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Human Hibernation

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has awarded a $2,227,500 grant to explore the possibility of inducing a hibernation-like state in “non-hibernating mammals” such as humans.

Cheng Chi Lee, associate professor of biochemistry and molecular biology at the University of Texas Medical School at Houston, is the main man behind the research.

Lee discovered that a particular molecule--the 5-prime adenosine monophosphate (5’-AMP) molecule--can induce a short hibernation-like state in mammals that do not normally hibernate. He said he is now trying to find ways to maintain that state long enough to perform major surgeries that could save human lives.

Although he is currently conducting the research on mice, Lee told CNSNews.com that he eventually wants to translate his findings to clinical practice.

“That’s what I think all scientists’ goals are, basically,” he said.

When an animal hibernates, he explained, its cells are deprived of the oxygen it receives during its waking hours. The cells can better endure this low-oxygen state when the animal reaches a state of hypothermia and its metabolism slows.

Similarly, a heart attack or stroke starves an organ of its oxygen. According to Lee, physicians have long been using cooling procedures to help human cells survive these conditions.

“If you follow the ambulance services now in response to heart attack--the first response when you reach a heart attack patient is to bring the body temperature down as quickly as possible while the patient is being transported to the hospital,” Lee said.

“If you cool the body temperature down, then you expand the window of preventing ischemia [oxygen-shortage] damage. It’s really simple, because if the cell is cooled, it needs less oxygen.”

Lee said the same principle applies to organ transplants. When the organ donor and recipient live in different parts of the country, the organ is preserved in an ice cooler or other refrigeration system during transport.

“It’s purely in a cool state, and the reason is that, as you cool the cells down, the need for oxygen decreases dramatically,” Lee said.

“This has been going on for a long time,” he told CNSNews.com. “Doctors have recognized this wonderfulness of the cooling process, but the catch in this area is that the cooling process is very difficult. It’s not very efficient.

“My hope is that by looking at how the body responds to the ability to cool, we can, down the road, provide a system to enhance the process,” Lee said.

In essence, Lee’s research may make hypothermia and human “hibernation” into clinical tools.

“The induction of hypometabolism in cells and organs to reduce ischemia damage holds enormous clinical promise in diverse fields, including treatment of stroke and heart attack,” Lee wrote in the Annual Review of Medicine in 2008.

The NIH Director’s Pioneer Award, which is funding this research, awards $500,000 annually to each researcher for five years. By 2011, this project will have cost $2.5 million. Lee said he hopes to apply for more NIH grants to fund his research for at least five or 10 more years.

“It takes some time for any tools to become common practice,” Lee explained. “If we can get something to clinical usage within five years, then I think we have done very well. That would be my dream. Even 10 years, it will be a very good achievement.”

NIH makes a wide variety of grants for medical research, but the NIH Director’s Pioneer Award is relatively difficult to secure.

“NIH has traditionally supported research projects, not individual investigators,” according to the NIH Web site, “however, complementary means might be necessary to identify scientists with ideas that have the potential for high impact, but that may be too novel, span too diverse a range of disciplines, or be at a stage too early to fare well in the traditional peer review process.”

The research falls under the guidance of a research “roadmap” that NIH created to guide funding of new research projects.

“To address this, the NIH Roadmap has created a new funding program, the NIH Director’s Pioneer Award, to encourage creative, outside-the-box thinkers to pursue exciting and innovative ideas about biomedical research,” the Web site said.


MAD architects are now working on a new project, Urban Forest
Located in chongqing, china. Drawing on the mountainous landscape of the country, the commercial high-rise building with over 70 floors is made up of curved, abstracted shaped floors which have been layered slightly off-center from one another to give the facade an organic look as it rises up into the sky.
A central cylindrical core structure supports all the floors and hosts the mechanical systems and elevators.

Each floor is also covered in floor-to-ceiling glass windows, providing expansive views of the city. A walk-around balcony of differing widths hosts the green garden space, as well as pools, trees, and courtyards. Some floors are nothing but open space, while others contain offices or residential space. Each floor is seen as a separate and unique level of the urban forest and is meant to combine both nature and the urban metropolis.


SCIENTISTS have grown meat in the laboratory for the first time. Experts in Holland used cells from a live pig to replicate growth in a petri dish.

The advent of so-called “in-vitro” or cultured meat could reduce the billions of tons of greenhouse gases emitted each year by farm animals — if people are willing to eat it.

