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Cutting-edge needles promise more accuracy in medical procedures

Cutting-edge needles promise more accuracy in medical procedures

Scientists at Washington State University are creating waterjet-based, steerable needles that could give doctors more accuracy and control and reduce tissue damage in many common, non-invasive medical procedures.

John Swensen, an assistant professor in the School of Mechanical and Materials Engineering, and graduate students Mahdieh Babaiasl and Fan Yang were part of a WSU team that recently co-authored a paper on steerable needles, which was published in the 2019 International Symposium on Medical Robotics (ISMR)

“Our needles have the potential to improve treatments that you can’t reach with traditional straight needles,” Babaiasl said.

For many medical procedures, doctors would like to have bendable, steerable needles to get to their targets. In fact, in a little trick of the trade, doctors will sometimes bend their needles by hand when trying to access a tricky spot, such as when giving a nerve block for back pain. Another problematic procedure for doctors is liver biopsies. When the area to be biopsied lies under the lungs, for instance, the needle must go through the chest cavity.

Waterjet technology has been used for decades in many industries, such as mining and manufacturing.

Swensen’s team developed a technology that uses a controllable waterjet nozzle at the tip of the needle to delicately cut through tissue. After the tissue is cut by the water jet, the bendable, flexible needle can follow the tissue fracture to its destination. In their study, the researchers looked at how the waterjet-based system performed using different nozzle widths, water pressures, and with different tissue stiffness. They recently filed for a patent.

Researchers testing a waterjet-based steerable needle. Their technique could decrease time taken for procedures, in some cases reducing the time taken for procedures by more than half. In addition, the accuracy generated by this technology means the needles can cut through tissue while keeping surrounding blood vessels intact.

In addition to allowing doctors to make turns, the waterjet needles create less friction than straight needles and cause less buckling of the needle and tearing of the surrounding tissue. Check out a video of the needle in action.

In the future, a nurse or doctor sitting in another room could control the needles with something like a video game console, Swensen said.

“Such needles also reduce the need to have precise manual hand-eye coordination,” he added.

Swensen and his team are currently testing their needle technology on artificial tissue made from an elastic polymer that mimics many of the physical properties of biological tissues and will soon begin experiments on real tissue.

Materials provided by Washington State University

Hydration sensor could improve dialysis

Hydration sensor could improve dialysis

For patients with kidney failure who need dialysis, removing fluid at the correct rate and stopping at the right time is critical. This typically requires guessing how much water to remove and carefully monitoring the patient for sudden drops in blood pressure.

Currently, there is no reliable, easy way to measure hydration levels in these patients, who number around half a million in the United States. However, researchers from MIT and Massachusetts General Hospital have now developed a portable sensor that can accurately measure patients’ hydration levels using a technique known as Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR) relaxometry.

Such a device could be useful for not only dialysis patients but also people with congestive heart failure, as well as athletes and elderly people who may be in danger of becoming dehydrated, says Michael Cima, the David H. Koch Professor of Engineering in MIT’s Department of Materials Science and Engineering.

“There’s a tremendous need across many different patient populations to know whether they have too much water or too little water,” says Cima, who is the senior author of the study and a member of MIT’s Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research. “This is a way we could measure directly, in every patient, how close they are to a normal hydration state.”

The portable device is based on the same technology as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanners but can obtain measurements at a fraction of the cost of MRI, and in much less time, because there is no imaging involved.

Lina Colucci, a former graduate student in health sciences and technology, is the lead author of the paper, which appears in the July 24 issue of Science Translational Medicine. Other authors of the paper include MIT graduate student Matthew Li; MGH nephrologists Kristin Corapi, Andrew Allegretti, and Herbert Lin; MGH research fellow Xavier Vela Parada; MGH Chief of Medicine Dennis Ausiello; and Harvard Medical School assistant professor in radiology Matthew Rosen.


Hydration status

Cima began working on this project about 10 years ago, after realizing that there was a critical need for an accurate, noninvasive way to measure hydration. Currently, the available methods are either invasive, subjective, or unreliable. Doctors most frequently assess overload (hypervolemia) by a few physical signs such as examining the size of the jugular vein, pressing on the skin, or examining the ankles where water might pool.

