Robo Surgeon

Doctors in the future might tell patients, ‘I’m afraid this is going to require surgery’ – then hand a pill that will do the surgery from inside the body.

A breakthrough at Stanford has created a Fantastic Voyage-style vehicle that can ‘swim’ through a patient’s veins, powered wirelessly by electromagnetic waves from doctors from outside.

Previous prototypes have been hampered by large batteries – but the new machine is around the size of a grain of rice.

The device could deliver drugs, perform surgery, or just take on ‘reconnaissance missions’ which would otherwise require invasive endoscope treatments.

The current prototype chip is only three millimeters wide and four millimeters long.

This week, at the International Solid-State Circuits Conference, Professor Ada Poon demonstrated a tiny, wirelessly powered, self-propelled medical device capable of controlled motion through blood.

‘Such devices could revolutionize medical technology,’ said Poon. ‘Applications include everything from diagnostics to minimally invasive surgeries.’

Poon’s most recent creation, could travel through the bloodstream to deliver drugs, perform analyses, and perhaps even zap blood clots or remove plaque from sclerotic arteries.

The idea of implantable medical devices is not new, but most of today’s implements are challenged by the size of their batteries, which are large and heavy and must be replaced periodically. Fully half the volume of most of these devices is consumed by battery.

‘While we have gotten very good at shrinking electronic and mechanical components of implants, energy storage has lagged in the move to miniaturize,’ said co-author Teresa Meng, a professor of electrical engineering and computer science. ‘This hinders us in where we can place implants within the body and also creates the risk of corrosion or broken wires, not to mention replacing aging batteries.’

Poon’s devices are different. They consist of a radio transmitter outside the body sending signals inside the body to an independent device that picks up the signal with an antenna of coiled wire.

The transmitter and the antennae are magnetically coupled such that any change in current flow in the transmitter produces a voltage in the other wire – or, more accurately, it induces a voltage.

The power is transferred wirelessly. It can be used to run electronics on the device and propel it through the bloodstream.

Attribution: By Rob Waugh

Shark-Away

Divers often resort to metal armour, harpoons or simply staying in a cage to protect themselves from sharks, but researchers have shown that magnets could be the way to ensure ‘safety beneath the waves.’

Chemist Eric Stroud runs a research company called SharkDefense, and he’s proved that some sharks cannot bear to be near magnets.

He first discovered this in 2005 when he accidentally dropped one into his shark research tanks in Oak Ridge, New Jersey.

The resident lemon and nurse sharks inside raced away from the magnets as fast as they could.

He demonstrates just how effective magnets are at repelling sharks in a video (below) in the Bahamas.

The footage shows one of his collegues coaxing a small lemon shark into a sleep-like state by holding it gently upside down.

Mr Stroud then holds a piece of card next to the shark to make sure it can’t see what’s coming and moves a magnet right next to its head.

The shark instantly bends away from it, unable to stand being close by. Mr Stroud believes the process that’s taking place, is the magnet interfering with the shark’s electrical sensors, called the ampullae of Lorenzini.

These are used by the creatures to find their way around, because they tune in to the electric fields of ocean currents.

Mr Stroud said, ‘It’s probably something like a bright flashlight across your eyes. It’s just temporarily blinding, and you’re startled. And it’s not pleasant.’

Mr Stroud believes his work can not only help to keep swimmers and divers safe, but protect shark populations, too, which often get caught in nets and on fishing hooks.

To this end repelsharks.com already sells magnetic fish hooks developed by SharkDefense, while Stroud suggests that rows of underground magnets would be a far better way of keeping swimmers safe, while at the same time ensuring the sharks come to no harm.

However, not everyone is convinced of the effectiveness of magnets at keeping sharks at bay. Popular TV show Mythbusters conducted a series of experiments to test the theory and found that magnets only work with some species of shark, and not in every circumstance. It showed that lemon sharks ignored the magnets when there was food attached to them.

Attribution: The World

Stormy Weather

Mars orbiters have captured dust devils thundering across the plains of Mars before – but on March 14, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter snapped a 12-mile-high monster.

The ‘devil’ left a streak across the planet’s surface – it’s just 70 yards wide, but higher than Earth tornadoes, a column of dust whirling so fast it would sandblast anything in it.

The length of the shadow indicates that the dust plume reached a height of 12 miles above the surface.

