Ending Cancer: Cancer-Hunting Nanoparticles

cancer_hunting_nanoparticleWhen it comes to diseases and conditions that have long been thought to be incurable – i.e. cancer, diabetes, HIV – nanoparticles are making a big impact. In the case of HIV, solutions have been developed where gold nanoparticles can deliver bee venom or HIV medication to cells of the virus, while leaving healthy tissue alone. As for diabetes and cancer, the same concept has proven useful at both seeking out and delivering medication to the requisite cells.

However, a new breakthrough may be offering cancer patients something more in the coming years. In what appears to be a promising development, researchers at the University of California Davis (UC Davis) Cancer Center have created a multi-tasking nanoparticle shown to be effective both in the diagnosis of a tumor and attacking its cells – a flexibility that could lead to new treatment options for cancer patients.

gold_nanoparticlesOne of the big challenges in developing multitasking nanoparticles is that they are traditional designed with one purpose in mind. They are constructed using either inorganic or organic compounds, each with strengths of their own. Inorganic nanoparticles, such those made from gold, are effective in imaging and diagnostics. Organic nanoparticles, on the other hand, are biocompatible and provide a safe method of drug delivery.

The nanoparticles developed at UC Davis are made from a polymer composed of organic compounds porphyrin and cholic acid, which is produced by the liver. The researchers then added cysteine – an amino acid that prevents it from releasing its payload prematurely – to create a fluorescent carbon nanoparticle (CNP). The team then tested the new nanoparticle with a range of tasks, both in vitro and in vivo (aka. in a solution of cells and in living organisms).

cancer_killing_laserThey found the particle was effective in delivering cancer-fighting drugs such as doxorubicin (commonly used in chemotherapy). In addition, they found that while applying light (known as photodynamic therapy), the nanoparticles release reactive molecules called singlet oxygen that destroy tumor cells, while heating them with a laser (known as photothermal therapy) provided another way for the particles to destroy tumors.

One notable finding was that the release of a payload sped up as the nanoparticle was exposed to light. The researchers claim this ability to manipulate the rate at which the particles release chemotherapy drugs from inside the tumor could help to minimize toxicity. This is a big plus considering that all known cancer treatments – i.e. chemotherapy, medication, radiation – all come with side effects and have a high risk causing damage to the patient’s healthy tissue.

NanoparticlesIn relation to imaging and phototherapy, the nanoparticle remained in the body for extended periods and bonded with imaging agents. And because CNPs are drawn more to tumor tissue than normal tissue, it helps to improve contrast and light them up for MRI and PET scans. This effectively makes the UC Davis nanoparticle a triple threat as far as cancer treatments are concerned.

As Yuanpei Li, research faculty member from the UC Davis Cancer Center, explains it:

This is the first nanoparticle to perform so many different jobs. From delivering chemo, photodynamic and photothermal therapies to enhancing diagnostic imaging, it’s the complete package.

The team is now focusing on further pre-clinical studies, with a view to advancing to human trials if all goes to plan. And this is not the only breakthrough inolving cancer-fighting nanoparticles to be made in recent months. Back in April, scientists at MIT reported the creation a revolutionary building block technique that’s enabled them to load a nanoparticle with three drugs, and claim it could be expanded to allow one to carry hundreds more.

MIT_nanoparticleTypical nanoparticle designs don’t allow for scaling, since they call for building a nanoparticle first, then encapsulating the drug molecules within it or chemically attaching the molecules to it. Attempting to add more drugs makes assembling the final nanoparticle exponentially more difficult. To overcome these limitations, Jeremiah Johnson, an assistant professor of chemistry at MIT, created nanoparticle building blocks that already included the desired drug.

Called “brush first polymerization,” the approach allows the researchers to incorporate many drugs within a single nanoparticle and control the precise amounts of each. In addition to the drug, each tiny building block contains a linking unit enabling it to easily connect to other blocks, and a protective compound to ensure that the drug stays intact until it enters the cell.

MIT_nanoparticle1The approach not only allows different drug-containing blocks to be assembled into specific structures, but it also enables each drug to be released separately via different triggers. The team has tested its triple threat nanoparticles, containing drugs typically used to treat ovarian cancer – such as doxorubicin, cisplatin and camptothecin – against lab-grown ovarian cancer cells.

The results demonstrated the new nanoparticles’ ability to destroy cancer cells at a higher rate than those carrying fewer drugs. As Johnson explained it:

This is a new way to build the particles from the beginning. If I want a particle with five drugs, I just take the five building blocks I want and have those assemble into a particle. In principle, there’s no limitation on how many drugs you can add, and the ratio of drugs carried by the particles just depends on how they are mixed together in the beginning… We think it’s the first example of a nanoparticle that carries a precise ratio of three drugs and can release those drugs in response to three distinct triggering mechanisms.

In this case, the cisplatin is delivered the instant the particle enters the cell, as it reacts to the presence of an antioxidant found in the cells called glutathione. When the nanoparticle encounters a cellular enzyme called esterases it releases the second drug, camptothecin. Shining ultraviolet light triggers the release of the remaining doxorubicin, leaving behind only the biodegradable remnants of the nanoparticle.

nanoparticle_cancertreatmentThe researchers believe this approach can potentially be used to link hundreds of building blocks to create multidrug-carrying nanoparticles, and pave the way for entirely new types of cancer treatments, free from the damaging side effects that accompany traditional chemotherapy. The MIT team is currently working on making nanoparticles that can deliver four drugs, and are also engaged in tests that treat tumor cells in animals.

Until recently, the fight against cancer has been characterized by attrition. While treatments exist, they tend to be a balancing act – inflicting harm and poisoning the patient in small doses with the hope of killing the cancer and not the host. Smarter treatments that target the disease while sparing the patient from harm are just what is needed to turn the tide in this fight and bring cancer to an end.

Sources: gizmag.com, (2), nature.com, ucdmc.ucdavis.edu

Climate Crisis: (More) Smog-Eating Buildings

pollution_eating2Air pollution is now one of the greatest health concerns in the world, exceeding cigarettes as the number one killer of people worldwide. With an estimated 7 million deaths in 2012 alone, the WHO now ranks it as the biggest global environmental killer. In fact, of the 1,600 major cities surveyed from around the world, over half are now above the safe limits of Particulate Matter (PM), with the highest cost borne by the poorer regions of South-East Asia and the Western Pacific.

Because of this, Carbon Capture technology is being seriously considered as an integral part of the future of urban planning and architecture. So in addition to addressing the issues if housing needs, urban sprawl and energy usage, major buildings in the future may also come equipped with air-cleaning features. Already, several major cities are taking advantage, and some innovative and futuristic designs have emerged as a result. Consider the following examples:

aircleaning_skyscraperCO2ngress Gateway Towers: Conceived by architects Danny Mui and Benjamin Sahagun while studying at the Illinois Institute of Technology, this concept for an air-cleaning skyscraper earned them an honorable mention in the 2012 CTBUH student competition. And while there are no currents plans to build it, it remains a fitting example of innovative architecture and merging carbon capture technology with urban planning and design.

