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The Vanguard

The 5 Coolest Things On Earth This Week

Rebecca M Oliver
March 02, 2021

Patients’ own stems cell could help treat their spinal cord injuries; AI helped design powerful batteries; and speedy data transfer tech leaves USB in the dust. This week’s coolest things are racing into the future.


Data Express


data transfer link


What is it? An MIT research team linked high-frequency silicon chips with an ultra-thin polymer cable to build a data transfer system ten times faster than a USB.

Why does it matter? Current data transfer technologies can’t keep up with soaring demand. The new system design is more compact and cost-efficient than traditional copper wire and draws far less power. The new transfer link could dramatically cut energy use at power-hungry data centers. With speeds of 105 gigabits per second, it also could “address the bandwidth challenges as we see this megatrend toward more and more data,” says Georgios Dogiamis, a senior researcher at Intel and co-author of the study, which was presented at the IEEE International Solid-State Circuits Conference in February.

How does it work? Drawing on the benefits of both copper and fiber optics, the team created a lighter, cheaper plastic polymer conduit and paired it with special, high-frequency silicon chips. “When the polymer link is operated with sub-terahertz electromagnetic signals, it’s far more energy-efficient,” MIT says. “That clean connection from the silicon chips to the conduit means the overall system can be manufactured with standard, cost-effective methods.” The link could play a role in the aerospace and auto industries and become an attractive solution for consumer electronics.


Stem Cell Central


Spine Getty Images


What is it? Patients with spinal cord injuries showed improved motor functions after Yale scientists injected them with stem cells derived from the patients’ own bone marrow.

Why does it matter? The majority of patients in this study showed substantial improvement in key motor functions, including walking and using their hands, within just weeks and with no major side effects, according to the researchers. “The idea that we may be able to restore function after injury to the brain and spinal cord using the patient’s own stem cells has intrigued us for years,” says Stephen G. Waxman, a senior author of the study, published in Clinical Neurology and Neurosurgery. “Now we have a hint, in humans, that it may be possible.”

How does it work? The team cultured stem cells derived from each patient’s bone marrow (MSCs) over a period of a few weeks in a specialized cell processing center and then injected them intravenously back into their bodies. “This clinical study is the culmination of extensive preclinical laboratory work using MSCs,” says Jeffery D. Kocsis, a Yale professor and the study’s senior author. “Similar results with stem cells in patients with stroke increase our confidence that this approach may be clinically useful.”


Pumping Iron


robotic muscle


What is it? A new, super strong robotic muscle uses an electric charge and a bellow design — similar to ye olde air pumps — to lift up to 70 times its own weight and hold onto power through idle periods.

Why does it matter? The electrostatic bellow muscle (EBM) was designed not only to exert strength but to sustain it. In generation mode, it can convert 20% of the energy it makes into reserves for later use. That could make EBM a solution for demanding robotic applications like wearable prosthetics or treacherous search-and-rescue missions. The study was published in the journal Science Robotics.

How does it work? The team, led by Marco Fontana of TeCIP Institute in Pisa, Italy, built the muscle with layers of donut-shaped electroactive films. The circular structure, which can expand like an accordion, is relatively flat while at rest. “But applying a voltage causes electrodes on the films to become oppositely charged and pull toward each other in a ‘zipping’ motion,” according to Inverse, enabling the bellow to expand or contract and lift up to 500 kilograms. Fontana and his colleagues see the EBM as “promising for robotic systems due to its lightness, scalability and adaptability,” and think its “ability to harvest energy could also be an advantageous feature for autonomous battery-powered robots,” Inverse reported.


Cancer-Fighting ‘Super Soldiers’


T cell Getty Images


What is it? Researchers at the University of Toronto have enhanced disease-fighting T-cells to boost anti-tumor response in cancer patients.

Why does it matter? The study’s findings could help advance cancer immunotherapy, a developing treatment approach that, so far, only works in some patients. The team at Princess Margaret Cancer Centre in Toronto worked to modify genes in T-cells themselves, not cancer cells, where most research has focused. “Genetic manipulation of immune cells for treatment is not trivial experimentally,” says Dr. Daniel D. De Carvalho, a senior scientist on the study, which was published in the journal Molecular Cell. "Our work sets the stage for clinical investigations combining epigenetics with other immunotherapy strategies."

How does it work? Researchers used epigenetic therapy, which works on DNA by adding or removing chemical tags that help turn certain genes on and off. “Simply, you can change the function of a cell using drugs that change these epigenetic tags,” the University Health Network (UHN) said in a news release. Researchers found that an existing chemotherapy drug removed tags that suppress key genes in T-cells. When researchers removed these tags, “the T-cells became sort of ‘super soldiers’, with highly activated molecules — with bigger and better weapons — to destroy the cancer cells,” De Carvalho says. “Our goal for the future is to use this strategy combined with other immunotherapies to enhance anti-tumor immunity.”


Solid Performance


next-gen rechargeable batteries


What is it? AI helped scientists in California create a stable, high-performance conductor for solid-state sodium-ion batteries that could meet the demands of high-voltage applications like the energy grid. 

Why does it matter? Expanding use of renewable energy will also require large-scale battery storage systems to meet peak demand when power generation varies. Sodium-ion batteries look increasingly promising with this breakthrough material — a halide sodium conductor named NYZC and detailed in Nature Communications — which increases conductivity at lower cost. 

How does it work? University of California researchers used a machine-learning model to identify a good candidate material, then experimented extensively to identify its electrochemical properties. The team took Na3YCl6, a poor sodium conductor on its own, and substituted zirconium for yttrium, a swap that boosted its sodium ion conduction, SciTechDaily reports. Lead researcher Shyue Ping Ong says the findings “highlight the immense potential of halide ion conductors for solid-state sodium-ion battery applications.”