25 December 2014

Urchin ‘Urting

Stepping on a sea urchin is very painful. I did it once (Ibiza, 1992) and a good-natured waiter poured vinegar on my heel to take away the pain. I assumed it was just the needle-like spines that hurt. But now – thanks to a team of scientists in Brazil looking into the toxins of Echinometra lucunter (pictured) – I see I was wrong. The researchers found that an enzyme called cathepsin B/X present in the urchin’s spines causes a painful inflammatory response in humans. Not only that, they discovered that this enzyme is also involved in regenerating the urchin’s spines, a hard matrix of calcium and magnesium carbonate, when broken. So there you go, this unforgiving enzyme that provides the urchin with a double whammy: reducing me to tears as a toxin while enabling the urchin to rearm and wait for the next unsuspecting holidaymaker.

Written by Nick Kennedy

Image by Dwayne Meadows on Wikimedia Commons
NOAA Photo Library
Originally published under a Creative Commons Licence (BY 2.0)
Research published in the Journal of Venomous Animals and Toxins including Tropical Diseases, December 2013

You can also follow BPoD on Twitter and Facebook

Rudimentary egg and sperm cells made from stem cells

Some hope that sperm cells could one day be derived from the skin cells of a man who is otherwise sterile — and that a similar process cold produce viable egg cells from a sterile woman’s body…

Family of Baltimore woman whose DNA taken without consent wins recognition for immortal cells
Some 60 years ago, an American doctor removed cancer cells from a poor black patient named Henrietta Lacks without her knowledge or consent. Those cells eventually helped lead to a multitude of medical treatments and laid the groundwork for the multibillion-dollar biotech industry.

The Baltimore woman’s saga was made famous by the 2010 bestseller “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.”

Now, for the first time, the Lacks family has been given a say over at least some research involving her cells.

Lacks’ family members have never shared in any of the untold riches unlocked by the material, called HeLa cells, and they won’t make any money under the agreement announced Wednesday by the family and the National Institutes of Health.

But they will have some control over scientists’ access to the cells’ DNA code. And the Lacks family will receive acknowledgment in the scientific papers that result. (AP Photo/Lacks Family via The Henrietta Lacks Foundation)


Printing The Human Body

The rise of 3D printing has introduced one of the most ground-breaking technological feats happening right now.  The most exciting part, through, doesn’t have anything to do with printing cars and fancy furniture, but in producing human tissue, otherwise known as bioprinting.  While it’s still early days, the future of bioprinting looks bright and will eventually result in some major advantages for society, whilst also saving billions for the economy that is spent on research and development.

 The first implanted mind-controlled prosthetic arm has restored a patient’s sense of touch

The prosthetic arm was developed by Swedish scientists, and is the first ever to plug directly into a patient’s bones, nerves and muscles, and translate their thoughts into action.

It was implanted into a Swedish amputee in January 2013 in order to test how stable and successful it would be long-term, and now the extremely positive results have been published in the journal Science Translational Medicine.

"Going beyond the lab to allow the patient to face real-world challenges is the main contribution of this work," said Max Ortiz Catalan, the lead author of the publication and a researcher at Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden, in a press release.

But, incredibly, not only has the prostheses restored full dexterous control back to the man’s arm, it has also sent feedback the other way and allow him to feel touch sensations through the robotic arm.

Continue Reading.

19 December 2014

Eye Phone

Thirty-nine million people worldwide are blind, with a large percentage of sufferers living in the world’s poorest countries. As current tools for assessing eye health are expensive, Peek [Portable Eye Examination Kit] was developed. It uses smartphone technology to examine eyes affordably and easily. Looking at the retina is crucial to identify conditions like cataracts and glaucoma. With a 3D-printed device that clips onto a smartphone, healthcare workers can get high-quality views of the retina though the phone’s video camera; the images can be stored and shared with others via SMS or email. Over the last few years, successful trials have been carried out in Kenya, Botswana and Mali. Results show that, using Peek, healthcare workers can assess over 1,000 people each week. A crowd funding campaign is being undertaken to enable Peek to manufacture the device on a larger scale. They aim to distribute the product by October 2015.

Written by Katie Panteli

Image by Peek Vision
Originally published under a Creative Commons Licence
Research published in Eye, March 2012

You can also follow BPoD on Twitter and Facebook

Artificial blood ‘will be manufactured in factories’

It is the stuff of gothic science fiction: men in white coats in factories of blood and bones.

But the production of blood on an industrial scale could become a reality once a trial is conducted in which artificial blood made from human stem cells is tested in patients for the first time.