The concept involves two crooked buildings that are outfitted with a filtration system that feeds captured CO2 to algae grown in the building’s interior, which then converts it into biofuels. Aside from the scrubbers, the buildings boast some other impressive features to cut down on urban annoyances. These include the “double skin facade”- two layers of windows – that can cut down on outside traffic noise. In addition, the spaces on either side of the buildings’ central elevator core can be used as outdoor terraces for residents.

CC_catalytic_clothingCatalytic Clothing: A collaborative effort between Helen Storey and Tony Ryan, the goal of this experiment is to incorporate the same pollution-eating titanium dioxide nanoparticles used in carbon capture façade into laundry detergent to coat clothing. According to Ryan, one person wearing the nanoparticle-washed clothes could remove 5 to 6 grams of nitrogen dioxide from the air a day; two pairs of jeans could clean up the nitrogen dioxide from one car.

If enough people in downtown New York, Beijing, Mumbai, Mexico City – or any other major city of the world renowned for urban density, high concentrations of fossil-fuel burning cars, and air pollution – would wear clothing coating with these nanoparticles, air pollution could be severely reduced in a few years time. And all at a cost of a few added cents a wash cycle!

CC_in_praise_of_airIn Praise of Air: Located in Sheffield, England, this 10×20 meter poster shows Simon Armitage’s poem “In Praise of Air”. Appropriately, the poster doubles as a pollution-eating façade that uses titanium dioxide nanoparticles. The full poem reads as follow:

I write in praise of air.  I was six or five
when a conjurer opened my knotted fist
and I held in my palm the whole of the sky.
I’ve carried it with me ever since.

Let air be a major god, its being
and touch, its breast-milk always tilted
to the lips.  Both dragonfly and Boeing
dangle in its see-through nothingness…

Among the jumbled bric-a-brac I keep
a padlocked treasure-chest of empty space,
and on days when thoughts are fuddled with smog
or civilization crosses the street

with a white handkerchief over its mouth
and cars blow kisses to our lips from theirs
I turn the key, throw back the lid, breathe deep.
My first word, everyone’s  first word, was air.

According to Tony Ryan of University of Sheffield, who created it with his colleagues, the poster can absorb about 20 cars’ worth of nitrogen oxide a day and would add less than $200 to the cost of a giant advertisement. While it is a creative tool for promoting a local poetry festival, it also serves as proof of concept that the technology can be incorporated into practically any textile, and will be reproduced on several more banners and posters in the coming months.

hyper_filter1Hyper Filter Skyscraper: Designed by Umarov Alexey of Russia, the Hyper Filter Skyscraper recognizes the threat of environmental pollution and seeks to merge carbon capture technology with the building’s design. Under today’s levels of pollution, harmful substances spread over hundreds of kilometers and a whole region and even a country could represent a single pollution source. Hence the plan to place a air-scrubbing building at the heart of the problem – an urban core.

Consistent with CC technology and the principle of photosynthesis, the Hyper Filter Skyscraper is designed to inhale carbon dioxide and other harmful gases and exhale concentrated oxygen. The skin of the project is made out of long pipe filters that ensure the cleaning process. While clean air is released to the atmosphere, all the harmful substances are stored for use in the chemical industry for later use. These can include chemicals products, biofuels, and even manufactured goods.

CC_mexico-hospital-facade-horizontal-galleryManuel Gea González Hospital: Located in Mexico City, this hospital was unveiled last year. The building features a “smog-eating” façade that covers 2,500 square meters and has titanium dioxide coating that reacts with ambient ultraviolet light to neutralize elements of air pollution, breaking them down to less noxious compounds like water. This was Berlin-based Elegant Embellishment’s first full-scale installation, and its designers claim the façade negates the effects of 1,000 vehicles each day.

Funded by Mexico’s Ministry of Health, the project is part of a three-year, $20 billion investment into the country’s health infrastructure, an effort which earned Mexico the Air Quality Prize at the 2013 City Climate Leadership Awards in London. Considering the fact that Mexico City is <i>the</i> most densely-populated cities in the world – with a population of 21 million people and a concentration of 6,000/km2 (15,000/sq mi) – this should come as no surprise.

CC-pollution-palazzo-italia-horizontal-galleryPalazzo Italia: Located in Milan, this building is designed by the architectural firm Nemesi & Partners, and comes equipped with a jungle-inspired façade that is built from air-purifying, “biodynamic” cement. This shell will cover 13,000 square meters across six floors, and will remove pollutants from the air and turns them into inert salts. Apparently, the material from Italcementi only adds 4-5 percent to the construction costs.

Scientists in the Netherlands have also adapted the photocatalytic material to roads, claiming it can reduce nitrous oxide concentrations by 45 percent. The building is set to launch next year at the 2015 Milan Expo.

Propogate Skyscraper: This pollution skyscraper was designed by Canadian architects YuHao Liu and Rui Wu, and won third place at this year’s eVolo’s Skyscraper Competition. Basically, it envisions a building that would turn air pollution into construction materials and use it to gradually create the building. Relying on an alternative carbon-capture technique that employs philic resins and material processes to transform carbon dioxide into solid construction material, their uses carbon dioxide as a means to self-propagate.

3028400-slide-propagateA simple vertical grid scaffold forms the framework and takes all the ingredients it needs for material propagation from the surrounding environment. Individual living spaces are built within this gridwork, which creates open square spaces between lattices that can then be filled by tenements. Its pattern of growth is defined by environmental factors such as wind, weather, and the saturation of carbon dioxide within the immediate atmosphere.

Thus each building is a direct reflection of its environment, growing and adapting according to local conditions and cleaning as the air as it does so. Unlike conventional skyscrapers, which rely on steel frame and concrete casting, the proposed skyscraper suggests a more environmental conscious construction method, an alternative mode of occupation and ownership, and possibly a distinct organization of social relationships.

Synthesized Spider Web: Another innovative solution comes from Oxford’s Fritz Vollrath, who was inspired by the behavior of spider silk fibers. With the addition of a glue-like coating, the thinness and electrical charge of spider silk allows them to capture any airborne particles that pass through them. These synthesized silk webs could be used like a mesh to capture pollutants – including airborne particulates, chemicals, pesticides, or heavy metals – coming out of chimneys or even disaster zones.

Spiderweb_towersSpiderweb Tower: Considering that London has some of the worst air quality in Europe, and the fact that air pollution is thought to be the second biggest risk to public health in the UK after smoking, solutions that can bring carbon capture and pollution-eating technology to downtown areas are in serious demand. And one solution comes from graduate architect Chang-Yeob Lee, who has come up with a radical design that would turn London’s BT Tower into a pollution harvesting ‘spiderweb’ that turned smog into bio-fuel.

