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Can Tai Chi help post-cancer symptoms? ASU investigators think so.
Borrowing old methods to help a new problem of post-cancer treatment sickness.
November 30, 2015

ASU investigators are part of a group studying how Tai Chi can help ease post-cancer treatment symptoms

When the students are ready, the teachers will appear.

And they did.

The instructors came in the forms of a gray-haired Baby Boomer from California and a lean, gentle Korean from Down Under. They were standing in Phoenix’s Civic Space Park to teach a group of 15 people the healing properties of Tai Chi and QigongQigong is an ancient Chinese health-care system that integrates physical postures, breathing techniques and focused intention..

Dr. Roger Jahnke asked the pack of ASU staff members and graduate students to loosen up with a repertoire of breathing techniques and slow, fluid body movements.

“See if you can feel some sort of energy between your hands,” said Jahnke, who is the director of the Institute of Integral Qigong and Tai Chi in Santa Barbara, California. “When you open your hands, see if you can open your body. Open the body and the space around the heart.”

Jahnke and Dr. Byeonsang Oh, each a renowned Tai Chi and Qigong expert, shared their wisdom outside ASU’s Downtown Phoenix campus in November as part of a study piloted by Linda Larkey, a professor with ASU’s College of Nursing and Health Innovation, testing the efficacy of Qigong/Tai Chi for improving fatigue and other symptoms — sleep quality, anxiety, depression and cognitive function — in women who have been treated for breast cancer. These and other associated symptoms can persist for months, even years, after treatment ends.  

The study, which is funded by a National Cancer Institute grant, binds Larkey and a group of other investigators from ASU, the University of Arizona, Mayo Clinic Cancer Center and Maricopa Integrated Health Systems, who believe that meditative movement such as Qigong and Tai Chi can help recovery and rejuvenation in women between the ages of 45 and 75 who are recovering from breast cancer.

Jahnke and Oh share the same belief.

“Chinese medicine believes there are energy channels in our body so when we open those up, we improve our circulation and we become healthy,” said Oh, who is a clinical associate professor at Sydney Medical School in Australia and a Harvard Research Fellow. “Qigong and Tai Chi can improve all of the symptoms from the cancer period and improve their overall quality of life.”

People leaning, possibly stretching

Dr. Byeongsang Oh leads a group
in Tai Chi movements at City
Space Park in downtown Phoenix. 

Photos by Charlie Leight/ASU Now

This isn’t just theory; he said he has seen it work.

“We initially start with them in the hospital and after 10 weeks, the oncologist is asking me, ‘What is going on with my patients? It’s a miracle.’ I told him, ‘It’s not a miracle. We are teaching them to heal themselves,’ ” he said.

Jahnke said the healing powers of Qigong and Tai Chi is something he has known for decades, but there is an important subtext to the conversation: preventable treatment and economics.

“The statistic for this nation in terms of costs to preventable disease is, well, embarrassing,” Jahnke said. “We spend medical money on people who could be keeping themselves well at home for no additional cost. It’s odd that the most sophisticated society in the world would overlook this simple but exquisite economic idea that self-directed human beings can do all kinds of amazing things.”

ASU microbiology student Hussein Hadid, who participated in the training session, said “mindful practices” such as Qigong and Tai Chi should be incorporated in all future oncology rehabilitation programs.

“Stress does so much more to our bodies than people can ever know,” Hadid said. “It impedes judgment, it impedes our immune system and can lead to heart disease and even cancer. Tai Chi relieves that stress hormone and allows you to be in the moment.”

Being in the moment is important to Maja Pedersen, a first-year doctoral student in the College of Health and NutritionThe College of Health and Nutrition is in ASU's College of Health Solutions..

“Everybody needs a reminder to check out of the daily stresses of life and take some time away from that to connect with our bodies and become aware of what’s inside of us,” Pedersen said. “I find the type of movement in Tai Chi to be very helpful. When we think of physical activity, we have a tendency to think of straight front-to-back movement. From my experience, that doesn’t leave open [space] for a creative flow of energies in our bodies. So I’m looking forward to sharing this practice with individuals who are in great need of healing.”

Though he believes in its methods, Jahnke knows the healing abilities of Qigong and Tai Chi could take a while to implement.

"This is a no-brainer and something we've known all along, but to normalize this into an entire society — many mountains to climb."

Recruitment for the study will begin shortly, with ASU working with local community organizations and oncologists. For more information, please contact the Recovery & Rejuvenation study staff at 602-496-2329.

Exiled exoplanet possibly kicked out of star’s local neighborhood

December 1, 2015

A planet discovered last year sitting at an unusually large distance from its star — 16 times farther than Pluto is from the sun — may have been kicked out of its birthplace close to the star in a process similar to what may have happened early in our own solar system’s history.

Images from the Gemini Planet Imager (GPI) in the Chilean Andes and the Hubble Space Telescope show that the star has a lopsided comet belt indicative of a very disturbed solar system, and hinting that the planet interactions that roiled the comets closer to the star might have sent the exoplanet into exile as well.

The planet may even have a ring of debris it dragged along with it when it was expelled.

“The measurements we made on the planet suggest it may be dustier than comparison objects, and we are making follow-up observations to check if the planet is really encircled by a disk — an exciting possibility,” said Abhijith Rajan, a graduate student at Arizona State University’s School of Earth and Space Exploration who analyzed the planet’s images.

“We think that the planet itself could have captured material from the comet belt, and that the planet is surrounded by a large dust ring or dust shroud,” said Paul Kalas, an adjunct professor of astronomy at UC Berkeley and lead author of a paper about the results, published by The Astrophysical Journal on Nov. 20.

