Monthly Archives: July 2019
Scientists in Switzerland have developed a system which allows people with severely-impaired motor functions, such as quadriplegia, to use video games using only the power of their brain.
Samuel Kunz, who was paralysed after an accident, uses the brain-computer interface to control an avatar through a race course in a specially-designed computer game called ‘Brain Driver’. The ultimate aim of the research is to develop technology to control devices such as wheelchairs for those with a limited ability to move. Kunz, who is taking part in the trial, is able to ‘pilot’ the digital race-car using only his brain signals transmitted to a computer via electrodes placed on his head.
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“These electrodes are connected to an amplifier and then to the computer and to our algorithms in the end. The algorithms are then calculating the brain signal and sending commands to the game that our pilot can actually control,” Dr. Rea Lehner, a neuroscientist at ETH Zurich explained. Lehner added Kunz is training his mind by imagining certain actions which are then translated into signals to control the race car. Thinking about moving his left hand makes the car turn left, thinking about moving his right hand turns the car right, and moving both together makes the car go straight. A fourth command – fully relaxing and clearing his mind – slows the car down. Kunz said it has taken a lot of practise to train his mind to control the game; which will be made even more difficult in a stadium full of people. He will be among those taking part in a special championship next year called Cybathlon in which people with physical disabilities compete against each other using state-of-the-art technology.
“I have to be very concentrated. The connection between my fingers and my brain is not there anymore. I still try to move my fingers just in my head and so that needs a lot of concentration to do it exactly the same way every time,” Kunz told Reuters during a training session in Zurich.
Nine years after an accident caused the loss of his left hand, Dennis Aabo Sørensen from Denmark became the first amputee in the world to feel – in real-time – with a sensory-enhanced prosthetic hand that was surgically wired to nerves in his upper arm. Silvestro Micera and his team at EPFL Center for Neuroprosthetics (Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne in Switzerland) and SSSA (Italy) developed the revolutionary sensory feedback that allowed Sørensen to feel again while handling objects. A prototype of this bionic technology was tested in February 2013 during a clinical trial in Rome under the supervision of Paolo Maria Rossini at Gemelli Hospital (Italy). The study is published in the February 5, 2014 edition of Science Translational Medicine, and represents a collaboration called Lifehand 2 between several European universities and hospitals.
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“The sensory feedback was incredible,” reports the 36 year-old amputee from Denmark. “I could feel things that I hadn’t been able to feel in over nine years.” In a laboratory setting wearing a blindfold and earplugs, Sørensen was able to detect how strongly he was grasping, as well as the shape and consistency of different objects he picked up with his prosthetic. “When I held an object, I could feel if it was soft or hard, round or square.”
Micera and his team enhanced the artificial hand with sensors that detect information about touch. This was done by measuring the tension in artificial tendons that control finger movement and turning this measurement into an electrical current. But this electrical signal is too coarse to be understood by the nervous system. Using computer algorithms, the scientists transformed the electrical signal into an impulse that sensory nerves can interpret. The sense of touch was achieved by sending the digitally refined signal through wires into four electrodes that were surgically implanted into what remains of Sørensen’s upper arm nerves.
“This is the first time in neuroprosthetics that sensory feedback has been restored and used by an amputee in real-time to control an artificial limb,” says Micera. “We were worried about reduced sensitivity in Dennis’ nerves since they hadn’t been used in over nine years,” says Stanisa Raspopovic, first author and scientist at EPFL and SSSA. These concerns faded away as the scientists successfully reactivated Sørensen’s sense of touch.
New research from the USC Viterbi School of Engineering could be key to our understanding of how the aging process works. The findings potentially pave the way for better cancer treatments and revolutionary new drugs that could vastly improve human health in the twilight years. The work, from Assistant Professor of Chemical Engineering and Materials Science Nick Graham and his team in collaboration with Scott Fraser, Provost Professor of Biological Sciences and Biomedical Engineering, and Pin Wang, Zohrab A. Kaprielian Fellow in Engineering, was recently published in the Journal of Biological Chemistry.
