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

Nanotech News: Tiny Propellers for Drug Delivery

NanopropellersThe scientific and medical research communities have been looking to develop robots that measure in the nanometer range (that’s one-billionth of a meter) for quite some time. Being so small, they would be able to perform difficult tasks, such as targeted drug delivery to specific cells, or the elimination of harmful antigens, pathogens or viruses. However, the development of such machines raises numerous challenges.

For one, making them small enough to fit between cells remains tricky, and these tiny bots would also need a propulsion system that will allow them to navigate their way through the human body. But now, in a paper published in the June 2014 issue of ACS Nano, an Israeli and German team announced the creation of the smallest nanobot yet, a magnet-guided corkscrew which is propelled by a tiny helical propeller.

Nanopropellers1The team is comprised of researchers from the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, the Max Planck Institute for Intelligent Systems, and the Institute for Physical Chemistry at the University of Stuttgart, Germany. Led by Dr. Peer Fischer at the Max Planck Institute, the research team created the tiny helical nanopropeller from a filament of silica and nickel that measures just 70 nanometers in diameter and 400 in length.

That’s more than 1,000 times smaller than the width of a human hair, or 100 times smaller than a single red blood cell, making the wee machine the tiniest nanopropeller humanity has ever created. Instead of carrying its own motor, the propeller is powered by an externally-applied weak rotating magnetic field which causes the prop to spin, driving it and its attached payload forward.

nanotech-2In order to test it, the scientist placed it in a hyaluronan gel, which is similar in consistency to bodily fluids. Like those fluids, the gel contains a mesh of entangled long polymer protein chains. In previous studies, larger micrometer-sized propellers got caught in these chains, slowing or completely halting their progress. The new nanoprop, however, was able to move relatively quickly by simply passing through the gaps in the mesh.

The study’s co-author, Associate Professor Alex Leshanksy of the Technion Faculty of Chemical Engineering, said that the nanobots:

actually display significantly enhanced propulsion velocities, exceeding the highest speeds measured in glycerin as compared with micro-propellers, which show very low or negligible propulsion.

The applications for this device certainly include targeted drug delivery, where the nanobots would be equipped with insulin, antibiotics, or even chemotherapy drugs which they could then deliver to specific cells in the body to speed up the delivery process and reduce side-effects. Scientists could also attach “active molecules” to the tips of the propellers, or use the propellers to deliver tiny doses of radiation.

nanobotsThe applications seem wide, varied, and exciting, from combating diabetes to fighting cancer and HIV with surgical precision. And developments like these, though they measure in the billionth of meters, they add up to a future where lives are healthier, longer and more prosperous.

Sources: engadget.com, gizmag.com, ats.org

The Future is Here: Radiowave-Powered Devices

radio-waves-airwaves-spectrumIt sounds like something out of science fiction, using existing existing internet electromagnetic signals to power our devices. But given the concerns surrounding ewaste and toxic materials, anything that could make an impact by eliminating batteries is a welcome idea. And if you live in an urban environment, chances are you’re already cloaked in TV and radio waves invisible that are invisible to the naked eye.

And that’s precisely what researchers at the University of Washington have managed to do. Nine months ago,  Joshua Smith (an associate professor of electrical engineer) and Shyam Gollakota (an assistant professor of computer science and engineering) started investigating how one might harvest energy from TV signals to communicate, and eventually designed two card-like devices that can swap data without using batteries.

wireless-device1Running on what the researchers coined “ambient backscatter,” the device works by capturing existing energy and reflecting it, like a transistor. Currently, our communications and computing devices require a lot of power, even by battery, in order to function. But as Gollakota explains, all of these objects are already creating energy that could be harnessed:

Every object around you is reflecting signals. Imagine you have a desk that is wooden, and it’s reflecting signals, but if you actually make [the desk] iron, it’s going to reflect a much larger amount of energy. We’re trying to replicate that on an analog device.

