Category: Innovation

21 Apr 2018

The First “Cell-Free” CRISPR Tech Is Here To Personalize Cancer Treatment

A single technology can help kill superbugs, slow cancer’s growth, and potentially help us end world hunger. No, it’s not magic. It’s science — namely, CRISPR-Cas9, the remarkable gene-editing tool.

But much like a magician, CRISPR-Cas9 won’t reveal how it pulls off its remarkable feats.

Now, a team from the Gene Editing Institute has developed a new CRISPR tool that lets researchers watch CRISPR do its thing and gives them more control in the editing process. They published their study today in the CRISPR Journal.

Cas9 is a protein that acts as the “scissors” in the editing tool that is the CRISPR-Cas9 system. Cas9 works great within a cell, but it isn’t very effective when researchers take DNA out of a cell. That’s a problem as researchers try to use the tool for new applications.

“When you’re working with CRISPR inside a cell, you’re kind of working in a black box where you can’t really observe the gears of the machinery that are doing these amazing things,” Eric Kmiec, lead researcher and director of the Gene Editing Institute, said in a press release. “You can see the results, the edits to the genes, but not necessarily how you got there, which is important for ensuring that CRISPR can be safely used to treat patients.”

To create a “cell-free” CRISPR tool, Kmiec and his colleagues replaced Cas9 with another protein: Cpf1, also known as Cas12a. With CRISPR-Cpf1, they found they could remove a molecule of DNA called a plasmid from a cell and edit it in a test tube.

According to the researchers, theirs is the first CRISPR tool that can do this, and it could be an improvement over CRISPR-Cas9 in several respects.

Second, it’s a quicker way to conduct diagnostic tests. The mutations that cause cancer aren’t the same in every patient. A doctor could use CRISPR-Cpf1 to determine the specific mutation causing the disease in a patient more quickly than with CRISPR-Cas9, according to Kmiec. This, in turn, could help that doctor determine the best treatment option for their patient.

Third, the specific cuts made by Cpf1 could be more useful than those made by Cas9. When Cas9 makes a cut, it leaves “blunt ends” on the gene. No big deal if cutting is all a researcher wants to do, but the blunt end isn’t great for attaching to a new bit of genetic code. Cpf1, on the other hand, leaves “sticky ends” that make it easier for a researcher to insert new DNA.

The Gene Editing Institute is already looking for a commercial partner to put their CRISPR-Cpf1 tool to use for cancer diagnostics, so you may see it making “magic” in labs in the not-so-distant near future.

Source: Futurism

17 Apr 2018

Spikes Of Graphene Can Kill Bacteria On Implants

A tiny layer of graphene flakes becomes a deadly weapon and kills bacteria, stopping infections during procedures such as implant surgery. This is the findings of new research from Chalmers University of Technology, Sweden, recently published in the scientific journal Advanced Materials Interfaces.

Operations for surgical implants, such as hip and knee replacements or dental implants, have increased in recent years. However, in such procedures, there is always a risk of bacterial infection. In the worst case scenario, this can cause the implant to not attach to the skeleton, meaning it must be removed.

Bacteria travel around in fluids, such as blood, looking for a surface to cling on to. Once in place, they start to grow and propagate, forming a protective layer, known as a biofilm.

A research team at Chalmers has now shown that a layer of vertical graphene flakes forms a protective surface that makes it impossible for bacteria to attach. Instead, bacteria are sliced apart by the sharp graphene flakes and killed. Coating implants with a layer of graphene flakes can therefore help protect the patient against infection, eliminate the need for antibiotic treatment, and reduce the risk of implant rejection. The osseointegration – the process by which the bone structure grow to attach the implant – is not disturbed. In fact, the graphene has been shown to benefit the bone cells.

Chalmers University is a leader in the area of graphene research, but the biological applications did not begin to materialise until a few years ago. The researchers saw conflicting results in earlier studies. Some showed that graphene damaged the bacteria, others that they were not affected.

“We discovered that the key parameter is to orient the graphene vertically. If it is horizontal, the bacteria are not harmed” says Ivan Mijakovic, Professor at the Department of Biology and Biological Engineering.

