From Patch Adams to Patch Vaccines

shutterstock_116705086When a person makes the switch from their pediatric physician to an adult doctor, they lose an all too important part of the medical process: the lollipop at the end of their visit. While the promise of a sucker at the end of a doctor’s torture session doesn’t entirely make up for the insertion of a seemingly giant needle into a child’s arm, it does distract from the initial pain. Fortunately for children and adults everywhere, progress in biomedical engineering may soon yield a needless vaccine option.

Katarzyna Sawicka, a recent Stony Brook University PhD graduate, designed a needle-free patch capable of delivering vaccines through the skin in a non-invasive process. Much like a Band-Aid, the product Immuno-Matrix sticks to the skin and uses nanofibers to deliver vaccine molecules. The skin is the largest organ of the body, used primarily as a protective layer for the other vital organs. Previously, the large molecules and other particles of the vaccines were incapable of permeating the skin. However, Sawicka found that by removing and returning moisture to the skin, it would absorb larger molecules, up to 250 times the previously absorbable molecule size.

It gets better. Going back to the skin serving a protective function, Sawicka also found that the skin holds a high amount of antigen, a necessary solution that aids in the vaccination process. Therefore, the delivery of vaccine through the skin requires a smaller dosage than traditional vaccine methods. So far, the team of biomedical engineers has successfully tested Immuno-Matrix with whooping cough, influenza, and anthrax. Studies show that this new vaccination solution is as effective as intramuscular injections.

The large implication of this technology lies in the use of vaccines in less developed and poor countries. Immuno-Matrix does not require sterile needles or refrigeration like traditional vaccine solutions. Further development of this vaccine may result in a panacea for developing countries suffering from curable diseases all over the world.

Love is in the Air, or Being Sent through the Air

shutterstock_191161271A new study conducted at the University of Sussex puts texting emojis to shame when it comes to sending emotions through cyberspace. While a little winking smiley face or picture of a fried shrimp may convey some idea of how one preteen girl is feeling to her (as of two days and three hours) preteen boyfriend, researchers are looking to take the guessing game out of the equation.
Ultrahaptics is the new science that links touch sensation with emotions. For example, by stroking the index finger towards the thumb, the feeling of happiness is perceived. Sussex scientists are simulating touch sensation through ultrasound technology to trigger desired emotions. Participants in the study have identified all seven emotions through touch: surprise, fear, disgust, pensiveness, anger, joy and sadness.

Originally the study involved shaking hands with a robotic joystick that would interact with the human hand in different ways to stimulate different emotions. The result was study participants accurately perceiving the emotion twice as often as if guessing the emotion randomly. The Ultrahaptics was then created to send the same touch sensations through mid-air.

The goal for this developing technology is to create a wearable device that will transmit these sensations from user to user. Much like how the Apple Watch is capable of sending sensory notifications to the wearer when they receive a text message or email, a haptic device could send sensory stimulated emotions. The one-to-many concept is another possibility for this science. In application, a horror movie could intentionally trigger fear to movie-goers or a comedian trigger joy in their audience.

This kind of technology is not unheard of or far-fetched since wearable technology is an affluent trend as smart phones, smart watches, and Bluetooth devices gain prevalence in the market. In five or ten years, long-distance relationships and preteen texting scandals may get a helping virtual hand in dealing with emotional communication.

Self-healing may be hereditary

shutterstock_213336247Do you remember ever feeling a superior glow over all those people who seem to feel better even when they take fake medicine? You probably believe that the gullibility of these people is epic. Well, you might want to tone down that glow a bit, because those people may just have the ability to heal themselves without even knowing it.

This is not precisely what recent neurophysiological studies are saying about genetic traits and the placebo effect, however. What they do say is there is some evidence suggesting that some people respond more readily to treatment they believe they are taking even when they are in a placebo group. A placebo, in case you are wondering, is a pill or substance that has no therapeutic value, but the recipient does not know that. Placebos are typically given to a control group of people in clinical trials to measure the efficacy of a certain medication or treatment in a similar group.

This is a significant finding because it affects the benchmark for clinical studies. People in a control group would have to be screened to weed out those that respond no matter what they get. However, if you take it a step further, it could mean that certain people have the genetic traits that allow them to heal themselves using the power of their conviction, aka their mind. If that seems a bit X-Men-ish, it is what it is.

Thunder Lizards, Thunder Lizards, Thunder Lizards Ho!

Thunder LizardsBack in the early 1900s, it was decided that the beloved Brontosaurus excelsus, or “thunder lizard,” was just a duplication of the Apatosaurus. See, a few decades before, scientists were racing to name as many dinosaurs as possible before their colleagues had the opportunity in what is referred to as the “Bone Wars”. In this mad dash, paleontologist Othniel Marsh named one incomplete skeleton a Brontosaurus and the other an Apatosaurus. In his haste, he accidentally placed the wrong skull on the body of a Brontosaurus, thus discrediting his discovery and making the Apatosaurus the only “long-neck” we know and love today.

