Monthly Archives: August 2019
Wearing a flower brooch that blooms before your eyes sounds like magic. KAIST researchers have made it real with robotic muscles. Researchers have developed an ultrathin, artificial muscle for soft robotics. The advancement, recently reported in the journal Science Robotics, was demonstrated with a robotic blooming flower brooch, dancing robotic butterflies and fluttering tree leaves on a kinetic art piece.
The robotic equivalent of a muscle that can move is called an actuator. The actuator expands, contracts or rotates like muscle fibers using a stimulus such as electricity. Engineers around the world are striving to develop more dynamic actuators that respond quickly, can bend without breaking, and are very durable. Soft, robotic muscles could have a wide variety of applications, from wearable electronics to advanced prosthetics.
The team from KAIST’s Creative Research Initiative Center for Functionally Antagonistic Nano-Engineering developed a very thin, responsive, flexible and durable artificial muscle. The actuator looks like a skinny strip of paper about an inch long. They used a particular type of material called MXene, which is class of compounds that have layers only a few atoms thick.
Their chosen MXene material (T3C2Tx) is made of thin layers of titanium and carbon compounds. It was not flexible by itself; sheets of material would flake off the actuator when bent in a loop. That changed when the MXene was “ionically cross-linked” — connected through an ionic bond — to a synthetic polymer. The combination of materials made the actuator flexible, while still maintaining strength and conductivity, which is critical for movements driven by electricity.
Their particular combination performed better than others reported. Their actuator responded very quickly to low voltage, and lasted for more than five hours moving continuously. To prove the tiny robotic muscle works actuator into wearable art: an origami-inspired brooch mimics how a narcissus, the team incorporated the flower unfolds its petals when a small amount of electricity is applied. They also designed robotic butterflies that move their wings up and down, and made the leaves of a tree sculpture flutter.
“Wearable robotics and kinetic art demonstrate how robotic muscles can have fun and beautiful applications,” said Il-Kwon Oh, lead paper author and professor of mechanical engineering. “It also shows the enormous potential for small, artificial muscles for a variety of uses, such as haptic feedback systems and active biomedical devices.”
There’s another reason to celebrate the gut microbiome—a healthy gut might actually be able to save lives. According to scientists at the Lawson Health Research Institute, all it takes to strengthen your immune system is to improve your gut health, a process that we know is as easy as increasing your ingestion of probiotics and dietary fiber. How’s that for functional food?
These Lawson Health Research Institute scientists are implementing a preliminary study that would discover whether a fecal transplant of a healthy microbiome can help patients with melanoma become more receptive to immunotherapy treatments. During immunotherapy treatments, patients take certain drugs to stimulate their immune systems in order to attack tumors in their bodies. A fecal transplant, according to these researchers, would make their immune systems more receptive to the drugs and, in turn, could help more people successfully fight their cancer.
“We know that some people’s immune systems don’t respond well, and it seems to be associated with the microbes within your gut,” Michael Silverman, M.D., a Lawson associate scientist, said in a video filmed by the research institute. “The goal is to give people healthy microbes to replenish the microbes in their gut so that their immune system responds optimally, and they’re able to control the tumor.”
People 50 and older have a lot to look forward to, according to Juvenescence’s Greg Bailey—mainly that we won’t be aging as fast or poorly as our parents. “Science fiction has become science,” said the UK-based anti-aging biotech’s CEO about the company’s completing its $100 million Series B round of financing last week. “I think the world is going to be shocked,” he said in an interview. In total, Juvenescence has now raised $165 million in just 18 months to fund longevity projects with the lofty goal of extending human lifespans to 150 years. Bailey said the money will allow the company “to progress all of our products.” And there’s quite a list of potential therapies.
“We have 12 programs based on hard, rigorous science, to try to modify aging. From stem cell research to senolytics to modifying or preventing Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases,” he said. It’s no secret that anti-aging is big business. According to Endpoints News, “Bank of America has forecast the market will balloon to $610 billion by 2025, from an estimated $110 billion currently.” “I think there’s a huge amount of skepticism. There’s an enormous number of charlatans…I understand why they would be thinking you know, is this real?” Bailey told Endpoints. “Walk into your local drugstore, you’re going to see about 50 products that claim to be anti-aging, and I can assure you that none of them are.”
Bailey said creams that claim everything and do nothing and vitamins that basically give users “expensive urine” are the reason for that skepticism. And investors are not as quick to step up as he would like. Bailey told Endpoints: “We’re dramatically being underserved…it’s not getting the exposure that tech gets, considering the size of the market.” He said he believes there is “a disconnect” on how investors and institutions are viewing anti-aging technology. “I don’t think they quite grasp how fast this is going to happen, and how big it’s going to be.”
