A superstrong glass inspired by mollusk shells’ tough inner layer, a cellular “time machine” that reversed the spread of pancreatic cancer in a model and a prototype artificial kidney. This month’s coolest things go big by going small.

Science Shells Out

The microstructure of a glass-acrylic composite (left) was inspired by that of seashell nacre (right), better known as mother of pearl. Image credit: McGill University.

What is it? McGill University scientists created superstrong glass inspired by mollusk shells’ tough inner layer.

Why does it matter? Advances in electronics and device screens have created demanding applications for glass, and the material is still catching up. Tough and flexible glass could open doors to devices that seem futuristic today.

How does it work? McGill bioengineering professor Allen Ehrlicher was inspired by nacre, the inner surface of mollusk shells, commonly known as mother-of-pearl, to create a more durable but still transparent glass-acrylic composite. The team examined nacre’s microstructure and mimicked it with layers of glass flakes and acrylic. This produced a cheap and very strong material, but it was opaque. “By tuning the refractive index of the acrylic, we made it seamlessly blend with the glass to make a truly transparent composite,” explained Ali Amini, lead author of the team’s study, which was published in Science. Ehrlicher added that the new material is “three times stronger than normal glass but also more than five times more fracture resistant.”

Putting Cancer In Reverse

This 3D model of structures in the pancreas could be a step toward new gene therapies for pancreatic cancer. Image credit: Purdue University/John Underwood.

Purdue University engineers created a cellular “time machine” that reversed the spread of pancreatic cancer in a model.

Pancreatic cancer is a deadly cancer, with a five-year survival rate of just 10%, according to the American Cancer Society. As with many types of cancer, genetic therapies are a promising treatment approach. “These findings open up the possibility of designing a new gene therapy or drug, because now we can convert cancerous cells back into their normal state,” said Bumsoo Han, program leader of the Purdue Center for Cancer Research.

Han’s team developed a postage-stamp-size replica of a pancreas duct and acinus, a structure that can malfunction in cancer patients and cause the organ to destroy itself. Researchers implanted human cancer cells into the artificial acinus. They also replicated a gene, PTF1, that is key to fetal development of the acinus. When they activated this gene in the model structure, it “reset” the pancreas to grow normal cells, stopping and reversing the existing cancer.

A Kidney To Implant, Not Transplant

The Kidney Project successfully tested a prototype artificial kidney that could someday be implanted to treat kidney disease.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, chronic kidney disease (CKD) affects an estimated 15% of adults. Dialysis and transplant are the only treatments for end-stage renal diseases. “The vision for the artificial kidney is to provide patients with complete mobility and better physiological outcomes than dialysis,” said Shovo Roy of the University of California San Francisco (UCSF), who helps lead the Kidney Project, a public-private partnership between the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the American Society of Nephrology. The team’s work was awarded the $650,000 Artificial Kidney Prize to continue its research.

In recent years, researchers from the Kidney Project developed a hemofilter, which removes toxins and waste from the bloodstream — the main function of biological kidneys. They also built a “bioreactor” to replicate other important functions, including balancing the body’s electrolytes. Their latest research combines the two parts into one small device. It runs on blood pressure alone, with no need for external power, and could help solve CKD patients’ need for blood thinners and immune-suppressing drugs. “Now that we have demonstrated the feasibility of combining the hemofilter and bioreactor, we can focus on upscaling the technology for more rigorous preclinical testing, and ultimately, clinical trials,” said Roy.

3D Printing Could Help The Wind Industry Forge A New Path

The concept a team from GE Renewable Energy are working on a new foundries could print the molds for turbine components on large 3D printers from a computer file and closer to customers.

For hundreds of years, the art of casting industrial components has hardly changed: Design an object, create a model, use the model to build a mold and then cast your final product by pouring molten metal into the cavity formed by the model. The process is the same at foundries all across the world. But when the people at one of those foundries encountered additive manufacturing — better known as 3D printing — they quickly realized how radically the approach could disrupt the way they make things.

In some ways, the binder jet technology is similar to laser-powered 3D metal printers, which use beams of light to melt and fuse layers of metal powder. The key difference is that the binder jet uses a binding agent to make the sand stick together, just like bakers use eggs to keep their pastries from collapsing. Another difference: A binder jet machine can print much faster than laser-based methods. 3D printing could also help engineers produce bigger and lighter castings with shapes that would be difficult or impossible to achieve with a wooden model. This could, in turn, help designers make taller and more efficient turbines. “Countries don’t just want greener electricity. They want to see the benefits of the industry. With this, we can be competitive in the places where these components are needed, we can make them locally, and help the local industry benefit from the boom we’re seeing in renewable energy” said Dennis Lessner, the strategic initiatives leader for GE Renewable Energy’s Offshore Wind supply chain division.