The sharp flakes do not damage human cells. The reason is simple: one bacterium is one micrometer – one thousandth of a millimeter – in diameter, while a human cell is 25 micrometers. So, what constitutes a deadly knife attack for a bacterium, is therefore only a tiny scratch for a human cell.

“Graphene has high potential for health applications. But more research is needed before we can claim it is entirely safe. Among other things, we know that graphene does not degrade easily” says Jie Sun, Associate Professor at the Department of Micro Technology and Nanoscience.

Good bacteria are also killed by the graphene. But that’s not a problem, as the effect is localised and the balance of microflora in the body remains undisturbed.

“We want to prevent bacteria from creating an infection. Otherwise, you may need antibiotics, which could disrupt the balance of normal bacteria and also enhance the risk of antimicrobial resistance by pathogens” says Santosh Pandit, postdoc at Biology and Biological Engineering.

Vertical flakes of graphene are not a new invention, having existed for a few years. But the Chalmers research teams are the first to use the vertical graphene in this way. The next step for the research team will be to test the graphene flakes further, by coating implant surfaces and studying the effect on animal cells.

Chalmers cooperated with Wellspect Healthcare, a company which makes catheters and other medical instruments, in this research. They will now continue with a second study. The projects are funded by Vinnova (a Swedish government agency).

The making of vertical graphene

Graphene is made of carbon atoms. It is only a single atomic layer thick, and therefore the world’s thinnest material. Graphene is made in flakes or films. It is 200 times stronger than steel and has very good conductivity thanks to its rapid electron mobility. Graphene is also extremely sensitive to molecules, which allows it to be used in sensors.

Graphene can be made by CVD, or Chemical Vapor Deposition. The method is used to create a thin surface coating on a sample. The sample is placed in a vacuum chamber and heated to a high temperature at the same time as three gases – usually hydrogen, methane and argon – are released into the chamber. The high heat causes gas molecules to react with each other, and a thin layer of carbon atoms is created.

To produce vertical graphene forms, a process known as Plasma-Enhanced Chemical Vapor Deposition, or PECVD, is used. Then, an electric field – a plasma – is applied over the sample, which causes the gas to be ionized near the surface. With the plasma, the layer of carbon grows vertically from the surface, instead of horizontally as with CVD.

Watch the video on Youtube: Graphene spikes that kill bacteria

Source: Science Blog

14 Apr 2018

Scientists Who Stick Needles in Brains Curious About What Needles Do to Brains

Neuroscience research is surprisingly brutal – a lot of what we’ve learned about the brain has come from opening up the organ and just poking around.  Definitely not an activity for the squeamish.

The best tool for the job? Often, it’s electrodes – a needle-like probe that can be inserted into the brain. Researchers use electrodes to measure how individual brain cells behave, to give people control over prosthetic limbs, or to develop other technology that interacts directly with the brain. But there’s reason to question exactly how much these probes can teach us, or if they’re even safe, according an article published April 6 in the Journal of Neural Engineering.

In it, neuroscientists point out that studying a brain with neural electrodes can cause quite a few issues.  Some of these problems are relatively simple, and can be solved through better engineering. For example, the surfaces of these electrodes that contact, stimulate, or record brain activity can degrade or slip – especially in a conscious research participant.

This can give rise to faulty recordings; a degraded electrode would make it seem like the cell it’s measuring is giving off a weaker signal than it really is. Because we can’t always tell why (or even if) these issues are occurring, it can be difficult for researchers to support their findings.

But the biggest problem the team found goes back to the fact that we actually knowvery little about the brain. In particular, we don’t know much about how our brain tissues respond to being jabbed with an electrode. For all we know, the article points out, neuroscientists have spent countless experiments trying to study brain cells that they killed or damaged while inserting the electrode.

There are some solutions out there – for these, the article focuses on areas of the brain’s visual cortex. For example, scientists can tell whether or not the cells they’re studying are still alive simply by having their research subject look at a visual and seeing if the cells respond.

But even so, the researchers concluded that our technology has caught up to the limits of what we actually know about the brain. In order for neuroscientists to regain confidence in their experimental findings, we will need to invest in actually sorting out these basic questions of how brains are responding to electrodes and other technological interventions.

