Community Scoop

Dental detection may send heads home

Press Release – Science Media Centre

Waikato University researcher, Nicky Cameron, has road-tested technology she says could be used to identify the origins of preserved Maori heads — including many of those being returned to New Zealand from overseas museums.
Dental detection may send heads home
Issue 165 – January 20-26

In This Issue
Preserved heads

“DES Daughters”

MenB vaccine

New from the SMC

Sciblogs highlights

Research highlights

Policy updates

Sci-tech events

Dental detection may send heads home

Waikato University researcher, Nicky Cameron, has road-tested technology she says could be used to identify the origins of preserved Maori heads — including many of those being returned to New Zealand from overseas museums.

She has tested tiny amounts of enamel on the teeth of brushtail possums, using them as a model species to show that the technology could be used to compile a database for identifying the geographical origins of Maori remains – including those stored at Te Papa.

Preserved heads — known as toi moko or upoko tuhi — and other human remains such as skeletons and bones, known as koiwi tangata, are kept at the Museum of New Zealand, which actively pursues repatriations from museums and other institutions in Europe and North America.

The museum has had as many as 500 koiwi tangata and has recovered about 85 of the hundreds of preserved heads thought to have been kept in foreign museums. There have been 360 returns of remains from 13 countries and another 20 toi moko from French museums are expected to be handed back to Te Papa representatives in Paris on Monday.
Ms Cameron, a chemistry student who wrote her masters thesis on the research, collected possum teeth from around the country, because enamel on teeth is laid down in the first few years of life for most mammals, then stays mostly unchanged. Many pre-European Maori lived all their lives in the one area and ate only local food – as possums do now – so in both cases trace minerals in the teeth should be determined by mineral levels in their region’s food and water.

She used laser ablation inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometry (LA-ICP-MS) and analysed enamel for patterns in the levels of sodium, magnesium, phosphorus, calcium, manganese, zinc, strontium and barium.

“This methodology shows considerable potential for use in identifying geographical origins of human remains within New Zealand alone or as an adjunct to other techniques,” said the authors of a paper based on her research, just published in the Journal of Pacific Archeology.

Ms Cameron’s supervisor, Professor Ngahuia Te Awekotuku – another author of the research – has previously described the approach as “really important and exciting” because it could help return to their home areas “items of a sensitive nature” being sent back from overseas museums.

Read more on the Science Media Centre website.

On the science radar

Robot tails, the mathematics of murder, ancient popcorn, paralysed dog repair and the mystery of drug names revealed.

Synthetic oestrogen: the next generation
American women women who were exposed in the womb to a harmful synthetic oestrogen are taking legal action over their doubled risk of breast cancer.

A senior Dunedin academic and researcher, Professor Charlotte Paul, wrote a 2006 report on New Zealanders’ exposure to the drug diethylstilbestrol (DES), which was known here as Stilboestrol, issue in 2006. She told the SMC about 600 New Zealand women were prescribed Stilboestrol as a post-coital contraceptive, or to suppress lactation, mainly in the 1940s and 1950s, and into the 1960s. American regulators warned in 1971 against its use during pregnancy.

Last year, a study in the New England Journal of Medicine indicated an increased risk of 12 medical conditions for women who were exposed in the womb to the drug, , including a 40 times greater risk of developing a cancer of the vagina, called clear cell adenocarcinoma (CCA), and nearly double the risk of breast cancer.

The pre-trial court hearing at Boston in the USA — due to finish today — is believed to be the first major litigation alleging a link between the drug and some breast cancers in “DES daughters” over the age of 40.

“We estimated 600 exposed (NZ) women in 1984 and considered that a major underestimate,” Professor Paul told the SMC. “It may be 1000 to 2000. It is a guess now. The mothers have an increased risk of breast cancer, the daughters of CCA and breast cancer, and very commonly structural abnormalities of the reproductive tract and hence difficulty with childbearing. The sons have some reproductive tract abnormalities”.
Kiwi MenzB work aids global vaccine
Health experts trying to get a grip on Meningococcal B disease in high-income countries and regions such as South America are trialling a new broad-spectrum vaccine, partly based on pioneering work which developed the MeNZB vaccine to control New Zealand’s meningococcal B epidemic in 2004-5.

