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.

60% of primate species threatened with extinction

A new study has called for urgent action to protect the world’s rapidly dwindling primate populations after figures revealed that 60% of the world’s primate species are threatened with extinction. There are over 500 currently recognised primate species, with the percentage considered at risk having increased by 20% since 1996.

The study draws attention to the incredible impact that humans have placed on primate environments. Agriculture, logging, construction, resource extraction and other human activities have all placed escalating and unsustainable pressure on the animals’ habitats, and are predicted to only worsen over the next 50 years.

Unless immediate action is taken, the scientists predict numerous extinctions.

“In 1996 around 40% of the then recognised primate taxa were threatened. The increase to 60% at present is extremely worrying and indicates that more conservation efforts are needed to halt this increase,” says Serge Wich, professor by special appointment of Conservation of the Great Apes at the University of Amsterdam.

Interestingly, one of the main suggestions for helping the primates is first helping humans. Most primates live in regions characterised by high levels of poverty and inequality, a fact that the study authors believe leads to greater hunting and habitat loss.

They suggest that immediate actions should be taken to improve health and access to education, develop sustainable land-use initiatives, and preserve traditional livelihoods that can contribute to food security and environmental conservation.

While it may be tragic to some, it could be easy to see the loss of these primates as unimportant to humans. However, it is important to note that the non-human primates’ biological relation to humans offers unique insights into human evolution, biology, behaviour and the threat of emerging diseases.

Additionally, these species serve as key components of tropical biodiversity and contribute to forest regeneration and ecosystem health. If they are struck by mass extinction, it is hard to predict the impact it could have on their ecosystems.

“‘If we are unable to reduce the impact of our activities on primates, it is difficult to foresee how we will maintain this fantastic diversity of our closest relatives in the near future,” added Wich. “That will not only be a great loss from a scientific point of view, but will also have a negative influence on the ecosystems that we all rely so much upon. It is therefore important to drastically change from the business as usual scenarios to more sustainable ones.”

The threat posed to delicate ecosystems by human expansion is nothing new, but it is perhaps shocking to have such a blunt figure out there as to the damage being caused.

More than half of these species – species that are far closer to us than we may be comfortable discussing – could die unless current policy is reversed.

The study’s authors have called on authorities across the world to take action and raise awareness of the issues raised.

The article itself is published in the latest edition of the journal Science Advances.

Mark Zuckerberg: VR goal is still 5-10 years away

Mark Zuzkerberg has said that the true goal of virtual reality could still be a decade away, in a testimony during a high-profile court case against his company.

Facebook, as owner of Oculus, is currently in the middle of being sued by ZeniMax Media for allegedly stealing technology for the virtual reality device. If proved guilty, they will be pursued for the amount of $2bn by ZeniMax.  However, perhaps more pertinent to the actual future of virtual reality are comments arising from Mark Zuckerberg’s testimony.

As it currently stands, virtual reality is still a far cry from being integrated into everyday life on a wide scale. Oculus, HTC Vive and Playstation VR are still largely targeting gamers and the idea of entertainment experiences. While they have found varying levels of success, all three platforms are being held back by the youth of the technology and, in the case of Vive and Oculus, the limited by the need for a high performing computer to plug into.

Image and featured image courtesy of Oculus

“I don’t think that good virtual reality is fully there yet,” said Zuckerberg. “It’s going to take five or 10 more years of development before we get to where we all want to go.”

The revelation isn’t a particularly shocking one; even the most ardent believer in virtual reality has to admit that we’re a fair way off the goal. Indeed, we can be seen as being in the first wave of mainstream virtual reality, with the main players in the tech using gaming as a way to introduce the technology to a group that are most likely to be interested from the off.

Zuckerberg has far grander plans than simply expanding the user base however, as seen with projects such as Facebook Social VR. If games are the entry, the idea is to expand virtual reality to become a whole new computing platform used for a bevy of experiences and containing a whole load of tools. The ambition is high, the reality slightly lagging behind.

Mark Zuckerberg with Priscilla Chan in 2016

When asked about the realisation of VR as this new computing platform, Zuckerberg replied: “These things end up being more complex than you think up front. If anything, we may have to invest even more money to get to the goals we had than we had thought up front.”

He then went on to add that the probable investment for Facebook to reach that goal is likely to top the $3bn mark over the next ten years. Considering the social media giant spent $2bn just to acquire Oculus, this represents a truly colossal investment in something that seemed to be initially set to hit a lot sooner. Admittedly the goal is rather grand: providing hundreds of millions of people with a good virtual reality experience transcending gaming alone.

Oh, and in case you were wondering, it’s very important that you know that Mark Zuckerberg did in fact wear a suit to trial. Whether Palmer Luckey, making his first public appearance since his Gamergate/Trump support scandal last year, will manage to ditch the flip flops when he testifies is yet to be seen.