Such planets are of interest because in its youth, our own solar system may have had planets that were kicked out of the local neighborhood and are no longer among the eight planets we see today.

“Is this a picture of our solar system when it was 13 million years old?” Kalas asked. “We know that our own belt of comets, the Kuiper belt, lost a large fraction of its mass as it evolved, but we don’t have a time machine to go back and see how it was decimated. One of the ways, though, is to study these violent episodes of gravitational disturbance around other young stars that kick out many objects, including planets.” Two direct images of the cometary dust and exoplanet surrounding the young star HD 106906. The wider field in blue shows Hubble Space Telescope data where the star’s blinding light is artificially eclipsed (gray circular mask). The point to the upper right is an 11-Jupiter-mass planet located more than 650 times the distance from the Earth to the sun. A new discovery in these Hubble observations is an extremely asymmetric nebulosity indicating a dynamically disturbed system of comets. Surprisingly, the planet is located 21 degrees above the plane of the nebulosity. The circular orange inset shows a region much closer to the star that can only be detected using advanced adaptive optics from the ground-based Gemini Observatory. Using the Gemini Planet Imager (GPI), researchers found a narrow loop of nebulosity suggesting that a planetary system formed close to the star, but somehow the architecture of the outer regions is severely disrupted. The investigators also find that the planet HD 106906 b may have a dusty ring system of its own, motivating future work with Hubble and ground-based astronomical observatories. Image by Paul Kalas/UC Berkeley Download Full Image

The new observations may have recorded this type of disk disruption around a younger star.

“Studying the planets and disks around young stars is a way to investigate the processes that impacted the formation and evolution of our solar system” says Jennifer Patience, associate professor at ASU's School of Earth and Space Exploration who co-led the development of the target sample for the survey.

The disturbance could have been caused by a passing star that perturbed the inner planets, or a second massive planet in the system. The GPI team also looked for another large planet closer to the star that may have interacted with the exoplanet, but found nothing outside a Uranus-size orbit.

Kalas and Rajan will discuss the observations during a Google+ Hangout on air at 10 a.m. Arizona time Dec. 1 during Extreme Solar Systems III, the third in a series of international meetings on exoplanets that this year takes place on the 20 anniversary of the discovery of the first exoplanet in 1995. Viewers without Google+ accounts may participate via YouTube.

Young, 13-million-year-old star

The star, HD 106906, is located 300 light-years away in the direction of the constellation Crux and is similar to the sun, but much younger: about 13 million years old, compared with our sun’s 4.5 billion years. Planets are thought to form early in a star's history, however, and in 2014 a team led by Vanessa Bailey at the University of Arizona discovered a planet HD 106906 b around the star weighing a hefty 11 times Jupiter’s mass and located in the star’s distant suburbs, an astounding 650 AU from the star (one AU is the average distance between Earth and the sun, or 93 million miles).

Planets were not thought to form so far from their star and its surrounding protoplanetary disk, so some suggested that the planet formed much like a star, by condensing from its own swirling cloud of gas and dust. The GPI and Hubble discovery of a lopsided comet belt and possible ring around the planet points instead to a normal formation within the debris disk around the star, but a violent episode that forced it into a more distant orbit.

Kalas and a multi-institutional team using GPI first targeted the star in search of other planets in May 2015 and discovered that it was surrounded by a ring of dusty material very close to the size of our own solar system’s Kuiper Belt. The emptiness of the central region — an area about 50 AU in radius, slightly larger than the region occupied by planets in our solar system — indicates that a planetary system has formed there, Kalas said.

He immediately reanalyzed existing images of the star taken earlier by the Hubble Space Telescope and discovered that the ring of dusty material extended much farther away and was extremely lopsided. On the side facing the planet, the dusty material was vertically thin and spanned nearly the huge distance to the known planet, but on the opposite side the dusty material was vertically thick and truncated.

“These discoveries suggest that the entire planetary system has been recently jostled by an unknown perturbation to its current asymmetric state,” he said. The planet is also unusual in that its orbit is possibly tilted 21 degrees away from the plane of the inner planetary system, whereas most planets typically lie close to a common plane.

Kalas and collaborators hypothesized that the planet may have originated from a position closer to the comet belt and may have captured dusty material that still orbits the planet. To test the hypothesis, they carefully analyzed the GPI and Hubble observations, revealing three properties about the planet consistent with a large dusty ring or shroud surrounding it. However, for each of the three properties, alternate explanations are possible.

The investigators will be pursuing more sensitive observations with the Hubble Space Telescope to determine whether HD 106906b is in fact one of the first exoplanets that resembles Saturn and its ring system.

The inner belt of dust around the star has been confirmed by an independent team using the planet-finding instrument SPHERE on the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope in Chile. The lopsided nature of the debris disk was not evident, however, until Kalas called up archival images from Hubble’s Advanced Camera for Surveys.

The GPI Exoplanet Survey, operated by a team of astronomers at UC Berkeley and 23 other institutions, is targeting 600 young stars, all less than approximately 100 million years old, to understand how planetary systems evolve over time and what planetary dynamics could shape the final arrangement of planets like we see in our solar system today.

Among Kalas’ coauthors are associate professor Jennifer Patience and graduate student Abhijith Rajan of the School of Earth and Space Exploration, a unit of ASU’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. The research was supported by the NSF and NASA’s Nexus for Exoplanet System Science (NExSS) research coordination network sponsored by NASA’s Science Mission Directorate.