5 coolest things on Earth this week

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Mice with reprogrammed cells stopped aging, paralyzed humans fed themselves with a robotic hand controlled by a cap, and a new 3D printer produced complex tissues made from living cells. Nothing shocking. Just another week of science in action.

Who Wants To Live Forever?

Scientists at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in California have reversed aging in mice suffering from progeria, a rare premature-aging disease, “countering signs of aging and increasing the animals’ lifespan by 30 percent.” The did it by “reprogramming” four genes in skin cells from the mice. These genes, known as Yamanaka factors, can convert any cell to an induced pluripotent stem cell, which is capable of dividing indefinitely. Salk reported that when the team examined the cells “using standard laboratory methods, the cells showed reversal of multiple aging hallmarks without losing their skin-cell integrity.” Says Salk’s Juan Carlos Izpisua Belmonte, senior author of the study, which was published in the journal Cell: “Obviously, mice are not humans and we know it will be much more complex to rejuvenate a person. But this study shows that aging is a very dynamic and plastic process, and therefore will be more amenable to therapeutic interventions than what we previously thought.”

This Is What We Call A Thinking Cap

Researchers at the University of Tübingen in Germany have developed a “neurorobotic hand exoskeleton” that humans control simply by wearing a cap studded with electrodes. The device doesn’t require surgery. The team reported that six quadriplegic patients who participated in the study could perform such functions as eating and drinking independently. The system works by translating brain electric activity into hand grasping motions. “Hand motor function reached almost normal levels,” the scientists wrote in the study. “Integration of portable, battery-driven, and partly wireless brain/neural-computer interaction (BNCI) components into a standard wheelchair enabled the study participants to move freely” in their everyday environments. The results were published in the journal Science Robotics.

Blowing Hot And Cold

This schematic image illustrate the fabrication of painted thermoelectric devices. Image credit: UNIST

Engineers at South Korea’s Ulsan National Institute of Science and Technology have developed thermoelectric paint that converts heat into electricity and “can be directly brush-painted on almost any surface.” European scientists Thomas Johann Seebeck and Jean-Charles-Athanase Peltier independently observed in the early 1800s that certain materials can convert a difference in surface temperature into voltage. This “thermoelectric effect” can be used to generate electricity as well as heat and cool objects. The school said in a press release that using the technique, “one can now easily achieve electricity via the application of [thermoelectric] paints on the exterior surfaces of buildings, roofs, and cars.” The team’s leader, UNIST professor Jae Sung Son, said the paint “overcomes the limitations of flat thermoelectric modules” and can be also more efficient. “Our thermoelectric material can be applied any heat source regardless of its shape, type and size,” Son said. “It will place itself as a new type of new and renewable energy generating system.” The research was published in the journal Nature Communications.

3D-Printed Body Of Research

Researchers working at Utrecht Biofabrication Facility in Holland have developed a new 3D printer that can manufacture objects from bio inks — fluids that hold living cells. The printer uses technology called electrospinning that “produces ultrafine and durable fibers, which are often arranged into a defined mesh-like structure.” When combined with a bio ink, the system can accurately place living cells onto a grid and print a tissue. “This new device allows us to build complex tissue constructs with high precision, that are mechanically more stable,” said Jos Malda, head of the facility, which was set up with support from Utrecht University. Earlier this year, Malda and his team made news by 3D printing a shoulder implant for a rabbit.

Bone Factory

A hyperelastic bone in the shape of a section of the human spine, 3-D printed using an ink developed at Northwestern University. Top gif: A hypereleastic bone. Credit: Adam E. Jakus

Malda’s team could benefit from research taking place at Northwestern University where engineers are developing bio inks for synthetic bones. One of them is a “hyperelastic ‘bone’ material, whose shape can be easily customized, [and] one day could be especially useful for the treatment of bone defects in children.” The material is combination of a calcium mineral naturally occurring in human bones called hydroxyapatite and a “biocompatible, biodegradable polymer that is used in many medical applications, including sutures.” The mix makes it “hyperelastic, robust and porous at the nano, micro and macro levels.” Says Northwestern’s Ramille Shah, who led the research: “Porosity is huge when it comes to tissue regeneration, because you want cells and blood vessels to infiltrate the scaffold. … When you put stem cells on our scaffolds, they turn into bone cells and start to up-regulate their expression of bone specific genes. This is in the absence of any other osteo-inducing substances. It’s just the interaction between the cells and the material itself.”

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