Monthly Archives: August 2008

Robots learn to move themselves

Researchers in Leipzig have demonstrated software designed for robots that allows them to “learn” to move through trial and error.

The software mimics the interconnected sensing and processing of a brain in a so-called “neural network”.

Armed with such a network, the simulated creatures start to explore.

In video demonstrations, a simulated dog learns to jump over a fence, and a humanoid learns how to get upright, as well as do back flips

Ralf Der at the Max Planck Institute for Mathematics in the Sciences has also applied the software to simulated animals and humans.

The only input to the network is the types of motion that the robot can achieve; in the case of a humanoid, there are 15 joints and the angles through which they can move. No information about the robot’s environment is given.

The network then sends out signals to move in a particular way, and predicts where it should end up, based on that movement.

If it encounters an obstacle such as itself, a wall or the floor, the prediction is wrong, and the robot tries different moves, learning about itself and its environment as it does so.

“In the beginning, we just drop a robot into a space. But they don’t know anything, so they don’t do anything,” Professor Der said. The neural network eventually picks up on electronic noise, which causes small motions.

It eventually tries larger motions as it learns about its range of movement. “It’s like a newborn baby—it doesn’t know anything but tries motions that are natural for its body. Half an hour later, it’s rolling and jumping,” Professor Der said.

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Recent Advancements In Curing Cancer

Patients ‘free from cancer’ after immune boost treatment

Cancer patients have been left free of the disease after being treated with a new drug which harnesses the power of their own immune cells.

Four of 38 patients with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma have seen “complete regressions” following treatment, while five others saw reductions of 50 per cent in their tumours.

The drug, which could prove cheaper than other therapies that try to achieve the same effect with cells, works by activating the body’s own defences to attack the cancer.

The results have been described as an “exciting” and “significant” development in the use of immunotherapy, the process of using the body’s own immune system to fight disease.

While the trials were only carried out on patients with the blood cancer, it is hoped the methods can be adapated to tackle other cancers.

The disease claims the lives of more than 150,000 people in the UK every year and more than one million people are suffering from cancer at any one time.


Drug that uses the body’s cells to blast cancer

Cancer patients have seen their tumours blasted into submission by a new drug which harnesses the power of their own immune cells.

The ‘serial killer’ treatment completely eliminated some tumours and shrunk others resistant to existing therapies.

Further successful trials could lead to blinatumomab being on the market in less than five years.

The tests were carried out on patients with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, but it is hoped the methods can be adapted to tackle other cancers.

The results have been described as an ‘exciting’ development in the use of immunotherapy, the process of using the body’s own immune system to fight disease.

The drug treats non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma – a cancer of the immune system – by glueing cancer-killing white blood cells called cytotoxic T cells to the tumour.

Once there, they release a poison that destroys the cancer.

Slipping through cell walls, nanotubes deliver punch to tumors in mice

The problem with using a shotgun to kill a housefly is that even if you get the pest, you’ll likely do a lot of damage to your home in the process. Hence the value of the more surgical flyswatter.

Cancer researchers have long faced a similar situation in chemotherapy: how to get the most medication into the cells of a tumor without “spillover” of the medication adversely affecting the healthy cells in a patient’s body.

Now researchers at Stanford University have addressed that problem using single-walled carbon nanotubes as delivery vehicles. The new method has enabled the researchers to get a higher proportion of a given dose of medication into the tumor cells than is possible with the “free” drug—that is, the one not bound to nanotubes—thus reducing the amount of medication that they need to inject into a subject to achieve the desired therapeutic effect.

“That means you will also have less drug reaching the normal tissue,” said Hongjie Dai, professor of chemistry and senior author of a paper, which will be published in the Aug. 15 issue of Cancer Research. So not only is the medication more effective against the tumor, ounce for ounce, but it greatly reduces the side effects of the medication.

Dutch paving stones clean air pollution

The University of Twente (UT) has devised a concrete capable of converting the nitrogen oxide from car exhaust–the source of smog and acid rain–into a nitrate, another chemical that will wash away in the rain.

When fertilizers are applied heavily, high levels of nitrates can enter the soil or water and be toxic to humans or livestock. Jos Brouwers from the University of Twente said that the nitrate production from its paving stones will be “harmless” and well below Dutch water standards.

The researchers came up with the air-purifying paving stones by tapping the properties of titanium dioxide, a chemical that catalyzes chemical reactions when exposed to light.

The top layer of the University of Twente paving stones contains the material mixed with concrete. So when sun shines, smog-producing pollutants will convert into nitrates and then wash away, keeping the stones surface clean in the process.

The university received a sustainability grant to test its invention in the municipality of Hengelo.

By the end of this year, researchers expect to complete construction of a road where one side is built with the specially coated paving stones. The other half will have tradition materials.

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QLD scientists’ stem cell breakthrough

Queensland scientists have successfully turned synthetic material into an embryonic stem cell, in a research breakthrough that may one day quell the debate over stem cell therapies.

The process, which derives embryonic stem cells from chemically-synthesised proteins, may eventually eliminate the controversial step of destroying human embryos for stem cell therapies, scientists from Queensland University of Technology (QUT) say.

“The achievement overcomes one of the major obstacles to the approved use of stem cell therapies,” QUT Associate Professor David Leavesly said.

“Traditional culture of human embryonic stem cells requires the presence of animal or human serum-derived products in the growth media for the embryonic stem cells to survive and grow.”

Scientists hope embryonic, unspecialised cells will eventually be used to grow new tissue and replacement organs to cure a range of ailments from spinal cord injuries to Alzheimer’s disease.

