Tag Archives: UC San Diego

Tiny sponges lure coronavirus away from lung cells

This research approach looks promising as three news releases trumpeting the possibilities indicate. First, there’s the June 17, 2020 American Chemical Society (ACS) news release,

Scientists are working overtime to find an effective treatment for COVID-19, the illness caused by the new coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2. Many of these efforts target a specific part of the virus, such as the spike protein. Now, researchers reporting in Nano Letters have taken a different approach, using nanosponges coated with human cell membranes –– the natural targets of the virus –– to soak up SARS-CoV-2 and keep it from infecting cells in a petri dish.

To gain entry, SARS-CoV-2 uses its spike protein to bind to two known proteins on human cells, called ACE2 and CD147. Blocking these interactions would keep the virus from infecting cells, so many researchers are trying to identify drugs directed against the spike protein. Anthony Griffiths, Liangfang Zhang and colleagues had a different idea: making a nanoparticle decoy with the virus’ natural targets, including ACE2 and CD147, to lure SARS-CoV-2 away from cells. And to test this idea, they conducted experiments with the actual SARS-CoV-2 virus in a biosafety level 4 lab.

The researchers coated a nanoparticle polymer core with cell membranes from either human lung epithelial cells or macrophages –– two cell types infected by SARS-CoV-2. They showed that the nanosponges had ACE2 and CD147, as well as other cell membrane proteins, projecting outward from the polymer core. When administered to mice, the nanosponges did not show any short-term toxicity. Then, the researchers treated cells in a dish with SARS-CoV-2 and the lung epithelial or macrophage nanosponges. Both decoys neutralized SARS-CoV-2 and prevented it from infecting cells to a similar extent. The researchers plan to next test the nanosponges in animals before moving to human clinical trials. In theory, the nanosponge approach would work even if SARS-CoV-2 mutates to resist other therapies, and it could be used against other viruses, as well, the researchers say.

In this illustration, a nanosponge coated with a human cell membrane acts as a decoy to prevent a virus from entering cells. Credit: Adapted from Nano Letters 2020, DOI: 10.1021/acs.nanolett.0c02278

There are two research teams involved, one at Boston University and the other at the University of California at San Diego (UC San Diego or UCSD). The June 18, 2020 Boston University news release (also on EurekAlert) by Kat J. McAlpine adds more details about the research, provides some insights from the researchers, and is a little redundant if you’ve already seen the ACS news release,

Imagine if scientists could stop the coronavirus infection in its tracks simply by diverting its attention away from living lung cells? A new therapeutic countermeasure, announced in a Nano Letters study by researchers from Boston University’s National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratories (NEIDL) and the University of California San Diego, appears to do just that in experiments that were carried out at the NEIDL in Boston.

The breakthrough technology could have major implications for fighting the SARS-CoV-2 virus responsible for the global pandemic that’s already claimed nearly 450,000 lives and infected more than 8 million people. But, perhaps even more significantly, it has the potential to be adapted to combat virtually any virus, such as influenza or even Ebola.

“I was skeptical at the beginning because it seemed too good to be true,” says NEIDL microbiologist Anna Honko, one of the co-first authors on the study. “But when I saw the first set of results in the lab, I was just astonished.”

The technology consists of very small, nanosized drops of polymers–essentially, soft biofriendly plastics–covered in fragments of living lung cell and immune cell membranes.

“It looks like a nanoparticle coated in pieces of cell membrane,” Honko says. “The small polymer [droplet] mimics a cell having a membrane around it.”

The SARS-CoV-2 virus seeks out unique signatures of lung cell membranes and latches onto them. When that happens inside the human body, the coronavirus infection takes hold, with the SARS-CoV-2 viruses hijacking lung cells to replicate their own genetic material. But in experiments at the NEIDL, BU researchers observed that polymer droplets laden with pieces of lung cell membrane did a better job of attracting the SARS-CoV-2 virus than living lung cells. [emphasis mine]

By fusing with the SARS-CoV-2 virus better than living cells can, the nanotechnology appears to be an effective countermeasure to coronavirus infection, preventing SARS-CoV-2 from attacking cells.

“Our guess is that it acts like a decoy, it competes with cells for the virus,” says NEIDL microbiologist Anthony Griffiths, co-corresponding author on the study. “They are little bits of plastic, just containing the outer pieces of cells with none of the internal cellular machinery contained inside living cells. Conceptually, it’s such a simple idea. It mops up the virus like a sponge.”

That attribute is why the UC San Diego and BU research team call the technology “nanosponges.” Once SARS-CoV-2 binds with the cell fragments inside a nanosponge droplet–each one a thousand times smaller than the width of a human hair–the coronavirus dies. Although the initial results are based on experiments conducted in cell culture dishes, the researchers believe that inside a human body, the biodegradable nanosponges and the SARS-CoV-2 virus trapped inside them could then be disposed of by the body’s immune system. The immune system routinely breaks down and gets rid of dead cell fragments caused by infection or normal cell life cycles.

There is also another important effect that the nanosponges have in the context of coronavirus infection. Honko says nanosponges containing fragments of immune cells can soak up cellular signals that increase inflammation [emphases mine]. Acute respiratory distress, caused by an inflammatory cascade inside the lungs, is the most deadly aspect of the coronavirus infection, sending patients into the intensive care unit for oxygen or ventilator support to help them breathe.

But the nanosponges, which can attract the inflammatory molecules that send the immune system into dangerous overdrive, can help tamp down that response, Honko says. By using both kinds of nanosponges, some containing lung cell fragments and some containing pieces of immune cells, she says it’s possible to “attack the coronavirus and the [body’s] response” responsible for disease and eventual lung failure.

At the NEIDL, Honko and Griffiths are now planning additional experiments to see how well the nanosponges can prevent coronavirus infection in animal models of the disease. They plan to work closely with the team of engineers at UC San Diego, who first developed the nanosponges more than a decade ago, to tailor the technology for eventual safe and effective use in humans.

“Traditionally, drug developers for infectious diseases dive deep on the details of the pathogen in order to find druggable targets,” said Liangfang Zhang, a UC San Diego nanoengineer and leader of the California-based team, according to a UC San Diego press release. “Our approach is different. We only need to know what the target cells are. And then we aim to protect the targets by creating biomimetic decoys.”

When the novel coronavirus first appeared, the idea of using the nanosponges to combat the infection came to Zhang almost immediately. He reached out to the NEIDL for help. Looking ahead, the BU and UC San Diego collaborators believe the nanosponges can easily be converted into a noninvasive treatment.

“We should be able to drop it right into the nose,” Griffiths says. “In humans, it could be something like a nasal spray.”

Honko agrees: “That would be an easy and safe administration method that should target the appropriate [respiratory] tissues. And if you wanted to treat patients that are already intubated, you could deliver it straight into the lung.”

Griffiths and Honko are especially intrigued by the nanosponges as a new platform for treating all types of viral infections. “The broad spectrum aspect of this is exceptionally appealing,” Griffiths says. The researchers say the nanosponge could be easily adapted to house other types of cell membranes preferred by other viruses, creating many new opportunities to use the technology against other tough-to-treat infections like the flu and even deadly hemorrhagic fevers caused by Ebola, Marburg, or Lassa viruses.

“I’m interested in seeing how far we can push this technology,” Honko says.

The University of California as San Diego has released a video illustrating the nanosponges work,

There’s also this June 17, 2020 University of California at San Diego (UC San Diego) news release (also on EurekAlert) by Ioana Patringenaru, which offers extensive new detail along with, if you’ve read one or both of the news releases in the above, a few redundant bits,

Nanoparticles cloaked in human lung cell membranes and human immune cell membranes can attract and neutralize the SARS-CoV-2 virus in cell culture, causing the virus to lose its ability to hijack host cells and reproduce.

The first data describing this new direction for fighting COVID-19 were published on June 17 in the journal Nano Letters. The “nanosponges” were developed by engineers at the University of California San Diego and tested by researchers at Boston University.

The UC San Diego researchers call their nano-scale particles “nanosponges” because they soak up harmful pathogens and toxins.

In lab experiments, both the lung cell and immune cell types of nanosponges caused the SARS-CoV-2 virus to lose nearly 90% of its “viral infectivity” in a dose-dependent manner. Viral infectivity is a measure of the ability of the virus to enter the host cell and exploit its resources to replicate and produce additional infectious viral particles.

