called glaucoma suspect—should be monitored every four to six months depending upon the stability of the condition and the health of the eye.”

At 10 years, 40% of the followed children had developed the diagnosis of glaucoma or glaucoma suspect. A glaucoma suspect is an eye that has above normal eye pressure or another feature suspicious but not diagnostic of glaucoma.

The findings also confirm that the timing of cataract surgery is a balancing act: Whereas surgery at younger ages increases glaucoma risk, delaying surgery increases risk of amblyopia, a leading cause of visual impairment in children that results when cataract in one eye causes the brain to ignore signals from that eye and favor the other eye.

Future studies of glaucoma following cataract surgery in children will benefit from groundwork by the Infant Aphakic Treatment Study. Freedman said collaboration among the 12 study centers defined diagnostic standards for pediatric glaucoma and glaucoma suspect and criteria for glaucoma-related adverse events. “This cohort began the process leading to an international classification of childhood glaucoma in 2013 that is used around the world today,” she said.

References: Freedman, SF; Beck, AD; Nizam, A; Vanderveen, DK; Plager, DA; Morrison, DG; Drews-Botsch, CD; Lambert, SR; The Infant Aphakia Treatment Study Group. “Glaucoma-related adverse events at 10 years in the Infant Aphakia Treatment Study: a randomized clinical trial”. Published December 17, 2020, JAMA Ophthalmology.

Provided by National Eye Institute

About the National Institutes of Health (NIH): NIH, the nation’s medical research agency, includes 27 Institutes and Centers and is a component of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. NIH is the primary federal agency conducting and supporting basic, clinical, and translational medical research, and is investigating the causes, treatments, and cures for both common and rare diseases. For more information about NIH and its programs, visit https://www.nih.gov/.

Middle-ear Implants Improve Hearing Over the Long Term (Medicine)

Study by Karl Landsteiner University of Health Sciences in Krems finds lasting improvement in word recognition among patients with middle-ear implants in the part of the ear known as the round window.

Audibly good: Special middle ear implants also improve hearing in the long term © Karl Landsteiner University

Middle-ear implants that stimulate auditory nerves via the round window can improve hearing for many years. In most cases, these electronic hearing aids can be implanted and used without any problems. Complications are limited to patients who have previously had benign tumors removed from their middle ear. These are the recently published findings of a study of 46 individuals carried out at Karl Landsteiner University of Health Sciences in Krems (KL Krems). The study considered periods of as much as six years after implantation, making it one of the first long-term investigations of the effectiveness of these specialized middle-ear implants.

Middle-ear implants are often a simple but effective means of improving people’s hearing. Alongside other technologies, a device called a Vibrant Soundbridge (VSB) has proved its worth. This technology converts sound waves into mechanical vibrations which are then passed on to the auditory structures in the middle ear. This process can stimulate different parts of the middle ear. A method adopted in the past few years is based on connecting the VSB with the round window, which joins the inner and middle ear. Several studies have demonstrated the short-term benefits of the operation forpatients, but until now, little data has been collected on the question ofwhether the method is also successful in the long run. A study by KL Kremshas now filled this gap.

Improvement lasts several years

The study looked at 46 patients who had a VSB that was implanted an averageof just over 2.5 years previously—although in one case the individual had had the device for over six years. “Even after such lengths of time we were still able to measure a clear—and statistically highly significant—improvement in word recognition among the subjects,” says Univ.-Prof. Georg Mathias Sprinzl, head of the Ear, Nose and Throat Department at St. Pölten University Hospital—which is part of KL Krems—outlining the positive long-term effectof VSB implants in the middle ear. The study also found that the surgical procedure and implantation of a miniature device did not have an adverse impact on the patients’ residual hearing.

The implant is suitable for people who have problems with sound-wave transmission or suffer mixed hearing loss, but fitting it is a highly complex operation that requires not only high-end devices but also a surgeon with extensive experience and outstanding surgical skills. Prof. Sprinzl is an internationally recognized expert in this field, with more than 320 surgical VSBimplants—more than half of them in the past six years alone—to his name. “This operation demands such a high degree of experience because the VSB can be connected with various structures in the middle ear,” he explains, referring to the challenge associated with this specialized treatment option. “At the same time, it opens up a huge range of possibilities so we can implant the device in a way that achieves the best possible result for each individual patient.” As shown by the results of the study, which has been published in The Laryngoscope, the procedure is particularly complex if a tumor (known as a cholesteatoma) has to be removed from the patient’s middle ear beforehand. All seven of the subjects who required multiple operations had suffered fromthe condition.