Source: Futurism

12 Apr 2018

Trying to Quit Drinking? This Implant Will Snitch If You Fall off the Wagon

Christmas parties. Dates. Football games. Cookouts.

Wherever humans socialize, you can bet that the booze will follow. Its omnipresence, plus its addictive qualities, can make it really hard for people to stop drinking, even if they really want to.

Now, researchers are working on a new alcohol-monitoring implant that could help people stay on the wagon. All they’ll have to give up is some of their autonomy.

Researchers at the University of California San Diego (UCSD) developed the implant, a biosensor about one cubic millimeter in size. It’s easy to implant under a person’s skin, no surgery required.

When a person drinks, an enzyme coating the sensor produces a chemical byproduct  that sends a wireless electrical signal to a wearable, such as a smartwatch, which remotely powers the sensor.

The researchers have already tested their alcohol-monitoring implant in the lab, using a mix of ethanol and “diluted human serum” (not quite clear what that is) beneath pig skin. Next, they plan to test it in animal models; if that goes well, human tests will follow. The researchers think they could eventually modify the implant to test for other substances.

“The ultimate goal of this work is to develop a routine, unobtrusive alcohol and drug monitoring device for patients in substance abuse treatment programs,” lead researcher Drew Hall said in a press release.

Image Credit: David Baillot/UC San Diego Jacobs School of Engineering

To make sure patients get the proper treatment and support, professionals monitor addicts’ usage with breathalyzers, blood tests, or temporary tattoos. According to the press release, the UCSD researchers believe their alcohol-monitoring implant is an improvement on those options.

However, the sensor is also far more intrusive than other monitoring methods. It’s literally inside a person’s body. The researchers say it’s easy to implant in a clinic, but they don’t note how difficult it is to remove.

We should also pause to consider the team’s focus on substance abuse treatment programs. While some people enroll in those voluntarily, others are required to do so when they are sentenced for crimes. Requiring convicted criminals to take a breathalyzer as part of court-ordered treatment is one thing. Requiring them to agree to an implant to avoid jail time is another — a very invasive other that verges on Black Mirror territory.

If this implant can help people break up with alcohol, then great. We just need to make sure we’re willing to make that trade-off.

Source: Futurism

09 Apr 2018

“Prosthetic Memory Systems,” Delivered Via Electrode, Could Be Dope, If You’re Willing To Wait A While

Prosthetic memory systems: no longer just some sci-fi nonsense.

Researchers just completed a military-funded project intended to boost patients’ recall. At first glance, the numbers look really promising. At second glance, though, they might just be enough cause for optimism, but, well, not much more.

The 15 participants were seeking treatment for epilepsy-related memory loss at North Carolina’s Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center. They had already received surgery to place small brain implants in an effort to map what was going on in their brains to better treat their epilepsy.

In the study, published in the Journal of Neural Engineering on March 28, theparticipants in the study were asked to complete a simple task: look at an image on a screen and then correctly identify it among three or four other images after a short delay. While they were doing so, the researchers were busy mapping their brain activity to identify the region that displayed the most activity when the participant remembered the correct image.

In a second trial, the researchers used those small electrodes to stimulate the “correct answer” areas they had just identified.

The result? Stimulated participants’ short term memory improved by 37 percent, and their long-term memory (or what the researchers are calling that — a similar task with a longer day) improved by 35 percent.

“This is the first time scientists have been able to identify a patient’s own brain cell code or pattern for memory and, in essence, ‘write in’ that code to make existing memory work better, an important first step in potentially restoring memory loss,” said Robert Hampson, the lead researcher on this project, in a press release.

Dope.

The researchers received funding from DARPA in the hope that their work could help soldiers who face memory loss after head injuries.

Some caveats: this was one clinical trial conducted on just 15 people who were asked to complete one specific, simple task in a hospital setting. It’s not at all clear this would help you stop losing your keys so damn much, nor would you want to necessarily undergo surgery to try it. At least, not at its current stage of development, which is just proof-of-concept.