It is the latest breakthrough in scientists’ efforts to re-engineer the body, which have already resulted in the likes of 3d-printed bones and bionic limbs.

Marc Turner, the principal researcher in the £5 million programme funded by the Wellcome Trust, told The Telegraph that his team had made red blood cells fit for clinical transfusion.

Prof Turner has devised a technique to culture red blood cells from induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells – cells that have been taken from humans and ‘rewound’ into stem cells. Biochemical conditions similar to those in the human body are then recreated to induce the iPS cells to mature into red blood cells – of the rare universal blood type O.

“Although similar research has been conducted elsewhere, this is the first time anybody has manufactured blood to the appropriate quality and safety standards for transfusion into a human being,” said Prof Turner.

There are plans in place for the trial to be concluded by late 2016 or early 2017, he said. It will most likely involve the treatment of three patients with Thalassaemia, a blood disorder requiring regular transfusions. The behaviour of the manufactured blood cells will then be monitored.

“The cells will be safe,” he said, adding that there are processes whereby cells can be removed.

The technique highlights the prospect of a limitless supply of manufactured type-O blood, free of disease and compatible with all patients.

“Although blood banks are well-stocked in the UK and transfusion has been largely safe since the Hepatitis B and HIV infections of the 1970s and 1980s, many parts of the world still have problems with transfusing blood,” said Prof Turner.

However, scaling up the process to meet demand will be a challenge, as Prof Turner’s laboratory conditions are not replicable on an industrial scale. “A single unit of blood contains a trillion red blood cells. There are 2 million units of blood transfused in the UK each year,” he said.

Currently, it costs approximately £120 to transfuse a single unit of blood. If Prof Turner’s technique is scaled up efficiently, it could substantially reduce costs.

Dr Ted Bianco, Director of Technology Transfer at the Wellcome Trust, said: “One should not underestimate the challenge of translating the science into routine procedures for the clinic. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the challenge Professor Turner and colleagues have set out to address, which is to replace the human blood donor as the source of supply for life-saving transfusions.”

For the moment, factories of blood remain the stuff of fiction.


Lab-Engineered Jellyfish

When Harvard biophysicist Kit Parker visited the New England Aquarium in 2007 and watched jellyfish pulse through the water, a strange realisation struck him: the way the jellyfish pulsed was similar to the human heart. He teamed up with bioengineer John Dabiri and graduate student Janna Nawroth of CalTech, and together they essentially built a jellyfish.

First, they mapped the cells of moon jellyfish (Aurelia aurita) to understand how they swim: their bell-shaped bodies consist of fibres that are aligned around a central ring and along eight spokes, and electrical signal pass through the bodies like a wave, creating the pulse that allows the jellyfish to swim. They then grew an artificial jellyfish in a tiny frame, complete with body and eight appendages—but did it without using a single jellyfish cell. Instead, it was grown from the heart muscle cells of a rat, as well as plastic silicone that mimics the “jelly” of a jellyfish’s body.

When they sent an electrical signal through the structure, the muscle contracted like jellyfish’s stroke, then the elastic silicone pulled the structure back to its original shape ready. When placed in water, it swam like the real thing. The researchers dubbed their creation “Medusoid.”

Why do such an experiment? Firstly, it’s really cool, and secondly, it has applications for human health. It’s a way of understanding muscular pumps, so this may help researchers test heart drugs and develop heart valves or pacemakers made from a patient’s own cells. “Instead of heart valves made out of aluminum or plastic, they would be built out of your own biological material,” Parker says. “That makes it more biocompatable and potentially longer-lived.”

Lens-free microscope can detect cancer at cellular level

UCLA researchers have developed a lens-free microscope that can be used to detect the presence of cancer or other cell-level abnormalities with the same accuracy as larger and more expensive optical microscopes.

The invention could lead to less expensive and more portable technology for performing common examinations of tissue, blood and other biomedical specimens. It may prove especially useful in remote areas and in cases where large numbers of samples need to be examined quickly.

The microscope is the latest in a series of computational imaging and diagnostic devices developed in the lab of Aydogan Ozcan, the Chancellor’s Professor of Electrical Engineering and Bioengineering at the UCLA Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute professor. Ozcan’s lab has previously developed custom-designed smartphone attachments and apps that enable quick analysis of food samples for allergens, water samples for heavy metals and bacteria, cell counts in blood samples, and the use of Google Glass to process the results of medical diagnostic tests.

The latest invention is the first lens-free microscope that can be used for high-throughput 3-D tissue imaging — an important need in the study of disease.

