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.

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Beyond biomimicry: Scientists find better-than-nature run style for six-legged robots

Researchers have found a running style for six-legged robots that significantly improves on the traditional nature-inspired method of movement.

The research, conducted by scientists at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) and the University of Lausanne (UNIL) in Switzerland, found that as long as the robots are not equipped with insect-like adhesive pads, it is faster for them to move with only two legs on the ground at any given time.

Robotics has in the past few years made heavy use of biomimicry – the practice of mimicking natural systems – resulting in six-legged robots being designed to move like insects. In nature, insects use what is known as a tripod gait, where they have three legs on the ground at a time, so it had been assumed that this was the most efficient way for similarly legged robots to move.

However, by undertaking a series of computer simulations, tests on robots and experiments on Drosophila melanogaster – better known as the common fruit fly – the scientists found that the two-legged approach, which they have dubbed the bipod gait, results in faster and more efficient movement.

The core goal of the research, which is published today in the journal Nature Communications, was to confirm whether the long-held assumption that a tripod gait was best was indeed correct.

“We wanted to determine why insects use a tripod gait and identify whether it is, indeed, the fastest way for six-legged animals and robots to walk,” said Pavan Ramdya, study co-lead and corresponding author.

Initially, this involved the use of a simulated insect model based on the common fruit fly and an algorithm designed to mimic different evolutionary stages. This algorithm simulated different potential gaits to create a shortlist of those that it deemed to be the fastest.

This, however, shed light on why insects have a tripod gait – and why it may not be the best option for robots. The simulations showed that the traditional tripod gait works in combination with the adhesive pad found on the ends of insects’ legs to make climbing over vertical surfaces such as rocks easier and quicker.

Robots, however, are typically designed to walk along flat surfaces, and so the benefits of such a gait are lost.

“Our findings support the idea that insects use a tripod gait to most effectively walk on surfaces in three dimensions, and because their legs have adhesive properties. This confirms a long-standing biological hypothesis,” said Ramdya. “Ground robots should therefore break free from only using the tripod gait”.

Study co-lead authors Robin Thandiackal (left) and Pavan Ramdya with the six-legged robot used in the research. Images courtesy of EPFL/Alain Herzog

To for always corroborate the simulation’s findings, the researchers built a six-legged robot that could move either with a bipod or tripod gait, and which quickly confirmed the research by being faster when moving with just two legs on the ground at once.

However, they went further by confirming that the adhesive pads were in fact playing a role in the insect’s tripod movement.

They did this by equipping the fruit flies with tiny polymer boots that would cover the adhesive pads, and so remove their role in the way the insects moved. The flies’ responses confirms their theory: they began moving with a bipod-like gate rather than their conventional tripod-style movement.

“This result shows that, unlike most robots, animals can adapt to find new ways of walking under new circumstances,” said study co-lead author Robin Thandiackal.

As bizarre as the research sounds, it provides valuable new insights both for roboticists and biologists, and could lead to a new standard in the way that six legged robots are designed to move.

“There is a natural dialogue between robotics and biology: Many robot designers are inspired by nature and biologists can use robots to better understand the behavior of animal species,” added Thandiackal. “We believe that our work represents an important contribution to the study of animal and robotic locomotion.”