Instead of targeting the virus itself, these nanosponges are designed to protect the healthy cells the virus invades.

“Traditionally, drug developers for infectious diseases dive deep on the details of the pathogen in order to find druggable targets. Our approach is different. We only need to know what the target cells are. And then we aim to protect the targets by creating biomimetic decoys,” said Liangfang Zhang, a nanoengineering professor at the UC San Diego Jacobs School of Engineering.

His lab first created this biomimetic nanosponge platform more than a decade ago and has been developing it for a wide range of applications ever since [emphasis mine]. When the novel coronavirus appeared, the idea of using the nanosponge platform to fight it came to Zhang “almost immediately,” he said.

In addition to the encouraging data on neutralizing the virus in cell culture, the researchers note that nanosponges cloaked with fragments of the outer membranes of macrophages could have an added benefit: soaking up inflammatory cytokine proteins, which are implicated in some of the most dangerous aspects of COVID-19 and are driven by immune response to the infection.

Making and testing COVID-19 nanosponges

Each COVID-19 nanosponge–a thousand times smaller than the width of a human hair–consists of a polymer core coated in cell membranes extracted from either lung epithelial type II cells or macrophage cells. The membranes cover the sponges with all the same protein receptors as the cells they impersonate–and this inherently includes whatever receptors SARS-CoV-2 uses to enter cells in the body.

The researchers prepared several different concentrations of nanosponges in solution to test against the novel coronavirus. To test the ability of the nanosponges to block SARS-CoV-2 infectivity, the UC San Diego researchers turned to a team at Boston University’s National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratories (NEIDL) to perform independent tests. In this BSL-4 lab–the highest biosafety level for a research facility–the researchers, led by Anthony Griffiths, associate professor of microbiology at Boston University School of Medicine, tested the ability of various concentrations of each nanosponge type to reduce the infectivity of live SARS-CoV-2 virus–the same strains that are being tested in other COVID-19 therapeutic and vaccine research.

At a concentration of 5 milligrams per milliliter, the lung cell membrane-cloaked sponges inhibited 93% of the viral infectivity of SARS-CoV-2. The macrophage-cloaked sponges inhibited 88% of the viral infectivity of SARS-CoV-2. Viral infectivity is a measure of the ability of the virus to enter the host cell and exploit its resources to replicate and produce additional infectious viral particles.

“From the perspective of an immunologist and virologist, the nanosponge platform was immediately appealing as a potential antiviral because of its ability to work against viruses of any kind. This means that as opposed to a drug or antibody that might very specifically block SARS-CoV-2 infection or replication, these cell membrane nanosponges might function in a more holistic manner in treating a broad spectrum of viral infectious diseases. I was optimistically skeptical initially that it would work, and then thrilled once I saw the results and it sunk in what this could mean for therapeutic development as a whole,” said Anna Honko, a co-first author on the paper and a Research Associate Professor, Microbiology at Boston University’s National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratories (NEIDL).

In the next few months, the UC San Diego researchers and collaborators will evaluate the nanosponges’ efficacy in animal models. The UC San Diego team has already shown short-term safety in the respiratory tracts and lungs of mice. If and when these COVID-19 nanosponges will be tested in humans depends on a variety of factors, but the researchers are moving as fast as possible.

“Another interesting aspect of our approach is that even as SARS-CoV-2 mutates, as long as the virus can still invade the cells we are mimicking, our nanosponge approach should still work. I’m not sure this can be said for some of the vaccines and therapeutics that are currently being developed,” said Zhang.

The researchers also expect these nanosponges would work against any new coronavirus or even other respiratory viruses, including whatever virus might trigger the next respiratory pandemic.

Mimicking lung epithelial cells and immune cells

Since the novel coronavirus often infects lung epithelial cells as the first step in COVID-19 infection, Zhang and his colleagues reasoned that it would make sense to cloak a nanoparticle in fragments of the outer membranes of lung epithelial cells to see if the virus could be tricked into latching on it instead of a lung cell.

Macrophages, which are white blood cells that play a major role in inflammation, also are very active in the lung during the course of a COVID-19 illness, so Zhang and colleagues created a second sponge cloaked in macrophage membrane.

The research team plans to study whether the macrophage sponges also have the ability to quiet cytokine storms in COVID-19 patients.

“We will see if the macrophage nanosponges can neutralize the excessive amount of these cytokines as well as neutralize the virus,” said Zhang.

Using macrophage cell fragments as cloaks builds on years of work to develop therapies for sepsis using macrophage nanosponges.

In a paper published in 2017 in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Zhang and a team of researchers at UC San Diego showed that macrophage nanosponges can safely neutralize both endotoxins and pro-inflammatory cytokines in the bloodstream of mice. A San Diego biotechnology company co-founded by Zhang called Cellics Therapeutics is working to translate this macrophage nanosponge work into the clinic.

A potential COVID-19 therapeutic The COVID-19 nanosponge platform has significant testing ahead of it before scientists know whether it would be a safe and effective therapy against the virus in humans, Zhang cautioned [emphasis mine]. But if the sponges reach the clinical trial stage, there are multiple potential ways of delivering the therapy that include direct delivery into the lung for intubated patients, via an inhaler like for asthmatic patients, or intravenously, especially to treat the complication of cytokine storm.

A therapeutic dose of nanosponges might flood the lung with a trillion or more tiny nanosponges that could draw the virus away from healthy cells. Once the virus binds with a sponge, “it loses its viability and is not infective anymore, and will be taken up by our own immune cells and digested,” said Zhang.

“I see potential for a preventive treatment, for a therapeutic that could be given early because once the nanosponges get in the lung, they can stay in the lung for some time,” Zhang said. “If a virus comes, it could be blocked if there are nanosponges waiting for it.”

Growing momentum for nanosponges

Zhang’s lab at UC San Diego created the first membrane-cloaked nanoparticles over a decade ago. The first of these nanosponges were cloaked with fragments of red blood cell membranes. These nanosponges are being developed to treat bacterial pneumonia and have undergone all stages of pre-clinical testing by Cellics Therapeutics, the San Diego startup cofounded by Zhang. The company is currently in the process of submitting the investigational new drug (IND) application to the FDA for their lead candidate: red blood cell nanosponges for the treatment of methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) pneumonia. The company estimates the first patients in a clinical trial will be dosed next year.

The UC San Diego researchers have also shown that nanosponges can deliver drugs to a wound site; sop up bacterial toxins that trigger sepsis; and intercept HIV before it can infect human T cells.

The basic construction for each of these nanosponges is the same: a biodegradable, FDA-approved polymer core is coated in a specific type of cell membrane, so that it might be disguised as a red blood cell, or an immune T cell or a platelet cell. The cloaking keeps the immune system from spotting and attacking the particles as dangerous invaders.

“I think of the cell membrane fragments as the active ingredients. This is a different way of looking at drug development,” said Zhang. “For COVID-19, I hope other teams come up with safe and effective therapies and vaccines as soon as possible. At the same time, we are working and planning as if the world is counting on us.”

I wish the researchers good luck. For the curious, here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Cellular Nanosponges Inhibit SARS-CoV-2 Infectivity by Qiangzhe Zhang, Anna Honko, Jiarong Zhou, Hua Gong, Sierra N. Downs, Jhonatan Henao Vasquez, Ronnie H. Fang, Weiwei Gao, Anthony Griffiths, and Liangfang Zhang. Nano Lett. 2020, XXXX, XXX, XXX-XXX DOI: https://doi.org/10.1021/acs.nanolett.0c02278 Publication Date:June 17, 2020 Copyright © 2020 American Chemical Society

This paper appears to be open access.

Here, too, is the Cellics Therapeutics website.

Controlling agricultural pests with CRISPR-based technology

CRISPR (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats) technology is often touted as being ‘precise’, which as far as I can tell, is not exactly the case (see my Nov. 28, 2018 posting about the CRISPR babies [scroll down about 30% of the way for the first hint that CRISPR isn’t]). So, it’s a bit odd to see the word ‘precise’ used as part of a new CRISPR-based technology’s name (from a January 8, 2019 news item on ScienceDaily,

Using the CRISPR gene editing tool, Nikolay Kandul, Omar Akbari and their colleagues at UC San Diego [UC is University of California] and UC Berkeley devised a method of altering key genes that control insect sex determination and fertility.