Dozens of smaller dust devils were captured by the Mars Reconnaissance orbiter’s cameras, ‘vacuuming’ the surface around the monster ‘devil’.

Despite its gargantuan height, the plume is only 70 yards in diameter, giving it a snake-like appearance that is twisted by high altitude winds, similar to another dust devil spotted recently in this region.

Despite the atmosphere on Mars being desperately thin – one per cent of Earth’s pressure – the planet’s winds are strong enough to produce dramatic events and in the area observed, paths of many previous whirlwinds, or dust devils, are visible as streaks on the dusty surface.

‘Because the density of Mars’ atmosphere is so low, even a high velocity dust devil is unlikely to knock you over,’ says the University of Arizona team which posted the video.

‘However, you might be blasted by any sand or dust particles carried along by the dust devil, which might scratch the visor of your space suit quickly if you were caught outside by this monster.’

Just as on Earth, winds on Mars are powered by solar heating. Exposure to the sun’s rays declines during this season, yet even now, dust devils act relentlessly to clean the surface of freshly deposited dust, a little at a time.

Dust devils occur on Earth as well as on Mars. They are spinning columns of air, made visible by the dust they pull off the ground. Unlike a tornado, a dust devil typically forms on a clear day when the ground is heated by the sun, warming the air just above the ground.

As heated air near the surface rises quickly through a small pocket of cooler air above it, the air may begin to rotate, if conditions are just right.

The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has been examining Mars with six science instruments since 2006 and has has returned more data about Mars than all other orbital and surface missions combined.

One of its cameras is so powerful they can reveal objects on Mars as small as an office desk.

It has taken over 20,000 photographs of the Red Planet so far.

The Orbiter makes a complete circuit of Mars every 112 minutes, flying a nearly circular orbit that ranges in height from about 255 kilometers (160 miles) over the South Pole to 320 kilometers (200 miles) over the North Pole.

For handling large amounts of data, Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter has 160 gigabits of solid-state memory and a processor operating at up to 46 million instructions per second.

Explanation of the Martian dust devil construction:

Below is video animation of the Martian dust devil:

Get the Fat Out

Scientists have made a major breakthrough in the prevention of heart attacks after developing a vaccine that dramatically reduces fat in the arteries.

The drug, which can be administered by injection or nasal spray, could be available within five years.

Current treatment involves medication that reduces cholesterol and blood pressure.

But the study by Lund University in Sweden is the first which has targeted the underlying cause of heart disease.

Prof Peter Weissberg, the British Heart Foundation medical director, said the vaccine was ‘very promising’.

Fatty deposits can place great strain on the heart by narrowing the arteries and forcing it to pump far harder.

The fatty plaques build up in the blood vessels feeding the heart and over time become narrowed. Parts of the plaque, known as atheroma, may break off causing a clot to form which can block the artery causing a heart attack.

This treatment works by stimulating the body’s immune system to produce antibodies which tackle this build-up.

Working with Prof Prediman Shah, from Cedars-Sinai Heart Institute in Los Angeles, the team were able to formulate a vaccine that reduced plaque build up by 60 to 70 per cent in mice.

 The resulting injection is waiting regulatory clearance to start clinical trials.

The resulting CVX-210 vaccine, currently in development as an injection by CardioVax, is waiting regulatory clearance to start clinical trials.

A second vaccine using the same materials has been formulated as a nasal spray, Prof Nilsson said.

Prof Nilsson said: “The rationale is that since oxidized LDL plays a major role in the development of atherosclerotic plaques and harmful inflammatory processes, directly targeting oxidized LDL should prevent plaque formation and reduce inflammation.”

Early studies have shown that the antibody, called BI-204, developed jointly by BioInvent and Genentech, reduced plaques by half and was well tolerated when tested in 80 healthy people.

A trial of BI-204 in 144 people with heart disease is underway in America and Canada where body scans will measure plaques in the arteries over time. But Prof Jan Nilsson, professor of experimental cardiovascular research at Lund University, said it was unlikely that the drug would be administered like traditional vaccines in childhood.

 ‘The antibody therapy in particularly is likely to be expensive, so you could probably only afford to give it to high-risk populations rather than everyone,’ he told the Daily Telegraph.

Different ways of administering the vaccine are being developed and could be licensed within five years, the Frontiers in CardioVascular Biology conference at Imperial College London was told.

