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The 5 Coolest Things On Earth This Week

Doctors in London used stem cells to make an Englishman see again, new AI can sniff out heart disease from just one heartbeat, and Massachusetts Institute of Technology researchers stumbled on the blackest material to date and used it hide a 16-carat diamond. Here’s our weekly haul of scientific wonders.

 

Coming Out Of His Cell

Top and above: “Basically, I went from near-blindness in that eye to being able to see everything,” said James O’Brien, who had is sight restored thanks to stem cells. Images credit: Getty Images.

What is it? Doctors in England used stem cells to restore sight to a man who was blinded in one eye during an acid attack more than two decades ago.

Why does it matter? According to the BBC, the procedure took 20 years to develop, and the man, 44-year-old James O’Brien, became the first patient with U.K.’s National Health System to receive it. Sajjad Ahmad, O’Brien’s surgeon, told the Daily Mail that “James — in a crude sort of way — kindly accepted to be the guinea pig for this treatment. Because of what he’s done, it will now enable us to offer it to everyone who needs it.”

How does it work? The corrosive chemical used in the attack burned the surface of O’Brien’s eye. To repair it, the surgeons at London’s Moorfield Eye Hospital harvested stem cells from the patient’s healthy eye and grew them in a lab in Italy for as long as six months, according to the Daily Mail. Stem cells are a kind of universal cell that can theoretically develop into any tissue in the body. Next, they removed the scar tissue from O’Brien’s damaged eye, repopulated the area with the stem cells, and let them grow for about a year. Finally, they covered the new cells with a cornea from a dead donor. “Being able to see with both eyes — it’s a small thing that means the world,” O’Brien told the Daily Mail. “Basically, I went from near-blindness in that eye to being able to see everything.”

 

A Tiny Discovery With Big Implications

What is it? On this side of the Atlantic, scientists at the University of Michigan are using stem cells to build not just one organ, but entire “stem cell colonies that mimic parts of early human development.” Michigan News reported the team developed a new technique that “imitates stages in embryo development that occur shortly after implantation in the uterus. This is when the amniotic sac begins to form and when the stem cells that would go on to become the fetus take their first steps toward organization into the body.” The university said “the embryo-like or ‘embryoid’ structures don’t have the potential to develop beyond small colonies of cells.”

Why does it matter? The approach, which was published in Nature, “can reliably produce hundreds or thousands of embryo-like structures needed to determine whether a medicine is safe for a pregnant woman to take in very early pregnancy, for instance,” the university reported. “Our stem cell structures that mimic embryos can help fill critical gaps in knowledge about early human development, and that could lead to a lot of good,” said Jianping Fu, an associate professor of mechanical engineering who led the UM team. “This research could give us a window into the pivotal but barely observable period between two and four weeks after conception. This is a time when many miscarriages happen, and serious birth defects can form.” But in MIT Technology Review, Fu also called for new laws governing the process. “Many scientists are trying to push boundaries, and people are crossing lines,” Fu told the magazine. “If you let scientists self-regulate, that is how the gene-edited babies happened. I don’t trust self-regulation.”

How does it work? Fu and his team used a microfluidic device to grow stem cells arranged around a column that “contained a gel that mimicked the wall of the uterus, and it was flanked by a channel for feeding in stem cells and another for chemical signals that guided the development of the cells,” according to the university. They used three different ways to generate the embryo models. “In conventional 3D cultures, less than 5% of the stem cell clusters would form embryo-like structures,” Fu said. “With this microfluidic system, which gives us a handle to precisely control the culture environment, we can achieve above 90% efficiency for generating such embryo-like structures.”

 

We ❤️AI

By checking just one heartbeat, a University of Surrey team was able to detect whether or not a person has heart failure. Image credit: Getty Images.

What is it? Researchers at the University of Surrey in England developed a type of AI that can spot congestive heart failure “with 100% accuracy through analysis of just one raw electrocardiogram (ECG) heartbeat.”

