Exoskeletons as Fashion

There’s an interesting article over at the new Discover Magazine blog, the Crux, by Kyle Munkittrick, which you should definitely go read if you’re interested since I’ll just touch on it here. He discusses powered exoskeletons as a coming fashion trend – something I had not at all envisioned. He points out that every fashion is a prosthesis, and most relevantly, glasses and contacts were something first seen only as an aid for a disability, but have now blown up to be very much a part of fashion. Why shouldn’t we adapt to exoskeletons as fashion as well?

Right now powered exoskeletons seem to be mainly considered as aids for the handicapped or for the military, but as they get cheaper and better it’s not hard to imagine them being used in everyday life – there’s plenty of work that requires extra safety or heavy lifting. Hard hats haven’t exactly become sexy, but if it’s something used in a wide variety of circumstances by a variety of demographic groups, and considering there are already a fair amount of companies competing over exoskeletons, it would make sense for companies to try to market their products as fashionably as possible for each niche. 

If you’re wondering about the current state of exoskeletons, below are some examples of modern powered suits in action. Many companies are developing them, but the technology doesn’t seem to be quite developed enough for them to be widespread. Regardless, the exoskeleton seen in the first video (HAL) is being used in over 100 hospitals, according to the Tokyo Times, and the exoskeleton from the second video is being sold for personal use in New Zealand, although it’s currently rather pricey at about $150,000 USD.

Fun fact: the first ever powered exoskeleton was developed by GE and the U.S. military in the 1960’s; it was strong, but too heavy and too difficult to control, so it was never even tested with a person inside. 

And on a side note, the Japanese company that’s working on HAL is called Cyberdyne. They named themselves after the company that created Skynet in the Terminator series, and their exoskeleton has the same name as the homicidal AI from 2001: A Space Odyssey? If they’re trying to tell us something about their future plans, they couldn’t put it any clearer. 

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“Lab-Grown Blood Given to Volunteer For the First Time”

From New Scientist:

RED blood cells generated in a lab have been successfully injected into a human volunteer for the first time. This is a vital step towards a future in which all the blood we need for transfusions can be made in the lab, so that blood donors are no longer essential.

Luc Douay at Pierre and Marie Curie University, Paris, and his colleagues extracted what are called hematopoetic stem cells from a volunteer’s bone marrow.

Hematopoietic stem cells are cells that can turn into any kind of blood cell. They’re a step in the path between embryonic stem cells, at the least differentiated extreme, and a specific type of blood cell, at the most differentiated extreme.

These cells were encouraged to grow into cultured red blood cells using a cocktail of growth factors. After labelling the cells so they could be traced, Douay’s team injected 10 billion – the equivalent of 2 millilitres of blood – back into the original donor to see how they survived…

“The results show promise that an unlimited blood reserve is within reach,” says Douay. That blood reserve is needed urgently. Although blood donations are increasing in many developed countries, blood banks struggle to keep up with the demands of ageing populations who need more operations – often involving blood transfusions. And a source of HIV-free blood is essential in countries with high rates of HIV infection…

Douay’s next challenge is to scale up production to a point where the cultured blood cells can be made quickly and cheaply in sufficient quantities for blood transfusions. The 10 billion cells his team made wouldn’t go very far – a transfusion typically requires 200 times that number. With his existing technology, Douay estimates that a single transfusion would require 400 litres of culture fluid, which is clearly impractical. “We are still a long way from the vision of dropping a couple of stem cells into the broth and making endless units of blood,” says John Hess of the University of Maryland in Baltimore.

Douay believes that it may take several years to scale up the technology. Another possibility is to use embryonic stem cells instead, as Lanza did in 2008. “We can generate up to 100 billion red blood cells from a single six-well plate of stem cells,” Lanza says. He also claims to have made red blood cells through yet another technique: generating “induced pluripotent” stem cells from skin samples and coaxing those stem cells into becoming blood cells.

This sounds like great news. Blood donations are always in need; supplementing those with lab-created blood should be a relief for patients in need of transfusions. New Scientist also gave us this handy-dandy timeline of the path to artificial blood, for your learning pleasure:

If you’re wondering what the “Rhesus blood group” it’s referring to above means, it’s a property of different blood types, part of which we’re familiar with by the positive/negative classification of our blood.

Creating a Supermouse

Getting rid of a particular protein in mice by knocking out the gene that codes for it resulted in mice that could run twice as far as regular mice. Wow.

From New Scientist:

Auwerx and his colleagues used a targeted virus to knock out the gene that makes a protein called nuclear receptor corepressor 1 (NCoR1) in the muscle of mice. Without NCoR1, mitochondria, which power cells, keep working at full speed. “Effectively, the mice go further, faster, on the same amount of gas,” says Auwerx.

“The treated mice ran an average of 1600 metres in 2 hours, compared with 800 metres for untreated mice,” he says…

Auwerx warns athletes not to try to grow their muscles and stamina illicitly by somehow targeting the NCoR1 protein, however.

“We only know what happens if it’s knocked out either in fat or muscle, and it could have serious side effects on other organs,” he says. Also, he points out that without NCoR1, all fetuses perish, so it plays a vital but undiscovered role in fetal development.

Maybe I’m just naive, but this seems like a bit of a bombshell to drop without further details. What happened to the health of the mice in the long run? I can’t imagine it would be improved, but it’d be interesting to know exactly what the side effects were. 

