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The Vanguard

The 5 Coolest Things On Earth This Week

Samantha Shaddock
April 27, 2018
"A skull-drilling robot, concrete that’s stronger than steel and contact lenses that could help preserve diabetic patients’ vision. Open your eyes to the wonders of science.


From The Factory Floor To The Surgery Suite

What is it? Jordan Bos of Eindhoven University of Technology in the Netherlands has built a prototype robot that can help perform the precise and risky task of drilling into a patient’s skull during brain surgery.

Why does it matter? Every year, doctors bore holes into the heads of more than 100,000 patients worldwide as a prelude to minimally invasive procedures for treating infections, tumors and other conditions. This painstaking procedure can take hours as doctors move slowly and cautiously into the cranium, often while standing in an uncomfortable position.

How does it work? Bos’ machine, dubbed the RoBoSculpt, is in essence a souped-up factory-floor milling machine equipped with a surgical drill. The robot can move with high precision along seven axes. Using information from CT scans, doctors can program the RoBoSculpt to automatically drill into the bone at an exact width and depth. The university said the process should speed surgery times and limit recovery-lengthening errors while freeing doctors to focus on the other critical aspects of surgery. The robot still needs to undergo preclinical trials, but researchers expect it to perform its first surgery within five years.

Top image credit:Bart van Overbeeke/Eindhoven University of Technology.


Concrete That’s Stronger Than Steel

According to one calculation, if you put an elephant on an atom-thick sheet of graphene, it wouldn’t break. Image credit: Getty Images.

What is it? Scientists in the United Kingdom created a composite construction material that combines concrete with graphene, a form of carbon that’s been called the strongest material on earth. Dubbed “green” concrete, the new composite is “twice as strong and four times more water resistant than traditional concrete,” according to the University of Exeter, where it was produced.

Why does it matter? The formulation of concrete and cement leads to a high amount of carbon emissions, and researchers point to a “constant drive” to create more durable, high-performing construction materials than traditional concrete. “Our cities face a growing pressure from global challenges on pollution, sustainable urbanization and resilience to catastrophic natural events, amongst others,” said nanoscience professor Monica Craciun, the co-author of a new paper on the material published in Advanced Functional Materials. She calls the new composite material an “absolute game-changer.” The green concrete requires about half as much material as traditional concrete, cutting the emissions required to create it.

How does it work? Graphene is an impossibly thin sheet of carbon atoms arranged in two dimensions that’s freakishly strong: According to one calculation, if you put an elephant on an atom-thick sheet of graphene, it wouldn’t break. The Exeter researchers developed a technique for suspending flakes of graphene in the water which they subsequently mixed into the concrete — a technology that has implications for incorporating other nanomaterials into building and manufacturing. According to the university, the resultant concrete boasts “high yield and no defects, low cost and compatible with modern, large scale manufacturing requirements.”


3D-Printing A Bridge To The Future

What is it? At the experimental Dutch design firm Joris Laarman Lab, robots built the first 3D-printed bridge, more than 40 feet long and set for installation next year over a canal in the center of Amsterdam.

Why does it matter? 3D printing allows designers to experiment with form while reducing material use — it’s an efficient process with huge implications for large-scale infrastructure like bridges. But Joris Laarman is thinking bigger than that. If humanity’s future really is in building colonies on the moon or other planets — as entrepreneurs like Elon Musk would have it — then we’re going to have to figure out a way to build once we get there. The new bridge raises the possibility of creating structures in midair using local materials. Engineers on the project said they were inspired by the idea that “a bridge over one of the old canals in Amsterdam would be a fantastic metaphor for connecting the technology of the future with the city’s past, in a way that would reveal the best aspects of both worlds.”

How does it work? Just like any other 3D printing: Over a period of six months at an old ship wharf in the Netherlands, four robots fused layer upon layer of material until they’d completed a structure that could support pedestrians. All told, the project required about 10,000 pounds of steel and nearly 700 miles of wire. The next step, before the world gets to walk across it, is load testing to verify the structure’s integrity, and the installation of smart sensors so that the bridge can be monitored via a digital twin. (Oh, you’re unfamiliar with digital twins? You’ve come to the right place.)


Hungry Eyes

This glowing contact lens could help prevent blindness in millions of people with diabetes. Image and caption credits: Caltech.

What is it? Scientists at Caltech have developed a glow-in-the-dark contact lens that could help prevent diabetes-related vision loss.

Why does it matter? Diabetes can damage the blood vessels supplying the retinal nerves. Starved of oxygen, the nerves die. New but flawed blood vessels then form in an attempt to get more blood to the nerves, often bleeding into the eye, obscuring sight and further damaging the retina. In the end, a patient can suffer total vision loss. Existing treatment involves tackling the problem at its initial source — inadequate oxygen — by destroying oxygen-hungry cells in parts of the eye less critical to vision. Doctors do this by zapping them with lasers or by injecting drugs into the eye. The Caltech team’s contact lenses could offer a minimally invasive alternative with fewer side effects.

How does it work? The secret lies in the eye’s rod cells, which are necessary for low-light vision and require more oxygen in the dark. Like a dieter who’s fasted much of the day, the rod cells lunge for their favorite treat at night. ""Your rod cells, as it turns out, consume about twice as much oxygen in the dark as they do in the light,"" said Caltech graduate student Colin Cook. The contact lenses provide just enough illumination to stave off the rods’ hunger. The lenses contain tritium — a form of hydrogen gas that emits electrons — placed so that it’s not visible when the wearer’s pupil constricts in bright conditions. When it’s dark and the pupil dilates, a phosphorescent coating on the lenses converts the tritium’s electrons into light, staving off the rods’ hunger for oxygen. ""If we turn metabolism in the retina down, we should be able to prevent some of the damage that occurs,"" Cook said.


In Utero Protein Therapy

Each of the amniotic sacs has a 6-week-old embryo inside. Image credit: GE Healthcare.

What is it? Doctors in Germany injected a crucial protein into the amniotic sac of a pair of gestating twins, sparing them a potentially life-threatening disorder and marking the first time anyone knows of that a drug has been used to treat a developmental disorder in utero.

Why does it matter? An ultrasound revealed the twins had a genetic deficiency of the protein ectodysplasin A, which leads to the disorder X-linked hypohidrotic ectodermal dysplasia — XLHED, for short. Among other things, XLHED prevents the development of sweat glands, meaning that children too young to know how to cool themselves off are at risk of overheating — say, in a hot car. Because doctors were able to give the gestating fetuses the required protein at just the right time, though, they developed sweat glands normally (though retained a few other physiological effects of the disorder). The experimental treatment was conducted at a clinic at Germany’s University of Erlangen-Nürnberg that specializes in rare, inherited skin diseases, and described recently in the New England Journal of Medicine.

How does it work? The babies were actually treated with a drug that had been tried and abandoned in a previous clinical trial — in which the clinic was attempting to treat XLHED in young children. That didn’t work, but a pregnant nurse whose amniotic twins had tested positive for the disorder was able to get a “compassionate use” exemption to try an injection of the drugs in utero. According to the MIT Technology Review, “The treatment exploited the fact that the missing protein is needed only temporarily, between weeks 20 and 30, when the sweat glands form in a developing fetus.” Following the procedure’s success, a physician involved is looking to organize a clinical trial with other parents whose fetuses might have the disorder."