So far the scientists have not tasted it, but they believe the breakthrough could lead to sausages and other processed products being made from laboratory meat in as little as five years’ time.

They initially extracted cells from the muscle of a live pig. Called myoblasts, these cells are programmed to grow into muscle and repair damage in animals.

The cells were then incubated in a solution containing nutrients to encourage them to multiply indefinitely. This nutritious “broth” is derived from the blood products of animal foetuses, although the intention is to come up with a synthetic solution.

The result was sticky muscle tissue that requires exercise, like human muscles, to turn it into a tougher steak-like consistency.

“You could take the meat from one animal and create the volume of meat previously provided by a million animals,” said Mark Post, professor of physiology at Eindhoven University, who is leading the Dutch government-funded research.

Post and his colleagues have so far managed to develop a soggy form of pork and are seeking to improve its texture. “What we have at the moment is rather like wasted muscle tissue,” Post said.

“We need to find ways of improving it by training it and stretching it, but we will get there. This product will be good for the environment and will reduce animal suffering. If it feels and tastes like meat, people will buy it.”

At present there is a question mark over the taste as laboratory rules prevent the scientists eating the fruits of their labour.

The Dutch experiments follow the creation of “fish fillets” derived from goldfish muscle cells in New York and pave the way for laboratory-grown chicken, beef and lamb.

The project, which is backed by a sausage manufacturer and has received £2m from the Dutch government, is seeking additional public funds to improve the technology.

Global meat and dairy product consumption is expected to double by 2050, according to the United Nations. This could have an unprecedented impact on climate change because the warming effect on the atmosphere of methane, a digestive by-product from farm animals, is 23 times greater than that of carbon dioxide. The UN has attributed 18% of the world’s greenhouse gases to livestock.

The Vegetarian Society reacted cautiously yesterday, saying: “The big question is how could you guarantee you were eating artificial flesh rather than flesh from an animal that had been slaughtered. It would be very difficult to label and identify in a way that people would trust.” Peta, the animal rights group, said: “As far as we’re concerned, if meat is no longer a piece of a dead animal there’s no ethical objection.”


By the year 2020, you won't need a keyboard and mouse to control your computer, say Intel Corp. researchers. Instead, users will open documents and surf the Web using nothing more than their brain waves.

Scientists at Intel's research lab in Pittsburgh are working to find ways to read and harness human brain waves so they can be used to operate computers, television sets and cell phones. The brain waves would be harnessed with Intel-developed sensors implanted in people's brains.

The scientists say the plan is not a scene from a sci-fi movie -- Big Brother won't be planting chips in your brain against your will. Researchers expect that consumers will want the freedom they will gain by using the implant.

"I think human beings are remarkable adaptive," said Andrew Chien, vice president of research and director of future technologies research at Intel Labs. "If you told people 20 years ago that they would be carrying computers all the time, they would have said, 'I don't want that. I don't need that.' Now you can't get them to stop [carrying devices]. There are a lot of things that have to be done first but I think [implanting chips into human brains] is well within the scope of possibility."

Intel research scientist Dean Pomerleau told Computerworld that users will soon tire of depending on a computer interface, and having to fish a device out of their pocket or bag to access it. He also predicted that users will tire of having to manipulate an interface with their fingers.

Instead, they'll simply manipulate their various devices with their brains.

"We're trying to prove you can do interesting things with brain waves," said Pomerleau. "Eventually people may be willing to be more committed ... to brain implants. Imagine being able to surf the Web with the power of your thoughts."

To get to that point Pomerleau and his research teammates from Intel, Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh, are currently working on decoding human brain activity.

Pomerleau said the team has used Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (FMRI) machines to determine that blood flow changes in specific areas of the brain based on what word or image someone is thinking of. People tend to show the same brain patterns for similar thoughts, he added.

For instance, if two people think of the image of a bear or hear the word bear or even hear a bear growl, a neuroimage would show similar brain activity. Basically, there are standard patterns that show up in the brain for different words or images.

Pomerleau said researchers are close to gaining the ability to build brain sensing technology into a head set that culd be used to manipulate a computer. The next step is development of a tiny, far less cumbersome sensor that could be implanted inside the brain.

Such brain research isn't limited to Intel and its university partners.

Almost two years ago, scientists in the U.S. and Japan announced that a monkey's brain was used to to control a humanoid robot. Miguel Nicolelis, a professor of neurobiology at Duke University and lead researcher on the project, said that researchers were hoping its work would help paralyzed people walk again.