The new technique is still in its infancy, but shows great promise. Their device transfers data at a rate of one kilobit per second and can only transmit at distances under 2.5 feet. Still, it has exciting implications, they say, for the “Internet of things.” The immediate use for this technology, everything from smart phones to tablets and MP3 players, is certainly impressive.

wireless-deviceBut on their website, the team provides some added examples of applications that they can foresee taking advantage of this technology. Basically, they foresee an age when backscatter devices can be implanted in just about anything ranging from car keys and appliances to structural materials and buildings, allowing people to find them if they get lost, or to be alerting people that there’s some kind of irregularity.

As Smith claimed on the team’s website:

I think the Internet of things looks like many objects that kind of have an identity and state–they can talk to each other. Ultimately, I think people want to view this information… That’s part of the vision. There will be information about objects in the physical world that we can access.

The energy harvester they used for the paper, which they presented at the Association for Computing Machinery’s Special Interest Group on Data Communication in Hong Kong, requires 100 microwatts to turn on, but the team says it has a design that can run on as low as 15 microwatts. Meanwhile, the technique is already capable of communicating location, identity, and sensor data, and is sure to increase in range as efficiency improves.

vortex-radio-waves-348x196The University of Washington presentation took home “best paper” in Hong Kong, and researchers say they’re excited to start exploring commercial applications. “We’ve had emails from different places–sewer systems, people who have been constrained by the fact that you need to recharge things,” Gollakota says. “Our goal for next six months is to increase the data rate it can achieve.”

Combined with Apple’s development of wireless recharging, this latest piece of technology could be ushering in an age of  wireless and remotely powered devices. Everything from smartphones, tablets, implants, and even household appliances could all be running on the radio waves that are already permeating our world. All that ambient radiation we secretly worry is increasing our risks of cancer would finally be put to good use!

And in the meantime, enjoy this video of the UofW’s backscatter device in action:

Nukemap 3D: Bringing Nuclear War to your Home!

nukemap3Ever wonder what it would look like if a thermonuclear device hit your hometown? Yeah, me neither! But let’s pretend for a moment that this is something you’ve actually considered… sicko! There’s an online browser-based program for that! It’s called Nukemap3D, and uses a Google Earth plug in to produce a set of graphics that show the effects of a nuclear weapon on your city of choice.

All you have to do is pick your target, select your favorite thermonuclear device, and you can see an animated mushroom cloud rising over ground zero. The creator was Dr. Alex Wellerstein, an Associate Historian at the Center for History of Physics at the American Institute of Physics in College Park, Maryland, who specializes in the history of nuclear weapons and nuclear secrecy.

nukemap3-1Interestingly enough, Wellerstein’s inspiration for developing Nukemap 3D came from his experience of trying to teach about the history of nuclear weapons to undergraduates. As people who had completely missed the Cold War, these students naturally didn’t think about the prospect of nuclear war much, and had little to no cultural association with them.

Events like Hiroshima and the Cuban Missile Crisis were essentially ancient history to them. For him and his wife, who teaches high school, it was always a challenge to get students to relate to these issues from the past and seeing how they related to the present. Specifically, he wanted his students to address the larger issue of how one controls a dangerous technology that others find desirable.

nukemap3-2And given how inundated young people are today with technology, he believed an online browser that allowed children to visualize the effects of a nuclear attack seemed just like the thing. The concept originally grew out of his own research to determine the size of the Hiroshima bomb versus the first hydrogen bomb versus a modern nuclear weapon.

After producing a web page with the relevant info in 2012, he began receiving millions of hits and felt the need to expand on it. One of the things he felt was missing was info on additional effects of nuclear blasts, such as radioactive debris that comes down as fallout, contamination that can extend for hundreds of kilometers in all directions, and how this can spread with prevailing winds.

NuclearDetonationsIn addition to being a pedagogical tool which can help students appreciate what life was like during the Cold War, Wellerstein also hopes his site could help combat misinformation about modern nukes. All too often, people assume that small devices – like those being developed by North Korea – could only cause small-scale damage, unaware of the collateral damage and long-term effects.