The results from this latest memory boosting study, which the researchers are calling a “prosthetic memory system,” are impressive. They might even inspire optimism, if you’re into that sort of thing.  This experiment lays the groundwork for future human research into technology that can restore or enhance brain function, and that’s nothing to dismiss.

But for as long as scientists have studied memory loss, no matter its cause, the timeline for when we’d have a viable solution was always in “the near future,” “sometime down the line.” A stock answer for when Alzheimer’s might be cured is always “50 years away,” conveniently after that scientist would likely have retired.

So what does this study show? A cool, promising future of prosthetic memories. But not for, say, 50 years or so.

Source: Futurism

07 Apr 2018

Old Electronics Could Be More Profitable Than Literal Gold Mines

Forget panning for gold or extracting copper ore. A new study shows that recovering metals from discarded electronics, a process known as urban mining, is far less expensive than mining them the traditional way.

If you’re reading this, you’re part of one of our planet’s biggest problems: e-waste. Eventually, your smartphone slows down or you simply give in to the hype and decide it’s time to upgrade. You may forget all about your discarded device the minute you get your hands on its shiny new replacement, but the planet won’t.

In 2016 alone, the world discarded 44.7 million metric tons of unusable or simply unwanted electronics, according to the United Nations’ 2017 Global E-Waste Monitor report. That’s 4,500 Eiffel Towers-worth of phones, laptops, microwaves, and TVs. Only 20 percent of this e-waste was properly recycled that year. The rest was likely either incinerated, pumping pollution into the atmosphere, or added to a landfill somewhere, with its toxins now leaking into our soil and water supply.

So. Simply trashing our electronics is bad for the environment, but that’s clearly not enough to prevent the practice. What may be enough, though, is the news that those discarded electronics could be a literal gold mine.

Of course, we already knew electronics contain precious metals in addition to all that glass and plastic. While a single smartphone might not contain all that much, consumers buy about 1.7 billion of the devices each year. In just one million of those, you’ll find roughly 75 pounds of gold, 35,000 pounds of copper, and 772 pounds of silver.

It all adds up. But according to a press release from the American Chemical Society, no one was quite sure whether mining it was economically worthwhile.

To clear up that issue, a trio of researchers from Bejing’s Tsinghua University and Sydney’s Macquarie University conducted a study, the results of which are now published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology.

First, the researchers collected data from eight recycling companies in China. They calculated all the costs associated with mining gold and copper from recycled television sets – from gathering the e-waste to paying for the equipment and buildings needed to recycle it.

After they figured that out, they factored in government subsidies and the money the companies could make selling the various components into the equation. Lastly, the researchers compared the total cost of this urban mining to that of ore mining and concluded that ore mining was 13 times more expensive.

Of course, not every nation has the same subsidies as China, nor will all the costs of recycling be the same everywhere. However, China is the world’s largest producer of e-waste, according to the UN report. If companies in that nation see they can make money by mining metals from e-waste, it could have a big impact on the overall problem.

Maybe more Chinese companies get into the business of urban mining. Perhaps companies in other nations start looking into the practice. Or maybe, just maybe, you’ll think twice about what to do with your lame old smartphone once you get your hands on its replacement.

Source: Futurism

05 Apr 2018

This Crazy Gadget Helps You “Talk” To Your Computer Without Words

Hey you! Ever wish your technology was more invasive? You love voice-to-text, but it’s just too public?

Some researchers at MIT Media Lab have come up with the perfect gadget for you. And it looks like a Bane mask crossed with a squid. Or, if you prefer: like a horror movie monster slowly encompassing your jaw before crawling into your mouth.

The researchers presented their work at the International Conference on Intelligent User Interfaces (yes such a thing exists) in March in Tokyo.

Whenever you think of words, they’re silently, imperceptibly, transmitted to your mouth. More specifically, signals arrive at the muscles that control your mouth. And those signals aren’t imperceptible to a highly sensitive computer.

The researchers call this device the AlterEgo. It’s got seven electrodes positioned around the mouth to pick up these signals. The data that the electrodes pick up goes through several rounds of processing before being transmitted wirelessly to a device awaiting instruction nearby. Oh, and it’s got bone-conduction headphones so that devices can respond.