Lee’s plan envisions the skyscraper being covered in a ‘giant eco-catalytic converter’ that traps pollutants from the capital’s air. At the same time, nano-tubes of titanium would turn carbon-dioxide into methanol and water using only the power of the sun. As Lee put it:

The project is about a new infrastructure gathering resources from pollutants in the city atmosphere, which could be another valuable commodity in the age of depleting resources.

Quite a bit of potential, and just in the nick of time too! And be sure to watch this video

Sources: iflscience.com, wired.co.uk, cnn.com, evolo.com, latintimes.com, catalyticpoetry.org

The Future of Medicine: Tiny Bladder and Flashlight Sensors

heart_patchesThere’s seems to be no shortage of medical breakthroughs these days! Whether it’s bionic limbs, 3-D printed prosthetic devices, bioprinting, new vaccines and medicines, nanoparticles, or embedded microsensors, researchers and medical scientists are bringing innovation and technological advancement together to create new possibilities. And in recent months, two breakthrough in particular have bbecome the focus of attention, offering the possibility of smarter surgery and health monitoring.

First up, there’s the tiny bladder sensor that is being developed by the Norwegian research group SINTEF. When it comes to patients suffering from paralysis, the fact that they cannot feel when their bladders are full, para and quadriplegics often suffer from pressure build-up that can cause damage to the bladder and kidneys. This sensor would offer a less invasive means of monitoring their condition, to see if surgery is required or if medication will suffice.

pressuresensorPresently, doctors insert a catheter into the patient’s urethra and fill their bladder with saline solution, a process which is not only uncomfortable but is claimed to provide an inaccurate picture of what’s going on. By contrast, this sensor can be injected directly into the patients directly through the skin, and could conceivably stay in place for months or even years, providing readings without any discomfort, and without requiring the bladder to be filled mechanically.

Patients would also able to move around normally, plus the risk of infection would reportedly be reduced. Currently readings are transmitted from the prototypes via a thin wire that extents from the senor out through the skin, although it is hoped that subsequent versions could transmit wirelessly – most likely to the patient’s smartphone. And given that SINTEF’s resume includes making sensors for the CERN particle collider, you can be confident these sensors will work!

senor_cern_600Next month, a clinical trial involving three spinal injury patients is scheduled to begin at Norway’s Sunnaas Hospital. Down the road, the group plans to conduct trials involving 20 to 30 test subjects. Although they’re currently about to be tested in the bladder, the sensors could conceivably be used to measure pressure almost anywhere in the body. Conceivably, sensors that monitor blood pressure and warn of aneurisms or stroke could be developed.

Equally impressive is the tiny, doughnut-shaped sensor being developed by Prof. F. Levent Degertekin and his research group at the George W. Woodruff School of Mechanical Engineering at Georgia Tech. Designed to assist doctors as they perform surgery on the heart or blood vessels, this device could provide some much needed (ahem) illumination. Currently, doctors and scientists rely on images provided by cross-sectional ultrasounds, which are limited in terms of the information they provide.

tiny_flashlightAs Degertekin explains:

If you’re a doctor, you want to see what is going on inside the arteries and inside the heart, but most of the devices being used for this today provide only cross-sectional images. If you have an artery that is totally blocked, for example, you need a system that tells you what’s in front of you. You need to see the front, back, and sidewalls altogether.

That’s where their new chip comes into play. Described as a “flashlight” for looking inside the human body, it’s basically a tiny doughnut-shaped sensor measuring 1.5 millimeters (less than a tenth of an inch) across, with the hole set up to take a wire that would guide it through cardiac catheterization procedures. In that tiny space, the researchers were able to cram 56 ultrasound transmitting elements and 48 receiving elements.

georgia-tech-flashlight-vessels-arteries-designboom03So that the mini monitor doesn’t boil patients’ blood by generating too much heat, it’s designed to shut its sensors down when they’re not in use. In a statement released from the university, Degertekin explained how the sensor will help doctors to better perform life-saving operations:

Our device will allow doctors to see the whole volume that is in front of them within a blood vessel. This will give cardiologists the equivalent of a flashlight so they can see blockages ahead of them in occluded arteries. It has the potential for reducing the amount of surgery that must be done to clear these vessels.

Next up are the usual animal studies and clinical trials, which Degertekin hopes will be conducted by licensing the technology to a medical diagnostic firm. The researchers are also going to see if they can make their device even smaller- small enough to fit on a 400-micron-diameter guide wire, which is roughly four times the diameter of a human hair. At that size, this sensor will be able to provide detailed, on-the-spot information about any part of the body, and go wherever doctors can guide it.

Such is the nature of the new age of medicine: smaller, smarter, and less invasive, providing better information to both save lives and improve quality of life. Now if we can just find a cure for the common cold, we’d be in business!

Sources: gizmag.com, news.cnet.com

The Future is Weird: Cyborg Sperm!

cyborg_sperm1Finding ways to merge the biological and the technological, thus creating the best of both worlds, is one of the hallmarks of our new age. Already, we have seen how bionic appendages that connect and calibrate to people’s nerve signals can restore mobility and sensation to injured patients. And EEG devices that can read and interpret brainwaves are allowing man-machine interface like never before.

But cyborg sperm? That is something that might require an explanation. You see, sperm cells have an awesome swimming ability. And wanting to take advantage of this, Oliver Schmidt and a team researchers at the Institute for Integrative Nanosciences in Dresden, Germany, combined individual sperm cells with tiny magnetic metal tubes to create the first sperm-based biobots.

Cyborg_Sperm3This means we now have a way to control a cell’s direction inside the body, a breakthrough that could lead to efficient microscopic robots – one which are not entirely mechanical. To make the “biohybrid micro-robot,” Schmidt and his colleagues captured and trapped bull sperm inside magnetic microtubes, leaving the tail outside.

To create the spermbots, the team made microtubes 50 microns long, by 5 to 8 microns in diameter from iron and titanium nanoparticles. They added the tubes to a fluid containing thawed bull sperm. Because one end of each tube was slightly narrower than the other, sperm that swam into the wider end become trapped, headfirst, with their flagella still free.

cyborg_sperm2With mobility taken care of, the team moved on to the matter of how to control and direct the microtubes. For this, they chose to rely on a system of external magnetic fields which work the same way as a compass needle does, by aligning with the Earth’s magnetic field. This enabled the team to control the direction in which the sperm swam, adjusting their speed through the application of heat.

According to the researchers, the option of using sperm as the basis for a biohybrid micro-robot is attractive because they are harmless to the human body, they provide their own power, and they can swim through viscous liquids – such as blood and other bodily fluids. As the researchers said in their paper:

The combination of a biological power source and a microdevice is a compelling approach to the development of new microrobotic devices with fascinating future application.

cyborg_spermGranted, the idea of cybernetic sperm swimming through our systems might not seem too appealing. But think of the benefits for fertility treatments and inter-uteran health. In the future, tiny biohybrid robots like these could be used to shepherd individual sperm to eggs, making for more effective artificial insemination. They could also  deliver targeted doses of drugs to uteran tissue that is either infected or cancerous.