Another use of the program is in helping to combat ideas of “instant apocalypse” and other misconceptions about nuclear war. As we move farther and farther away from an age in which nuclear holocaust was a distinct possibility, people find themselves turning to movies and pop culture for their information on what nuclear war looks like. In these scenarios, the end result is always apocalyptic, and by and large, this is not the case.

nuclear1In a war where nuclear confrontation is likely, civilization does not simply come to an end and mutants do not begin roaming the Earth. In reality, it will mean mass destruction within a certain area and tens of thousands of deaths. This would be followed by mass evacuations of the surrounding areas, the creation of field hospitals and refugee camps, and an ongoing state of emergency.

In short, a nuclear exchange would not means the instantaneous end of civilization as we know it. Instead, it would lead to an extended period of panic, emergency measures, the presence of NGOs, humanitarian aid workers, and lots and lots of people in uniform. And the effects would be felt long after the radiation cleared and the ruins were rebuilt, and the memory would be slow to fade.

Hiroshima, after the blast
Hiroshima, after the blast

Basically, Wellerstein created Nukemap 3D in the hope of finding a middle ground between under exaggeration and over exaggeration, seeking to combat the effects of misinformation on both fronts. In a nuclear war, no one is left unaffected; but at the same time, civilization doesn’t just come to an abrupt end. As anyone who survived the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki can attest, life does go on after a nuclear attack.

 

The effects are felt for a very long time, and the scars run very deep. And as those who actually witnessed what a nuclear blast looks like (or lived in fear of one) grow old and pass on, people need to be educated on what it entails. And a graphic representation, one that utilizes the world’s most popular form of media, is perhaps the most effective way of doing that.

In the meantime, be sure to check out Nukemap 3D and see exactly what your hometown would look like if it were hit by a nuclear device. It’s quite… eye-opening!

Source: gizmag.com

 

What Would Hyperspace Really Look Like?

hyperspaceRemember those iconic scenes in Star Wars when the Millennium Falcon made the jump to hyperspace? Remember how cool it looked when the star field stretched out and then the ships blasted off? And of course, every episode of Star Trek was punctuated by a jump to warp, where once again, the background stars seemed to stretch out and then hurl on past the Enterprise.

Yes, for generations, this is how people envisioned Faster-Than-Light travel. Whether it consisted of rainbow-colored streaks shooting past, or a quick distortion followed by a long, blue tunnel of bright light, these perceptions have become a staple of science fiction. But one has to wonder… in a universe where FTL was really possible, would it really look anything like this?

hyperspace3Using Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, four students from the University of Leicester produced a paper in January of last year where they theorized what a jump to light-speed would really look like. Based on the theory that the speed of light is the absolute threshold at which elementary particles can move in this universe, the four students – Riley Connors, Katie Dexter, Joshua Argyle, and Cameron Scoular – claimed that a ship that can exceed c would have an interesting view.

In short, they claim that the crew wouldn’t see star lines stretching out past the ship during the jump to hyperspace, but would actually see a central disc of bright light. This is due to the Doppler effect, specifically the Doppler blue shift, that results in the wavelength of electromagnetic radiation, including visible light, shortening as the source of the light moves towards the observer.

Hyperspace. Nuff said?
Hyperspace. Nuff said?

As the ship made the jump to hyperspace, the wavelength of the light from the stars would shift out of the visible spectrum into the X-ray range. Meanwhile, Cosmic Background Radiation (CBR), which is thermal radiation that is spread fairly uniformly across the universe and is thought to be left over from the Big Bang, would shift into the visible spectrum, appearing to the crew as a central disc of bright light.