A cheap, single pill taken once a day that combines four common drugs is safe and reduces the risk of events such as heart attacks, strokes and sudden death in people over the age of 50, research has found. The study, the first large-scale trial to date, looked at the effectiveness of a so-called polypill – a four-in-one therapy containing drugs to lower cholesterol and blood pressure that was first proposed more than 15 years ago. The researchers found those taking the polypill had a more than 30% lower risk of serious heart problems than those just offered advice.
While different formulations have been studied, previous trials have only been conducted in small groups of people and over short periods of time. These studies have primarily looked at the impacts of cholesterol on blood pressure, relying on models to predict the impact on cardiovascular events such as strokes – meaning the full potential of the polypill has remained unclear. The latest study tackled both of these problems.
“There has been a lot of talk about using this simple, fixed-dose combination drug for prevention of cardiovascular disease and I think we have shown that as a strategy it can work,” said Prof Tom Marshall, a co-author of the study from the University of Birmingham, adding that the pills might cost as little as a few pence per day. The new study involved more than 6,800 participants aged 50-75 from rural Iran – an area where almost 34% of premature deaths are down to coronary heart disease, and 14% are caused by strokes.
Writing in the Lancet, researchers from the UK, US and Iran reported that 3,417 people were given only minimum care, such as help with controlling blood pressure or cholesterol if needed, as well as lifestyle advice on topics such as diet, exercise and smoking. A similar number of people were, in addition to this, also given the polypill. More than 90% of those involved in the study did not have cardiovascular disease at the outset. Participants were followed up for five years. Over that time, 202 people taking the polypill had a major cardiovascular event, such as heart attack, heart failure, or stroke, compared with 301 in the “advice” group.
The authors say that translated as a 34% lower risk of having such an event, compared with the “advice” group, once factors including age, sex, diabetes and high blood pressure were taken into account.
There were also signs that, at least early on, the polypill reduced some aspects of high blood pressure, while it also led to a small fall in “bad” cholesterol. Both groups showed similar low levels of problematic events including internal bleeding and peptic ulcers. Overall, the results suggested that two major cardiovascular events would be avoided for every 69 people taking the tablet for 5 years. The polypill includes aspirin, which the team acknowledge is controversial as it can increase the risk of bleeding: the latest trial did not include people who were at high risk of such problems.
Ground-breaking immune therapy promises to deliver vital evidence in the fight against cancer as researchers from the Centre for Cancer Biology in Australia open a new clinical trial using genetically engineered immune cells to treat solid cancers. The phase 1 clinical trial will test the feasibility and safety of CAR-T cells – genetically modified white blood cells harvested from a patient’s own blood with the unique ability to directly attack and kill cancers – to treat advanced solid tumours including small cell lung cancer, sarcomas and triple negative breast cancer.
The new clinical trial will allow researchers to learn more about how CAR-T cells interact with solid tumours in the hope that this form of immune-based therapy may one day treat a wide range of different cancers. Led by the Centre for Cancer Biology – an alliance between University of South Australia (UniSA), the Central Adelaide Local Health Network (CALHN) and the Royal Adelaide Hospital, the trial is funded by Cancer Council’s Beat Cancer Project and sponsored by CALHN.
The research scientist in charge of manufacturing the CAR-T cell product and following the patients’ responses to treatment is UniSA’s Dr Tessa Gargett, a Cancer Council Beat Cancer Project Early Career Fellow from the Centre for Cancer Biology .She says the CAR-T immune therapy shows great potential for developing cancer treatments.
“Chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) T cells are a promising new technology in the field of cancer immunotherapy,” Dr Gargett says. “Essentially, CAR-T cells are super-powered immune cells which work by enlisting and strengthening the power of a patient’s immune system to attack tumours. “They’ve had astounding results in treating some forms of chemotherapy-resistant blood cancers, but similar breakthroughs are yet to be achieved for solid cancers – that’s where this study comes in.”
Researchers at ETH Zurich have refined the famous CRISPR-Cas method. Now, for the very first time, it is possible to modify dozens, if not hundreds, of genes in a cell simultaneously.
Everyone’s talking about CRISPR-Cas. This biotechnological method offers a relatively quick and easy way to manipulate single genes in cells, meaning they can be precisely deleted, replaced or modified. Furthermore, in recent years, researchers have also been using technologies based on CRISPR-Cas to systematically increase or decrease the activity of individual genes. The corresponding methods have become the worldwide standard within a very short time, both in basic biological research and in applied fields such as plant breeding.
