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The Vanguard

The 5 Coolest Things On Earth This Week

Rebecca M Oliver
April 13, 2021

Scientists used a blood test to diagnose mood disorders, studied whether ultrasound could crack coronaviruses’ spike proteins, and developed an artificial neural network powered by light rather than electricity. This week’s coolest things are shining bright.


Mood Markers


Test Getty Images


What is it? Researchers at Indiana University developed a blood test “that can distinguish how severe a patient's depression is, their risk of severe depression in the future and their risk of future bipolar disorder.” It can also help recommend medication.

Why does it matter? One in five U.S. adults will experience a mood disorder in their lives, according to the National Institutes of Health. "This is part of our effort to bring psychiatry from the 19th century into the 21st century, to help it become like other contemporary fields such as oncology,” says Indiana University psychiatry professor Alexander B. Niculescu. “Ultimately, the mission is to save and improve lives."

How does it work? Observing patients in a variety of mood states over time, “the researchers recorded what changed in terms of the biomarkers in their blood between the highs and lows,” the university said in a news release. The team used large databases from previous studies to validate the top 26 candidate biomarkers for severe depression or mania and tested them in new patients to measure the strength of their predictions. The array of valuable results could help doctors differentiate between depression and bipolar disorder; objectively measure the disorders’ severity; and match patients with the right medications. The study, published in the journal Molecular Psychiatry, also linked mood disorders with some genes that control sleep cycles.


Cracking The Case



What is it? Engineers at MIT showed how ultrasound waves could physically damage coronaviruses’ trademark spike proteins.

Why does it matter? Medical researchers, who continue to look for effective COVID-19 treatments, have received help from mechanical engineers, who may have found a way to crack coronaviruses open. The results are “a first hint at a possible ultrasound-based treatment for coronaviruses, including the novel SARS-CoV-2 virus,” according to MIT.

How does it work? New computer simulations show that certain ultrasound frequencies produce “strains that could break certain parts of the virus, doing visible damage to the outer shell and possibly invisible damage to the RNA inside,” according to Tomasz Wierzbicki, an MIT professor and co-author of the findings, which were published in the Journal of the Mechanics and Physics of Solids. The team modeled the virus as “a thin elastic shell covered in about 100 elastic spikes,” MIT says in a news release. Then they simulated the model’s mechanical response to acoustic vibrations across a range of ultrasound frequencies. The sweet spot they found — between 25 and 100 megahertz, within the range used for medical imaging — “triggered the virus’ shell and spikes to collapse and start to rupture within a fraction of a millisecond.” Now, the team is working with scientists in Spain, hoping to observe the same effects in lab experiments.


Seeing Is Believing


eye gene therapy


What is it? Patients with genetic blindness had notable, long-lasting vision improvements after University of Pennsylvania researchers injected an RNA therapy directly into study participants’ impaired eyes.

Why does it matter? Scientists designed the gene therapy for Leber congenital amaurosis (LCA), a retinal disorder that causes severe visual impairment, typically from infancy. The culprit, in this case, was a mutation in a gene called CEP290. “The treatment led to marked changes at the fovea, the most important locus of human central vision,” the university said in a news release.

How does it work? Researchers used small pieces of messenger RNA called antisense oligonucleotides (ASOs) to regulate proteins that control gene expression. Ten patients who received injections every three months saw continued improvements over the course of the trial. Remarkably, one patient who received a single injection at the start of the study and opted out of additional treatments saw substantial improvement in function and retinal structure that lasted through the 15-month mark. “This work represents a really exciting direction for RNA antisense therapy,” says Samuel G. Jacobson, co-lead author of the study, published in the journal Nature Medicine.


Light Work


photons study


What is it? Scientists in Warsaw have created an artificial neural network that runs on light instead of electricity.

Why does it matter? “The amount of data we want to process is growing, and the computing power neural networks need is huge and already reaching its limits,” says Michał Matuszewski, a researcher from the Polish Academy of Sciences. “The advantage of photons is that unlike electrons their propagation takes place virtually without energy losses,” Matuszewski told Science in Poland. The team’s research is described in the journal Nano Letters.

How does it work? The team found a way around photons’ reluctance to interact with each other. Such interactions allow computers to perform logical operations. “In our research, we propose a solution that is a hybrid of electronics and photonics,” Matuszewski says. “The neural networks that we have designed have low energy consumption but allow us to perform operations with high efficiency.”


Print This Body


UB hydrogel hands


What is it? Researchers at the State University of New York at Buffalo developed a 3D printing technology that can print human tissues and organs up to 50 times faster than conventional 3D printing.

Why does it matter? “The method is particularly suitable for printing cells with embedded blood vessel networks, a nascent technology expected to be a central part of the production of 3D-printed human tissue and organs,” the university says in a news release. The researchers hope it could one day help relieve overburdened organ transplant lists and potentially save lives.

How does it work? The study, co-authored by Ruogang Zhao, PhD, an associate professor of biomedical engineering, and fellow professor Chi Zhou, PhD, and published in the journal Advanced Healthcare Materials, “centers on a 3D printing method called stereolithography and jelly-like materials known as hydrogels,” the university says. “Our method allows for the rapid printing of centimeter-sized hydrogel models,” Zhou says. “It significantly reduces part deformation and cellular injuries caused by the prolonged exposure to the environmental stresses you commonly see in conventional 3D printing methods.”