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The Vanguard

The 5 Coolest Things On Earth This Week

Sam Worley
April 26, 2019

Scientists found a way to translate brain signals into “synthetic speech,” doctors can detect ovarian tumors the size of a poppy seed, and researchers using one of the world’s fastest computers modeled a DNA sequence of more than a billion atoms. Oh, and FYI: the U.S. Navy received a patent for technology that seems fit for powering a UFO, or something that certainly looks like one. All that and more in this week’s coolest scientific discoveries!


Giving Voice

 width= UCSF's Gopala Anumanchipalli is holding an example array of intracranial electrodes of the type used to record brain activity in the current study. Image and caption credit: UCSF

What is it? Neuroscientists at the University of California, San Francisco, have figured out a way to create “synthetic speech” by connecting brain activity to a “virtual vocal tract” on a computer.

Why does it matter? The researchers developed their machine-brain interface on people whose speech capabilities were intact, but they hope it’ll someday work for people who’ve lost the ability to speak due to paralysis, stroke, or neurodegenerative disease. A release from the university notes that the current state of the art involves people using devices that track eye movements or facial expressions to spell out words letter by letter — a slow-going process that generally yields only about 10 words per minute. The new system, developed in the lab of Edward Chang, can restore “fluent” communications, and retain some of the “musicality of the human voice.”

How does it work? Chang and his colleagues seized on the fact that, when the brain transmits speaking instructions to the vocal apparatus, it doesn’t necessarily communicate what sounds to make, but rather the physical movements required to produce those sounds. The researchers asked hospital patients with electrodes implanted in their brains (in preparation for seizure-related surgery) to read some sentences while recording their brain activity. They then, according to UCSF, “used linguistic principles to reverse engineer the vocal tract movements needed to produce those sounds: pressing the lips together here, tightening vocal cords there, shifting the tip of the tongue to the roof of the mouth, then relaxing it, and so on.”


Docs Sell Knee Cells Inspired By The Seashore

 width= MIT engineers have designed coiled “nanoyarn,” shown as an artist’s interpretation here. The twisted fibers are lined with living cells and may be used to repair injured muscles and tendons while maintaining their flexibility. Caption credit: MIT News. Image credit: Felice Fran

What is it? Engineers at MIT have created a new material — a nanofiber yarn lined with living cells — that they hope doctors could use to aid healing from muscle and tendon injuries while enabling a “flexible range of motion” in key body parts like the knees and shoulders.

Why does it matter? Twisted into coils that resemble “miniature nautical rope,” the nanofiber yarn is stretchy, and could provide “scaffolds” for damaged muscle and tendon as they heal. Ming Guo, MIT assistant professor of mechanical engineering, said, “When you repair muscle or tendon, you really have to fix their movement for a period of time, by wearing a boot, for example. With this nanofiber yarn, the hope is, you won’t have to wearing anything like that.”

How does it work? Ming et al took their cues from lobsters, who have a tough yet flexible underbelly made up of layers of microscopic nanofibers. They then looked to the muscles and tendons the new material is designed to help, finding that when the tissues stretch out, the muscle cells that line them “simply rotate, like tiny pieces of tissue paper stuck on a slinky.” They used a technique called electrospinning to generate their biocompatible yarn, then introduced live cells, finding that the cells would keep living and growing as the engineers stretched the coils up to six times their original length. The findings are described further in PNAS.


Tracking Tiny Tumors

 width= Researchers at MIT and MGH have developed an image-guided surgical system that could help surgeons better visualize and remove tiny ovarian tumors. Fluorescent carbon nanotubes are used as probes to bind to the tumors, making them easier to see. Caption credit: MIT News. Image courtesy of the researchers.

What is it? Also at MIT, researchers working in conjunction with doctors at Massachusetts General Hospital have developed a fluorescent imaging system that can help surgeons find ovarian cancer, even if the tumors are tiny.