“Health regulators have always held serious concerns about the possible transmission of infections to humans treated with stem cells grown in the presence of serum-derived (animal-derived) products,” Professor Leavesly said.

“But until now there have been no practical alternatives.”

The new technique involves fusing synthetic proteins through polymer technology, whereby many small molecules, known as monomers, are synthesised into a cellular chain.

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Scientists stop the ageing process

Scientists have stopped the ageing process in an entire organ for the first time, a study released today says.

Published in today’s online edition of Nature Medicine, researchers at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine at Yeshiva University in New York City also say the older organs function as well as they did when the host animal was younger.

The researchers, led by Associate Professor Ana Maria Cuervo, blocked the ageing process in mice livers by stopping the build-up of harmful proteins inside the organ’s cells.

As people age their cells become less efficient at getting rid of damaged protein resulting in a build-up of toxic material that is especially pronounced in Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and other neurodegenerative disorders.

The researchers say the findings suggest that therapies for boosting protein clearance might help stave off some of the declines in function that accompanies old age.

In experiments, livers in genetically modified mice 22 to 26 months old, the equivalent of octogenarians in human years, cleaned blood as efficiently as those in animals a quarter their age.

By contrast, the livers of normal mice in a control group began to fail.

The benefits of restoring the cleaning mechanisms found inside all cells could extend far beyond a single organ, says Cuervo.

“Our findings are particularly relevant for neurodegenerative disorders such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s,” she says.

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An Artificial Pancreas

A device that reads glucose levels and delivers insulin may be close at hand.

Today, people with diabetes have a range of technologies to help keep their blood sugar in check, including continuous monitors that can keep tabs on glucose levels throughout the day and insulin pumps that can deliver the drug. But the diabetic is still responsible for making executive decisions–when to test his blood or give himself a shot–and the system has plenty of room for human error. Now, however, researchers say that the first generations of an artificial pancreas, which would be able to make most dosing decisions without the wearer’s intervention, could be available within the next few years.

Type 1 diabetes develops when the islet cells of the human pancreas stop producing adequate amounts of insulin, leaving the body unable to regulate blood-sugar levels on its own. Left unchecked, glucose fluctuations over the long term can lead to nerve damage, blindness, stroke and heart attacks. Even among the most vigilant diabetics, large dips and surges in glucose levels are still common occurrences. “We have data on hand today that suggests that you could get much better diabetes outcomes with the computer taking the lead instead of the person with diabetes doing it all themselves,” says Aaron Kowalski, research director of the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation’s Artificial Pancreas Project.

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‘Slow’ light to speed up the net

A huge increase in the speed of the internet could be produced by slowing parts of it down, say researchers.

Applying the brakes could be the “metamaterials” that may make it possible to create invisibility cloaks.

The net’s speed limit comes about not in transporting information, but in routing it to its various destinations.

Metamaterials could replace the bulky and slow electronics that do the routing, paving the way for lightning fast speeds.

High-speed telecommunications routes include fibre-optic cables that span vast distances, carrying different streams of information in different channels—each with its own frequency of light.

As data nears the end of its journey, these frequencies must be separated and sent to their destinations.

The separation is accomplished with bulky equipment that spreads the closely spaced frequencies in the pulses into different detectors.

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Rescue Dragon Robot Lifts Cars From Snow

This is the giant rescue robot called T-52 Enryu (”Rescue Dragon”). It has a bulldozer-like base and a 5-meter long arms that can lift cars stuck in the snow. In the tests T-52 Enryu showed off its avalanche prevention skills by removing accumulated snow from the edge of a cliff. The robot also demonstrated its ability to extract a car buried under a bank of snow.”

T-52 Enryu stands 3.45 meters tall and weighs 5 tons.

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Nanotech Gets Funding For Diamondoid Mechanosynthesis Experiments

Finally experiments have been funded to test the viability of diamond mechanosynthesis as described in detail by Robert Freitas and Ralph Merkle. This is a major step towards achieving the long held vision of molecular nanotechnology as envisioned by Eric Drexler.

Professor Philip Moriarty of the Nanoscience Group in the School of Physics at the University of Nottingham (U.K.) has been awarded a five-year £1.67M ($3.3M) grant by the U.K. Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) to perform a series of laboratory experiments designed to investigate the possibility of diamond mechanosynthesis (DMS). DMS is a proposed method for building diamond nanostructures, atom by atom, using the techniques of scanning probe microscopy under ultra-high vacuum conditions. Moriarty’s project, titled “Digital Matter? Towards Mechanised Mechanosynthesis,” was funded under the Leadership Fellowship program of EPSRC. Moriarty’s experiments begin in October 2008.

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This is an important step for nanotechnology.

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Anti-aging pill to turn back the clock

A DRUG that slows the ageing process and prevents cancer, heart disease and Alzheimer’s, could be on sale within five years, scientists claim.

The drug is made up of chemicals that mimic resveratrol, a compound found in the skins of red grapes.

Previous research has shown resveratrol reduces the impact of a high-fat diet, doubles stamina and extends the lifespan of mice.

Sirtris Pharmaceuticals has developed a pill based on two chemicals that act in the same way and the first human clinical trials have begun.

“The excitement here is that we’re not talking about red wine any more. We’re talking about real drugs,” Sirtris co-founder David Sinclair said.

“We will make a drug to treat one disease but it will, as an added bonus, protect you against most of the other diseases of the Western world.”

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Sounds good. Sign me up!