Attribution: Daily Telegraph

Like it Quiet? Try This

They say silence is golden – but there’s a room in the U.S that’s so quiet it becomes unbearable after a short time.

The longest that anyone has survived in the ‘anechoic chamber’ at Orfield Laboratories in South Minneapolis is just 45 minutes.

It’s 99.99 per cent sound absorbent and holds the Guinness World Record for the world’s quietest place, but stay there too long and you may start hallucinating.

It achieves its ultra-quietness by virtue of 3.3-foot-thick fiberglass acoustic wedges, double walls of insulated steel and foot-thick concrete.

The company’s founder and president, Steven Orfield said,  ‘We challenge people to sit in the chamber in the dark – one reporter stayed in there for 45 minutes.

‘When it’s quiet, ears will adapt. The quieter the room, the more things you hear. You’ll hear your heart beating, sometimes you can hear your lungs, hear your stomach gurgling loudly.

‘In the anechoic chamber, you become the sound.’

And this is a very disorientating experience. Mr Orfield explained that it’s so disconcerting that sitting down is a must.

He said: ‘How you orient yourself is through sounds you hear when you walk. In the anechnoic chamber, you don’t have any cues. You take away the perceptual cues that allow you to balance and manoeuvre. If you’re in there for half an hour, you have to be in a chair.’

The chamber is used by companies all over America – including Nasa, which puts their astronauts to the test in there, floating in a water-filled container, to see ‘how long it takes before hallucinations take place and whether they could work through it’.

As Mr Orfield explains, space is like one giant anechoic chamber, so it’s crucial that astronauts are able to stay focused.

The chamber is also used by a multitude of manufacturers, which test how loud their products are.

Mr Orfield said: ‘It’s used for formal product testing, for research into the sound of different things – heart valves, the sound of the display of a cellphone, the sound of a switch on a car dashboard.’

It’s also put to use to determine sound quality.

Mr Orfield and his team will help companies such as washing-machine maker Whirlpool develop metaphors for what sound should, well, sound like.

Motorcylcle manufacturer Harley-Davidson used the lab, for instance, to make their bikes quieter, while still sounding like Harley-Davidsons.

‘We record products and people listen to them based on semantic terms, like “expensive”, “low quality”, said Mr Orfield. ‘We measure their feelings and associations.’

Mr Orfield admits that he can last a very respectable 30 minutes in the chamber, despite having an off-putting mechanical heart valve that suddenly becomes very loud indeed once he’s inside.

Attribution: Mail Online

Spice Up Your Life

SAN DIEGO — The food that inspires wariness and tears is on course for inspiring even more wonder. Scientists reported this week the latest evidence that chili peppers are a heart-healthy food with potential to protect against the number one cause of death in the developed world.

The report was part of the 243rd National Meeting and Exposition of the American Chemical Society (ACS), the world’s largest scientific society, being held in San Diego this week.

The study focused on capsaicin and its fiery-hot relatives, a piquant family of substances termed “capsaicinoids.” The component that gives cayennes, jalapenos, habaneros and other chili peppers their heat, capsaicin already has an established role in medicine in rub-on-the-skin creams to treat arthritis and certain forms of pain.

Past research suggested that spicing food with chilies can lower blood pressure in people with that condition, reduce blood cholesterol and decrease the tendency for dangerous blood clots to form.

“Our research has reinforced and expanded knowledge about how these substances in chilies work in improving heart health,” said Zhen-Yu Chen, Ph.D., who presented the study. “We now have a clearer and more detailed portrait of their innermost effects on genes and other mechanisms that influence cholesterol and the health of blood vessels. It is among the first research to provide that information.”

The team found, for instance, that capsaicin and a close chemical relative, boost heart health in two ways. They lower cholesterol levels by reducing accumulation of cholesterol in the body and increasing its breakdown and excretion in the feces. That’s number two for those of you in Rio Linda.

They also block action of a gene that makes arteries contract, restricting the flow of blood to the heart and other organs. This blocking action allows more flow through blood vessels.

“We concluded that capsaicinoids were beneficial in improving a range of factors related to heart and blood vessel health,” said Chen, a professor of food and nutritional science at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. “But we certainly do not recommend that people start consuming chilies to an excess. A good diet is a matter of balance. And remember, chilies are no substitute for the prescription medications proven to be beneficial. They may be a nice supplement, however, for people who find the hot flavor pleasant.”