And if nothing else, it helps to demonstrate the leaps and bounds that are being made in the field of  biotechnology and nanotechnology of late. At its current rate of development, we could be seeing advanced medimachines and DNA-based nanobots becoming a part of regular medical procedures in just a few years time.

And while we’re waiting, check out this video of the “cyborg sperm” in action, courtesy of New Scientist:

IO9, newscientist.com

Year-End Tech News: Stanene and Nanoparticle Ink

3d.printingThe year of 2013 was also a boon for the high-tech industry, especially where electronics and additive manufacturing were concerned. In fact, several key developments took place last year that may help scientists and researchers to move beyond Moore’s Law, as well as ring in a new era of manufacturing and production.

In terms of computing, developers have long feared that Moore’s Law – which states that the number of transistors on integrated circuits doubles approximately every two years – could be reaching a bottleneck. While the law (really it’s more of an observation) has certainly held true for the past forty years, it has been understood for some time that the use of silicon and copper wiring would eventually impose limits.

copper_in_chips__620x350Basically, one can only miniaturize circuits made from these materials so much before resistance occurs and they are too fragile to be effective. Because of this, researchers have been looking for replacement materials to substitute the silicon that makes up the 1 billion transistors, and the one hundred or so kilometers of copper wire, that currently make up an integrated circuit.

Various materials have been proposed, such as graphene, carbyne, and even carbon nanotubes. But now, a group of researchers from Stanford University and the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory in California are proposing another material. It’s known as Stanene, a theorized material fabricated from a single layer of tin atoms that is theoretically extremely efficient, even at high temperatures.

computer_chip5Compared to graphene, which is stupendously conductive, the researchers at Stanford and the SLAC claim that stanene should be a topological insulator. Topological insulators, due to their arrangement of electrons/nuclei, are insulators on their interior, but conductive along their edge and/or surface. Being only a single atom in thickness along its edges, this topological insulator can conduct electricity with 100% efficiency.

The Stanford and SLAC researchers also say that stanene would not only have 100%-efficiency edges at room temperature, but with a bit of fluorine, would also have 100% efficiency at temperatures of up to 100 degrees Celsius (212 Fahrenheit). This is very important if stanene is ever to be used in computer chips, which have operational temps of between 40 and 90 C (104 and 194 F).

Though the claim of perfect efficiency seems outlandish to some, others admit that near-perfect efficiency is possible. And while no stanene has been fabricated yet, it is unlikely that it would be hard to fashion some on a small scale, as the technology currently exists. However, it will likely be a very, very long time until stanene is used in the production of computer chips.

Battery-Printer-640x353In the realm of additive manufacturing (aka. 3-D printing) several major developments were made during the year 0f 2013. This one came from Harvard University, where a materials scientist named Jennifer Lewis Lewis – using currently technology – has developed new “inks” that can be used to print batteries and other electronic components.

3-D printing is already at work in the field of consumer electronics with casings and some smaller components being made on industrial 3D printers. However, the need for traditionally produced circuit boards and batteries limits the usefulness of 3D printing. If the work being done by Lewis proves fruitful, it could make fabrication of a finished product considerably faster and easier.

3d_batteryThe Harvard team is calling the material “ink,” but in fact, it’s a suspension of nanoparticles in a dense liquid medium. In the case of the battery printing ink, the team starts with a vial of deionized water and ethylene glycol and adds nanoparticles of lithium titanium oxide. The mixture is homogenized, then centrifuged to separate out any larger particles, and the battery ink is formed.

This process is possible because of the unique properties of the nanoparticle suspension. It is mostly solid as it sits in the printer ready to be applied, then begins to flow like liquid when pressure is increased. Once it leaves the custom printer nozzle, it returns to a solid state. From this, Lewis’ team was able to lay down multiple layers of this ink with extreme precision at 100-nanometer accuracy.

laser-welding-640x353The tiny batteries being printed are about 1mm square, and could pack even higher energy density than conventional cells thanks to the intricate constructions. This approach is much more realistic than other metal printing technologies because it happens at room temperature, no need for microwaves, lasers or high-temperatures at all.

More importantly, it works with existing industrial 3D printers that were built to work with plastics. Because of this, battery production can be done cheaply using printers that cost on the order of a few hundred dollars, and not industrial-sized ones that can cost upwards of $1 million.

Smaller computers, and smaller, more efficient batteries. It seems that miniaturization, which some feared would be plateauing this decade, is safe for the foreseeable future! So I guess we can keep counting on our electronics getting smaller, harder to use, and easier to lose for the next few years. Yay for us!

Sources: extremetech.com, (2)

Biggest Scientific Breakthroughs of 2013

center_universe2The new year is literally right around the corner, folks. And I thought what better way to celebrate 2013 than by acknowledging its many scientific breakthroughs. And there were so many to be had – ranging in fields from bioresearch and medicine, space and extra-terrestrial exploration, computing and robotics, and biology and anthropology – that I couldn’t possibly do them all justice.

Luckily, I have found a lovely, condensed list which managed to capture what are arguably the biggest hits of the year. Many of these were ones I managed to write about as they were happening, and many were not. But that’s what’s good about retrospectives, they make us take account of things we missed and what we might like to catch up on. And of course, I threw in a few stories that weren’t included, but which I felt belonged.

So without further ado, here are the top 12 biggest breakthroughs of 2013:

1. Voyager 1 Leaves the Solar System:

For 36 years, NASA’s Voyager 1 spacecraft has travelling father and farther away from Earth, often at speeds approaching 18 km (11 miles) per second. At a pace like that, scientists knew Voyager would sooner or later breach the fringe of the heliosphere that surrounds and defines our solar neighborhood and enter the bosom of our Milky Way Galaxy. But when it would finally break that threshold was a question no one could answer. And after months of uncertainty, NASA finally announced in September that the space probe had done it. As Don Gurnett, lead author of the paper announcing Voyager’s departure put it: “Voyager 1 is the first human-made object to make it into interstellar space… we’re actually out there.”

voyager12. The Milky Way is Filled with Habitable Exoplanets:

After years of planet hunting, scientists were able to determine from all the data gathered by the Kepler space probe that there could be as many as 2 billion potentially habitable exoplanets in our galaxy. This is the equivalent of roughly 22% of the Milky Way Galaxy, with the nearest being just 12 light years away (Tau Ceti). The astronomers’ results, which were published in October of 2013, showed that roughly one in five sunlike stars harbor Earth-size planets orbiting in their habitable zones, much higher than previously thought.

exoplanets23. First Brain to Brain Interface:

In February of 2013, scientists announced that they had successfully established an electronic link between the brains of two rats. Even when the animals were separated by thousands of kms distance, signals from the mind of one could help the second solve basic puzzles in real time. By July, a connection was made between the minds of a human and a rat. And by August, two researchers at the Washington University in St. Louis were able to demonstrate that signals could be transmitted between two human brains, effectively making brain-to-brain interfacing (BBI), and not just brain computer interfacing (BCI) truly possible.

brain-to-brain-interfacing4. Long-Lost Continent Discovered:

In February of this year, geologists from the University of Oslo reported that a small precambrian continent known as Mauritia had been found. At one time, this continent resided between Madagascar and India, but was then pushed beneath the ocean by a multi-million-year breakup spurred by tectonic rifts and a yawning sea-floor. But now, volcanic activity has driven the remnants of the long-lost continent right through to the Earth’s surface.

