Meet the electric life forms that live on pure energy

July 29, 2014


Unlike any other life on Earth, these extraordinary bacteria use energy in its purest form – they eat and breathe electrons – and they are everywhere

STICK an electrode in the ground, pump electrons down it, and they will come: living cells that eat electricity. We have known bacteria to survive on a variety of energy sources, but none as weird as this. Think of Frankenstein’s monster, brought to life by galvanic energy, except these “electric bacteria” are very real and are popping up all over the place.

Unlike any other living thing on Earth, electric bacteria use energy in its purest form – naked electricity in the shape of electrons harvested from rocks and metals. We already knew about two types, Shewanella and Geobacter. Now, biologists are showing that they can entice many more out of rocks and marine mud by tempting them with a bit of electrical juice. Experiments growing bacteria on battery electrodes demonstrate that these novel, mind-boggling forms of life are essentially eating and excreting electricity.

That should not come as a complete surprise, says Kenneth Nealson at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles. We know that life, when you boil it right down, is a flow of electrons: “You eat sugars that have excess electrons, and you breathe in oxygen that willingly takes them.” Our cells break down the sugars, and the electrons flow through them in a complex set of chemical reactions until they are passed on to electron-hungry oxygen.

In the process, cells make ATP, a molecule that acts as an energy storage unit for almost all living things. Moving electrons around is a key part of making ATP. “Life’s very clever,” says Nealson. “It figures out how to suck electrons out of everything we eat and keep them under control.” In most living things, the body packages the electrons up into molecules that can safely carry them through the cells until they are dumped on to oxygen.

“That’s the way we make all our energy and it’s the same for every organism on this planet,” says Nealson. “Electrons must flow in order for energy to be gained. This is why when someone suffocates another person they are dead within minutes. You have stopped the supply of oxygen, so the electrons can no longer flow.”

The discovery of electric bacteria shows that some very basic forms of life can do away with sugary middlemen and handle the energy in its purest form – electrons, harvested from the surface of minerals. “It is truly foreign, you know,” says Nealson. “In a sense, alien.”

Nealson’s team is one of a handful that is now growing these bacteria directly on electrodes, keeping them alive with electricity and nothing else – neither sugars nor any other kind of nutrient. The highly dangerous equivalent in humans, he says, would be for us to power up by shoving our fingers in a DC electrical socket.

To grow these bacteria, the team collects sediment from the seabed, brings it back to the lab, and inserts electrodes into it.

First they measure the natural voltage across the sediment, before applying a slightly different one. A slightly higher voltage offers an excess of electrons; a slightly lower voltage means the electrode will readily accept electrons from anything willing to pass them off. Bugs in the sediments can either “eat” electrons from the higher voltage, or “breathe” electrons on to the lower-voltage electrode, generating a current. That current is picked up by the researchers as a signal of the type of life they have captured.

“Basically, the idea is to take sediment, stick electrodes inside and then ask ‘OK, who likes this?’,” says Nealson.

Shocking breath

At the Goldschmidt geoscience conference in Sacramento, California, last month, Shiue-lin Li of Nealson’s lab presented results of experiments growing electricity breathers in sediment collected from Santa Catalina harbour in California. Yamini Jangir, also from the University of Southern California, presented separate experiments which grew electricity breathers collected from a well in Death Valley in the Mojave Desert in California.

Over at the University of Minnesota in St Paul, Daniel Bond and his colleagues have published experiments showing that they could grow a type of bacteria that harvested electrons from an iron electrode (mBio, That research, says Jangir’s supervisor Moh El-Naggar, may be the most convincing example we have so far of electricity eaters grown on a supply of electrons with no added food.

But Nealson says there is much more to come. His PhD student Annette Rowe has identified up to eight different kinds of bacteria that consume electricity. Those results are being submitted for publication.

Nealson is particularly excited that Rowe has found so many types of electric bacteria, all very different to one another, and none of them anything like Shewanella or Geobacter. “This is huge. What it means is that there’s a whole part of the microbial world that we don’t know about.”

Discovering this hidden biosphere is precisely why Jangir and El-Naggar want to cultivate electric bacteria. “We’re using electrodes to mimic their interactions,” says El-Naggar. “Culturing the ‘unculturables’, if you will.” The researchers plan to install a battery inside a gold mine in South Dakota to see what they can find living down there.

