In the past few years, medical science has produced some pretty impressive breakthroughs for those suffering from partial paralysis, but comparatively little for those who are fully paralyzed. However, in recent years, nerve-stimulation that bypasses damaged or severed nerves has been proposed as a potential solution. This is the concept behind the NEUWalk, a project pioneered by the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) in Switzerland.
Here, researchers have figured out a way to reactivate the severed spinal cords of fully paralyzed rats, allowing them to walk again via remote control. And, the researchers say, their system is just about ready for human trials. The project operates on the notion that the human body requires electricity to function. The brain moves the body by sending electrical signals down the spinal cord and into the nervous system.
When the spinal cord is severed, the signals can no longer reach that part of the spine, paralysing that part of the body. The higher the cut, the greater the paralysis. But an electrical signal sent directly through the spinal cord below a cut via electrodes can take the place of the brain signal, as the team at EPFL, led by neuroscientist Grégoire Courtine, has discovered.
Previous studies have had some success in using epidural electrical stimulation (EES) to improve motor control where spinal cord injuries are concerned. However, electrically stimulating neurons to allow for natural walking is no easy task, and it requires extremely quick and precise stimulation. And until recently, the process of controlling the pulse width, amplitude and frequency in EES treatment was done manually.
This simply isn’t practical, and for two reasons: For starters, it is very difficult for a person to manually adjust the level of electrostimulation they require to move their legs as they are trying to walk. Second, the brain does not send electrical signals in an indiscriminate stream to the nerves. Rather, the frequency of the electrical stimulation varies based on the desired movement and neurological command.
To get around this, the team carefully studied all aspects of how electrical stimulation affects a rat’s leg movements – such as its gait – and was therefore able to figure out how to stimulate the rat’s spine for a smooth, even movement, and even take into account obstacles such as stairs. To do this, the researchers put paralyzed rats onto a treadmill and supported them with a robotic harness.
After several weeks of testing, the researchers had mapped out how to stimulate the rats’ nervous systems precisely enough to get them to put one paw in front of the other. They then developed a robust algorithm that could monitor a host of factors like muscle action and ground reaction force in real-time. By feeding this information into the algorithm, EES impulses could be precisely controlled, extremely quickly.
The next step involved severing the spinal cords of several rats in the middle-back, completely paralyzing the rats’ lower limbs, and implanted flexible electrodes into the spinal cord at the point where the spine was severed to allow them to send electrical signals down to the severed portion of the spine. Combined with the precise stimulation governed by their algorithm, the researcher team created a closed-loop system that can make paralyzed subjects mobile.
As Grégoire Courtine said of the experiment:
We have complete control of the rat’s hind legs. The rat has no voluntary control of its limbs, but the severed spinal cord can be reactivated and stimulated to perform natural walking. We can control in real-time how the rat moves forward and how high it lifts its legs.
Clinical trials on humans may start as early as June 2015. The team plans to start testing on patients with incomplete spinal cord injuries using a research laboratory called the Gait Platform, housed in the EPFL. It consists of a custom treadmill and overground support system, as well as 14 infrared cameras that read reflective markers on the patient’s body and two video cameras for recording the patient’s movement.
Silvestro Micera, a neuroengineer and co-author of the study, expressed hope that this study will help lead the way towards a day when paralysis is no longer permanent. As he put it:
Simple scientific discoveries about how the nervous system works can be exploited to develop more effective neuroprosthetic technologies. We believe that this technology could one day significantly improve the quality of life of people confronted with neurological disorders.
Without a doubt, restoring ambulatory ability to people who have lost limbs or suffered from spinal cord injuries is one of the many amazing possibilities being offered by cutting-edge medical research. Combined with bionic prosthetics, gene therapies, stem cell research and life-extension therapies, we could be looking at an age where no injury is permanent, and life expectancy is far greater.
And in the meantime, be sure to watch this video from the EPFL showing the NEUWalk technology in action:
In the past few years, medical researchers have been able to replicate real, living tissues samples using 3-D printing technology – ranging from replacement ears and printed cartilage to miniature kidneys and even liver cells. Well now, thanks to a team of researchers from the University of Cambridge, eye cells have been added to that list.
