NASA scientists are taking the first steps to prove it’s possible to traverse vast distances faster than the speed of light.
Some parts of the body, like the liver, can regenerate themselves after damage. But others, such as our nervous system, are considered either irreparable or slow to recover, leaving thousands with a lifetime of pain, limited mobility, or even paralysis.
Now a team of Tel Aviv University researchers, including Dr. Shimon Rochkind of TAU’s Sackler Faculty of Medicine and Tel Aviv Sourasky Medical Center and Prof. Zvi Nevo of TAU’s Department of Human Molecular Genetics and Biochemistry, has invented a method for repairing damaged peripheral nerves. Through a biodegradable implant in combination with a newly-developed Guiding Regeneration Gel (GRG) that increases nerve growth and healing, the functionality of a torn or damaged nerve could ultimately be restored.
This innovative project is now gaining international recognition. Its initial successes were reported recently at several renowned scientific congresses, including the World Federation of Neurological Societies and the European Neurological Society. And the therapy, already tested in animal models, is only a few years away from clinical use, says Dr. Rochkind.
Like healing in the womb
A nerve is like an electrical cable. When severed or otherwise damaged, power can no longer be transferred and the cable loses its functionality. Similarly, a damaged nerve loses the ability to transfer signals for movement and feeling through the nervous system.
But Dr. Rochkind and Prof. Nevo found a way to breach the gap. In their method, two severed ends of a damaged nerve are reconnected by implanting a soft, biodegradable tube, which serves as a bridge to help the nerve ends connect. The innovative gel which lines the inside of the tube nurtures nerve fibers’ growth, encouraging the nerve to reconnect the severed ends through the tube, even in cases with massive nerve damage, Dr. Rochkind says.
The key lies in the composition of the gel, the researchers say, which has three main components: anti-oxidants, which exhibit high anti-inflammatory activities; synthetic laminin peptides, which act as a railway or track for the nerve fibers to grow along; and hyaluronic acid, commonly found in the human fetus, which serves as a buffer against drying, a major danger for most implants. These components allow the nerve to heal the way a fetus does in the womb — quickly and smoothly.
Keeping cells safe for transplant
The implant has already been tested in animal models, and the gel by itself can be used as a stand-alone product, acting as an aid to cell therapy. GRG is not only able to preserve cells, it can support their survival while being used for therapy and transplantation, says Dr. Rochkind. When grown in the gel, cells show excellent development, as well as intensive fiber growth. This could have implications for the treatment of diseases such as Parkinson’s, for which researchers are actively exploring cell therapy as a potential solution.
A new application of an existing medical imaging technology could help predict long-term damage in patients with traumatic brain injury, according to a recent UC San Francisco study.
The authors of the study analyzed brain scans using applied rapid automated resting state magnetoencephalography (MEG) imaging, a technique used to map brain activity by recording magnetic fields produced by natural electrical currents in the brain. They discovered “abnormally decreased functional connectivity” – or possible long-term brain damage – could persist years after a person suffers even a mild form of traumatic brain injury.
“We were hoping that areas of abnormal brain activity would match up with some of the functional measures such as patients’ symptoms after injury, and we saw such correlation,” said senior author Pratik Mukherjee, MD, PhD, associate professor in residence at the UCSF School of Medicine.
Stumped for years by a natural filter in the body that allows few substances, including life-saving drugs, to enter the brain through the bloodstream, physicians who treat neurological diseases may soon have a new pathway to the organ via a technique developed by a physicist and an immunologist working together at Florida International University’s Herbert Wertheim College of Medicine.
The FIU researchers developed the technique to deliver and fully release the anti-HIV drug AZTTP into the brain, but their finding has the potential to also help patients who suffer from neurological diseases such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and epilepsy, as well as cancer.
A 27-year-old man has become one of the first patients in the UK to have his kidney stones removed using “micro instruments” which are only millimetres in size.
Doctors used the 3.5mm apparatus to remove Graham Edgley’s kidney stones.
Medics hope that using the instrument, which is 70% smaller than the conventional kit, will mean that patients can be treated in a day rather than having to stay in hospital for two or three days. It will typically only leave a 3mm scar, compared to the 1cm scar left after laparoscopic surgical equipment is used.
Surgeons at The Royal London Hospital, who are the first in the UK to use the apparatus, believe the minuscule equipment will be suitable for half of the patients requiring the removal of kidney stones.
‘White graphene’ soaks up pollutants and can be re-used
A next-generation material first earmarked for use in electronics has proven itself a capable clean-up agent for polluted waters.
Boron nitride, or “white graphene”, is similar to its namesake: sheets of atoms laid out like a chain-link fence.
A report in Nature Communications shows the material can preferentially soak up organic pollutants such as industrial chemicals or engine oil.
However, it is easier to clean and re-use than other such “nanomaterials”.
Researchers at Oxford University could be on the verge of a medical breakthrough in the treatment of Parkinson’s disease
The therapy, called transcranial alternating current stimulation, or TACS, uses a safe electric current applied through electrodes to the outside of the patient’s head to cancel out the signal causing the tremors.
The preliminary study, carried out on 15 people with Parkinson’s disease at Oxford’s John Radcliffe Hospital, has shown a 50% reduction in resting tremors. Previously the tremors, which have demonstrated a poor response to drug treatments, could be managed through invasive surgery that saw the insertion of electrodes into the brain to deliver electrical impulses, but this technique carries health risks and is not suitable for all patients.
Epilepsy that does not respond to drugs can be halted in adult mice by transplanting a specific type of cell into the brain, UC San Francisco researchers have discovered, raising hope that a similar treatment might work in severe forms of human epilepsy.
