Monthly Archives: September 2020

Secure Nano-Carrier Delivers Medications Directly To Cells

Medications often have unwanted side-effects. One reason is that they reach not only the unhealthy cells for which they are intended, but also reach and have an impact on healthy cells. Researchers at the Technical University of Munich (TUM), working together with the KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, have developed a stable nano-carrier for medications. A special mechanism makes sure the drugs are only released in diseased cells.

The human body is made up of billions of cells. In the case of cancer, the genome of several of these cells is changed pathologically so that the cells divide in an uncontrolled manner. The cause of virus infections is also found within the affected cells. During chemotherapy for example, drugs are used to try to destroy these cells. However, the therapy impacts the entire body, damaging healthy cells as well and resulting in side effects which are sometimes quite serious.

A team of researchers led by Prof. Oliver Lieleg, Professor of Biomechanics and a member of the TUM Munich School of BioEngineering, and Prof. Thomas Crouzier of the KTH has developed a transport system which releases the active agents of medications in affected cells only.

The drug carriers are accepted by all the cells,” Lieleg explains. “But only the diseased cells should be able to trigger the release of the active agent.”

The scientists have now shown that the mechanism functions in tumor model systems based on cell cultures. First they packaged the active ingredients. For this purpose, they used so-called mucins, the main ingredient of the mucus found for example on the mucus membranes of the mouth, stomach and intestines. Mucins consist of a protein background to which sugar molecules are docked. “Since mucins occur naturally in the body, opened mucin particles can later be broken down by the cells,” Lieleg says.

Another important part of the package also occurs naturally in the body: deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA), the carrier of our genetic information. The researchers synthetically created DNA structures with the properties they desired and chemically bonded these structures to the mucins. If glycerol is now added to the solution containing the mucin DNA molecules and the active ingredient, the solubility of the mucins decreases, they fold up and enclose the active agent. The DNA strands bond to one another and thus stabilize the structure so that the mucins can no longer unfold themselves.

The DNA-stabilized particles can only be opened by the rightkey” in order to once again release the encapsulated active agent molecules. Here the researchers use what are called microRNA molecules. RNA or ribonucleic acid has a structure very similar to that of DNA and plays a major role in the body’s synthesis of proteins; it can also regulate other cell processes.

Cancer cells contain microRNA strands whose structure we know precisely,” explains Ceren Kimna, lead author of the study. “In order to use them as keys, we modified the lock accordingly by meticulously designing the synthetic DNA strands which stabilize our medication carrier particles.” The DNA strands are structured in such a way that the microRNA can bind to them and as a result break down the existing bonds which are stabilizing the structure. The synthetic DNA strands in the particles can also be adapted to microRNA structures which occur with other diseases such as diabetes or hepatitis.


How To Control Computers With The Mind

A new type of brain implant allows a paralyzed person to learn how to control a computer cursor with their mind. This kind of technology could be revolutionary for people with very limited mobility as it could open up computer-based communication and give them more freedom in every day life.

So-called ‘brain-computer interfaces’ have been developed for this purpose before, but a key problem with them was that the user had to retrain on a daily basis, making progress difficultBrain-computer interface implants work by a user thinking about moving the cursor on a screen in different directions by imagining they are moving their arm and neck in a specific way.  Electrical impulses picked up by the brain implant allow the cursor to move. A computer algorithm then ‘learns’ how the brain signals correlate to the cursor movements and adjusts them giving the implant user control.

This is akin to relearning how to move your arm every day,” explained Karunesh Ganguly, an associate professor in neurology at the University of California San Francisco, who led the current research.

Previous implants have had “technical issues related to having small wires in the brain that are not stable over time,” he added.


BCG, Long-used Tuberculosis Vaccine Cuts Respiratory Infections. Why not Covid-19?

