Friday, 13 January 2012

September: Harvesting Stem Cells and Hydrogen Cars

I've been writing a lot about the new and exciting capabilities of stem cells, but without a big enough supply of them, there is no hope that any of the treatments will ever be applied. When left to their own devices on a plastic culture dish, they do reproduce, but rather than into the useful pluripotent stem cells, they create other body cells, which cannot be used in therapies. So when, in September, a new type of plastic was devised that allowed stem cells to grow and still keep their characteristics, it got us one step closer to the clinical use of these new treatments.

Following on from August's discovery of an enzyme that produces hydrogen from water, the start of the new school year also was the start of MEC technology, or Microbial Electrolysis Cells. Osmotic power stations already capitalise on the potential difference between salt- and freshwater, but these new cells also add a bacteria that produces hydrogen gas to create a self sustaining, relatively cheap method of producing hydrogen for use in cars and other technologies.

In other science: a detector is released that can tell when we're lying, blood vessels are printed on a 3D printer, and a single molecule motor is engineered.

Thursday, 12 January 2012

August: Spermatogenesis and Skin That Stops Bullets

Other than the two titular breakthroughs, late in the summer of last year, a new method of fighting cancer was being pioneered: the use of a modified smallpox virus to target cancer. The main problem with using biological agents to combat tumours is that they are destructive and can harm the healthy cells as well as the cancerous ones. However, a team has managed to change the vaccinia virus, which gets its name from being the virus used as a virus against smallpox, to only replicate in the presence of a chemical pathway found in cancer. Seven out of the eight patients on the highest dose were found to have it reproducing in their tumour only. While it is a long way from 'curing' cancer, this could be used as a carrier to deliver drugs to the affected areas in the future.

A Dutch artist used silk from engineered silkworms to create semi-bulletproof skin. By weaving the silk between the layers of human skin cells, she created a membrane that was able to withstand a .22 bullet fired at reduced speeds without breaking. The round still went 2 inches into the gel model she was using, but there is some hope that the technology could be used to create 'bioarmour' eventually.

In Japan, mice stem cells were manipulated into primordial germ cells, which can produce sperm. The sperm was normal looking and even fertilised female mice to produce healthy offspring. The aim of this project was to help infertile men, and could have very real and useful implications in today's world.

In other science: near death experiences are explained away as symptoms of oxygen starvation, it is speculated that nucleotides may have come from meteorites, where they are often found, the dark side of the moon's rough surface may be due to a collision with a second moon, and hydrogen is made from water using an enzyme.

Wednesday, 11 January 2012

July: An Artificial Organ and Autism

The midpoint of the year heralded the first successful human transplant of artificial tissue. The 36 year old patient was given a porous trachea soaked in his own stem cells to treat an inoperable tumour the size of a golf ball. To create an identical copy of the man's windpipe, 3D imaging software was used to create a virtual version that was transferred into a real product in Sweden.

It was also shown in July that brothers and sisters of people with autism show very similar brain activity in certain situations, notably where they are looking at people's faces. This part of the brain shows decreased activity both in people with Asperger's syndrome and also in their siblings. As the search for a possible genetic cause for autism continues, this could be used as a 'biomarker' for familial risks of the syndrome.

In other science: a trial investigating the use of stem cells to help MS patients, the earliest bird known (150 million years before Archaeopteryx) was found, and another moon of Pluto was discovered.

Tuesday, 10 January 2012

June: Breakthroughs in Bacteria

Chances are, if you're reading this, you'll know about DNA, and the 4 bases that are used to make it in very nearly every organism on earth ever: adenine, cytosine, guanine, and thymine. So you'll understand what it means when I say that in June 2011 a group of scientists managed to evolve a culture of E.Coli that doesn't use thymine. Or even Uracil. What does this mean in terms of medical progress? To be quite honest, I'm not sure. I suppose it shows the extent to which we can play around with the molecules of living things, which will be integral to medicine in the next century, in my humble opinion. Also in genetics that month, research was published that demonstrated the use of enzymes packaged in virus shells to "repair" the DNA in the liver of haemophilic mice, which reduced the effects. Slightly. Well, watch this space.

Evolution had its fair share of the limelight for a second month running, with yeast having been shown to evolve to a multi-cellular organism in the lab in about 350 generations, selecting for organisms that clumped together using a centrifuge. After 60 days, one of the cultures was forming structures where all the cells were joined together, with the same DNA, working together. These findings shed light on the mysterious leap from single celled organisms to multi-cellular life forms.

In other science: the world's first biological fuel cell is made, 2 elements join the periodic table, worms are found to live in near-anaerobic conditions, type 2 diabetes was reversed in 7 out of 11 patients on a 600 calorie per day diet for 8 weeks, and the war on anti-bitoic resistant bacteria advances.

Sunday, 8 January 2012

May: Setbacks and the Space Shuttle

Stem cells may have been racing ahead into the futuristic world of 'self-transplants' over the first quarter of last year, but all was not as peachy as we had hoped: in an experiment researching this process on mice, many of the new cells were rejected. It is thought that this was due to the way they "became" stem cells (the cells were originally skin cells before being subjected to an engineered virus that changed them into pluripotent stem cells in a procedure first done in 2006). Sadly, the new research casts doubt on the viability of the use of stem cells in transplants, despite human neurons being made for the first time from induced pluripotent stem cells.