LEFT: NON-SENESCENT CELLS WERE SHOWN WITH DIFFERENT COLORS. RIGHT: SENESCENT CELLS APPEARED OFTEN WITH MULTIPLE BLUE NUCLEI AND DID NOT SYNTHESIZE DNA.
“To drink from the fountain of youth, you have to figure out where the fountain of youth is, and understand what the fountain of youth is doing,” Graham said. “We’re doing the opposite; we’re trying to study the reasons cells age, so that we might be able to design treatments for better aging.”
To achieve this, lead author Alireza Delfarah, a graduate student in the Graham lab, focused on senescence, a natural process in which cells permanently stop creating new cells. This process is one of the key causes of age-related decline, manifesting in diseases such as arthritis, osteoporosis and heart disease.
“Senescent cells are effectively the opposite of stem cells, which have an unlimited potential for self-renewal or division,” Delfarah said. “Senescent cells can never divide again. It’s an irreversible state of cell cycle arrest.”
The research team discovered that the aging, senescent cells stopped producing a class of chemicals called nucleotides, which are the building blocks of DNA. When they took young cells and forced them to stop producing nucleotides, they became senescent, or aged. “This means that the production of nucleotides is essential to keep cells young,” Delfarah said. “It also means that if we could prevent cells from losing nucleotide synthesis, the cells might age more slowly.”
Graham’s team examined young cells that were proliferating robustly and fed them molecules labeled with stable isotopes of carbon, in order to trace how the nutrients consumed by a cell were processed into different biochemical pathways.
Scott Fraser and his lab worked with the research team to develop 3D imagery of the results. The images unexpectedly revealed that senescent cells often have two nuclei, and that they do not synthesize DNA. Before now, senescence has primarily been studied in cells known as fibroblasts, the most common cells that comprised the connective tissue in animals. Graham’s team is instead focusing on how senescence occurs in epithelial cells, the cells that line the surfaces of the organs and structures in the body and the type of cells in which most cancers arise. Graham said that senescence is most widely known as the body’s protective barrier against cancer: When cells sustain damage that could be at risk of developing into cancer, they enter into senescence and stop proliferating so that the cancer does not develop and spread.
“Sometimes people talk about senescence as a double-edged sword, that it protects against cancer, and that’s a good thing,” Graham said. “But then it also promotes aging and diseases like diabetes, cardiac dysfunction or atherosclerosis and general tissue dysfunction,” he said. Graham said the goal was not to completely prevent senescence, because that might unleash cancer cells. “But then on the other hand, we would like to find a way to remove senescent cells to promote healthy aging and better function,” he explained.
Graham underscores that the team’s research has applications in the emerging field of senolytics, the development of drugs that may be able to eliminate aging cells. He said that human clinical trials are still in early stages, but studies with mice have shown that by eliminating senescent cells, mice age better, with a more productive life span. “They can take a mouse that’s aging and diminishing in function, treat it with senolytic drugs to eliminate the senescent cells, and the mouse is rejuvenated. If anything, it’s these senolytic drugs that are the fountain of youth,” Graham said. He added that in order for successful senolytic drugs to be designed, it was important to identify what is unique about senescent cells, so that drugs won’t affect the normal, non-senescent cells.
“That’s where we’re coming in–studying senescent cell metabolism and trying to figure out how the senescent cells are unique, so that you could design targeted therapeutics around these metabolic pathways,” Graham added.
A new study demonstrates that stem cells from baby teeth can be used to repair damaged permanent teeth in young children. The findings suggest a new treatment for childhood dental issues may be around the corner. The treatment’s potential applications go much further than just dental health. Half of all children suffer some kind of dental injury while young. Sometimes the damage isn’t to the baby teeth they will lose anyway, but to the permanent adult teeth lying below the gums that they will need for the rest of their lives. In some cases, trauma can cut off the blood supply to a tooth and rot out the living pulp inside it; a condition called “pulp necrosis.” This condition often leads to the loss of the tooth. While treatment exists, it is often unsatisfactory.
