Scientists are getting closer to bioengineering organs for transplants in humans, regenerating bone to treat injuries and birth defects, and using next-gen materials to heal skin wounds and prevent infection. In this week’s coolest scientific discoveries, we’re becoming just a bit more superhuman — or at least more resilient.
What is it? Four pigs in Texas are breathing a sigh of relief: Each is the recipient of bioengineered lung created in the lab by a team of researchers at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston.
Why does it matter? It’s great that the transplantation of the new lungs into the porcine recipients went off without a hitch — none of the pigs’ immune systems rejected the organ — but of course, the animals were just guinea, uh, test subjects for this promising medical technology. The holy grail here is bioengineering organs that can be transplanted into humans, who face a severe shortage of options. As Science Alert reports, more than 1,400 people are waiting for lung transplants right now in the U.S. — there simply aren’t enough donors. Some day, hopefully, we’ll sidestep this problem by growing organs in the lab.
How does it work? The UTMB team, led by Joan Nichols and Joaquin Cortiella, took a lung from a different animal and stripped it of its blood and cells — leaving behind only the protein “support scaffold” on which to grow a new lung, according to UTMB. They then removed a single lung from each of the test pigs, extracted their cells, mixed them with a “carefully blended cocktail of nutrients” and applied the mixture to the lung scaffold. They placed the experimental lung in a bioreactor for 30 days and watched new tissue grow. Once sufficiently developed, the lungs were transplanted into the test pigs. Nichols and Cortiella said, “We saw no signs of pulmonary edema, which is usually a sign of the vasculature not being mature enough. The bioengineered lungs continued to develop post-transplant without any infusions of growth factors, the body provided all of the building blocks that the new lungs needed.” The results are published in Science Translational Medicine.
What is it? Also in the Lone Star State, a team at Texas A&M is making strides toward developing “smarter” skin graft technology — materials that will help heal skin injuries while minimizing the risk of infection.
Why does it matter? Smart-graft tech — including materials that can release antibiotics onto the skin, as the Texas team’s is able to — will be invaluable in treating otherwise difficult-to-treat conditions like diabetic ulcers and chronic wounds.
How does it work? The material is made of biodegradable mesh nanofiber topped with micelles, or functional containers. The micelles can be coated with antibiotics, which they then deliver to the wound — helping to reduce cell counts of bacteria like staph, according to the team’s findings, which appear in Advanced Healthcare Materials. “Once we had a working system, we then sought to understand how this material would interact with bacteria and found it would be able to prevent infection as desired,” said lead researcher Victoria Albright. “Next the team will work closely with clinicians to optimize our design, maximize benefits for patients, and enhance the real-world applicability of the skin graft. The team will continue to engineer the skin graft to specifically address different types of wounds and to further personalize it for different patients.”
What is it? And speaking of scaffolds: Doctors at the NYU School of Medicine and the NYU School of Dentistry have created a material to guide the regeneration of bone within the body. The nifty thing about this 3D-printed ceramic “scaffolding” is that it dissolves harmlessly into the body as it does its job.
Why does it matter? “Our 3D scaffold represents the best implant in development because of its ability to regenerate real bone,” said study senior investigator Paulo Coelho, adding that the results “move us closer to clinical trials and potential bone implants for children living with skull deformations since birth, as well as for veterans seeking to repair damaged limbs.” Coelho and company published their findings — the technique having been successfully tested in animals — in Tissue Engineering and Regenerative Medicine.
How does it work? One key ingredient is beta tricalcium phosphate, a compound found in real bones — meaning that the material can be reabsorbed into the body while it’s doing its job. After printing, the bone implant is coated with a blood thinner called dipyridamole, which has been shown to “speed up bone formation by more than 50 percent,” according to NYU. “The chemical also attracts bone stem cells, which spur the formation of nourishing blood vessels and bone marrow within the newly grown bone. These soft tissues, researchers say, lend to their scaffold-grown bone the same flexibility as natural bone.”
What is it? A team at the University of Michigan is on a race to create the world’s smallest computer. Earlier this summer, the team created a computer that measured just .3 millimeters across — “dwarfed by a grain of rice,” according to the university.
Why does it matter? The latest computer was designed at Michigan as a “precision temperature sensor” — that is, it reads temperature and converts the data into time intervals, communicated via electronic pulse. Such a minuscule device could be used within the body, for instance, to take the temperature of tumors, allowing oncologists to determine how hot they’re running relative to surrounding tissue, and evaluate the efficacy of therapies. The team presented its study in June at the 2018 Symposia on VLSI Technology and Circuits.
How does it work? First, its designers admit that a computer this small bends the definition of what a “computer” even is — the new microdevices are so tiny that they lose all data and programming when they lose power, for instance. To make their processor function at a tenth of the size of the previous smallest processor, the Michigan team made a bunch of technological tweaks, including how it receives and transmits data. David Blaauw, a professor of electrical and computer engineering who co-led the project, said, “We basically had to invent new ways of approaching circuit design that would be equally low power but could also tolerate light” — accomplished by exchanging diodes for switched capacitors, among other tricks.
What is it? On Friday, NASA introduced a team of astronauts who’ll rep the U.S. on the International Space Station — they’ll be the first crew to launch from U.S. soil since the space shuttle’s retirement in 2011. Instead of flying via shuttle, though, the new crew will blast off in spacecraft under development by commercial partners Boeing and SpaceX.
Why does it matter? There’s work to do: As a release from NASA today points out, the 18-year American presence on the ISS “enabled technology demonstrations and research in biology and biotechnology, Earth and space science, human health, physical sciences” — lessons that had a myriad of practical applications back on terra firma, including in tech, infrastructure and medicine. (GE has technology on the ISS, too.) The two craft that’ll take them up there — Boeing’s Starliner and SpaceX’s Crew Dragon — will be test cases for the kinds of public-private partnerships that NASA is pinning its future on.
How does it work? New economic arrangements aside, the astronauts will reach space the old-fashioned way: at the top of a rocket that launches from Florida. Both the Starliner and Crew Dragon were developed in close collaboration with NASA to be able to dock with the ISS. Once each has completed a crewed test flight, NASA will certify it as space-worthy and OK for regular missions to the station. The space agency has contracts with Boeing and SpaceX for six missions each, with up to four astronauts per trip.