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“Ice cube tray” retinal patch is loaded with cells to restore vision

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One of the main causes of vision loss in adults is deteriorative disorders of the retina, like macular degeneration, that are characterized by the death of the eye’s photoreceptor cells. Scientists are therefore focusing a lot of attention on coming up with ways to regenerate these cells, and a team at the University of Wisconsin-Madison (UW-Madison) has engineered a novel type of scaffold that could give these efforts a boost, by improving the precision with which replacement photoreceptor cells can be delivered into the eye.

Way back in 2012, we looked at research in which UW-Madison scientists demonstrated how pluripotent stem cells could be used to grow retinal tissue in the lab. This tissue featured many of the hallmarks of real retinal tissue, including photoreceptor cells, and raised the prospect of harnessing this technique to grow replacement tissue in place within a damaged or diseased eye to restore vision.

“While it was a breakthrough to be able to make the spare parts – these photoreceptors – it’s still necessary to get them to the right spot so they can effectively reconstruct the retina,” says professor of ophthalmology and visual sciences David Gamm. “So, we started thinking, ‘How can we deliver these cells in a more intelligent way?’ That’s when we reached out to our world-class engineers at UW–Madison.”

Gamm and the UW-Madison engineers have been investigating how synthetic patches can be used to hold photoreceptor cells and be implanted under a damaged retina to enable it to regenerate. A previous effort involved wine-glass-shaped pores to accommodate the photoreceptor cells, though the scientists weren’t happy with the quantity it could carry, so continued with their experimentation.

Photoreceptor cells grown from stem cells can be seen populating the ice-cube-tray-shaped scaffold
Photoreceptor cells grown from stem cells can be seen populating the ice-cube-tray-shaped scaffold

The Ma lab/University of Wisconsin-Madison

The second-generation of their implantable scaffold takes the shape of an ice cube tray, and can hold three times as many photoreceptor cells – 300,000 of them in all – and features cylindrical holes on the underside so these cells can connect with the patient’s retinal tissue as they mature. It is made from a biocompatible material called poly(glycerol-sebacate) that offers the necessary mechanical strength, but is safely metabolized by the body after it serves its purpose.

“We wanted the material to be very strong, and in the eye, it degrades pretty quickly over about two months,” says graduate student and co-first author Allison Ludwig, who works in Gamm’s lab. “That’s ideal for the human retina.”

Satisfied that their new implantable scaffold ticks the necessary boxes, the researchers plan to further refine the technology by optimizing the shape and fabrication technique. They say it is almost ready for testing in large animals, and hope to test it on humans in the future.

“We’re hoping these early generation retinal patches will be safe and restore some vision,” says Gamm. “Then we’ll be able to innovate and improve upon the technology and the outcomes over time. We didn’t start out with supercomputers on our wrists and we’re not going to start out by completely erasing blindness in our first attempt. But we’re very excited about taking a significant step in that direction.”

The research was published in the journal Science Advances.

Source: University of Wisconsin-Madison

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Source: https://newatlas.com/medical/ice-cube-tray-retinal-implant-cells-vision-loss/

NEWATLAS

“Recent” volcanic eruption on Mars boosts subsurface life hypothesis

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While there’s evidence of volcanic activity in Mars’ ancient past, it was presumed to have been quiet for millions of years. But now, orbiters have spotted a large volcanic deposit that appears to be relatively fresh – only about 53,000 years old – which may lend weight to the idea that the Red Planet was recently, or still is, habitable for subsurface microbes.

Mars still bears the scars of its volcanic past. Its surface is dotted with what may be the remains of gigantic, extinct supervolcanoes, and evidence even suggests one of these erupted non-stop for 2 billion years. Generally though, it’s thought that Martian volcanism mostly occurred between about 3 and 4 billion years ago, and had all but died down in the last few million years – the odd, very faint marsquake notwithstanding.

But now, scientists have discovered a scar that appears to be far more recent. Spotted from orbit in a region called the Elysium Planitia, the feature is a dark deposit that measures 8 miles (12.9 km) wide, and surrounds a large fissure 20 miles (32.2 km) long. The team says it doesn’t look like anything else seen in the area, or anywhere else on Mars.

Judging by its layers relative to its surroundings, as well as the number of small craters within it, the team calculated its age to be around 53,000 years. It doesn’t seem to be the result of common lava flow eruptions, but a more explosive event driven by expanding gases, called a pyroclastic eruption.

