Category: Science


Not Breathing? No problem!

Scientists Invent Particles That Will Let You Live Without Breathing

This may seem like something out of a science fiction movie: researchers have designed microparticles that can be injected directly into the bloodstream to quickly oxygenate your body, even if you can’t breathe anymore. It’s one of the best medical breakthroughs in recent years, and one that could save millions of lives every year.

The invention, developed by a team at Boston Children’s Hospital, will allow medical teams to keep patients alive and well for 15 to 30 minutes despite major respiratory failure. This is enough time for doctors and emergency personnel to act without risking a heart attack or permanent brain injuries in the patient.

The solution has already been successfully tested on animals under critical lung failure. When the doctors injected this liquid into the patient’s veins, it restored oxygen in their blood to near-normal levels, granting them those precious additional minutes of life.

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Scientists from Maryland’s Johns Hopkins University, in conjunction with Danish researchers, have developed a drug using a Mediterranean weed that can target tumor cells and destroy them.

The extraordinary drug travels undetected through the bloodstream until it encounters a tumor cell, where it is activated by specific proteins. It destroys the tumor cells, neighboring cancer cells, and the blood vessels that act as their supply, but spares healthy cells and blood vessels.

thapsia garganica

The drug, called G202, was tested on mice and the study was led by Samuel Denmeade, MD, professor of oncology, urology, pharmacology and molecular sciences at Johns Hopkins University. Over the course of 30 days, the human prostate tumors grown in mice were reduced by an average of 50 percent. In comparison tests with the chemotherapy drug docetaxel, G202 reduced eight of nine tumors by more than 50 percent over the course of 21 days. Docetaxel reduced only one of the nine tumors in the same amount of time.

G202 also provided the same results for human models of bladder, kidney, and breast cancers.

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Inspired by the erratic behavior of photons zooming around and bouncing off objects and walls inside a room, researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Harvard University, the University of Wisconsin, and Rice University combined these bouncing photons with advanced optics to enable them to “see” what’s hidden around the corner. This technique, described in a paper published today in the Optical Society’s (OSA) open-access journal Optics Express, may one day prove invaluable in disaster recovery situations, as well as in noninvasive biomedical imaging applications.

Seeing through walls: Laser system reconstructs objects hidden from sight

“Imagine photons as particles bouncing right off the walls and down a corridor and around a corner—the ones that hit an object are reflected back. When this happens, we can use the data about the time they take to move around and bounce back to get information about geometry,” explains Otkrist Gupta, an MIT graduate student and lead author of today’s Optics Express paper.

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By decoding brain activity, scientists were able to “see” that two monkeys were planning to approach the same reaching task differently—even before they moved a muscle.

Anyone who has looked at the jagged recording of the electrical activity of a single neuron in the brain must have wondered how any useful information could be extracted from such a frazzled signal. But over the past 30 years, researchers have discovered that clear information can be obtained by decoding the activity of large populations of neurons. Now, scientists at Washington University in St. Louis, who were decoding brain activity while monkeys reached around an obstacle to touch a target, have come up with two remarkable results.

Their first result was one they had designed their experiment to achieve: they demonstrated that multiple parameters can be embedded in the firing rate of a single neuron and that certain types of parameters are encoded only if they are needed to solve the task at hand. Their second result, however, was a complete surprise. They discovered that the population vectors could reveal different planning strategies, allowing the scientists, in effect, to read the monkeys’ minds.

By chance, the two monkeys chosen for the study had completely different cognitive styles. One, the scientists said, was a hyperactive type, who kept jumping the gun, and the other was a smooth operator, who waited for the entire setup to be revealed before planning his next move. The difference is clearly visible in their decoded brain activity.

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Researchers at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine have discovered a mutant form of the gene, Chk1, that when expressed in cancer cells, permanently stopped their proliferation and caused cell death without the addition of any chemotherapeutic drugs. This study illustrates an unprecedented finding, that artificially activating Chk1 alone is sufficient to kill cancer cells.

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A new bionic eye implant could allow blind people to recognize faces, watch TV and even read. Nano Retina’s Bio-Retina is one of two recent attempts to help patients with age-related macular degeneration, which affects 1.5 million people in the U.S. Although a similar implant, Second Sight’s Argus II, has been on the market in Europe since last year, it requires a four-hour operation under full anesthesia because it includes an antenna to receive power and images from an external apparatus. The Bio-Retina implant is smaller because it doesn’t have an antenna. Instead, the implant captures images directly in the eye, and a laser powers the implant remotely. Because of Bio-Retina’s compact size, an ophthalmologist can insert it through a small incision in the eye in 30 minutes—potentially more appropriate for seniors. The Bio-Retina will generate a 576-pixel grayscale image. And clinical trials could begin as soon as next year.