Using a standard ink-jet printer to form layers of two types of cells, the research team managed to print two types of central nervous system cells from the retinas of adult rats – ganglion cells (which transmit information from the eye to the brain), and glial cells (which provide protection and support for neurons). The resulting cells were able to grow normally and remain healthy in culture.
Ink-jet printing has been used to deposit cells before, but this is the first time cells from an adult animal’s central nervous system have been printed. The research team published its research in the IOP Publishing’s open-access journal Biofabrication and plans to extend this study to print other cells of the retina and light-sensitive photoreceptors.
In the report, Keith Martin and Barbara Lorber – the co-authors of the paper who work at the John van Geest Centre for Brain Repair at the University of Cambridge – explained the experiment in detail:
Our study has shown, for the first time, that cells derived from the mature central nervous system, the eye, can be printed using a piezoelectric inkjet printer. Although our results are preliminary and much more work is still required, the aim is to develop this technology for use in retinal repair in the future.
This is especially good news for people with impaired visual acuity, or those who fear losing their sight, as it could lead to new therapies for retinal disorders such as blindness and macular degeneration. Naturally, more tests are needed before human trials can begin. But the research and its conclusions are quite reassuring that eye cells can not only be produced synthetically, but will remain healthy after they are produced.
Clara Eaglen, a spokesperson for the Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB), had this to say about the breakthrough:
The key to this research, once the technology has moved on, will be how much useful vision is restored. Even a small bit of sight can make a real difference, for some people it could be the difference between leaving the house on their own or not. It could help boost people’s confidence and in turn their independence.
Combined with bionic eyes that are now approved for distribution in the US, and stem cell treatments that have restores sight in mice, this could be the beginning of the end of blindness. And with all the strides being made in bioprinting and biofabrication, it could also be another step on the long road to replacement organs and print-on-demand body parts.
Stem cell research has been expanding impressively in recent years, and the range of applications has been growing accordingly. And while all are impressive and useful, some are – admittedly – odd and even a tad gross. One such application is the one that was recently unveiled in China, where a team of biologists are using stem cells harvested from human urine to grow structures in mice that resemble teeth.
The team, led by Duanqing Pei and Jinglei Cai from the Guangzhou Institute of Biomedicine and Health, had announced back in 2011 that it had successfully reprogrammed skin-like cells from the kidneys, found in urine, to turn into pluripotent stem (iPS) cells. As researchers have known for some time, these iPS cells can be tweaked to become pretty much any human cell in the body.
In a paper produced by the Guangzhou biomedical team – which appeared in the peer-reviewed, open access journal Cell Regeneration last week – they claim the ability to “regenerate teeth with patients’ own cells” is an “ideal solution” to the loss of teeth through accidents or disease. As just one of many applications of stem cell research, the aim is to create synthetic biological tissues that can replace artificial implants.
Once the cell sheets formed into epithelial tissue – the kind of cells found in human skin and teeth – they implanted them with tissue from the jaw of a mouse embryo (to encourage it to grow into a tooth) in the kidney of a mouse. Three weeks later, they noted that the human tissue had turned into cells called ameloblasts that secrete enamel, the hard, bone-like substance on the outside of the tooth.
The result was a series of tooth-like structures which possessed the hardness “found in the regular human tooth”, which were then harvested. Assuming that this approach could be scaled to involve dozens of mice across thousands of labs, artificial teeth could be mass produced and then be made available to dental clinics all over the world.
However, the real innovation came with the new method that the research team devised to get around some flaws in the traditional method. This method, which involves inserting the stem cells into blanket cells via a genetically engineered retrovirus, can lead to a destabilization of the cell genome, rendering the tissue unpredictable, susceptible to mutations and thus a liability.
Hence why Pei and his team opted for another route, one which they claim presents a safer, faster alternative. Having extracted kidney epithelial cells from the urine of three donors, the team used vectors — a type of DNA molecule useful in transporting genetic information from cell to cell. This allowed them to transport the genetic information without having to integrate the new genes into the chromosome of the kidney cell.