A new clinical trial by Yan Jin, Kun Xuan, and Bei Li of the Fourth Military Medicine University in Xi’an, China and Songtao Shi of the University of Pennsylvania‘s School of Dental Medicine demonstrates how to repair teeth suffering from pulp necrosis by taking stem cells from the patient’s baby teeth.
The study, carried out in China on 40 children who had both damaged adult teeth and baby teeth that had yet to fall out, was published in the journal Science Translational Medicine. The test subjects were selected to either receive the new treatment or an older treatment called apexification, which attempts to address the issue by encouraging root development. This was considered the control group.
The patients who received the stem cell treatment, called human deciduous pulp stem cell (hDPSC) treatment, had pulp tissue taken out of one of their healthy baby teeth. This pulp is rich in stem cells. The cells were grown in a lab and then placed into the injured adult tooth. The hope was that the stem cells would encourage the growth of new pulp inside the tooth.
Follow-ups were carried out for up to three years. The patients who had received the hDPSC treatment showed better blood flow in their teeth, better root systems, and thicker dentin than the patents who underwent the traditional procedure. They also had recovered sensation in their teeth, while the control group had not. The use of a patient’s own cells in the treatment also reduced the risk of their body rejecting the therapy, making the concept even more attractive. “This treatment gives patients sensation back in their teeth. If you give them a warm or cold stimulation, they can feel it; they have living teeth again,” Dr. Shi told Penn Today. “For me, the results are very exciting. To see something we discovered take a step forward to potentially become a routine therapy in the clinic is gratifying.”
Breast cancer is one of the most common cancers, and one of the leading causes of death in women globally. Breast cancer is a disease where cells located in the breast grow out of control. Although a majority of breast cancers are discovered in women at the age of 50 years or older, the disease can affect anyone, including men and younger women, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Last year there were 9.6 million deaths and 18.1 million new cases of breast cancer diagnosed globally according to the latest report from the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) released in September 2018.
In 2019 alone, the U.S. National Cancer Institute estimates that there will be 268,600 new female breast cancer cases and 41,760 fatalities. Earlier this month, researchers based in Switzerland published in Cell their study in using applied artificial intelligence (AI) machine learning to create a comprehensive tumor and immune atlas of breast cancer ecosystems that lays the foundation for innovative precision medicine and immunotherapy.
The study was led by professor Bernd Bodenmiller, Ph.D. at the Institute of Molecular Life Sciences at the University of Zurich in Switzerland. Bodenmiller is a recipient of the 2019 Friedrich Miescher Award, Switzerland’s highest distinction for outstanding achievements in biochemistry. His team worked in collaboration with the Systems Biology Group at IBM Research in Zurich led by María Rodríguez Martínez, Ph.D. with the shared goal to produce a foundation for more targeted breast cancer treatment through precision medicine.
An artificial intelligence bot, created by researchers at Facebook and Carnegie Mellon, can beat human poker professionals in a six-player, no-limit Hold’em game, Facebook announced. Pluribus, as the AI bot is called, has “decisively” won against a number of pros, including two World Series of Poker Main Event winners.
Pluribus has been built on the shoulders of Libratus, an AI that bested human pro players in two-player poker in 2017. It learned to play by competing against itself, without any data of prior human or AI play. Since poker is incredibly complex, having Pluribus look too far into the future wasn’t viable; instead, the bot used a new search algorithm that helps it make good decisions by looking at just the few next moves (instead of trying to figure out all the moves until the end of the game). It also used new and faster self-play algorithms that helped it cope with all the hidden information present in poker.
“Combined, these advances made it possible to train Pluribus using very little processing power and memory — the equivalent of less than $150 worth of cloud computing resources,” wrote Facebook AI research scientist Noam Brown.
During one experiment, Pluribus played 10,000 hands of poker over 12 days, against a dozen professionals (who were playing for a total prize for $50,000, giving them a reason to win).
