Patient has 75 per cent of his skull replaced by 3D-printed implant

A man has had 75 per cent of his skull replaced with a custom-made 3D-printed implant.

The un-named patient in the United States had his head imaged by a 3D scanner before the plastic prosthetic was crafted to suit his features.

Oxford Performance Materials in Connecticut then gained approval from US regulators before the printed bone replacement was inserted in his skull during a surgical procedure earlier this week.

The ground-breaking operation has only now been revealed.

The company says it can now provide the 3D printouts to replace bone damaged by disease or trauma after the US Food and Drug Administration granted approval on February 18.

The implant is more than a simple moulded plastic plate: Tiny surface details are etched into the polyetherketoneketone to encourage the growth of cells and bone.

The company says about 500 people in the US could make use of the technology each month, with recipients ranging from injured construction workers through to wounded soldiers.

It says it can produce an implant within two weeks of obtaining 3D scans of the affected area.

25 July 2014

The X File

This deceptively simple image revolutionised molecular biology. It also represents one of the most notorious controversies in science. ‘Photo 51’ was taken by Rosalind Franklin, who was born on this day in 1920. It is an x-ray crystallography image of DNA, created by bombarding a tiny DNA sample with x-rays for more than 60 hours. To most of us, this striped cross might not mean much, but to a few scientists in 1953 it held the secret to the structure of DNA. The controversy surrounds the instant Maurice Wilkins, who worked in Franklin’s lab, showed the photo to Francis Crick, a molecular biologist at Cambridge University, without Franklin’s knowledge. Crick published a paper with his colleague James Watson describing DNA’s double-helix structure. Wilkins, Crick and Watson shared the Nobel Prize in 1962. Franklin, whose peers never accepted her, died of cancer four years earlier, and couldn’t receive the prize posthumously.

Written by Nick Kennedy

Image by Rosalind Franklin and Raymond Goslin
Copyright held by Oregon State University Libraries

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Brain Mapping

A new map, a decade in the works, shows structures of the brain in far greater detail than ever before, providing neuroscientists with a guide to its immense complexity.

Neuroscientists have made remarkable progress in recent years toward understanding how the brain works. And in coming years, Europe’s Human Brain Project will attempt to create a computational simulation of the human brain, while the U.S. BRAIN Initiative will try to create a wide-ranging picture of brain activity. These ambitious projects will greatly benefit from a new resource: detailed and comprehensive maps of the brain’s structure and its different regions.

As part of the Human Brain Project, an international team of researchers led by German and Canadian scientists has produced a three-dimensional atlas of the brain that has 50 times the resolution of previous such maps. The atlas, which took a decade to complete, required slicing a brain into thousands of thin sections and digitally stitching them back together with the help of supercomputers. Able to show details as small as 20 micrometers, roughly the size of many human cells, it is a major step forward in understanding the brain’s three-dimensional anatomy.

To guide the brain’s digital reconstruction, researchers led by Katrin Amunts at the Jülich Research Centre in Germany initially used an MRI machine to image the postmortem brain of a 65-year-old woman. The brain was then cut into ultrathin slices. The scientists stained the sections and then imaged them one by one on a flatbed scanner. Alan Evans and his coworkers at the Montreal Neurological Institute organized the 7,404 resulting images into a data set about a terabyte in size. Slicing had bent, ripped, and torn the tissue, so Evans had to correct these defects in the images. He also aligned each one to its original position in the brain. The result is mesmerizing: a brain model that you can swim through, zooming in or out to see the arrangement of cells and tissues.

At the start of the 20th century, a German neuroanatomist named Korbinian Brodmann parceled the human cortex into nearly 50 different areas by looking at the structure and organization of sections of brain under a microscope. “That has been pretty much the reference framework that we’ve used for 100 years,” Evans says. Now he and his coworkers are redoing ­Brodmann’s work as they map the borders between brain regions. The result may show something more like 100 to 200 distinct areas, providing scientists with a far more accurate road map for studying the brain’s different functions.

“We would like to have in the future a reference brain that shows true cellular resolution,” says Amunts—about one or two micrometers, as opposed to 20. That’s a daunting goal, for several reasons. One is computational: Evans says such a map of the brain might contain several petabytes of data, which computers today can’t easily navigate in real time, though he’s optimistic that they will be able to in the future. Another problem is physical: a brain can be sliced only so thin.

