Best of the West: Innovative cancer research; fighting fire with artificial intelligence, a plastic-eating enzyme; biking 400 miles for solar power

The Western Governors' Association keeps you updated on the latest news in the West. Here are the top stories for the week starting May 2, 2022. (Photos courtesy of National Cancer Institute and the Yurok Tribal Government)

With the help of newly developed technology and innovative research, institutions in the West are making significant contributions to discovering a cure for cancer. Much of the research and development is focused on advancing technological treatments, but western scientists have also identified other, more “natural,” methods that they believe could lead to they next breakthrough. 

Researchers at the University of Arizona are studying the viability of using deadly venom from snakes, spiders and insects to treat various illnesses, including cancer. “A century ago we thought venom had three or four components, and now we know just one type of venom can have thousands,” said Leslie V. Boyer, a professor emeritus of pathology at the University of Arizona. “Things are accelerating because a small number of very good laboratories have been pumping out information that everyone else can now use to make discoveries.”

A study that the University of California Riverside and the University of Texas contributed to discovered that bee venom could treat breast cancer. A study at the University of California San Diego found that the cowpea mosaic virus found in plants could cure cancer, by infecting cancerous cells and triggering an immune system response that fights cancer cells. 

Other studies in the West are relying on technological advances to help them improve treatments. Researchers at the University of Oklahoma recently developed ‘localized ablative immunotherapy,’ which treats pancreatic cancer by stimulating and directing the immune response to fight cancer cells. SomaLogic out of Colorado joined the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition study, which will analyze 210 million protein measurements from 30,000 samples over 15 years to better predict and understand cancer development. Scientists and engineers at Texas A&M University are working on an affordable, minimally invasive device that employs a photosensitizer — a drug activated by light — to completely eliminate cancer cells and reduce the need for additional treatments such as chemotherapy. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration recently approved a ‘wearable 3D breast ultrasound system,' created by California-based iSono Health, that can produce a 3D visualization of breast tissue in only two minutes.  

Innovative treatments like these are substantially improving outcomes for cancer patients. The National Cancer Institute reported that advanced therapies have contributed to a decline in lung cancer mortality rates since the 1990s. A study led by a doctor at the University of Utah found that therapies approved to treat prostate cancer have increased survival time over the past 10 years

Fighting Fire with Artificial Intelligence: Lockheed Martin Space recently partnered with the U.S. Forest Service, the Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control, university researchers and Nvidia, a the software company out of California to study the possibility of fighting wildfires with artificial intelligence that’s traditionally used for military purposes. Currently they're working on building a digital simulation of wildfires based on topography, vegetation, wind and weather that forecasts where and how a fire will burn. Computer programs that quickly process large quantities of data will then map fire perimeters and reduce the time to predict a fire’s speed and direction. Learn more about new technologies to mitigate fire risk by watching WGA’s recent ‘Working Lands, Working Communities’ webinar, 'Planning and Collaboration Tools'which featured a discussion on the use of geospatial data and Lidar to assess the health of trees and their risk of ignition. 

Flying High for the First Time in a Century: For the first time since 1892, a pair of California condors flew over the skies near Redwood National Park this week. The pair were born in a captive breeding program that trapped the 22 remaining wild condors in the early 1980s and released them into Southern California’s Los Padres National Forest in 1992. Condors are the largest native North American bird and can live for up to 60 years. They're also a sacred animal to the Yurok Tribe, which is leading a restoration project to return the condor to its ancestral territory. 

A Plastic-Eating Enzyme: Plastic usually takes centuries to break down, but scientists and engineers at the University of Texas Austin created an enzyme that can degrade plastic in a matter of days. Researchers believe the enzyme could supercharge recycling by helping major industries reduce their environmental impact. "The possibilities are endless across industries to leverage this leading-edge recycling process," said Hal Alper, a professor in the McKetta Department of Chemical Engineering at UT Austin. “Through these more sustainable enzyme approaches, we can begin to envision a true circular plastics economy." 

Biking 400 Miles for Solar Power: After growing up on a reservation, Mylo Fowler knows it’s easy for students on the reservation to fall behind on schoolwork without electricity. To help, the Utah man is biking 400 miles from the Great Salt Lake  to Coppermine, Arizona, to raise money for solar panels on the Navajo Nation Reservation. He hopes to raise $50,000 and install solar power for 50 homes of students by the start of the next school year. You can follow Fowler's journey at Instagram@navajomylo. To donate please visit the Heart of America website

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