The protein they mention, NCoR1, is responsible for down-regulating particular genes, preventing the cell from reading and using them, which is why it’s called a repressor. This raises a mountain of new questions – what do the genes it regulates code for? How are the mitochondria affected, specifically? I must know! 

This sounds like the kind of finding that can lead to the production of dangerous, illegal performance-enhancers in the future – let’s hope it works out for the best. 

Rapid Genetic Testing in a Clinical Setting

For what appears to be the first time, doctors have used rapid genetic testing to immediately inform their treatment of patients. Basically, some people react poorly to a particular drug, and the genetic variant responsible for this is known. Doctors could test whether or not they had this genetic variant and administer the correct drug accordingly. The steps, as outlined in Medical Xpress:

The point-of-care genetic test used in the study is a first in medicine and overcame many of the previous obstacles that had prevented routine clinical genetic testing. The test featured:

— A saliva swab performed by clinical nurses at the bedside with no prior training in genetic laboratory techniques.
— A one-step insertion of the swab into a testing machine.
— Sixty minutes to identify whether individuals carried the at-risk genetic variant.

The Medical Xpress article goes into more detail and background, if you’re interested.

This technology sounds pretty great. How great though depends on how common this kind of situation is – how often medical care depends on genotype. I wouldn’t be surprised if I’d heard of that situation, but nothing comes to mind right now. I guess we’ll find out when we’re getting swabbed. If it is common, well, saving lots of money on healthcare would be pretty fantastic – and, of course, being in better health would be nice.

If you’re curious about DNA sequencing, you should check out this Ars Technica article that I’ve linked to before; it lays out the basics of the science well enough that I won’t try to replicate it here.

Bacteria as Antibiotics

Researchers at the University of Virginia have decoded the genome of a type of bacteria,  Micavibrio aeruginosavorus, that can survive by attaching to another bacterium and “essentially” sucking out its nutrients, killing its prey in the process. If it can be made to target the right pathogenic bacteria in our bodies, this could be used as an antibiotic in the future.

From PhysOrg:

The bacterium, Micavibrio aeruginosavorus, was discovered to inhabit wastewater nearly 30 years ago, but has not been extensively studied because it is difficult to culture and investigate using traditional microbiology techniques…

The bacterium “makes its living” by seeking out prey – certain other bacteria – and then attaching itself to its victim’s cell wall and essentially sucking out nutrients. Unlike most other bacteria, which draw nutrients from their surroundings, M. aeruginosavorus can survive and propagate only by drawing its nutrition from specific prey bacteria. This kills the prey – making it a potentially powerful agent for destroying pathogens.

One bacterium it targets is Pseudomonas aeruginosa, which is a chief cause of serious lung infections in cystic fibrosis patients…

Additionally, because M. aeruginosavorus is so selective a feeder, it is harmless to the thousands of beneficial bacteria that dwell in the general environment and in the human body…

Another benefit of the bacterium is its ability to swim through viscous fluids, such as mucus. P. aeruginosa, the bacterium that colonizes the lungs of cystic fibrosis patients, creates a glue-like biofilm, enhancing its resistance to traditional antibiotics. Wu noted that the living cells of M. aeruginosavorus can swim through mucus and biofilm and attack P. aeruginosa.

M. aeruginosavorus also might have industrial uses, such as reducing bacteria that form biofilms in piping, and for medical devices, such as implants that are susceptible to the formation of biofilms.

This is a pretty interesting idea to me. One would hope that we could engineer M. aeruginosavorus to hunt down very specific pathogenic bacteria, but there’s definitely a potential danger of accidentally killing beneficial bacteria in our bodies and producing nasty side effects. They don’t say at all how M. aeruginosavorus works, but another potential issue is that some individual bacteria will be resistant to its attack, and bacteria populations will develop resistance to it just like any other drug. 

In any case, the more potential pathogen-killers the merrier, so I’m interested to see where this research goes in the future.

Edit: PhysOrg accidentally called Pseudomonas aeruginosa “Pseudomonas aeruginosavorus“, seemingly mixing it up with M. aeruginosavorus, so I edited the quote above for accuracy. Many thanks to johan for pointing that out. 

A TED Talk on Prosthetic Arms

Since I’ve mentioned prosthetic limbs a few times, I thought I might as well link to this TED talk discussing the concept behind current and coming prosthetic arms. This researcher, Todd Kuiken, uses a different method than what I’ve discussed before: instead of interacting directly with the brain, his arms interact with the nerves that had previously projected to the hand, but in amputees now end in the chest.

He also touches on the possibility of arms that can transmit sensory information. While my related post today was on a technology for a better sensor that could be used in prosthetic arms, it looks like the technological barrier in the arms Kuiken discusses is how to transmit sensory information to the patient’s sensory nerves with good resolution, which is a separate issue. 

The Science of Cloning

LiveScience has a good FAQ article on the basics of how animals are cloned. Cloning is only going to get more prominent in the future, so it wouldn’t hurt to have an idea of what it is and how it’s done. I won’t summarize it here, since it’s already explained briefly and nicely. The last paragraph mentions the recent successful cloning of a human embryo for harvesting embryonic stem cells, which I discussed a while ago along with some background on stem cells.

As always, feel free to let me know if you’d like any aspect explained in more detail.

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