Monthly Archives: November 2019

China Now Launches More Rockets Than Anyone In The World

In recent weeks, China‘s space program has made news by revealing some of its long-term ambitions for spaceflight. These include establishing an Earth-Moon space economic zone by 2050, which, if successful, could allow the country to begin to dictate the rules of behavior for future space exploration. Some have questioned whether China, which has flown six human spaceflights in the last 16 years, can really build a large low-Earth space station, send taikonauts to the Moon, return samples from Mars, and more in the coming decade or two. But what seems clear is that the country’s authoritarian government has long-term plans and is taking steps toward becoming a global leader in space exploration.

By one important metric—orbital launchesChina has already reached this goal. In 2018, the country set a goal of 35 orbital launches and ended up with 39 launch attempts. That year, the United States (29 flights) and Russia (20) trailed China, according to Space Launch Report. It marked the first time China led the world in the number of successful orbital launchesThis year, China is set to pace the world again. Through Sunday, the country has launched 27 orbital missions, followed by Russia (19), and the United States (16). Although nearly a month and a half remain in this year, a maximum of six additional orbital launches are likely from the United States in 2019.

To be fair, China’s space launch program has not been without hiccups. The country’s space program is still trying to bring its large Long March 5 vehicle back into service after a catastrophic failure during just its second mission, in July 2017. And the country had three failures in 2018 and 2019, compared to just one in the United States and Russia combined.

The United States has taken a step back this year in part due to decreased activity by SpaceX. The company launched a record 21 missions last year but has so far launched 11 rockets in 2019. A flurry of missions remains possible in the next six weeks for the company, including a space station resupply mission in early December, a commercial satellite launch, and additional Starlink flights.

Another big factor has been a slow year for United Launch Alliance. The Colorado-based company has launched just two Delta IV-Medium rockets this year, one Delta IV-Heavy, and a single Atlas V mission. The company may launch Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft before the end of 2019, giving the Atlas V rocket a second launch. It is possible that Rocket Lab, which has flown its Electron rocket from New Zealand five times in 2019 and is planning at least one more mission before the end of the year, will have more launches than United Launch Alliance for the first time. Sometime next year, Rocket Lab should also begin to add to the US tally for orbital launches as it opens a new facility at Wallops Island, Virginia.


How Gene-edited White Blood Cells Are Helping Fight Cancer

For the first time in the United States, a gene editing tool has been used to treat advanced cancer in three patients and showed promising early results in a pilot phase 1 clinical trial. So far the treatment appears safe, and more results are expected soon. To develop a safer and more effective treatment for cancer patients, scientists from the University of Pennsylvania, the Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy in San Francisco and Tmunity Therapeutics, a biotech company in Philadelphia, developed an advanced version of immunotherapy. In this treatment, a patient’s own immune cells are removed from the body, trained to recognize specific cancer cells and then finally injected back into the patient where they multiply and destroy them.

Unlike chemotherapy or radiation therapy, which directly kills cancer cells, immunotherapy activates the body’s own immune system to do the work. This team used a gene editing tool called CRISPR to alter immune cells, turning them into trained soldiers to locate and kill cancer cells. By using this technique, the team hoped to develop a more effective form of immunotherapy with minimal side effects.

Better CRISPR-based gene editors for the diagnosis and treatment of cancer and other disorders, . combining chemistry, biology and nanotechnology, are used to engineer, control and deliver gene editing tools more efficiently and precisely.

The first step in making these tumor-killing cells used in the cancer drug trial was to isolate the T-cells – a type of white blood cells that fights pathogens and cancer cells – from the blood of the cancer patients. Two patients with advanced multiple myeloma and one patient with myxoid/round cell liposarcomav were enrolled for this study.

To arm the T-cells and bolster their tumor-fighting skills without harming normal cells, scientists genetically engineered the T-cellsdisabling three genes and adding one gene – before returning them to the patients.

The first two of these deleted genes encode T-cell receptors, which are proteins found on the surface of the T-cells that can recognize and bind specific molecules, known as antigens, on cancer cells. When these engineered T-cells bind to these antigens, it allows them to attack and directly kill the cancer cells. But the problem is that a single T-cell can recognize multiple different antigens in the body, making them less focused on finding the cancer cells. By eliminating these two genes, the T-cells are less likely to attack the wrong target or the host, a phenomenon called autoimmunity, In addition, they disrupted a third gene, called programmed cell death protein 1, which slows down the immune response. Disabling the programmed cell death protein 1 gene improves the efficiency of T-cells.