Not only is this an incredibly rare find, the arrival of this continent to the surface has given geologists a chance to study lava sands and minerals which are millions and even billions of years old. In addition to the volcanic lava sands, the majority of which are around 9 million years old, the Oslo team also found deposits of zircon xenocryst that were anywhere from 660 million to 1.97 billion years old. Studies of these and the land mass will help us learn more about Earth’s deep past.

mauritia5. Cure for HIV Found!:

For decades, medical researchers and scientists have been looking to create a vaccine that could prevent one from being infected with HIV. But in 2013, they not developed several vaccines that demonstrated this ability, but went a step further and found several potential cures. The first bit of news came in March, when researchers at Caltech demonstrated using HIV antibodies and an approach known as Vectored ImmunoProphylaxis (VIP) that it was possible to block the virus.

Then came the SAV001 vaccine from the Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry at Western University in London, Ontario, which aced clinical trials. This was punctuated by researchers at the University of Illinois’, who in May used the “Blue Waters” supercomputer to developed a new series of computer models to get at the heart of the virus.

HIV-budding-ColorBut even more impressive was the range of potential cures that were developed. The first came in March, where researchers at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis that a solution of bee venom and nanoparticles was capable of killing off the virus, but leaving surrounding tissue unharmed. The second came in the same month, when doctors from Johns Hopkins University Medical School were able to cure a child of HIV thanks to the very early use of antiretroviral therapy (ART).

And in September, two major developments occurred. The first came from Rutgers New Jersey Medical School, where researchers showed that an antiviral foot cream called Ciclopirox was capable of eradicating infectious HIV when applied to cell cultures of the virus. The second came from the Vaccine and Gene Therapy Institute at the Oregon Health and Science University (OHSU), where researchers developed a vaccine that was also able to cure HIV in about 50% of test subjects. Taken together, these developments may signal the beginning of the end of the HIV pandemic.

hiv-aids-vaccine6. Newly Discovered Skulls Alter Thoughts on Human Evolution:

The discovery of an incredibly well-preserved skull from Dmanisi, Georgia has made anthropologists rethink human evolution. This 1.8 million-year old skull has basically suggested that our evolutionary tree may have fewer branches than previously thought. Compared with other skulls discovered nearby, it suggests that the earliest known members of the Homo genus (H. habilis, H.rudolfensis and H. erectus) may not have been distinct, coexisting species, but instead were part of a single, evolving lineage that eventually gave rise to modern humans.

humanEvolution7. Curiosity Confirms Signs of Life on Mars:

Over the past two years, the Curiosity and Opportunity rovers have provided a seemingly endless stream of scientific revelations. But in March of 2013, NASA scientists released perhaps the most compelling evidence to date that the Red Planet was once capable of harboring life. This consisted of drilling samples out of the sedimentary rock in a river bed in the area known as Yellowknife Bay.

Using its battery of onboard instruments, NASA scientists were able to detect some of the critical elements required for life – including sulfur, nitrogen, hydrogen, oxygen, phosphorus, and carbon. The rover is currently on a trek to its primary scientific target – a three-mile-high peak at the center of Gale Crater named Mount Sharp – where it will attempt to further reinforce its findings.

mt_sharp_space8. Scientists Turn Brain Matter Invisible:

Since its inception as a science, neuroanatomy – the study of the brain’s functions and makeup – has been hampered by the fact that the brain is composed of “grey matter”. For one, microscopes cannot look beyond a millimeter into biological matter before images in the viewfinder get blurry. And the common technique of “sectioning” – where a brain is frozen in liquid nitrogen and then sliced into thin sheets for analysis – results in  tissue being deformed, connections being severed, and information being lost.

But a new technique, known as CLARITY, works by stripping away all of a tissue’s light-scattering lipids, while leaving all of its significant structures – i.e. neurons, synapses, proteins and DNA – intact and in place. Given that this solution will allow researchers to study samples of the brains without having to cut them up, it is already being hailed as one of the most important advances for neuroanatomy in decades.

9. Scientists Detect Neutrinos from Another Galaxy:

In April of this year, physicists working at the IceCube South Pole Observatory took part in an expedition which drilled a hole some 2.4 km (1.5 mile) hole deep into an Antarctic glacier. At the bottom of this hole, they managed to capture 28 neutrinos, a mysterious and extremely powerful subatomic particle that can pass straight through solid matter. But the real kicker was the fact that these particles likely originated from beyond our solar system – and possibly even our galaxy.

That was impressive in and off itself, but was made even more so when it was learned that these particular neutrinos are over a billion times more powerful than the ones originating from our sun. So whatever created them would have had to have been cataclysmicly powerful – such as a supernova explosion. This find, combined with the detection technique used to find them, has ushered in a new age of astronomy.


10. Human Cloning Becomes a Reality:

Ever since Dolly the sheep was cloned via somatic cell nuclear transfer, scientists have wondered if a similar technique could be used to produce human embryonic stem cells. And as of May, researchers at Oregon Health and Science University managed to do just that. This development is not only a step toward developing replacement tissue to treat diseases, but one that might also hasten the day when it will be possible to create cloned, human babies.


11. World’s First Lab Grown Meat:

In May of this year, after years of research and hundred of thousands of dollars invested, researchers at the University of Maastricht in the Netherlands created the world’s first in vitro burgers. The burgers were fashioned from stem cells taken from a cow’s neck which were placed in growth medium, grown into strips of muscle tissue, and then assembled into a burger. This development may prove to be a viable solution to world hunger, especially in the coming decades as the world’s population increases by several billion.

labmeat112. The Amplituhedron Discovered:

If 2012 will be remembered as the year that the Higgs Boson was finally discovered, 2013 will forever be remembered as the year of the Amplituhedron. After many decades of trying to reformulate quantum field theory to account for gravity, scientists at Harvard University discovered of a jewel-like geometric object that they believe will not only simplify quantum science, but forever alters our understanding of the universe.

This geometric shape, which is a representation of the coherent mathematical structure behind quantum field theory, has simplified scientists’ notions of the universe by postulating that space and time are not fundamental components of reality, but merely consequences of the”jewel’s” geometry. By removing locality and unitarity, this discovery may finally lead to an explanation as to how all the fundamental forces of the universe coexist.

amplutihedron_spanThese forces are weak nuclear forces, strong nuclear forces, electromagnetism and gravity. For decades, scientists have been forced to treat them according to separate principles – using Quantum Field Theory to explain the first three, and General Relativity to explain gravity. But now, a Grand Unifying Theory or Theory of Everything may actually be possible.