According to their paper, this process may be partly responsible for the aforementioned mutations in the first place. And once they tested out their new process, it took only 12 days for the pluripotent stem cells to form in a petri dish – roughly half the time it takes using the traditional approach.
William Stanford – a University of Ottawa researcher who holds a Canada Research Chair in integrative stem cell biology – indicated that their approach is not entirely now. Growing various kinds of human tissues inside a mouse kidney is a common technique used by stem cell biologists, Stanford said. In the course of doing so, researchers will occasionally grow what looks like teeth by accident.
However, the Guangzhou team have modified the technique to grow teeth intentionally. And their approach is an improvement in that it does not require skin samples to be harvested by the human subject (a common practice at the moment). Using urine-harvested stem cells only requires that they pee into a cup, and the turnaround time is a matter of weeks instead of months.
Good news for anyone who is missing some chomper, or feels self-conscious about crooked or chipped teeth and can’t afford those expensive, porcelain implants. What’s more, teeth are really just the tip of the iceberg. In time, other organic tissues could be grown as well, allowing for further developments in the already exciting field artificial organ generation.
According to a recent study in Nature Biotechnology, a significant leap has been made towards the curing of blindness. Using stem cells, researchers at the Moorfields Eye Hospital and University College London claim that the part of the eye which actually detects light can be repaired. An animal study revealed that it could be done, and human trials are now a realistic prospect.
Experts described it as a “significant breakthrough” and “huge leap” forward, and for good reason. In the past, stem cell research has shown that the photoreceptors in the eye that degrade over time can be kept healthy and alive longer. But this latest trial shows that the light-sensing cells themselves can be replaced, raising the prospect of reversing blindness.
The Moorfields research team used a new technique for building retinas in the laboratory, collecting thousands of stem cells, which were primed to transform into photoreceptors, and injecting them into the eyes of blind mice. The study showed that these cells could hook up with the existing architecture of the eye and begin to function.
However, with ongoing trials, the results remain limited. Of the 200,000 or so stem cells injected into the eyes of the blind mice, only about 1,000 cells actually hooked up with the rest of the eye. Still, the margin for success and the fact that they were able to rehabilitate receptors thought to be dead was quite the accomplishment.
As lead researcher Prof. Robin Ali told the BBC News website:
This is a real proof of concept that photoreceptors can be transplanted from an embryonic stem cells source and it give us a route map to now do this in humans. That’s why we’re so excited, five years is a now a realistic aim for starting a clinical trial.
The eye remains one of the most advanced fields of stem cell research, with clinical trials aiming to correct macular degeneration, astigmatism, and other degenerative and inherited traits. And compared to other fields, like neurological disorders and impairments, it is a relatively simple one. Hence, much less cells would also be needed to make a difference, as opposed to other organs, like a failing liver or kidney.
Whereas reversing something like dementia requires stem cells to hook up and repair far more cells across the brain, light sensing cells are easier to deal with, since they only have to pass their electrical message to one or more cells. What’s more, the immune system is relatively weak in the eye, which means the chances for stem cell rejection.
As Chris Mason, a Professor from the University College London, told the BBC:
I think they have made a major step forward here, but the efficiency is still too low for clinical uses. At the moment the numbers of tiny and it will take quite a bit of work to get the numbers up and then the next question is ‘Can you do it in man?’ But I think it is a significant breakthrough which may lead to cell therapies and will give a much expanded knowledge on how to cure blindness.
In short, the results are encouraging and human trials could begin within five years. And given the likelihood for success, blindness could very become a thing of the past within a decade or so.
Welcome everyone to my first special-request piece! As some of you who read this blog regularly may know, I was recently done a solid by a friend who brought the existence of my latest book (Whiskey Delta) to the attention of Max Brooks, Mr. World War Z man himself! Because of this, I told him he was entitled to favor, redeemable whenever he saw fit. Especially if the favor he did me allowed me to make it big!
Much to my surprise, he called it in early. Yes, instead of waiting for me to become a success and demanding 50 grand and pony, he asked that I do a tribute piece in honor of Israeli Independence Day, one that acknowledges the collective scientific, medical and technological achievements of this nation.