Recently, a report published in Peer J revealed that there are significant enough differences between the two dinosaurs to warrant a completely separate species and name for the Brontosaurus. Scientists reexamined and compared 81 dinosaur fossils and over 477 specific traits to find multiple and consistent distinctions between the two. These differences included size of neck, minor differences in bone structure, and skull shape. The minute variances would not have been possible to discover without the advanced technology we have today.

The dinosaurs lived 130 to 170 million years ago. The family of dinosaurs is known for their short, dachshund-esque legs and extremely long bodies. The average measure of these ancient lizards exceeded 20 meters, but their cousin the Supersaurus could reach up to 37 meters long.

The debate is still open to arguments. The Diplodocidae family of dinosaurs may have some brother uncles that still need sorting out, but chances look good for the Brontosaurus officially being reinstated as a “terrible lizard.”

Genetic Splicing: Episode VI Return of the Woolly Mammoth

wooly mammothJurassic Park was a nightmare of a film that ultimately showed us that terrifyingly large reptiles went extinct for a reason. However, researchers at Harvard University may have missed the memo. No, there won’t be Tyrannosaurus Rexes running amok anytime soon. Instead, scientists are working on a process called de-extinction. The idea is that gene splicing extinct animals with the genetic material of their living relatives may lead to hybrid species sharing traits of both animals. With enough time and energy, these hybrids could lead to the comeback of plants and animals that we thought we lost millions of years ago.

The scientists use a gene splicing and editing tool called a CRISPR. The spliced genes of the frozen woolly mammoth were placed in the genome of its closest living relative, the Asian elephant. While more tests are necessary, the hope is that these genes can be placed in an embryo inside of an artificial womb. Asian and African elephants are quickly decreasing in numbers because of their proximity to humans. One of the many goals of the experiments is to develop a new elephant capable of living in colder climates. The team focused on the DNA coding for the mammoth’s small ears, long hair, and fattier skin. This would theoretically move elephants farther from human contact and preserve the species from further endangerment.

The remaining DNA of these animals, however, is degrading in quality and quantity, making the efforts to restore the extinct species time sensitive. Tentatively, the technology and approval to develop the elephant/mammoth hybrid may be ready in three years and the gestation process is only 22 months. In the near future, it may be very possible that woolly mammoths, dodo birds, or saber tooth tigers will walk among us once more.

Rejoice Winos! The Grape Depression is Over!

wineYou’ve had a long week, the latest episode of Scandal is on and all you want to do is put your feet up and enjoy a nice glass of Pinot Noir like Olivia Pope. But as you watch your favorite heroine down glass after glass of delicious red wine, you start to wonder how she’ll function in the morning with the nasty wine headache she is sure to wake up with. Fortunately for Ms. Pope and you, there will soon be a solution for wine lovers everywhere.

University of Illinois scientists are working on a wine that would allow a wine connoisseur to finish an entire bottle with no repercussions, except perhaps embarrassing photos of them dancing on the table. Researchers are developing a genetically- modified yeast that will jointly add even more health benefits to the glorified grape juice as well as reduce toxic byproducts that cause hangovers. Wine, created by fermenting grapes over a long period of time, produces polyploidy strains of yeast. By genetically altering this particular yeast, scientists have increased the antioxidants found in the wine by up to ten times and reduced the side effects the toxic byproducts cause.

The compounds that cause migraines and irritation the next morning are still being discovered as there are several sources of the irritating compounds. One culprit seems to be the skin of the grapes that are left on in red wine for the fermenting process. While drinking white wine may reduce the risk of hangover, the researchers are hopeful that true winos and staunch Catholics will no longer suffer from their love of vino.

The Origin of Life

shutterstock_211499647Many people say (in various ways and languages) that it is important to know where we came from in order for us to get to where we want to go. We’re not exactly sure if those that advocate this idea meant to go as far back as these origin-of-life scientists went when they set out to find how life began on Earth, though. And not just human life, mind you, but all life!

That seemed on par with the chicken-and-egg conundrum, but apparently they found it. In a published article in Nature Chemistry, chemists from the University of Cambridge in the UK led by John Sutherland took their “RNA World” theory in hand and did some fancy deconstruction. They took their favorite building blocks for life, formaldehyde, and acetylene and broke it down into even simpler components that were around in primordial times. These are hydrogen cyanide, hydrogen sulfide, and ultraviolet rays. When combined, they would eventually lead to the formation of nucleic acid and lipids. You could say they found the yolk, white, and shell that laid the chicken that served as the base for the (primordial) chicken soup.