The middle-ear implant works by transforming sound waves into vibrations. An audio processor fitted behind the ear picks up sounds in the form of sound waves and transmits them through the skin to the VSB implant in the middle ear. The VSB turns the waves into vibrations, replicating the natural hearing process. Then the mechanical vibrations stimulate the cochlea, which sends audio signals to the brain via auditory nerves, creating auditory perception.

According to the study, the average length of time for which these leading-edge technical products are worn—a substantial 13 hours a day, encompassing virtually the entire daytime—is an indicator of the benefits for patients who undergo the painstaking implantation. Like other such investigations, this study has again enabled KL Krems to highlight the importance for medical engineering of close collaboration between clinical and academic activities, which generates real improvements in patients’ quality of life.

References: Georg Mathias Sprinzl et al. Long‐Term Stability and Safety of the Soundbridge Coupled to the Round Window, The Laryngoscope (2020). DOI: 10.1002/lary.29269 https://doi.org/10.1002/lary.29269

Provided by Karl Landsteiner University

Detailing The Formation of Distant Solar Systems With NASA’s Webb Telescope (Astronomy)

We live in a mature solar system—eight planets and several dwarf planets (like Pluto) have formed, the latter within the rock- and debris-filled region known as the Kuiper Belt. If we could turn back time, what would we see as our solar system formed? While we can’t answer this question directly, researchers can study other systems that are actively forming—along with the mix of gas and dust that encircles their still-forming stars—to learn about this process.

Still-forming solar systems, known as planet-forming disks, come in a variety of shapes and sizes—and some show that bodies like forming planets may be clearing paths as they orbit the central stars. A research team led by Thomas Henning of the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy in Heidelberg, Germany, will survey more than 50 targets, including TW Hydrae (left), HD 135344B (center), and 2MASS J16281370 (right) using NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope. The observatory’s capabilities in infrared light and its high-resolution data will allow them to very precisely model which elements and molecules are present, adding to our understanding of the makeup of these planet-forming disks. Credit: NASA, ESA, ESO, STScI, S. Andrews (Harvard-Smithsonian CfA), B. Saxton (NRAO/AUI/NSF), ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO), T. Stolker et al.

A team led by Dr. Thomas Henning of the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy in Heidelberg, Germany, will employ NASA’s upcoming James Webb Space Telescope to survey more than 50 planet-forming disks in various stages of growth to determine which molecules are present and ideally pinpoint similarities, helping to shape what we know about how solar systems assemble.

Their research with Webb will specifically focus on the inner disks of relatively nearby, forming systems. Although information about these regions has been obtained by previous telescopes, none match Webb’s sensitivity, which means many more details will pour in for the first time. Plus, Webb’s space-based location about a million miles (1.5 million kilometers) from Earth will give it an unobstructed view of its targets. “Webb will provide unique data that we can’t get any other way,” said Inga Kamp of the Kapteyn Astronomical Institute of the University of Groningen in the Netherlands. “Its observations will provide molecular inventories of the inner disks of these solar systems.”

This research program will primarily gather data in the form of spectra. Spectra are like rainbows—they spread out light into its component wavelengths to reveal high-resolution information about the temperatures, speeds, and compositions of the gas and dust. This incredibly rich information will allow the researchers to construct far more detailed models of what is present in the inner disks—and where. “If you apply a model to these spectra, you can find out where molecules are located and what their temperatures are,” Henning explained.

These observations will be incredibly valuable in helping the researchers pinpoint similarities and differences among these planet-forming disks, which are also known as protoplanetary disks. “What can we learn from spectroscopy that we can’t learn from imaging? Everything!” Ewine van Dishoeck of Leiden University in the Netherlands exclaimed. “One spectrum is worth a thousand images.”

This infographic is an simplified artistic representation of planet formation, following the format of a baking recipe. Credit: L. Hustak (STScI)

A “Mountain” of New Data

Researchers have long studied protoplanetary disks in a variety of wavelengths of light, from radio to near-infrared. Some of the team’s existing data are from the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) in Chile, which collects radio light. ALMA excels at constructing images of the outer disks. If you were to compare the span of their outer disks to the size of our Solar System, this region is past Saturn’s orbit. Webb’s data will complete the picture by helping researchers model the inner disks.

Some data already exist about these inner disks—NASA’s retired Spitzer Space Telescope served as a pathfinder—but Webb’s sensitivity and resolution are required to identify the precise quantities of each molecule as well as the elemental compositions of the gas with its data, known as spectra. “What used to be a very blurry peak in the spectrum will consist of hundreds if not thousands of detailed spectral lines,” van Dishoeck said.

