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The Vanguard

The 5 Coolest Things on Earth This Week

Rebecca Oliver DiGenova
May 24, 2023

Water-filtering crystals, a targeted pancreatic cancer vaccine, and a robot that helps keep tabs on your stuff. This week’s coolest things deliver the unlikely.


Thwarting a Comeback

pancreatic cancer cells

What is it? A personalized pancreatic cancer vaccine provoked an immune response that staved off tumor regrowth in half of the people treated.

Why does it matter? Pancreatic cancer is one of the deadliest forms, with a five-year relative survival rate of just 12%. While messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccines have shown great promise in fighting cancer and many other illnesses, this strong result against notoriously aggressive pancreatic cancer “defied the odds.”

How does it work? The study followed 16 patients who underwent surgical treatment at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. Researchers shipped the tumor tissue samples to BioNTech, which used the same mRNA targeting approach behind the COVID-19 vaccine: analyzing the genetic makeup of certain proteins attached to cancer cells and instructing the body to make more of those proteins. This triggers the immune system to target only the cancer cells. “Just establishing the proof of concept that vaccines in cancer can actually do something — we’ll start with that,” said Ira Mellman, vice president of cancer immunology at Genentech, which collaborated on the research. The team’s findings were published in Nature.


Fetching Friend

Dementia robot

What is it? Engineers at Canada’s University of Waterloo programmed a “companion robot” to help people with dementia find important items they tend to misplace, including medication, glasses, and cellphones.

Why does it matter? Dementia is tough enough to navigate without the frustration of repeatedly searching for everyday objects that should stay close at hand. “A user can be involved not just with a companion robot but a personalized companion robot that can give them more independence,” said Dr. Ali Ayub, a postdoctoral fellow in electrical and computer engineering at the university. The team presented a paper on the project at the 2023 International Conference on Human-Robot Interaction.

How does it work? They started with a mobile manipulator robot, which uses a camera to study and understand the environment around it. Then they used artificial intelligence — specifically, an object-detection algorithm — that detects, tracks, and remembers the location of certain objects it captures on video. Users can create a custom database of objects they want to track, and the robot’s episodic memory will remind them of an item’s last known whereabouts.


Battery Breakthrough

oxygen-ion battery

What is it? Austrian scientists developed an oxygen-ion battery that could be safer and more durable than lithium varieties.

Why does it matter? Lithium-ion batteries, ubiquitous in devices from smartphones to electric vehicles, have drawbacks including fire risk and degrading storage capacity. The oxygen-ion battery offers a “long service life, the possibility of producing large quantities of these materials without rare elements, and the fact that there is no fire hazard,” said Alexander Schmid, who co-led the research at the Institute for Chemical Technologies and Analytics at TU Wien in Vienna. The findings were published in Advanced Energy Materials.

How does it work? Drawing inspiration from the ceramic materials used in advanced fuel cells, researchers zeroed in on a combination of compounds that absorbed and released oxygen ions. Applying electric voltage caused the ions to migrate back and forth between two ceramic materials, generating electric current. The new battery can regenerate capacity by simply pulling in oxygen from the air.


Stretch Goals

Video Credit: Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering

What is it? Materials scientists at the University of Chicago developed an OLED display material that can be bent, folded, and stretched to double its length.

Why does it matter? The organic light-emitting diode (OLED) displays in high-end smartphones and TVs are visually superior and more energy-efficient than earlier LED models, but engineers have been limited by their stiff molecular structure. A new material that optimizes both flexibility and luminescence could open possibilities beyond consumer electronics; researchers hope for applications in implantable medical devices.

How does it work? Sihong Wang, an assistant professor at the University of Chicago’s Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering, and his research partner, professor Juan de Pablo, drew on previous research into stretchable polymers to model long, flexible molecular chains of organic material that also emitted light very efficiently. “Now that we understand these properties at a molecular level, we have a framework to engineer new materials where flexibility and luminescence are optimized,” de Pablo said. The team published its findings in Nature Materials.


Poms Up

Erik Svensson Grap

What is it? Stockholm University researchers showed that porous crystals derived from pomegranate can remove pharmaceutical compounds from public wastewater.

Why does it matter? While the effects of pharmaceutical pollutants on aquatic life are not fully known, there’s a chance they could cause environmental problems. The Swedish research team managed not only to capture pharmaceutical pollutants in already treated wastewater but to break them down using light, a process called photodegradation.

How does it work? The group set out to create a metal-organic framework, or MOF, a type of nanoporous material that pulls pollutants from water like a sponge. But while many MOFs are produced with synthetic molecules, this team used ellagic acid, a building block of the healthy tannins that occur naturally in fruits, nuts, berries, and bark. Researchers combined the ellagic acid from pomegranate peel with metallic zirconium ions, creating a new MOF they named SU-102. “We hope one day that SU-102 will be used on a bigger scale and also for other environmental applications,” said Erik Svensson Grape, a PhD student at the university’s Department of Materials and Environmental Chemistry.