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Brain wiring a no-brainer?

First map of the human brain reveals a simple, grid-like structure between neurons. How these connections actually work to construct who we are is a different, far more fascinating matter.

Bonnie Bassler discovered that bacteria “talk” to each other, using a chemical language that lets them coordinate defense and mount attacks. The find has stunning implications for medicine, industry — and our understanding of ourselves.

Did you know your face actually turns slightly red each time your heart beats, when fresh blood pumps through it? Neither did I, and that’s because it’s so slight that our visual perception system doesn’t pick up on it. Ah, but what if you could use a computer program to magnify the changes so they become visible? That’s just what computer scientists at MIT did, and the result is fascinating: watch the video (starting at 1:25) and see how with every heartbeat, a man’s face turns tomato red, then fades to a pallid yellow. The program is so precise that it can accurately calculate a person’s heart rate from the color changes.

University of Florida researchers have moved a step closer to treating diseases on a cellular level by creating a tiny particle that can be programmed to shut down the genetic production line that cranks out disease-related proteins. In laboratory tests, these newly created “nanorobots” all but eradicated hepatitis C virus infection. The programmable nature of the particle makes it potentially useful against diseases such as cancer and other viral infections. The research effort, led by Y. Charles Cao, a UF associate professor of chemistry, and Dr. Chen Liu, a professor of pathology and endowed chair in gastrointestinal and liver research in the UF College of Medicine, is described online this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. “This is a novel technology that may have broad application because it can target essentially any gene we want,” Liu said. “This opens the door to new fields so we can test many other things. We’re excited about it.”

During the past five decades, nanoparticles — particles so small that tens of thousands of them can fit on the head of a pin — have emerged as a viable foundation for new ways to diagnose, monitor and treat disease. Nanoparticle-based technologies are already in use in medical settings, such as in genetic testing and for pinpointing genetic markers of disease. And several related therapies are at varying stages of clinical trial. The Holy Grail of nanotherapy is an agent so exquisitely selective that it enters only diseased cells, targets only the specified disease process within those cells and leaves healthy cells unharmed.

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These words are emblazoned on the website Creativitycap.com, and they represent the vision of neuroscientist Allan Snyder. Snyder believes we all possess untapped powers of cognition, normally seen only in rare individuals called savants, and accessing them might take just a few jolts of electricity to the brain. It sounds like a Michael Crichton plot, but Snyder, of the University of Sydney, Australia, says he wouldn’t be surprised to see a prototype of the creativity cap within a couple of years. His research suggests that brain stimulation improves people’s ability to solve difficult problems. But Snyder’s interpretation of his findings remains controversial, and the science of using brain stimulation to boost thinking is still in its early stages.

“I think it’s a bit of a minefield,” said psychologist Robyn Young of Flinders University in Australia, who has tried to replicate Snyder’s early experiments. “I’m not really sure whether the technology is developed that can turn it into a more accurate science.” Snyder has long been fascinated by savants — people with a developmental brain disorder (often autism) or brain injury who display prowess in a particular area, such as mathematics, art or music, which far exceeds the norm. Kim Peek, who provided the inspiration for Dustin Hoffman’s character in the movie “Rain Man,” was a savant who could memorize entire books after a single reading, or instantly calculate what day of the week any calendar date fell on. But he had a severe mental disability that prevented him from performing simple actions such as buttoning his shirt.

Wisconsin psychiatrist and savant expert Darold Treffert describes a skill like Kim’s as an “island of genius that stands in stark contrast to the overall handicap.” Other savants acquire their abilities after a severe brain injury or illness. Alonzo Clemons suffered a head injury as a toddler that left him mentally disabled, but endowed him with the ability to accurately sculpt beautiful clay animals after only briefly glimpsing them. And patients with frontotemporal dementia have been known to suddenly display artistic and musical abilities, like the successful businessman who developed dementia and started doing award-winning painting.

But not all savant abilities come with a trade-off, says Treffert. Sometimes it’s possible for otherwise normal people to have savant skills. Snyder hypothesizes that all people possess savant-like abilities in a dormant form, but that savants have “privileged access” to less-processed, lower-level information. In a normal brain, top-down controls suppress the barrage of raw data our brains take in, enabling us to focus on the big picture.

“We all have that information,” Snyder said, “but our brains are deliberately wired not to see it.”