NASA is also interested in things that live deep underground because such organisms often survive on very little energy and they may suggest modes of life in other parts of the solar system.

Electric bacteria could have practical uses here on Earth, however, such as creating biomachines that do useful things like clean up sewage or contaminated groundwater while drawing their own power from their surroundings. Nealson calls them self-powered useful devices, or SPUDs.

Practicality aside, another exciting prospect is to use electric bacteria to probe fundamental questions about life, such as what is the bare minimum of energy needed to maintain life.

For that we need the next stage of experiments, says Yuri Gorby, a microbiologist at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York: bacteria should be grown not on a single electrode but between two. These bacteria would effectively eat electrons from one electrode, use them as a source of energy, and discard them on to the other electrode.

Gorby believes bacterial cells that both eat and breathe electrons will soon be discovered. “An electric bacterium grown between two electrodes could maintain itself virtually forever,” says Gorby. “If nothing is going to eat it or destroy it then, theoretically, we should be able to maintain that organism indefinitely.”

It may also be possible to vary the voltage applied to the electrodes, putting the energetic squeeze on cells to the point at which they are just doing the absolute minimum to stay alive. In this state, the cells may not be able to reproduce or grow, but they would still be able to run repairs on cell machinery. “For them, the work that energy does would be maintaining life – maintaining viability,” says Gorby.

How much juice do you need to keep a living electric bacterium going? Answer that question, and you’ve answered one of the most fundamental existential questions there is.

This article appeared in print under the headline “The electricity eaters”

Leader:Spark of life revisited thanks to electric bacteria

Wire in the mud

Electric bacteria come in all shapes and sizes. A few years ago, biologists discovered that some produce hair-like filaments that act as wires, ferrying electrons back and forth between the cells and their wider environment. They dubbed them microbial nanowires.

Lars Peter Nielsen and his colleagues at Aarhus University in Denmark have found that tens of thousands of electric bacteria can join together to form daisy chains that carry electrons over several centimetres – a huge distance for a bacterium only 3 or 4 micrometres long. It means that bacteria living in, say, seabed mud where no oxygen penetrates, can access oxygen dissolved in the seawater simply by holding hands with their friends.

Such bacteria are showing up everywhere we look, says Nielsen. One way to find out if you’re in the presence of these electron munchers is to put clumps of dirt in a shallow dish full of water, and gently swirl it. The dirt should fall apart. If it doesn’t, it’s likely that cables made of bacteria are holding it together.

Nielsen can spot the glimmer of the cables when he pulls soil apart and holds it up to sunlight (see video).

Flexible biocables

It’s more than just a bit of fun. Early work shows that such cables conduct electricity about as well as the wires that connect your toaster to the mains. That could open up interesting research avenues involving flexible, lab-grown biocables.

New protein structure could help treat Alzheimer’s, related diseases

July 29, 2014


There is no cure for Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia, but the research community is one step closer to finding treatment.

University of Washington bioengineers have a designed a peptide structure that can stop the harmful changes of the body’s normal proteins into a state that’s linked to widespread diseases such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, heart disease, Type 2 diabetes and Lou Gehrig’s disease. The synthetic molecule blocks these proteins as they shift from their normal state into an abnormally folded form by targeting a toxic intermediate phase.

The discovery of a protein blocker could lead to ways to diagnose and even treat a large swath of diseases that are hard to pin down and rarely have a cure.

“If you can truly catch and neutralize the toxic version of these proteins, then you hopefully never get any further damage in the body,” said senior author Valerie Daggett, a UW professor of bioengineering. “What’s critical with this and what has never been done before is that a single peptide sequence will work against the toxic versions of a number of different amyloid proteins and peptides, regardless of their amino acid sequence or the normal 3-D structures.”

The findings were published online this month in the journal eLife.

More than 40 illnesses known as amyloid diseases — Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and rheumatoid arthritis are a few — are linked to the buildup of proteins after they have transformed from their normally folded, biologically active forms to abnormally folded, grouped deposits called fibrils or plaques. This happens naturally as we age, to a certain extent — our bodies don’t break down proteins as quickly as they should, causing higher concentrations in some parts of the body.

Each amyloid disease has a unique, abnormally folded protein or peptide structure, but often such diseases are misdiagnosed because symptoms can be similar and pinpointing which protein is present usually isn’t done until after death, in an autopsy.

