Stem cell therapy restores sight to blind mice

A transplantation treatment based on stem cells has moved closer to being tested in humans with severe vision problems, after successful trials in mice.

The method, which was shown to restore visual function in half of mice with end-stage retinal degeneration, involved transplanting retinal tissue derived from mouse induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) into the host retina.

In order to create the transplant tissue, researchers first genetically reprogrammed skin cells taken from adult mice to an embryonic stem cell-like state before converting these iPSCs into retinal tissue. When transplanted into mice with end-stage retinal degeneration, the iPSC-derived retinal tissue developed to form photoreceptors that established direct contact with neighbouring cells in the retina.

The treatment, developed by senior study author Masayo Takahashi and first author Michiko Mandai of the RIKEN Center for Developmental Biology, was able to restore vision in roughly half of the mice with end-stage retinal degeneration. The research team are now testing the ability to replicate the results using human-derived iPSC retinal tissue.

“It is still a developing-stage therapy, and one cannot expect to restore practical vision at the moment,” Takahashi cautioned. “We will start from the stage of seeing a light or large figure, but hope to restore more substantial vision in the future.”

End-stage retinal degeneration is a leading cause of irreversible vision loss and blindness in older individuals. There is currently no cure and therapies are limited in their capability to stop the progression of vision loss.

The therapy strategy used by the RIKEN team is that of cell replacement, a method that, until now, suffered from uncertainty as to whether transplantation of stem cell tissues could actually restore visual function.

The key to success found by the researchers was the use of differentiated retinal tissues as opposed to retinal cells, which have previously been the focus of field use for most researchers. In almost all of the retinas that were transplanted, the researchers found at least some measure of response to light stimulation.

“The photoreceptors in the 3D structure can develop to form more mature, organized morphology, and therefore may respond better to light,” Takahashi explains. “From our data, the post-transplantation retina can respond to light already at one month in mice, but since the human retina takes a longer time to mature, it may take five to six months for the transplanted retina to start responding to light.”

Although simple light perception isn’t full restoration of sight, it is indicative of the possibilities of the treatment and shows that visual functions can be restored.

Takahashi’s acknowledgement of the increased complexity of human cells requires bearing in mind; it will not be a simple switchover from mice to human patients. However, if their new experiments into human-derived tissues prove successful, it may not be long before work can begin transferring this restorative success to clinical trials.

Elon Musk isn't so keen on flying cars

"Obviously, I like flying things, but it’s difficult to imagine the flying car becoming a scalable solution,” Musk told Bloomberg Businessweek. “If somebody doesn’t maintain their flying car, it could drop a hubcap and guillotine you.”

Source: Bloomberg

Is the woolly mammoth about to come back from extinction?

Scientists from Harvard University say they are just two years away from creating a hybrid embryo, in which mammoth traits would be programmed into an Asian elephant. The embryo would essentially grow to be an elephant with a number of mammoth traits.

Source: The Guardian

Congress is repeatedly warned NASA’s exploration plans aren’t sustainable

An expert panel has wanred that while NASA might have some of the right tools to launch and fly to destinations in deep space, it doesn't have the resources to land on the Moon, to build a base there or to fly humans to the surface of Mars.

Source: Ars Technica

IMAX unveils first virtual reality center

The IMAX VR center, which opened this week, houses 14 different pods, each containing different VR experiences that allow users to temporarily escape real life. One of the pods takes users to the desert planet of Tatooine, which will be familiar to Star Wars fans.

Source: Variety

Could Alexa be forced to testify in an Arkansas murder trial?

A trial is about to begin over the mysterious death of a former police officer at a home in Bentonville, Arkansas. The case is significant because it could help decide whether prosecutors should be allowed to subpoena a virtual assistant.

Source: VICE

Dwarf planet Ceres emerges as a place to look for life in the solar system

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Source: New Scientist

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.”