Advances could come from new techniques that allow scientists to see the arrangement of cells and nerve fibers inside intact brain tissue at very high resolution. Amunts is developing one such technique, which uses polarized light to reconstruct three-­dimensional structures of nerve fibers in brain tissue. And a technique called Clarity, developed in the lab of Karl Deisseroth, a neuroscientist and bioengineer at Stanford University, allows scientists to directly see the structures of neurons and circuitry in an intact brain. The brain, like any other tissue, is usually opaque because the fats in its cells block light. Clarity melts the lipids away, replacing them with a gel-like substance that leaves other structures intact and visible. Though Clarity can be used on a whole mouse brain, the human brain is too big to be studied fully intact with the existing version of the technology. But Deisseroth says the technique can already be used on blocks of human brain tissue thousands of times larger than a thin brain section, making 3-D reconstruction easier and less error prone. And Evans says that while Clarity and polarized-light imaging currently give fantastic resolution to pieces of brain, “in the future we hope that this can be expanded to include a whole human brain.”


Interactive Bionic Man, featuring 14 novel biotechnologies
The National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering has launched the “NIBIB Bionic Man,” an interactive Web tool that showcases cutting-edge research in biotechnology. The bionic man features 14 technologies currently being developed by NIBIB-supported researchers. Examples include a powered prosthetic leg that helps users achieve a more natural gait, a wireless brain-computer interface that lets people who are paralyzed control computer devices or robotic limbs using only their thoughts, and a micro-patch that delivers vaccines painlessly and doesn’t need refrigeration. (via Interactive Bionic Man, featuring 14 novel biotechnologies | KurzweilAI)

Wireless ‘mind control’ demonstrated in mice.

The technique of Optogenetics normally works by genetically altering certain cells to make them responsive to light, and then selectively stimulating them with a laser to either turn the cells on or off. This allows scientists to modify certain parts of the brain in mice, for example, then perform experiments on the mice with those parts of the brain switched on or off. While useful, it relies on the subject being positioned carefully under the laser.

Now a new technique developed by an American startup is using LEDs and laser diodes, which can be controlled via a tiny wireless device, plugged into an implant in the animal’s brain. The device weighs only 3 grams and is also powered wirelessly, by supercapacitors below the animal’s cage.

Using the system, researchers have already been able to start to understand how activating or inhibiting specific groups of neurons change the way mice eat, in a study on feeding behaviour. The wireless technology means researchers can leave the room, leaving the animals to behave normally without threat of humans nearby.

And in case you’re thinking the next step is human mind control, remember - the cells must have first been genetically altered to be light controlled, so you’re safe for now.

Be prepared! It’s just around the corner.

Biological warfare is the use of biological toxins or infectious agents such as bacteria, viruses, and fungi with intent to kill or incapacitate humans, animals or plants as an act of war. Biological weapons (often termed “bio-weapons” or “bio-agents”) are living organisms or replicating entities (viruses) that reproduce or replicate within their host victims.

A lone woman in an ocean of men

It’s official. 

It seems I’m the only girl on the EngD course. At all. 
Many of the guys on the course were really surprised that there weren’t more women as part of it - they found it also shocking when I explained that some women feel like they have and academia OR family choice to make, instead of feeling like they can have both. Which we all agreed on. That being said, over the entire intake there are plenty of lovely, talented ladies on the MSc, PGDip and PhD programmes! The class in its entirety is SO diverse, but the EngD leaves me the lone wolf.

I am the sole female.


Currently nervous because I’ll have to work extra hard to be a BOSS! 

Picked my classes - focusing mainly on prosthetics & orthotics, sports prosthetics, imaging and drugs :D Start anatomy on Monday and today I saw a picture of a slit open knee with the knee cap removed and little cartilage replacements put it. Horrendous and fascinating. It did make me feel like this, however 


Anyway, it’s the welcome party for the entire faculty tomorrow, so I am pure buzzing to meet more people, and the folk I’ve already met are really nice :D Got a wee locker for all my nonsense and my wee security card to beep myself into the building :D Feeling PRO-FESSIONAL. 

19 September 2014

Immortal Souls

This is an aquatic flatworm called a planarian with a bellyful of green fluorescent bacteria. Planarians posses a truly enviable trait: immortality. Astonishingly, they can’t die of old age because of an extraordinary ability to regenerate. Not only that, they can resist bacteria that are harmful, even fatal, to humans. Striving to understand the planarian’s impressive immune defence, researchers have infected the planarian with bacteria that are dangerous in humans, such as the species that causes tuberculosis, and studied the genes the worm activated. They identified 18 genes that make it resistant to these harmful organisms and focused on one gene in particular, MORN2. Later, the team switched on this MORN2 gene in a type of human white blood cell (a macrophage). These white blood cells could efficiently eliminate the TB-bacteria, bringing the possibility of new ammunition to fight against bacteria-borne diseases. But oh, to be a planarian!

Written by Nick Kennedy

Image by Eric Ghigo and Sophie Pagnotta
Aix-Marseille University
Originally published under a Creative Commons Licence (BY 4.0)
Research published in Cell Host and Microbe, September 2014

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Regrown nerves boost bionic ears

Gene therapy delivered to the inner ear can help shrivelled auditory nerves to regrow — and in turn, improve bionic ear technology, researchers report today in Science Translational Medicine. The work, conducted in guinea pigs, suggests a possible avenue for developing a new generation of hearing prosthetics that more closely mimics the richness and acuity of natural hearing.