The MIT team decided to try a different approach, based on NMR. Cima had previously launched a company called T2 Biosystems that uses small NMR devices to diagnose bacterial infections by analyzing patient blood samples. One day, he had the idea to use the devices to try to measure water content in tissue, and a few years ago, the researchers got a grant from the MIT-MGH Strategic Partnership to do a small clinical trial for monitoring hydration. They studied both healthy controls and patients with end-stage renal disease who regularly underwent dialysis.

One of the main goals of dialysis is to remove fluid in order bring patients to their “dry weight,” which is the weight at which their fluid levels are optimized. Determining a patient’s dry weight is extremely challenging, however. Doctors currently estimate dry weight based on physical signs as well as through trial-and-error over multiple dialysis sessions.

The MIT/MGH team showed that quantitative NMR, which works by measuring a property of hydrogen atoms called T2 relaxation time, can provide much more accurate measurements. The Tsignal measures both the environment and quantity of hydrogen atoms (or water molecules) present.

“The beauty of magnetic resonance compared to other modalities for assessing hydration is that the magnetic resonance signal comes exclusively from hydrogen atoms. And most of the hydrogen atoms in the human body are found in water molecules,” Colucci says.

The researchers used their device to measure fluid volume in patients before and after they underwent dialysis. The results showed that this technique could distinguish healthy patients from those needing dialysis with just the first measurement. In addition, the measurement correctly showed dialysis patients moving closer to a normal hydration state over the course of their treatment.

Furthermore, the NMR measurements were able to detect the presence of excess fluid in the body before traditional clinical signs — such as visible fluid accumulation below the skin — were present. The sensor could be used by physicians to determine when a patient has reached their true dry weight, and this determination could be personalized at each dialysis treatment.

Better monitoring

The researchers are now planning additional clinical trials with dialysis patients. They expect that dialysis, which currently costs the United States more than $40 billion per year, would be one of the biggest applications for this technology. This kind of monitoring could also be useful for patients with congestive heart failure, which affects about 5 million people in the United States.

“The water retention issues of congestive heart failure patients are very significant,” Cima says. “Our sensor may offer the possibility of a direct measure of how close they are to a normal fluid state. This is important because identifying fluid accumulation early has been shown to reduce hospitalization, but right now there are no ways to quantify low-level fluid accumulation in the body. Our technology could potentially be used at home as a way for the care team to get that early warning.”

Sahir Kalim, a nephrologist and assistant professor of medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital, described the MIT approach as “highly novel”.

“The development of a bedside device that can accurately inform providers about how much fluid a patient should ideally have removed during their dialysis treatment would likely be one of the most significant developments in dialysis care in many years,” says Kalim, who was not involved in the study. “Colucci and colleagues have made a promising innovation that may one day yield this impact.”

In their study of the healthy control subjects, the researchers also incidentally discovered that they could detect dehydration. This could make the device useful for monitoring elderly people, who often become dehydrated because their sense of thirst lessens with age, or athletes taking part in marathons or other endurance events. The researchers are planning future clinical trials to test the potential of their technology to detect dehydration.

Materials provided by Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Microfluidics device helps diagnose sepsis in minutes

Microfluidics device helps diagnose sepsis in minutes

A novel sensor designed by MIT researchers could dramatically accelerate the process of diagnosing sepsis, a leading cause of death in U.S. hospitals that kills nearly 250,000 patients annually.

Sepsis occurs when the body’s immune response to infection triggers an inflammation chain reaction throughout the body, causing high heart rate, high fever, shortness of breath, and other issues. If left unchecked, it can lead to septic shock, where blood pressure falls and organs shut down. To diagnose sepsis, doctors traditionally rely on various diagnostic tools, including vital signs, blood tests, and other imaging and lab tests.