To date, for the most part, researchers could modify only one gene at a time using the method. On occasion, they managed two or three in one go; in one particular case, they were able to edit seven genes simultaneously. Now, Professor Randall Platt and his team at the Department of Biosystems Science and Engineering at ETH Zurich in Basel have developed a process that – as they demonstrated in experiments – can modify 25 target sites within genes in a cell at once. As if that were not enough, this number can be increased still further, to dozens or even hundreds of genes, as Platt points out. At any rate, the method offers enormous potential for biomedical research and biotechnology. “Thanks to this new tool, we and other scientists can now achieve what we could only dream of doing in the past.”
Genes and proteins in cells interact in many different ways. The resulting networks comprising dozens of genes ensure an organism’s cellular diversity. For example, they are responsible for differentiating progenitor cells to neuronal cells and immune cells. “Our method enables us, for the first time, to systematically modify entire gene networks in a single step,” Platt says.
Moreover, it paves the way for complex, large-scale cell programming. It can be used to increase the activity of certain genes, while reducing that of others. The timing of this change in activity can also be precisely controlled.
This is of interest for basic research, for example in investigating why various types of cells behave differently or for the study of complex genetic disorders. It will also prove useful for cell replacement therapy, which involves replacing damaged with healthy cells. In this case, researchers can use the method to convert stem cells into differentiated cells, such as neuronal cells or insulin-producing beta cells, or vice versa, to produce stem cells from differentiated skin cells.
William Wagner, the director of the McGowan Institute for Regenerative Medicine at the University of Pittsburgh, a 250-strong team focused on organ and tissue failure, is at the center of possibly one of the most exciting projects in biomedical research today: can you use 3D printers to create new organs for people in space?
The ability to create new organs using stem cells is an exciting area of research that could help save lives, ending the scourge of donor shortages. Studying the concept further in microgravity could teach the team more about how these cells act, while enabling them to build more complex organs that could inform research on Earth. Early findings also suggest that these studies could reveal more about certain diseases. This vision came a bit closer to reality this week, when Wagner’s institute announced a multi-year research alliance with the International Space Station’s United States National Laboratory to explore the area further. The institute will develop facilities on Earth while working with the lab on flight opportunities to study experiments in the orbiting lab.
“There’s been a lot of neat discovery science done on the space station,” Wagner says. “Let’s see what happens when we put stem cells in space. Oh, gosh, they stay more stem-like and they divide better! Okay, well, now what?”
Slowly but surely, organ printing is developing. At a 2016 conference, CELLINK detailed a future where organ shortages were a thing of the past. A team in May 2017 succesfully implanted artificial ovaries in mice. A Rutgers University group of researchers created a 3D-printable water gel that could one day help researchers print organs.
SpaceX’s CRS-18 resupply mission, which launched July 21 carrying Nickelodeon slime, also carried a Techshot biofabrication utility designed for exploring this area further: Wagner’s team is focused on using stem cells to fabricate new organs. These cells, which can further split into specialized cells, are also being used in the nascent area of lab-grown meat. Wagner explains that both areas involve similar problems of growing cells in a certain manner and rate. But while lab-based burgers could hit plates as early as 2021, printed livers and the like are nowhere near ready. “I can tell you from my perspective, organ printing’s got a long, long, long way to go,” Wagner says. “There’s a lot of barriers. At the same time, it’s exciting. There’s a lot of hope there if we can overcome any of these barriers.”
Your brain has its own box of memories. If you were to hold it in your hand, brush off the dust and open it up, you’d be able to pull out Polaroid snaps of your most treasured memories. Your graduation ceremony perhaps, your wedding day, your daughter’s first words – all things you wouldn’t want to forget. But how does your brain keep these memories in their crystal-clear clarity? The strength of a memory lies in its formation and upkeep. When we create a memory, thin connections, called axons, form between nerve cells in our brain. The point at which two axons connect is called a synapse, and it is the strength of the synapse that determines if the memory is kept or allowed to fade away.
Now, a study in mice carried out by Nobel Prize-winning researchers at Columbia University has shown that a protein called CPEB3 plays an important role in the formation of memories. The team discovered how this protein is stored and used in the brain and hope it could lead to new methods of slowing memory loss in humans.
“The science of how synapses form and are strengthened over time is important for deciphering any disorder in which synapses – and the memories associated with them – degrade and die, such as Alzheimer’s disease,” said Dr Luana Fioriti. CPEB3 is created by the brain’s memory centre, the Hyppocampus. Once produced, it is stored in chamber-like structures called P bodies that protect it from other parts of the cell. It then travels to the synapse between nerve cells where required and is gradually released to help create a specific memory.
The findings suggest that the more CPEB3 released at a synapse, the stronger the connection and thus, the more concrete the resulting memory is. When the protein was removed, the mice could create new memories but were unable to keep them.