As a result, many dementias are broadly diagnosed as Alzheimer’s disease without definitive proof, and other diseases can go undiagnosed and untreated.

The molecular structure of an amyloid protein can be only slightly different from a normal protein and can transform to a toxic state fairly easily, which is why amyloid diseases are so prevalent. The researchers built a protein structure, called “alpha sheet,” that complements the toxic structure of amyloid proteins that they discovered in computer simulations. The alpha sheet effectively attacks the toxic middle state the protein goes through as it transitions from normal to abnormal.

The structures could be tailored even further to bind specifically with the proteins in certain diseases, which could be useful for specific therapies.

The researchers hope their designed compounds could be used as diagnostics for amyloid diseases and as drugs to treat the diseases or at least slow progression.

“For example, patients could have a broad first-pass test done to see if they have an amyloid disease and then drill down further to determine which proteins are present to identify the specific disease,” Daggett said.

The research team includes Gene Hopping, Jackson Kellock and James Bryers of UW bioengineering; Gabriele Varani and Ravi Pratap Barnwal of UW chemistry; Peter Law, a former UW graduate student; and Byron Caughey of the National Institutes of Health’s Rocky Mountain Laboratories.

Working with the UW’s Center for Commercialization, they have a patent on one compound and have submitted an application to patent the entire class of related compounds.

This research began a decade ago in Daggett’s lab when a former graduate student, Roger Armen, first discovered this new secondary structure through computer simulations. Daggett’s team was able to prove its validity in recent years by designing stable compounds and testing their ability to bind toxic versions of different amyloid proteins in the lab.

The research was funded by the National Institutes of Health (General Medicine Sciences), the National Science Foundation, the Wallace H. Coulter Foundation and Coins for Alzheimer’s Research Trust.

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The above story is based on materials provided by University of Washington. The original article was written by Michelle Ma. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.

We’ll find alien life in the next 20 years with our new, awesome telescopes says NASA

July 19, 2014


Fortunately, NASA is preparing to launch a couple of new telescopes that will make Hubble and Kepler look like tin toys by comparison. The Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), which is essentially an upgraded version of Kepler, will launch in 2017. A year later in 2018, Hubble’s successor — the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) — will launch as well. Between them, they should be able to find hundreds of thousands of planets, and then “sniff” out the atmospheric conditions using the JWST’s spectrometer to divine whether any alien life has lived or died there.

In a public meeting with NASA’s chief, the agency’s top scientists have said that they expect to find alien life within the next 20 years. Unfortunately, for those hoping that Europa or Mars might harbor life, NASA is fairly confident that the discovery of extraterrestrials will probably be outside our Solar System rather than within it. But still, suffice it to say, the discovery of life of any kind outside of Earth’s atmosphere would be massive news. Within 20 years, we could finally find out that we’re not alone in the universe — and, well, that would change everything.

This rather shocking belief — that we will find signs of alien life within 20 years — stems back to the massive success of the Kepler space telescope. Kepler was designed to seek out distant stars with orbiting planets — and that’s exactly what it found, in spades. In just 2014 alone, and while staring at just a tiny patch of night sky, Kepler confirmed the existence of more than 700 new planets. Thanks to Kepler, the astronomy community now thinks that every star is orbited by at least one planet, and probably a lot more than one. When you consider that there are around 300 billion stars in just the Milky Way, and billions of galaxies in the universe, and thus an almost inconceivable number of planets in the universe, it’s easy to see why many scientists believe alien life to be a near certainty.

While Kepler can spot planets that orbit distant stars, it has two limitations. One, it can only spot fairly large planets (much larger than Earth) — and two, it can’t actually tell us what the atmospheric conditions are like on the new planets. While the size of the planet isn’t all that significant (its orbital period and distance from its parent star is more important), being able to analyze the atmosphere is key to discovering whether it harbors life or not (and for discerning habitability, if we want to one day visit or colonize the planet).

Hubble vs. James Webb Space Telescope, primary mirror size

Fortunately, NASA is preparing to launch a couple of new telescopes that will make Hubble and Kepler look like tin toys by comparison. The Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), which is essentially an upgraded version of Kepler, will launch in 2017. A year later in 2018, Hubble’s successor — the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) — will launch as well. Between them, they should be able to find hundreds of thousands of planets, and then “sniff” out the atmospheric conditions using the JWST’s spectrometer to divine whether any alien life has lived or died there.