AlterEgo in use. Kapur et al, 2018

The scientists tested their prototype on a few people who trained the software to recognize the data that corresponded to different commands (“call,” “reply,” “add,”), then on a few more to see how accurate it was. The results were promising, though it’s not exactly ready to go into mass production.

The closest comparison to this system is a device you can address in your normal speech, like Siri or Alexa. But, terrifyingly, this is not scientists’ first attempt at creating a more direct way to transmit our thoughts to computers. Most earlier versions have relied directly on brain signals (from devices laid over or implanted in the brain. No thank you).

AlterEgo has the following advantages, according to the researchers:

  • It’s not invasive (seems like kind of a low bar but ok)
  • It’s 92 percent accurate (probably marginally better than your average autocorrect, about the same as Siri or Alexa)
  • It’s portable (and about as sexy as one of those Bluetooth earpieces)
  • Unlike direct brain readings, it can’t read your private thoughts (except for the ones you quietly mouth to yourself)

I admit, in some situations a device like this might be useful. Particular movements could tell your phone to turn on music, or use a calculator, or text your friend. It could control your “smart home,” turning off the oven or starting the coffeepot with a mere twitch. Heck, in 10 years, I could be thinking this article into existence. This goes double for people with disabilities or vision problems that might make controlling a digital device challenging otherwise.

BUT. But. There are a few things that might make AlterEgo less than ideal. The electrodes can’t shift when a person is using them, for example, or the reading will get all messed up. It’s hard to imagine that people would be comfortable hanging out with a device covering half their mouths. And there’s no telling how the system would do in real-world settings — that’s what the researchers have to test out next. And, of course, there’s the issue of crossed signals, like when Alexa thought random sounds were telling it to laugh. And — just thinking big for a second — if it were hacked, could the hacker use the electrodes to physically control your mouth?

Might we have a future in which our faces butt-dial for us? Who’s to say. But you can bet all the people in my nightmares of a dystopian future are equipped with one of these bad boys.

Source: Futurism

04 Apr 2018

Smart Glasses Can Convert Text Into Sound for the Visually Impaired

IN BRIEF

Japanese company Oton Glass is developing a par of glasses that can convert text into audio. The glasses are meant to help those with visual impairment, and provide them a way to understand the text around them.

A Japanese company is in the midst of developing a pair of smart glasses that can help those with visual impairments or comprehension problems to read written text more easily. Called the Oton Glass, the spectacles are meant to translate text into audio using two cameras and an earpiece, both fitted to its frame.

Half of the lens is a mirror that reflects the wearer’s eyes back to the first camera, which tracks eye movement. That camera can detect blinking, while the other captures text. Wearers use the glasses by staring at text they can’t read and blinking to trigger the glasses.

Using Raspberry Pi as the glasses’ computer, the captured words are send to a Raspberry Pi cloud system, which processes the text and converts it into audio played through the earpiece. If the computer system is unable to identify and convert words, the images are sent to a remote worker who can decipher them.

The Verge notes that the Oton Glass is a lot like Google Translate, except that the latter requires users to pull out their phone and swipe over text. By comparison, Oton Glass is much easier to use. Its creators hope to help those with sensory impairments, much like the Peri eyeglass accessory that converts sound into lights for those hard of hearing.

The Oton Glass lead designer, Keisuke Shimakage, started working on the glasses in 2012 to aid his father, who had recently developed dyslexia. While his father eventually recovered, Shimakage continued development in order to help others with the disorder.

Currently, the Oton Glass is seeking funding on Campfire, Japan’s version of Kickstarter. Backers can get a pair of the glasses for 5,000 yen (roughly $47).

Smart glasses aren’t a new concept, but it’s difficult to point to any single pair of smart glasses that people have reviewed favorably. It could, perhaps, be that previous products tried to do too much, or were too expensive; hence why Intel’s Vaunt smart glasses stripped out some features, like its camera, LCD screen, and speakers. In contrast, the Oton Glass is for a very specific audience, and its relatively low price could make more appealing to those who want an affordable way to understand the text around them.

Source: Futurism

29 Mar 2018

Scientists Found a Galaxy With Almost No Dark Matter. Here’s What That Means.