Three years ago, doctors in Greece began recruiting 198 older people for a unique experiment. They injected half of them with a century-old tuberculosis vaccine typically given to newborns in the developing world. They gave the other half a placebo. They wanted to find out if the vaccine, called Bacillus Calmette–Guérin, or BCG, would protect older people—not against TB, but more broadly against viral infections. Results are now in: During the year after receiving the shot, the BCG group had 80 percent fewer serious respiratory viral infections than the unvaccinated group. The results were published in Cell at the end of August by doctors at the University of Athens Medical School in Greece, and Radboud University Medical Centre in Nijmegen, Netherlands.

That’s a big deal for a few reasons. People 65 years and older are more likely than any other age group to be hospitalized due to respiratory infections such as influenza, and this study is a preliminary signal that some vaccines could have broad beneficial effects beyond protection from a particular disease. And Covid-19, too, is a respiratory viral illness that disproportionately leads to the hospitalization of older people.

The chances are increased that BCG would have the same effect on Covid-19 as on other viral respiratory infections like the flu,” says Mihai Netea, the senior author of the study and experimental internal medicine chair at Radboud University. Tests of whether BCG specifically protects against Covid-19 are ongoing; there are now at least 20 randomized clinical trials around the world to see whether it can indeed protect health workers and the elderly. Many scientists now believe that BCG and some vaccines like it that contain a live, weakened virus may act against non-target diseases. A 2016 review commissioned by the World Health Organization found that BCG and the measles vaccines reduce overall mortality by “more than would be expected through their effects on the diseases they prevent.”

I think that we have to acknowledge that vaccines have effects much broader than the target disease and the effects can be used,” Netea says.

The research that became the Cell study began in 2017, when Netea’s team recruited patients who were visiting the hospital at the University of Athens Medical School. Most were around 80 years old. Netea was nervous about patients having an adverse reaction to the vaccination, itself. In aging patients, there’s always a risk that an immune response can overfire, and BCG has traditionally been given to newborns, not the aged.

Then, Covid-19 hit, and observational studies done by scientists such as Luis Escobar, a disease ecologist at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Virginia, hinted that nations where newborns get BCG shots are associated with lower Covid-19 mortality. Netea and his colleagues decided to fast track their analysis. In mid-May, they learned that the vaccinated patients had 80 percent fewer moderate-to-severe respiratory infections.

That is pretty damn good,” says Kim Mulholland, a vaccinologist at the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute in Melbourne, who was more skeptical of broad beneficial effects of vaccines before this study. “This study left me with the feeling that I should go out and get a BCG vaccine.”

How To Connect Neurons To Electrodes Using 3D Printing

Researchers at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) have developed a new method of 3D-printing gels and other soft materials. Published in a new paper, it has the potential to create complex structures with nanometer-scale precision. Because many gels are compatible with living cells, the new method could jump-start the production of soft tiny medical devices such as drug delivery systems or flexible electrodes that can be inserted into the human body.

A standard 3D printer makes solid structures by creating sheets of material — typically plastic or rubber — and building them up layer by layer, like a lasagna, until the entire object is created.

Using a 3D printer to fabricate an object made of gel is a “bit more of a delicate cooking process,” said NIST researcher Andrei Kolmakov. In the standard method, the 3D printer chamber is filled with a soup of long-chain polymers — long groups of molecules bonded togetherdissolved in water. Then “spices” are added — special molecules that are sensitive to light. When light from the 3D printer activates those special molecules, they stitch together the chains of polymers so that they form a fluffy weblike structure. This scaffolding, still surrounded by liquid water, is the gel.

Biocompatible interface shows that hydrogels (green tubing), which can be generated by an electron or X-ray beam 3D printing process, act as artificial synapses or junctions, connecting neurons (brown) to electrodes (yellow)

Typically, modern 3D gel printers have used ultraviolet or visible laser light to initiate formation of the gel scaffolding. However, Kolmakov and his colleagues have focused their attention on a different 3D-printing technique to fabricate gels, using beams of electrons or X-rays. Because these types of radiation have a higher energy, or shorter wavelength, than ultraviolet and visible light, these beams can be more tightly focused and therefore produce gels with finer structural detail. Such detail is exactly what is needed for tissue engineering and many other medical and biological applications. Electrons and X-rays offer a second advantage: They do not require a special set of molecules to initiate the formation of gels.