“This feature overlies the surrounding lava flows and appears to be a relatively fresh and thin deposit of ash and rock, representing a different style of eruption than previously identified pyroclastic features,” says David Horvath, lead author of the study. “This eruption could have spewed ash as high as 6 miles (9.7 km) into Mars’ atmosphere. It is possible that these sorts of deposits were more common but have been eroded or buried.”

Interestingly, this potentially youngest volcanic eruption happens to be located just a few miles from a large impact crater that may also be the youngest on Mars. The team says that it’s possible that the two are connected.

“The ages of the eruption and the impact are indistinguishable, which raises the possibility, however speculative, that the impact actually triggered the volcanic eruption,” says Pranabendu Moitra, co-author of the study.

The white square indicates where the "recent" eruption took place. NASA's InSight lander lies about 1,000 miles (1,600 km) away, while the large ancient volcano Elysium Mons towers over the plains to the northeast
The white square indicates where the “recent” eruption took place. NASA’s InSight lander lies about 1,000 miles (1,600 km) away, while the large ancient volcano Elysium Mons towers over the plains to the northeast

MOLA Science Team

The implications of such a recent volcanic eruption run deeper than just seismology. Volcanic activity could potentially support subsurface microbial life, by creating warmth and cycling nutrients through rocks. A recent study from Brown University found that Mars may have these favorable conditions today – and the new research lends weight to the idea.

“The interaction of ascending magma and the icy substrate of this region could have provided favorable conditions for microbial life fairly recently and raises the possibility of extant life in this region,” says Horvath.

The research was published in the journal Icarus.

Source: University of Arizona

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Source: https://newatlas.com/space/recent-volcanic-eruption-mars-subsurface-life/

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Glowing probe lights up the signs of cardiovascular trouble

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The accumulation of plaque inside the arteries can be an insidious condition with grave consequences that include blood clots and strokes, but luckily it does give off some tell-tale signs. Researchers in the UK have developed a new type of glowing probe that focuses on one of them, increasing its fluorescence in the presence of a key enzyme and possibly acting as an early warning sign for cardiovascular disease.

Known as atherosclerosis, the build-up of arterial plaque is a key driver of heart disease and stroke, and is in turn a leading cause of death in the Western world. One of the ways the condition can endanger human health is when the plaque actually breaks away from the artery walls, events known as intraplaque haemorrhages (IPHs), which can then restrict blood flow and lead to chronic disease or stroke.

The new probe, developed by scientists at Imperial College London, takes aim at an enzyme known as heme oxygenase-1 (HO-1), which is produced in large amounts as IPHs take hold. The probe consists of two compartments that transfer fluorescent molecules between one another – one “donor” component and an “acceptor” component.

But as the probe comes into contact with HO-1, the enzyme breaks a bond connecting these two compartments, and causes a build up of the fluorescent molecules in the donor compartment. This means that the probe glows up to six times more brightly in the presence of HO-1, as was demonstrated in lab tests using modified E. Coli cells, with the change in fluorescence able to be detected using spectroscopy.

“Current methods to detect IPH rely on hospital-based imaging techniques that are both time-consuming and expensive,” says study author Professor James Leiper. “The current technology aims to produce a fast and sensitive diagnostic test that can be used at the time that a patient first presents with symptoms to allow early detection of IPH. Use of such a test would allow for more rapid treatment and improved outcomes for patients suffering from IPH.”

The early proof-of-concept is promising, but such a clinical test is still a ways off. The scientists will next carry out further studies involving mammal and human cells, with hopes that the probe could one day also enable long-term tracking of cardiovascular health.

“The probes could also provide real-time analysis of the underpinning biological processes involved in vascular disease, providing new insights and potentially new ways to track the progress of chronic disease,” says study co-lead Dr Joe Boyle.

The research was published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society.

Source: Imperial College London

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Source: https://newatlas.com/medical/glowing-probe-cardiovascular-trouble/

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Organic, metal-free battery breaks down in acid for recycling

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One of the problems with our ongoing shift toward renewable energy relates to the way we store it, with today’s metal-laden lithium batteries currently serving us well but carrying sustainability issues of their own. Scientists are investigating alternative, more eco-friendly chemistries, and a team at Texas A&M University has just put forward an interesting candidate, demonstrating a metal-free battery that can be placed in acidic solutions to degrade on demand.

