Cloaked DNA devices fool your body’s immune system

Virus naturally-cloaked L — lipid-coated DNA nanodevices R

Researchers from Harvard University’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering have developed a cloaked DNA nanodevice capable of evading the body’s immune defenses. The design was inspired by real world viruses and could be used to diagnose cancer and better target treatments to specific areas of tissue.

The researchers used a method known as “DNA origami” to construct the nanoscale device. This method involves folding a long strand of DNA into three-dimensional shapes and programming them to carry molecular instructions to specific cells. In 2012, researchers from Wyss demonstrated the potential of this approach by constructing a barrel-shaped robotic device, loading it with an antibody and programming it to home in on leukemia and lymphoma cells. Once located, the antibody activated the cells’ “suicide switch,” causing them to self-destruct through what is known as apoptosis.

While this delivery mechanism could prove useful in treating a variety of diseases, one significant obstacle is that in testing, the nanorobots are quickly digested after being injected into the bloodstream of mice. This led the researchers at Wyss to explore how they could prevent the particles from being chewed up before performing their task.

“We suspected that a virus-like envelope around our particles could solve our problem,” says Wyss Institute Core Faculty member and lead author of the study, William Shih, Ph.D…

In testing the resilience of the nanodevices in the body, the team loaded them with fluorescent dye and injected them into mice, some with the phospholipid coating and some without. The uncoated devices were quickly broken down, with whole-body imaging revealing a concentrated glow in the bladder. Those receiving the coated version showed a full-bodied glow, indicating that the devices remained in the bloodstream for hours after being injected.

The team also observed a link between the presence of the coated nanodevices in the bloodstream and activation of the immune system. Two particular immune-activating molecules were found to be 100-fold lower in mice administered the coated devices as opposed to those given the uncoated versions.

Such manipulation of the immune system could prove beneficial for treating certain conditions, such as activating the immune system to fight cancer cells or conversely, suppressing it to allow transplanted tissue to become established. Despite these potential applications, the researchers are mindful of the potential for adverse effects.

As Mike noted when he suggested this post, “…what could POSSIBLY go wrong?”

Just as an aside, the first big thing that could go wrong in my experience is a group of fascist-minded bastards in the CIA or Pentagon deciding to test any number of military attacks on the human body – from the inside.

Thanks, Mike

Runaway pulsar with an extraordinary jet trailing behind…

Click to enlarge

An extraordinary jet trailing behind a runaway pulsar is seen in this composite image that contains data from NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory (purple), radio data from the Australia Compact Telescope Array (green), and optical data from the 2MASS survey (red, green, and blue). The pulsar – a spinning neutron star – and its tail are found in the lower right of this image (mouse over the image for a labeled version). The tail stretches for 37 light years , making it the longest jet ever seen from an object in the Milky Way galaxy…

The pulsar, originally discovered by ESA’s INTEGRAL satellite, is called IGR J1104-6103 and is moving away from the center of the supernova remnant where it was born at a speed between 2.5 million and 5 million miles per hour. This supersonic pace makes IGR J1104-6103 one of the fastest moving pulsars ever observed.

A massive star ran out of fuel and collapsed to form the pulsar along with the supernova remnant, the debris field seen as the large purple structure in the upper left of the image. The supernova remnant (known as SNR MSH 11-61A) is elongated along the top-right to bottom left direction, roughly in line with the tail’s direction. These features and the high speed of the pulsar suggest that jets could have played an important role in the supernova explosion that formed IGR J1104-6103.

Yes, you should RTFA. Also – the latest Chandra newsletter is rocking with space goodies. Click below to move on to the next one:

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Robot drones keep getting smaller and smaller

Click to enlarge

In the very early hours of the morning, in a Harvard robotics laboratory last summer, an insect took flight. Half the size of a paperclip, weighing less than a tenth of a gram, it leapt a few inches, hovered for a moment on fragile, flapping wings, and then sped along a preset route through the air.

Like a proud parent watching a child take its first steps, graduate student Pakpong Chirarattananon immediately captured a video of the fledgling and emailed it to his adviser and colleagues at 3 a.m.—subject line, “Flight of the RoboBee…”

The demonstration of the first controlled flight of an insect-sized robot is the culmination of more than a decade’s work, led by researchers at the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) and the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard.

“This is what I have been trying to do for literally the last 12 years,” says Robert J. Wood…principal investigator of the…RoboBee project. “It’s really only because of this lab’s recent breakthroughs in manufacturing, materials, and design that we have even been able to try this. And it just worked, spectacularly well…”

“We had to develop solutions from scratch, for everything,” explains Wood. “We would get one component working, but when we moved onto the next, five new problems would arise. It was a moving target.”

Flight muscles, for instance, don’t come prepackaged for robots the size of a fingertip…

The robotic insects also take advantage of an ingenious pop-up manufacturing technique that was developed by Wood’s team in 2011. Sheets of various laser-cut materials are layered and sandwiched together into a thin, flat plate that folds up like a child’s pop-up book into the complete electromechanical structure.

The quick, step-by-step process replaces what used to be a painstaking manual art and allows Wood’s team to use more robust materials in new combinations, while improving the overall precision of each device.

We can now very rapidly build reliable prototypes, which allows us to be more aggressive in how we test them,” says Ma, adding that the team has gone through 20 prototypes in just the past six months.

