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With a major research university right in our backyard, a strong military presence and innovative companies throughout the metro region, there’s often a plethora of interesting science, medical and technology news to be found in Southern Arizona. Here’s a breakdown of the most interesting recent developments.

Searching for new planets. A new device at the Kitt Peak National Observatory west of Tucson recently began its mission to discover planets outside of our solar system, after passing operational readiness review by NASA and the National Science Foundation. The NEID Spectrograph is dedicated to high-precision Doppler observations and is used in conjunction with a 3.5 meter telescope at the observatory. According to the University of Arizona, university researchers have led instrument commissioning and demonstrated that the spectrometer meets the technical and scientific requirements for operation. The university also serves as the hub for NEID’s software pipeline, which “translates subtle shifts in the spectrum of starlight into data that tell astronomers about any planets orbiting a star that would be impossible to observe directly.”

“The instrument is performing exceptionally well, more than beating our precision requirement, and we believe it is sensitive to planets only slightly larger than the Earth,” said Chad Bender, NEID’s instrument scientist and an associate astronomer at UA’s Steward Observatory. “We can use observations of the sun to better understand stellar activity and then apply that knowledge to other stars that are similar to the sun, where we are looking for Earth-like planets.”

For centuries, planets orbiting the stars outside of our solar system were hypothesized. However, it wasn’t until 1992 that the existence of an exoplanet was confirmed. Since then, nearly 5,000 exoplanets in 3,500 solar systems have been detected thanks to rapidly increasing astronomical technology and effort.

The name NEID (NASA/NSF-explore Exoplanet Investigations with Doppler spectroscopy) is also derived from the Tohono O’odham word “ñeid” meaning “to see.”

Maturing Missiles. Earlier this month, the US Air Force awarded a $2 billion Engineering and Manufacturing Development contract to Raytheon Missiles and Defense for its “Long Range Standoff” cruise missile. The Long Range Standoff will replace the aging AGM-86B Air Launched Cruise Missile, fielded in the early ’80s. According to Air Force major general Anthony Genatempo, the LRSO program office capitalized on a pioneering reliability and manufacturing approach to establish a very capable and mature design during the Technology Maturation and Risk Reduction phase. The contract is a sole-source acquisition, which occurs when the government deems a specific contractor is the only source available for a contract, rather than going through the typical competitive process for government contracts. The contract’s work will take place at Raytheon’s Tucson location and is expected to be completed in February 2027.

“The LRSO team has strived for nearly three years to ensure the Air Force achieved a stable cruise missile design meeting the nation’s requirement for a credible air-delivered nuclear deterrent for many years to come,” said Elizabeth T. Thorn, LRSO program manager. “Awarding the EMD contract marks our next step in finalizing development, fully maturing our manufacturing techniques, and proving LRSO meets its operational requirements.”

Alzheimer’s Abatement. A new study out of the University of Arizona found that women who take menopausal hormone therapy may have reduced risks of developing a neurodegenerative disease, including Alzheimer’s. According to the National Cancer Institute, menopausal hormone therapy is a treatment that doctors may recommend to relieve common symptoms of menopause and to address long-term biological changes in a woman’s body during and after menopause. However, there is growing evidence that certain hormone therapies can reduce the risk of cancer, and now neurodegenerative diseases as well.

The study, “Association between menopausal hormone therapy and risk of neurodegenerative diseases” published in the journal Alzheimer’s & Dementia, studied records of more than 300,000 women, with or without hormone therapy. According to the study, hormone therapy was associated with reduced risk of all neurodegenerative diseases including Alzheimer’s and dementia, with greater duration of therapy and natural steroid formulations associated with greater efficacy. In particular, it found that women who underwent menopausal hormone therapy for six years or greater were 79% less likely to develop Alzheimer’s and 77% less likely to develop any neurodegenerative disease.

“With this study, we are gaining mechanistic knowledge. This reduction in risk for Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s and dementia means these diseases share a common driver regulated by estrogen, and if there are common drivers, there can be common therapies,” said Roberta Diaz Brinton, PhD, director of the UA Center for Innovation in Brain Science and senior author on the paper. “The key is that hormone therapy is not a treatment, but it’s keeping the brain and this whole system functioning, leading to prevention. It’s not reversing disease; it’s preventing disease by keeping the brain healthy.”