New research, just published in a leading medical journal The Lancet, drew on that vaccine specially developed to combat a meningococcal B epidemic in New Zealand in the 1990s and early 2000s, which killed 185 people and infected more than 4000.

A million young New Zealanders were vaccinated between 2004 and 2008 as the epidemic waned naturally, The vaccine was targeted to the strain circulating in New Zealand, so could not be used as a universal vaccine, but some of the bacterial components it targeted have now been incorporated in a 4CMenB vaccine providing immunity to all variants of meningococcal B serotype.

The latest clinical trial, based in Chile, shows that, after two or three doses, blood samples from 99-100 per cent of recipients indicated protection from meningococcal B infection.

Questions still to be answered include how many strains it will protect against, how long the protection will last and whether it will stop the bacteria from being passed on to others, providing indirect protection to people not vaccinated.

Read experts responses and further media coverage here.

First big funding round looms

The Ministry of Science and Innovation (MSI) says it will invest up to $59.5 million in its first major investment round to support research from discovery through to application.

MacDiarmid Institute director, Associate Professor Kathryn McGrath said today it will be the first significant contestable funding round in over two and a half years from MSI or the legacy Foundation for Research and Technology (FRST).

“During this period there have been no opportunities in the physical sciences to apply for substantial funding of new programmes and there has been a significant shift in the focus of the Government with regard to science and innovation,” she said in a newsletter. “This, coupled with the changes in the amount of money available in each of the funding categories and the large number of bids now all coming to an end at the same time, rather than in a staggered fashion, is going to have significant ramifications throughout the physical sciences community.

” The next few months will be frenetic for the many scientists working on bids. The outcomes of these bidding rounds will change the lay of the land for many in science in New Zealand.”

Quoted: Wairarapa Times Age

“Science works on hypotheses … but it has to be compelling. Most opposing arguments can be fairly easily demolished.”

Dr Adrian Macey of Victoria University says opposition to climate change science
is often not based on scientific fact

New from the SMC

Experts Respond:
Rare diseases get research boost: Biotech regulators in Britain have started public consultation on experimental reproductive procedures proposed to treat rare mitochondrial diseases.

Caffeine toxicity in pets: Not only humans have trouble with overdosing on caffeine – New Zealand’s National Poisons Centre has had five calls about pets with problems. The statistics were revealed in the wake of Australian research on caffeine overdose.

‘Million Women Study’ scrutinised: A new review has cast doubt on the findings of a large study which identified a link between hormone replacement therapy and breast cancer, but experts are treating the conclusions of both pieces of research with caution.

In the News:

Fags and booze: New research published today in the New Zealand Medical Journal has highlighted the link between unhealthy behaviours like drinking and smoking.

Reflections on Science:
Sir Paul on vitamin cancer therapy: Paul Callaghan speaks to to Radio New Zealand about his personal trial with high dose vitamin C and concern at becoming a poster boy for the alternative therapy industry.

Sciblogs highlights

Some of the highlights from this week’s posts:

Rainfall recharge to groundwater – Guest blogger Paul White explains the intricacies of how water gets from the sky deep, deep into the ground.

Climate ethics and the reckless endangerment of denial – Is the outright denial of climate change in the face of evidence unethical?, asks Bryan Walker.
Hot Topic

Getting the facts straightSherlock Holmes gets Marcus Wilson musing about data, theories and thermal imaging.
Physics Stop

Science “programming” – Aimee Whitcroft highlights the lack of actual science on supposed science TV channels (with help from PhD comics).

Research highlights
Please note: hyperlinks point, where possible, to the relevant abstract or paper.

