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The Vanguard

The 5 Coolest Things On Earth This Week

Rebecca M. Oliver
October 04, 2021

An algorithm that could help diagnose cancer, flooring that draws power from footsteps and a frozen heart muscle that lives to beat another day. This week’s coolest things prove there’s magic happening behind the scenes.


Image Consultants


breast ultrasound AI
Researchers developed an AI-driven system that analyzes breast ultrasounds to help clinicians distinguish malignant masses from benign ones Y. Shen, F. Shamout et al./Nature Communications. Top image credit: Getty Images.


What is it? NYU researchers in New York and Abu Dhabi created an AI-driven “decision support tool” to help clinicians more accurately diagnose breast cancer with ultrasound imaging.

Why does it matter? Ultrasound imaging is an important counterpart to mammography in screening and diagnosing breast cancer, a leading cause of cancer deaths in women. An image-reading algorithm could support clinicians with valuable feedback and second opinions. Farah Shamout, a computer engineering professor who led the research, notes that “AI is not a replacement for the expertise of clinicians” but can play a “powerful, complementary role” in clinical practice.

How does it work? Researchers used a dataset of 280,000 breast ultrasound exams to train a computer model to spot malignant lesions. The system identifies possible tumors and determines the probability that they are cancerous. The model highlights the parts of the ultrasound that correspond to its findings. When compared head-to-head with 10 experienced radiologists, the new tool surpassed their accuracy, on average. But a hybrid model that considered both human and digital readings performed best of all. The system “helped radiologists significantly reduce their false positive and requested biopsy rates,” according to an NYU press release. Shamout and her team detailed their research in the journal Nature Communications.


This Research Will Floor You


functionalized wood flooring schematic
This “functionalized” wood flooring can power lights and small devices with energy generated from footsteps. Image credit: Sun et al./Matter.


What is it? Swiss researchers engineered wooden flooring that generates electricity when someone walks on it.

Why does it matter? While energy-producing flooring in a family home could run lights or small electronics, installing it in offices or busy commercial spaces could someday power the ultra-efficient, greener “smart buildings” of the future.

How does it work? The research team treated one set of planks of ordinary spruce with a silicone coating and another set with embedded nanocrystals. Then they sandwiched two pieces of this “functionalized” wood — one with each treatment — between two electrodes. Applying and releasing pressure from above caused the layers to repeatedly touch and separate, creating an effect that produced 80 times more electric charge than untreated wood. “Spruce is cheap and available and has favorable mechanical properties,” said Guido Panzarasa, lead author of a paper on the team’s research published in the journal Matter. “The functionalization approach is quite simple, and it can be scalable on an industrial level. It’s only a matter of engineering.”


Science Shells Out


nacre glass composite
The microstructure of a glass-acrylic composite (left) was inspired by that of seashell nacre (right), better known as mother of pearl. Image credit: McGill University.


What is it? McGill University scientists created superstrong glass inspired by mollusk shells’ tough inner layer.

Why does it matter? Advances in electronics and device screens have created demanding applications for glass, and the material is still catching up. Tough and flexible glass could open doors to devices that seem futuristic today.

How does it work? McGill bioengineering professor Allen Ehrlicher was inspired by nacre, the inner surface of mollusk shells, commonly known as mother-of-pearl, to create a more durable but still transparent glass-acrylic composite. The team examined nacre’s microstructure and mimicked it with layers of glass flakes and acrylic. This produced a cheap and very strong material, but it was opaque. “By tuning the refractive index of the acrylic, we made it seamlessly blend with the glass to make a truly transparent composite,” explained Ali Amini, lead author of the team’s study, which was published in Science. Ehrlicher added that the new material is “three times stronger than normal glass but also more than five times more fracture resistant.”


Cold-Hearted Experiment


cryopreserved heart muscle
Researchers supercooled human cardiac tissue, successfully retaining its structure and function. Image credit: Matt Powell-Palm, UC Berkeley.


What is it? A team at the University of California, Berkeley, preserved lab-grown human heart muscle at subfreezing temperatures and restarted its “heartbeat.”

Why does it matter? Plans for cryopreserving humans remain on ice, but the UC Berkeley findings could have implications for medicine, medical research, drug development and also the food industry. Researchers hope their work could one day extend the viability of donor organs, giving more people the chance for a lifesaving transplant. The results of their study were published in Communications Biology.

How does it work? Researchers used cardiac tissue they grew from human stem cells, a “heart-on-a-chip” system that Berkeley professor Kevin E. Healy developed in 2015. The muscle beats like a human heart and replicates other functions. The team submerged the heart-on-a-chip in a vacuum-sealed container filled with “a common organ preservation solution” that had been chilled to minus three degrees Celsius. This method, called isochoric supercooling, prevents the formation of ice crystals that would damage the tissue’s structure and function. Three days later, they were able to revive the heart muscle cells, successfully getting them to “beat” again. “It's not enough to say that these biological samples survived supercooling,” said Healy. “We wanted to demonstrate that physiological and metabolic function remained largely intact.”


They’re Patching Us Through


microneedle patch
A team from Stanford University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill produced 3D printed an effective microneedle vaccine patch. Image credit: The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.


What is it? Researchers from Stanford and the University of North Carolina (UNC) 3D-printed a microneedle vaccine patch that produced 10 times greater immune response than a comparable jab in the arm.

Why does it matter? The vaccine patch opens “a new way to deliver vaccines that’s painless, less invasive than a shot, does not require cold storage and can be self-administered,” according to UNC.

How does it work? The team says its approach “allows us to directly 3D print the microneedles, which gives us lots of design latitude for making the best microneedles from [both] a performance and cost point of view,” according to Shaomin Tian, a researcher with UNC’s School of Medicine. The team published a paper on its work in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), and says it plans to develop microneedle patches for mRNA vaccines like Pfizer and Moderna’s COVID-19 immunizations.