The final step in the transformation of these cells was adding a gene which produces a new T-cell receptor that recognizes and grabs onto a specific marker on the cancer cells called NY-ESO-1. With three genes deleted and one added, the T-cells are now ready to fight cancer.


How To Divide By 4 The Risk Of Gastric Cancer

While it is well known within the medical community that there is a link between the bacteria Helicobacter pylori (H pylori) and rates of gastric cancer—commonly referred to as stomach cancer—the rates and risk among Americans has been largely understudied. Now, after analyzing records of close to 400,000 patients, researchers in the Perelman School of Medicine, University of Pennsylvania, have found that successfully eliminating H pylori from the gastrointestinal tract led to a 75 percent reduction in the risk of gastric cancer. Researchers also found that rates of gastric cancer after detection of H pylori infection are higher among specific populations, suggesting that people who fall into these groups could benefit from more careful monitoring. The study is published in the journal GastroenterologyH pylori is estimated to infect half of the world’s population, largely those in the eastern parts of the world. It can cause ulcers and other gastrointestinal issues but does not cause issues in the majority of people, and so many people are unaware they have it.

3D illustration of Helicobacter pylori, bacterium which causes gastric and duodenal ulcer

The problem was that all research out of the U.S. used to study gastric cancer and determine American’s risk of developing it did not take into account H pylori infection, and studies worldwide have shown this infection is actually the leading risk factor for this type of cancer,” says the study’s lead author Shria Kumar, a fellow in the division of Gastroenterology.

The research team found that African American, Asian, Hispanic and Latin, American Indian, and Inuit Americans have a significantly higher risk of H pylori infection and of developing gastric cancer. Risks, when compared to the general population, are also higher among men, those who smoke, and among those whose H pylori infection is detected at an older age.


Bone Tissue Just Needs A Little Bit Of Encouragement To Regenerate

Regrowing bones is no easy task, but the world’s lightest solid might make it easier to achieve. Researchers have figured out a way to use hybrid aerogels, strong but ultralight materials, to prompt new bone tissue to grow and replace lost or damaged tissue. Although bone cancer is a relatively rare disease (it accounts for less than 1% of all cancers), people who suffer from it often end up losing a lot of bone tissue and in extreme cases, undergo amputation. The cancerous tissue has to be cut out, taking with it a large chunk of nearby healthy tissue to make sure that the cancer does not spread. This effectively removes the cancer, but also leaves the patient with a lot less bone than they started out with.

A recent study has used hybrid aerogels to restore the lost tissue by prompting bone regeneration. Aerogels are basically a combination of solid and gas. Think Jell-O, but one where the water has been slowly dried out and replaced completely by air. This slow and careful removing of liquid is what allows the gel to retain its shape instead of shriveling into a hard lump. The pairing of solid and gas makes aerogels extremely light and very porous. These two qualities make them exceptionally suitable to use as scaffolds, which can be used as physical roadmaps for the developing bone to follow as it grows.

A section of bone with osteosarcoma, a type of bone cancer. This is one of the cases where lost tissue could be restored by prompting bone regeneration.

Currently, the most common methods of bone regeneration either graft new bone on to the repair site or slowly pull two bits of bone further and further apart to allow new bone to grow in the gap. If you think that these methods sound painful, complicated, and expensive, you are right.

It turns out that bone tissue just needs a little bit of encouragement to regenerate. Most of the time, simple mechanical pressure will do the trick. The fiddly bit is getting the new bone tissue to grow in the right direction and for the right amount of time. Stop it too early and the bone will be too weak to actually serve a purpose. Let it grow too much and it will end up as painful projections. This balanced growth can be achieved by using a scaffold, which is where hybrid aerogels come in. A scaffold is a structure that is placed at the site of bone repair, where it guides the growing tissue along its destined path. A good scaffold is strong but not too stiff, lasts just long enough for fresh tissue to develop, and has a lot of pores for the growing bone to snake through. This last bit is what makes a scaffold very similar to real bone. Hybrid aerogels happen to be a magic material that hits all these notes.

There are a lot of different kinds of scaffolds to choose from, ranging from ceramic and metals to cellulose hydrogels. So what makes hybrid aerogels any better than other scaffolds? For one, they are half made of proteins (that’s the “hybrid” bit), which are eventually broken down by the body. The other half, silica, slowly melts away as orthosilicic acid, which is known to hasten wound healing. Their pore size can be controlled during the manufacturing process, making it easy to adapt them to different uses. They are also being tested as drug delivery systems, meaning that the material could be spiked with medicines or growth factors before using it as a scaffold.