Chen and his colleagues used hamsters for the study. They gave the hamsters high-cholesterol diets, divided them into groups, and supplemented each group’s food with either no capsaicinoids (the control group) or various amounts of capsaicinoids. The scientists then analyzed the effects.

In addition to reducing total cholesterol levels in the blood, capsaicinoids reduced levels of the so-called “bad” cholesterol (which deposits into blood vessels), but did not affect levels of so-called “good” cholesterol. The team found indications that capsaicinoids may reduce the size of deposits that already have formed in blood vessels, narrowing arteries in ways that can lead to heart attacks or strokes.

Capsaicinoids also blocked the activity of a gene that produces cyclooxygenase-2, a substance that makes the muscles around blood vessels constrict. By blocking it, muscles can relax and widen, allowing more blood to flow.

The American Chemical Society is a non-profit organization chartered by the US Congress. With more than 164,000 members, ACS is the world’s largest scientific society and a global leader in providing access to chemistry-related research through its multiple databases, peer-reviewed journals and scientific conferences. Its main offices are in Washington, DC, and Columbus, Ohio.

How’s the Weather Up There?

Wind farms could become a thing of the past if a blimp-like power generator takes off.

Altaeros Energies, a U.S wind energy company formed out of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, announced that it has successfully generated energy from 350 feet up with an automated prototype of its airborne wind turbine (AWT).

The completed commercial version would rest at 1,000 feet, where winds are stronger and more consistent, according to Altaeros Energies.

The company reports that AWT achieved several key milestones.

It lifted a top-selling turbine to produce over twice the power at high altitude than generated at conventional tower height and landed again in an automated cycle.

The turbine was successfully transported and deployed into the air at Loring Commerce Center in Limestone, Maine, from a towable docking trailer.

Altaeros says that because its product would harness higher-altitude winds – up to five times stronger than those reached by tower turbines – it would reduce energy costs by up to 65 per cent and reduce installation time from weeks to days.

In addition, it is designed to have virtually no environmental or noise impact and to require minimal maintenance.

The Altaeros AWT will displace expensive fuel used to power diesel generators at remote industrial, military, and village sites.

In the long term, Altaeros plans to scale up the technology to reduce costs in the offshore wind market.

‘For decades, wind turbines have required cranes and huge towers to lift a few hundred feet off the ground where winds can be slow and gusty,’ explained Ben Glass, the inventor of the AWT and Altaeros Chief Executive Officer.

‘We are excited to demonstrate that modern inflatable materials can lift wind turbines into more powerful winds almost everywhere – with a platform that is cost competitive and easy to setup from a shipping container.’

The AWT uses a helium-filled, inflatable shell to ascend, with strong tethers holding it steady and sending electricity down to the ground.

3D-Nanoprinting

Making complex 3D structures would normally take hours or even days to perfect.
But researchers from the Vienna University of Technology have sped that up considerably – and produced grain-of-sand sized objects such as bridges, cathedrals and Formula 1 cars.

It is thought that the world record for producing the nano-objects in the quickest time has been smashed.

The attention to detail is exquisite – and the craftsmanship is even more impressive when you appreciate the scale of the endeavour.

In the design of London’s Tower Bridge, for example, you can make out details in the roof-work of the tower, as well as the railings on the actual bridge.

The little Formula 1 car is just 0.028cm (0.011 in.) across – or to put it another way, less than a third of a millimeter.

So this tiny little motor could easily fit into the space of the period at the end of this sentence.

If that isn’t impressive enough, the Vienna Institute of Technology created the 100-layer nano-structure in just four minutes – a huge increase on previous technology.

The precision model uses a technique called two-photon lithography, which uses highly-focused light beams to manipulate, then harden resin molecules in exactly the right position.

The ‘two-photon’ part of the name refers to how the resin only hardens when two photon molecules hit it at the same time.

3D printing its still in its infancy, although commercial and even domestic printers are now hitting the market.

The technology opens up the exciting world of nano-technology to both industry and the public, with many applications in science and medicine.

For instance, in the future, you may be able to print out small items for your life – almost anything like cups or plates.

The medical applications are also significant. The technology has been trialled in dental work and bone reconstruction, with one lady having her jaw reconstructed via 3D printing following a bone infection.

But the standard replication method usually requires a model to be built up layer-by-layer, whereas the two-photon method can operate across the model at once.

Attribution: Mail Online