13. Bioprinting Explodes:

The year of 2013 was also a boon year for bioprinting – namely, using the technology of additive manufacturing to create samples of living tissue. This began in earnest in February, where a team of researchers at Heriot-Watt University in Scotland used a new printing technique to deposit live embryonic stem cells onto a surface in a specific pattern. Using this process, they were able to create entire cultures of tissue which could be morphed into specific types of tissue.

Later that month, researchers at Cornell University used a technique known as “high-fidelity tissue engineering” – which involved using artificial living cells deposited by a 3-D printer over shaped cow cartilage – to create a replacement human ear. This was followed some months later in April when a San Diego-based firm named Organova announced that they were able to create samples of liver cells using 3D printing technology.

And then in August, researchers at Huazhong University of Science and Technology were able to use the same technique create the world first, living kidneys. All of this is pointing the way towards a future where human body parts can be created simply by culturing cells from a donor’s DNA, and replacement organs can be synthetically created, revolutionizing medicine forever.

14. Bionic Machinery Expands:

If you’re a science buff, or someone who has had to go through life with a physical disability, 2013 was also a very big year for the field of bionic machinery. This consisted not only of machinery that could meld with the human body in order to perform fully-human tasks – thus restoring ambulatory ability to people dealing with disabling injuries or diseases – but also biomimetic machinery.

ArgusIIThe first took place in February, where researchers from the University of of Tübingen unveiled the world’s first high-resolution, user-configurable bionic eye. Known officially as the “Alpha IMS retinal prosthesis”, the device helps to restore vision by converted light into electrical signals your retina and then transmitted to the brain via the optic nerve. This was followed in August by the Argus II “retinal prosthetic system” being approved by the FDA, after 20 years of research, for distribution in the US.

Later that same month, the Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne in Switzerland unveiled the world’s first sensory prosthetic hand. Whereas existing mind-controlled prosthetic devices used nerve signals from the user to control the movements of the limb, this new device sends electrostimulus to the user’s nerves to simulate the sensation of touch.

prosthetic_originalThen in April, the University of Georgia announced that it had created a brand of “smart skin” – a transparent, flexible film that uses 8000 touch-sensitive transistors – that is just as sensitive as the real thing. In July, researchers in Israel took this a step further, showing how a gold-polyester nanomaterial would be ideal as a material for artificial skin, since it experiences changes in conductivity as it is bent.

15. 400,000 Year-Old DNA Confuses Humanity’s Origin Story:

Another discovery made this year has forced anthropologist to rethink human evolution. This occurred in Spain early in December, where a team from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany recovered a 400,000 year-old thigh bone. Initially thought to be a forerunner of the Neanderthal branch of hominids, it was later learned that it belonged to the little-understood branch of hominins known as Denisovans.

Human-evoThe discordant findings are leading anthropologists to reconsider the last several hundred thousand years of human evolution. In short, it indicates that there may yet be many extinct human populations that scientists have yet to discover. What’s more, there DNA may prove to be part of modern humans genetic makeup, as interbreeding is a possibility.

The End of HIV: Vaccine Aces Clinical Tests

HIV_virusThe news that Caltech was developing a potential vaccine for HIV was considered one the biggest stories of 2012. And now, less than a year later, researchers at the Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry at Western University in London, Ontario have announced that the vaccine not only passed its first round of clinical testing, but even boosted the production of antibodies in patients it was tested on.

The SAV001 vaccine is one of only a handful of HIV vaccines in the world, and is based on a genetically-modified ‘dead’ version of the virus. U.S. clinical testing began in the in March 2012, looking at HIV-infected men and women between the ages of 18 and 50. Half the target group was administered a placebo, while the other group was given SAV001. The first phase of trials wrapped up last month, with researchers optimistic about the vaccine’s future.

HIV_vaccine_westernDr. Chil-Yong Kang, a professor of microbiology and immunology and the head of the Western research team, explained the process in a recent interview with the Ontario Business Report:

We infect the cells with a genetically modified HIV-1. The infected cells produce lots of virus, which we collect, purify and inactivate so that the vaccine won’t cause AIDS in recipients, but will trigger immune responses.

This is the reverse of what researchers at Caltech did, who relied on a technique known as Vectored ImmunoProphylaxis (VIP) to stimulate antibody formation in lab mice. Here too, the researchers received immensely positive results. After introducing up 100 times the amount of HIV virus that what would be required to cause infection,  the mice remained protected.

vaccineBy demonstrating that not one, but two different methods of preventing the spread of HIV are effective, we could be looking at turning point in the war on HIV/AIDS. The only question is, when will a vaccine be commercially available? According to Sumagen, the South Korean biotech firm sponsoring the creation vaccine, manufacturing, as well as the USFDA requirements and other bureaucratic hurdles remain to contend with.

But, if all goes well with future trials, it could be commercially available in as little as five years. As CEO Jung-Gee Cho said in a press release:

We are now prepared to take the next steps towards Phase II and Phase III clinical trials. We are opening the gate to pharmaceutical companies, government, and charity organization for collaboration to be one step closer to the first commercialized HIV vaccine.

Paired with a possible cure which relies on nanoparticles and bee venom, we could even be looking at the beginning of the end of the pandemic, one which has caused between 25 and 30 million deaths worldwide since its discovery in 1981.

And in the meantime, check out this interview of Dr. Chil-Yong Kang as he explains how he and his research team developed their HIV vaccine, courtesy of the CHIR Canadian HIV Trial Network:

Sources: huffingtonpost.ca, mri.gov.on.ca, aids.gov, unaids.org


Nanotech News: Smart Sponges, Nanoparticles and Neural Dust!

nanomachineryNanotechnology has long been the dream of researchers, scientists and futurists alike, and for obvious reasons. If machinery were small enough so as to be microscopic, or so small that it could only be measured on the atomic level,  just about anything would be possible. These include constructing buildings and products from the atomic level up, with would revolutionize manufacturing as we know it.

In addition, microscopic computers, smart cells and materials, and electronics so infinitesimally small that they could be merged with living tissues would all be within our grasp. And it seems that at least once a month, universities, research labs, and even independent skunkworks are unveiling new and exciting steps that are bringing us ever closer to this goal.

Close-up of a smart sponge
Close-up of a smart sponge

Once such breakthrough comes from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where biomedical scientists and engineers have joined forces to create the “smart sponge”. A spherical object that is microscopic — just 250 micrometers across, and could be made as small as 0.1 micrometers – these new sponges are similar to nanoparticles, in that they are intended to be the next-generation of delivery vehicles for medication.

