All posts by Lucy Ingham

Stronger in old age: Stem cell research paves way for muscle-building medication

It could in the future be possible to take medication that will allow you to build muscle, even when you are in old age.

This is due to the findings of research at the Karolinska Institutet in Sweden, which found that large, and wholly unexpected, amounts of mutations in muscle stem cells blocks their ability to regenerate cells.

“What is most surprising is the high number of mutations. We have seen how a healthy 70-year-old has accumulated more than 1,000 mutations in each stem cell in the muscle, and that these mutations are not random but there are certain regions that are better protected,” said Maria Eriksson, professor at the Department of Biosciences and Nutrition at Karolinska Institutet.

With this knowledge, researchers could develop therapies that would encourage such regeneration, and so allow older people to rebuild lost muscle.

“We can demonstrate that this protection diminishes the older you become, indicating an impairment in the cell’s capacity to repair their DNA. And this is something we should be able to influence with new drugs,” explained Eriksson.

The landmark research, which is published today in the journal Nature Communications, involved the use of single stem cells, which were cultivated to provide enough DNA for whole genome sequencing – a medical first for this part of the body.

“We achieved this in the skeletal muscle tissue, which is absolutely unique. We have also found that there is very little overlap of mutations, despite the cells being located close to each other, representing an extremely complex mutational burden,” said study first author Irene Franco, a postdoc in Eriksson’s research group.

While a significant step, the research is now being expanded to look at whether exercise affects the number of mutations – a potentially vital factor in understand why and how these mutations occur.

“We aim to discover whether it is possible to individually influence the burden of mutations. Our results may be beneficial for the development of exercise programmes, particularly those designed for an ageing population,” said Eriksson.

The research is one of a host of projects being conducted across the world that have potential impacts on ageing, an area that was long ignored by much of the scientific community, but is now garnering increased support.

If many – or even a fair minority – of these findings eventually become the basis of therapeutics, it could be transformative for old age in the future, allowing people to remain healthier for far later in life and potentially even leading to longer life expectancies.

Semiconductor breakthrough paves way for “inexpensive and nearly invisible” solar panels

Scientists have achieved a breakthrough in organic solar panel technology that could allow the power source to become a ubiquitous presence in our lives, with the ability to be churned out cheaply by manufacturers and laminated to almost any surface you can think of.

Organic solar cells, while far cheaper than the more widespread inorganic equivalents that are most commonly seen in stores and rooftops today, have traditionally had very poor conductivity, meaning they can only generate small amounts of power.

However, engineers at the University of Michigan have changed that, by developing a way to make the electrons found in organic solar cells’ semiconductors travel far further, greatly improving their conductivity and thus their ability to generate power.

As a result, the breakthrough could make organic solar cells a viable alternative to inorganics for the first time, with the added benefit that they are far cheaper to manufacture, meaning they could see far more widespread use than is currently the case.

The research, which was published today in Nature, initially began as an experiment by Stephen Forrest, the Peter A. Franken Distinguished University Professor of Engineering and Paul G. Goebel Professor of Engineering at the University of Michigan, into organic solar architecture using a technique called vacuum thermal evaporation.

This involved Forrest and his team applying a thin film made up of 60 carbon atoms – known as a fullerene layer – over an organic cell’s power-producing later, where the sun’s photons displace electrons from their associated molecules, forming the basis of the power supply. On top of this they added another film of carbon atoms, which was designed to keep the electrons from escaping.

But this action produced a rather unexpected result. Instead of behaving as predicted, the electrons were moving at random through the material, even beyond the confines of the power-generating area, something that had never been observed in organic cells before.

This became the focus of their research, and after months of work they determined the cause: the layer of electrons was creating an area of low energy known as an energy well where negatively charged electrons could not recombine with the power-producing layer, and so moved far further than was normally the case.

“You can imagine an energy well as sort of a canyon–electrons fall into it and can’t get back out,” said Caleb Cobourn, a graduate researcher in the University of Michigan Department of Physics and an author on the study. “So they continue to move freely in the fullerene layer instead of recombining in the power-producing layer, as they normally would. It’s like a massive antenna that can collect an electron charge from anywhere in the device.”

said Quinn Burlingame, an electrical engineering and computer science graduate researcher and author on the study, with the original experiment. Image courtesy of Robert Coelius/Michigan Engineering, Communications & Marketing

While the research is still in the early stages, this breakthrough is hugely significant, and could be used to develop ultra-cheap, near-invisible solar panels in the future.

“This discovery essentially gives us a new knob to turn as we design organic solar cells and other organic semiconductor devices,” said Quinn Burlingame, an electrical engineering and computer science graduate researcher and author on the study. “The possibility of long-range electron transport opens up a lot of new possibilities in device architecture.”

It could even eventually play a vital role in the shift to renewable energy supplies.

“I believe that ubiquitous solar power is the key to powering our constantly warming and increasingly crowded planet, and that means putting solar cells on everyday objects like building facades and windows,” Forrest said. “Technology like this could help us produce power in a way that’s inexpensive and nearly invisible.”