What’s more, even a ship like the Millennium Falcon would require additional energy to overcome the pressure exerted from the intense X-rays from stars that would push the ship back and cause it to slow down. The students say the pressure exerted on the ship would be comparable to that felt at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean.

red-shift-03However, if the ship in question took its time getting up to speeds in excess of the speed of light, there would be some interesting visual effects. Given how light and the color spectrum works, as a ship continued to speed up, the stars in front of the ship would experience blueshift (shifting towards the blue end of the spectrum), while those behind it would experience redshift (shifting towards the red end).

But the moment the threshold of light speed was passed, background radiation would be all that was left to see. And once that happened, the crew would experience some rather intense radiation exposure. As Connors put it:

If the Millennium Falcon existed and really could travel that fast, sunglasses would certainly be advisable. On top of this, the ship would need something to protect the crew from harmful X-ray radiation.

And as Dexter suggested, referring to Disney’s purchase of Lucasfilm for a cool $4.05 billion: “Disney should take the physical implications of such high speed travel into account in their forthcoming films.” I won’t be holding my breath on that one. Somehow, star lines look so much cooler than a mottled, bright disc in the background, don’t you think?

Hyperspace_HomeOneSources: gizmag.com, le.ac.uk.com

News From Mars: Revelations on Radiation

mars_astronauts1As the projected date for a manned mission to the Red Planet approaches, the Mars Science Laboratory and Curiosity team continue to conduct vital research into what a human team of explorers can expect to find. Unfortunately, earlier last month, that research led to a discouraging announcement which may force NASA and a number of private companies to rethink their plans for manned missions.

Earlier in May, a number of scientists, NASA officials, private space company representatives and other members of the spaceflight community gathered in Washington D.C. for a three day meeting known as the Humans to Mars (H2M) conference. Hosted by the spaceflight advocacy group Explore Mars, the attendees met to discuss all the challenges that a 2030 manned mission would likely encounter.

mars_astronautsFor starters, the human race currently lacks the technology to get people to Mars and back. An interplanetary mission of that scale would likely be one of the most expensive and difficult engineering challenges of the 21st century. Currently, we don’t have the means to properly store enough fuel to make the trip, or a vehicle capable of landing people on the Martian surface. Last, and most importantly, we aren’t entirely sure that a ship will keep the astronauts alive long enough to get there.

This last issue was raised thanks to a recent confirmation made by the Curiosity rover, which finished calculating the number of high-energy particles that struck it during its eight month journey to Mars. Based on this data, NASA says that a human traveling to and from Mars could well be exposed to a radiation dose that is beyond current safety limits.

NASAsolar_radiationThis was performed with the rover’s Radiation Assessment Detector (RAD) instrument, which switched on inside as the cruise vessel began its 253-day, 560-million-km journey. The particles of concern fall into two categories – those that are accelerated away from our Sun and galactic cosmic rays (GCRs) – those that arrive at high velocity from outside of the Solar System. This latter category is especially dangerous since they impart a lot of energy when they strike the human body, can cause damage to DNA and are hard to shield against.

What’s more, this calculation does not even include time spent on the planet’s surface. Although Curiosity has already determined that planetary levels were within human tolerances, the combined dosage would surely lead to a fatal case of cancer for any career astronaut looking to take part in an “Ares Mission”. Cary Zeitlin from the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado, and colleagues reported the Curiosity findings in the latest edition of Science magazine.

They claim that engineers will have to give careful consideration to the type of shielding that will need to be built into a Mars-bound crew ship. However, they concede that for some of the most damaging radiation particles, there may be little that can be done, beyond delivering them to Mars as quickly as possible. This presents an even greater challenge, which calls for the development of something better than existing propulsion technology. Using chemical propellants, Curiosity made the trip in eight months.

spaceX_elonmusk However, the good news is that at this juncture, nothing is technologically impossible about a manned Mars mission. It’s just a matter of determining what the priorities are and putting the time and money into developing the necessary tools. Right now NASA, other space agencies, and private companies are working to bring Mars within reach. And with time and further developments, who knows what will be possible by the time the 2020’s roll around?