In recent years, researchers have found protein biomarkers in the blood that are early indicators of sepsis. One promising candidate is interleukin-6 (IL-6), a protein produced in response to inflammation. In sepsis patients, IL-6 levels can rise hours before other symptoms begin to show. But even at these elevated levels, the concentration of this protein in the blood is too low overall for traditional assay devices to detect it quickly.

In a paper being presented this week at the Engineering in Medicine and Biology Conference, MIT researchers describe a microfluidics-based system that automatically detects clinically significant levels of IL-6 for sepsis diagnosis in about 25 minutes, using less than a finger prick of blood.

In one microfluidic channel, microbeads laced with antibodies mix with a blood sample to capture the IL-6 biomarker. In another channel, only beads containing the biomarker attach to an electrode. Running voltage through the electrode produces an electrical signal for each biomarker-laced bead, which is then converted into the biomarker concentration level.

“For an acute disease, such as sepsis, which progresses very rapidly and can be life-threatening, it’s helpful to have a system that rapidly measures these nonabundant biomarkers,” says first author Dan Wu, a PhD student in the Department of Mechanical Engineering. “You can also frequently monitor the disease as it progresses.”

Joining Wu on the paper is Joel Voldman, a professor and associate head of the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, co-director of the Medical Electronic Device Realization Center, and a principal investigator in the Research Laboratory of Electronics and the Microsystems Technology Laboratories.

Integrated, automated design

Traditional assays that detect protein biomarkers are bulky, expensive machines relegated to labs that require about a milliliter of blood and produce results in hours. In recent years, portable “point-of-care” systems have been developed that use microliters of blood to get similar results in about 30 minutes.

But point-of-care systems can be very expensive since most use pricey optical components to detect the biomarkers. They also capture only a small number of proteins, many of which are among the more abundant ones in blood. Any efforts to decrease the price, shrink down components, or increase protein ranges negatively impacts their sensitivity.

In their work, the researchers wanted to shrink components of the magnetic-bead-based assay, which is often used in labs, onto an automated microfluidics device that’s roughly several square centimeters. That required manipulating beads in micron-sized channels and fabricating a device in the Microsystems Technology Laboratory that automated the movement of fluids.

The beads are coated with an antibody that attracts IL-6, as well as a catalyzing enzyme called horseradish peroxidase. The beads and blood sample are injected into the device, entering into an “analyte-capture zone,” which is basically a loop. Along the loop is a peristaltic pump — commonly used for controlling liquids — with valves automatically controlled by an external circuit. Opening and closing the valves in specific sequences circulates the blood and beads to mix together. After about 10 minutes, the IL-6 proteins have bound to the antibodies on the beads.

Automatically reconfiguring the valves at that time forces the mixture into a smaller loop, called the “detection zone,” where they stay trapped. A tiny magnet collects the beads for a brief wash before releasing them around the loop. After about 10 minutes, many beads have stuck on an electrode coated with a separate antibody that attracts IL-6. At that time, a solution flows into the loop and washes the untethered beads, while the ones with IL-6 protein remain on the electrode.

The solution carries a specific molecule that reacts to the horseradish enzyme to create a compound that responds to electricity. When a voltage is applied to the solution, each remaining bead creates a small current. A common chemistry technique called “amperometry” converts that current into a readable signal. The device counts the signals and calculates the concentration of IL-6.

“On their end, doctors just load in a blood sample using a pipette. Then, they press a button and 25 minutes later they know the IL-6 concentration,” Wu says.

The device uses about 5 microliters of blood, which is about a quarter the volume of blood drawn from a finger prick and a fraction of the 100 microliters required to detect protein biomarkers in lab-based assays. The device captures IL-6 concentrations as low as 16 picograms per milliliter, which is below the concentrations that signal sepsis, meaning the device is sensitive enough to provide clinically relevant detection.

A general platform

The current design has eight separate microfluidics channels to measure as many different biomarkers or blood samples in parallel. Different antibodies and enzymes can be used in separate channels to detect different biomarkers, or different antibodies can be used in the same channel to detect several biomarkers simultaneously.

