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5 Coolest Things On Earth This Week

Amy Kover
August 20, 2017
Bioprosthetic ovaries produced healthy offspring in mice, scientists are putting cigarette butts to good use, and a new study offers hope for faster Lyme disease diagnosis. Who says there is no cure for the summertime blues?
Tobacco Road Gets Cooler

 width= "I have been trying for many years to find sustainable and practical methods for solving the problem of cigarette butt pollution," says lead researcher Abbas Mohajerani. Image credit: RMIT University.

What is it? Researchers at RMIT University in Australia are mixing cigarette butts into asphalt to create a new pavement that absorbs less heat.

Why does it matter? The material provides a new purpose for the roughly  6 trillion cigarette butts that are produced each year worldwide, according to RMIT, most of which it says end up tossed into the environment, where they are slow to decompose. What’s more, they discovered the new material traps less heat than traditional asphalt, reducing so-called “heat island” effects. "I have been trying for many years to find sustainable and practical methods for solving the problem of cigarette butt pollution," says lead researcher Abbas Mohajerani.

How does it work? Lead researcher Dr. Abbas Mohajeran explains: “We encapsulated the cigarette butts with bitumen and paraffin wax to lock in the chemicals and prevent any leaching from the asphalt concrete.” The springy cigarette filters make asphalt more porous, which in turn lowers its heat conductivity. The team's findings were published in the journal of Construction and Building Materials.


Bioprinting Goes Cellular

What is it? A team of scientists from Oxford University and the University of Bristol in the U.K. have developed a new method to 3D print laboratory-grown cells into complex structures for potential use in regenerative medicine and other applications.

Why does it matter? Cells tend to wiggle, which can cause the 3D-printed scaffolding that houses them to collapse on itself. The new method addresses this problem. “There are many potential applications for bioprinting and we believe it will be possible to create personalized treatments by using cells sourced from patients to mimic or enhance natural tissue function,” said Sam Olof, chief technology officer at OxSyBio (Oxford Synthetic Biology), a biotech startup the researchers have formed to figure out how to produce tissues on a larger scale. “In the future, 3D bio-printed tissues maybe also be used for diagnostic applications – for example, for drug or toxin screening.”

How does it work? The team encased each cell in nanoliter droplets wrapped in a lipid coating designed to keep them intact during printing. “We focused on designing a high-resolution cell printing platform, from relatively inexpensive components, that could be used to reproducibly produce artificial tissues with appropriate complexity from a range of cells including stem cells,” said Alexander Graham, lead author of the study. The team says the results, published in Scientific Reports, “demonstrate that fundamental biological processes can remain intact after printing, which suggests that the approach presented here will be useful for complex tissue fabrication.”

Top image credit: Getty Images.

The Ultimate Sponge

 width= Adding a type of alcohol to hexagonal-boron nitride creates a stiff and reusable foam that can absorb more than three times its weight in carbon dioxide. Image credit: Ajayan Research Group/Rice University

What is it? Material scientists at Rice University have come up with a new type of foam that can absorb more than three times its weight in carbon dioxide. Researchers can then evaporate all that soaked-up greenhouse gas, allowing it to be reused multiple times.

Why does it matter? This highly porous foam could help reduce the amount of carbon dioxide escaping into the atmosphere. “Its properties can be tuned for use in air filters and as gas absorption materials,” according to Rice. Scientists are also looking for ways to use it for “specific applications, like separating oil from water.”

How does it work? The researchers freeze-dried hexagonal-boron nitride along with polyvinyl alcohol, which study co-author and Rice postdoctoral researcher Chandra Sekhar Tiwary says “helps make the foam stiff by gluing the interconnects between the h-BN sheets — and at the same time, it hardly changes the surface area at all.” The result: a wafer-thin sheet of foam sturdy enough to sponge up carbon dioxide. The team’s study was published in the American Chemical Society journal ACS Nano.


Figuring Out What Makes Lyme Disease Tick

 width= Ticks transmit diseases whose similar symptoms make diagnosis difficult, which can lead to delayed treatment. Image credit: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

What is it? A new diagnostic tool can tell whether patients suffering from a rash coupled with flu-like symptoms have Lyme disease or a milder tick-borne illness called Southern tick-associated rash illness (STARI). Researchers at Colorado State University say their test distinguished between the two “with an accuracy of 85 to 98 percent,” outperforming a commonly used Lyme test’s 44 percent accuracy rate, according to a study published in Science Translation Medicine.

Why does it matter? Roughly 300,000 people in the United States contract Lyme disease each year. If undetected, the illness can cause major problems like arthritis, facial paralysis and short-term memory loss. But catching Lyme early is easier said than done — partly because STARI presents nearly identical symptoms. This new test allows doctors to quickly figure out what kind of tick-born disease they’re dealing with.

How does it work? Researchers screened 200 blood samples from patients who’d received either a Lyme disease or a STARI diagnosis. They noted several dissimilarities between the two disease groups and then trained an algorithm to recognize the differences. The team’s next goal is to develop the tool into a clinical test.


3D-Printed Ovaries Produce Healthy Mice

What is it? Scientists at the Woodruff Lab at Northwestern University discovered that sterilized mice gave birth to healthy offspring after receiving 3D-printed ovary implants. The results could lead to new fertility treatments for women with diminished ovary function, such as those who’ve undergone cancer treatments.

Why does it matter? Because chemotherapy and other cancer treatments can wreak havoc on women’s ovarian system, female cancer survivors often struggle with fertility problems. Woodruff searchers say this early success with mice marks “the first step towards creating a bioprosthetic ovary that may support hormone production and fertility in humans who do not have this function.”

How does it work? Dr. Victoria Woodruff and her team 3D printed scaffolds from gelatin ink and filled them with follicles for holding eggs. “[Bioprosthetics] are able to maintain their 3D structure — something that’s not possible on typical, flat, cell culture plates,” they said in news release. Seven mice with implants were then mated with healthy males. Of those, three gave birth to healthy pups who were able to feed on their mothers’ milk and later produce their own healthy litters. “These are the first step towards creating a bioprosthetic ovary that may support hormone production and fertility in humans who do not have this function,” the researchers said.