Some alternatives include plasma and nuclear thermal rockets, which are in development and could bring the journey time down to a number of weeks. What’s more, SpaceX and other agencies are working on cheaper deliver systems, such as the grasshopper reusable rocket, to make sending ships into space that much more affordable. In addition, concepts for improving radiation shielding – like Inspiration Mars’ idea of using human waste – are being considered to cut down on the irradiation factor.

So despite the concerns, it seems that we are still on track for a Mars mission in 2030. And even if there are delays in the implementation, it seems as though a manned mission is just a matter of time at this point. Red Planet, here we come!

Sources: bbc.co.uk, wired.com

Towards a Cleaner Future: The Molten Salt Reactor

nuclear-power

What if you heard that there was such a thing as a 500 Megawatt reactor that was clean, safe, cheap, and made to order? Well, considering that 500 MWs is the close to the annual output of a dirty coal power station, you might think it sounded too good to be true. But that’s the nature of technological innovations and revolutions, which the nuclear industry has been in dire need of in recent years.

While it is true that the widespread use of nuclear energy could see to humanity’s needs through to the indefinite future, the cost of assembling and maintaining so many facilities is highly prohibitive. What’s more, in the wake of the Fukushima disaster, nuclear power has suffered a severe image problem, spurred on by lobbyists from other industries who insist that their products are safer and cheaper to maintain, and not prone to meltdowns!

Nuclear MOX plant : recycling nuclear waste : Submerged Spent Fuel Elements with Blue Glow

As a result of all this, the stage now seems set for a major breakthrough, and researchers at MIT and Transatomic’s own Russ Wilcox seems to be stepping up to provide it. Last year, Wilcox said in an interview with Forbes that it was “a fabulous time to do a leapfrog move”. Sounded like a bold statement at the time, but recently, Transatomic went a step further and claimed it was mobilizing its capital to make the leap happen.

Basically, the plan calls for the creation of a new breed of nuclear reactor, one which is miniaturized and still produces a significant amount of mega-wattage. Such efforts have been mounted in the past, mainly in response to the fact that scaling reactors upwards has never resulted in increased production. In each case, however, the resulting output was quite small, usually on the order of 200 MW.

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Enter into this the Transatomic’s Molten Salt Reactor (MSR), a design that is capable of producing half the power of a large-scale reactor, but in a much smaller package. In addition, MSRs possess a number of advantages, not the least of which are safety and cost. For starters, they rely on coolants like flouride or chloride salts instead of light or heavy water, which negates the need to pressurize the system and instantly reduces the dangers associated with super-heated, pressurized liquids.

What’s more, having the fuel-coolant mixture at a reasonable pressure also allows the mixture to expand, which ensures that if overheating does take place, the medium will simply expand to the point that the fuel atoms too far apart to continue a nuclear reaction. This is what is called a “passive safety system”, one that kicks in automatically and does not require a full-scale shutdown in the event that something goes wrong.

moltensalt_reactor1

Last, but not least, is the addition of the so-called freeze plug – an actively cooled barrier that melts in the event of a power failure, leading all nuclear material to automatically drain into a reinforced holding tank. These reactors are “walk away safe,” meaning that in the event of a power failure, accident, or general strike, the worst that could happen is a loss of service. In a post-Fukushima industry such disaster-proof measures simply must be the future of nuclear power.

Then, there is the costs factor. Transatomic claims their reactor will be capable of pumping out 500 megawatts for a total initial cost of about $1.7 billion, compared to 1000 megawatts for an estimated $7 billion. That’s about half the cost per megawatt, and the new reactor would also be small enough to be built in a central factory and then shipped to its destination, rather than requiring a multi-year construction project to build the plant and reactor on site.

The project has raised $1 million dollars of investment so far, and Transatomic appears to be putting all their eggs in this one basket. Their researchers also claim their design is production-ready and they are just waiting for orders to come in. And given the current energy crisis, it’s not likely to be long before government and industry comes knocking!

Source: Extremetech.com