Each sponge is mainly composed of a polymer called chitosan, something which is not naturally occurring, but can be produced easily from the chitin in crustacean shells. The long polysaccharide chains of chitosan form a matrix in which tiny porous nanocapsules are embedded, and which can be designed to respond to the presence of some external compound – be it an enzyme, blood sugar, or a chemical trigger.

bloodstreamSo far, the researchers tested the smart sponges with insulin, so the nanocapsules in this case contained glucose oxidase. As the level of glucose in a diabetic patient’s blood increases, it would trigger the nanocapsules in the smart sponge begin releasing hydrogen ions which impart a positive charge to the chitosan strands. This in turn causes them to spread apart and begin to slowly release insulin into the blood.

The process is also self-limiting: as glucose levels in the blood come down after the release of insulin, the nanocapsules deactivate and the positive charge dissipates. Without all those hydrogen ions in the way, the chitosan can come back together to keep the remaining insulin inside. The chitosan is eventually degraded and absorbed by the body, so there are no long-term health effects.

NanoparticlesOne the chief benefits of this kind of system, much like with nanoparticles, is that it delivers medication when its needed, to where its needed, and in amounts that are appropriate to the patient’s needs. So far, the team has had success treating diabetes in rats, but plans to expand their treatment to treating humans, and branching out to treat other types of disease.

Cancer is a prime candidate, and the University team believes it can be treated without an activation system of any kind. Tumors are naturally highly acidic environments, which means a lot of free hydrogen ions. And since that’s what the diabetic smart sponge produces as a trigger anyway, it can be filled with small amounts of chemotherapy drugs that would automatically be released in areas with cancer cells.

nanorobotAnother exciting breakthrough comes from University of California at Berkeley, where medical researchers are working towards tiny, implantable sensors . As all medical researchers know, the key to understanding and treating neurological problems is to gather real-time and in-depth information on the subject’s brain. Unfortunately, things like MRIs and positron emission tomography (PET) aren’t exactly portable and are expensive to run.

Implantable devices are fast becoming a solution to this problem, offering real-time data that comes directly from the source and can be accessed wirelessly at any time. So far, this has taken the form of temporary medical tattoos or tiny sensors which are intended to be implanted in the bloodstreams. However, what the researchers at UofC are proposing something much more radical.

neural_dustIn a recent research paper, they proposed a design for a new kind of implantable sensor – an intelligent dust that can infiltrate the brain, record data, and communicate with the outside world. The preliminary design was undertaken by Berkeley’s Dongjin Seo and colleagues, who described a network of tiny sensors – each package being no more than 100 micrometers – in diameter. Hence the term they used: “neural dust”.

The smart particles would all contain a very small CMOS sensor capable of measuring electrical activity in nearby neurons. The researchers also envision a system where each particle is powered by a piezoelectric material rather than tiny batteries. The particles would communicate data to an external device via ultrasound waves, and the entire package would also be coated in a polymer, thus making it bio-neutral.

smart_tatoosBut of course, the dust would need to be complimented by some other implantable devices. These would likely include a larger subdural transceiver that would send the ultrasound waves to the dust and pick up the return signal. The internal transceiver would also be wirelessly connected to an external device on the scalp that contains data processing hardware, a long range transmitter, storage, and a battery.

The benefits of this kind of system are again obvious. In addition to acting like an MRI running in your brain all the time, it would allow for real-time monitoring of neurological activity for the purposes of research and medical monitoring. The researchers also see this technology as a way to enable brain-machine interfaces, something which would go far beyond current methods. Who knows? It might even enable a form of machine-based telepathy in time.

telepathySounds like science fiction, and it still is. Many issues need to be worked out before something of this nature would be possible or commercially available. For one, more powerful antennae would need to be designed on the microscopic scale in order for the smart dust particles to be able to send and receive ultrasound waves.

Increasing the efficiency of transceivers and piezoelectric materials will also be a necessity to provide the dust with power, otherwise they could cause a build-up of excess heat in the user’s neurons, with dire effects! But most importantly of all, researchers need to find a safe and effective way to deliver the tiny sensors to the brain.

prosthetic_originalAnd last, but certainly not least, nanotechnology might be offering improvements in the field of prosthetics as well. In recent years, scientists have made enormous breakthroughs in the field of robotic and bionic limbs, restoring ambulatory mobility to accident victims, the disabled, and combat veterans. But even more impressive are the current efforts to restore sensation as well.

One method, which is being explored by the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology in Israel, involves incorporating gold nanoparticles and a substrate made of polyethylene terephthalate (PET) – the plastic used in bottles of soft drinks. Between these two materials, they were able to make an ultra-sensitive film that would be capable of transmitting electrical signals to the user, simulating the sensation of touch.

gold_nanoparticlesBasically, the gold-polyester nanomaterial experiences changes in conductivity as it is bent, providing an extremely sensitive measure of physical force. Tests conducted on the material showed that it was able to sense pressures ranging from tens of milligrams to tens of grams, which is ten times more sensitive than any sensors being build today.

Even better, the film maintained its sensory resolution after many “bending cycles”, meaning it showed consistent results and would give users a long term of use. Unlike many useful materials that can only really be used under laboratory conditions, this film can operate at very low voltages, meaning that it could be manufactured cheaply and actually be useful in real-world situations.

smart-skin_610x407In their research paper, lead researcher Hossam Haick described the sensors as “flowers, where the center of the flower is the gold or metal nanoparticle and the petals are the monolayer of organic ligands that generally protect it.” The paper also states that in addition to providing pressure information (touch), the sensors in their prototype were also able to sense temperature and humidity.

But of course, a great deal of calibration of the technology is still needed, so that each user’s brain is able to interpret the electronic signals being received from the artificial skin correctly. But this is standard procedure with next-generation prosthetic devices, ones which rely on two-way electronic signals to provide control signals and feedback.

nanorobot1And these are just some examples of how nanotechnology is seeking to improve and enhance our world. When it comes to sensory and mobility, it offers solutions to not only remedy health problems or limitations, but also to enhance natural abilities. But the long-term possibilities go beyond this by many orders of magnitude.

As a cornerstone to the post-singularity world being envisioned by futurists, nanotech offers solutions to everything from health and manufacturing to space exploration and clinical immortality. And as part of an ongoing trend in miniaturization, it presents the possibility of building devices and products that are even tinier and more sophisticated than we can currently imagine.

It’s always interesting how science works by scale, isn’t it? In addition to dreaming large – looking to build structures that are bigger, taller, and more elaborate – we are also looking inward, hoping to grab matter at its most basic level. In this way, we will not only be able to plant our feet anywhere in the universe, but manipulate it on the tiniest of levels.

As always, the future is a paradox, filling people with both awe and fear at the same time.

Sources: extremetech.com, (2), (3)

Glowing Plants and the Future of Gene Patenting

DNA-1Synthetic biology – also known as biohacking – is an emerging and controversial scientific field that uses gene-writing software to compile DNA sequences. And thanks to a recent ruling handed down by the US Supreme Court, it is a process which is now entirely legal. All told, the potential applications of synthetic biology are largely useful, leading to lifesaving cures, or altered crops that survive in any environment.