They are not saying that this is how life began on earth, but they are saying that it is possible. However, it still doesn’t answer the question: which came first, the chicken or the egg?

It’s a bird…it’s a plane…or, no…it’s a solar powered plane?

shutterstock_133340789If one day, you walk outside, see an unusual gigantic mass in the sky, and are overcome with a feeling that the world is about to end, it’s okay. Don’t be alarmed. Swiss engineers Andre Borschberg and Bertrand Piccard have created the first solar powered plane. It seems as though we have a 21st century version of the Wright brothers on our hands, although without a sibling relationship this time. Embarking on a trip around the world in their solar powered plane, the two are furthering the boundaries of transportation technology.

The plane, named Solar Impulse 2, is covered by solar panels and equipped with batteries. Solar panels are comprised of photovoltaic cells. These cells combined together create the large solar panels, and enable the conversion of sunlight to electricity. When the sunlight hits the panels, the photons separate electrons from atoms, thus creating a flow of electricity. The plane will operate according to this phenomenon during the day, while batteries will sustain it through the night.

The plane’s light-weight structure is designed to increase the plane’s efficiency. Improved since the first Solar Impulse, the wingspan of Solar Impulse 2 is 236 feet, and weighs about the same as a car. Backing up, yes; there was a first Solar Impulse. However, this one only took flight from California to New York. Now, Borschberg and Piccard have implemented corrections and economical upgrades for Solar Impulse 2.

Ready or not, it’s already coming. The Solar Impulse 2 took flight out of Abu Dhabi, the capital of United Arab Emirates, on March 8th. Future stops will be India, Myanmar, China, United States, and either Europe or Africa as it returns. The co-founders and co-pilots say they are prepared and eager to take on this challenge, however, watching the journey on solid ground will satisfy most of us just fine.

Battle Royale: Dark Matter vs. Dinosaurs

shutterstock_200852918From a giant comet collision to alien attacks, there are hundreds of theories as to what killed off the dinosaurs. One more theory was recently thrown into the mix that posits mysterious dark matter as the culprit behind the mass extinctions that Earth experiences about every 26 million to 30 million years. This exact time frame is the same interval at which Earth and the rest of our solar system passes through the plane of the Milky Way. Coincidence? Maybe, maybe not.

Here’s what we know about dark matter: not much. It is invisible to the eye but causes pretty impressive gravitational effects and radiation. Researchers believe that for every square light-year there’s one solar mass of dark matter. That is quite a bit of dark matter just floating around the universe. This would be absolutely fine if it wasn’t for this same dark matter flinging comets at Earth and causing planets to collide. More on this later.

Scientists now believe that the reason that Earth’s core runs hot enough to cause some areas to become completely uninhabitable every couple million years or so isn’t because it caught a space cold and is running a gnarly fever. They theorize that as the Earth enters through the haze of particles at the edge of the Milky Way, dark matter falls to Earth and enters into the core where it is transferred into heat. While the core burns up, the dark matter also causes space debris to rocket towards the earth, triggering extraterrestrial impacts and geological upheavals in Earth’s make up all at once.

We might be able to survive one cataclysmic event but having dark matter attacking Earth from the inside out makes for good odds that we’ll meet the same fate as the dinosaurs. Next up in the ring: Dark Matter vs. Cockroaches and Twinkies.

All out of Fresh Eggs? Just Un-boil the Boiled Ones!

EggsIt seems that the chemistry geeks from University of California Irvine and Flinders University in South Australia has finally sniffed a bit too much of their own products. They have come up with a way to un-boil an egg. Literally. And they published it too!

Most of us never wonder why boiled egg white turns rubbery. Well, according to these researchers, egg white is made up mostly of proteins that when heated changes shape, folds and becomes tangled up. One scientist describes proteins as elastic bands. They can be stretched and pulled into all kinds of configurations without changing their fundamental composition. What the researches did to return the boiled egg white to its original form was to first liquefy it and then spin it really fast in something called a vortex-fluid device so it straightens out the folded and tangled up proteins.

The achievement was recently (January 27) published in the ChemBioChem journal and despite how ridiculous (albeit pretty amazing) it sounds, there are important real world applications for un-boiling an egg. Take cancer, for example. One type of cancer treatment makes use of proteins loaded with antibodies to attach to cancer cells so that the immune cells can locate and destroy them.

The problem is making the antibody protein, which is a long and expensive process using hamster ovary cells which is resistant to “folding.” With this “un-boiling” technique, the process is much faster and uses any type of protein, even yeast. Because antibody proteins become more affordable with this new method, cancer patients no longer have to go into hock to get these treatments.

Of course, they had to break a few eggs to make it.