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The 5 Coolest Things On Earth This Week

Researchers designed a tube to help nerves regrow, scanned and reproduced the vocal tract of a 3,000-year-old Egyptian priest, and speculated on whether one of the brightest stars in the sky is set to explode. Human bodies, mummified bodies, celestial bodies — this week’s coolest scientific discoveries can get anybody excited.


These Scientists Have Got Some Nerve

Above: Lauren Kokai (left) developed the technology used for this project when she was a graduate studying under University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine plastic surgery professor Kacey Marra. Image credit: UPMC. Top image credit: Getty Images.

What is it? Damaged nerves can regrow, but they benefit from a little guidance — and now researchers at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine have designed a biodegradable polymer tube that offers just that.

Why does it matter? Nerve damage is a problem for wounded soldiers as well as people who’ve been in car crashes, undergone cancer treatment or have diabetes. For treatment, doctors typically remove a section of nerve from the back of the leg and sew it onto a motor nerve where it’s needed, often in the arm. Patients regain only limited functionality from such procedures, though. It’d be better if the nerves could regrow themselves, though that comes with its own complications. If they need to grow longer than a third of an inch, they’re unable to find their target, and can end up creating a neuroma — a painful ball of disoriented nerves.

How does it work? Researchers in the lab of Pitt plastic surgery professor Kacey Marra created a tube made of dissolvable sutures and a “growth-promoting protein” that “releases slowly over the course of months.” When the tube was tested in monkeys, it took a year for a damaged 2-inch section of nerve to regrow — and the monkeys were able to regain about 80% of their fine motor control. “We’re the first to show a nerve guide without any cells was able to bridge a large, 2-inch gap between the nerve stump and its target muscle,” Marra said. “Our guide was comparable to, and in some ways better than, a nerve graft.” The findings are described further in Science Translational Medicine.


Researchers To Mummy: Say ‘Ahhhhhhhhh’

What is it? Just because you’re an Egyptian priest who died and was mummified 3,000 years ago doesn’t mean you have nothing to say: Using CT scanning and 3D printing, a team of British researchers reproduced “a vowel-like sound” that would’ve been made by the aforementioned mummified Egyptian priest, whose name was Nesyamun.

Why does it matter? For one thing, it matters to Nesyamun. According to a news release from Royal Holloway, University of London: “Given Nesyamun’s stated desire to have his voice heard in the afterlife in order to live forever, the fulfillment of his beliefs through the synthesis of his vocal function allows us to make direct contact with ancient Egypt by listening to a sound from a vocal tract that has not been heard for more than 3,000 years, preserved through mummification and now restored through this new technique.” The project, a collaboration between researchers at Royal Holloway and the University of York, is described further in Scientific Reports.

How does it work? The project grew out of some more contemporary concerns: Royal Holloway electronic engineer David Howard was demonstrating a 3D-printed vocal tract, called the Vocal Tract Organ, as a way to restore speech to people who’ve lost it following surgery or cancer, when he was approached by an archaeologist who had another idea entirely. The team used CT scanning to capture the dimensions of Nesyamun’s throat and larynx, allowing them to create a bespoke Vocal Tract Organ that could approximate what he would’ve sounded like. York archaeologist Joann Fletcher said, “While this has wide implications for both healthcare and museum display, its relevance conforms exactly to the ancient Egyptians’ fundamental belief that ‘to speak the name of the dead is to make them live again.’”


Starlight, A Little Less Bright

A composite image of the SN 1006 supernova remnant; the star’s explosion was observed on Earth just over a thousand years ago. One of the brightest stars in today’s sky, Betelgeuse has grown dimmer over the past few months, and astronomers have different theories as to why. One unlikely possibility? It may be getting ready to explode. Image credit: Getty Images.

What is it? Betelgeuse, one of the brightest stars in the sky, has grown markedly dimmer since last fall, prompting astronomers to wonder what’s going on with it. One possibility, however (ahem) dim? It could be about to explode.

Why does it matter? Given its proximity to us and the relative ease of study, whatever happens to Betelgeuse — part of the constellation Orion — will offer valuable troves of information to those who study the life cycles of stars. Betelgeuse has been a red supergiant for the last 40,000 years, and could go on for tens of thousands more years before reaching its inevitable end: supernova, when the star runs out of hydrogen, its core collapses and it explodes. In reality, that probably won’t happen soon, but if there are any humans left on Earth when it does, they’ll be in for a spectacular show: According to the New York Times’ Dennis Overbye, “The supernova would be as bright as a full moon in our sky.”

How does it work? The brightness of stars like Betelgeuse tends to vary according to different cycles, but its current dimming trend doesn’t seem to be following a predictable pattern — the star’s temperature has dropped 100 Kelvin since September, and its luminosity has fallen by 25%. One possibility? A supernova expert told the Times that two separate cycles might have simply “bottomed out” at the same time. Or a cloud of dust may have erupted from the surface of the star, blocking light.


Canadian Scientists See Red (Blood Cells)

What is it? Scientists at Ontario’s McMaster University designed “super-human red blood cells” that “could specifically target infections or treat catastrophic diseases such as cancer or Alzheimer’s.” They’re described in Advanced Biosystems.

Why does it matter? Current drug delivery methods use synthetic molecules, which can’t get exactly where they need to go in the body, or are rejected by it outright. The modified red blood cells, by contrast, “could work as the perfect stealth drug carriers which can outsmart our immune system,” according to McMaster physicist Maikel Rheinstädter. Because the treatment can be ultra-targeted, it could enable doctors to use lower dosages, therefore introducing fewer side effects — which would be particularly helpful with highly potent drugs such as those used to treat cancer.

How does it work? A news release from McMaster explains it: According to the new method, researchers “open up the red blood cell, modify its outer cell wall, and replace its contents with a drug molecule, which would then be injected back into the body. The hybrid appears and behaves as a normal red blood cell, but has a sticky surface which can attach itself to bacteria, for example, open up and release antibiotics exactly where they are needed.”


Particles And Labor

Penn State researchers devised a way to produce over 65,000 different types of complex nanorods, 32 examples of which are shown here through electron microscope. Each color represents a different material. Image credit: Schaak Laboratory, Penn State.

What is it? Need a nanoparticle for a bespoke application? Someday you might be able to go down to the nanoparticle library and check one out: Researchers at Pennsylvania State University have devised a way to “produce over 65,000 different types of complex nanoparticles, each containing up to six different materials and eight segments.”

Why does it matter? The method could have a broad range of electrical and optical applications. Raymond E. Schaak, a professor of materials chemistry at Penn State, said, “There is a lot of interest in the world of nanoscience in making nanoparticles that combine several different materials — semiconductors, catalysts, magnets, electronic materials. You can think about having different semiconductors linked together to control how electrons move through a material, or arranging materials in different ways to modify their optical, catalytic, or magnetic properties. We can use computers and chemical knowledge to predict a lot of this, but the bottleneck has been in actually making the particles, especially at a large enough scale so that you can actually use them.”

How does it work? Schaak and colleagues begin with one kind of nanorod, made of copper and sulfur. Using a process called cation exchange, they’re able to sequentially replace the copper anywhere in the nanorod — at the ends or in the middle — with other metals. According to Penn State: “By performing up to seven sequential reactions with several different metals, they can create a veritable rainbow of particles — over 65,000 different combinations of metal sulfide materials are possible.” The process is described in Science.

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