But at present, the sources of this tightly focused, short-wavelength radiation — scanning electron microscopes and X-ray microscopes — can only operate in a vacuum. That’s a problem because in a vacuum the liquid in each chamber evaporates instead of forming a gel.

Kolmakov and his colleagues at NIST and at the Elettra Sincrotrone Trieste in Italy, solved the issue and demonstrated 3D gel printing in liquids by placing an ultrathin barrier — a thin sheet of silicon nitridebetween the vacuum and the liquid chamber. The thin sheet protects the liquid from evaporating (as it would ordinarily do in vacuum) but allows X-rays and electrons to penetrate into the liquid. The method enabled the team to use the 3D-printing approach to create gels with structures as small as 100 nanometers (nm) — about 1,000 times thinner than a human hair. By refining their method, the researchers expect to imprint structures on the gels as small as 50 nm, the size of a small virus.


Coronavirus Vaccine: When Will We Have One?

There are around 40 different coronavirus vaccines in clinical trials – including one being developed by the University of Oxford that is already in an advanced stage of testing. The virus spreads easily, and the majority of the world’s population is still vulnerable to it. A vaccine would provide some protection by training people’s immune systems to fight the virus so they should not become sick. This would allow lockdowns to be lifted more safely, and social distancing to be relaxed.

Research is happening at breakneck speed. About 240 vaccines are in early development, with 40 in clinical trials and nine already in the final stage of testing on thousands of peopleTrials of the Oxford vaccine show it can trigger an immune response, and a deal has been signed with AstraZeneca to supply 100 million doses in the UK alone. The first human trial data back in May indicated the first eight patients taking part in a US study all produced antibodies that could neutralise the virus. A group in China showed a vaccine was safe and led to protective antibodies being made. It is being made available to the Chinese military.

Other completely new approaches to vaccine development are in human trials. However, no-one knows how effective any of these vaccines will be. A vaccine would normally take years, if not decades, to develop. Researchers hope to achieve the same amount of work in only a few months. Most experts think a vaccine is likely to become widely available by mid-2021, about 12-18 months after the new virus, known officially as Sars-CoV-2, first emerged. That would be a huge scientific feat, and there are no guarantees it will work. But scientists are optimistic that, if trials are successful, then a small number of people – such as healthcare workers – may be vaccinated before the end of this year. It is worth noting that four coronaviruses already circulate in human beings. They cause common cold symptoms and we don’t have vaccines for any of them.

Electric Road Powers Buses

The city of Tel Aviv is working on creating wireless electric roads to charge and power public transportation in the city. The electric roads are part of a pilot program led by the Tel Aviv-Yafo Municipality in collaboration with ElectReon, a company developing a system that can charge electric vehicles while they are moving, and Dan Bus Company. The project is being funded by a combination of government and private funds, according to a spokesperson for ElectReon, though a full budget has not been released. The roads will span from Tel Aviv University Railway station to Klatzkin Terminal in Ramat Aviv, a route of about 1.2 miles. The electric road itself will be about .37 miles long, a little less than half a mileElectric infrastructure under the road will charge specially-equipped buses. The system consists of a set of copper coils that are placed under the asphalt of the street, according to ElectReon.

Energy is transferred from the electricity grid to the road infrastructure and manages communication with the approaching vehicles,” according to the company’s website.

As for the vehicles, receivers are installed on the floor of the vehicle to transmit energy directly to the battery while driving.

The last few days have been spent constructing the road,” a spokesperson for the city told CNN Business. “Testing and trial runs will be required in the coming weeks before commencing regular operations.”

If the pilot is successful, the municipality of Tel Aviv will look into expanding and using the electric roads to more sections in the city. “Our strategic action plan to prepare for climate change has placed the fight against pollution at the top of the municipality’s environmental agenda,” Ron Huldai, the city’s mayor, said in a press release. “If the pilot is successful, we will evaluate — together with the Ministry of Transportation — its expansion to additional locations in the city.

