Researchers at Stanford turned blood cells into neurons, engineers in Germany built software that can see into the future, and their peers in Scotland developed laser for the eyes. You can try to run from science, but you can’t hide.
What is it? Researchers working at the Stanford University School of Medicine transformed human immune cells harvested from blood into functional neurons, the building blocks of the central nervous system as well as the brain. They were able to do it without inducing the cells into pluripotent stem cells (iPS) first. “The prospect of generating iPS cells from hundreds of patients is daunting and would require automation of the complex reprogramming process,” according to Stanford’s Marius Wernig.
Why does it matter? Wernig was able to coax skin cells into neurons in the past, but he said that blood was “one of the easiest biological samples to obtain. Nearly every patient who walks into a hospital leaves a blood sample, and often these samples are frozen and stored for future study.” He said that the technique was “a breakthrough” that opened a way “to study the neuronal function of, in principle, hundreds of people with schizophrenia and autism. For decades we’ve had very few clues about the origins of these disorders and how to treat them. Now we can start to answer so many questions.”
How does it work? The researchers harvested the immune system’s T cells from frozen as well as fresh blood samples. They were able to produce as many as 500,000 neurons from 1 millimeter of blood. Although the neurons aren’t able to form mature connections with one another, Wernig said that it was “kind of shocking how simple it is to convert T cells into functional neurons in just a few days. T cells are very specialized immune cells with a simple round shape, so the rapid transformation is somewhat mind-boggling.”
What is it? Researchers at the University of Bonn in Germany have developed self-learning software that can “look a few minutes into the future.” The computer program used machine vision and pattern recognition to observe people preparing salad. “Based on this knowledge, it can then accurately predict in new situations what the chef will do at which point in time,” according to the university.
Why does it matter? The team, led by Jürgen Gall, a professor at the school, said it wanted to use the research to study “activity prediction” by computers. “We humans are very good at anticipating the actions of others,” the university said. “For computers however, this discipline is still in its infancy.”
How does it work? Gall and his colleagues first made the system watch 40 videos of cooks preparing different salads for a total of 4 hours. Each list lasted about 6 minutes and contained 20 different actions, as well as the precise timing of the beginning and end of each step. Next, the team showed the software with another batch of salad-making videos it had never seen and told it what was happening during the first 20 to 30 percent of the clips. “Accuracy was over 40 percent for short forecast periods, but then dropped the more the algorithm had to look into the future,” Gall said. According to the university, “activities that were more than three minutes in the future, the computer was still right in 15 percent of cases. However, the prognosis was only considered correct if both the activity and its timing were correctly predicted.”
What is it? Scientists at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland have developed a “soft” laser system that fits onto a membrane and can be attached to a contact lens. The team was able to “demonstrate ocular lasing using the cow eye as a model system,” according to the university.
Why does it matter? The technology “could be harnessed for new applications in security, biophotonics and photomedicine,” according to the university. “Our work represents a new milestone in laser development and, in particular, points the way to how lasers can be used in inherently soft and ductile environments, be it in wearable sensors or as an authentication feature on bank notes,” said professor Malte Gather, who teaches at the School of Physics and Astronomy at St. Andrews.
How does it work? “Lasers on the eye – ocular lasers – may now be possible with the development of an ultra-thin membrane laser using organic semiconductors,” the university said. The team built the laser by “floating a thin plastic film off a substrate.” Markus Karl, who worked on the new lasers as part of his PhD, said that “by varying the materials and adjusting the grating structures of the laser, the emission can be designed to show a specific series of sharp lines on a flat background – the ones and zeros of a digital barcode.”
What is it? A team of doctors and researchers at the University of California at San Francisco transplanted a pregnant woman’s stem cells into her unborn child, who was suffering from a normally fatal fetal condition. The baby, Elianna Obar, was born in February. The university reported that Elianna was “the first fetus enrolled in the world’s first clinical trial using blood stem cells transplanted prior to birth.”
Why does it matter? Elianna was one of the 5 percent of people who carry the gene for the blood disorder alpha thalassemia, and she fell “critically ill during the second trimester of pregnancy.” The condition can lead to progressive anemia and heart failure before birth. The survival rate is so bleak that women often opt to terminate the pregnancy rather than risk a potentially dangerous and unsuccessful birth. “Once universally fatal, thalassemia can now be managed as a chronic disease,” said Dr. Elliott Vichinsky, who oversees Elianna’s treatment. “In utero stem-cell transplantation may take it one step further: as a disease that can be successfully treated before birth.”
How does it work? The team first collected immature blood stem cells from the mother’s bone marrow that can evolve into all types of blood cells. Next, it injected these immature stem cells, called hematopoietic cells, “through the woman’s abdomen into the umbilical vein of the fetus, where they can circulate through the bloodstream, developing into healthy, mature blood cells.” Because the fetus’ immune system is still underdeveloped, it has a higher tolerance for the mother’s cells during pregnancy and won’t attack the stem cells. The university cautioned that “the trial aimed to assess the safety of the procedure, not its effectiveness; the baby survived, but was not cured.”
What is it? Engineers at MIT have designed a compression bandage with photonic fibers that change color as the bandage pressure changes.
Why does it matter? Compression therapy is a go-to treatment for patients with medical conditions such as venous ulcers that make it difficult for blood to circulate back up from their legs. The pressure-sensing and color-changing fibers allow caregivers and patients to better determine bandage pressure for optimized treatment and recovery. “Getting the pressure right is critical in treating many medical conditions,” said Mathias Kolle, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at MIT. “These fibers can provide information about the pressure that the bandage exerts. We can design them so that for a specific desired pressure, the fibers reflect an easily distinguished color.”
How does it work? The team created the fabric by layering widely available transparent rubber material, only a few hundred nanometers thick, and wrapping it around flexible black rubber centers. The transparent material reflects different colors, depending on how tightly the fibers are stretched. Red means that the fibers are stretched too tightly, and green means that the fibers are stretched correctly and at a good pressure for treating injury.