the_newsbeagle writes: Epidemiologists working on Zika virus could benefit from portable genome sequencers, like these used during the Ebola outbreak. In spring 2015, researchers conducted the first experiment in real-time genetic surveillance during an infectious disease epidemic. The researchers packed all their equipment in a couple of suitcases and set up a mobile lab in Guinea, where they used palm-sized sequencing devices to analyze viral RNA from 142 patients. Genomic data can illuminate the chains of transmission in an outbreak, and can help scientists develop diagnostics and vaccines.
the_newsbeagle writes: Now that it's easy and cheap to build strands of DNA, what kinds of strange new organisms will scientists and start-ups build? That's the question raised as synthetic biology companies like Twist Bioscience and Zymergen start up their DNA manufacturing lines. Researchers who order DNA snippets typically pay on a cost-per-nucleobase basis. These companies say their mass-production techniques could bring prices down to 2 cents per base, which would allow researchers to scale up experiments and learn through trial and error.
the_newsbeagle writes: In October 2016, a stadium in Zurich will host the world's first cyborg Olympics. During this event, more officially called the Cybathlon, people with disabilities will use advanced technologies such as exoskeletons and powered prosthetic limbs to compete in the games.
This article chronicles one team's training for the bicycle race, where the athletes will be people with paralyzed legs. The team is composed of the paralyzed biker who has an electrical stimulation system implanted in his body, and the engineers who built the gear that energizes his nerves and muscles.
the_newsbeagle writes: Parsing the first human genome took a decade, but times have changed. Now, within 26 hours, doctors can scan a sick baby's entire genome and analyze the resulting list of mutations to produce a diagnosis. Since genetic diseases are the top cause of death for infants, rapidly diagnosing a rare genetic disease can be life-saving. The 26-hour pipeline results from automated technologies that handle everything from the genome sequencing to the diagnosis, says the doctor involved: “We want to take humans out of the equation, because we’re the bottleneck.”
The invention makes use of optogenetics, a technique in which the DNA that codes for a light-sensitive protein is inserted into certain cells, enabling those cells to be activated by pulses of light. Researchers often use this method to study neurons in the brain, but in this case the researchers altered flies' heart cells. Then they activated those cardiac cells using pulses of light, causing them to contract in time with the pulses. Voila, they had an optical pacemaker that worked on living adult fruit flies.
Don't worry, no one can control your heartbeat with a laser just yet. That would require inserting foreign DNA into your heart cells, and also finding a way to shine light through the impediment of your flesh and bones. But lead researcher Chao Zhou of Lehigh University is working on it.
the_newsbeagle writes: DARPA is sinking some cash into the buzzy new research field of "electroceuticals," which involves stimulating the nerves to control the activity of organs or bodily systems. The newest techniques have little in common with electroshock therapy, which sends a strong current broadly through the brain tissue; today's cutting-edge methods can target individual neurons, and turn them "on" and "off" with great precision. Under DARPA's new ElectRx program, seven research teams will explore different ways to modulate activity of the peripheral nervous system. Some will stimulate neurons directly with electricity, while others will take more roundabout routes involving light, acoustics, and magnetic fields.
the_newsbeagle writes: Outbreaks of infectious diseases like Ebola follow a depressing pattern: People start to get sick, public health authorities get wind of the situation, and an all-out scramble begins to determine where the disease started and how it’s spreading. Barbara Han, a code-writing ecologist, hopes her algorithms will put an end to that reactive model. She wants to predict outbreaks and enable authorities to prevent the next pandemic. Han takes a big-data approach, using a machine-learning AI to identify the wild animal species that carry zoonotic diseases and transmit them to humans.
the_newsbeagle writes: Many prior experiments that tried to restore function after a spinal cord injury have used electrical stimulation to replace the signals from the brain, essentially implanting a replacement nervous system. But a new project instead used electrical stimulation to encourage the natural nervous system to adapt to a severe injury. When researchers repeatedly jolted a rat's damaged spinal cord at the precise moment that it tried to move a paralyzed limb, its nervous system developed new neural pathways that detoured around the site of injury in the spine. Researchers don't think it grew new neurons, but think instead that new connections formed between surviving neurons.
the_newsbeagle writes: That's what one neuroscientist is aiming to find out. He wants to put patients with a type of amblyopia, the vision problem commonly called lazy eye, into the dark for 5 days. His hypothesis: When they emerge, their brains' visual cortices will be temporarily "plastic" and changeable, and may begin to process the visual signals from their bad eyes correctly. Before he could do this study, though, he had to do a test run to figure out logistics. So he himself lived in a pitch black room for 5 days. One finding: Eating ravioli in the dark is hard.
the_newsbeagle writes: A lung transplant can be a life-saving intervention—but sometimes the donated lung stops working inside the recipient's body. This "graft dysfunction" is the leading cause of death for transplant patients in the early days after surgery. While lab tests can look for genetic biomarkers of inflammation and other warning signs in a donated lung, such tests take 6-12 hours in a typical hospital. That's too slow to be useful. Now, researchers at University of Toronto have invented a chip-based biosensor that can do quick on-the-spot genetic tests, providing an assessment of a lung's viability within 30 minutes.
the_newsbeagle writes: Optogenetics is a fairly new (and fairly awesome) research tool for neuroscientists: By using light to jolt certain neurons into action, they can study how those neurons function in the mouse brain. But getting the light to those neurons has been difficult. Previous systems have required either fiber optic cables that tether the mouse to a computer, or heavy head-mounted receivers. Now Stanford's Ada Poon has invented a tiny and fully implantable system that wirelessly receives the signal to stimulate, and uses a micro-LED to activate the neurons. The device will let researchers study brain function while mice are running around, interacting socially, etc.
the_newsbeagle writes: Fellas, here's a sentence to test the convictions of tech enthusiasts: “The patient lies inside the MRI scanner . . . and the robot accesses the prostate through the perineal wall.” Would you trust a robot with your prostate?
Researchers have developed a non-metallic robot with ceramic piezoelectric motors that functions inside an MRI machine, allowing surgeons to perform procedures guided by real-time imaging. It's now being tested in prostate biopsies. Doctors say this system will let them aim their needles more precisely and reduce the number of times they stick them in. The NIH thinks such systems could come in handy for neurosurgery too.