Relying on direct charging of vehicles from the road itself will remove the need to establish charging stations or be operationally bound to terminals,” Meital Lehavi, the deputy mayor for transportation at the Tel Aviv-Yafo Municipality, commented.

The technology’s testing and integration timeline is expected to take about two months, after which Dan Bus Company will commence regular journeys on the route, transporting passengers who are traveling to and from Tel Aviv University, according to a press release from the municipality of Tel Aviv.


New Composite Material Boosts Electric Vehicles

Scientists at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ONRL) used new techniques to create a composite that increases the electrical current capacity of copper wires, providing a new material that can be scaled for use in ultra-efficient, power-dense electric vehicle traction motors.

The research is aimed at reducing barriers to wider electric vehicle adoption, including cutting the cost of ownership and improving the performance and life of components such as electric motors and power electronics. The material can be deployed in any component that uses copper, including more efficient bus bars and smaller connectors for electric vehicle traction inverters, as well as for applications such as wireless and wired charging systems.

To produce a lighter weight conductive material with improved performance, ORNL researchers deposited and aligned carbon nanotubes on flat copper substrates, resulting in a metal-matrix composite material with better current handling capacity and mechanical properties than copper alone.

Incorporating carbon nanotubes, or CNTs, into a copper matrix to improve conductivity and mechanical performance is not a new idea. CNTs are an excellent choice due to their lighter weight, extraordinary strength and conductive properties. But past attempts at composites by other researchers have resulted in very short material lengths, only micrometers or millimeters, along with limited scalability, or in longer lengths that performed poorly.

The ORNL team decided to experiment with depositing single-wall CNTs using electrospinning, a commercially viable method that creates fibers as a jet of liquid speeds through an electric field. The technique provides control over the structure and orientation of deposited materials, explained Kai Li, a postdoctoral researcher in ORNL’s Chemical Sciences Division. In this case, the process allowed scientists to successfully orient the CNTs in one general direction to facilitate enhanced flow of electricity.

The team then used magnetron sputtering, a vacuum coating technique, to add thin layers of copper film on top of the CNT-coated copper tapes. The coated samples were then annealed in a vacuum furnace to produce a highly conductive Cu-CNT network by forming a dense, uniform copper layer and to allow diffusion of copper into the CNT matrix.

Using this method, ORNL scientists created a copper-carbon nanotube composite 10 centimeters long and 4 centimeters wide, with exceptional properties. Researchers found the composite reached 14% greater current capacity, with up to 20% improved mechanical properties compared with pure copper.

By embedding all the great properties of carbon nanotubes into a copper matrix, we are aiming for better mechanical strength, lighter weight and higher current capacity. Then you get a better conductor with less power loss, which in turn increases the efficiency and performance of the device. Improved performance, for instance, means we can reduce volume and increase the power density in advanced motor systems,” said Tolga Aytug, lead investigator for the project.

The findings are reported in the journal ACS Applied Nano Materials.


Airbus Reveals Hydrogen Aircraft For 2033

Airbus has unveiled conceptual designs for a potential zero-emission commercial aircraft, which it believes could be developed for service entry in the next 15 years. All three of the preliminary designs – branded as ‘ZEROe’ aircraft – would use hydrogen as the main power sourceAirbus’s most radical proposition is a blended-wing body concept, seating up to 200 passengers, which would have a range of up to 2,000nm (3700 km). It has also shown off a more conventional-looking turbofan idea – with a similar range – which would be fitted with modified hydrogen-fuelled gas-turbine combustion engines. This concept would involve storing liquid hydrogen in tanks behind the aft pressure bulkhead. Its third proposal is a 100-seat turboprop, also using modified gas turbines, able to operate over a range of at least 1,000nm. Airbus says hydrogenholds exceptional promise” as a fuel for zero-emission transport.