At the NASA meeting, the agency’s chief Charles Bolden said, “It’s highly improbable in the limitless vastness of the universe that we humans stand alone.” NASA astronomer Kevin Hand went as far as to say, “I think in the next 20 years we will find out we are not alone in the universe.” John Grunsfeld, a veteran astronaut that’s now a NASA science chief, said, “This technology we are using to explore exoplanets is real. The James Webb Space Telescope and the next advances are happening now. These are not dreams – this is what we do at NASA.”

Suffice it to say, if JWST can identify signs of life in the atmosphere of a remote planet — methane or some other biological marker perhaps — then everything would change. We would no longer be alone in the universe. We could no longer putter around indefinitely, causing untold damage to Earth’s ecology. If it turns out that much of the universe is already occupied with other life forms, we’d have to actually get a move on and colonize some darn planets.

Apple and IBM team up to conquer the enterprise market, and crush Microsoft, Blackberry, and Android

July 19, 2014


Every now and then, the universe likes to throw a curve ball, just to see if you’re actually paying attention. Today’s surprise announcement of a wide-ranging Apple-IBM alliance is likely to put a frown on the faces of many tech execs. As of today, IBM and Apple have signed a broad agreement to put iPads and iPhones in the hands of many of IBMs clients and customers, while Apple has pledged support for the enterprise firm’s software tools and products.

IBM is promising a whole suite of business intelligence applications, cloud services, security and analytics, and device management tools, all to be written for iOS from the ground up and with enterprise customers firmly in mind. Apple, in turn, will offer AppleCare to enterprise customers, including what looks like an enterprise-style agreement to provide on-site repair and replacement services.

This deal, assuming both sides deliver on their respective software solutions, is potentially huge. It expands IBM’s business into touchscreens and tablets, it gives businesses a guaranteed and respected solution for software and hardware, and it gives Apple enormous amounts of enterprise street cred.

Fighting the bottom-up BYOD trend

For years, pundits have predicted that the Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) trend would wreck Blackberry’s market domination (it did) and then allow Android to seize market share from iOS (evidence is mixed). Certainly manufacturers like Samsung have endeavored to beef up their own security ratings and status to steal marketshare from the lucrative business segment.

This announcement is a clear threat to the few markets where Blackberry still playsMicrosoft’s corporate cash cows, and the BYOD Android trend that Samsung and other vendors have been pushing. Unfortunately, identifying it as a threat is all we can do for now — we need to see more details before we can say more. If Apple and IBM cast their nets narrowly and mostly appeal to IBM’s existing high-end customers, then the impact might not be substantial.

If, on the other hand, the two companies use this as an excuse to try and reach new customer bases, Android, Blackberry, and Windows could all be in a world of hurt. It’s the latest in a series of moves IBM has made to expand its customer base outwards, from aligning itself with Nvidia on HPC computing initiatives to opening up the Power8 architecture.

Of all these moves, however, this IBM-Apple alliance seems the most likely to change the nature of the enterprise computing game — and to rock pretty much everyone back on their heels in the process.

How Close Are Humans to Immortality?

July 16, 2014


The question How close are humans to immortality? has been studied at great lengths by different scientists in different fields. However a consensus has been achieved by a specific community of these observers on the answer to the question. Scientist Ray Kurzweil and his followers all agree that humans are about 20-25 years away from being able to live as long as they wish.

Yet what will enable the inhabitants of earth to do so? Kurzweil, a notable predictor of the milestones humanity achieved, believes that the key to immortality is nanotechnology. He thinks that given the trend of computers becoming smaller and more efficient, people will be able to have nanobots circulating in their veins, cleaning and providing perpetual maintenance. He also hypothesizes that robots will replace our organs when they fail. These advances would mean that so long as the robots are powered and working well, they will keep their humans alive and kicking.

Kurzweil’s predictions have been proven to be anything but inaccurate before. He successfully pinpointed the exact year that the smartphone would come out, and its capabilities, and he described the Internet before it was ever invented. Kurzweil has convinced his peers in the scientific community of his hypothesis of human immortality. Kurzweil calls his theory the Law of Accelerating Returns. He illustrated that through nanotechnology, humans will be able to halt and reverse the aging process. He believes that nanobots will be exponentially more efficient than normal human cells.