And a month before that, a scientist at the University of Arizona reported that he had successfully built a robot that is guided by the brain and eyes of a moth. Charles Higgins, an associate professor at the university, predicted that in 10 to 15 years people will be using "hybrid" computers running a combination of technology and living organic tissue.

Today, Intel's Pomerleau said various research facilities are developing technologies to sense activity from inside the skull.

"If we can get to the point where we can accurately detect specific words, you could mentally type," he added. "You could compose characters or words by thinking about letters flashing on the screen or typing whole words rather than their individual characters."

Pomerleau also noted that the more scientists figure out about the brain, it will help them design better microprocessors. He said, "If we can see how the brain does it, then we could build smarter computers."

One word: Scary.



Armored Airbag

Textron's Tactical RPG Airbag Protection (TRAP) system uses radar to detect incoming warheads and deploy airbags on the threatened side of a vehicle. The airbags prevent the RPGs from exploding at all, and thereby avoids any cloud of shrapnel that could harm nearby infantry or civilians. TRAPS is currently undergoing tests on Humvees, and could also work with the Abrams tank, the Bradley, the Stryker and MRAPs.

The military has focused on countering roadside bombs with drones capable of sniffing out improvised explosives, and painfully realistic virtual simulators for training soldiers on detecting the threats. But DOD Buzz notes that counters to RPGs remain more elusive -- the U.S. military has so far relied on welding steel cages to high-value, lightly armored vehicles such as MRAP minesweepers.

We here at PopSci previously honored a different RPG counter for helicopters that fires nets to neutralize incoming rockets -- a chopper shield that won one of our Invention Awards in 2007.

Defense Tech points to another airbag concept that can deploy at light speed upon detecting blasts from improvised explosives on the road.


The toes of gecko lizards adhere to a wide variety of surfaces, enabling geckos to climb smooth and vertical surfaces, as well as cross indoor ceilings. As this adhesion doesn't utilize liquids or surface tension and it varies with humidity, it is thought to involve capillarity. MIT researchers in collaboration with researchers at two Boston hospitals relied on some of the principles that create geckos' feet adhesiveness, while developing a waterproof adhesive bandage that may soon be used for patching up surgical wounds or internal injuries.

Led by the Harvard-MIT Division of Health Sciences and Technology (HST) faculty members, MIT Institute Professor Robert Langer and Jeffrey Karp, who is a bioengineer, the team utilized the micropatterning technology that is also used to create computer chips. By pouring a biodegradable polymer into microfabricated silicon molds with 200-to-500-nanometer-wide indentations, the researchers have created a "biorubber" tape with nanoscale hills and valleys on its surface, similar to the flexible nanopillars covering geckos' sticky toes. "We are inspired by the gecko to create a patterned interface to enhance the surface area of contact and thus the overall strength of adhesion." said Karp.

The surface area of this "biorubber" was then coated with a very thin layer of biocompatible sugar-based glue enabling a strong bond even to wet surfaces such as to heart, bladder or lung tissue. When the tape is applied, capillary forces pull tissue into the spaces between the pillars, and the glue adheres to tissue proteins. This biodegradable bandage dissolves over time and does not have to be removed.

Adapting the previously known gecko-like dry adhesive technology for medical applications has been challenging, as a medical adhesive has to be able to stick once and strongly in a wet environment, and to be biocompatible (that does not cause inflammation), biodegradable (that dissolve over time without producing toxins) and elastic (in order to suit the bonded tissues and stretch with them).

The resulting "gecko tape" is the first such tape to show good adhesive strength and safety in animals. The tape's nanopatterned adhesive bonds were twice as strong as unpatterned adhesives when tested against intestinal tissue samples from pigs, and adhesion of the tape's glue-coated form was twice as strong as the same material without the glue when tested in living rats. Moreover, these rats showed only a minor inflammatory response to the adhesive that does not need to be overcome for clinical use.

The elasticity, degradation rate and pillared landscape of the biorubber are tunable hence the new adhesives can be customized for different medical applications. They can also be infused with drugs designed to be released as the biorubber degrades.

A tape-based medical adhesive may have many applications, as it is noninvasive and easy to place. Unlike sutures and staples traditionally used to close wounds, the new tape doesn't puncture the tissue and could be placed in one motion. The medical tape can also be used during minimally invasive surgeries, which are performed through a very small incision; "It's difficult to tie knots in small places. You could have the tape unfold and apply it through the [laparoscopic] needle." says Karp.