So hang tight. Not the easiest thing in the world to sum up an entire nation’s contributions in several fields, but I shall try. And for the sake of convenience, I broke them down into alphabetical order. So to my Israeli readers and those with family in the Levant, Shalom Aleichem, and here we go!
Aerospace: When it comes to space-based research, aviation and aeronautics, Israel has made many contributions and is distinguished as one of the few nations outside of the – outside of the major space players – that is able to build and launch its own communications, navigation and observation satellites. This is performed through the Israel Aerospace Industries(IAI), Israel’s largest military engineering company, in cooperation with the Israel Space Agency, which was created in 1982.
What’s more, Technion, the Israeli Institute of Technology, is home to the Asher Space Research Institute (ASRI), which is unique in Israel as a university-based center of space research. In 1998, the Institute built and launched its own satellite – known as the Gerwin-II TechSAT – in July 1998 to provide communications, remote sensing and research services for the nation’s scientists.
Israel’s first ever satellite, Ofeq-1, was built and launched using the locally-built Shavit launch vehicle on September 19, 1988. Over the course of its operational history, Ofeq-1 has made important contributions in a number of areas in space research, including laser communication, research into embryo development and osteoporosis in space, pollution monitoring, and mapping geology, soil and vegetation in semi-arid environments.
AMOS-1 and AMOS-2, which were launched in 1996 and 2003 respectively. AMOS-1 is a geostationary satellite that also has the honor of being Israel’s first commercial communications satellite, built primarily for direct-to-home television broadcasting, TV distribution and VSAT services. AMOS-2, which belongs to the Spacecom Satellite Communications company, provides satellite telecommuncations services to countries in Europe, the Middle East and Africa.
Additional space-based projects include the TAUVEX telescope, the VENUS microsatellite, and the MEIDEX (Mediterranean – Israel Dust Experiment), which were produced and launched in collaboration the Indian Space Research Organizations (ISRO), France’s CNES, and NASA, repsectively. In addition to conducting research on background UV radiation, these satellites are also responsible for monitoring vegetation and the distribution and physical properties of atmospheric desert dust over the a large segment of the globe.
Ilan Ramon, Israel’s first astronaut, was also a member of the crew that died aboard the Space Shuttle Columbia. Ramon was selected as the missions Payload Specialist and trained at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, from 1998 until 2003. Among other experiments, Ramon was responsible for the MEIDEX project in which he took pictures of atmospheric aerosol (dust) in the Mediterranean. His death was seen as a national tragedy and mourned by people all over the world.
According to the Thomson Reuters agency, in a 2009 poll, Israel was ranked 2nd among the 20 top countries in space sciences.
Alternative Fuel and Clean Energy: When it comes to developing alternative sources of energy, Israel is a leader in innovation and research. In fact – and due in no small part to its lack of conventional energy resources – Israel has become the world’s largest per capita user of solar power, with 90% of Israeli homes use solar energy for hot water, the highest per capita in the world.
Much of this research is performed by the Ben-Gurion National Solar Energy Center, a part of the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (in Beersheba). Pictured above is the Ben-Gurion parabolic solar power dish, the largest of its kind in the world. In addition, the Weizman Institute of Science, in central Israel, is dedicated to research and development in the field of solar technology and recently developed a high-efficiency receiver to collect concentrated sunlight, which will enhance the use of solar energy in industry as well.
Outside of solar, Israel is also heavily invested in the fields of wind energy, electric cars, and waste management. For example, Israel is one of the few nations in the world that has a nationwide network of recharching stations to facilitate the charging and exchange of car batteries. Denmark and Australia have studied the infrastructure and plan to implement similar measures in their respective countries. In 2010, Technion also established the Grand Technion Energy Program (GTEP), a multidisciplinary task-force that is dedicated to alternative fuels, renewable energy sources, energy storage and conversion, and energy conservation.
Private companies also play a role in development, such as the Arrow Ecology company’s development of the ArrowBio process, which takes trash directly from collection trucks and separates organic from inorganic materials. The system is capable of sorting huge volumes of solid waste (150 tons a day), salvaging recyclables, and turning the rest into biogas and rich agricultural compost. The system has proven so successful in the Tel-Aviv area that it has been adopted in California, Australia, Greece, Mexico, and the United Kingdom.
