October 13, 2015

The Expanding Store of Human Knowledge

By Marian Tupy
The store of human knowledge continues to expand and so do the incremental improvements of our lives. Here are some of the stories that caught my eye last week:

Deleting genes could boost lifespan by 60 percent, say scientists  

Scientists believe that making small tweaks to our genes could dramatically increase our lifespans. Experiments on yeast cells have identified 238 genes that increased lifespan when silenced. Since we share many of same genes, the next important task will be to identify similar genes in human beings. One of the candidates for future research is LOS1 – a gene linked to calorie restriction that could increase our lifespans up to 60 percent. 

Pioneering surgical technique enabled surgeons to restore hand, arm movement to quadriplegic patients


A new surgical technique has restored hand and arm movement to patients paralyzed by spinal cord injuries in the neck. By redirecting peripheral nerves in a quadriplegic’s arms and hands to healthy nerves, conversation between the brain and muscles can be restored.  While this technique is only effective for injuries on the lowest two vertebrae on the neck and physical improvements were often small, the psychological benefits were often profound.

3D printing saved a 5-year-old’s life


For many years Mia Gonzalez was told that she had asthma. However, a team from Nicklaus Children’s Hospital eventually diagnosed Mia with a rare form of double aortic arch. This heart defect caused a vascular ring to wrap around her trachea, making it difficult to breathe. Because it’s a rare condition, Dr. Redmond Burke used a technological breakthrough in order to help his team practice and visualize the surgery before they even got into the operating room. This new technology is 3D printing that allows doctors to print models of a patient’s heart. Doctors can print both rigid and clear models, which allow them to view the internal structure of the heart, and flexible and opaque models, which allow the doctors to test different surgical techniques. By using these techniques, Dr. Burke was able to successfully perform surgery on Mia, who is now doing fine. Since then, the Nicklaus Children’s Hospital has acquired its own 3D printer and has used it to help save the lives of 20 more patients.  

This creature could hold the key to eternal life


Professor Rokhsar of the University of California Berkeley has been studying an interesting animal called a sea anemone. These creatures have a miraculous tendency to regrow cells very rapidly, meaning that they stay in a constant state of youth. The rapid cell regeneration allows them to escape tumors and other conditions caused by old age. Thus, if they are protected from predators and have a stable food supply, they could theoretically live forever. Professor Rokhsar does not know how they are able to produce cells so quickly, but if the secret is uncovered, the secret to eternal life could be revealed. 

Scientists grow organic semiconductor crystals vertically


During the 21st century, organic or carbon-based semiconductors have become popular among researches because they are cheap and lightweight. Now scientists from the California NanoSystems Institute have found a way to make them
more powerful and efficient. They do this by growing tetraaniline crystals vertically (the same technique can also grow the crystals into a variety of other shapes), which allows them to be placed more efficiently into a single space. This breakthrough makes solar cells that capture the sun’s energy from all possible directions, while also creating the possibility of placing them into phones or other electronic devices.