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A round-up of the latest science and news from Australasia.

A Diabetes Treatment from Snail Venom

The 3D structure of an insulin found in cone snail venom has revealed how these highly efficient natural proteins can operate faster than human insulin.

The research, conducted using the Australian Synchrotron, discovered that the Con-Ins G1 protein was able to bind to human insulin receptors, signifying the potential for its translation into a human therapeutic agent.

3D Cell Growth Opens New Path for Spinal Cord Repair

A novel technique to grow cells in three dimensions, without the traditional restrictions of matrix or scaffolds, has opened a new avenue to repair damaged spinal cords.

Dr James St John of Griffith University’s Eskitis Institute for Drug Discovery used floating liquid marbles to enable cells to freely associate and form natural structures just like they would normally within the human body.

Warning over Herbal Medicine Side-Effects

St John’s wort, a herbal treatment for depression, can produce the same adverse reactions as the antidepressant fluoxetine, with potentially serious side-effects when the two are taken together, according to a study published in Clinical and Experimental Pharmacology and Physiology.

Children Struggle to Tell When Emotions Are Faked

Research published in Frontiers in Psychology has found that children are unable to tell the difference between genuine and fake sadness from facial expressions – even by the time they leave primary school. However, for happy facial expressions they could distinguish genuine from fake emotions to some extent.

Judas Camels Betray Feral Friends

A single camel can betray the whereabouts of its companions, leading to a useful method to control feral camel numbers in Australia’s outback. The technique relies on the social nature of dromedary camels, which number around one million in remote areas of arid central Australia and threaten biodiversity, agriculture and biosecurity in these regions.

Cane Toad Invasion Front Is Accelerating in Straight Lines

Cane toads at the front of an invasion travel in straighter lines than established populations, helping to explain how they are increasing their range in Australia at a rate of 55 km/year – a fivefold increase since the species was introduced in 1935.

The discovery, published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B by Prof Rick Shine of the University of Sydney, builds on research he published last year which found that cane toads at the vanguard of invasions have longer legs that enable them to move twice as quickly as toads behind the invasion front (AS, Oct 2013, p.12).

Gadget Helps the Vision-Impaired to Read Graphs

People who are vision-impaired can now read graphs using an affordable digital reading system developed at Curtin University. Senior Lecturer Dr Iain Murray and PhD student Azadeh Nazemi developed the device to help the vision-impaired read graphics, graphs, bills, bank statements and more.

Rugby Impacts Likened to Serious Trauma

University of Canterbury research has likened the impact of rugby on players to a car accident, and found ways to help medical staff manage players’ recovery and training during different phases of competition.

Measuring the impact of the game on a player’s body is difficult without drawing large amounts of blood to test, but A/Prof Steve Gieseg and PhD student Angus Lindsay developed “chemical tests to measure the level of damage occurring in rugby players using only urine and saliva”.

A Cheap and Rapid Malaria Test

Infrared light could soon form the basis of a test for malaria at a very early stage of its development.

“Malaria is tough to diagnose because only small numbers of immature parasites are present in the bloodstream,” explains Prof Leann Tilley of the University of Melbourne. “Once they mature, the parasites hide in the tissues. It is important to make an early diagnosis before the parasites lodge in brain capillaries, causing complications that can lead to death.”

Antidepressants and Breastfeeding Can Mix

Women on antidepressant medication are more successful at breastfeeding their babies if they keep taking the medication, according to research presented at the 18th annual conference of the Perinatal Society of Australia and New Zealand.

Using data from the Danish National Birth Cohort in Denmark, researchers from the University of Adelaide’s Robinson Research Institute studied the outcomes of 368 women who were on anti­depressants before becoming pregnant.

“A third of the women continued to take antidepressant medication throughout their pregnancy and while breastfeeding, and these women were much more successful at maintaining breastfeeding up to and beyond the recommended 6 months,” said Dr Luke Grzeskowiak.