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The Vanguard

The 5 Coolest Things On Earth This Week

Sam Worley
October 07, 2019
Japanese researchers developed artificial blood that could be transfused into patients regardless of their blood type, British scientists used artificial intelligence to predict heart attacks, and a lab at the University of California, Berkeley, has genetically engineered fruit flies to induce vomiting if they’re eaten. But don’t worry: This week’s coolest scientific discoveries are a real treat!

True Blood? Hardly

 width= In tests on rabbits, the artificial blood achieved results on par with what could be achieved with real blood. Image credit: Getty Images.

What is it? Researchers at Japan’s National Defense Medical College created an artificial blood that could be transfused into patients in emergencies and works with any blood type. Though it’s not ready for humans, the blood has been successfully tested in rabbits.

Why does it matter? Emergency care could be delivered quicker if health workers didn’t have to determine a patient’s blood type before administering a transfusion, and the artificial blood can be stored longer too. Regular red blood cells keep for 20 days at low temperatures, and platelets keep for four days only if they’re shaken to prevent solidification; the artificial blood can be stored at room temp for about a year. Immunologist Manabu Kinoshita, a member of the team that developed the artificial blood, said, “It is difficult to stock a sufficient amount of blood for transfusions in such regions as remote islands. The artificial blood will be able to save the lives of people who otherwise could not be saved.”

How does it work? The Japanese team previously developed substitute versions of red blood cells that carry oxygen and platelets that help stop bleeding. They put each component into “tiny bags known as liposome derived from the cell membrane,” according to the Asahi Shimbun, and tested the substance on 10 rabbits “suffering from serious blood loss.” Six survived — results on par with what could be achieved with transfusions of real blood. The study is described in the journal Transfusion.


Finding The Forbidden Compound

 width= An illustration of cerium superhydride, a “forbidden” compound that could lead the way to better superconductors. Image credit: @tsarcyanide/MIPT Press Office.

What is it? A team of researchers from the U.S., Russia and China has synthesized a “forbidden” compound of cerium and hydrogen, CeH9, that they hope could lead the way to better superconductors.

Why does it matter? Superconductors, which conduct electrical current with no resistance, are the powerful technology behind particle accelerators and MRI scanners, and they could “theoretically enable power lines that deliver electricity from A to B without losing the precious kilowatts to thermal dissipation," according to the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology. The only problem is that today’s superconductors work only at extremely low temperatures, in the neighborhood of -138 degrees Celsius and down. Their use could be expanded if they could be made to work at room temp — and it’s long been thought that hydrogen could could be a key ingredient in this.

How does it work? Hydrogen comes with its own problem, though: Getting it superconductive requires unearthly amounts of pressure, so much so that the element would turn to metal. By adding cerium to the mix, the scientists get closer to superconductivity that can be achieved at higher temperatures and lower pressures. Artem R. Oganov, of Skoltech and the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology, said, “The alternative to metallizing hydrogen is the synthesis of so-called ‘forbidden’ compounds of some element — lanthanum, sulfur, uranium, cerium, etc. — and hydrogen, with more atoms of the latter than classical chemistry allows for. Thus normally, we might talk about a substance with a formula like CeH2 or CeH3. But our cerium superhydride — CeH9 — packs considerably more hydrogen, endowing it with exciting properties.” How’d they do it? Diamonds were involved; the process is explained in Nature Communications.


Matter Of The Heart

 width= Researchers at the University of Oxford studied fat surrounding the heart vessels to create a biological "footprint" that can be used to predict heart attack risk. Image credit: Getty Images.

What is it? Using artificial intelligence, researchers at the University of Oxford located a biological “fingerprint” that can indicate heart attack risk up to five years in advance.

