Monthly Archives: May 2006

Progress In Robotic Telesurgery

Researchers Make Progress with Robotic Telesurgery.

However science fiction-esque it may have sounded decades ago, using robots to perform delicate surgeries is decidedly science fact today. Looking toward future decades, researchers are now trying to find ways to take robotic surgery to the battlefield.

“We’re not talking about something that’s going to be immediately available, but if we don’t do this research now, we will not have the option of having surgical intervention remotely or robotically (on the battlefield). That’s the underpinning motivation for our getting into it,” said Dr. Gerry Moses of the Telemedicine and Advanced Technology Research Center.

A surgeon using a robotic surgery system in a hospital typically sits across the room from a patient. Looking through a three-dimensional monitor, the surgeon uses a joystick to control the robot, which is armed with surgical tools and a camera.

A subset of laparoscopic surgery, robotic surgeries are great for minimally invasive procedures, said Col. Noah Schenkman, chief of urology service at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center. In the past three years, he has performed almost 50 operations using a robotic surgery system to repair blockages between the kidney and the ureter, or to remove the prostate.

“Lap instruments are very current, but sometimes they’re not very ergonomic. They don’t allow you to make the complex, difficult maneuvers that you can make with just your hands,” he said. “The robot allows you to regain some of those complex movements because it has an articulating instrument that allows you to make those movements, (like) sewing, during reconstructive operations.”

Schenkman said robotic surgery offers a surgeon several benefits. Because it’s a machine, it eliminates the normal tremor associated with human hands performing fine motor movements. The system’s 3-D view also gives the operator increased vision and magnification, both of which are important in complex, intricate surgeries. And because the surgery is done from a sitting position, it’s doesn’t wear out the surgeon.

British Woman Carries Designer Baby

British woman pregnant with cancer-gene-free ‘designer baby’.

A British woman has become the first in the country to conceive a “designer baby” selected specifically to avoid an inherited cancer, The Times said Saturday.

The woman, who was not identified, used controversial genetic screening technology to ensure she does not pass on to her child the condition retinoblastoma, an hereditary form of eye cancer from which she suffers.

Doctors tested embryos created by the woman and her partner using in-vitro fertilisation (IVF) methods for the cancer gene. Only unaffected embryos were implanted in her womb, the newspaper said.

Ofcourse you’re always gonna have people objecting to this, claiming it is not natural, that life is sacred and that we shouldn’t mess with it.

Nonsense I say. Cancer is also natural. Should we keep that? Most people would be glad to get rid of cancer. In this case, cancer has been prevented. Which is even better then getting rid of it.

Oh sure, life is sacred. But we get to decide for ourselves which life is sacred and which isn’t.

That’s a pretty sweet deal isn’t it? Know how we got it?

We made the whole f#cking thing up.

(courtesy of George Carlin, one of my favorite stand-up comedians)

Long live designer babies, genetic modifications, stemcell research, and all other things that piss off religiously insane, conservative, right-wing, fundamentalist nutjobs.


Computers Can Read Us Like Books

Can A Computer Read You Like A Book?

We’ve all heard the phrase before: It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it. Several years ago, Alex Pentland, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Media Lab, decided to find out whether or not this piece of conventional wisdom is true.

After studying the psychological literature, Pentland began to develop several simple computer-based systems to measure what scientists call “social signaling”–nonlinguistic behavior such as vocal intonation, facial movement and gesturing–during a conversation. He settled on four basic markers, which he designated activity, engagement, stress and mirroring.

In most scenarios, the predictions that Pentland and his colleagues were able to make turned out to be shockingly accurate. Using nothing but these simple, nonlinguistic clues–and analyzing conversations that lasted between five minutes and just over an hour, depending on the experiment–the researchers were able to calculate the likelihood of a given outcome with an average accuracy rate of almost 90%.

This is lots of fun. I’ve been hearing talk for years now about computers responding to our emotions in order to provide a more userfriendly experience.

It seems that day is drawing closer and closer.

The interesting thing about this is that the software program only needed little information. It seems evident that computers will read us perfectly if they were to receive lots more info to judge us by, such as facial expressions and body language.

Food for thought…

Hydrogen From Biomass

Hydrogen from Biomass.

A novel process for squeezing hydrogen out of biomass could mean a cheaper and easier way to make hydrogen for fuel cells.

A small company in Madison, WI has developed a novel way to generate hydrogen cheaply and cleanly from biomass.

In the next couple of weeks, the technology, developed by Virent Energy Systems, will be used for the first time to continuously produce electricity from a small 10-kilowatt generator at the company’s facility in Madison. The unit is fueled by corn syrup, similar to the kind used by soft drinks manufacturers, says CEO Eric Apfelbach.