Health and Medicine: Israel also boasts an advanced infrastructure of medical and paramedical research and bioengineering facilities. In terms of scientific publications, studies in the fields of biotechnology, biomedical, and clinical research account for over half of the country’s scientific papers, and the industrial sector has used this extensive knowledge to develop pharmaceuticals, medical equipment and treatment therapies.
In terms of stem cell research, Israel has led the world in the publications of research papers, patents and studies per capita since the year 2000. The first steps in the development of stem cell studies occurred in Israel, with research in this field dating back to studies of bone marrow stem cells in the early 1960s. In 2011, Israeli scientist Inbar Friedrich Ben-Nun led a team which produced the first stem cells from endangered species, a breakthrough that could save animals in danger of extinction.
Numerous sophisticated medical advancements for both diagnostic and treatment purposes has been developed in Israel and marketed worldwide, such as computer tomography (CT) scanners, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) systems, ultrasound scanners, nuclear medical cameras, and surgical lasers. Other innovations include a device to reduce both benign and malignant swellings of the prostate gland and a miniature camera encased in a swallowable capsule used to diagnose gastrointestinal disease.
Israel is also a leading developer of prosthetics and powered exoskeletons, technologies designed to restore mobility to amputees and people born without full ambulatory ability. Examples include the SmartHand, a robotic prosthetic hand developed through collaboration between Israeli and European scientists. ReWalk is another famous example, a powered set of legs that help paraplegics and those suffering from partial paralysis to achieve bipedal motion again.
Science and Tech: In addition, Israeli universities are among 100 top world universities in mathematics (Hebrew University, TAU and Technion), physics (TAU, Hebrew University and Weizmann Institute of Science), chemistry (Technion and Weizmann Institute of Science), computer science (Weizmann Institute of Science, Technion, Hebrew University, TAU and BIU) and economics (Hebrew University and TAU).
Israel is also home to some of the most prestigious and advanced scientific research institutions in the world. These include the Bar-Ilan University, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, the University of Haifa, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology, Tel Aviv University and the Weizmann Institute of Science, Rehovot, the Volcani Institute of Agricultural Research in Beit Dagan, the Israel Institute for Biological Research and the Soreq Nuclear Research Center.
Israel has also produced many Noble Prize Laureates over the years, four of whom won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry. These include Avram Hershko and Aaron Ciechanover of the Technion, two of three researchers who were responsible for the discovery ubiquitin-mediated protein degradation in 2004. In 2009, Ada Yonath of the Weizmann Institute of Science was one of the winners for studies of the structure and function of the ribosome. In 2011, Dan Shechtman of the Technion was awarded the prize for the discovery of quasicrystals.
In the social sciences, the Nobel Prize for Economics was awarded to Daniel Kahneman in 2002, and to Robert Aumann of the Hebrew University in 2005. Additionally, the 1958 Medicine laureate, Joshua Lederberg, was born to Israeli Jewish parents, and 2004 Physics laureate, David Gross, grew up partly in Israel, where he obtained his undergraduate degree.
In 2007, the United Nations General Assembly’s Economic and Financial Committee adopted an Israeli-sponsored draft resolution that called on developed countries to make their knowledge and know-how accessible to the developing world as part of the UN campaign to eradicate hunger and dire poverty by 2015. The initiative is an outgrowth of Israel’s many years of contributing its know-how to developing nations, especially Africa, in the spheres of agriculture, fighting desertification, rural development, irrigation, medical development, computers and the empowerment of women.
Water Treatment: And last, but certainly not least, Israel is a leader in water technology, due again to its geography and dependence and lack of resources. Every year, Israel hosts the Water Technology Exhibition and Conference (WaTec) that attracts thousands of people from across the world and showcases examples of innovation and development designed to combat water loss and increase efficiency.
