First new sound wave class in half a century to revolutionise stem cell therapy

A new class of sound wave has been developed for the first time in 50 years that looks set to revolutionise the use of stem cells in medical treatments.

Created by acoustics experts from RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia, the sound waves – known as “surface reflected bulk waves” – are gentle enough to manipulate stem cells without causing damage, something that has not previously been possible with sound waves.

The researchers have already used the technology to significantly improve the efficiency of an advanced nebuliser device developed at RMIT, which delivers medicine directly to the lungs.

“We have used the new sound waves to slash the time required for inhaling vaccines through the nebuliser device, from 30 minutes to as little as 30 seconds,” said study co-author Dr Amgad Rezk, from the Micro/Nano Research Laboratory at RMIT.

“But our work also opens up the possibility of using stem cells more efficiently for treating lung disease, enabling us to nebulise stem cells straight into a specific site within the lung to repair damaged tissue. This is a real game changer for stem cell treatment in the lungs.”

Amgad-Rezk

Dr Amgad Rezk, who co-authored the study with PhD researcher James Tan.

Surface reflected bulk waves are known as such due to their combination of bulk sound waves and surface sound waves.

Bulk sound waves cause an entire material to vibrate as one, an effect that the researchers liken to holding a carpet at one end and shaking it.

By contrast, surface sound waves only cause the surface of a material to vibrate, with the researchers comparing the effect to waves in an ocean.

By combining the two, the researchers have created a sound wave class that is far more powerful than its component wave types.

“The combination of surface and bulk wave means they work in harmony and produce a much more powerful wave,” said Rezk.

“As a result, instead of administering or nebulising medicine at around 0.2ml per minute, we did up to 5ml per minute. That’s a huge difference.”

Professor Leslie Yeo, also of RMIT, demonstrates the Respite nebuliser, which this research has improved. Images courtesy of RMIT.

Professor Leslie Yeo, also of RMIT, demonstrates the Respite nebuliser, which this research has improved. Inline images courtesy of RMIT.

The researchers have created a device to utilise surface reflected bulk waves in medical devices with the rather epic name HYDRA.

This passes electricity through a piezoelectric chip, converting it into mechanical vibration, or sound waves, that can break liquid into a spray so it can be inhaled.

“It’s basically ‘yelling’ at the liquid so it vibrates, breaking it down into vapour,” explained Rezk.

HYDRA has been used to improve RMIT’s advanced nebula, known as Respite, which can be used to deliver a wide range of drugs into the body without the need for pills or injections.

For sufferers of asthma and cystic fibrosis, the device can deliver highly precise drug doses, but it can also be used to provide diabetes patients with insulin, and give infants vaccines without an injection.

The details of the research have been published today in the journal Advanced Materials.

Stem cells breakthrough: Scientists re-grow bone with a single molecule

Re-growing damaged bone could become a standard practice in the future, thanks to a new technique involving nothing more than stem cells and a single molecule that naturally occurs in the human body.

Scientists from the University of California San Diego have discovered that by feeding the molecule adenosine to human pluripotent stem cells, they could make them regenerate bone tissue.

The research has already been successfully demonstrated in mice, and could in the future lead to a quick and affordable treatment for bone defects and injuries, a key aspect of the scientists’ research.

“One of the broader goals of our research is to make regenerative treatments more accessible and clinically relevant by developing easy, efficient and cost-effective ways to engineer human cells and tissues,” explained study lead author Shyni Varghese, a bioneering professor at UC San Diego.

A 3D microcomputed tomography model of the generated bone tissue at 3 weeks. Courtesy of Kang et al. Sci. Adv. 2016; 2 : e1600691

A 3D microcomputed tomography model of the generated bone tissue at 3 weeks. Courtesy of Kang et al. Sci. Adv. 2016; 2 : e1600691

The research, which was published today in the journal Science Advances, is extremely significant for bioengineering because of how simply it achieves differentiation: the process where pluripotent stem cells transform into a cell specific a particular part of the body.

Normally this is an immensely complicated process, often involving many steps and ingredients to produce the desired results. There is also a risk of teratomas; tumours that can develop when the tissue is transplanted.

However all the scientist needed to do in this case was to add adenosine to the growth medium, causing the human pluripotent stem cells to develop into functional osteoblasts – the cells that build bone in the body. These osteoblasts were implanted into mice with bone defects, where they developed bone tissue with blood vessels, while showing no signs of teratomas.

“It’s amazing that a single molecule can direct stem cell fate,” marvelled Verghese. “We don’t need to use a cocktail of small molecules, growth factors or other supplements to create a population of bone cells from human pluripotent stem cells like induced pluripotent stem cells.”

Bone tissue visualised through a polarised light microscope

Bone tissue visualised through a polarised light microscope

While considerable work will need to be done to make the approach a viable treatment for humans, Verghese also wants to determine exactly how and why adenosine can make stem cells turn into bone-building tissue – an insight that may have wider implications for the differentiation of other cell types.