Earlier this year, three research labs based out of Iran, Germany, and Austria got together and decided to fuse a very strong protein with a very light and porous aerogel. The very strong protein is silk fibroin, the stuff found in silkworm cocoons and used to make fancy fabrics. It makes the aerogel strong and just stiff enough to use for bone growth. With the raw materials ready, the scientists started with Phase I: make the hybrid aerogel. Throw a source of silica, silk fibroin, some acid and a touch of detergent into a pot. Bake for an hour and voilà! You have yourself a silica-silk fibroin hybrid aerogel.

 Hybrid aerogels are strong but ultralight materials. Here, the flower is protected from the fire by the insulating properties of the aerogel
The researchers made the perfect hybrid aerogel – hydrophilic (water-loving), not too stiff, and adequately biodegradable.

Having made the material, they now moved to Phase II: check if the hybrid aerogels are in any way harmful to human cells. In fact, the cells seemed to really like the material. When the hybrid aerogel was placed in a dish containing bone cells, they readily grew on its surface, depositing the proteins and minerals required for bone growth along the way.

On to Phase III: implant the hybrid aerogel in mice and check if it stimulates bone regeneration. The researchers made small bone injuries in two groups of mice and implanted the hybrid aerogel in one of them. After 25 days, they saw that the mice with the implants showed faster and better healing than the mice without implants. The aerogel was not just allowing new bone to grow, but also making it grow faster than normal.

This ability of the hybrid aerogel to speed up bone regeneration places it on the forefront of new therapeutic technologies. Imagine having bone fractures healing in a span of days, as opposed to weeks. Or being able to tell a bone cancer patient that, “Yes, you have to cut out a section of their leg but it can be easily grown back, no worries.” Hybrid aerogels are possibly the biomaterial that could make such conversations a reality.


Thin Heat Shield For Superfast Aircraft

The world of aerospace increasingly relies on carbon fiber reinforced polymer composites to build the structures of satellites, rockets and jet aircraft. But the life of those materials is limited by how they handle heat.

A team of FAMU-FSU College of Engineering researchers from Florida State University’s High-Performance Materials Institute (HPMI) is developing a design for a heat shield that better protects those extremely fast machines. Their work will be published in the November edition of Carbon .

Right now, our flight systems are becoming more and more high-speed, even going into hypersonic systems, which are five times the speed of sound,” said Professor Richard Liang, director of HPMI. “When you have speeds that high, there’s more heat on a surface. Therefore, we need a much better thermal protection system.”

The team used carbon nanotubes, which are linked hexagons of carbon atoms in the shape of a cylinder, to build the heat shields. Sheets of those nanotubes are also known as “buckypaper,” a material with incredible abilities to conduct heat and electricity that has been a focus of study at HPMI. By soaking the buckypaper in a resin made of a compound called phenol, the researchers were able to create a lightweight, flexible material that is also durable enough to potentially protect the body of a rocket or jet from the intense heat it faces while flying.

Existing heat shields are often very thick compared to the base they protect, said Ayou Hao, a research faculty member at HPMI. This design lets engineers build a very thin shield, like a sort of skin that protects the aircraft and helps support its structure. After building heat shields of varying thicknesses, the researchers put them to the test.

One test involved applying a flame to the samples to see how they prevented heat from reaching the carbon fiber layer they were meant to protect. After that, the researchers bent the samples to see how strong they remained. They found the samples with sheets of buckypaper were better than control samples at dispersing heat and keeping it from reaching the base layer. They also stayed strong and flexible compared to control samples made without protective layers of nanotubes.

That flexibility is a helpful quality. The nanotubes are less vulnerable to cracking at high temperatures compared to ceramics, a typical heat shield material. They’re also lightweight, which is helpful for engineers who want to reduce the weight of anything on an aircraft that doesn’t help the way it flies.

Flying Motorcycle

Flying cars are fine — but why use a car when you can have a motorcycle instead? YC-backed startup JetPack Aviation wants to answer that question with the world’s first flying motorcycle, a personal aircraft dubbed “The Speeder,” a name that Star Wars fans will surely appreciate. Now, JetPack has raised a seed round of $2 million from investors indulging Draper Associates, Skype co-founder Jaan Tallinn, YC, Cathexis Ventures and a group of angels that it says will fund the development of the Speeder’s first functional prototype.