The company is also about to begin work on a $1 million U.S. Navy project to build portable fuel-cell generators. The goal is to make self-contained units capable of producing their own hydrogen from a biomass-derived glycerol solution or even antifreeze.

The vast majority of hydrogen is currently made from fossil fuels — oil, coal, and, most commonly, natural gas, through a process called steam reforming. In this process, a mixture of steam and methane is heated to temperatures above 800 degrees Celsius, and then reacts with a catalyst to produce hydrogen and carbon monoxide.

Semi-related and also fun to read: Car that does 8000 miles to the gallon.

In 2021 You’ll Grow A New Heart

In 2021 You’ll Grow a New Heart.

Researchers are zeroing in on a long-sought goal of human healing: organs that can regenerate themselves from within.

Although doctors may someday heal weakened body parts by infusing them with stem cells that develop into specialized tissues, coaxing the body’s own cells to become self-repairing would be an even bigger biological coup. What if we could simply prompt damaged organs to repair themselves?

Glenn Larsen, the chief scientific officer at Hydra Biosciences in Boston, has been chasing this regenerative dream for the past four years. With help from a team of Harvard University researchers, Larsen and his colleagues are developing protein-based drugs that encourage the regrowth of muscle tissue that has died after a heart attack.

“The heart is constantly secreting chemical factors it needs to maintain itself,” Larsen explains. “All we’re doing is trying to enhance that.” Fair enough, but his company is likely to be the first to take the revolutionary step of harnessing these natural processes to grow new tissue where and when it is needed. With restored heart-muscle function, patients would be able to resume swimming, running or just gardening much sooner. They would also be less prone to congestive heart failure, which kills more than 50,000 Americans every year.

The strategy Larsen envisions is simple, though groundbreaking. Patients will use a self-delivery device, such as an inhaler or supersonic drug gun, to propel the regenerative protein molecules into their bloodstream. The circulating molecules will bind to receptors on the surfaces of their damaged heart-muscle cells, touching off a chemical reaction that mutes the activity of genes inhibiting cell division. Once this biological switch has been thrown, new heart cells will begin to develop, filling in the dead-tissue gaps. The result: Within a few weeks, heart-muscle function will be permanently restored.

A Cure For Cancer In Mice

Researchers Say They Can Cure Cancer In Mice:

Monday night brought stunning news about the battle against cancer.

Researchers at Wake Forest University School of Medicine said they have found a cure for cancer — in mice, that is.

However, they are hoping that what they have learned will someday be applied to human treatments.

Three years ago, Wake Forest researchers discovered a mouse that could not get cancer no matter how hard they tried to give it the disease.

Now, they said white blood cells from that mouse’s descendants were injected into ordinary mice with cancer and their disease was completely wiped out.

The treatment worked with a variety of cancers, including those similar to end-stage human cancers.

“This is a really remarkable recovery from a very aggressive tumor,” Wake Forest cancer researcher Dr. Zheng Cui said.

The mice did not suffer any side effects from the treatment. They had no problems with rejection.

The goal now is to find a human treatment that could avoid the rejection problem by using a patient’s own cells.

A cure is still a long way off, but they believe that, like mice, there are humans out there with genes to fight cancer.

Self Repair Gene Therapy Promise

Self-repair gene therapy promise:

Gene therapy experts say they have found a way to persuade cells to repair themselves.

Instead of replacing a faulty gene, the new approach harnesses the cells’ own correctional mechanisms.

German researchers showed a drug could influence the way a gene behaved in patients with a debilitating genetic condition.

The research focussed on spinal muscular atrophy (SMA), a relatively common inherited disease, and the leading cause of death in infants, affecting about one in every 6,000 newborns.

Due to degeneration of the motor neurons in the spinal cord patients develop muscle weakness and atrophy of the legs, arms and trunk.

In patients with SMA the survival motor neuron gene (SMN1) is deleted, but they all carry a copy gene (SMN2).

However, this only produces about 10% of the correct protein which is insufficient to prevent the diseases.

The severity of the SMA is influenced by the number of SMN2 genes, which normally vary between one and four – the more copies there are the better the patient fares.

The researchers, from the Institute of Genetics at the University of Cologne investigated a drug called valproate, which is already used to treat epilepsy.

Lab tests had shown it could increase levels of the SMN protein by up to four times.

Valproate was also found to raise SMN levels in brain tissue.

The team first treated 10 parents of children with SMA with valproate for four months.

