Skip to main content
The Vanguard

The 5 Coolest Things On Earth This Week

Samantha Shaddock
January 27, 2018
Contact lenses tracked rabbits’ blood-glucose levels through their tears. A new drug silenced the “siren call” that helps cancers grow. And a carnivorous plant inspired a repellent to keep ship hulls free of gunk. We’ve got quite a haul this week, mateys. Anchors aweigh!

Sugar-Sensing Contacts

What is it? Researchers at the Ulsan National Institute of Science and Technology in South Korea have designed a contact lens that can monitor the amount of glucose in tears and warn wearers of dangerous spikes or drops.

Why does it matter? Many people with diabetes have to prick their fingers throughout the day to gauge the amount of glucose in their blood. “Smart” contacts could provide a pain-free alternative.

How does it work? A team led by Jihun Park, a materials scientist at the Ulsan National Institute of Science and Technology, created a lens made of soft and flexible electronic materials. The lens’ components can convert radiofrequency signals from a nearby transmitter into electricity, which powers a glucose sensor and a small green light. This persistent LED, which is visible to the wearer in a mirror but doesn’t interfere with vision, only turns off when the sensor picks up elevated glucose in the tear film. The team said that the lenses accurately tracked glucose levels in tests on rabbits.


Pressing The Mute Button On Cancer

Above: Researchers in Georgia are exploring a new way to treat cancer that blocks production of a chemical tumors produce to recruit cells to help it grow and spread. Image credit: Phil Jones, senior photographer at Augusta University. Top GIF credit: Science.

What is it? Scientists at Augusta University in Georgia say they’ve found a way to silence the “siren call” that aggressive cancers such as glioblastoma and metastatic breast cancer send the bone marrow to signal the production of materials tumors need to survive and spread.

Why does it matter? Tumors pump out high levels of 20-HETE — an ordinarily helpful chemical involved in mediating blood pressure, blood flow and inflammation — triggering the release of cytokines. These compounds summon bone marrow cells, which then get busy helping the cancer live and grow. “This includes bolstering the primary tumor site and in the case of breast cancer, helping prepare remote sites in places like the brain, lung and liver,” said Dr. B.R. Achyut, a cancer biologist at Augusta University’s Medical College of Georgia. The team noted that while chemotherapy on its own does kill tumor cells, their death signals the release of more cytokines, “as another cry for survival, which is another good reason to also directly target the call for assistance that tumors are sending,” according to Dr. Ali S. Arbab, senior author on two articles tied to the research.

How does it work? The team surmised that blocking 20-HETE would inhibit the process outlined above. It alternated chemotherapy treatments with a 20-HETE inhibitor called HET0016. Rats with glioblastoma who received the drug in conjunction with chemotherapy lived for six months or longer, compared with the mere weeks they’d otherwise be expected to survive. Breast cancer findings were also promising. “There was less communication between the tumor’s base camp and these deadly satellite locations,” according to Augusta University. “When they examined the lungs, they saw fewer cytokines to summon the bone marrow cells and fewer enzymes that also support invasiveness of the breast cancer cells.” The team published its results in the International Journal of Molecular Sciences.


An App To Help Prevent Falls

What is it? Researchers at Spain's Universitat Politècnica de València have create a fall-risk assessment system that takes the guesswork out of determining which elderly patients are most liable to fall.

Why does it matter? Nearly a third of people older than 65 and half over 80 fall at least once per year, according to the team that created the FallSkip system. These falls frequently result in painful, expensive and potentially life-threatening injuries, such as broken hips. Armed with an objective risk score, the FallSkip team says, doctors can prescribe preventive measures such as occupational therapy, prescription eyeglasses, or the use of stability devices.

How does it work? Doctors load the app — installed on an Android mobile device — with the patient’s basic information, including age, gender and health record. Then, while wearing a wide belt equipped with an accelerometer and gyroscope, the patient undergoes a 2-minute series of motions that provide the app with data about balance, gait, reaction time and other factors. Based on that, it assigns a risk score that aligns with the commonly used Timed Up and Go screening test.


Feed me, Seymour!

A new coating for keeping organic matter from glomming on to ships channels the evil genius of the pitcher plant. Image credit: The University of Sydney

What Is It? Researchers at the University of Sydney Nano Institute say they’ve created a new nanomaterial, inspired by a carnivorous plant, that can prevent organisms from attaching to ship hulls and marine equipment.

Why does it matter? The accumulation of bacteria, plants, and algae on submerged surfaces, increases drag on ships, which then need more fuel to complete their voyages. A previously used a powerful biocide called tributyltin was retired in 2007 because of environmental concerns. Since then, the shipping industry has been adrift without a solution — to the tune of $320 million in extra costs each year in Australia alone, according to a University of Sydney news release. “Biofouling — the build-up of damaging biological material – is a huge economic issue, costing the aquaculture and shipping industries billions of dollars a year in maintenance and extra fuel usage,” the university said.

How does it work? The Nepenthes pitcher plant produces a slippery aqueous layer that allows its tiny victims to slide inside to their doom. Likewise, the Australian team’s nanowrinkles have a lubricating layer that keeps organisms from sticking to ships, nets, marine sensors and other marine surfaces that stay wet for a long time. “In the lab, the slippery surfaces resisted almost all fouling from a common species of marine bacteria, while control Teflon samples without the lubricating layer were completely fouled,” the university said. Tests in the wild also buoyed hopes for the solution. “The infused surfaces displayed stability in seawater and inhibited growth of Pseudoalteromonas spp. bacteria up to 99%,” the team wrote in its findings, which appear in Applied Materials & Interfaces.


Self-Healing Machine Parts

 width= New “self-repairing” ceramic material can fix cracks on its own “in just a minute.” Images credit: Shutterstock.

What is it? Scientists at the National Institute for Materials Science in Japan and Yokohama National University developed a “self-repairing” ceramic material that can fix cracks on its own “in just a minute,” according to the Asahi Shimbun newspaper.

Why does it matter? Engineers have already started using special ceramic materials to make turbines and engines more efficient. The new approach “could drastically change manufacturing methods for the transportation industry,” according to the paper.

How does it work? The key to the new approach involves adding silicon carbide to parts made from aluminum oxide. “When the ceramic cracked at high temperatures, the silicon carbide was exposed to air and turned into silicon dioxide that filled in the crack and repaired the damage,” according to the paper.