Next, the researchers plan to create a panel of important sepsis biomarkers for the device to capture, including interleukin-6, interleukin-8, C-reactive protein, and procalcitonin. But there’s really no limit to how many different biomarkers the device can measure, for any disease, Wu says. Notably, more than 200 protein biomarkers for various diseases and conditions have been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

“This is a very general platform,” Wu says. “If you want to increase the device’s physical footprint, you can scale up and design more channels to detect as many biomarkers as you want.”

Materials provided by Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Diabetes increases the risk of heart failure, more so in women than men

Diabetes increases the risk of heart failure, more so in women than men

A global study of 12 million people has found diabetes increases the risk of heart failure and this increase is greater for women than men.

Researchers from The George Institute for Global Health determined that this differential was greater in type 1 than type 2 diabetes. Type 1 diabetes is associated with a 47% excess risk of heart failure in women compared to men, whilst type 2 diabetes has a 9% higher excess risk of heart failure for women than men.

The findings published in Diabetologia (the journal of the European Association for the Study of Diabetes [EASD]) highlight the need for further sex-specific research into diabetes and how the condition can potentially contribute to heart complications.

According to the International Diabetes Federation (IDF), 415 million adults worldwide live with diabetes – with approximately 199 million of them being women.1 The IDF expects by the year 2040 around 313 million women will be suffering from the disease. Diabetes is the ninth leading cause of death in women and claims 2.1 million female lives every year, more so than men. The number one leading cause of death for women is heart disease.

“It is already known that diabetes puts you at greater risk of developing heart failure but what our study shows for the first time is that women are at far greater risk – for both type 1 and type 2 diabetes,” said lead author and research fellow Dr Toshiaki Ohkuma from The George Institute.

“The increased risk of heart failure following a diabetes diagnosis is significantly greater in women than men which highlights the importance of intensive prevention and treatment of diabetes in women. Further research is required to understand the mechanisms underpinning the excess risk of heart failure conferred by diabetes [particularly type 1] in women and to reduce the burden associated with diabetes in both sexes.”

Key findings:

  • Women with type 1 diabetes were associated with a more than five-fold increased risk of heart failure compared with those without diabetes. For men, the risk was 3.5-fold higher.
  • Corresponding increases in risks for heart failure associated with type 2 diabetes were 95% in women and 74% in men.
  • Researchers also found that both type 1 and type 2 diabetes were stronger risk factors for heart failure in women than men.
  • Type 1 diabetes was associated with a 47% greater excess risk of heart failure in women compared with men.
  • Type 2 diabetes was associated with a 9% greater excess risk of heart failure in women than men.

According to Diabetes Australia, the prevalence of diabetes is now so widespread that it has become the major health crisis of the 21st century. It is the largest challenge facing the Australian health system with around 1.7 million sufferers nationwide. More than 119,000 Australians are living with type 1 diabetes, an autoimmune condition, whereas 1.3 million Australians are living with type 2 diabetes, the effects of which can be exacerbated by lifestyle factors such as poor diet and lack of exercise. It’s estimated that the number of people suffering from diabetes globally will increase to 642 million by 2040.

Study co-author Dr Sanne Peters, of The George Institute for Global Health at the University of Oxford, said there are a number of reasons why women with diabetes are at greater risk of heart complications.

“Women were reported to have two years’ longer duration of prediabetes than men and this increased duration may be associated with greater excess risk of heart failure in women,” said Dr Peters. “Some major concerns are that women are also being undertreated for diabetes, are not taking the same levels of medications as men and are less likely to receive intensive care.”

The IDF reports that girls and women with diabetes experience a range of challenges. Gender roles, power imbalances, socioeconomic inequalities resulting in poor diet and lack of physical activity can all influence vulnerability to diabetes.2 Women’s limited access to health services and lack of pro-activity when it comes to seeking treatment for health problems can also amplify the impact of diabetes, particularly in developing countries.

Diabetes is one of the leading causes of cardiovascular disease, blindness, kidney failure and lower-limb amputation. In pregnancy, poorly controlled diabetes increases the risk of maternal and foetal complications. Women with type 2 diabetes also have a significantly increased risk of depression in comparison to men.