A description of the new “precision-guided sterile insect technique,” [emphasis mine] or pgSIT, is published Jan. 8 [2019] in the journal Nature Communications.

A January 8, 209 UCSD press release (also on EurekAlert) by Mario Aguilera, which originated the news item, delves further into the research,

When pgSIT-derived eggs are introduced into targeted populations, the researchers report, only adult sterile males emerge, resulting in a novel, environmentally friendly and relatively low-cost method of controlling pest populations in the future.

“CRISPR technology has empowered our team to innovate a new, effective, species-specific, self-limiting, safe and scalable genetic population control technology with remarkable potential to be developed and utilized in a plethora of insect pests and disease vectors,” said Akbari, an assistant professor in UC San Diego’s Division of Biological Sciences. “In the future, we strongly believe this technology will be safely used in the field to suppress and even eradicate target species locally, thereby revolutionizing how insects are managed and controlled going forward.”

Since the 1930s, agricultural researchers have used select methods to release sterile male insects into the wild to control and eradicate pest populations. In the 1950s, a method using irradiated males was implemented in the United States to eliminate the pest species known as the New World Screwworm fly, which consumes animal flesh and causes extensive damage to livestock. Such radiation-based methods were later used in Mexico and parts of Central America and continue today.

Instead of radiation, the new pgSIT (precision-guided sterile insect technique), developed over the past year-and-a-half by Kandul and Akbari in the fruit fly Drosophila, uses CRISPR to simultaneously disrupt key genes that control female viability and male fertility in pest species. pgSIT, the researchers say, results in sterile male progeny with 100 percent efficiency. Because the targeted genes are common to a vast cross-section of insects, the researchers are confident the technology can be applied to a range of insects, including disease-spreading mosquitoes.

The researchers envision a system in which scientists genetically alter and produce eggs of a targeted pest species. The eggs are then shipped to a pest location virtually anywhere in the world, circumventing the need for a production facility on-site. Once the eggs are deployed at the pest location, the researchers say, the newly born sterile males will mate with females in the wild and be incapable of producing offspring, driving down the population.

“This is a novel twist of a very old technology,” said Kandul, an assistant project scientist in UC San Diego’s Division of Biological Sciences. “That novel twist makes it extremely portable from one species to another species to suppress populations of mosquitoes or agricultural pests, for example those that feed on valuable wine grapes.”

The new technology is distinct from continuously self-propagating “gene drive” systems that propagate genetic alterations from generation to generation. Instead, pgSIT is considered a “dead end” since male sterility effectively closes the door on future generations.

“The sterile insect technique is an environmentally safe and proven technology,” [emphasis mine] the researchers note in the paper. “We aimed to develop a novel, safe, controllable, non-invasive genetic CRISPR-based technology that could be transferred across species and implemented worldwide in the short-term to combat wild populations.”

With pgSIT proven in fruit flies, the scientists are hoping to develop the technology in Aedes aegypti, the mosquito species responsible for transmitting dengue fever, Zika, yellow fever and other diseases to millions of people.

“The extension of this work to other insect pests could prove to be a general and very useful strategy to deal with many vector-borne diseases that plague humanity and wreak havoc an agriculture globally,” said Suresh Subramani, global director of the Tata Institute for Genetics and Society.

I have one comment about the ‘safety’ of the sterile insect technique. It’s been safe up until now but, assuming this technique works as described: What happens as this new and more powerful technique is more widely deployed possibly eliminating whole species of insects? Might these ‘pests’ have a heretofore unknown beneficial effect somewhere in the food chain or in an ecosystem? Or, there may be other unintended consequences.

Moving on, here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Transforming insect population control with precision guided sterile males with demonstration in flies by Nikolay P. Kandul, Junru Liu, Hector M. Sanchez C., Sean L. Wu, John M. Marshall, & Omar S. Akbari. Nature Communications volume 10, Article number: 84 (2019) DOI: https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-018-07964-7 Published 08 January 2019

This paper is open access.

The researchers have made this illustrative image available,

Caption: This is a schematic of the new precision-guided sterile insect technique (pgSIT), which uses components of the CRISPR/Cas9 system to disrupt key genes that control female viability and male fertility, resulting in sterile male progeny. Credit: Nikolay Kandul, Akbari Lab, UC San Diego

Australian peacock spiders, photonic nanostructures, and making money

Researcher Bor-Kai Hsiung’s work has graced this blog before but the topic was tarantulas and their structural colour. This time, it’s all about Australian peacock spiders and their structural colour according to a December 22, 2017 news item on ScienceDaily,

Even if you are arachnophobic, you probably have seen pictures or videos of Australian peacock spiders (Maratus spp.). These tiny spiders are only 1-5 mm long but are famous for their flamboyant courtship displays featuring diverse and intricate body colorations, patterns, and movements.

The spiders extremely large anterior median eyes have excellent color vision and combine with their bright colors to make peacock spiders cute enough to cure most people of their arachnophobia. But these displays aren’t just pretty to look at, they also inspire new ways for humans to produce color in technology.

One species of peacock spider — the rainbow peacock spider (Maratus robinsoni) is particularly neat, because it showcases an intense rainbow iridescent signal in males’ courtship displays to the females. This is the first known instance in nature of males using an entire rainbow of colors to entice females. Dr. Bor-Kai Hsiung led an international team of researchers from the US (UAkron, Cal Tech, UC San Diego, UNL [University of Nebraska-Lincoln]), Belgium (Ghent University), Netherlands (UGroningen), and Australia to discover how rainbow peacock spiders produce this unique multi-color iridescent signal.

A December 22, 2017 Ghent University (Belgium) press release on Alpha Galileo, which originated the news item, provides more technical detail,

Using a diverse array of research techniques, including light and electron microscopy, hyperspectral imaging, imaging scatterometry, nano 3D printing and optical modeling, the team found the origin of this intense rainbow iridescence emerged from specialized abdominal scales of the spiders. These scales have an airfoil-like microscopic 3D contour with nanoscale diffraction grating structures on the surface.

The interaction between the surface nano-diffraction grating and the microscopic curvature of the scales enables separation and isolation of light into its component wavelengths at finer angles and smaller distances than are possible with current manmade engineering technologies.

Inspiration from these super iridescent scales can be used to overcome current limitations in spectral manipulation, and to further reduce the size of optical spectrometers for applications where fine-scale spectral resolution is required in a very small package, notably instruments on space missions, or wearable chemical detection systems. And it could have a wide array of implications to fields ranging from life sciences and biotechnologies to material sciences and engineering.

Here’s a video of an Australian rainbow peacock spider,

Here’s more from the YouTube description published on April 13, 2017 by Peacockspiderman,

Scenes of Maratus robinsoni, a spider Peter Robinson discovered and David Hill and I named it after him in 2012. You can read our description on pages 36-41 in Peckhamia 103.2, which can be downloaded from the Peckhamia website http://peckhamia.com/peckhamia_number…. This is one of the two smallest species of peacock spider (2.5 mm long) and the only spider we know of in which colour changes occur every time it moves, this video was created to document this. Music: ‘Be Still’ by Johannes Bornlöf licensed through my MCN ‘Brave Bison’ from ‘Epidemic Sound’ For licensing inquiries please contact Brave Bison licensing@bravebison.io

The University of California at San Diego also published a December 22, 2017 news release about this work, which covers some of the same ground while providing a few new tidbits of information,

Brightly colored Australian peacock spiders (Maratus spp.) captivate even the most arachnophobic viewers with their flamboyant courtship displays featuring diverse and intricate body colorations, patterns, and movements – all packed into miniature bodies measuring less than five millimeters in size for many species. However, these displays are not just pretty to look at. They also inspire new ways for humans to produce color in technology.

One species of peacock spider – the rainbow peacock spider (Maratus robinsoni) – is particularly impressive, because it showcases an intense rainbow iridescent signal in males’ courtship displays to females. This is the first known instance in nature of males using an entire rainbow of colors to entice females to mate. But how do males make their rainbows? A new study published in Nature Communications looked to answer that question.

Figuring out the answers was inherently interdisciplinary so Bor-Kai Hsiung, a postdoctoral scholar at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California San Diego, assembled an international team that included biologists, physicists and engineers. Starting while he was a Ph.D. student at The University of Akron under the mentorship of Todd Blackledge and Matthew Shawkey, the team included researchers from UA, Scripps Oceanography, California Institute of Technology, and University of Nebraska-Lincoln, the University of Ghent in Belgium, University of Groningen in Netherlands, and Australia to discover how rainbow peacock spiders produce this unique iridescent signal.

