This Way Up Part 1 of Saturday 14 May 2016

NZ skin cancer, disposable batteries, how silver nanoparticles can fight tooth decay, and scratching studies.

NZ skin cancer: what role does where you live play?

A team of New Zealand scientists has discovered that where you live in the country could be critical to your chances of getting skin cancer, and surviving it.

They've found that melanomas here in New Zealand are unusual, genetically speaking, and this could be one of the reasons we have the highest skin cancer rates in the world.

The study, published in the journal Oncotarget by a team of researchers from the University of Otago, looked at the genetic makeup of hundreds of patients from around the country with metastatic melanoma, or skin cancer that had spread from its primary site to elsewhere in the body.

Melanoma is caused when there's a mutation in a gene that results in uncontrolled growth of certain cells, which can lead to a cancerous tumour. These genes that have the potential to turn nasty are called oncogenes, and in this particular study they looked at 20 of them.

The most common genetic mutation for melanoma happens in a gene called BRAF, with a third of melanomas here showing a change to this specific BRAF gene, a lower rate to the rest of the world.  

However melanoma sufferers here in New Zealand have twice the number of mutations in another gene called NRAS, and where you live is a huge factor in determining if this NRAS gene mutates, with far higher mutation rates in the South Island than the North.

One of the authors of the study is Aniruddha Chatterjee, a Research Fellow at the Dunedin School of Medicine at the University of Otago. He spoke about it to This Way Up's Simon Morton.

Molecular basis for melanoma cell motility

Molecular basis for melanoma cell motility Photo: (Julio C. Valencia Public Domain)


Disposable batteries - which ones are best?

Heavy duty, alkaline or lithium? And which are best for you and the environment?

"Bulk packs of disposable alkaline batteries may seem cheap, but they come at a heavy environmental cost" - George Block.

How silver nanoparticles prevent tooth decay

Carla Meledandri

Carla Meledandri Photo: (Supplied)

Tiny silver particles could hold the key to improving our dental health.

Dr Carla Meledandri, a Principal Investigator at The MacDiarmid Institute, is applying nanoscience to dentistry in the hope that her silver-based dental products could soon find their way into dental surgeries around the globe.

She's a finalist at the KiwiNet Research Commercialisation Awards in the Emerging Innovator category.


Scratching studies

One of life's pleasures is scratching an itch!

That's because itching activates pleasure centres in the brain, and this can trigger further, purely gratuitous, hedonistic scratching too.

Diana Bautista of the Department of Molecular & Cell Biology at the University of California, Berkeley studies itching, scratching and what they can tell us.


Photo: (Flickr user Lee J Haywood) (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Gorilla Scratching Head

Gorilla Scratching Head Photo: (Flickr user Eric Kilby CC BY-SA 2.0)

This Way Up Part 2 of Saturday 14 May 2016

Mexico's mezcal muddle, Flyover Country app, 'smart contracts' and the blockchain, also tech news (paywalls for media/news and 'Netflix tax' on digital products).

Mexico's mezcal muddle

The Mexican spirit mezcal has a long tradition of being distilled in small batches by family-run outfits using home stills.

Perhaps because of these humble origins, for a long time mezcal was viewed as the poorer cousin of tequila.

Mezcal Production

Mezcal Production Photo: (Flickr user Ross Bowling CC BY 2.0)

But a recent surge in interest in all things artisanal, hand-crafted and locally produced means that mezcal's smoky, distinctive taste is appealing to a rapidly growing audience both at home and overseas.

Now under rules being considered by the Mexican government, many family mezcal producers could be forced out of business, having to relabel their products so as not to use the mezcal name.

David Agren lives in Mexico City and has been to visit some small-scale mezcal producers whose livelihoods are under threat.

Mezcal potosino

Mezcal potosino Photo: (Flickr user Eneas de Troya CC BY 2.0)

Flyover Country

Have you ever been flying somewhere, looking out of the plane window, and seen a mountain or a river or a valley and wondered where are we, what's it called and what are the nearby towns and cities?

Well wonder no longer...because there is an app for that! It's called Flyover Country and Shane Loeffler's the man behind it.

Flyover Country Screenshot 1

Flyover Country Screenshot 1 Photo: (Supplied)

Flyover Country Screenshot 3

Flyover Country Screenshot 3 Photo: (Supplied)

'Smart contracts' and the Blockchain

Smart Contact using Blockchain technology

Smart Contact using Blockchain technology Photo: (You Tube screenshot)

2008 was the year the world's financial systems went into meltdown, wiping trillions of dollars off the global economy. In November that year Satoshi Nakamoto published a paper on a new peer-to-peer electronic cryptocurrency called Bitcoin. A cryptocurrency is a way of transferring value electronically, independent of any bank or financial institution. It's powered by the crowd of users so no intermediaries, agents or middlemen usually mean minimal fees.

At the heart of a cryptocurrency is the blockchain, an idea that's getting lots of hype at the moment. The easiest way to think of a blockchain is as a big list, a digital ledger that records transactions which are stored in secure blocks.  This database is distributed, so there are copies throughout the network of users, and this distribution means that no single person or organisation controls it.

According to the Wall Street Journal, more than 40 top financial institutions and a growing number of businesses are experimenting with blockchains as a way of doing business. Here in New Zealand Kiwibank and the NZX are among those businesses looking at how they can use it too.

The real value of bitcoin and crypto currency technology - The Blockchain explained

The real value of bitcoin and crypto currency technology - The Blockchain explained Photo: (You Tube screenshot)

Now the blockchain is being used to not only record transactions, but other information as well in so-called 'smart contracts'. A smart contract is a set of instructions written in code and stored on the blockchain.

Ethereum is one platform for creating and recording these smart contracts and Mark Pascall is organising a conference called 'Understanding the Blockchain, Smart Contracts and Ethereum' in Auckland on Tuesday 17 May and in Wellington on Thursday 19 May.

Mark Pascall blog article

"If two people can easily agree and create a set of rules..[and]...we also agree to put those rules (a smart contract) on this immutable system that we both trust (the blockchain) then we have created a transaction between two untrusted parties without a intermediary.  The same concepts could apply in theory to a will, a loan, a mortgage, a Trade Me/eBay purchase, an Uber trip.  The list is endless and implications are huge. If you think about it most of our global financial/commerce system and government is made up of centralised intermediary organisations who are performing these transactions on our behalf."- Mark Pascall

Tech: new undersea internet cable and 'Netflix tax'

Peter Griffin gives his views on 'smart contracts' and some potential applications of blockchain technology. Also how willing are New Zealanders to pay for their news, media and other content? Plus the government introduces GST on online purchases; the 'Netflix tax' starts in October.