Roughly 65 million light-years away from Earth is a galaxy called NGC 1052-DF2 (DF2 for short). But DF2 may as well be called F-U, because that’s what it’s saying to scientists who thought they understood galaxies, dark matter, and really anything about our universe.

What makes DF2 so special, you may ask? It appears to contain virtually no dark matter.

We’ve never seen dark matter directly. We only believe dark matter exists because we can see how it affects “regular,” or baryonic, matter. Based on these indirect observations, researchers have estimated that dark matter makes up about 27 percent of our universe.

Since dark matter was (sort of) discovered, researchers assumed dark matter was essential to galaxy formation. Dark matter would clump together. Then, the gravity from those clumps would attract baryonic matter, forming the stars, planets, and other objects we can actually see within a galaxy. Easy, right?

Based on this understanding, the team studying DF2 thought they had a pretty good idea how much dark matter it contained. But when they calculated how much dark matter DF2 actually had, they discovered it contained only 1/400th the amount they expected.

“It challenges the standard ideas of how we think galaxies work,” Pieter van Dokkum, a Yale University professor and lead author of a paper on DF2, now published in Nature, said in a press release. “This result also suggests that there may be more than one way to form a galaxy.”

This might seem counterintuitive, but DF2 actually supports the existence of dark matter, which some theories argue doesn’t exist.

“For those kinds of theories, it wouldn’t be possible to ever have a galaxy that looks as though it doesn’t have dark matter,” Jocelyn Monroe, a particle physicist and dark matter expert at Royal Holloway, University of London, who was not involved in the study, told The Verge. “So [this galaxy is] really interesting for the potential it has to exclude some of these ideas.”

The researchers hope to pin down the age of DF2. “At the moment, we only know its older than 10 billion years, but we’d like to know if it’s 10 billion years old or 13 billion years old, which is right after the Big Bang,” van Dokkum told ABC.

If DF2 does end up being 13 billion years old, it could rack in another superlative: the oldest galaxy ever discovered.

Source: Futurism

24 Mar 2018

A Mobile Scanner Reveals Brain Activity of Patients Doing Everyday Tasks

Children with mental and neurological disorders have plenty of challenges in their lives. The last thing they need is to sit still for a while with their heads stuck in a machine — the current technique that scientists use to take pictures of their brain activity. It’s inconvenient and unpleasant, but it’s also pretty limited, because it tells scientists nothing about how the brain behaves when the patient is active, going about their daily lives.

Scientists in the U.K. and U.S. decided it was time to make brain imaging way less stressful for patients, not to mention suitable for patients that struggle to keep still, such as toddlers.

They came up with a (scary-looking but) versatile helmet that allows them to move relatively freely as it scans their brain. The helmet is 3D printed, can be personalized to fit a patient’s head, and weighs less than one kilogram.

The researchers were able to shrink the machine without reducing its function by replacing the conventional sensors, which require a heavy cooling system, with tiny ones that use a different technique to capture the brain’s magnetic field.

As reported by New Scientist, the team tested the helmet on four volunteers. They were asked to move their fingers, to play a ball game and even have a cup of tea (because England). These experiments showed the portable scan worked as precisely and accurately as a conventional static one.

“This has the potential to revolutionize the brain imaging field, and transform the scientific and clinical questions that can be addressed with human brain imaging,” Gareth Barnes, a neuroimaging expert with the University College London and a partner of the project, told The Guardian.

Patients wearing the helmet can’t exactly forget about it — the scanner only works inside a special room designed to suppress the influence of the Earth’s natural magnetic field, which would interfere with the procedure. Oh, and it don’t just sit on the top of the head, but covers part of the face, too.

Still, the device could help researchers study child development, or brain activity of children with epilepsy. Better understanding could allow doctors to catch problems sooner, and treat them better.

Although still experimental, the device’s creators are confident that a mobile brain scanner holds great promises for science. They may do more tests, on people with neurological conditions such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease, or psychoses, and see if they learn anything new.

They also realize the design isn’t quite where it needs to be. So they’re working on making future iterations look similar to a bike helmet. Perhaps they realized that terrified patients with their heads stuffed in giant devices might not give the most reliable brain scans.

 Source: Futurism