The team investigated the spider’s photonic structures using techniques that included light and electron microscopy, hyperspectral imaging, imaging scatterometry and optical modeling to generate hypotheses about how the spider’s scale generate such intense rainbows. The team then used cutting-edge nano 3D printing to fabricate different prototypes to test and validate their hypotheses. In the end, they found that the intense rainbow iridescence emerged from specialized abdominal scales on the spiders. These scales combine an airfoil-like microscopic 3D contour with nanoscale diffraction grating structures on the surface. It is the interaction between the surface nano-diffraction grating and the microscopic curvature of the scales that enables separation and isolation of light into its component wavelengths at finer angles and smaller distances than are possible with current engineering technologies.

“Who knew that such a small critter would create such an intense iridescence using extremely sophisticated mechanisms that will inspire optical engineers,” said Dimitri Deheyn, Hsuing’s advisor at Scripps Oceanography and a coauthor of the study.

For Hsiung, the finding wasn’t quite so unexpected.

“One of the main questions that I wanted to address in my Ph.D. dissertation was ‘how does nature modulate iridescence?’ From a biomimicry perspective, to fully understand and address a question, one has to take extremes from both ends into consideration. I purposefully chose to study these tiny spiders with intense iridescence after having investigated the non-iridescent blue tarantulas,” said Hsiung.

The mechanism behind these tiny rainbows may inspire new color technology, but would not have been discovered without research combining basic natural history with physics and engineering, the researchers said.

“Nanoscale 3D printing allowed us to experimentally validate our models, which was really exciting,” said Shawkey. “We hope that these techniques will become common in the future.”

“As an engineer, what I found fascinating about these spider structural colors is how these long evolved complex structures can still outperform human engineering,” said Radwanul Hasan Siddique, a postdoctoral scholar at Caltech and study coauthor. “Even with high-end fabrication techniques, we could not replicate the exact structures. I wonder how the spiders assemble these fancy structural patterns in the first place!”

Inspiration from these super iridescent spider scales can be used to overcome current limitations in spectral manipulation, and to reduce the size of optical spectrometers for applications where fine-scale spectral resolution is required in a very small package, notably instruments on space missions, or wearable chemical detection systems.

In the end, peacock spiders don’t just produce nature’s smallest rainbows.They could also have implications for a wide array of fields ranging from life sciences and biotechnologies to material sciences and engineering.

Before citing the paper and providing a link, here’s a story by Robert F. Service for Science magazine about attempts to capitalize on ‘spider technology’, in this case spider silk,

The hype over spider silk has been building since 1710. That was the year François Xavier Bon de Saint Hilaire, president of the Royal Society of Sciences in Montpellier, France, wrote to his colleagues, “You will be surpriz’d to hear, that Spiders make a Silk, as beautiful, strong and glossy, as common Silk.” Modern pitches boast that spider silk is five times stronger than steel yet more flexible than rubber. If it could be made into ropes, a macroscale web would be able to snare a jetliner.

The key word is “if.” Researchers first cloned a spider silk gene in 1990, in hopes of incorporating it into other organisms to produce the silk. (Spiders can’t be farmed like silkworms because they are territorial and cannibalistic.) Today, Escherichia coli bacteria, yeasts, plants, silkworms, and even goats have been genetically engineered to churn out spider silk proteins, though the proteins are often shorter and simpler than the spiders’ own. Companies have managed to spin those proteins into enough high-strength thread to produce a few prototype garments, including a running shoe by Adidas and a lightweight parka by The North Face. But so far, companies have struggled to mass produce these supersilks.

Some executives say that may finally be about to change. One Emeryville, California-based startup, Bolt Threads, says it has perfected growing spider silk proteins in yeast and is poised to turn out tons of spider silk thread per year. In Lansing, Michigan, Kraig Biocraft Laboratories says it needs only to finalize negotiations with silkworm farms in Vietnam to produce mass quantities of a combination spider/silkworm silk, which the U.S. Army is now testing for ballistics protection. …

I encourage you to read Service’s article in its entirety if the commercialization prospects for spider silk interest you as it includes gems such as this,

Spider silk proteins are already making their retail debut—but in cosmetics and medical devices, not high-strength fibers. AMSilk grows spider silk proteins in E. coli and dries the purified protein into powders or mixes it into gels, for use as additives for personal care products, such as moisture-retaining skin lotions. The silk proteins supposedly help the lotions form a very smooth, but breathable, layer over the skin. Römer says the company now sells tons of its purified silk protein ingredients every year.

Finally, here’s a citation for and a link to the paper about Australian peacock spiders and nanophotonics,

Rainbow peacock spiders inspire miniature super-iridescent optics by Bor-Kai Hsiung, Radwanul Hasan Siddique, Doekele G. Stavenga, Jürgen C. Otto, Michael C. Allen, Ying Liu, Yong-Feng Lu, Dimitri D. Deheyn, Matthew D. Shawkey, & Todd A. Blackledge. Nature Communications 8, Article number: 2278 (2017) doi:10.1038/s41467-017-02451-x Published online: 22 December 2017

This paper is open access.

As for Bor-Kai Hsiung’s other mentions here:

How tarantulas get blue (December 7, 2015 posting)

Noniridescent photonics inspired by tarantulas (October 19, 2016 posting)

More on the blue tarantula noniridescent photonics (December 28, 2016 posting)

Humans can distinguish molecular differences by touch

Yesterday, in my December 18, 2017 post about medieval textiles, I posed the question, “How did medieval artisans create nanoscale and microscale gilding when they couldn’t see it?” I realized afterwards that an answer to that question might be in this December 13, 2017 news item on ScienceDaily,

How sensitive is the human sense of touch? Sensitive enough to feel the difference between surfaces that differ by just a single layer of molecules, a team of researchers at the University of California San Diego has shown.

“This is the greatest tactile sensitivity that has ever been shown in humans,” said Darren Lipomi, a professor of nanoengineering and member of the Center for Wearable Sensors at the UC San Diego Jacobs School of Engineering, who led the interdisciplinary project with V. S. Ramachandran, director of the Center for Brain and Cognition and distinguished professor in the Department of Psychology at UC San Diego.

So perhaps those medieval artisans were able to feel the difference before it could be seen in the textiles they were producing?

Getting back to the matter at hand, a December 13, 2017 University of California at San Diego (UCSD) news release (also on EurekAlert) by Liezel Labios offers more detail about the work,

Humans can easily feel the difference between many everyday surfaces such as glass, metal, wood and plastic. That’s because these surfaces have different textures or draw heat away from the finger at different rates. But UC San Diego researchers wondered, if they kept all these large-scale effects equal and changed only the topmost layer of molecules, could humans still detect the difference using their sense of touch? And if so, how?

Researchers say this fundamental knowledge will be useful for developing electronic skin, prosthetics that can feel, advanced haptic technology for virtual and augmented reality and more.

Unsophisticated haptic technologies exist in the form of rumble packs in video game controllers or smartphones that shake, Lipomi added. “But reproducing realistic tactile sensations is difficult because we don’t yet fully understand the basic ways in which materials interact with the sense of touch.”

“Today’s technologies allow us to see and hear what’s happening, but we can’t feel it,” said Cody Carpenter, a nanoengineering Ph.D. student at UC San Diego and co-first author of the study. “We have state-of-the-art speakers, phones and high-resolution screens that are visually and aurally engaging, but what’s missing is the sense of touch. Adding that ingredient is a driving force behind this work.”

This study is the first to combine materials science and psychophysics to understand how humans perceive touch. “Receptors processing sensations from our skin are phylogenetically the most ancient, but far from being primitive they have had time to evolve extraordinarily subtle strategies for discerning surfaces—whether a lover’s caress or a tickle or the raw tactile feel of metal, wood, paper, etc. This study is one of the first to demonstrate the range of sophistication and exquisite sensitivity of tactile sensations. It paves the way, perhaps, for a whole new approach to tactile psychophysics,” Ramachandran said.

