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The 5 Coolest Things On Earth This Week

Japanese researchers transplanted lab-grown heart muscle cells into a human patient, Chinese scientists developed a bandage that changes color in the presence of infection and engineers in California created a tiny propulsive device that helps jellyfish swim faster. Why? Scroll down to find out in this week’s Pacific Rim-themed look at the latest and greatest scientific advances.

 

Global Intelligence

Above: Artificial intelligence is helping epidemiologists track coronavirus as it spreads around the world. Top and above images credit: Getty Images.

What is it? As health officials tackle the worldwide spread of coronavirus — a respiratory illness thought to have emerged in the city of Wuhan, China — they’re getting help from artificial intelligence. An article from the health news website STAT says that “for the first time in a global outbreak,” AI is proving useful in epidemiologists’ response.

Why does it matter? As of Friday, the number of coronavirus infections worldwide was approaching 10,000, and more than 200 people had died, in an event that’s been compared with the 2002-2003 SARS outbreak. As epidemiologists track the spread of coronavirus, they’re getting help from AI, which is able to scrape data from social media posts and news sites to “generate near-real-time information for public health officials,” according to STAT. Boston Children’s Hospital epidemiologist John Brownstein said, “During SARS, there was not a huge amount of information coming out of China. Now, we’re constantly mining news and social media.”

How does it work? As Brownstein explained, “We use machine learning to scrape all the information, classify it, tag it and filter it — and then that information gets pushed to our colleagues at WHO (the World Health Organization) that are looking at this information all day and making assessments.” AI can not only aggregate data, it can also analyze it to find patterns and even help make predictions, such as where and when an outbreak will spread, and who could be most affected.

 

Stronger Hearts

Heart muscle cells, grown in the lab from induced pluripotent stem cells, could be used to treat conditions such as ischemic cardiomyopathy — and avoid the need for full organ transplants. Image credit: Getty Images.

What is it? For the first time, cardiologists at Osaka University in Japan transplanted lab-grown muscle cells into the heart of a patient who has ischemic cardiomyopathy — a weak heart muscle that’s the result of coronary artery disease or heart attack.

Why does it matter? A treatment that heals ailing parts of the heart with new parts grown in the lab could eliminate the need for wholesale heart transplants. That’d be good news given that there are not enough donor hearts to go around. Researchers have been searching for alternatives, and the doctors in Osaka think they might have found one. “I hope that [the muscle-cell transplant] will become a medical technology that will save as many people as possible, as I’ve seen many lives that I couldn’t save,” said Osaka University cardiovascular surgery professor Yoshiki Sawa, one of the surgeons on the team.

How does it work? The method relies on induced pluripotent stem cells — stem cells doctors reprogram into an embryonic state, which can then be directed to develop into any kind of cell. In this case, the researchers grew heart muscle cells and placed them onto small degradable sheets that they attached to the surface of the heart. The cells “are expected to grow and secrete a protein that can regenerate blood vessels and improve cardiac function,” according to the Japan Times. Having conducted the operation on one patient with successful results so far, the doctors hope to extend their clinical trial to 10 patients over the next three years.

 

Band-Aid Solution

A change from green to yellow signals the presence of a bacterial infection, while the change to red alerts doctors that the bacteria may be antibiotic-resistant. Image credit: ACS Central Science.

What is it? Researchers at the Chinese Academy of Sciences developed bandages that change color in the presence of bacterial infection — and can then release antibiotics to fight the infection.

Why does it matter? Bacteria are increasingly developing resistance to the antibiotics humans use to kill them. It’s a global problem so dire that the World Health Organization has described antibiotics resistance as “one of the biggest threats to global health, food security and development today.” One solution? Catching infection early, before it gets out of control. That’s the gist of this new bandage, described in detail in ACS Central Science.

How does it work? According to a news release from the American Chemical Society, the bandage is made from a material that changes from green to yellow when confronted with the “acidic microenvironment of a bacterial infection,” and automatically releases an antibiotic to counteract it. If the material senses drug-resistant bacteria, it turns red — alerting doctors to the danger. Doctors can respond by shining a light into the bandage, which causes the release of “reactive oxygen species” that renders the bacteria more vulnerable to the antibiotic. The researchers found that, in mice, the bandage sped the healing of wounds.

 

Jellyfish Propulsion Laboratory

What is it? Did you ever think, “Sure, jellyfish are cool and all, but I wish they were faster and more efficient swimmers”? Right, then: Have we ever got news for you! Engineers at Caltech and Stanford University have designed a “tiny prosthetic that enables jellyfish to swim faster and more efficiently than they normally do.”

Why does it matter? Besides the obvious appeal of sharing a world with a new race of bionic jellyfish, the California researchers say the creatures could help us explore and collect data from the depths of the ocean, only 5% to 10% of which has been explored. Caltech engineering professor John Dabiri, who led the research, said, “If we can find a way to direct these jellyfish and also equip them with sensors to track things like ocean temperature, salinity, oxygen levels and so on, we could create a truly global ocean network where each of the jellyfish robots costs a few dollars to instrument and feeds themselves energy from prey already in the ocean.” Dabiri is the co-author of a new paper on the jellyfish in Science Advances.

How does it work? The prosthetic is sort of like a cardiac pacemaker, using electrical impulses to regulate and accelerate the pulsing motion that jellyfish already make to propel themselves. Jellyfish typically swim about 2 centimeters per second, but propelled by the prosthetic, they could achieve speeds of 4 to 6 centimeters per second. Researchers note, too, that while jellyfish have neither a brain nor pain receptors, they have been shown to secrete mucus when they’re stressed, which they do not appear to be when hooked up to the prosthetic — at least as far as their mucus secretions are concerned.

 

A Gundam Of One’s Own

What is it? At the Port of Yokohama, Japanese engineers are building a 60-foot walking Gundam robot: sci-fi come to life. Hope Godzilla isn’t next!

Why does it matter? Gundam is a type of giant robot that figures into a long-running and immensely popular Japanese sci-fi franchise of the same name. Beginning in 1979 with the TV series “Mobile Suit Gundam,” Gundam has inspired all sorts of pop culture since, according to Loz Blain, a writer for the tech and science news site New Atlas: “ ‘Transformers,’ ‘Pacific Rim,’ ‘Real Steel,’ ‘Voltron,’ ‘MegaBots,’ anything with a big robot in it owes some debt to Gundam.” In Yokohama, the enormous moving robot will also be a substantial engineering challenge and, Blain writes, “the most advanced full-sized Gundam ever built.”

How does it work? The robot will weigh about 25 tons and have 24 degrees of motion; it’s being designed with an open-source robot operating system, and developers are releasing a “full-scale virtual copy” to the public so fans can get their own sense of how the Gundam works and moves. It’s set to be unveiled in October.

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