Possible applications of the new surgical adhesive tape also include resealing of the intestine after the removal of a diseased segment or after a gastric bypass procedure, as well as patching a hole caused by an ulcer. Moreover, the tape could release drugs that promote healing, even in tissues that stretch and contract, like the heart. "It's elastic, so it should withstand the mechanical forces of the heart," says Karp. This ability of the bioadhesive patch may be utilized to deliver stem-cell-attracting factor that encourages tissue regeneration into damaged areas of the heart after a heart attack.

Another gecko-inspired synthetic adhesive tape has recently been developed in Berkeley University. Other related issues covered by TFOT include the discovery of a non-toxic, natural glue that has the strongest adhesion force of any known natural material, and the development of a painless microneedles skin patch that can replace conventional injections and enable drug delivery.


According to DARPA, a 1.8-gigapixel (approximate 1800-megapixel) camera exists and already functions as part of the ARGUS-IS project. And yet, the next model, which offers 2.3-gigapixel resolution, is already under way: the US Army has solicited proposals for its design and manufacturing.

Although preliminary design plans for the new camera exist, it is still quite far from becoming a reality. However, the US Army already holds high hopes for the system. For instance, engineers involved in the project are saying that the final version will be both smaller and lighter than previous systems, work in the infrared range to boot, and capture images at a rate of two frames per second.

The mission of the Autonomous Real-time Ground Ubiquitous Surveillance - Imaging System (ARGUS-IS) program is to provide military users a flexible and responsive capability to find, track and monitor events and activities of interest on a continuous basis in areas of interest. This future camera is a major part of the system.

Thanks to its 2.3-gigapixel sensor, the camera should allow the system to continuously cover a range of about 161 square kilometers. This high resolution could zoom in up to 30 centimeters – just enough to make out the outline of hand-held weapons, for instance.

The overall objective of ARGUS-IS is to increase situational awareness, and to give the ability to find and fix critical events in a large area during a short period of time. The system is specifically useful for tactical users in a dynamic battle-space or urban environment.


Scientists last night raised hopes that microscopic nanoparticles could be injected into the spines of paralysed people to help them walk again.

They have conducted experiments on rats which show that the tiny particles can act as a 'sticking plaster' to repair broken nerves.

When the microscopic spheres, known as micelles, were injected into the tails of paralysed rats, they regained the use of all their limbs.

However, the scientists warned it would take many years of research before it was known whether the same technique could work on humans.

Work has been going on for years to see whether micelles, which are about 100 times smaller than red blood cells, could help deliver drugs to different parts of the body.

But this is the first time it has been shown that the micelles can themselves assist the repair of nerve fibres.

In rats, they boosted the repair of damaged nerve cells by 60 per cent.

Dr Ji-Xin Cheng, from Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indianopolis, said: 'That was a very surprising discovery. Micelles have been used for 30 years as drug-delivery vehicles in research, but no-one has ever used them directly as a medicine.'

The micelles used in the experiment had an outer shell made from polyethylene glycol (PEG), a sealing agent that has been investigated as a potential spinal injury treatment.

Previous research has shown the chemical can seal the injury site, prevent further damage setting in, and give the nerves a chance to repair themselves.

Secondary damage caused by the flood of biochemical signals and cell death that follows spinal injury is one of the main causes of permanent disability.

Dr Cheng's research showed that PEG-coated micelles were more effective than PEG injected on its own. In tests, the nanoparticles were successfully delivered to areas of damage, and the rats treated with micelles recovered co-ordinated control of all four limbs, whereas those treated with conventional PEG did not.

The nanoparticles were also shown to be non-toxic at the concentrations required. 'With the micelles, you need only about one hundred thousandth the concentration of regular polyethylene glycol,' said Dr Cheng.



Grenade Launcher

A new Pentagon project, it's now in the final stages. Yay! :S

To perfect a projectile capable of delivering an electric shock to incapacitate a person tens of metres away. It will be fired from a standard 40-millimetre grenade launcher.

The projectile, being developed by Taser International under a $2.5 million contract, is known as a Human Electro-Muscular Incapacitation or HEMI device. Taser will deliver the first prototypes for testing and evaluation early next year.