Webb’s specialty in mid-infrared light is particularly important. It will enable researchers to identify the “fingerprints” of molecules like water, carbon dioxide, methane, and ammonia—which can’t be identified with any other existing instruments. The observatory will also determine how starlight impacts the chemistry and physical structures of the disks.

Protoplanetary disks are complex systems. As they form, their mix of gas and dust is distributed into rings across the system. Their materials travel from the outer disk to the inner disk—but how? “The inner portion of the disk is a very dynamic place,” explains Tom Ray of the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies in Ireland. “It’s not only where terrestrial-type planets form, but it’s also where supersonic jets are launched by the star.”

Video: Solar systems take millions of years to form. They start out as globs of gas and dust that orbit a central star, which itself may also be forming. Gravity and other forces cause material within the disk to collide. If the collision is gentle enough, the material fuses, growing like rolling snowballs. Over time, dust particles combine to form pebbles, which evolve into mile-sized rocks. As these forming planets orbit their star, they clear material from their path, leaving tracks of largely empty space. At the same time, the star gobbles up nearby gas and pushes more distant material farther away. Watch the video to see this process unfold. Credit: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center; NASA/JPL-Caltech

Jets emitted by the star lead to a mixing of elements in the inner and outer disks, both by sending out particles and permitting other particles to move inward. “We think that as material leaves, it loses its spin, or angular momentum, and that this allows other material to move inward,” Ray continued. “These exchanges of material will obviously impact the chemistry of the inner disk, which we’re excited to explore with Webb.”

Exciting Insights Await

PDS 70 is farther at 370 light-years away. It also has a large gap in its inner ring, plus data have revealed that two forming planets, known as protoplanets, are present and gathering material. “Webb’s mid-infrared measurements will help us refine what we know about them, as well as the material around them,” Kamp explained.

With dozens of targets on their list, it’s difficult for team members to play favorites. “I love them all,” Henning said. “One question I’d like to answer concerns the connection between the composition of planet-forming disks and the planets themselves. With Webb, we will observe far more detail about which types of material are available for a potential planet to accrete.”

After refining the data, his team will apply the discrete data points to models. “This will allow us to do a graphic reconstruction of these systems,” he continued. These models will be shared with the astronomical community, enabling other scientists to examine the data, and make their own projections or glean new findings. These studies will be conducted through a Guaranteed Time Observations (GTO) program.

Provided by NASA

Entering the Martian Atmosphere with the Perseverance Rover (Planetary Science)

With its heat shield facing the planet, NASA’s Perseverance rover begins its descent through the Martian atmosphere in this illustration. Hundreds of critical events must execute perfectly and exactly on time for the rover to land on Mars safely on Feb. 18, 2021.

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Entry, Descent, and Landing, or “EDL,” begins when the spacecraft reaches the top of the Martian atmosphere, travelling nearly 12,500 mph (20,000 kph).

The aeroshell, which encloses the rover and descent stage, makes the trip to the surface on its own. The vehicle fires small thrusters on the backshell to reorient itself and make sure the heat shield is facing forward as it plunges into the atmosphere.

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California built and will manage operations of the Mars 2020 Perseverance rover for NASA.

For more information about the mission, go to: https://mars.nasa.gov/mars2020.

Provided by NASA

European Space Agency Appoints Austrian Scientist New Chief (Astronomy)

The European Space Agency says that Josef Aschbacher, an Austrian scientist who leads its Earth observation program, has been appointed as the organization’s next head.

The European Space Agency said Thursday that Josef Aschbacher, an Austrian scientist who leads its Earth observation program, has been appointed as the organization’s next head.

In this Friday, Oct. 19, 2016 file photo Josef Aschbacher attends a press conference in Rome, Italy. The European Space Agency said Thursday that Josef Aschbacher, an Austrian scientist who leads its Earth observation program, has been appointed as the organization’s next head. (AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia, file)

The agency’s 22 member states elected Aschbacher to be ESA’s director general succeeding Jan Woerner, whose term ends on June 30.

Aschbacher currently oversees the ESA’s center for Earth Observation, near Rome, and has been deeply involved in some of the agency’s most high-profile missions including the Copernicus fleet of satellites collecting environmental data about the planet from space.

The European Space Agency has lately begun discussing involvement in crewed missions beyond Earth’s orbit, such as a possible return-to-the-Moon mission with NASA.

Provided by ABC News