Sound travels from its source to ears, and eventually to the brain, through a chain of biological translations that convert air vibrations to nerve impulses. When hearing loss occurs, it’s usually because crucial links near the end of this chain — between the ear’s cochlear cells and the auditory nerve — are destroyed. Cochlear implants are designed to bridge this missing link in people with profound deafness by implanting an array of tiny electrodes that stimulate the auditory nerve.

Although cochlear implants often work well in quiet situations, people who have them still struggle to understand music or follow conversations amid background noise. After long-term hearing loss, the ends of the auditory nerve bundles are often frayed and withered, so the electrode array implanted in the cochlea must blast a broad, strong signal to try to make a connection, instead of stimulating a more precise array of neurons corresponding to particular frequencies. The result is an ‘aural smearing’ that obliterates fine resolution of sound, akin to forcing a piano player to wear snow mittens or a portrait artist to use finger paints.

To try to repair auditory nerve endings and help cochlear implants to send a sharper signal to the brain, researchers turned to gene therapy. Their method took advantage of the electrical impulses delivered by the cochlear-implant hardware, rather than viruses often used to carry genetic material, to temporarily turn inner-ear cells porous. This allowed DNA to slip in, says lead author Jeremy Pinyon, an auditory scientist at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia.

Pinyon and his colleagues were able to deliver a gene encoding neurotrophin, a protein that stimulates nerve growth, to the inner-ear cells of deaf guinea pigs. After injecting the cells with a solution of DNA, they sent a handful of 20-volt pulses through the cochlear-implant electrode arrays. The cells started producing neurotrophin, and the auditory nerve began to regenerate and reach out for the cochlea once again. The researchers found that the treated animals could use their implants with a sharper, more refined signal, although they did not compare the deaf guinea pigs to those with normal hearing. The work was partially funded by Cochlear, a cochlear-implant maker based in Sydney.

Regenerating nerves and cells in the inner ear to boost cochlear implant performance has long been a goal of auditory scientists. “This clever approach is the most promising to date,” says Gerald Loeb, a neural prosthetics researcher at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, who helped to develop the original cochlear implant. Although clinical applications are still far in the future, the ability to deliver genes to specific areas in the cochlea will probably reduce regulatory obstacles, he says. But it is unclear why cochlear implants help some patients much more than others, so whether this gene therapy translates into actual clinical benefit is still unclear.

Listening to sounds is an intricate process, and a cochlear implant cannot simulate such complexity, says Edward Overstreet, an engineer at Oticon, a hearing technology company in Somerset, New Jersey. So it is not clear that simply sharpening the electrodes’ signal will help a user to hear sounds in a more natural way. “We would probably need a leap in cochlear-implant electrode array technology to make this meaningful in terms of patient outcomes,” he says.

If the method works well in humans, the authors say, it might help profoundly deaf people enjoy music and follow conversations in restaurants. And it might also enhance a newer type of hearing technology: hybrid electro-acoustic implants, which are designed to help people who have only partial hearing loss. The gene therapy might work to keep residual hearing intact and allow the implants to replace only what is missing, creating a blend of natural and electric hearing.

New drug mimics the beneficial effects of exercise

A drug known as SR9009, which is currently under development at The Scripps Research Institute (TSRI), increases the level of metabolic activity in skeletal muscles of mice. Treated mice become lean, develop larger muscles and can run much longer distances simply by taking SR9009, which mimics the effects of aerobic exercise. If similar effects can be obtained in people, the reversal of obesity, metabolic syndrome, and perhaps Type-II diabetes might be the very welcome result.

The drug was developed by Professor Thomas Burris of TSRI, who found that it was able to reduce obesity in populations of mice. It binds to and activates a protein called Rev-ErbAα, which influences fat and sugar burning in the liver, production of fat cells, and the body’s inflammatory response.

(via New drug mimics the beneficial effects of exercise)

UtM: At any point in your career, have you faced a challenge related to being a female working in a scientific field?

Jay Nadeau: There has been the occasional person who has refused to take me seriously. Usually I try to avoid such people, but sometimes it’s impossible if they’re a teacher or collaborator. It was much worse when I was younger—a few gray hairs doesn’t hurt.

Meet Pvt. Asaf Stein, a combat soldier who moved to Israel from Alabama and joined the IDF’s Golani Brigade. Pvt. Stein, 29, is far older than other soldiers. Unlike most IDF recruits, he already has an advanced education, having earned his PhD in Biomedicine. “A lot of people ask me why a 29 year old man would join the IDF,” Pvt. Stein says. “I tell them I just wanted immigrate to Israel and join the army. They understand me.”