Drip irrigation, a substantial agricultural modernization, was one such developed which comes from in Israel and saved countless liters of farm water a year. Many desalination and recycling processes have also emerged out of Israel, which has an abundance of salt water (such as in the Dead Sea and Mediterranean), but few large sources of freshwater. The Ashkelon seawater reverse osmosis (SWRO) plant, the largest in the world, was voted ‘Desalination Plant of the Year’ in the Global Water Awards in 2006.
In 2011, Israel’s water technology industry was worth around $2 billion a year with annual exports of products and services in the tens of millions of dollars. The International Water Association has also cited Israel as one of the leaders in innovative methods to reduce “nonrevenue water,” (i.e., water lost in the system before reaching the customer). By the end of 2013, 85 percent of the country’s water consumption will be from reverse osmosis, and as a result of innovations in this field, Israel is set to become a net exporter in the coming years.
It’s hard to sum up the accomplishments of an entire nation, even one as young and as geographically confined as Israel. But I sincerely hope this offering has done some justice to the breadth and width of Israel’s scientific achievements. Having looked though the many fields and accomplishments that have been made, I have noticed two key features which seem to account for their level of success:
Necessity: It’s no secret that Israel has had a turbulent history since the foundation of the modern nation in 1948. Due to the ongoing nature of conflict with its neighbors and the need to build armaments when they were not always available, Israel was forced to establish numerous industries and key bits of infrastructure to produce them. This has had the predictable effect of spilling over and inspiring developments in the civilian branches of commerce and development as well. What’s more, Israel’s location in a very arid and dry region of the world with few natural resources to speak of have also demanded a great deal of creativity and specialized resource management. This in turn has led to pioneering work in the fields of energy, sustainable development and agricultural practices which are becoming more and more precious as Climate Change, population growth, hunger and drought effect more and more of the world.
Investment: Israel is also a nation that invests heavily in its people and infrastructure. Originally established along strongly socialist principles, Israel has since abandoned many of its establishment era practices – such as kibbutz and equality of pay – in favor of a regulated free market with subsidized education and health care for all. This has led to a successive wave of generations that are strong, educated, and committed to innovation and development. And with competition and collaboration abroad, not to mention high demand for innovation, this has gone to good use.
And with that, I shall take my leave and wish my Israeli readers at home and abroad a happy belated Independence Day! May peace and understanding be upon you and us all as we walk together into the future. Shalom Aleichem!
The field of biotech has been making some very interesting strides of late. First there was the medusoid, a cybernetic jellyfish that used electric current and real muscle tissue over a synthetic to generate movement. Then there was the creation of world’s first true cyborg flesh, where Harvard University researchers merged rat flesh and nanowires to create augmented” tissue. This was followed shortly thereafter by the creation of a remote controlled cyborg cockroach.
These are just the tip of the iceberg however, with the most impressive research and development in the field of biotech still yet to be unveiled. However, this most recent breakthrough is a real game-changer which is sure to lead in some new and interesting directions. This would be the creation, by scientists working at Kyoto University, of the world’s first animal crated entirely from stem cells.
Apparently, the research team produced mouse eggs using stem cells alone, and this comes on the heals of a previous accomplishment where the same team produced mouse sperm using the same methods. This allowed them to fertilize and create mice entirely by artificial means. While this presents a great deal of potential for stem cells research and its regenerative potential, there are those who worry that this might signal new and frightening possibilities for human procreation. If it’s possible to create human ova and sperm in the same way, could we be entering an age when human parents are no longer needed to create a child?
This represents the next step for Mitinori Saitou, the leader of the Kyoto research team, and his crew. It is there hope that these recent advancements will allow them to create primordial cells from human tissue. The primary purpose for this will be to help couples who are experiencing fertility problems by offering them the option of having biological children that are derived from their own stem cells. It could also allow women to have babies later in life, or for women who cannot get pregnant due to cancer treatments.
More conceptually, however, the breakthrough suggests that human babies might someday be born from tissue samples and cell lines alone. If all that is needed is for stem cells to be harvested from living tissue, then no parents need be directly involved. There are clearly a host of ethical implications that need to be addressed from this, not the least of which is the issue of who has the right to spawn human beings? And moreover, what purpose would they be spawned for? Human replacements? Breeding stock? Super soldiers? Oh, the mind reals at the possible sci-fi cliches!