He thinks that not only will humans achieve immortality, but that they will be able to accomplish tasks that are impossible for the species with their normal biological makeup. Examples include such feats as doing an Olympic sprint for 20 minutes without taking a breath, or going scuba diving for upwards of four hours without oxygen.

Kurzweil urges his fellow human beings to hang in there, given how close they are to immortality. With added life and brain capacity, Kurzweil also suggests that nanobots will be able to enable humans to do things like writing a full fledged book in minutes. He continued to describe how the world will change around humans. Nanobots in humans’ bodies will be able to alter their perceptions and create virtual worlds, virtual sex will become commonplace and hologram figures will appear right in front of humans as if they were real.

He says that humans should look forward to a world where they become cyborgs that are invulnerable to almost every ailment the species faces today. To those who argue that humans should not be celebrating how close the species is to immortality because immortal life will bring never-ending boredom and despair, Kurzweil argues that immortality is the wrong term for these advancements. Immortality means that it is impossible for one to die. Kurzweil says that is inaccurate in this case, given that humans with nanotechnologies will be able to die. Dying unintentionally will be an almost non-occurrence, but willing departures from life will be available. He promises that human free will is not going to be at stake. Humans may be close to immortality.

By Andres Loubriel


How antioxidants can accelerate cancers, and why they don’t protect against them

July 16, 2014


For decades, health-conscious people around the globe have taken antioxidant supplements and eaten foods rich in antioxidants, figuring this was one of the paths to good health and a long life.

Yet clinical trials of antioxidant supplements have repeatedly dashed the hopes of consumers who take them hoping to reduce their cancer risk. Virtually all such trials have failed to show any protective effect against cancer. In fact, in several trials antioxidant supplementation has been linked with increased rates of certain cancers. In one trial, smokers taking extra beta carotene had higher, not lower, rates of lung cancer.

In a brief paper appearing in The New England Journal of Medicine, David Tuveson, M.D. Ph.D., Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Professor and Director of Research for the Lustgarten Foundation, and Navdeep S. Chandel, Ph.D., of the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University, propose why antioxidant supplements might not be working to reduce cancer development, and why they may actually do more harm than good.

Their insights are based on recent advances in the understanding of the system in our cells that establishes a natural balance between oxidizing and anti-oxidizing compounds. These compounds are involved in so-called redox (reduction and oxidation) reactions essential to cellular chemistry.

Oxidants like hydrogen peroxide are essential in small quantities and are manufactured within cells. There is no dispute that oxidants are toxic in large amounts, and cells naturally generate their own anti-oxidants to neutralize them. It has seemed logical to many, therefore, to boost intake of antioxidants to counter the effects of hydrogen peroxide and other similarly toxic “reactive oxygen species,” or ROS, as they are called by scientists. All the more because it is known that cancer cells generate higher levels of ROS to help feed their abnormal growth.

Drs. Tuveson and Chandel propose that taking antioxidant pills or eating vast quantities of foods rich in antioxidants may be failing to show a beneficial effect against cancer because they do not act at the critical site in cells where tumor-promoting ROS are produced — at cellular energy factories called mitochondria. Rather, supplements and dietary antioxidants tend to accumulate at scattered distant sites in the cell, “leaving tumor-promoting ROS relatively unperturbed,” the researchers say.

Quantities of both ROS and natural antioxidants are higher in cancer cells — the paradoxically higher levels of antioxidants being a natural defense by cancer cells to keep their higher levels of oxidants in check, so growth can continue. In fact, say Tuveson and Chandel, therapies that raise the levels of oxidants in cells may be beneficial, whereas those that act as antioxidants may further stimulate the cancer cells. Interestingly, radiation therapy kills cancer cells by dramatically raising levels of oxidants. The same is true of chemotherapeutic drugs — they kill tumor cells via oxidation.

Paradoxically, then, the authors suggest that “genetic or pharmacologic inhibition of antioxidant proteins” — a concept tested successfully in rodent models of lung and pancreatic cancers — may be a useful therapeutic approach in humans. The key challenge, they say, is to identify antioxidant proteins and pathways in cells that are used only by cancer cells and not by healthy cells. Impeding antioxidant production in healthy cells will upset the delicate redox balance upon which normal cellular function depends.