The George Institute has been leading gender specific research and has already shown women with diabetes have a significantly greater excess risk of stroke and coronary heart disease as well as the non-cardiovascular complications of dementia and cancer than men. It is currently investigating gender differences in stroke as well as other chronic diseases.

1 and 2 https://diabetesvoice.org/en/diabetes-views/diabetes-is-a-serious-womens-health-issue/

Materials provided by the University of New South Wales

New approach to reducing damage after a heart attack

New approach to reducing damage after a heart attack

During the emergency procedure used to reopen the blocked artery causing a heart attack, smaller “micro” blood vessels can remain constricted causing significant damage. A new study led by Associate Professor Neil Herring and published in the European Heart Journal has established a key cause behind this constriction and identified a potential therapeutic target to block the mechanism behind it.

Cardiovascular disease is the main cause of death in the UK and throughout the Western World. One of the most common ways in which that manifests is through heart attacks, which occurs when one of the heart’s arteries is blocked. During a heart attack part of the heart starts to die, which causes pain in the chest and can be life-threatening.

Large heart attacks are treated with an emergency procedure to reopen the blocked artery using a balloon and metal tube called a stent. Whilst this procedure is often life saving, in around one third of cases smaller “micro” blood vessels beyond the stent remain constricted causing significant damage. The cause of these micro-vessels being very tightly constricted has so far been unclear.

A new study led by Professor Neil Herring has shed light on why this may happen. Innovative new research has uncovered evidence that the issue relates to the amount of stress the patient experiences during the heart attack. As part of the stress response, a neurotransmitter called Neuropeptide-Y (NPY) is released which causes micro-vessels in the heart to constrict. Furthermore, their data has demonstrated that patients with high NPY levels tend to go on to experience more heart damage.

To establish these results, the team studied patients who had experienced large heart attacks. They measured the levels of NPY both within the heart and peripheral blood. Alongside this, they took accurate and sophisticated measures of how constricted the small blood vessels were at the time. Through state of the art scans at 48 hours and 6 months after heart attack, researchers were able to see how much damage had been done to the heart. ‘We were able to correlate quite nicely the levels of NPY in the heart with how constricted the blood vessels were and even how much damage was done to the heart 6 months later,’ said Professor Herring.

The next step was to understand the mechanism behind how NPY causes this constriction. By studying isolated blood vessels in an animal model, researchers identified a key receptor that NPY binds to to cause the construction. They were then able to compare these results with samples of human hearts taken at the time of surgery, which clearly demonstrated that the receptor is also present in the human heart.

The crucial finding at this stage indicated that drugs that block the NPY receptor can reduce the damage of a heart attack in an experimental model. ‘That gives us real impetus to say if we can come up with a drug that we can use in humans that can block that receptor, then this may be a really good new treatment that we may be able to give to heart attack patients,’ said Professor Herring. Further studies are needed to establish whether NPY blocking drugs reduce the damage caused by a heart attack in patients and help improve survival.

The study is in collaboration with the Herring Group, the Oxford Acute Myocardial Infarction (OxAMI) Study led by Professor Keith Channon from the Oxford Heart Centre and the Radcliffe Department of Medicine, and Professor Kim Dora at the Department of Pharmacology. The research was supported by the British Heart Foundation and has been published in the European Heart Journal.

The full publication, ‘Neuropeptide-Y causes coronary microvascular constriction and is associated with reduced ejection fraction following ST-elevation myocardial infarction,’ can be read in the European Heart Journal.

Materials provided by University of Oxford

gene editing artist

Chinese scientists create safer alternative to CRISPR which avoids ethical concerns

A team of Chinese researchers have created an efficient and very safe technology for editing RNA that could avoid the side effects to a great extent and also the ethical concerns which came from the previous technologies of gene-editing. The study has been published in the journal Nature Biotechnology

This feat comes after half a year when Chinese researcher He Jiankui claimed that he had made the world’s first gene-edited twins who are immune to HIV. This announcement caused a whirlwind of condemnation all over the world. Many Chinese and international researchers condemned it as any application of gene editing was unethical if used on human embryos for reproductive purposes. He used the technology of CRISPR-Cas9, that was adapted from a genome editing system which occurred naturally in bacteria. The Cas9 enzyme, a protein that plays a very important role in the immunological defence of specific bacteria against the DNA viruses would be introduced for cutting the DNA of the viruses in the human body. 