Back in March, JetPack revealed its plans for the Speeder, which it says will provide a fully stabilized ride that’s either pilot-controlled or fully autonomous. It can take off and land vertically, and reach top speeds of potentially over 400 MPH (640 km/h). There are no exposed rotors systems, which make it a lot safer and easier to operate than a lot of other VTOL designs and helicopters, and the company says it can also be refueled in less than 5 minutes, which is a dramatically shorter turnaround time for powering up versus an electric vehicle.

This isn’t JetPack’s first aerial rodeo: The company, led by CEO and founder David Mayman, has already created an actual jet pack. Mayman himself has demonstrated the personal aerial jet pack numerous times, and it has been certified by the FAA, plus it landed a CARADA agreement with the U.S. Navy Special Forces for use in short-distance troop transportation. The jet pack also boasts a lot of features that sound, on paper, like science fiction: Over 100 mph top seed, and suitcase-sized portability, for instance.

That track record is why when Mayman tells me this $2 million round “should fully fund the first full-scale flying prototype, including all modeling designs and build,” I tend to believe him more than I would just about anyone else in the world making a similar claim.

Part of the reason the Speeder is more viable near-term than other VTOL designs is that it will rely on turbine propulsion, rather than battery-based flight systems. This is because, in Mayman’s opinion, “current battery energy density is just too low for most electrically powered VTOLs to be truly practical,” and that timelines optimistically for that to change are in the five to 10-year range. The Speeder, by comparison, should feasibly be able to provide quick cargo transportation for emergency services and military (its first planned uses before moving on to the consumer market) in a much shorter period.*


How To Print Crowns And Bridges, Surgical Guides For Dental Implant

Back at CES this year, we talked with 3D-printer maker Formlabs about its early experimentation in using its printers to make dentures faster and more affordably than existing alternatives. A few months later, the company is going deep on the concept. They’re releasing a 3D printer meant specifically for dental use, opening up a whole new wing called “Formlabs Dental” and acquiring their main resin supplier in order to better make materials for the dental industry.

Unfamiliar with Formlabs? The main thing to know is that their printers use Stereolithography (SLA) rather than the Fused Deposition Modeling (or FDM) that most people probably think of when it comes to 3D printing; in other words, they use carefully aimed UV lasers to precisely harden an otherwise goopy resin into whatever you want to print, whereas FDM printers heat up a solid material until it’s malleable and then push it through a hot glue gun-style nozzle to build a model layer by layer. SLA tends to offer higher accuracy and resolution, whereas FDM tends to be cheaper and offer a wider variety of colors and material properties.

Formlabs calls its new dentistry-centric printer the “Form 3b” — which, as the name suggests, is a slight variation on the Form 3 printer the company introduced earlier this year. The base package costs about a thousand bucks more per unit over the non-dental Form 3, but comes with software meant to tie into a dental team’s existing workflow, along with a year of Formlab’s “Dental Service Plan,” which includes training, support and the ability to request a new printer if something needs repairing (rather than waiting for yours to get shipped back and forth). The company also says the 3b has been optimized to work with its dental resins, but doesn’t say much about how.

Speaking of resins: Formlabs is acquiring Spectra, which has been its primary supplier of resins since Formlabs started back in 2012. While the company isn’t disclosing any of the terms of the deal, it does say it has put over a million dollars into building an FDA-registered clean room to make medical-grade resins. Formlabs says that anyone who already buys materials and resin from Spectra can continue to do so.

The company’s new “Formlabs Dental” division, meanwhile, will focus on figuring out new dental materials and ways to better tie in to existing dentist office workflows. Right now, the company says, the Form 3b can be used to print crowns and bridges, clear retainers, surgical guides to help during dental implant procedures, custom mouth guards (or “occlusal splints”) and dentures.


Safe Stem Cells Therapies To Fight Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s Diseases

A Rutgers-led team has created better biosensor technology that may help lead to safe stem cell therapies for treating Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases and other neurological disorders.

The technology, which features a unique graphene and gold-based platform and high-tech imaging, monitors the fate of stem cells by detecting genetic material (RNA) involved in turning such cells into brain cells (neurons), according to a study in the journal Nano Letters.

Stem cells can become many different types of cells. As a result, stem cell therapy shows promise for regenerative treatment of neurological disorders such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, stroke and spinal cord injury, with diseased cells needing replacement or repair. But characterizing stem cells and controlling their fate must be resolved before they could be used in treatments. The formation of tumors and uncontrolled transformation of stem cells remain key barriers.

