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The 5 Coolest Things On Earth This Week

Robots pitched in on delicate eye surgery, scientists 3D-printed soft shapes that can be moved by magnet and researchers figured out a way to predict who’s going to fall ill with the flu virus. We’ve caught the scientific-discovery bug, though, and it doesn’t seem to be going away.



Eye, Robot

The team studied “retinal microtrauma” as a proxy to judge the safety of relying on robots, finding no significant difference in outcomes between the two groups. Image credit: Getty Images.

What is it? At Oxford’s John Radcliffe Hospital, surgeons got help performing delicate eye operations from surprising assistants: robots.

Why does it matter? Described in the journal Nature Biomedical Engineering, the operations were the first human trial for robot-assisted eye surgery — a procedure that, you can imagine, requires a lot of precision. And things went swimmingly. “This is a huge leap forward for delicate and technically difficult surgery, which in time should significantly improve the quality and safety of this kind of operation,” said University of Oxford ophthalmology professor Robert MacLaren.

How does it work? In a trial backed by the National Institute for Health Research’s Oxford Biomedical Research Centre, a dozen patients requiring a highly delicate surgery to remove a membrane from behind their retinas were randomly assigned to groups: Half underwent a standard operation, while surgeons operating on the other half had robotic assistance. The team studied “retinal microtrauma” as a proxy to judge the safety of relying on robots, finding no significant difference in outcomes between the two groups. Meanwhile, the operations where surgeon and robot collaborated showed signs of “equal or better efficacy,” according to Oxford. The next step, MacLaren said, “will be to use the robotic surgical device for precise and minimally traumatic delivery of a gene therapy to the retina, which will be another first-in-man achievement and is set to commence in early 2019.”


Warm Comfort For Cold Divers

The team’s new process yields “a blubber-like insulating material that also makes used of trapped pockets of gas.” GIF credit: MIT News.

 What is it? Taking inspiration from the animal world, engineers at MIT and George Mason University have figured out a way to make wet suits that triple the survival time for swimmers and divers in icy water.

Why does it matter? Led by a pair of MIT engineering professors, the project to build a better wet suit responded to a need among Navy SEALs, for instance, or rescuers whose job requires them to jump into frozen lakes and rivers. Even the best wetsuits, typically made of neoprene, keep a body warm for only so long — “as little as tens of minutes,” according to an MIT release, depending on the temperature of the water. Longer survival times in cold water will be a boon to teams like the SEALs, with whom the engineers collaborated on the new design. 

How does it work? By mimicking qualities of otters and penguins, who are kept warm by air pockets in their fur or feathers, and mammals like whales, who rely on blubber. As MIT put it, the team’s new process yields “a blubber-like insulating material that also makes use of trapped pockets of gas,” namely xenon or krypton. The gas is key: It dramatically boosts the insulating ability compared with simple trapped air. Crucially, too, the technology works with standard neoprene wet suits. The team found that the suits could simply be placed in an autoclave filled with a heavy inert gas, leading to better insulation for up to 20 hours. The team reported its findings in the journal RSC Advances.


A Magnetic Attraction To Medical Progress

What is it? Also at MIT, scientists created soft 3D-printed shapes whose movements can be controlled by the wave of a magnet — “like marionettes without the strings,” according to the university.

Why does it matter? The technology raises the possibility of biomedical devices that could be customized to fit the demands of a patient’s body and controlled magnetically. MIT professor Xuanhe Zhao, co-author of a study just out in Nature, said, “We could put a structure around a blood vessel to control the pumping of blood, or use a magnet to guide a device through the GI tract to take images, extract tissue samples, clear a blockage or deliver certain drugs to a specific location.”

How does it work? The movable shapes are based on the premise of “soft actuated devices” — “squishy, moldable materials,” per MIT, whose movements can be manipulated by external stimuli like temperature change or electrical voltage. But such devices often respond slowly, and something like an electrical charge is a tricky proposition when the material is lodged in the body. The team got around the problem by printing shapes that contained magnetic “domains,” or “individual sections of a structure, each with a distinct orientation of magnetic particles,” that can move in distinct ways according to the external magnetic field. Jerry Qi, a Georgia Tech professor not involved in the study, commented, “With this technology … one can apply a magnetic field outside the human body, without using any wiring. Because of its fast responsive speed, the soft robot can fulfill many actions in a short time.”


Your GI Tract’s Got Some Nerve

Top and above: A team at USC is investigating whether “bariatric surgeries or other therapies that block gut-to-brain signaling affect memory. Images credit: Getty Images.

What is it? The vagus nerve runs between the gastrointestinal tract and the brain — specifically the hippocampus, a region typically associated with memory. Scientists at the University of Southern California are positing that in the days of nomadic hunting, this “gut-brain axis” functioned as a kind of internal GPS, helping early humans remember where they had their last meal — and, accordingly, where they could get their next one.

Why does it matter? The complex relationship between the gut and brain is mediated by the vagus, the longest nerve in the body. By understanding a little better the relationship between food, space and memory, this research — published in the journal Nature Communications — opens the door to important medical questions, according to USC: “Could bariatric surgeries or other therapies that block gut-to-brain signaling affect memory?” Moreover, the team wrote, understanding gut-to-brain communication might help us get a better handle on degenerative conditions like Alzheimer’s disease.

How does it work? The USC team sussed out the functioning of the vagus through experiments on rats: They found that animals whose vagus nerves had been severed had trouble remembering information about their environment. Lead author Andrea Suarez, a PhD candidate in biological sciences, said, “We saw impairments in hippocampal-dependent memory when we cut off the communication between the gut and the brain. These memory deficits were coupled with harmful neurobiological outcomes in the hippocampus.” Anxiety and weight levels were unaffected, though.


Who Gets The Flu?

An image of an influenza virus taken by an electron scanning microscope. Image credit: Getty Images.

What is it? Stanford University School of Medicine researchers have pinpointed a biomarker that can help predict whether those exposed to the flu virus will fall ill, as reported in a new study in Genome Medicine.

Why does it matter? If you’ll recall, this past winter’s flu season was particularly bad, claiming lives and sickening scores of people around the world. A way to predict susceptibility to the flu could help local health departments strategically stock up on vaccines and prepare other resources if they think they’ll be dealing with a lot of infections. And better understanding the mechanisms of flu infection can lead researchers to design more effective vaccines.

How does it work? The study examined cells from the bodies of a group of 52 brave participants “who volunteered to sniff up live influenza in the name of science,” according to a release from Stanford. Sifting through the data and examining immune cells, the researchers were able to zero in on a type of immune cell called a “natural killer cell” — those volunteers with higher levels were better able to fight off infection. Senior author Purvesh Khatri, a professor of medicine and biomedical data science, broke it down in the release. “When the score was tallied, Khatri saw that, on the whole, those whose immune cells consisted of 10-13 percent natural killers did not succumb to the flu, whereas those whose natural killer cells fell short of 10 percent wound up ill. It’s a fine line, Khatri said, but the distinction between the groups is quite clear: Everyone who had 10 percent or more natural killer cells stood strong against the infection and showed no symptoms.”

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