So far the scientists have determined that adenosine signals the stem cells through a receptor on their surface known as the A2bR receptor, but more work needs to be done to get the full picture.

The farms of the future may well be like factories

A new report has indicated that massive changes will be coming to the agricultural markets within the next ten years, perhaps most notably farming, courtesy of various advances in robotics and drones.

The report, by IDTechEx Research, highlights how these technologies will enter into different aspects of agriculture, transforming the methods behind farming and having a significant impact on the workforce in the process.

Probably the largest change coming to farming is the mass-scale automation that looks to be employed across various aspects of the industry.

While current farms are by no means stuck using purely antiquated methods – there are already thousands of robotic milking parlours across the world, for example – there are large sections of the work that are still reliant on human workers.

This is due to both the fact that many robots are not currently smart enough to perform crucial tasks and regulatory measures; as with autonomous technologies in general there is considerable legislation involved in approving their usage.

farming-top-down

However, it seems that in the next ten years we can expect to see ever-smarter robots taking over those roles that we previously had set aside for humans.

Notably, these technologies will not only be independently advancing the farming processes, but can contribute to elements of each other’s roles.

In the air, for example, both remote-controlled and autonomous drones will map the farms below them. That’s data that can then be used to better guide the small robots that will be navigating among crops, analysing the plants and removing weeds.

These robots will then learn their routes the more they are deployed to better navigate themselves.

farming-drone

On a broad scale then, we can see that farming is set to radically change in the next few years as more and more of the jobs that have been traditionally limited to human workers are taken over by autonomous robots. It appears that agriculture is set to join the other industries that will rely on workforces transforming into engineers for the robots that are automating their former roles.

In the fields and in the sky, farming will be essentially run by a series of robotic workers capable of working autonomously just as soon as they are set to the job. Arguably, within the next ten years, we will see farmers transition from oversight of their crops and cattle to oversight of a vast fleet of robots and drones handling the daily work.

Visiting these farms, you won’t be looking at groups of workers assigned to do their various, individual duties but sections of robots discreetly trundling among crops, aided by drones overhead with their mapping while, in the background, tractors steer themselves around their duties.

We can predict that the drone will be the focal point, the farmer’s point of view that then sees a robotic workforce set to their various duties then left to run their processes automatically, occasionally put back on course by a fruit picker-turned-engineer.

Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it’s proof that Superman’s glasses would’ve hidden his alter-ego

We may be closer than ever to answering a question that has troubled comic-book fans for decades: just how does Superman’s alter-ego, Clark Kent, get away with such a flimsy disguise?

Finally, researchers at the University of York have been able to show that small alterations to a person’s appearance, such as wearing glasses, can significantly hinder positive facial identification.

While the research has the ability to settle arguments over whether Clark Kent’s disguise is sufficient – and kill dead a million awful comedian’s jokes on the subject – the research does have some serious implications as well.

“The question of whether the inhabitants of Metropolis could be realistically deceived by Superman’s simple disguise has been rumbling since the comic books first arrived on the stands, but the question becomes a serious one when applied to real-world security issues,” said Dr Robin Kramer from the University of York’s Department of Psychology.

“When a security guard checks a passport photo against the person standing in front of them, they do not have the luxury of familiarity with that face, as Lois does with Superman/Clark Kent. This is something we wanted to investigate further, because we know from previous studies that people are relatively poor at matching faces in various guises when the person is unfamiliar to them.”

Image and featured image courtesy of DC Comics

Image and featured image courtesy of DC Comics

The test that was used to prove glasses can impact how one person is distinguished from another involved showing participants a number of faces in various ‘natural’ poses.

The participants were then asked to decide whether each pair of images showed the same person or not.

Images were shown in three categories – pairs of faces that wore glasses, images where neither person wore glasses and photographs where only one person wore glasses.

In cases where both of the faces wore glasses or where neither wore glasses, accuracy was around 80%. However, when only one of the two faces wore glasses, performance was approximately 6% lower, a statistically significant decrease.

Image courtesy of Warner Bros

Image courtesy of Warner Bros

The results suggest that people generally find it difficult to correctly match unfamiliar and uncontrolled face images, but they are significantly worse when glasses are worn by only one of the faces.

“In real terms, glasses would not prevent Lois recognising that Clark is in fact Superman as she is familiar with him.  For those who do not know him, however, this task is much more difficult, and our results show that glasses do disrupt our ability to recognise the same unfamiliar person from photo-to-photo,” said Dr Kay Ritchie from the University of York’s Department of Psychology.

“We hope that this research can be used by legal authorities to help inform future policies on identification for security purposes, particularly in the UK where individuals who normally wear glasses are required to remove them for their identification cards.”

The research, Disguising Superman: How glasses affect unfamiliar face matching, is published in Applied Cognitive Psychology.