The authors propose new research to profile antioxidant pathways in tumor and adjacent normal cells, to identify possible therapeutic targets.

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The above story is based on materials provided by Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. The original article was written by Peter Tarr. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.

DARPA taps Lawrence Livermore to develop world’s first neural device to restore memory

July 16, 2014

The Department of Defense’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) awarded Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) up to $2.5 million to develop an implantable neural device with the ability to record and stimulate neurons within the brain to help restore memory, DARPA officials announced this week.

The research builds on the understanding that memory is a process in which neurons in certain regions of the brain encode information, store it and retrieve it. Certain types of illnesses and injuries, including Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI), Alzheimer’s disease and epilepsy, disrupt this process and cause memory loss. TBI, in particular, has affected 270,000 military service members since 2000.

The goal of LLNL’s work — driven by LLNL’s Neural Technology group and undertaken in collaboration with the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) and Medtronic — is to develop a device that uses real-time recording and closed-loop stimulation of neural tissues to bridge gaps in the injured brain and restore individuals’ ability to form new memories and access previously formed ones.

The research is funded by DARPA’s Restoring Active Memory (RAM) program.

Specifically, the Neural Technology group will seek to develop a neuromodulation system — a sophisticated electronics system to modulate neurons — that will investigate areas of the brain associated with memory to understand how new memories are formed. The device will be developed at LLNL’s Center for Bioengineering.

“Currently, there is no effective treatment for memory loss resulting from conditions like TBI,” said LLNL’s project leader Satinderpall Pannu, director of the LLNL’s Center for Bioengineering, a unique facility dedicated to fabricating biocompatible neural interfaces. “This is a tremendous opportunity from DARPA to leverage Lawrence Livermore’s advanced capabilities to develop cutting-edge medical devices that will change the health care landscape.”

LLNL will develop a miniature, wireless and chronically implantable neural device that will incorporate both single neuron and local field potential recordings into a closed-loop system to implant into TBI patients’ brains. The device — implanted into the entorhinal cortex and hippocampus — will allow for stimulation and recording from 64 channels located on a pair of high-density electrode arrays. The entorhinal cortex and hippocampus are regions of the brain associated with memory.

The arrays will connect to an implantable electronics package capable of wireless data and power telemetry. An external electronic system worn around the ear will store digital information associated with memory storage and retrieval and provide power telemetry to the implantable package using a custom RF-coil system.

Designed to last throughout the duration of treatment, the device’s electrodes will be integrated with electronics using advanced LLNL integration and 3D packaging technologies. The microelectrodes that are the heart of this device are embedded in a biocompatible, flexible polymer.

Using the Center for Bioengineering’s capabilities, Pannu and his team of engineers have achieved 25 patents and many publications during the last decade. The team’s goal is to build the new prototype device for clinical testing by 2017.

Lawrence Livermore’s collaborators, UCLA and Medtronic, will focus on conducting clinical trials and fabricating parts and components, respectively.

“The RAM program poses a formidable challenge reaching across multiple disciplines from basic brain research to medicine, computing and engineering,” said Itzhak Fried, lead investigator for the UCLA on this project andprofessor of neurosurgery and psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA and the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior. “But at the end of the day, it is the suffering individual, whether an injured member of the armed forces or a patient with Alzheimer’s disease, who is at the center of our thoughts and efforts.”

LLNL’s work on the Restoring Active Memory program supports President Obama’s Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) initiative.

“Our years of experience developing implantable microdevices, through projects funded by the Department of Energy (DOE), prepared us to respond to DARPA’s challenge,” said Lawrence Livermore Engineer Kedar Shah, a project leader in the Neural Technology group.

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The above story is based on materials provided by DOE/Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.

Self-assembling nanoparticle could improve MRI scanning for cancer diagnosis

July 16, 2014


Scientists have designed a new self-assembling nanoparticle that targets tumours, to help doctors diagnose cancer earlier.

The new nanoparticle, developed by researchers at Imperial College London, boosts the effectiveness of Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) scanning by specifically seeking out receptors that are found in cancerous cells.

The nanoparticle is coated with a special protein, which looks for specific signals given off by tumours, and when it finds a tumour it begins to interact with the cancerous cells. This interaction strips off the protein coating, causing the nanoparticle to self-assemble into a much larger particle so that it is more visible on the scan.