SA scientist wins award for TB research
South African scientist Valerie Mizrahi from the University of Cape Town’s Institute of Infectious Disease and Molecular Medicine has been awarded the Grand Prix Christophe Mérieux Prize by the Institute de France in Paris for her tuberculosis research.
The institute’s Academy of Sciences presents the annual €500 000 (approximately R6-million) prize to talented scientists and for innovative research projects.
“What characterises Valerie Mizrahi’s work is not only her excellent research on Mycobacterium tuberculosis and tuberculosis, but also her very active involvement in the tuberculosis community in South Africa, on the African continent and internationally,” Academy of Sciences member, Pascale Cossart, said in a statement.
The award was announced last week, and the prize will be conferred to Mizrahi in Paris on 5 June.
It sounds like science fiction, but researchers are gaining ground in developing mind-controlled robotic arms that could give people with paralysis or amputated limbs more independence.
The technology, known as brain-computer (or brain-machine) interface, is in its infancy as far as human use — though scientists have been studying the concept for years. But experts say that people with paralysis or amputations could be using the technology at home within the next decade.
A UW-Madison research group has converted skin cells from people and monkeys into a cell that can form a wide variety of nervous-system cells — without passing through the do-it-all stage called the induced pluripotent stem cell, or iPSC.
Bypassing the ultraflexible iPSC stage was a key advantage, says senior author Su-Chun Zhang, a professor of neuroscience and neurology. “IPSC cells can generate any cell type, which could be a problem for cell-based therapy to repair damage due to disease or injury in the nervous system.”
In particular, the absence of iPSC cells rules out the formation of tumors by pluripotent cells in the recipient, a major concern involving stem cell therapy.
A second advance comes from the virus that delivers genes to reprogram the adult skin cells into a different and more flexible form. Unlike other viruses used for this process, the Sendai virus does not become part of the cell’s genes.
Using a kid-friendly robot during behavioral therapy sessions may help some children with autism gain better social skills, a preliminary study suggests.
A New Perspective of the Day: The World’s Smallest Movie
Researchers at IBM have created the world’s smallest stop-motion animation by moving carbon monoxide molecules under a scanning tunneling microscope frame by frame.
Hopes for a cure for many brain diseases may rest on the humble mouse, now that scientists can map the rodents’ brains more thoroughly than ever before.
Researchers at The University of Queensland’s Centre for Advanced Imaging (CAI) and Curtin University have created the most detailed atlas of the mouse brain, a development that is helping in the fight against brain disease.
This new tool will allow researchers to map what parts of the brain are affected in mouse models of brain disease – such as brain cancer, Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimers disease, which affect nearly 1 in 6 of the world’s population.
Lead author, Dr Jeremy Ullmann said that the new brain atlas provided a fundamental tool for the neuroscience community.
“The mouse is now the most widely used animal model for neuroscience research and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) is fundamental to investigating changes in the brain,” Dr Ullman said.
“Our atlas is already much in demand internationally because it allows researchers to use MRI to automatically map brain structures.”
The atlas was created in the laboratory of Professor David Reutens, CAI Director.
“In making these world-first maps, we had the advantage of using the most powerful MRI scanners in the Southern Hemisphere, backed up by leaders in digital image analysis, resulting in remarkably clear images of the brain,” Professor Reutens said.
The project’s lead neuroanatomist, Professor Charles Watson from Curtin University, believes that the study will open the door to accurate analysis of gene targeting in the mouse brain.
“The invention of gene targeting in the mouse has made this species the centrepiece of studies on models of human brain disease. MRI allows researchers to follow changes in the brain over time in the same animals,” Professor Watson said.
The atlas was recently described in an article published in the journal NeuroImage.
Neutrinos From Another Galaxy Have Been Discovered in Antarctica
Scientists at the IceCube South Pole Neutrino Observatory have captured the highest energy neutrinos that have ever been seen. And to find them, they used faster-than-light particles and a hole drilled 1.5 miles under the Antarctic ice.
Neutrinos are those spooky massless subatomic particles that can pass through normal matter like a ghost. They can pull off this trick because they don’t carry an electric charge, thus making them immune to electromagnetic forces that influence charged particles like electrons and protons.
To make this discovery, the scientists used IceCube, the world’s largest neutrino detector — a facility that encompasses an entire cubic kilometer of ice. By drilling to a depth of 1 to 1.5 miles, it’s easier for the scientists to see the flash of light from a neutrino reaction.These particles come into existence in a number of ways, including the nuclear reactions of stars. And in fact, the sun is where most of the neutrinos that pass through the Earth come from. But the discovery of two ultra-high-density neutrinos in Antarctica (dubbed “Bert” and “Ernie”) indicates they may also originate from supernova gamma-ray bursts or active galactic nuclei (the jets that spew out from supermassive black holes) — and that they can reach Earth after traveling spectacularly long distances.
Phil Plait explains:
This [detector] relies on the idea that a neutrino passing through ice can create a shower of subatomic particles, like shrapnel. These particles scream out from the collision and can actually travel faster than light through the ice. I know, this sounds impossible, but light speed is the Universal limit when it’s traveling through a vacuum. Light slows down when passing through air, or liquid, or matter. So a subatomic particle can travel faster than light through matter, while still traveling slower than light does in a vacuum.
When this happens, the particle creates a shock wave, just like a sonic boom is created when something travels faster than sound. In this case, though, it’s not a sonic boom, but a photonic boom, a shock wave of light. This creates a faint blue flash called Cherenkov radiation, and that can be seen using very sensitive detectors.
The scientists say they’re 99% certain that these neutrinos are not from some background source; ideally, they’d like to be at least 99.7% sure — so work continues.