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The 5 Coolest Things On Earth This Week

A vaccine could prevent Alzheimer’s-related cognitive decline, a laser can track down and kill cancer cells without breaking the skin and new bots on the factory floor know how to give humans some space. Plus, the cheeseburgers of the future will be missing one key ingredient: cows. Find out how that’s possible in this week’s coolest scientific news.

  

Memory Aid

The accumulation of tau proteins in a brain cell appears to be linked to the development of Alzheimer’s disease. A new vaccine may inhibit the development of the so-called “tau tangles” that have been shown to be related to the illness, which is one of the deadliest for elderly Americans. Image credit: National Institute on Aging/National Institutes of Health.

What is it? Researchers at the University of New Mexico have developed a vaccine that might prevent Alzheimer’s-related cognitive decline.

Why does it matter? Alzheimer’s disease affects some 43 million people worldwide, including nearly one in three seniors, and is on the rise in the United States: Last year the Centers for Disease Control projected that Alzheimer’s cases could nearly triple by 2060. In terms of population, that means it’ll jump from affecting 1.6% of Americans in 2014 to 3.3% in 2060. The progressive disease — the fifth most common cause of death in Americans 65 and up — is also untreatable.

How does it work? One apparent cause of Alzheimer’s is a buildup of proteins in the brain: Tau proteins, as they’re called, normally have a stabilizing function, but in Alzheimer’s patients they accumulate to such an extent that they disrupt communication between neurons. The vaccine, described in NPJ Vaccines, spurs the body’s immune system to develop antibodies that prevent the formation of tau tangles and has been successfully tested in mice. “These results confirm that targeting tau tangles using a vaccine intervention could rescue memory impairments and prevent neurons from dying,” said Nicole Maphis, a PhD candidate who worked on the project. Study leader Kiran Bhaskar is now hoping to find funding to develop an injection that could be tested in human subjects.

 

Meat, Teats To Become Obsolete

Elimination of meat and dairy products is the single most productive thing a person can do to reduce one’s global footprint. Some experts feel that it won’t be long before a majority of the meat we consume is grown in a laboratory or replaced by products made from plants. Top and above images credit: Getty Images.

What is it? Flossie can breathe easy: A new report from consulting firm A.T. Kearney says that by 2040, 60% of the meat we consume will be grown in the lab or replaced by plant-based products. Want cheese on that not-a-burger? Sustainability-oriented startups are also eliminating cows from the cheesemaking process, fermenting dairy proteins without the use of actual animals.

Why does it matter? Everybody’s got a stake in reducing global meat and dairy consumption. In 2018 the Guardian characterized a study published in the journal Science as follows: “Avoiding meat and dairy products is the single biggest way to reduce your environmental impact on the planet.” Livestock take up tons of farmland relative to the calories they provide; farms require a lot of water; and farms are big greenhouse gas emitters through fertilizer use and, uh, cattle belching. Study leader Joseph Poore said, “A vegan diet is probably the single biggest way to reduce your impact on planet Earth, not just greenhouse gases, but global acidification, eutrophication, land use and water use.” 

How does it work? As such, the race is on to develop meat alternatives that will appeal not just to vegetarians but to people who insist on a good burger — A.T. Kearney estimates that $1 billion has been invested into the search for such alternatives, including by big meat-industry players like Cargill. Of the 60% of animal-free meat A.T. Kearney projects by 2040, it estimates that the lion’s share will be “cultured” — that is, grown in the lab from animal cells; no actual animals required, though — with the remainder consisting of vegan replacements. “Cultured meat will win in the long run,” the report said. “However, novel vegan meat replacements will be essential in the transition phase.”

 

Tumor Assassin

What is it? A team of researchers has created a noninvasive laser that can track down and blast away melanoma cells.

Why does it matter? The machine’s ability to detect the cells is impressive enough — researchers said their device “accurately detected these cells in 27 out of 28 people with cancer with a sensitivity that is about 1,000 times better than current technology,” according to IEEE Spectrum. But like a highly trained assassin, the laser was also able to destroy the cells as it found them, thus preventing their spread throughout the body: “This technology has the potential to significantly inhibit metastasis progression,” said study leader Vladimir Zharov, director of the nanomedicine center at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences. The research is described in Science Translational Medicine. 

How does it work? The noninvasive machine, called the Cytophone, relies on a principle called in vivo photoacoustic flow cytometry, according to the university — “a technology that uses laser pulses to penetrate through intact skin and into blood vessels to monitor circulating abnormal cells and other disease-associated biomarkers.” When it identifies a circulating tumor cell, the laser’s pulses “heat the natural melanin nanoparticles in these cells.”

 

Robots That Stay Out Of The Way

What is it? Working with BMW, researchers at MIT programmed robots to accurately predict the movement of people in a factory setting — allowing the robots to give the people room to pass while not slowing down production too much.

Why does it matter? The development sprang from an earlier observation of robots on a car-parts assembly line: When a robot on rails detected a human ahead, it would stop — often long before it would’ve intersected the human, thereby slowing production. So the researchers developed an algorithm to help the bot predict the timing of how people move; rather than freeze in place, it could more gracefully time its movements in order to stay out of the way. MIT professor Julie Shah said, “This algorithm builds in components that help a robot understand and monitor stops and overlaps in movement, which are a core part of human motion. This technique is one of the many ways we’re working on robots better understanding people.”

How does it work? The solution was a combination of existing algorithms, some for music and speech processing — which relate to timing — and others that process motion. The “partial trajectory” algorithm the researchers devised, according to MIT, “aligns segments of a person’s trajectory in real-time with a library of previously collected reference trajectories.” It “aligns trajectories in both distance and timing, and in so doing, is able to accurately anticipate stops and overlaps in a person’s path.”

 

Genes That Fit

A new system has shown remarkable progress in reducing the errors involved in inserting large DNA sequences into a genome. It may bring humankind ever closer to the elusive goal of precision gene editing. Image credit: Getty Images. 

What is it? Researchers at MIT and Harvard have developed a system for “precisely and efficiently” inserting large DNA segments into a genome — a development that could lead to treatments for many genetic diseases. The system is called CAST, for CRISPR-associated transposase.

Why does it matter? CAST could be used to replace mutated DNA with healthy new DNA in patients with conditions like sickle cell disease — it introduces the potential to disable or override DNA that’s causing problems. “One of the long-sought-after applications for molecular biology is the ability to introduce new DNA into the genome precisely, efficiently, and safely,” said Feng Zhang, senior author of a paper appearing in Science. “We’re excited to further develop CAST and open up these new capabilities for manipulating the genome.”

How does it work? Previously, with the gene-editing technique CRISPR, scientists cut the genome in spots where they identified problematic DNA, then “relied on the body’s own repair machinery to stitch the old and new DNA elements together” — a method that was inefficient and error-prone, according to a release from MIT. CAST, by contrast, “can be programmed to efficiently insert new DNA at a designated site, with minimal editing errors and without relying on the cell’s own repair machinery.”

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