In money terms, Pluribus was so much better than people, that if the game were played with $1 chips, it would have made about $1,000 per hour competing against five human players.
The details on how the researchers have managed to make Pluribus so good at multiplayer poker — a notoriously hard problem in AI — are in a new paper published in Science.
Red faces in Moscow this weekend, with the news that hackers have successfully targeted FSB—Russia‘s Federal Security Service. The hackers managed to steal 7.5 terabytes of data from a major contractor, exposing secret FSB projects to de-anonymize Tor browsing, scrape social media, and help the state split its internet off from the rest of the world. The data was passed to mainstream media outlets for publishing.
FSB is Russia’s primary security agency with parallels with the FBI and MI5, but its remit stretches beyond domestic intelligence to include electronic surveillance overseas and significant intelligence-gathering oversight. It is the primary successor agency to the infamous KGB, reporting directly to Russia’s president.
A week ago, on July 13, a hacking group under the name 0v1ru$ that had reportedly breached SyTech, a major FSB contractor working on a range of live and exploratory internet projects, left a smiling Yoba Face on SyTech’s homepage alongside pictures purporting to showcase the breach. 0v1ru$ had passed the data itself to the larger hacking group “Digital Revolution” , which shared the files with various media outlets and the headlines with Twitter—taunting FSB that the agency should maybe rename one of its breached activities “Project Collander”.
BBC Russia broke the news that 0v1ru$ had breached SyTech‘s servers and shared details of contentious cyber projects, projects that included social media scraping (including Facebook and LinkedIn), targeted collection and the “de-anonymization of users of the Tor browser.” The BBC described the breach as possibly “the largest data leak in the history of Russian intelligence services.”
As well as defacing SyTech‘s homepage with the Yoba Face, 0v1ru$ also detailed the project names exposed: “Arion“, “Relation“, “Hryvnia,” alongside the names of the SyTech project managers. The BBC report claims that no actual state secrets were exposed.
It seems like everything is going wireless these days. That now includes efforts to reprogram the human genome. A new University at Buffalo-led study describes how researchers wirelessly controlled FGFR1 — a gene that plays a key role in how humans grow from embryos to adults — in lab-grown brain tissue. The ability to manipulate the gene, the study’s authors say, could lead to new cancer treatments, and ways to prevent and treat mental disorders such as schizophrenia.
It represents a step forward toward genetic manipulation technology that could upend the treatment of cancer, as well as the prevention and treatment of schizophrenia and other neurological illnesses. It centers on the creation of a new subfield of research the study’s authors are calling “optogenomics,” or controlling the human genome through laser light and nanotechnology.
The left image shows the gene FGFR1 in its natural state. The right image shows the gene when exposed to laser light, which causes the gene to activiate and deactivate.
“The potential of optogenomic interfaces is enormous,” says co-author Josep M. Jornet, PhD, associate professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering in the UB School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. “It could drastically reduce the need for medicinal drugs and other therapies for certain illnesses. It could also change how humans interact with machines.”
For the past 20 years, scientists have been combining optics and genetics — the field of optogenetics — with a goal of employing light to control how cells interact with each other. By doing this, one could potentially develop new treatments for diseases by correcting the miscommunications that occur between cells. While promising, this research does not directly address malfunctions in genetic blueprints that guide human growth and underlie many diseases. The new research begins to tackle this issue because FGFR1 — it stands for Fibroblast Growth Factor Receptor 1 — holds sway over roughly 4,500 other genes, about one-fifth of the human genome, as estimated by the Human Genome Project, says study co-author Michal K. Stachowiak.
“In some respects, it’s like a boss gene,” says Stachowiak, PhD, professor in the Department of Pathology and Anatomical Sciences in the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences at UB. “By controlling FGFR1, one can theoretically prevent widespread gene dysregulations in schizophrenia or in breast cancer and other types of cancer.”
The work — spearheaded by UB researchers Josep M. Jornet, Michal K. Stachowiak, Yongho Bae and Ewa K. Stachowiak — was reported in the June edition of the Proceedings of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers.