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The 5 Coolest Things On Earth This Week

A robot in California is acting like a total baby, researchers in the U.K. smuggled a tumor-tracing virus into patients’ brains, and plants in Australia are breeding like rabbits. We’d say 2018 is off to a promising start.


Going Viral

Above: A MRI image of brain tumor. Image credit: Getty Images. Top: A CT image of blood vessels leading into the brain. Image credit: GE Healthcare.

What is it? Scientists at the University of Leeds in the U.K. have found a virus that can sneak through the blood-brain barrier to attack cancer. “This study was about showing that a virus could be delivered to a tumor in the brain,” said Adel Samson, co-lead author and medical oncologist at the Leeds Institute of Cancer and Pathology at the University of Leeds. “Not only was it able to reach its target, but there were signs it stimulated the body’s own immune defenses to attack the cancer.”

Why does it matter? Samson said that this was “the first time it has been shown that a therapeutic virus [was] able to pass through the brain-blood barrier,” a selectively permeable membrane that protects the brain from pathogens. He said that the finding “opens up the possibility this type of immunotherapy could be used to treat more people with aggressive brain cancers.”

How does it work? Scientists have used viruses to attack cancer in the past. They use them to put a bull’s-eye on tumors, making them visible to the immune system. “Our immune systems aren’t very good at ‘seeing’ cancers — partly because cancer cells look like our body’s own cells, and partly because cancers are good at telling immune cells to turn a blind eye,” said co-lead author Alan Melcher, professor of translational immunotherapy at the Institute of Cancer Research in London. “But the immune system is very good at seeing viruses.” The virus, called reovirus, infects cancer cells but leaves healthy cells alone, the researchers reported. They used an intravenous drip to get the virus into nine patients suffering from brain cancer. Follow-up surgery found that “in all nine patients, there was evidence that the virus had reached its target and stimulated the body’s immune system.”


This Robot is Such A Baby

What is it? Engineers at the University of California, Berkeley, programmed a robot to learn about its environment by manipulating objects like a toddler and “imagine future actions.”

Why does it matter? The university reported that, “in the future, this technology could help self-driving cars anticipate future events on the road and produce more intelligent robotic assistants in homes, but the initial prototype focuses on learning simple manual skills entirely from autonomous play.”

How does it work? The team programmed a one-armed Sawyer collaborative robot made by Rethink Robotics with “visual foresight” technology that allows robots to “predict what their cameras will see if they perform a particular sequence of movements.” Although the technology is still in its infancy, it could allow robots to “imagine the future of their actions so they can figure out how to manipulate objects they have never encountered before” without any prior knowledge of physics or the environment around them. “In the same way that we can imagine how our actions will move the objects in our environment, this method can enable a robot to visualize how different behaviors will affect the world around it,” said Sergey Levine, assistant professor in Berkeley’s Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Sciences, whose lab developed the technology. “This can enable intelligent planning of highly flexible skills in complex real-world situations.”


Move Over Speed Dating, Here Comes Speed Breeding

University of Queensland’s Lee Hickey is standing in his wheat patch. Image credit: University of Queensland.

What is it? Researchers at the University of Queensland in Australia have developed a “speed breeding” process that allows plant breeders to develop new, more robust crop types much faster. NASA research into growing wheat in space inspired the team. “We thought we could use the NASA idea to grow plants quickly back on Earth, and in turn, accelerate the genetic gain in our plant breeding programs,” Lee Hickey, senior research fellow at the university.

Why does it matter? It can take a decade or more to develop a new crop variety for farmers, the team said. Plant breeders could use their new speedy breeding method to accelerate the process and quickly transfer genes for, say, disease, pest or drought resistance into new crops. The team says the approach can deliver a new seed in just six weeks,” Hickey said. “There has been a lot of interest globally in this technique due to the fact that the world has to produce 60-80 per cent more food by 2050 to feed its nine billion people.”

How does it work? The team used modified glasshouses and lighting to “grow six generations of wheat, chickpea and barley plants, and four generations of canola plants in a single year — as opposed to two or three generations in a regular glasshouse, or a single generation in the field,” Hickey said.


He Makes Plastic Crawl

What is it? Japanese designer Hiroshi Sugihara working at the University of Tokyo’s Prototyping and Design Laboratory 3D printed “skeletal” bio-robots inspired by animals. The robotic lizards, scorpions and other crawly creatures use tiny electrical motors to move around like their living cousins.

Why does it matter? The work is part of Sugihara’s Ready to Crawl project. He said using 3D printing to design “original transmission mechanisms” allows him to show the possibilities of the technology “for designing motion and transmission mechanisms.”

How does it work? Sugihara and his team design the creatures on a computer print them on a selective laser sintering machine, a type of a 3D printer. “In this project I tried to make robots which were born is completed state like creatures by making all parts, excluding a DC motor, assembled by [additive manufacturing] as one machine.”


Bacterial Submarines

This image is a transmission electron micrograph (TEM) image of a single commensal bacterium, E. coli Nissle 1917, which has been genetically engineered to express gas-filled protein nanostructures known as gas vesicles. The cell is approximately 2 micrometers in length, and the lighter-colored structures contained inside of it are individual gas vesicles. Caption and image credits:  AnupamaLakshmanan/Caltech

What is it? Scientists at the California Institute of Technology designed ultrasound sonar that can track bacteria in the body like submarines. “We are engineering the bacterial cells so they can bounce sound waves back to us and let us know their location the way a ship or submarine scatters sonar when another ship is looking for it,” says Mikhail Shapiro, assistant professor of chemical engineering at CalTech.

Why does it matter? The university reported that the research could allow doctors one day to “inject therapeutic bacteria into a patient’s body—for example, as probiotics to help treat diseases of the gut or as targeted tumor treatments—and then use ultrasound machines to hit the engineered bacteria with sound waves to generate images that reveal the locations of the microbes. The pictures would let doctors know if the treatments made it to the right place in the body and were working properly.”

How does it work? Shapiro and his team transferred genes for special “gas-filled protein structures in water-dwelling bacteria that help regulate the organisms’ buoyancy” to different types of bacteria and used them to bounce back ultrasound signals. “We wanted to teach the E. coli bacteria to make the gas vesicles themselves,” says Shapiro. “I’ve been wanting to do this ever since we realized the potential of gas vesicles, but we hit some roadblocks along the way. When we finally got the system to work, we were ecstatic.” The team successfully tracked the bugs in the guts of mice.





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