It is likely to be a solution for aerospace and many other industries to meet their climate-neutral targets,” it adds. The airframer claims the aircraft outlined could potentially enter service by 2035 – a date which has been suggested by the French government for development of highly-efficient regional aircraft and an Airbus A320 successor. These targets had been included in a recent €15 billion aid package from the French government to the country’s aeronautical sector. Its strategy, based on improved fuel consumption and examining the potential of zero-emission hydrogen-based technology, suggests an initial demonstrator could be produced by 2026-28 and enter service in 2033-35.

Airbus chief executive Guillaume Faury says the concepts offer a “glimpse of our ambition” to “drive a bold vision” for zero-emission flight. “I strongly believe that the use of hydrogen, both in synthetic fuels and as a primary power source for commercial aircraft, has the potential to significantly reduce aviation’s climate impact,” he adds. But he warns that, for such designs to be validated and eventually materialise, the transition to hydrogen power will require “decisive action from the entire aviation eco-system”. “In order to tackle these challenges, airports will require significant hydrogen transport and refuelling infrastructure to meet the needs of day-to-day operations,” adds Airbus, pointing out that government support to meet the objectives will be essential.


Coronavirus Breathalyzer Test Gives Results In 30 Seconds

An Israeli company is developing a coronavirus breathalyzer test that gives results in 30 seconds, billing it as a “front-line” tool that can help restore a sense of normality during the pandemic. NanoScent, the firm making the test kits, said an extensive trial in Israel for the presence of live virus delivered results with 85 percent accuracy, and the product could receive regulatory approval within months. Chief Executive Officer Oren Gavriely told Agence France-Presse the breathalyzer would not replace lab tests, but was a mass screening tool that could help people gain “the confidence to go back and act as normal.” NanoScent has been operating for several years, specializing in rapid recognition technology, including for medical purposes.

Gavriely said that while visiting the United States in January, he sensed his firm’s expertise might be needed to help confront the novel virus circulating in Asia that appeared to be spreading to the West.

We said we’ll invest one week into it and see what’s happening, and this one week never stopped,” he explained. The test begins with a few short questions about COVID-19 exposure and symptoms, displayed on the phone of the person administering the procedure. Test subjects then inhale through the nose, hold their breath, close one nostril and exhale through the other, pushing breath through a handheld tube into a small bag called the “Air Trap.”

The tube is then plugged into the “Scent Reader“, a small rectangular device that whirs softly as it sucks the air out of the bag. Within seconds the results – “COVID-19 negative” during AFP’s visit – appear on the phone.


China: Explosive Growth In The Digital Economy

China has over 110 million 5G users and is expected to have more than 600,000 5G base stations by the end of this year, covering all cities at prefecture level and above, according to the 5G Innovation and Development Forum held on Sept 15 during the Smart China Expo Online in southwest China’s Chongqing municipality.

Since 5G licenses for commercial use for more than one year were issued, the country has made steady progress in the construction of its 5G network infrastructure, said Han Xia, director of the telecom department at the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, adding that Chinese telecommunications companies have already built over 500,000 5G base stations with over 100 million 5G internet terminals.

So far, 5G has been deployed in sectors and fields including ports, machinery, automobiles, steel, mining and energy, while 5G application has been accelerated in key areas such as industrial internet, Internet of Vehicles, medical care, and education, Han noted.

The value of the country’s industrial internet hit 2.13 trillion yuan last year, Yin Hao, an academician from the Chinese Academy of Sciences said at the forum, adding that the figure is expected to exceed 5 trillion yuan in 2025.

The integrated development of “5G plus industrial internet” can create new products, generate new models and new forms of business, reduce enterprises’ operating costs, improve their production efficiency, and optimize their resource allocation, Yin noted.

According to Chen Shanzhi, vice president of the China Information and Communication Technologies Group Corporation (CICT), the combination of 5G and other emerging information technologies, including artificial intelligence, cloud computing and big data, will help accelerate the integrated development and innovation of other sectors and bring about explosive growth in the digital economy.