Wes Burgei, a project engineer at the US Department of Defense's Joint Non-Lethal Weapons Directorate (JNLWD), says the self-contained cartridges should be able to hit targets 60 metres away - more than three times the range of the existing XREP shotgun cartridge (New Scientist, 29 August, p 20).

However, the impact force of the projectile remains a worry. "There is a known risk of severe injury from impact projectiles, either from blunt force at short ranges or from hitting a sensitive part of the body," says security researcher Neil Davison, who has recently written a book on non-lethal weapons.

Burgei, however, insists the devices are designed to deliver minimal force upon impact. "A major focus of this project is reducing the projectile's mass and mitigating the impact forces on the target through innovative projectile-nose design," he says. Various nose designs, which disperse the projectile's impact force, are now being tested.

The duration of the shock which the HEMI will deliver to its target has also raised concerns. Marksmen will need time to reach the incapacitated target, and because the weapon is designed for long-range use this could be considerable.

A JNLWD reference book from 2008 suggests incapacitation times could be as long as 3 minutes, although the projectile's range was initially planned to be much higher.

"We should be worried about undesirable effects if people are going to be subjected to bouts of prolonged incapacitation," says Steve Wright, a specialist in non-lethal weapons at Leeds Metropolitan University in the UK.

Burgei says the duration of the shocks emitted by the projectiles has yet to be determined. "When requirements become solidified, the incapacitation time can be adjusted to meet them".


By building thin, flexible silicon electronics on silk substrates, researchers have made electronics that almost completely dissolve inside the body. So far the research group has demonstrated arrays of transistors made on thin films of silk. While electronics must usually be encased to protect them from the body, these electronics don't need protection, and the silk means the electronics conform to biological tissue. The silk melts away over time and the thin silicon circuits left behind don't cause irritation because they are just nanometers thick.
"Current medical devices are very limited by the fact that the active electronics have to be 'canned,' or isolated from the body, and are on rigid silicon," says Brian Litt, associate professor of neurology and bioengineering at the University of Pennsylvania. Litt, who is working with the silk-silicon group to develop medical applications for the new devices, says they could interact with tissues in new ways. The group is developing silk-silicon LEDs that might act as photonic tattoos that can show blood-sugar readings, as well as arrays of conformable electrodes that might interface with the nervous system.

Last year, John Rogers, professor of materials science and engineering at the Beckman Institute at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, developed flexible, stretchable silicon circuits whose performance matches that of their rigid counterparts. To make these devices biocompatible, Rogers's lab collaborated with Fiorenzo Omenetto and David Kaplan, professors of bioengineering at Tufts University in Medford, MA, who last year reported making nanopatterned optical devices from silkworm-cocoon proteins.

To make the devices, silicon transistors about one millimeter long and 250 nanometers thick are collected on a stamp and then transferred to the surface of a thin film of silk. The silk holds each device in place, even after the array is implanted in an animal and wetted with saline, causing it to conform to the tissue surface. In a paper published in the journal Applied Physics Letters, the researchers report that these devices can be implanted in animals with no adverse effects. And the performance of the transistors on silk inside the body doesn't suffer.

In the silk-silicon electronics, the silk plays a passive but important role. "Silk is mechanically strong enough to act as a support, but if you pour water on it, it conforms to the tissue surface," says Omenetto. Silk is already approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for medical implants and is broken down completely by the body into harmless by-products. The silk sheets are flexible, and can be rolled up and then unfurled during surgery, making them easier for surgeons to work with. By adjusting the processing conditions used to fabricate the films, the Tufts researchers can control the rate at which the films will degrade, from immediately after implantation to years.

The biocompatibility of silicon is not as well established as that of silk, though all studies so far have shown the material to be safe. It seems to depend on the size and shape of the silicon pieces, so the group is working to minimize them. These devices also require electrical connections of gold and titanium, which are biocompatible but not biodegradable. Rogers is developing biodegradable electrical contacts so that all that would remain is the silicon.

The group is currently designing electrodes built on silk as interfaces for the nervous system. Electrodes built on silk could, Litt says, integrate much better with biological tissues than existing electrodes, which either pierce the tissue or sit on top of it. The electrodes might be wrapped around individual peripheral nerves to help control prostheses. Arrays of silk electrodes for applications such as deep-brain stimulation, which is used to control Parkinson's symptoms, could conform to the brain's crevices to reach otherwise inaccessible regions. "It would be nice to see the sophistication of devices start to catch up with the sophistication of our basic science, and this technology could really close that gap," says Litt.