The increasing demand for electronic devices and electric vehicles means an increasing demand for lithium-ion batteries, which rely on heavy metals that aren’t so easily sourced. Cobalt, for example, is plagued with ethical issues around mining practices involving child labor in Africa, as well as environmental degradation and the pollution of water supplies. Furthermore, it is difficult to separate and recover these materials at the end of the battery’s life.

“The big problem with lithium-ion batteries right now is that they’re not recycled to the degree that we are going to need for the future electrified transportation economy,” says Dr. Jodie Lutkenhaus, study author. “The rate of recycling lithium-ion batteries right now is in the single digits. There is valuable material in the lithium-ion battery, but it’s very difficult and energy intensive to recover.”

These problems have driven researchers like Lutkenhaus to investigate metal-free battery architectures, with a saltwater prototype battery developed by IBM one notable example. The Texas A&M University scientists instead used electrochemically active chains of amino acids, called redox active polypeptides, to build the battery’s two electrodes, which pass energy back and forth as the device is charged and discharged.

In testing, the organic battery ticked a couple of important boxes. First and foremost, these electrodes performed their role as active materials during operation, remaining stable throughout. And afterwards, the components were able to be degraded by subjecting them to acidic conditions, which left amino acids and other benign degradation products as a result, to be re-used or left to dissolve harmlessly in the environment.

“By moving away from lithium and working with these polypeptides, which are components of proteins, it really takes us into this realm of not only avoiding the need for mining precious metals, but opening opportunities to power wearable or implantable electronic devices and also to easily recycle the new batteries,” says study author Dr. Karen Wooley. “They [polypeptide batteries] are degradable, they are recyclable, they are non-toxic and they are safer across the board.”

While early days for the research, the scientists see it as a promising first step in the development of sustainable batteries, and they’re now looking to improve the design further with the help of machine learning.

The research was published in the journal Nature.

Source: Texas A&M University

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Source: https://newatlas.com/energy/organic-metal-free-battery-degraded-acid-recycling/

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IBM’s new 2-nm chips have transistors smaller than a strand of DNA

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In a shining example of the inexorable march of technology, IBM has unveiled new semiconductor chips with the smallest transistors ever made. The new 2-nanometer (nm) tech allows the company to cram a staggering 50 billion transistors onto a chip the size of a fingernail.

The current industry standard is chips with 7-nm transistors, with some high-end consumer devices, such as Apple’s M1 processors, beginning to make the move to 5 nm. And experimental chips have shrunk as small as 2.5 nm.

IBM’s new chips pip them all, with transistors now measuring just 2 nm wide – for reference, that’s narrower than a strand of human DNA. That, of course, means the tiny transistors can be squeezed onto a chip far more densely than ever before, boosting the device’s processing power and energy efficiency in the process. The company claims that, when compared to current 7-nm chips, the new 2-nm chips can reach 45 percent higher performance or 75 percent lower energy use.

In practical terms, IBM says the tech could give a performance boost to everything from consumer electronics to AI object recognition to the reaction times of autonomous vehicles. Or, its energy savings could reduce the sizeable carbon footprint of data centers, or make for smartphone batteries that last four days on a single charge.

A close-up of a 2-nm silicon wafer containing hundreds of individual chips
A close-up of a 2-nm silicon wafer containing hundreds of individual chips

IBM

Transistors are often used to define technological progress – Moore’s law states that the number of transistors on a chip will double every two years or so. While it’s held more or less true since it was proposed in the 1960s, that rate has slowed down somewhat in recent years.

It’s been nearly four years since IBM revealed its 5-nm chips with 30 billion transistors – if Moore’s law was followed to a T, we’re two years late and 10 billion transistors short. In fact, IBM is only now doubling the transistors on its first 7-nm chips unveiled in 2015.

A scanning electron microscope image of individual transistors on IBM's new chip, each measuring 2 nanometers wide – narrower than a strand of human DNA
A scanning electron microscope image of individual transistors on IBM’s new chip, each measuring 2 nanometers wide – narrower than a strand of human DNA

IBM

Still, we shouldn’t diminish the new development – 2 nm is quite the feat of engineering. As recently as 2019, engineers expressed concerns that technology wouldn’t allow much progress to be made smaller than 3 nm. Research by many companies over the past few years have put those concerns to rest.

It’s likely that we won’t see these 2-nm chips in consumer electronics until 2023 at the earliest, so for now go enjoy the benefits of the still-impressive 5-nm chips.

IBM discusses the new tech breakthrough in the video below.

IBM Unveils World’s First 2 Nanometer Chip Technology

Source: IBM

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