Wei Wensheng, a leading researcher of the technology and also a biologist at the Peking University said that this technology essentially depends on the delivery of chemically modified guide RNAs or exogenous proteins that may lead to a delivery barrier.

Zhou Zhuo, another research team member said that on the contrary, the latest technology known as Leveraging Endogenous ADAR for Programmable Editing of RNA or LEAPER uses the native proteins and hence does not alter the DNA in a direct manner. Because of these factors, it would not bring any heritable changes and is safe. It uses engineered RNA’s for recruiting native enzymes to change certain adenosine to inosine. Zhou also stated that experiments conducted at a cellular level in the last two years showed that LEAPER is capable of achieving editing efficiencies up to 80 percent. He further mentioned that the team is now conducting tests on rats. Hence we have to wait to understand if it is suitable for use in human beings.

LEAPER is active in a very broad spectrum of cell types which includes several human primary cell types. It can also restore the deficient cells of patients having Hurler syndrome without evoking any kind of innate immune responses. Being a single-molecule system, LEAPER ensures highly precise and efficient RNA editing with large scale applications for basic research and therapy. 

Journal Reference: Nature Biotechnology

Red wine's resveratrol could help Mars explorers stay strong

Researchers identify red wine’s resveratrol can keep Mars explorers strong

According to NASA, it would take 9 months to reach Mars from Earth. With the space race moving ahead, researchers from Harvard University are finding answers to how to maintain the body strength on reaching Mars. They have found that resveratrol preserves the muscle mass and strength in the bodies of rats when they are exposed to the simulation of Mars gravity. The study has been published in the journal, Frontiers in Physiology

In the space, being unchallenged by gravity the muscles and bones of the body weaken. The weight bearing muscles such as soleus muscle in calf are most badly affected. Dr Marie Mortreux, lead author of the study said that the human soleus muscle shrinks by a third after only 3 weeks in space. This is followed by loss of slow-twitch muscle fibres which are essential for endurance. For safe operation of astronauts in Mars where the gravity is only 40% of that of Earth, mitigating strategies are needed to avoid muscle deconditioning.

Dr Mortreux added that diet is the key as astronauts on Mars would not have access to exercise machines which are present in ISS. Resveratrol has been found as a suitable candidate which is mainly found in grape skin and blueberries. It helped in preserving the bone and muscle mass in rats during conditions such as complete unloading, similar to microgravity during spaceflight. Thus scientists view that a moderate daily dose would help to prevent muscle deconditioning in Mars gravity. 

For replicating Mars gravity, scientists used a method which was developed in mice by Mary Bouxsein, where rats were fitted with a full-body harness and suspended from their cage ceiling by a chain. Thus, 24 male rats were exposed to normal loading (Earth) or 40% loading (Mars) for 14 days. In each group, half received resveratrol (150 mg/kg/day) in water; the others got just the water. Otherwise, they fed freely from the same chow.

Circumference of calf and front and rear paw grip force were measured every week, and after 14 days, the calf muscles were analysed.

As it was expected, the Mars condition led to the weakening of the rat’s grip and their calf circumference shrank along with muscle weight and slow-twitch fibre content. However, resveratrol rescued the front and rear paw grip almost entirely in the Mars rats similar to the level of Earth rats who were non-supplemented. It also protected the muscle mass entirely and decreased the loss of slow-twitch muscle fibres. However, it could not rescue the soleus and cross-sectional area of gastrocnemius fibres or calm circumference. It did not affect total body weight. 