Super-Sensitive Touch

In a paper published in Materials Horizons, UC San Diego researchers tested whether human subjects could distinguish—by dragging or tapping a finger across the surface—between smooth silicon wafers that differed only in their single topmost layer of molecules. One surface was a single oxidized layer made mostly of oxygen atoms. The other was a single Teflon-like layer made of fluorine and carbon atoms. Both surfaces looked identical and felt similar enough that some subjects could not differentiate between them at all.

According to the researchers, human subjects can feel these differences because of a phenomenon known as stick-slip friction, which is the jerking motion that occurs when two objects at rest start to slide against each other. This phenomenon is responsible for the musical notes played by running a wet finger along the rim of a wine glass, the sound of a squeaky door hinge or the noise of a stopping train. In this case, each surface has a different stick-slip frequency due to the identity of the molecules in the topmost layer.

In one test, 15 subjects were tasked with feeling three surfaces and identifying the one surface that differed from the other two. Subjects correctly identified the differences 71 percent of the time.

In another test, subjects were given three different strips of silicon wafer, each strip containing a different sequence of 8 patches of oxidized and Teflon-like surfaces. Each sequence represented an 8-digit string of 0s and 1s, which encoded for a particular letter in the ASCII alphabet. Subjects were asked to “read” these sequences by dragging a finger from one end of the strip to the other and noting which patches in the sequence were the oxidized surfaces and which were the Teflon-like surfaces. In this experiment, 10 out of 11 subjects decoded the bits needed to spell the word “Lab” (with the correct upper and lowercase letters) more than 50 percent of the time. Subjects spent an average of 4.5 minutes to decode each letter.

“A human may be slower than a nanobit per second in terms of reading digital information, but this experiment shows a potentially neat way to do chemical communications using our sense of touch instead of sight,” Lipomi said.

Basic Model of Touch

The researchers also found that these surfaces can be differentiated depending on how fast the finger drags and how much force it applies across the surface. The researchers modeled the touch experiments using a “mock finger,” a finger-like device made of an organic polymer that’s connected by a spring to a force sensor. The mock finger was dragged across the different surfaces using multiple combinations of force and swiping velocity. The researchers plotted the data and found that the surfaces could be distinguished given certain combinations of velocity and force. Meanwhile, other combinations made the surfaces indistinguishable from each other.

“Our results reveal a remarkable human ability to quickly home in on the right combinations of forces and swiping velocities required to feel the difference between these surfaces. They don’t need to reconstruct an entire matrix of data points one by one as we did in our experiments,” Lipomi said.

“It’s also interesting that the mock finger device, which doesn’t have anything resembling the hundreds of nerves in our skin, has just one force sensor and is still able to get the information needed to feel the difference in these surfaces. This tells us it’s not just the mechanoreceptors in the skin, but receptors in the ligaments, knuckles, wrist, elbow and shoulder that could be enabling humans to sense minute differences using touch,” he added.

This work was supported by member companies of the Center for Wearable Sensors at UC San Diego: Samsung, Dexcom, Sabic, Cubic, Qualcomm and Honda.

For those who prefer their news by video,

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Human ability to discriminate surface chemistry by touch by Cody W. Carpenter, Charles Dhong, Nicholas B. Root, Daniel Rodriquez, Emily E. Abdo, Kyle Skelil, Mohammad A. Alkhadra, Julian Ramírez, Vilayanur S. Ramachandran and Darren J. Lipomi. Mater. Horiz., 2018, Advance Article DOI: 10.1039/C7MH00800G

This paper is open access but you do need to have opened a free account on the website.

The ultimate natural sunscreen

For those of us in the northern hemisphere, sunscreen season is on the horizon. While the “ultimate natural sunscreen” researchers from the University of California at San Diego (UCSD) have developed is a long way from the marketplace, this is encouraging news (from a May 17, 2017 news item on Nanowerk),

Chemists, materials scientists and nanoengineers at UC San Diego have created what may be the ultimate natural sunscreen.

In a paper published in the American Chemical Society journal ACS Central Science, they report the development of nanoparticles that mimic the behavior of natural melanosomes, melanin-producing cell structures that protect our skin, eyes and other tissues from the harmful effects of ultraviolet radiation.

“Basically, we succeeded in making a synthetic version of the nanoparticles that our skin uses to produce and store melanin and demonstrated in experiments in skin cells that they mimic the behavior of natural melanosomes,” said Nathan Gianneschi, a professor of chemistry and biochemistry, materials science and engineering and nanoengineering at UC San Diego, who headed the team of researchers. The achievement has practical applications.

A May 17, 2017 UCSD news release, which originated the news item, delves into the research,

“Defects in melanin production in humans can cause diseases such as vitiligo and albinism that lack effective treatments,” Gianneschi added.

Vitiligo develops when the immune system wrongly attempts to clear normal melanocytes from the skin, effectively stopping the production of melanocytes. Albinism is due to genetic defects that lead to either the absence or a chemical defect in tyrosinase, a copper-containing enzyme involved in the production of melanin. Both of these diseases lack effective treatments and result in a significant risk of skin cancer for patients.

“The widespread prevalence of these melanin-related diseases and an increasing interest in the performance of various polymeric materials related to melanin prompted us to look for novel synthetic routes for preparing melanin-like materials,” Gianneschi said.

UC San Diego Ultimate natural sunscreenThe scientists found that the synthetic nanoparticles were taken up in tissue culture by keratinocytes, the predominant cell type found in the epidermis, the outer layer of skin. Photo by Yuran Huang and Ying Jones/UC San Diego

Melanin particles are produced naturally in many different sizes and shapes by animals—for iridescent feathers in birds or the pigmented eyes and skin of some reptiles. But scientists have discovered that extracting melanins from natural sources is a difficult and potentially more complex process than producing them synthetically.

Gianneschi and his team discovered two years ago that synthetic melanin-like nanoparticles could be developed in a precisely controllable manner to mimic the performance of natural melanins used in bird feathers.

“We hypothesized that synthetic melanin-like nanoparticles would mimic naturally occurring melanosomes and be taken up by keratinocytes, the predominant cell type found in the epidermis, the outer layer of skin,” said Gianneschi.

In healthy humans, melanin is delivered to keratinocytes in the skin after being excreted as melanosomes from melanocytes.

The UC San Diego scientists prepared melanin-like nanoparticles through the spontaneous oxidation of dopamine—developing biocompatible, synthetic analogues of naturally occurring melanosomes. Then they studied their update, transport, distribution and ultraviolet radiation-protective capabilities in human keratinocytes in tissue culture.

The researchers found that these synthetic nanoparticles were not only taken up and distributed normally, like natural melanosomes, within the keratinocytes, they protected the skin cells from DNA damage due to ultraviolet radiation.

“Considering limitations in the treatment of melanin-defective related diseases and the biocompatibility of these synthetic melanin-like nanoparticles in terms of uptake and degradation, these systems have potential as artificial melanosomes for the development of novel therapies, possibly supplementing the biological functions of natural melanins,” the researchers said in their paper.

The other co-authors of the study were Yuran Huang and Ziying Hu of UC San Diego’s Materials Science and Engineering Program, Yiwen Li and Maria Proetto of the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry; Xiujun Yue of the Department of Nanoengineering; and Ying Jones of the Electron Microscopy Core Facility.

The UC San Diego Office of Innovation and Commercialization has filed a patent application on the use of polydopamine-based artificial melanins as an intracellular UV-shield. Companies interested in commercializing this invention should contact Skip Cynar at invent@ucsd.edu

Here’s a link to and a citation fro the paper,

Mimicking Melanosomes: Polydopamine Nanoparticles as Artificial Microparasols by
Yuran Huang, Yiwen Li, Ziying Hu, Xiujun Yue, Maria T. Proetto, Ying Jones, and Nathan C. Gianneschi. ACS Cent. Sci., Article ASAP DOI: 10.1021/acscentsci.6b00230 Publication Date (Web): May 18, 2017

Copyright © 2017 American Chemical Society

This is an open access paper,

Using CRISPR to reverse retinosa pigmentosa (eye disease)

Years ago I worked as a publicist for the BC (British Columbia) Motorcycle Federation’s Ride for Sight; they were raising funds for research into retinitis pigmentosa (RP). I hadn’t thought about that in years but it all came back when I saw this April 21, 2017 news item on ScienceDaily,

Using the gene-editing tool CRISPR/Cas9, researchers at University of California San Diego [UCSD] School of Medicine and Shiley Eye Institute at UC San Diego Health, with colleagues in China, have reprogrammed mutated rod photoreceptors to become functioning cone photoreceptors, reversing cellular degeneration and restoring visual function in two mouse models of retinitis pigmentosa.