"This is a milestone in the work we’ve been doing," said Ozcan, who also is the associate director of UCLA’s California NanoSystems Institute. "This is the first time tissue samples have been imaged in 3D using a lens-free on-chip microscope."

The research is the cover article in Science Translational Medicine, which is published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Continue Reading.

21 December 2014

Modelling Face Transplants

In 2010, surgeons in Spain performed the world’s first successful full face transplant. The patient, who was injured in a shooting accident, received all facial muscles and skin – as well as cheekbones, nose, lips and teeth – from a deceased donor. Surgeons in other countries have since completed similarly complex face transplants. And now doctors at a hospital in the United States are using computer tomography (CT) to better plan and execute such procedures. First they image the recipient’s head with a CT scanner, in which X-rays capture hundreds of virtual slices to produce a 3D virtual model. From that data, they build a life-size skull model (pictured) using 3D printers. This means surgeons can make alterations to ensure the transplant fits as easily as possible. Previously, they had to hastily make those modifications during the hour-long period when blood flow is stopped to allow for the connection of blood vessels.

Written by Daniel Cossins

Image by the Radiological Society of North America
Originally published under a Creative Commons Licence (BY 4.0)
Research presented at the annual meeting of the RSNA on 1 December 2014

You can also follow BPoD on Twitter and Facebook

For the first time flowering plants have been successfully engineered to fix carbon like the blue-green algae do – this can potentially increase photosynthesis and yields in crop plants.

Plants, algae and some bacteria capture light energy from the sun and transform it into chemical energy by the process named photosynthesis. Blue-green algae (cyanobacteria) have a more efficient mechanism in carrying out photosynthesis than plants. For a long time now, it has been suggested that if plants could carry out photosynthesis with a similar mechanism to that of the blue-green algae, plant productivity and hence crop yields could improve.

Rothamsted Research scientists strategically funded by the BBSRC and in collaboration with colleagues at Cornell University funded by the U.S. National Science Foundation have used genetic engineering of tobacco plants - a tobacco plant can been seen above - to demonstrate for the first time that flowering plants can carry out photosynthesis utilizing a faster bacterial Rubisco enzyme rather than their own slower Rubisco enzyme. These findings represent a milestone toward the goal of improving the photosynthetic rate in crop plants.

Copyright: Rothamsted Research

Read more on this story:

In the future, prisoners could be forced to feel like they served a thousand year sentence in eight hours


With future biotechnology, prisons could one day carry out sentences on individuals that only occur in the mind. As in, someone is sentenced to multiple life sentences, or in cases of military torture, the unlucky recipient would have their brain tricked into thinking they’d been imprisoned for a thousand years when it’s only been eight hours. Well isn’t that just wonderful.

Read the story here

DNA tape recorder stores a cell’s memories

If cells could talk, they’d have quite a story to tell: Their life history would include what molecules they’d seen passing by, which signals they’d sent to neighbors, and how they’d grown and changed. Researchers haven’t quite given cells a voice, but they have now furnished them with a memory of sorts—one that’s designed to record bits of their life history over the span of several weeks. The new method uses strands of DNA to store the data in a way that scientists can then read. Eventually, it could turn cells into environmental sensors, enabling them to report on their exposure to particular chemicals, among other applications.

“They’ve done a really exceptional job turning DNA into readable, writable memory inside living cells,” says Ahmad Khalil, a biomedical engineer at Boston University who was not involved in the new work. “I think it’s a very cool new direction for synthetic biology to take.”

In the past, researchers have turned cells into simple sensors by switching on or off the production of proteins in response to a stimulus. But each switch could record only one simple piece of information—whether the cell had been exposed to the stimulus—not the duration or magnitude of this exposure. And if the cell died, the information—encoded in a protein—would be lost.

“We wanted a system that would be easier to scale up to collect more than one piece of information,” says synthetic biologist Timothy Lu of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. “So we started out, as engineers, thinking about what an ideal memory system would look like.”

Continue Reading.


Miniature “human brains” have been grown in a lab in a feat scientists hope will transform the understanding of neurological disorders.

The pea-sized structures reached the same level of development as in a nine-week-old foetus, but are incapable of thought. The study, published in the journal Nature, has already been used to gain insight into rare diseases. Neuroscientists have described the findings as astounding and fascinating. The human brain is one of the most complicated structures in the universe. Scientists at Institute of Molecular Biotechnology of the Austrian Academy of Sciences have now reproduced some of the earliest stages of the organ’s development in the laboratory. (via BBC News - Miniature ‘human brain’ grown in lab)