Amazon at risk: The southern and eastern forests of the Amazon — once seen as “the planet’s lungs” may be transitioning from a net carbon sink to a net source of carbon emissions, US researchers say. Though the Amazon is resilient to individual disturbances, such as drought, multiple disturbances such as land-use change, logging and fire have overwhelmed this resilience, increasing the vulnerability of forest ecosystems.

Put a kelp in your tank: US scientists have genetically engineered E. coli bacteria to digest the sugars found in brown seaweed into ethanol, creating a potential source for renewable fuels and chemicals. The high sugar content makes for good biomass, and seaweed does not compete with food crops for land or fresh water. On a dry-weight comparison, seaweed is expected to produce twice the ethanol available from sugarcane, and five times the ethanol from corn.


Tears protect: American researchers had found how a disease-fighting protein, lysozymes, in teardrops destroys dangerous bacteria. The lysozymes have jaws that latch on and chomp through rows of cell walls like someone hungrily devouring an ear of corn.

Distant dwarf: Astronomers have announced the discovery of a dwarf galaxy halfway across the universe. The new dwarf galaxy is a satellite of an elliptical galaxy almost 10 billion light-years away from Earth, and was found using a massive elliptical galaxy, called JVAS B1938 + 666, as a gravitational lens for light from an even more distant galaxy directly behind it.

Peruvian popcorn: People in Peru were eating popcorn 1000 years earlier than previously thought, archeologists have found at sites on Peru’s arid northern coast. Corn cobs — the earliest ever discovered in South America — show they ate corn several ways, including as popcorn and flour, though it was not an important part of their diet.
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

Southern cycles: Evidence that warm-cold climate oscillations well known in the Northern Hemisphere over the most recent ice age also appear as tropical rainfall variations in the Amazon Basin of South America – the first clear expression of these cycles in the Southern Hemisphere. The new study also shows for the first time that rainfall in South America is also influenced by temperature changes in the Antarctic.
‘Exergames’ may provide cognitive benefit for older adults: Virtual reality-enhanced exercise, or “exergames,” combining physical exercise with computer-simulated environments and interactive video game features, can yield a greater cognitive benefit for older adults than traditional exercise alone, according to a new study. The research found that a virtual cycling game improved cognitive skills in a group of older participants.
American Journal of Preventive Medicine

Deaf ear: Researchers who looked at 116 USA injury cases involving pedestrians wearing headphones or earbuds found that in 55 per cent, the pedestrians were killed or hurt by trains at places such as level crossings, similar to some cases reported in NZ. Overall, the majority of victims were male (68 per cent) and under the age of 30 (67 per cent). In many cases (29 per cent) witnesses said that a warning was sounded before the crash.
Injury Prevention

Sleep cements emotionally negative memories: Contrary to previous assumptions that sleep might soften negative emotional effects of a disturbing event, new research has found that a good night’s sleep may actually strengthen the negative emotion response associated with a recalled memory. The findings have significance for people suffering post-traumatic stress disorder or those asked to give eye-witness testimony in court cases.
Journal of Neuroscience
Policy updates

Some of the highlights of this week’s policy news:

MoH updates targets – Health Minister Tony Ryall has announced that national health targets are being updated in the key preventive health areas of immunisation and cardiovascular disease (CVD), and for cancer patients receiving chemotherapy.

Seaweed farming allowed – The MAF is announcing three small geographical areas where farming of the usually unwanted and invasive Undaria (Japanese seaweed) will be allowed, creating a new commercial opportunity as it can also be used for fertiliser and fish food.

Upcoming sci-tech events

Probability Workshop 2012 – Applied probability and random media and walks – Auckland, January 23.

Preventing suicide in later life through social connectedness – public lecture, Dunedin January 24

‘No Country for Old Men (and Women): Increasing Pressures on the Health Care System’ – NZ Bioethics Conference – Dunedin, 27-29 January

Implications of “fracking” in the USA – public lecture by Professor Avner Vengosh – Auckland, February 7.

For these and more upcoming events, and more details about them, visit the SMC’s Events Calendar.


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