Why does it matter? Ovarian cancer is devilishly hard to detect: It’s typically diagnosed only once it’s reached an advanced stage, and the five-year combined survival rate for all stages of ovarian cancer is 47 percent (compared to 90 percent for all stages of breast cancer). “We desperately need better upfront therapies, including surgery, for these (ovarian cancer) patients,” said Michael Birrer, a senior author of the new study, published in ACS Nano.

How does it work? The imaging technology could help doctors performing what’s called debulking surgery, when they try to remove as many tumors from the abdomen as possible. It uses carbon-nanotube probes coated with a peptide that binds to a protein found in ovarian cancer cells — causing tumors to fluoresce at near-infrared wavelengths. Using the technique, surgeons were able to locate and remove tumors smaller than poppy seeds from the bellies of mice, who then lived 40 percent longer than mice operated on without the imaging system. The researchers are seeking FDA approval to begin clinical trials in human patients.


It’s Not That Easy Seeing Genes

 width= Los Alamos-led team created the largest simulation to date of an entire gene of DNA, a feat that required one billion atoms to model. Image and caption credit: Los Alamos National Laboratory.

What is it? Using the Trinity supercomputer — the sixth-fastest computer in the world — researchers at Los Alamos National Laboratory created the “largest simulation to date of an entire gene of DNA,” which required the modeling of 1 billion atoms.

Why does it matter? “It is important to understand DNA at this level of detail because we want to understand precisely how genes turn on and off,” said Los Alamos structural biologist Karissa Sanbonmatsu. “Knowing how this happens could unlock the secrets to how many diseases occur.”

How does it work? Scientists working today in the field of epigenetics are keen to understand how the expansion and contraction of DNA causes genes to be switched on and off — molecular activity that affects human development and diseases like cancer. Given the scope of the human genome — as a Los Alamos release notes, there’s enough DNA in the human body to wrap around the Earth 2.5 million times — it’s a study that can benefit from the ongoing supercomputer arms race, in which scientists try to one up one another with faster and faster computers. Next stop? Something called exascale computers, which will be able to conduct a quintillion calculations per second, and which the Los Alamos scientists hope will “give us a chance to model the full genome.” Their findings to date are available in the Journal of Computational Chemistry.


The Tech Is Out There!

 width= The U.S. Navy patent describes technology that could allow vehicles traveling through the air as well as under water to achieve extreme speeds. Top and above images credit: Getty Images.

What is it? Internet sleuths have noticed that the U.S. Navy received a patent for an aircraft that looks suspiciously similar to a UFO. If this news seems like it’s been flying under the radar, maybe it’s because of the other big ET drama this week: The Navy is also drafting new guidelines for servicemembers to report sightings of “unidentified aircraft,” apparently spurred by an uptick over the last few years of “unknown, highly advanced aircraft intruding on Navy strike groups and other sensitive military formations and facilities,” according to Politico.

Why does it matter? Picking up the story, the Washington Post adds that the Navy decision to create a system for reporting strange aircraft comes after pressure from pilots who say they’ve been spotting such craft — sometimes “small spherical objects flying in formation,” other times “white, Tic Tac-shaped vehicles” — but had no avenue for getting their claims investigated. “Imagine you see highly advanced vehicles, they appear on radar systems, they look bizarre, no one knows where they’re from. This happens on a recurring basis, and no one does anything,” said Chris Mellon, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense.

How does it work? Perhaps some investigation will reveal how these UFOs work — according to reports, they don’t seem to have an air intake and generate no exhaust, which are signs of a fuel-burning engine. Or perhaps the Navy can figure out the problem with its own patented UFO doppelganger, which uses an “inertial mass reduction device” comprising “an inner resonant cavity wall, an outer resonant cavity, and microwave emitters,” according to the patent that UK's Metro newspaper recently reported on. Powerful electromagnetic waves from the emitters travel through gas in the cavity, creating a vacuum around the craft that could help it travel at high speeds in both air and water. There’s no evidence this thing has been actually built. But then they wouldn’t tell us if it had, would they?