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Photo: Scientists study 3-D simulations of nuclear explosions

Los Alamos National Laboratory is a security research institution in Los Alamos, New Mexico. It was founded in World War II as a centralised facility to coordinate the research efforts of the Manhattan Project—the first nuclear weapons project. The laboratory’s research led to the creation of the atomic and the hydrogen bombs, but no new nuclear weapons have been developed or tested by the US since 1992, and so the laboratory’s work today primarily relates to preserving existing weaponry—but without using nuclear testing, which is where 3D computer simulations become involved. The creation of these 3D simulations allows scientists to study the complete operation of nuclear explosions, giving them the opportunity to analyse visual data. This enables them to predict the various aspects of the weapons’ performance, and to learn crucial information about the aging stockpile and how to safely maintain it.

Matt Mills and Tamara Roukaerts demonstrate Aurasma, a new augmented reality tool that can seamlessly animate the world as seen through a smartphone. Going beyond previous augmented reality, their “auras” can do everything from making a painting talk to overlaying live news onto a printed newspaper.

Scientists have invented artificial pores as small as the ones in your cells—something unimaginable until now. These sub-nanometer synthetic pores are so tiny that they can distinguish between ions of different substances, just like a real cell. It’s an amazing engineering feat. Once they tune them to detect different substances, researchers claim that this seemingly miraculous matter would be able to do truly incredible things, from “purifying water to kill tumors and diseases by regulating the substances inside of cells.”

The scientists used the Advanced Photon Source at Argonne National Laboratory to create the pores, gluing donut-shaped molecules—called rigid macrocycles—on top of each other using hydrogen bonding. According to one of the senior authors of the study, University of Nebraska-Lincoln Ameritas University’s chemistry professor Xiao Cheng Zeng—”this nanotube can be viewed as a stack of many, many rings. The rings come together through a process called self-assembly, and it’s very precise. It’s the first synthetic nanotube that has a very uniform diameter.” They are about 8.8 angstroms thick, just one tenth of a nanometer.

They are now capable of passing potassium ions and water, but not other ions, like sodium and lithium ions. Basically, this means that you could pass salt water through a fabric made of this wonder material and make it drinkable—instantly. Lead researcher Dr. Bing Gong—a chemistry professor at University of Buffalo—says that “the idea for this research originated from the biological world, from our hope to mimic biological structures, and we were thrilled by the result. We have created the first quantitatively confirmed synthetic water channel. Few synthetic pores are so highly selective.” Gong says that they now have to experiment with the pores’ structure to find out how the materials are transported through the pores and tune it to select which substances they want to filter and which ones they want to let through. If they are successful, this material has an incredible potential to change almost everything.

A team of geneticists has announced that they have successfully bred fruit flies with the capacity to count.

After repeatedly subjecting fruit flies to a stimulus designed to teach numerical skills, the evolutionary geneticists finally hit on a generation of flies that could count — it took 40 tries before the species’ evolution occurred.

The findings, announced at the First Joint Congress on Evolutionary Biology in Canada, could lead to a better understanding of how we process numbers and the genetics behind dyscalculia — a learning disability that affects a person’s ability to count and do basic arithmetic.

“The obvious next step is to see how [the flies’] neuro-architecture has changed,” said geneticist Tristan Long, of Canada’s Wilfrid Laurier University, who admits far more research is needed to delve into what the results actually mean. Primarily, this will involve comparing the genetic make-up of an evolved fruit fly with that of a standard test fly to pinpoint the mutation.

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If the internet is a global phenomenon, it’s because there are fiber-optic cables underneath the ocean. Light goes in on one shore and comes out the other, making these tubes the fundamental conduit of information throughout the global village. To make the light travel enormous distances, thousands of volts of electricity are sent through the cable’s copper sleeve to power repeaters, each the size and roughly the shape of a 600-pound bluefin tuna.Once a cable reaches a coast, it enters a building known as a “landing station” that receives and transmits the flashes of light sent across the water. The fiber-optic lines then connect to key hubs, known as “Internet exchange points,” which, for the most part, follow geography and population.

The majority of transatlantic undersea cables land in downtown Manhattan where the result has been the creation of a parallel Wall Street geography, based not on the location of bustling trading floors but on proximity to the darkened buildings that house today’s automated trading platforms. The surrounding space is at a premium, as companies strive to literally shorten the wire that connects them to the hubs.

Giving ancient life another chance to evolve

Using a process called paleo-experimental evolution, Georgia Tech researchers have resurrected a 500-million-year-old gene from bacteria and inserted it into modern-day Escherichia coli(E. coli) bacteria. This bacteriumhas now been growing for more than 1,000 generations, giving the scientists a front row seat to observe evolution in action.