Caption: This is a confocal micrograph of mouse retina depicting optic fiber layer. Credit: Image courtesy of National Center for Microscopy and Imaging Research, UC San Diego.

An April 21, 2017 UCSD news release by Scott LaFee (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, delves further into retinitis pigmentosa and this CRISPR research,

Retinitis pigmentosa (RP) is a group of inherited vision disorders caused by numerous mutations in more than 60 genes. The mutations affect the eyes’ photoreceptors, specialized cells in the retina that sense and convert light images into electrical signals sent to the brain. There are two types: rod cells that function for night vision and peripheral vision, and cone cells that provide central vision (visual acuity) and discern color. The human retina typically contains 120 million rod cells and 6 million cone cells.

In RP, which affects approximately 100,000 Americans and 1 in 4,000 persons worldwide, rod-specific genetic mutations cause rod photoreceptor cells to dysfunction and degenerate over time. Initial symptoms are loss of peripheral and night vision, followed by diminished visual acuity and color perception as cone cells also begin to fail and die. There is no treatment for RP. The eventual result may be legal blindness.

In their published research, a team led by senior author Kang Zhang, MD, PhD, chief of ophthalmic genetics, founding director of the Institute for Genomic Medicine and co-director of biomaterials and tissue engineering at the Institute of Engineering in Medicine, both at UC San Diego School of Medicine, used CRISPR/Cas9 to deactivate a master switch gene called Nrl and a downstream transcription factor called Nr2e3.

CRISPR, which stands for Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats, allows researchers to target specific stretches of genetic code and edit DNA at precise locations, modifying select gene functions. Deactivating either Nrl or Nr2e3 reprogrammed rod cells to become cone cells.

“Cone cells are less vulnerable to the genetic mutations that cause RP,” said Zhang. “Our strategy was to use gene therapy to make the underlying mutations irrelevant, resulting in the preservation of tissue and vision.”

The scientists tested their approach in two different mouse models of RP. In both cases, they found an abundance of reprogrammed cone cells and preserved cellular architecture in the retinas. Electroretinography testing of rod and cone receptors in live mice show improved function.

Zhang said a recent independent study led by Zhijian Wu, PhD, at National Eye Institute, part of the National Institutes of Health, also reached similar conclusions.

The researchers used adeno-associated virus (AAV) to perform the gene therapy, which they said should help advance their work to human clinical trials quicker. “AAV is a common cold virus and has been used in many successful gene therapy treatments with a relatively good safely profile,” said Zhang. “Human clinical trials could be planned soon after completion of preclinical study. There is no treatment for RP so the need is great and pressing. In addition, our approach of reprogramming mutation-sensitive cells to mutation-resistant cells may have broader application to other human diseases, including cancer.”

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Gene and mutation independent therapy via CRISPR-Cas9 mediated cellular reprogramming in rod photoreceptors by Jie Zhu, Chang Ming, Xin Fu, Yaou Duan, Duc Anh Hoang, Jeffrey Rutgard, Runze Zhang, Wenqiu Wang, Rui Hou, Daniel Zhang, Edward Zhang, Charlotte Zhang, Xiaoke Hao, Wenjun Xiong, and Kang Zhang. Cell Research advance online publication 21 April 2017; doi: 10.1038/cr.2017.57

This paper (it’s in the form of a letter to the editor) is open access.

The insanity of Canadian science outreach (Science Odyssey, May 12 – 21, 2017 and Science RendezVous on May 13, 2017)

When was the last time you saw a six-year old or a twelve-year old attend a political candidates’ meeting or vote in an election? Sadly, most creative science outreach in Canada is aimed at children and teenagers in the misbegotten belief that adults don’t matter and ‘youth are the future’. There are three adult science outreach scenarios although they didn’t tend to be particularly creative. (1) Should scientists feel hard done by elected representatives, they reach out to other adults for support. (2) Should those other adults become disturbed by any scientific or technological ‘advance’ then scientific experts will arrive to explain why that’s wrong. (3) Should the science enterprise want money, then a call goes out (see my May 12, 2017 posting about the Canada Science and Technology Museums Corporation gala and, yes, they were a bit creative about it).

I am oversimplifying the situation but not by much especially if one considers two upcoming national Canadian science events: Science Rendezvous which is a day-long (May 13, 2017) cross country science event taking place during while the Science Odyssey holds a 10-day (May 12 – 2017) cross country science event. The two groups arranged their events separately and then decided to coordinate their efforts. Science Odyssey is a rebranding of the Canada Science and Technology Week organized by the federal government for at least two decades and which was held (until 2016) in the fall of each year. Science Rendezvous (About page) was launched in Toronto in 2008 (University of Toronto, Ryerson University, York University and the University of Ontario Institute of Technology (UOIT)).

Regardless, both events are clearly aimed at children (and families).

I’m not suggesting that exciting science outreach for children should be curtailed. Let’s expand the efforts to9 include the adult and senior populations too.

In all the talk about Canada’s adult and ageing populations, perhaps we could approach it all more creatively. For example, there’s this (from an April 18, 2017 University of California at San Diego University news release (also on EurekAlert) by Inga Kiderra,

Philip Guo caught the coding bug in high school, at a fairly typical age for a Millennial. Less typical is that the UC San Diego cognitive scientist is now eager to share his passion for programming with a different demographic. And it’s not one you’re thinking of – it’s not elementary or middle school-aged kids. Guo wants to get adults age 60 and up.

In the first known study of older adults learning computer programming, Guo outlines his reasons: People are living and working longer. This is a growing segment of the population, and it’s severely underserved by learn-to-code intiatives, which usually target college students and younger. Guo wants to change that. He would like this in-demand skill to become more broadly accessible.

“Computers are everywhere, and digital literacy is becoming more and more important,” said Guo, assistant professor in the Department of Cognitive Science, who is also affiliated with UC San Diego’s Design Lab and its Department of Computer Science and Engineering. “At one time, 1,000 years ago, most people didn’t read or write – just some monks and select professionals could do it. I think in the future people will need to read and write in computer language as well. In the meantime, more could benefit from learning how to code.”

Guo’s study was recently awarded honorable mention by the world’s leading organization in human-computer interaction, ACM SIGCHI. Guo will present his findings at the group’s premier international conference, CHI, in May [2017].

When prior human-computer interaction studies have focused on older adults at all, Guo said, it has been mostly as consumers of new technology, of social networking sites like Facebook, say, or ride-sharing services. While a few have investigated the creation of content, like blogging or making digital music, these have involved the use of existing apps. None, to his knowledge, have looked at older adults as makers of entirely new software applications, so he set out to learn about their motivations, their frustrations and if these provided clues to design opportunities.

The Study

For his study, Guo surveyed users of pythontutor.com. A web-based education tool that Guo started in 2010, Python Tutor helps those learning to program visualize their work. Step by step, it displays what a computer is doing with each line of code that it runs. More than 3.5 million people in more than 180 countries have now used Python Tutor, including those around the world taking MOOCs (massive open online courses). Despite its legacy name, the tool helps people supplement their studies not only of the Python programming language but also Java, JavaScript, Ruby, C and C++, all of which are commonly used to teach programing. The users of Python Tutor represent a wide range of demographic groups.

Guo’s survey included 504 people between the ages of 60 and 85, from 52 different countries. Some were retired and semi-retired while others were still working.

What Guo discovered: Older adults are motivated to learn programming for a number of reasons. Some are age-related. They want to make up for missed opportunities during youth (22 percent) and keep their brains “challenged, fresh and sharp” as they age (19 percent). A few (5 percent) want to connect with younger family members.

Reasons not related to age include seeking continuing education for a current job (14 percent) and wanting to improve future job prospects (9 percent). A substantial group is in it just for personal enrichment: 19 percent to implement a specific hobby project idea, 15 percent for fun and entertainment, and 10 percent out of general interest.

Interestingly, 8 percent said they wanted to learn to teach others.

Topping the list of frustrations for older students of coding was bad pedagogy. It was mentioned by 21 percent of the respondents and ranged from the use of jargon to sudden spikes in difficulty levels. Lack of real-world relevance came up 6 percent of the time. A 74-year-old retired physician wrote: “Most [tutorials] are offered by people who must know how to program but don’t seem to have much training in teaching.”