It was found that using the drug significantly increased SMN levels in blood.

Following this, 20 SMA patients were treated with valproate.

Seven showed increased SMN2 levels in their blood.

The Virtual Office

A long time ago, I wrote The Future Of Working At Home, in which I predicted that we’ll be hearing a lot more from the virtual office because it’s superior to the physical office.

I spotted the article No Brick, No Mortar: Virtual Approaches To The Daily Grind, which goes into the benefits of working at home some more:

But despite the difficulties of virtual work, virtual employees all agreed that they feel they have a freedom in being able to work in a way that fits their lifestyle.

Mosley speaks about finding remote employees, some of the best in the field that may not have local opportunities.

“We’ve got really talented, smart people who are the best at what they do from the Boston area to New Hampshire to San Francisco. There aren’t a lot of great PR opportunities in New Hampshire, so working virtually is an excellent opportunity for them.”

“There are more fluffy perks, too, such as not having to dress up for a client meeting or day in the office. In addition, it satisfies your inner workaholic because you get back those hours you’d spend commuting.”

Mosley added, “I work with better people now than I did when I worked at an organization with more than 100 people.”

Gaebler calls his virtual office “a superior way to do business.”

“It’s easier to set up a new employee, we have lower overhead, and it allows us to tap into talent in other geographies,” he said.

“The best part is the freedom to make your own schedule. Nobody tells you how to structure your day. While you have to be really disciplined in the work you do, it’s easier because you also love your job more,” said Samantha Morris, an affiliate program director at Partner Centric, who left her job at the Gap to work virtually.

Turner is probably the most idealistic about running his own company.

“Whenever we get someone who can work from home, I feel like we’re changing the world. We’re giving them some of their time back to them, and to their families.”

As our society becomes more and more integrated through the evolving web (think live video streams), we will be working at home more and more often. Physical offices will gradually exit mainstream use. More and more businesses will become virtual, thereby transforming our society once again.

Regenerating Arms And Legs

Researchers Put Heads Together to Grow an Arm and a Leg.

Profs. Susan Braunhut and Kenneth Marx have teamed up to pursue a “mind-blowing” innovation—to cause a limb to re-grow in an adult mammal.

The UMass Lowell research group has joined groups from five other institutions and secured funding from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). The UMass Lowell portion of the DARPA grant is $1.2 million for the first two years, with an anticipated continuation of $1.4 million for the next two years.

The research groups expect that by working together they will gain a more complete understanding of the cellular and molecular processes that allow certain creatures, such as salamanders, to completely regenerate lost limbs, and be able to harness this capacity in mammals.

“As a consortium, we’re putting together our knowledge of stem cells, tissue development and healing, extracellular matrix, growth factors and the regulation of gene expression,” says Braunhut. “We’re encouraged by research results and recent discoveries and we believe this goal is attainable.”

The implications of such research are especially evident considering the wounded soldiers returning from Afghanistan and Iraq include twice the number of amputees of previous conflicts and wars.

The team will begin with intense study of salamanders and the super-healer mouse, MRL, to develop a comprehensive understanding of the mechanisms and processes—to obtain a blueprint—for regenerative growth. The team will then attempt to orchestrate the formation of a blastema in a non-healing mouse, where scar tissue would normally form.

Tiny Electrodes For The Brain

Tiny Electrodes for the Brain.

A new type of polymer nano electrode could make brain implants, including those used to treat severe cases of Parkinson’s, far safer, and it could also make attempts to restore vision and movement with direct brain-machine interfaces more feasible. Rodolfo Llinas, professor of neuroscience at New York University, and researchers at MIT have developed a nanowire electrode just 600 nanometers wide that can send and receive signals to the brain.

The electrode developed by Llinas and coworkers is so small that it could be inserted through an artery, perhaps in the arm or groin, and threaded up to the brain. Because the electrode is a small fraction of the size of a red-blood cell and flexible, it can be snaked through the smallest blood vessels, getting close enough to neurons deep in the brain to detect and deliver electrical signals.

One current treatment for severe cases of Parkinson’s, called deep brain stimulation, involves implanting electrodes that deliver high-frequency electrical pulses which shut down parts of the brain responsible for the disease’s symptoms (see “Brain Pacemakers”). Such treatments, however, are risky and expensive, in part, because they require that a patient’s skull be opened to surgically insert electrodes into brain tissue.

“Not having to open the skull would be a clear benefit over what we’re now doing,” says Jeff Bronstein, neurologist at the UCLA Medical School, who says thousands of Parkinson’s patients have undergone the deep brain stimulation procedures.