Dr Mortreux said that resveratrol treatment increases the muscle growth in diabetic or unloaded animals with an increase in insulin sensitivity and glucose uptake in muscle fibres. This is relevant for astronauts who develop reduced insulin sensitivity in spaceflights. Anti-inflammatory effects of resveratrol would also conserve the muscle and bone. Anti-oxidants such as dried plums are used to test this. It is also essential to confirm if resveratrol develops any harmful interactions with the drugs which are administered to the astronauts in spaceflights. Studies are also needed to find out the effects of different doses of resveratrol in males and females. 

Journal Reference: Frontiers in Physiology

reward structures in the human brain

Researchers establish links between aging and changes in cognitive abilities of brain networks

In a recent paper published by the researchers, it has been revealed that the functional regions that are present in the brain get less distinct and interconnected with the increase in age. This occurs mainly in the networks related to cognition and attention span. The study has been published in the Journal Of Neuroscience.

Juan Helen Zhou, an Associate Professor and a neuroscientist from Duke-NUS’ Neuroscience and Behavioural Disorders program said that compared to various cross-sectional studies, it is very crucial to understand the changes in brain which take place both due to healthy and pathological aging so as to reduce the rate of cognitive aging.

The human brain has different segregated neuronal networks with very dense internal connections and less inter-connectivity. Aging is considered to be related to decreased functional specialization and separation of the brain networks.

Professor Michael Chee, Director of Duke-NUS’ Centre for Cognitive Neuroscience and Professor Zhou led a team of neuroscientists for this research. For the same purpose, neuropsychological assessments and functional MRI was performed on a group of  57 young adults and 72 healthy elderly Singaporeans. This accumulation of data for research was done over a span of 4 years where the participants were judged on the basis of various tasks like rate of information processing, how good can participants focus. They checked their ability to memorize verbal and visuospatial data along with planning and execution of tasks.

The accretion of those fMRI images was just one part of the research. Dr. Joanna Chong, the first author of the paper and a Ph.D. graduate under Associate Professor Zhou, was given the responsibility to convert the images into much appealing graphical representations helping them to analyze the intra- and inter-network joins in the brain for the individuals which comprised of adult along with elderly generation.

This analysis aided the team in understanding that there are some functions of brain such as goal-oriented thoughts and deciding where to focus attention which gets affected as one ages, since information transferring becomes less efficient and less distinctive.

We can be assured that this research study surely has some promising future applications since aging has been the reason for various neurodegenerative and cerebrovascular diseases which are a concern for both Governments and healthcare departments. Thus, any sort of future work will facilitate in knowing the reasons for aging and will also help in deciphering the ways of preserving and curing it. Researchers have next plans to examine how factors such as genetic, cardiovascular risks, might influence the age-related changes in the brain networks.

digital model influenza

Researchers release the first vaccine fully developed by AI program

  • A team of researchers at Flinders University in South Australia has created a vaccine that is considered to be the first human drug to be fully designed by artificial intelligence
  • this vaccine was independently designed by an AI software known as SAM or Search Algorithm for Ligands.
  • A program was developed known as the Synthetic Chemist that generated a vast number of different chemical compounds which were fed to SAM.
  • This vaccine was tested on animals to confirm that it boosted the effectiveness of the influenza vaccine

A team of researchers at Flinders University in South Australia has created a vaccine that is considered to be the first human drug to be fully designed by artificial intelligence. Drugs have been previously designed with the help of computers. However, this vaccine was independently designed by an AI software known as SAM or Search Algorithm for Ligands.

Nikolai Petrovsky, professor at Flinders University who also led the development said that its name has been derived from the task it was assigned to perform which was searching the universe for all possible compounds for a good human drug also known as a ligand. Petrovsky, also a Research Director for an Australian company, Vaxine added that the AI software was first taught about the set of compounds which activate the immune system in human beings and a set of compounds which do not. The AI then worked on itself for what separated the two classes of compounds.

Another program was developed known as the synthetic chemist that generated a vast number of different chemical compounds which were fed to SAM. It then went through all of the compounds to find a good drug suitable for the human immune system.