“This is as close as we can get to rewinding and replaying the molecular tape of life,” said scientist Betül Kaçar, a NASA astrobiology postdoctoral fellow in Georgia Tech’s NASA Center for Ribosomal Origins and Evolution. “The ability to observe an ancient gene in a modern organism as it evolves within a modern cell allows us to see whether the evolutionary trajectory once taken will repeat itself or whether a life will adapt following a different path.”

In 2008, Kaçar’s postdoctoral advisor, Associate Professor of Biology Eric Gaucher, successfully determined the ancient genetic sequence of Elongation Factor-Tu (EF-Tu), an essential protein in E. coli. EFs are one of the most abundant proteins in bacteria, found in all known cellular life and required for bacteria to survive. That vital role made it a perfect protein for the scientists to answer questions about evolution.

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This might look like a distant web of galaxies captured by a powerful telescope, but it’s actually a microscopic image of a newborn nerve cell. The human brain contains more cells than there are stars in our galaxy, and the most important cells are neurons, which are nerve cells responsible for transmitting and processing electro-chemical signals at up to 320 km/h. This chemical signalling occurs through synapses—specialised connections with other cells, like wires in a computer. Each cell can receive input from thousands of others, so a typical neuron can have up to ten thousand synapses—i.e., can communicate with up to ten thousand other neurons, muscle cells, and glands. Estimates suggest that adult humans have approximately 100 billion neurons in their brain, but unlike most cells, neurons don’t undergo cell division, so if they’re damaged they don’t grow back—except, apparently, in the hippocampus (associated with memory) and the olfactory bulb (associated with sense of smell). The process by which this occurs is unclear, and this image was taken during a project to determine how neurons are born—it actually depicts newborn nerve cells in an adult mouse’s brain.

Photo: Bartholomew Cooke

Jessica Fournier has a job that makes poor use of her talents. She spends her days stocking sneakers at a warehouse outside Grand Rapids, Michigan. A decade ago she was an astrophysics student at Michigan State University, where she coauthored a paper on RR Lyrae, a low-mass star that pulsates light. But having failed to secure long-term employment in her arcane field, today she pays her bills by cataloging shoe sizes.

She may have given up astrophysics, but Fournier still has a deep love of science. As soon as she gets home from work each night, she boots up her Asus laptop and begins what she calls “my second job”: designing molecules of ribonucleic acid—RNA—that have the power to build proteins or regulate genes. It is a job that she happens to perform better than almost anyone else on earth.

Under the fitting nickname “starryjess,” Fournier is the world’s second-ranked player of EteRNA, an online game with more than 38,000 registered users. Featuring an array of clickable candy-colored pieces, EteRNA looks a little like the popular gameBejeweled. But instead of combining jewel shapes in Tetris-like levels, EteRNA players manipulate nucleotides, the fundamental building blocks of RNA, to coax molecules into shapes specified by the game. Those shapes, which typically look like haphazardly mowed crop circles or jumbled chain-link necklaces, represent how RNA appears in nature while it goes about its work as one of life’s most essential ingredients. No self-sustaining organism gets made without the involvement of RNA.

Tweaking molecular models in this fashion is surprisingly fun—and, it turns out, useful. EteRNA was developed by scientists at Stanford and Carnegie Mellon universities, who use the designs created by players to decipher how real RNA works. The game is a direct descendant of Foldit—another science crowdsourcing tool disguised as entertainment—which gets players to help figure out the folding structures of proteins. EteRNA, though, goes much further than its predecessor.

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What does a robot feel when it touches something? Little or nothing until now. But with the right sensors, actuators and software, robots can be given the sense of feel — or at least the ability to identify different materials by touch.

Researchers at the University of Southern California’s Viterbi School of Engineering published a study June 18 in Frontiers in Neurorobotics showing that a specially designed robot can outperform humans in identifying a wide range of natural materials according to their textures, paving the way for advancements in prostheses, personal assistive robots and consumer product testing.

The robot was equipped with a new type of tactile sensor built to mimic the human fingertip. It also used a newly designed algorithm to make decisions about how to explore the outside world by imitating human strategies. Capable of other human sensations, the sensor can also tell where and in which direction forces are applied to the fingertip and even the thermal properties of an object being touched.

Like the human finger, the group’s BioTac® sensor has a soft, flexible skin over a liquid filling. The skin even has fingerprints on its surface, greatly enhancing its sensitivity to vibration. As the finger slides over a textured surface, the skin vibrates in characteristic ways. These vibrations are detected by a hydrophone inside the bone-like core of the finger. The human finger uses similar vibrations to identify textures, but the robot finger is even more sensitive.

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