Why does it matter? Congestive heart failure — or heart failure — is a chronic condition that occurs when heart muscles fail to pump blood properly. It can be caused by diseased arteries, high blood pressure and other conditions. Doctors use ECG, chest X-ray, MRI, cardiac computed tomography (CT) and other imaging methods to diagnose it. Some 5 million Americans are currently living with the condition.

How does it work? The team reported in Biomedical Signal Processing and Control their solution “uses a combination of advanced signal processing and machine learning tools on raw ECG signals.” Sebastiano Massaro, a neuroscience professor at the university, said the team “trained and tested the [convolutional neural networks] model on large publicly available ECG datasets featuring subjects with CHF as well as healthy, non-arrhythmic hearts. Our model delivered 100% accuracy: by checking just one heartbeat, we are able to detect whether or not a person has heart failure. Our model is also one of the first known to be able to identify the ECG’s morphological features specifically associated to the severity of the condition.”

 

Back In Black

A 16.78-carat natural yellow diamond from LJ West Diamonds (left), is coated with a new carbon nanotube-based material that is the blackest material on record (the covered diamond, shown at right). Image and caption credit: MIT News.

What is it? MIT scientists developed the “blackest material to date” and used it to cloak a $2 million yellow diamond and hide it from view. “The effect is arresting: The gem, normally brilliantly faceted, appears as a flat, black void,” MIT News reported. The piece is part of an art collaboration between Brian Wardle, professor of aeronautics and astronautics at MIT; Wardle’s engineer team; and MIT Center for Art, Science, and Technology artist-in-residence Diemut Strebe. It was on display this week at “The Redemption of Vanity” show at the New York Stock Exchange.

Why does it matter? Wardle told MIT News that “aside from making an artistic statement,” the material can also help astronomers protect telescopes from unwanted glare “to help space telescopes spot orbiting exoplanets.” Said Wardle: “There are optical and space science applications for very black materials, and of course, artists have been interested in black, going back well before the Renaissance. Our material is 10 times blacker than anything that’s ever been reported, but I think the blackest black is a constantly moving target. Someone will find a blacker material, and eventually we’ll understand all the underlying mechanisms, and will be able to properly engineer the ultimate black.”

How does it work? MIT News reported the material, a foil made from vertically-aligned carbon nanotubes, is “10 times blacker than anything that has previously been reported.” The publication said “foil captures more than 99.96 percent of any incoming light.” The team grew the nanotubes “on a surface of chlorine-etched aluminum foil” and aligned them “like a fuzzy forest of tiny trees.” But they still have work to do: Carbon nanotube “forests of different varieties are known to be extremely black, but there is a lack of mechanistic understanding as to why this material is the blackest,” Wardle said. “That needs further study.”

 

Adult Cancer Drug Saves Tiny Patient

Leukemia cells in peripheral blood smear. Image credit: Getty Images.

What is it? Physicians at University of San Francisco Benioff Children’s Hospital have “successfully treated a months-old infant” suffering from juvenile myelomonocytic leukemia (JMML), an aggressive form of childhood leukemia, by using a targeted therapy approved for adults with inoperable liver cancer and advanced kidney cancer.”

Why does it matter? The hospital says the results lend support to a “growing shift in cancer treatment” where “the genes fueling the cancer, rather than the type of cancer itself, may determine optimal therapy.”

How does it work? The doctors first treated the patient with chemotherapy, but when the infant’s symptoms became more severe, they decided to sequence the DNA of the baby’s cancer cells. According to the hospital: “None of the mutations associated with [juvenile myelomonocytic leukemia] were found. However, the pathologists were surprised to discover a mutation known as an FLT3 fusion — something that had never before been reported in a pediatric malignancy, the authors said.” With the result in hand, they decided to treat the little patient with sorafenib, a drug “that works by blocking the action of an abnormal protein that signals cancer cells to multiply,” according to the hospital. After the child’s white blood cell counts “plummeted,” the infant received a stem cell transplant to produce healthy blood cells. The university reported that the child is now “a thriving toddler.”

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