This unique biosensing platform consists of an array of ultrathin graphene layers and gold nanostructures. The platform, combined with high-tech imaging (Raman spectroscopy), detects genetic material (RNA) and characterizes different kinds of stem cells with greater reliability, selectivity and sensitivity than today’s biosensors.

A critical challenge is ensuring high sensitivity and accuracy in detecting biomarkers – indicators such as modified genes or proteins – within the complex stem cell microenvironment,” said senior author KiBum Lee, a professor in the Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology in the School of Arts and Sciences at Rutgers UniversityNew Brunswick.Our technology, which took four years to develop, has demonstrated great potential for analyzing a variety of interactions in stem cells.”


Virtually Indestructible Mini Cheetah Robots

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) put on a spectacular show with a pack of mini cheetah robots the campus in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Researchers behind the small quadrupedal robots shared a video online of these mechanical animals running, jumping and even kicking around a soccer ballSteered manually with a remote control, each one weighs about 20 pounds and can reach speeds of around six miles per hour. The mini cheetah was designed to be ‘virtually indestructible,’ recovering with little damage, even if a backflip ends in a spill, MIT News explained earlier this year. Sangbae Kim, director of MIT‘s biomimetics lab, noted that the robots area designed to absorb the impact of jumping and landing – and the video highlights this capability. The cheetahs are shown frolicking through an area of the college campus, while being controlled by a human. The machines perform a synchronized dance, where they show their gymnastic abilities and then they all join in a game of soccer.


Eventually, I’m hoping we could have a robotic dog race through an obstacle course, where each team controls a mini cheetah with different algorithms, and we can see which strategy is more effective,‘ Kim said. ‘That’s how you accelerate research.’

Each of its legs is powered by three identical, specially designed low-cost electric motors. It was created with a modular design, which means each of its motors and other components can be swapped out if they fail or sustain damage. Benjamin Katz, a technical associate at MIT‘s department of mechanical engineering and lead developer said, ‘If you wanted to add another arm, you could just add three or four more of these modular motors.’ ‘The rate at which it can change forces on the ground is really fast.’


How To Starve Cancer Tumors and Beef Up The Immune Cells

Tumors are hogs, gobbling nutrients to fuel their runaway growth, and for decades researchers have tried to develop drugs that cut off their food supply. A study out today shows that an updated version of a failed cancer drug can not only prevent tumor cells from using an essential nutrient, but also spur immune cells to attack the growths.

T lymphocyte cells attacking a cancer cell, computer illustration. T lymphocytes are a type of white blood cell that recognise a specific site (antigen) on the surface of cancer cells or pathogens and bind to it. Some T lymphocytes then signal for other immune system cells to eliminate the cell. The genetic changes that cause a cell to become cancerous lead to the presentation of tumour antigens on the cell’s surface.

It’s a pretty striking paper,” says cancer biologist Ralph DeBerardinis of the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, who wasn’t connected to the study. “With a single drug, you can in effect starve the tumor and beef up the immune cells.”

Cancer cells eat to obtain molecules vital for survival and replication, but their gluttony also turns their surroundings into an acidic, oxygen-deprived moat that stymies immune cells trying to eliminate them. One of the nutrients many tumors need in abundance is the amino acid glutamine, which provides the building blocks for fabricating molecules such as DNA, proteins, and lipids. “Glutamine is incredibly important for cellular metabolism,” says immunologist Jonathan Powell of the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in Baltimore, Maryland.

Starting in the 1950s, researchers tried to turn tumors’ glutamine dependence against them, developing drugs to block its metabolism. A bacteria-derived compound called DON, for instance, kills tumors by inhibiting several enzymes that allow cancer cells to use glutamine. In clinical trials, however, the drug provoked severe nausea and vomiting, and it was never approved.

Now, Powell and colleagues have crafted a new version of DON that may be easier to stomach. It carries two chemical groups that keep it inert until it reaches the tumor’s neighborhood. There, enzymes that normally loiter around tumors remove these molecular handcuffs, unleashing the drug on the cancerous cells. With this approach, “the vast majority of the active drug is where we want,” Powell says.

To test their new compound, he and colleagues injected four types of cancer cells into mice, inducing tumors. They then dosed some of the animals with their next-generation DON. The drug worked against all four kinds of tumors, the scientists report today in Science. In untreated mice, for example, colon cancer tumors had grown more than five times larger after about 3 weeks. But in rodents that received DON, the tumors shrank and almost disappeared. The researchers found that the drug wasn’t just throttling glutamine metabolism. It was also disrupting other aspects of the cellsbiochemistry, such as their ability to use the sugar glucose.