The top candidates identified by SAM were then tested on human blood cells by the team for checking if they actually worked or not. This confirmed that not only SAM found human immune drugs but they were better than the ones currently present. They were then tested on animals to confirm that it boosted the effectiveness of the influenza vaccine. This technique not only saves millions of dollars, but it also saves the time needed for a normal drug discovery process. It received funding from the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, a part of NIH.

This vaccine is developed at a time of high influenza-related cases in Australia. In 2019 till now, 96 thousand cases have been confirmed in Australia, with nearly 10 thousand in WA. Petrovsky hopes that this vaccine will be more effective than the present ones and also replace the standard seasonal flu shot. For Flinders University, this is not the first time as it had developed the first swine flu vaccine back in 2009.

However, it is challenging for research groups to receive new funding. Funding bodies in Australia direct the vast amount of funding to big research institutes. This makes it very difficult for researchers outside these big groups to compete and stay relevant. As a result of which they often have to look overseas. In this case, Petrovsky submitted an application to NIH in the United States and have received 10 grants so far, with supplements totaling 50 million dollars. He felt that the US system values innovative, futuristic research while Australian bodies are highly conservative.

Marathon-running molecule could speed up the race for new neurological treatments

Marathon-running molecule could speed up the race for new neurological treatments

  • Two proteins that activate the fastest molecule in our nerve cells identified by researchers at University of Warwick
  • Mechanism is responsible for transport through our nervous system
  • Faults in cargo transporters can lead to hereditary spastic paraplegia (HSP) and other neurodegenerative disorders
  • Could lead to therapeutic treatment for people with HSP and neurological disorders

Scientists at the University of Warwick have discovered a new process that sets the fastest molecular motor on its marathon-like runs through our neurons.

The findings, now published in Nature Communications, paves the way towards new treatments for certain neurological disorders.

The research focuses on KIF1C: a tiny protein-based molecular motor that moves along microscopic tubular tracks (called microtubules) within neurons. The motor converts chemical energy into mechanical energy used to transport various cargoes along microtubule tracks, which is necessary for maintaining proper neurological function.

Neurons are cells that form the basis of our nervous system, conducting the vital function of transferring signals between the brain, the spinal cord and the rest of the body. They consist of a soma, dendrites, and an axon, a long projection from the cell that transports signals to other neurons.

Molecular motors need to be inactive and park until their cargo is loaded onto them. Neurons are an unusually long (up to 3 feet) type of nerve cell, and because of this marathon distance, these tiny molecular motors need to keep going until their cargo is delivered at the end.

Insufficient cargo transport is a crucial cause for some debilitating neurological disorders. Faulty KIF1C molecular motors cause hereditary spastic paraplegia, which affects an estimated 135,000 people worldwide. Other studies have also found links between defective molecular motors and neurological disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.

The research shows how, when not loaded with cargo, KIF1C prevents itself from attaching to microtubule tracks by folding on to itself. The scientists also identified two proteins: PTNPN21 and Hook3, which can attach to the KIF1C molecular motor. These proteins unfold KIF1C, activating it and allowing the motor to attach and run along the microtubule tracks – like firing the starting pistol for the marathon race.

The newly identified activators of KIF1C may stimulate cargo transport within the defective nerve cells of patients with hereditary spastic paraplegia, a possibility the team is currently exploring.

Commenting on the future impact of this research, Dr Anne Straube from Warwick Medical School said: “If we understand how motors are shut off and on, we may be able to design cellular transport machines with altered properties. These could potentially be transferred into patients with defect cellular transport to compensate for the defects. Alternatively they can be used for nanotechnology to build new materials by exploiting their ability to concentrate enzymes or chemical reagents. We are also studying the properties of the motors with patient mutations to understand why they function less well.

“We still know very little about how motors are regulated. There are 45 kinesins expressed in human cells, but we only have an idea how the motors are activated for less than a handful of them. KIF1C is the fastest motor in neurons and the motor that is the most versatile – it delivers cargoes efficiently to all processes in a neuron, not just the axon.”

Journal: https://www.nature.com/articles/s41467-019-10644-9

Materials provided by University of Warwick