Other frustrations included a perceived decline in cognitive abilities (12 percent) and no human contact with tutors and peers (10 percent).

The study’s limitations are tied in part to the instrument – self-reporting on an online survey – and in part to the survey respondents themselves. Most hailed from North America and other English-speaking nations. Most, 84 percent, identified themselves as male; this stat is consistent with other surveys of online learning, especially in math and science topics. There was a diverse array of occupations reported, but the majority of those surveyed were STEM professionals, managers and technicians. These learners, Guo said, likely represent “early adopters” and “the more technology-literate and self-motivated end of the general population.” He suggests future studies look both at in-person learning and at a broader swath of the public. But he expects the lessons learned from this group will generalize.

The Implications

Based on this first set of findings and using a learner-centered design approach, Guo proposes tailoring computer-programming tools and curricula specifically for older learners. He notes, for example, that many of his respondents seemed to take pride in their years and in their tech-savvy, so while it may be good to advertise products as targeting this age group, they should not appear patronizing. It might make sense to reframe lessons as brain-training games, like Lumosity, now popular among the older set.

Just as it’s key to understand who the learners are so is understanding where they have trouble. Repetition and frequent examples might be good to implement, as well as more in-person courses or video-chat-based workshops, Guo said, which may lead to improvements in the teaching of programming not just for older adults but across the board.

Context matters, too. Lessons are more compelling when they are put into domains that people personally care about. And Guo recommends coding curricula that enable older adults to tell their life stories or family histories, for example, or write software that organizes health information or assists care-givers.

Guo, who is currently working on studies to extend coding education to other underrepresented groups, advocates a computing future that is fully inclusive of all ages.

“There are a number of social implications when older adults have access to computer programming – not merely computer literacy,” he said. “These range from providing engaging mental stimulation to greater gainful employment from the comfort of one’s home.”

By moving the tech industry away from its current focus on youth, Guo argues, we all stand to gain. [emphasis mine]

Guo joined the UC San Diego cognitive science faculty in 2016 after two years as an assistant professor at the University of Rochester. He received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in computer science from MIT in 2006 and his Ph.D. from Stanford in 2012. Before becoming a professor, he built online learning tools as a software engineer at Google and a research scientist at edX. He also blogs, vlogs and podcasts at http://pgbovine.net/

When was the last time you heard about a ‘coding’ camp for adults and seniors in Canada? Also,, ask yourself if after you’d reached a certain age (40? 50? more? less?) you’d feel welcome at the Science Rendezvous events (without a child in tow), Science Odyssey events (without a child in tow), or the May 17, 2017 National Science and Innovation Gala in Ottawa (from my May 12, 2017 posting “It would seem the only person over the age of 30 who’s expected to attend is the CBC host, Heather Hiscox.”)?

Let’s open the door a bit wider, eh?

A new class of artificial retina

If I read the news release rightly (keep scrolling), this particular artificial retina does not require a device outside the body (e.g. specially developed eyeglasses) to capture an image to be transmitted to the implant. This new artificial retina captures the image directly.

The announcement of a new artificial retina is made in a March 13, 2017 news item on Nanowerk (Note: A link has been removed),

A team of engineers at the University of California San Diego and La Jolla-based startup Nanovision Biosciences Inc. have developed the nanotechnology and wireless electronics for a new type of retinal prosthesis that brings research a step closer to restoring the ability of neurons in the retina to respond to light. The researchers demonstrated this response to light in a rat retina interfacing with a prototype of the device in vitro.

They detail their work in a recent issue of the Journal of Neural Engineering (“Towards high-resolution retinal prostheses with direct optical addressing and inductive telemetry”). The technology could help tens of millions of people worldwide suffering from neurodegenerative diseases that affect eyesight, including macular degeneration, retinitis pigmentosa and loss of vision due to diabetes

Caption: These are primary cortical neurons cultured on the surface of an array of optoelectronic nanowires. Here a neuron is pulling the nanowires, indicating the the cell is doing well on this material. Credit: UC San Diego

A March 13, 2017 University of California at San Diego (UCSD) news release (also on EurekAlert) by Ioana Patringenaru, which originated the news item, details the new approach,

Despite tremendous advances in the development of retinal prostheses over the past two decades, the performance of devices currently on the market to help the blind regain functional vision is still severely limited–well under the acuity threshold of 20/200 that defines legal blindness.

“We want to create a new class of devices with drastically improved capabilities to help people with impaired vision,” said Gabriel A. Silva, one of the senior authors of the work and professor in bioengineering and ophthalmology at UC San Diego. Silva also is one of the original founders of Nanovision.

The new prosthesis relies on two groundbreaking technologies. One consists of arrays of silicon nanowires that simultaneously sense light and electrically stimulate the retina accordingly. The nanowires give the prosthesis higher resolution than anything achieved by other devices–closer to the dense spacing of photoreceptors in the human retina. The other breakthrough is a wireless device that can transmit power and data to the nanowires over the same wireless link at record speed and energy efficiency.

One of the main differences between the researchers’ prototype and existing retinal prostheses is that the new system does not require a vision sensor outside of the eye [emphasis mine] to capture a visual scene and then transform it into alternating signals to sequentially stimulate retinal neurons. Instead, the silicon nanowires mimic the retina’s light-sensing cones and rods to directly stimulate retinal cells. Nanowires are bundled into a grid of electrodes, directly activated by light and powered by a single wireless electrical signal. This direct and local translation of incident light into electrical stimulation makes for a much simpler–and scalable–architecture for the prosthesis.

The power provided to the nanowires from the single wireless electrical signal gives the light-activated electrodes their high sensitivity while also controlling the timing of stimulation.

“To restore functional vision, it is critical that the neural interface matches the resolution and sensitivity of the human retina,” said Gert Cauwenberghs, a professor of bioengineering at the Jacobs School of Engineering at UC San Diego and the paper’s senior author.

Wireless telemetry system

Power is delivered wirelessly, from outside the body to the implant, through an inductive powering telemetry system developed by a team led by Cauwenberghs.

The device is highly energy efficient because it minimizes energy losses in wireless power and data transmission and in the stimulation process, recycling electrostatic energy circulating within the inductive resonant tank, and between capacitance on the electrodes and the resonant tank. Up to 90 percent of the energy transmitted is actually delivered and used for stimulation, which means less RF wireless power emitting radiation in the transmission, and less heating of the surrounding tissue from dissipated power.

The telemetry system is capable of transmitting both power and data over a single pair of inductive coils, one emitting from outside the body, and another on the receiving side in the eye. The link can send and receive one bit of data for every two cycles of the 13.56 megahertz RF signal; other two-coil systems need at least 5 cycles for every bit transmitted.

Proof-of-concept test

For proof-of-concept, the researchers inserted the wirelessly powered nanowire array beneath a transgenic rat retina with rhodopsin P23H knock-in retinal degeneration. The degenerated retina interfaced in vitro with a microelectrode array for recording extracellular neural action potentials (electrical “spikes” from neural activity).

The horizontal and bipolar neurons fired action potentials preferentially when the prosthesis was exposed to a combination of light and electrical potential–and were silent when either light or electrical bias was absent, confirming the light-activated and voltage-controlled responsivity of the nanowire array.

The wireless nanowire array device is the result of a collaboration between a multidisciplinary team led by Cauwenberghs, Silva and William R. Freeman, director of the Jacobs Retina Center at UC San Diego, UC San Diego electrical engineering professor Yu-Hwa Lo and Nanovision Biosciences.

A path to clinical translation

Freeman, Silva and Scott Thorogood, have co-founded La Jolla-based Nanovision Biosciences, a partner in this study, to further develop and translate the technology into clinical use, with the goal of restoring functional vision in patients with severe retinal degeneration. Animal tests with the device are in progress, with clinical trials following.

“We have made rapid progress with the development of the world’s first nanoengineered retinal prosthesis as a result of the unique partnership we have developed with the team at UC San Diego,” said Thorogood, who is the CEO of Nanovision Biosciences.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Towards high-resolution retinal prostheses with direct optical addressing and inductive telemetry by Sohmyung Ha, Massoud L Khraiche, Abraham Akinin, Yi Jing, Samir Damle, Yanjin Kuang, Sue Bauchner, Yu-Hwa Lo, William R Freeman, Gabriel A Silva.Journal of Neural Engineering, Volume 13, Number 5 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1088/1741-2560/13/5/056008

Published 16 August 2016 • © 2016 IOP Publishing Ltd

I’m not sure why they waited so long to make the announcement but, in any event, this paper is behind a paywall.

