Injectable Nanotech Gel Delivers Drugs Consistently for Days or Weeks 

Scientists have unveiled a new polymer and nanoparticle gel that can be injected into a patient to deliver a consistent supply of therapeutic drugs. The hydrogel material, created by biotechnology and materials science researchers at MIT, can be loaded with two different drugs at the same time and release them into the body over days or weeks.

The novel interaction between two polymers and nanoparticles in the gel allow it to flow like a liquid when pressure is applied through the syringe and then return to a firmer state once injected. This allows the gel to stay in place so its payload can be delivered directly to the tissues that need it. The material’s creators envision it being injected into the eye to stop macular degeneration, into the heart to repair damaged tissue after a heart attack and into voids left after tumor removal surgery to kill any remaining cancer cells.

“Now you have a gel that can change shape when you apply stress to it, and then, importantly, it can re-heal when you relax those forces,” said Mark Tibbitt, a postdoctoral researcher at MIT’s Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research. “That allows you to squeeze it through a syringe or a needle and get it into the body without surgery.”  

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26 February 2015

Self-healing Hearts

Injecting yourself with extracts from animal testicles and other wild potions won’t stop you ageing, as some people thought in the 19th century. But little did they know that their fumblings would lead to modern cell therapies – the transplantation of healthy cells into diseased tissue to regenerate it. These fibroblast cells (in red, with nuclei in blue and energy-making centres in green) could one day help repair failing hearts. Fibroblasts act as a biological glue throughout the body by producing elastic fibres and collagen that connect tissues. In the heart, these cells maintain the structure of cardiac muscle, although too many of them can also cause the heart to lose its suppleness. Now researchers have found that the cells might themselves be coaxed into becoming heart muscle cells. And if proven true, they could in future help heart patients avoid transplants of failing valves or even hearts.

Written by Tristan Farrow

Image by Dylan Burnette and Jennifer Lippincott-Schwartz
Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, National Institutes of Health
Copyright held by National Institutes of Health
Research published in Circulation Research, March 2014

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 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.

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hollyjollycrayfish responded to the post on glowing transgenic animals:

  Why are GloFish illegal in California?

TL;DR: Because the California Fish and Game Commission decided that GMO fish are bad and GloFish®  are “immoral.” 

I don’t think these fish are scary. I think GloFish® look kind of like fun, swimming Skittles and Mentos. Glofish are for the most part just like other tropical pet fish, but they glow under blacklight. As cute as they are, they’re more illegal than machine guns in California, the only U.S. state that has banned the pets. 

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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.


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

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Scientists Figure Out How to Unboil Eggs

It has often been said that you can’t unscramble an egg. But you might be able to unboil one.

When you boil an egg, the heat causes the proteins inside the egg white to tangle and clump together, solidifying it. New research published in ChemBioChem by scientists at UC Irvine shows how they can essentially reverse the clumping process by adding chemicals to a cooked egg.

“Yes, we have invented a way to unboil a hen egg,” UCI biochemist Gregory Weisssaid in a statement. “In our paper, we describe a device for pulling apart tangled proteins and allowing them to refold.”

And they didn’t just go for a standard 10-minute hard boiled egg. No, the researchers decided, just to make absolutely sure the whites were cooked, to boil the eggs for 20 minutes at 194 degrees Fahrenheit. Adding urea to the eggs untangled the knotted proteins by chemically breaking them into bits, returning the eggs to a liquid form. (Note: Urea is one of the main ingredients in pee, so these unboiled eggs are probably not delicious.) Then the researcher put the (now liquid) solution into a machine called a ‘vortex fluid device.’ The device pieces the broken proteins back together within minutes—a vast improvement over older methods of reconstituting proteins, which could take days.

But unboiling eggs isn’t the main focus for the researchers. “The real problem is there are lots of cases of gummy proteins that you spend way too much time scraping off your test tubes, and you want some means of recovering that material,” Weiss said.

Other researchers from around the world have been looking into the unboiling issue, including researchers from Malta who published research on the same subject last January. The scientists at UC Irvine have filed for a patent of their method, and hope that it will eventually find uses in industries from cheese-making to pharmaceuticals.

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.”

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.”

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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.

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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

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The future of medicine.

Not quite the Star Trek type handheld tri-coder, but this dinky little thing is definitely a move into the right direction. 

Only 7.5 cm high, weighing a mere 60g and able to detect viruses and single layer proteins down to 3 nm thick this device is powerful.

Why should we care?

It is able to detect a large number of proteins in our body all at once, opening up the possibility that one day we can do check ups without even seeing a doctor. 

Promising future

The size, price and efficiency of this new multi-analyze device make it a highly promising invention for a multiplicity of uses. It could offer to quickly analyze up to 170,000 different molecules in a blood sample. This method could simultaneously identify insulin levels, cancer and Alzheimer markers, or even certain viruses. 

Read more on this here.

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

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