Why does it matter? People who experience chest pain are often given coronary CT angiograms — chests scans. Some of the patients who don’t need to stay in the hospital and get sent home will experience heart attacks in the future; as Oxford notes in a press release, “there are no methods used routinely by doctors that can spot all of the underlying red flags for a future heart attack.” The research team zeroed in on perivascular fat, which surrounds the heart vessels, to identify some factors that might indeed function as red flags. Professor Charalambros Antoniades, who led the study, said, “This has huge potential to detect the early signs of disease, and to be able to take all preventative steps before a heart attack strikes, ultimately saving lives. We genuinely believe this technology could be saving lives within the next year.”

How does it work? Antoniades and his team first took angiograms and compared them with perivascular-fat biopsies taken from patients undergoing cardiac surgery, hoping to locate markers in the fat — like scarring or inflammation — that would indicate change over time. In the next step, they compared early angiograms from heart patients against later patient outcomes, including heart attack and death. Using AI to crunch the data, they developed a biomarker they call the fat radiomic profile, or FRP, which they then tested on 1,575 people in a heart trial. According to Oxford, the new fingerprint “had a striking value in predicting heart attacks, above what can be achieved with any of the tools currently used in clinical practice.” The research is described further in the European Heart Journal.


Spinning A Carbon-Free Future

 width= An illustration of European scientists' design for an electrical generator that takes advantage of thermal fluctuations at room temperature — and of the fields of spintronics and quantum thermodynamics. Credit: Martin Bowen

What is it? A collaboration of European scientists has found a way to combine spintronics and quantum thermodynamics — sounds easy, right? — to build an electrical generator that runs on thermal fluctuations at room temperature. Short for spin transport electronics, spintronics relies on the quantum-mechanical property of spin and has been touted as a new frontier in electronics. Over in the field of quantum thermodynamics, physicists aim to “understand how quantum engines operate.”

Why does it matter? As one of the participating institutions, France’s National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS), notes, researchers are hot on the trail of truly novel ways to generate fossil-free energy — to ratchet down the world’s usage of fossil fuels by the 2030 deadline.

How does it work? Honestly it’s so straightforward you could probably build one at home. It involves “the harvesting of ambient temperature” that occurs over “atom-level magnets whose orientation fluctuates due to heat.” There’s a lot more to the process. The researchers described the breakthrough in detail in Communications Physics.


Evolutionary Biology That Might Make You Lose Your Lunch

 width= Top: A genetic mutation allows monarch butterflies (top) to munch on plants that are toxic to other insects. Above: Berkeley researchers genetically engineered fruit flies to resemble monarch butterflies, which eat milkweed and sequester the toxins contained in it, rendering themselves toxic to would-be predators. Top and above images credit: Getty Images.

What is it? Scientists at the University of California, Berkeley, used the gene-editing technology CRISPR to genetically engineer “potentially poisonous” fruit flies to have an emetic effect: that is, they induce vomiting in creatures including humans (if ingested “in large enough quantities”).

Why does it matter? The Berkeley scientists are doing it to understand evolution. They genetically engineered the flies to resemble monarch butterflies, which eat milkweed and sequester the toxins contained in it, rendering themselves toxic to would-be predators. The genetic mutations that allow monarchs to eat milkweed and other toxic plants have helped it thrive; researchers are interested in the interplay between animals and insects and the plants they feed on, and how those relationships have evolved in the 400 million years since plants and animals began living on land. According to Berkeley, “This is the first time anyone has recreated in a multicellular organism a set of evolutionary mutations leading to a totally new adaptation to the environment — in this case, a new diet and new way of deterring predators.”

How does it work? Under the leadership of Berkeley biology professor Noah Whiteman, the researchers learned that toxin resistance in monarch butterflies is conferred by just three single-nucleotide substitutions in one gene; when they made that change in the genomes of their fruit flies, the insects were able to enjoy the same poisonous diet as monarchs. “All we did was change three sites, and we made these superflies,” Whiteman said. “But to me, the most amazing thing is that we were able to test evolutionary hypotheses in a way that has never been possible outside of cell lines. It would have been difficult to discover this without having the ability to create mutations with CRISPR.” The study is in Nature.