3D printed biomimetic blood vessel networks

An artificial blood vessel network that could lead the way to regenerating biologically-based blood vessel networks has been printed in 3D at the University of California at San Diego (UCSD) according to a March 2, 2017 news item on ScienceDaily,

Nanoengineers at the University of California San Diego have 3D printed a lifelike, functional blood vessel network that could pave the way toward artificial organs and regenerative therapies.

The new research, led by nanoengineering professor Shaochen Chen, addresses one of the biggest challenges in tissue engineering: creating lifelike tissues and organs with functioning vasculature — networks of blood vessels that can transport blood, nutrients, waste and other biological materials — and do so safely when implanted inside the body.

A March 2, 2017 UCSD news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, explains why this is an important development,

Researchers from other labs have used different 3D printing technologies to create artificial blood vessels. But existing technologies are slow, costly and mainly produce simple structures, such as a single blood vessel — a tube, basically. These blood vessels also are not capable of integrating with the body’s own vascular system.

“Almost all tissues and organs need blood vessels to survive and work properly. This is a big bottleneck in making organ transplants, which are in high demand but in short supply,” said Chen, who leads the Nanobiomaterials, Bioprinting, and Tissue Engineering Lab at UC San Diego. “3D bioprinting organs can help bridge this gap, and our lab has taken a big step toward that goal.”

Chen’s lab has 3D printed a vasculature network that can safely integrate with the body’s own network to circulate blood. These blood vessels branch out into many series of smaller vessels, similar to the blood vessel structures found in the body. The work was published in Biomaterials.

Chen’s team developed an innovative bioprinting technology, using their own homemade 3D printers, to rapidly produce intricate 3D microstructures that mimic the sophisticated designs and functions of biological tissues. Chen’s lab has used this technology in the past to create liver tissue and microscopic fish that can swim in the body to detect and remove toxins.

Researchers first create a 3D model of the biological structure on a computer. The computer then transfers 2D snapshots of the model to millions of microscopic-sized mirrors, which are each digitally controlled to project patterns of UV light in the form of these snapshots. The UV patterns are shined onto a solution containing live cells and light-sensitive polymers that solidify upon exposure to UV light. The structure is rapidly printed one layer at a time, in a continuous fashion, creating a 3D solid polymer scaffold encapsulating live cells that will grow and become biological tissue.

“We can directly print detailed microvasculature structures in extremely high resolution. Other 3D printing technologies produce the equivalent of ‘pixelated’ structures in comparison and usually require sacrificial materials and additional steps to create the vessels,” said Wei Zhu, a postdoctoral scholar in Chen’s lab and a lead researcher on the project.

And this entire process takes just a few seconds — a vast improvement over competing bioprinting methods, which normally take hours just to print simple structures. The process also uses materials that are inexpensive and biocompatible.

Chen’s team used medical imaging to create a digital pattern of a blood vessel network found in the body. Using their technology, they printed a structure containing endothelial cells, which are cells that form the inner lining of blood vessels.

The entire structure fits onto a small area measuring 4 millimeters × 5 millimeters, 600 micrometers thick (as thick as a stack containing 12 strands of human hair).

Researchers cultured several structures in vitro for one day, then grafted the resulting tissues into skin wounds of mice. After two weeks, the researchers examined the implants and found that they had successfully grown into and merged with the host blood vessel network, allowing blood to circulate normally.

Chen noted that the implanted blood vessels are not yet capable of other functions, such as transporting nutrients and waste. “We still have a lot of work to do to improve these materials. This is a promising step toward the future of tissue regeneration and repair,” he said.

Moving forward, Chen and his team are working on building patient-specific tissues using human induced pluripotent stem cells, which would prevent transplants from being attacked by a patient’s immune system. And since these cells are derived from a patient’s skin cells, researchers won’t need to extract any cells from inside the body to build new tissue. The team’s ultimate goal is to move their work to clinical trials. “It will take at least several years before we reach that goal,” Chen said.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Direct 3D bioprinting of prevascularized tissue constructs with complex microarchitecture by Wei Zhu, Xin Qu, Jie Zhu, Xuanyi Ma, Sherrina Patel, Justin Liu, Pengrui Wang, Cheuk Sun Edwin Lai, Maling Gou, Yang Xu, Kang Zhang, Shaochen Chen. Biomaterials 124 (April 2017) 106-15 http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.biomaterials.2017.01.042

This paper is behind a paywall.

There is also an open access copy here on the university website but I cannot confirm that it is identical to the version in the journal.

Hairy strength could lead to new body armour

A Jan. 18, 2017 news item on Nanowerk announces research into hair strength from the University of California at San Diego (UCSD or UC San Diego),

In a new study, researchers at the University of California San Diego investigate why hair is incredibly strong and resistant to breaking. The findings could lead to the development of new materials for body armor and help cosmetic manufacturers create better hair care products.

Hair has a strength to weight ratio comparable to steel. It can be stretched up to one and a half times its original length before breaking. “We wanted to understand the mechanism behind this extraordinary property,” said Yang (Daniel) Yu, a nanoengineering Ph.D. student at UC San Diego and the first author of the study.

A Jan. 18 (?), 2017 UCSD news release, which originated the news item, provides more information,

“Nature creates a variety of interesting materials and architectures in very ingenious ways. We’re interested in understanding the correlation between the structure and the properties of biological materials to develop synthetic materials and designs — based on nature — that have better performance than existing ones,” said Marc Meyers, a professor of mechanical engineering at the UC San Diego Jacobs School of Engineering and the lead author of the study.

In a study published online in Dec. in the journal Materials Science and Engineering C, researchers examined at the nanoscale level how a strand of human hair behaves when it is deformed, or stretched. The team found that hair behaves differently depending on how fast or slow it is stretched. The faster hair is stretched, the stronger it is. “Think of a highly viscous substance like honey,” Meyers explained. “If you deform it fast it becomes stiff, but if you deform it slowly it readily pours.”

Hair consists of two main parts — the cortex, which is made up of parallel fibrils, and the matrix, which has an amorphous (random) structure. The matrix is sensitive to the speed at which hair is deformed, while the cortex is not. The combination of these two components, Yu explained, is what gives hair the ability to withstand high stress and strain.

And as hair is stretched, its structure changes in a particular way. At the nanoscale, the cortex fibrils in hair are each made up of thousands of coiled spiral-shaped chains of molecules called alpha helix chains. As hair is deformed, the alpha helix chains uncoil and become pleated sheet structures known as beta sheets. This structural change allows hair to handle a large amount deformation without breaking.

This structural transformation is partially reversible. When hair is stretched under a small amount of strain, it can recover its original shape. Stretch it further, the structural transformation becomes irreversible. “This is the first time evidence for this transformation has been discovered,” Yu said.

“Hair is such a common material with many fascinating properties,” said Bin Wang, a UC San Diego PhD alumna from the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering and co-author on the paper. Wang is now at the Shenzhen Institutes of Advanced Technology in China continuing research on hair.

The team also conducted stretching tests on hair at different humidity levels and temperatures. At higher humidity levels, hair can withstand up to 70 to 80 percent deformation before breaking (dry hair can undergo up to 50 percent deformation). Water essentially “softens” hair — it enters the matrix and breaks the sulfur bonds connecting the filaments inside a strand of hair. Researchers also found that hair starts to undergo permanent damage at 60 degrees Celsius (140 degrees Fahrenheit). Beyond this temperature, hair breaks faster at lower stress and strain.

“Since I was a child I always wondered why hair is so strong. Now I know why,” said Wen Yang, a former postdoctoral researcher in Meyers’ research group and co-author on the paper.

The team is currently conducting further studies on the effects of water on the properties of human hair. Moving forward, the team is investigating the detailed mechanism of how washing hair causes it to return to its original shape.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Structure and mechanical behavior of human hair by Yang Yua, Wen Yang, Bin Wang, Marc André Meyers. Materials Science and Engineering: C Volume 73, 1 April 2017, Pages 152–163    http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.msec.2016.12.008

This paper is behind a paywall.