27 July 2014

Kettling Proteins

Prions are infectious proteins that can cause deadly diseases like bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or mad cow disease. They also infect yeast cells and this simple fungus has been found to produce a protein, Btn2, that targets prions and kettles them into a small area inside the cell, rather like the way riot police control an unruly crowd. When the cell divides, one of the two offspring is free from prions and can thrive. Intriguingly, Btn2 has similarities to human hook proteins, which play an important role in positioning components inside human cells so they can divide correctly. Pictured are three yeast colonies, the top right producing Btn2 and with mainly healthy cells (stained red) and some infected by prions (white). The lower colony is producing Cur1, a protein allied to Btn2 and has some healthy cells, while the top left colony is producing neither protein and is heavily infected.

Written by Mick Warwicker

Image by Reed Wickner and colleagues
National Institutes of Health, USA
Originally published under a Creative Commons Licence (BY 4.0)
Research published in PNAS, June 2014

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There’s a problem in the pharmaceuticals industry.  The costs of drug discovery, when combined with the costs of testing those drugs, are just too high for the industry to bear.

Europe is trying to solve that problem with a public-private partnership, to reactivate drug screening facilities like the one seen above.  Using ROBOTS!  From Nature News:

Two sites shuttered by the pharmaceutical giant Merck, one in Scotland and one in the Netherlands, will soon be humming again with the work of drug discovery. But the hum will not be business as usual. It will be the sound of a public–private consortium placing a high-stakes wager: a nearly €200-million (US$271-million) bet that it can boost a languishing pharmaceutical sector by fusing academic innovation with industrial-scale screening, using robots to test chemicals for biological activity.

Mole’s foot amulet, Norfolk, England, 1890-1910: The growing influence of biomedicine in the 1800s did not necessarily replace established forms of treatment based on belief and superstition. What could be referred to as folk medicine – customs that often went back generations – continued to be practised. For example, carrying a mole’s forefoot in a pocket as an amulet to prevent cramp is a medical tradition specific to the East Anglian region of England. The feet were either hacked off a mole or bought from a shop. As an amulet against toothache, moles’ feet have a much longer and wider tradition, being recommended by the Roman writer Pliny in the first century CE. The mole foot was purchased in 1930 from Edward Lovett’s (1852-1933) collection of British amulets and charms.

Green Fluorescent Protein

GFP is comprised of 238 amino acids which will exhibit bright green fluorescence under long wave UV light. GFP is a highly useful tool in biology, as cells can be marked with the gene for GFP and tracked throughout their life. Such methods are used in developmental biology and biomedicine.


GFP expression as seen under UV light in two of these mice. 

There are also derivatives of GFP which produce different colours of fluorescence. Such proteins have been used to make fluorescent drawings using bacteria and GloFish (below).


30 July 2014

Bio-bots Are Coming

Think of a robot and you probably imagine something made of metal and wires. But scientists are now exploring the softer side of robotics, developing devices made from squishy biological materials that adapt quickly to the environment around them. These bio-bots, as they’re known, could transform the robots of the future. A team of US researchers has used 3D printing to create a tiny soft ‘skeleton’ made of a special gel. This is then impregnated with mouse muscle stem cells, which grow into a sheet of strong muscle cells (pictured) to provide power and movement. Normally, muscle cells in the body respond to electrical signals, and it’s the same here: an electrical zap gets the bio-bot crawling along like an inchworm. It’s pretty slow – just a fraction of a millimetre per second – but this technology could one day lead to revolutionary biological machines.

Written by Kat Arney

Image by Rashid Bashir and colleagues
University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign, USA
Originally published under a Creative Commons Licence (BY 4.0)
Research published in PNAS, July 2014

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A low-cost way to print batches of artificial cells

Scientists say they’ve developed an inexpensive way to microprint large quantities of artificial cells that are all the same size. The cells may one day serve as drug and gene delivery devices, according to a team of Penn State biomedical engineers. These artificial cells will also allow researchers to explore actions that take place at the cell membrane. “In a natural cell, so much is going on inside that it is extremely complex,” says Sheereen Majd, assistant professor of biomedical engineering. “With these artificial cells—liposomes—we have just the shell, which gives us the ability to dissect the events that happen at the membrane.” Understanding how drugs and pathogens cross the cell membrane barrier is essential in preventing disease and delivering drugs, and researchers have created artificial cells for quite some time. However, Majd’s team is creating large arrays of artificial cells, made of lipids and proteins, of uniform size that can either remain attached to the substrate on which they grow, or become separated and used as freely moving vessels. The researchers report the results of their work in Advanced Materials. (via A low-cost way to print batches of artificial cells | Futurity)