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The Vanguard

The 5 Coolest Things On Earth This Week

Radiologists can see the body in color, polymers are shifting between hard and soft states, flying cars are no longer a dream, and the military is bringing mind-controlled robots one step closer to reality. We’re back to the future in this week’s 5 Coolest Things.

 

In Living Color: X-Rays

Above: A scan of a human wrist — and wristwatch — made using Medipix technology first developed at CERN. Image credit: MARS Bioimaging Ltd. Top GIF credit: Opener.

What is it? Using technology developed at CERN — you know, the Large Hadron Collider folks — a pair of scientists working in New Zealand have given X-rays the “Wizard of Oz” treatment: They’ve figured out how to create scans of the human body in color rather than plain old black and white.

Why does it matter? The better doctors are able to peer inside the body, the better they’ll be able to make diagnoses. The new color 3-D scanner, which is called MARS and which uses a chip called Medipix3, is able to read the energy levels of X-ray photons of different body parts — including fat, calcium and water, as well as some disease indicators — and represent them in different colors. According to CERN, researchers have thus far used a version of the tech “to study cancer, bone and joint health, and vascular disease that can cause heart attacks and strokes.” Next up? Orthopedic and rheumatology patients.

How does it work? Using something called hybrid-pixel technology, which was developed initially to track particles inside the Large Hadron Collider — the 17-mile ring under the border of France and Switzerland where physicists investigate the origins of the universe. Medipix, a “family of read-out chips for particle imaging and detection,” works like a camera, “detecting and counting each individual particle hitting the pixels when its electronic shutter is open,” and enabling high-res, high-contrast images, says CERN. The MARS scanner, developed by father-and-son scientists Phil and Anthony Butler, “couples the spectroscopic information generated by the Medipix3-enabled detector with powerful algorithms to generate 3D images.”

 

Has Chemistry Gone Soft? Hardly.

Light can change the structure of a new polymer from the orange cagelike shape on the left to the smaller blue shapes on the right, shifting the state of the material from hard to soft. Image credit: Demin Liu/Molgraphics.

What is it? Chemists at MIT have created a polymer material that can change back and forth between hard and soft states in response to light. Says chemistry professor Jeremiah Johnson, the leader of the research team: “You can switch the material states back and forth, and in each of those states, the material acts as though it were a completely different material, even though it’s made of all the same components.”

Why does it matter? The polymer raises the possibility that the surfaces of certain objects — say, cars or satellites — could be made to “heal” when damaged. Johnson says, “Anything made from plastic or rubber, if it could be healed when it was damaged, then it wouldn’t have to be thrown away. Maybe this approach would provide materials with longer life cycles.” Though any such use is a ways off, it might also be used in drug delivery — because light is the activating factor in changing the state of the polymer from hard to soft, it could be used to release drugs at just the right moment.

How does it work? Johnson and his team — who reported their results in the journal Nature — built off an earlier creation called polymer metal-organic cages, or polyMOCs, which “consist of metal-containing, cage-like structures joined together by flexible polymer linkers,” according to MIT. For the new material, the team incorporated a light-sensitive molecule into the mix, finding that exposure to green light causes the material to rearrange itself molecularly between hard and soft states. But only up to a point: After about seven cycles, the material starts to fall apart.

 

Mind Control

DARPA is seeking a way to seamlessly meld mind and machine. Got any bright ideas? 

What is it? A project of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is seeking to lower the barrier between the human brain and — well — everything else: DARPA is selecting teams to participate in its Next-Generation Non-Surgical Neurotechnology program, or N3, in order to develop a “neural interface” through which soldiers can communicate via brainwave with the systems they’re controlling, and receive information from those systems in turn.

Why does it matter? The government-tech website Nextgov likens the situation to the movie “Pacific Rim,” where soldiers in combat control skyscraper-sized fighting machines with their minds. As a DARPA rep told the site, pilots could mentally coordinate fleets of drones or direct remote robots in battle. Trippy stuff? Sure, but as Nextgov points out, the military has already worked on prosthetic limbs that disabled vets can control via an electrode implanted in their brains. The difference with N3 is DARPA’s desire for it to be noninvasive.

How does it work? DARPA is soliciting proposals, so we don’t really know yet. The N3 program works along two tracks: completely noninvasive and minimally invasive — say, a chemical ingested by users that could “help external sensors read their brain activity.” For both, though, the tech will have to be “bidirectional,” meaning that the brain can both transmit and receive information with it. Stay tuned.

The Hovercraft Dream Gets Closer To Reality

What is it? The Canadian firm Opener has created a next-gen electric vehicle. Not impressed yet? This one flies through the air, achieving speeds of up 62 miles per hour, and can take off and land vertically. Dubbed the BlackFly, it’s a single-seat, ultralight “personal aerial vehicle.”

Why does it matter? Besides looking a bit like a “Star Wars” X-wing? The BlackFly requires about a fifth of the energy (measured in watt-hours per mile) of a gas-powered car, and just a bit less than that of a standard electrical car. It’s also a lot less noisy, and apparently so easy to operate that no special training or license is needed. (Though — in the U.S., at least — this last claim might be up for debate.)

How does it work? Via a bank of propellers on two fixed wings at either end of the vehicle — the BlackFly looks a bit like a really big remote-operated drone — and an “intuitive” joystick and three fail-safe flight systems. Opener boasts that the BlackFly “heralds a new era of aviation. Time and money spent traveling and maintaining infrastructure will be reduced. People will go places they never thought possible.” Oh, and it can land on or take off from water.

 

Cancer Vs. Cancer

Cancer cells engineered via CRISPR to turn against their own (in green) attack cancer in the brain (in red). Image credit: CSTI/Khalid Shah Lab.

What is it? Scientists at the Harvard Stem Cell Institute have figured out how to use cancer against itself. Cancer cells are adept at moving around the body to locate tumors, which is what helps them spread, but researchers are learning to exploit that ability to get the cells to deliver a therapeutic protein.

Why does it matter? The team’s study, published in Science Translational Medicine, “demonstrates the potential of engineered tumor cells for receptor-targeted therapy,” said Mario Suva, co-leader of HSCI’s Cancer Program and an assistant professor of pathology at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School. It’s been successfully tested in primary and metastatic tumors in mice. 

How does it work? Cancer cells, as the authors explain in their paper, “exhibit a ‘self-homing’ behavior” — those in circulation in the body can find their way back to the main tumor site. Taking advantage of this, they used CRISPR to attach to the cancer cells a protein that activates a cell-death program, killing the tumor. They were also able to design the engineered cells to be self-destructing, so that they’d off themselves after doing their jobs, rather than stick around as cancer in the body.

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