A new study published in the journal Angewandte Chemie, used cancer cells and mouse models to compare the effects of the self-assembling nanoparticle in MRI scanning against commonly used imaging agents and found that the nanoparticle produced a more powerful signal and created a clearer MRI image of the tumour.

The scientists say the nanoparticle increases the sensitivity of MRI scanning and will ultimately improve doctor’s ability to detect cancerous cells at much earlier stages of development.

Professor Nicholas Long from the Department of Chemistry at Imperial College London said the results show real promise for improving cancer diagnosis. “By improving the sensitivity of an MRI examination, our aim is to help doctors spot something that might be cancerous much more quickly. This would enable patients to receive effective treatment sooner, which would hopefully improve survival rates from cancer.”

“MRI scanners are found in nearly every hospital up and down the country and they are vital machines used every day to scan patients’ bodies and get to the bottom of what might be wrong. But we are aware that some doctors feel that even though MRI scanners are effective at spotting large tumours, they are perhaps not as good at detecting smaller tumours in the early stages,” added Professor Long.

The newly designed nanoparticle provides a tool to improve the sensitivity of MRI scanning, and the scientists are now working to enhance its effectiveness. Professor Long said: “We would like to improve the design to make it even easier for doctors to spot a tumour and for surgeons to then operate on it. We’re now trying to add an extra optical signal so that the nanoparticle would light up with a luminescent probe once it had found its target, so combined with the better MRI signal it will make it even easier to identify tumours.”

Before testing and injecting the non-toxic nanoparticle into mice, the scientists had to make sure that it would not become so big when it self-assembled that it would cause damage. They injected the nanoparticle into a saline solution inside a petri dish and monitored its growth over a four hour period. The nanoparticle grew from 100 to 800 nanometres — still small enough to not cause any harm.

The scientists are now improving the nanoparticle and hope to test their design in a human trial within the next three to five years.

Dr Juan Gallo from the Department of Surgery and Cancer at Imperial College London said: “We’re now looking at fine tuning the size of the final nanoparticle so that it is even smaller but still gives an enhanced MRI image. If it is too small the body will just secrete it out before imaging, but too big and it could be harmful to the body. Getting it just right is really important before moving to a human trial.”

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The above story is based on materials provided by Imperial College London. The original article was written by Gail Wilson. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.

Nanoshell shields foreign enzymes used to starve cancer cells from immune system

July 7, 2014


Nanoengineers at the University of California, San Diego have developed a nanoshell to protect foreign enzymes used to starve cancer cells as part of chemotherapy.

Enzymes are naturally smart machines that are responsible for many complex functions and chemical reactions in biology. However, despite their huge potential, their use in medicine has been limited by the immune system, which is designed to attack foreign intruders.

For example, doctors have long relied on an enzyme called asparaginase to starve cancer cells as a patient undergoes chemotherapy. But because asparaginase is derived from a nonhuman organism, E. Coli, it is quickly neutralized by the patient’s immune system and sometimes produces an allergic reaction.

In animal studies with asparaginase, and other therapeutic enzymes, the research team found that their porous hollow nanoshell effectively shielded enzymes from the immune system, giving them time to work.

Asparaginase works by reacting with amino acids that are an essential nutrient for cancer cells. The reaction depletes the amino acid, depriving the abnormal cells from the nutrients they need to proliferate.

“Ours is a pure engineering solution to a medical problem,” said Inanc Ortac (Ph.D. ’13), who developed the technology as part of his doctoral research in the laboratory of nanoengineering professor Sadik Esener at UC San Diego Jacobs School of Engineering.

A filter in the bloodstream

The nanoshell acts like a filter in the bloodstream. The enzymes are loaded into the nanoparticle very efficiently through pores on its surface and later encapsulated with a shell of nanoporous silica. The shell’s pores are too small for the enzyme to escape but big enough for diffusion of amino acids that feed cancer cells in and out of the particle. The enzymes remain trapped inside where they deplete any amino acids that enter.

“This is a platform technology that may find applications in many different fields. Our starting point was solving a problem for cancer therapeutics,” said Ortac.

Ortac is currently serving as the chief technology officer of DevaCell, a local start-up which licensed the technology and is working to commercialize it under the name Synthetic Hollow Enzyme Loaded nanoShells or SHELS.

The work is featured on the June 2014 cover of the journal Nano Letters. The research was supported by the National Cancer Institute.