A bipedal robot that can walk and fly, a night cap that aims to clear out “brain trash” and a cancer breakthrough that could help stop certain cancer cells in their tracks. This week’s coolest things are turning the clock backward and forward at the same time.
What is it? Caltech researchers built a two-legged robot that can run, hop, fly and skateboard.
Why does it matter? Researchers say the bipedal robot, named LEONARDO (for LEgs ONboARD drOne), or LEO for short, “creates a new type of locomotion.” A paper on LEO is the cover story of this month’s Science Robotics. The robot is very nimble and steady on its “feet,” which engineers say could lead to advances in adaptive landing gear. The technology could be used, for example, to help a futuristic vehicle like a space rotorcraft land safely. “LEO aims to bridge the gap between the two disparate domains of aerial and bipedal locomotion that are not typically intertwined in existing robotic systems,” says Kyunam Kim, a postdoctoral researcher at Caltech and co-lead author of the paper.
How does it work? The 30-inch-high robot has two legs with three joints, like a human leg with an extra knee. Four propellers mounted on its shoulders work together with the legs to continually adjust LEO’s balance as it moves, keeping it upright and steady on land. When flying, the thrust of the propellers alone controls LEO’s movements. Elena-Sorina Lupu, a Caltech grad student, says she will continue work on the robot throughout her PhD studies. “Right now, LEO uses propellers to balance during walking, which means it uses energy fairly inefficiently. We are planning to improve the leg design to make LEO walk and balance with minimal aid of propellers,” Lupu said.
What is it? Scientists in Montreal created an enzyme mixture that can help stop cells from aging — and possibly keep cancer cells from growing.
Why does it matter? The three-enzyme complex prevents hypoxia, the oxygen depletion that causes the body’s cells to age and die. This protection has potential in anti-aging treatments, but the same effect can be harmful for cancer patients, said Gerardo Ferbeyre, a professor at Université de Montréal who led the study. “Importantly, HTC [hydride transfer complex] can be hijacked by certain cancer cells to improve their metabolism, resist to a hypoxic environment and proliferate,” he said. Ferbeyre is senior author of a study on the complex published in Molecular Cell.
How does it work? The researchers examined a model for prostate cancer in mice, as well as in tissue samples from prostate cancer patients. They found the enzyme cocktail, called hydride transfer complex, or HTC, was prevalent in both groups. The researchers re-created HTC by combining its components, three purified proteins, and studied its effects. “Most interestingly, inhibition of these enzymes stopped the growth of prostate cancer cells, suggesting that HTC could be a key target to develop new therapeutics for a variety of cancers, including prostate cancer,” said Ferbeyre.
What is it? A team of engineers and physicians in Texas has won a grant to create a skullcap that helps analyze and remove biochemical waste from the human brain.
Why does it matter? The U.S. Army-funded project aims to develop a portable, lightweight fitted cap that mimics the restorative effects of a good night’s sleep. In addition to helping soldiers stay sharp in the field, researchers hope it could one day treat sleep disorders. “Technologies that facilitate clearing wastes and preventing their deposition in the brain are relevant to patients with sleep disorders, especially those at risk for such neurodegenerative diseases as Alzheimer’s,” said Fidaa Shaib, a professor at Baylor College of Medicine who will help lead the study.
How does it work? The cap will measure and stimulate the flow of cerebrospinal fluid, which flushes abnormal proteins and waste out of the brain. This process, regulated by the body’s glymphatic system, normally happens overnight as a person sleeps. Rice engineers will design the device, and physicians from Baylor and Houston Methodist Hospital will gather data on its effects in healthy patients. Then a Rice-developed machine learning program will analyze the data.
What is it? The Kidney Project successfully tested a prototype artificial kidney that could someday be implanted to treat kidney disease.
Why does it matter? According to the Centers for Disease Control, chronic kidney disease (CKD) affects an estimated 15% of adults. Dialysis and transplant are the only treatments for end-stage renal diseases. “The vision for the artificial kidney is to provide patients with complete mobility and better physiological outcomes than dialysis,” said Shovo Roy of the University of California San Francisco (UCSF), who helps lead the Kidney Project, a public-private partnership between the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the American Society of Nephrology. The team's work was awarded the $650,000 Artificial Kidney Prize to continue its research.
How does it work? In recent years, researchers from the Kidney Project developed a hemofilter, which removes toxins and waste from the bloodstream — the main function of biological kidneys. They also built a “bioreactor” to replicate other important functions, including balancing the body’s electrolytes. Their latest research combines the two parts into one small device. It runs on blood pressure alone, with no need for external power, and could help solve CKD patients’ need for blood thinners and immune-suppressing drugs. “Now that we have demonstrated the feasibility of combining the hemofilter and bioreactor, we can focus on upscaling the technology for more rigorous preclinical testing, and ultimately, clinical trials,” said Roy.
What is it? Scientists at the University of Chicago created an “unusual material” that can both conduct and trap heat.
Why does it matter? Producing energy from heat could be a game changer for the transition to low-carbon power. Indeed, a thermoelectric generator is what powers NASA’s Mars rover. But too much heat can damage batteries and electronic parts. The solution is to create an efficient “heat tunnel” to channel it out of a machine. Now molecular engineers have created a double-duty material that could do just that. “The combination of excellent heat conductivity in one direction and excellent insulation in the other direction does not exist at all in nature," said University of Chicago professor Jiwoong Park, lead author of a study on the findings, detailed in Nature.
How does it work? Engineers stacked ultrathin layers of a crystalline material, aligning each layer’s atoms in a single direction but randomly rotating each sheet. Grad student Shi En Kim, another lead author of the team’s study, compares the structure to an unfinished Rubik’s Cube, with the finished material being “completely messy” at the nanoscale. When they tested the results, they found that heat directed at a microscopic wall of the material was efficiently trapped, or insulated. At the same time, heat moved freely along the wall. “If you think of what the windowpane did for us — being able to keep the outside and inside temperatures separate — you can get a sense of how useful this could be,” Park said.