However, there are numerous potential (and potentially harmful) commercial applications that could emerge from this as well. One such advancement comes from a DIY synthetic biology lab known as Glowing Plant, one that specializes in synthetic bio hacking. Basically, the project was one of many that emerged out of Singularity University – a research institute dedicated future technologies today.

glowing_plantsGlowing Plant was  originally created to show the power of DIY synthetic biology, and has since sets its sights on developing a species of glowing house plant for consumers. To fund their goal, they opened up a Kickstarter campaign – the first of its kind – with the goal of $65,000. Based on research from the University of Cambridge and the State University of New York, the Glowing Plants campaign promised backers that they would receive seeds to grow their own glowing Arabidopsis plants at home.

glowing_plants2Glowing Plant also announced that if the campaign reaches its $400,000 stretch goal, glowing rose plants will also become available. As of the publication of this article, they passed that goal with a whopping $484,013 from a total of 8,433 backers. It seems there are no shortage of people out there who want to get their hands on a glowing house plant.

But Glowing Plant, the laboratory behind the project, has no intention of stopping there. As Antony Evans, co-founder of the project explained:

We wanted to test the idea of whether there is demand for synthetic biology projects. People are fundamentally excited and enthusiastic about synthetic biology.

Given the thousands of people backing the project, I’d say he’s right! But rest assured, Evans and his team have no intention of stopping there. The ultimate goal is to create larger species of glowing plants.

glowing_plants1The method used to achieve this is really quite interesting. It starts with the team downloading the luciferase-lucifern genes – the firefly DNA that allows them to glow – into a Genome Compiler, and then rewiring the DNA so that the proteins can be read by plants. The DNA sequences are then sent off to DNA printing company Cambrian Genomics, which has developed a relatively low-cost laser printing system. Those sequences are printed, put on a little spot of paper, and mailed back to the team.

After that, the team relies on one of two methods to transmit the firefly DNA into the Arabidopsis’ themselves. One way is to use a bacteria solution that is capable of injecting its own DNA into plants and rewriting theirs, which then causes the altered plants to germinate seeds of the new glowing strain. The other involves gold nano-particles coated with a DNA construct that are then fired at the plant cells, which are then absorbed into the plant chromosomes and alters their DNA.

NanoparticlesThis second method was devised to do an end run around specific Department of Agriculture regulations that govern the use of viruses or other pathogens to modify DNA. Though technically legal, the process has attracted resistance from environmental groups and the scientific community, fearing that the DNA of these altered plants will get into the natural gene pool with unknown consequences.

In fact, an anti-synthetic biology group called ECT has emerged in response to this and other such projects – and is centered in my old hometown of Ottawa! They have countered Glowing Plant’s Kickstarter campaign (which is now closed) with a fundraising drive of their own, entitled “Kickstopper”. In addition, the group has started a campaign on Avaaz.org to force the Supreme Court to reconsider the ruling that allows this sort of bioengineering to take place.

At present, their fundraising campaign has raised a total of  $1,701 from 58 backers – rougly 9% of its overall goal of $20,000 – and their Avaaz campaign has collected some 13,000 signatures. With 36 days left, there is no telling if they’re efforts will succeed in forcing a legal injunction on Glowing Plant, or if this is the first of many synthetic biology products that will make it to the market through private research and crowdfunding.

A fascinating time we live in, and potentially frightening…

Sources: fastcoexist.com, (2), kickstarter.com, glowingplant.com

Supercomputer Creates Atomic Model of HIV

DNA-1The ongoing fight to end HIV has been a long and arduous one, but progress is being made. In addition to potential treatments being created that have shown promise, there are also efforts being mounted to understand how the virus works at an atomic level. This is great news, for as any practitioner of medicine will tell you, understanding a disease and knowing how to strike at the heart of it is the key to stopping it and making sure future generations don’t have to fear it.

In recent years, several major breakthroughs were announced for the treatment of HIV, treatments which many heralded as cures. In January of last year, the Danish Research Council awarded funding to a group of researchers who demonstrated that HIV could be “flushed” from infected cells where it tends to congregate and protect itself. Combined with vaccinations that turbocharge the body’s immune system, this method proved effective at eliminating the HIV virus in infected cells.

HIV-budding-ColorAnother came back in November, when researchers at Caltech were even able to successfully spawn a significant amount of HIV antibodies in lab mice by using a new approach, known as Vectored ImmunoProphylaxis (VIP). An inversion of the traditional vaccination method, this new method produced plenty of HIV-preventing antibodies which they believed could be fashioned into a  vaccine.

And finally, there were the experiments being conducted over at the Washington University School of Medicine, where researchers designed a solution that employed bee venom and a nanoparticle delivery system. Knowing that bee venom is capable of killing HIV, and that the virus is thousands of times smaller than your average cell, the solution proved quite effective at filtering out the virus and killing it while leaving surrounding tissue unharmed. Taken together, these two proposed solutions have left many thinking a cure is just around the corner.

blue-waters-super-computer-at-petascale-020908Nevertheless, in order for this virus to truly be beaten, we need to understand it better. Hence why a group of scientists – using the University of Illinois’ “Blue Waters” supercomputer — have developed a new series of computer models that are finally giving researchers an atomic-level look at the formidable barrier mechanism enclosing the heart of the virus.

For example, its been known for some time that the HIV virus it’s covered in several layers of protective proteins. But beneath that outer shell resides a conical structure called the capsid, which houses the virus’ payload of genetic material. (See diagram below.) When HIV invades a cell, it’s the capsid that opens up to initiate the takeover process, allowing the virus to replicate inside the healthy host cell. Better understanding of how this mysterious delivery system operates could be one of the final steps to finding a cure.

HIVAnd that’s where the modelling software really comes into play. How and when the HIV cell opens to deliver the capsid has long eluded researchers, and as Klaus Schulten, a physicist that was part of the team that modeled the virus, pointed out: “The timing of the opening of the capsid is essential for the degree of virulence of the virus.”

Using the Blue Waters, Schulten and his associates managed to map out the model all 64 million of the capsid’s atoms. Through countless simulations, they also discovered that the capsid’s microscopic outer casing is composed of 216 hexagon-shaped proteins that fit together in a honeycomb formation. These hexagonal structures are what give the capsid it’s tough outer shell and allow it to be such a harmful and insidious killer.

AIDS_memorialThis painstakingly delicate process would have been unthinkable until just a few years ago, and represents the most complete picture of the HIV virus to date. What’s more, knowing what HIV looks like at the atomic level will help scientists to understand the timing of the virus’ delivery system. Since the opening of the virus’ protective layer is when it’s most vulnerable, Schulten and his colleagues hope to determine the precise timing of this event so a treatment can be developed that could attacks the virus at this exact moment.

Think of it as throwing a bomb into the mouth of a terrible war machine, right as it opens up its armored maw to bite you! Better yet, think of it as another step on the road to ending one of the greatest plagues humankind has ever had to deal with. Safety for the future, and justice for the victims!

Sources: popularscience.com, theweek.com, (2)