May was also a big month for palaeontology, with two main discoveries: the first ever evidence of biomineralisation (using mineral substances to form biological structures like shells, bones, hair and teeth), and the revelation that the sense of smell in mammals was what led to the increased development of our brains. 

In other science: being overweight was found to make you 71% more likely to develop dementia, a material that uses titanium dioxide and sunlight to break down any organic pollutants on it and in the air around it, the space shuttle launches for the last time, and a paralysed man learns to walk again after electric impulses are applied to his spinal cord.

Saturday, 7 January 2012

April: Bumble Bees and Bloody Big Lasers

Stem Cells hit the news again in April as the first human heart was constructed using them. The Minnesota-based team created the organ using donated hearts that were stripped down to the collagen "scaffolding", then injected with stem cells, which specialised into heart cells in response to the structure they were injected into. While this technology is very far away from being able to be used in a clinical setting, this might open some doorways into stem cell transplants. 
Meanwhile in Japan, scientists have given mouse stem cells a specific combination of nutrients that has stimulated them into maturing into a functional retina: something to lookout for in the future for treatment of blind people.

The early Spring months also brought us news that mobile phones may be killing bumble bees, insects on which many crops and flowering plants lean on to survive. The research caused controversy in the bee-studying world, however, and many are skeptical about it, saying that there needs to be more research into air pollution and agriculture's effects on the creatures. There was no doubt about the need for research, though: the UN has already said that humans need to change their behavior in order to help bees survive, as we are so dependent on them.

In other science: the Extreme Light Infrastructure gets given the go-ahead by the European Commission. This is a collection of 3 lasers, each designed to emit pulses of greater power than has ever been used by human civilisation in order to try and break down vacuum itself. 

Friday, 6 January 2012

March: Sperm & Stem Cells

There's almost always something new in the field of stem cells (I'm embarking on a gedanken experiment on the subject myself), but this month's progress is definitely worthy of report: human embryonic stem cells were grown into a very particular type of neuron. These neurons are affected in the early stages of Alzheimer's, and are very closely linked to the retrieval of memories; this is the main reason memory loss happens - the memories themselves are intact, but the ability to access them is not. By growing them in vitro, scientists will be able to study why they die, and maybe, eventually, transplant them into patients to improve memory.

March also brought us the first ever production of sperm cells in a lab. Why should you care that it is now possible to create mouse sperm? Because male infertility is becoming an increasing problem, especially in the western world, and this new study may unlock the secrets of the mechanisms behind creating gametes. While it is a long way off making human sex cells, the fact that healthy offspring could be produced from sperm created from neonatal mice could have far reaching consequences in the future. 

In other science: scientists discover Atlantis in Spain, the Messenger probe becomes the first to orbit Mercury,  and it is discovered that photons can be used to pull particles, sort of like a tractor beam.

Thursday, 5 January 2012

February: Frankenrats and Flu Vaccines

In a (scary) breakthrough, a ring-shaped brain made out of rat neurons was created in Pittsburgh, in an attempt to study how neural networks manage to store and transmit data as well as they do. Not only did this circle of cells on a protein disc grow to form a network, it was able to store memories - when the brain was subjected to an electric impulse, it mimicked the impulse for another 12 seconds after it had gone. 12 seconds may not sound like a long time to remember something, but for a group of 40-60 neurons in a petri dish, that's impressive.

Closer to home, Dr. Sarah Gilbert of Oxford University led a successful trial of a potentially universal flu vaccine. Instead of making the body produce more of the correct antibody, like most vaccines, her idea was to stimulate the production and activation of T-cells (which destroy infected cells). In the small study that she did, the vaccinated volunteers had more T-cells, and more that were "primed and ready to kill", as she put it. Not a woman to bump into in a dark lab at night. If this can be replicated, it could spell the end for costly, lengthy developments of new vaccines for the seasonal flu each year.

In other science: on my birthday, it was discovered that there are 500 000 000 planets in the milky way alone that are in the 'Goldilocks zone' - not too hot, not too cold, where life could potentially exist. Maybe I'll be treating aliens by the time I graduate!

Wednesday, 4 January 2012

The Science of 2011

It's a new year, this is a new blog (sort of), and science advances into the future. But before we storm off into the great unknown, armed with only our large hadron colliders and a few stethoscopes, over the next 12 days I'm going to be looking back over the last year to see what we, as a species, accomplished:

January: clairvoyance and cancer detection
The first month of the year brought us one step closer to combating two of the world's biggest killers: cancer and HIV.

Scientists in Boston discovered a method of sampling blood to discover whether there are any metastatic cancers in the body quickly and relatively painlessly, and joined up with Johnson & Johnson to  bring it to the market. The "liquid biopsy" would help doctors assess the effectiveness of treatments given to patients without having to wait for CT scans, allowing them to change how they're treating the patient in time to save them.

Later in the month, T-cells were found to be able to be made resistant to HIV by inserting a gene from E.Coli that produces an enzyme, mazF, into T-cells. MazF kills cells by breaking down mRNA, which is necessary for reproduction. In order to stop the enzyme simply killing the T-cells, the team used a gene that only produced the enzyme when stimulated by the HIV virus, so that as soon as the cells were infected, they 'killed' their infectors. Which is pretty cool. 

In other science: according to research, people react to erotic stimuli before they actually happen in a study investigating ESP, and there is evidence that there were colossal volcanic eruptions about 250 million years ago that would explain the latest Permain extinction (killing 95% of sea life and 70% of land based life).