RTFA for dynamic discussion on power, control, future processes and uses to be tested. Immersed in the world of science and technology, the developers of this technology aim their efforts at benefitting humankind.

Which leaves two additional directions of development, whimsical and military. I’ll volunteer a suggestion for microtronic controls adapted for fly-fishing. No doubt the death and destruction crowd are already coming up with their own ideas.

Harvard stripped of four quiz tournament titles

Harvard University will be stripped of four national quiz championship titles after organizers found a competitor from the Ivy League school inappropriately accessed information about questions used in the tournament.

The National Academic Quiz Tournaments said that a security review found that Harvard competitor Andy Watkins accessed pages on its administrative Website just before the 2009, 2010 and 2011 Intercollegiate Championship Tournaments or “Quiz Bowls”…

The quiz organizers said their review found that Watkins accessed Web pages that showed the first 40 characters of questions to be asked at the tournaments, though it said it had no direct or statistical evidence that Watkins and three others took advantage of their prior access in game situations…

At the time of the review, Watkins was working for the quiz organizer as question writer for high-school level contests. The NAQT said Watkins has been terminated as a question writer.

Watkins denied any wrongdoing…

A Harvard spokesman declined to comment on the news…

The National Academic Quiz Tournaments said they would vacate all of Harvard’s wins at the Division I events in 2009 through 2011 and recognize other teams as national champions.

It named the University of Minnesota as undergraduate champion in 2009; the University of Chicago as Division I champion in 2010; the University of Minnesota as Division I champion in 2011, and Virginia Commonwealth University as undergraduate champion in 2011.

An ethical solution.

Regardless of Watkins’ denial, there is no proof of crime or innocence. But, his role within the organization is compromised by his actions.

Open online courses are popular – here and there, mostly there!

Tom Friedman’s bubba, Michael Sandel

I just spent the last two days at a great conference convened by M.I.T. and Harvard on “Online Learning and the Future of Residential Education” — a k a “How can colleges charge $50,000 a year if my kid can learn it all free from massive open online courses?”

You may think this MOOCs revolution is hyped, but my driver in Boston disagrees. You see, I was picked up at Logan Airport by my old friend Michael Sandel, who teaches the famous Socratic, 1,000-student “Justice” course at Harvard, which is launching March 12 as the first humanities offering on the M.I.T.-Harvard edX online learning platform. When he met me at the airport I saw he was wearing some very colorful sneakers.

“Where did you get those?” I asked. Well, Sandel explained, he had recently been in South Korea, where his Justice course has been translated into Korean and shown on national television. It has made him such a popular figure there that the Koreans asked him to throw out the ceremonial first pitch at a professional baseball game — and gave him the colored shoes to boot! Yes, a Harvard philosopher was asked to throw out the first pitch in Korea because so many fans enjoy the way he helps them think through big moral dilemmas.

Sandel had just lectured in Seoul in an outdoor amphitheater to 14,000 people, with audience participation. His online Justice lectures, with Chinese subtitles, have already had more than 20 million views on Chinese Web sites, which prompted The China Daily to note that “Sandel has the kind of popularity in China usually reserved for Hollywood movie stars and N.B.A. players.”

O.K., not every professor will develop a global following, but the MOOCs revolution, which will go through many growing pains, is here and is real. These were my key take-aways from the conference:

Institutions of higher learning must move, as the historian Walter Russell Mead puts it, from a model of “time served” to a model of “stuff learned.”

Therefore, we have to get beyond the current system of information and delivery — the professorial “sage on the stage”…

We demand that plumbers and kindergarten teachers be certified to do what they do, but there is no requirement that college professors know how to teach.

Bottom line: There is still huge value in the residential college experience and the teacher-student and student-student interactions it facilitates. But to thrive, universities will have to nurture even more of those unique experiences while blending in technology to improve education outcomes in measurable ways at lower costs. We still need more research on what works, but standing still is not an option.

Couldn’t agree more. But, then, I’m a geek who’s been online since 1983.

I don’t even have one of those enormous round thermometers nailed to one of the trees in the courtyard anymore. If I need a close approximation of the temperature [and wind chill] before I head out for a walk with our dog – I glance at my iPad.

When climate warms, the ice melts – and volcanos get bigger!

It has long been known that volcanic activity can cause short-term variations in climate. Now, researchers at the GEOMAR Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research Kiel, together with colleagues from Harvard University, have found evidence that the reverse process also occurs: Climate affects volcanic activity…

The basic evidence for the discovery came from the work of the Collaborative Research Centre…For more than ten years the project has been extensively exploring volcanoes of Central America. “Among others pieces of evidence, we have observations of ash layers in the seabed and have reconstructed the history of volcanic eruptions for the past 460,000 years,” says GEOMAR volcanologist Dr Steffen Kutterolf, who has been with SFB 574 since its founding.

Particular patterns started to appear. “There were periods when we found significantly more large eruptions than in others” says Kutterolf, the lead author of the Geology article.After comparing these patterns with the climate history, there was an amazing match. The periods of high volcanic activity followed fast, global temperature increases and associated rapid ice melting.

To expand the scope of the discoveries, Dr Kutterolf and his colleagues studied other cores from the entire Pacific region. These cores had been collected as part of the International Integrated Ocean Drilling Program (IODP) and its predecessor programmes. They record more than a million years of Earth’s history. “In fact, we found the same pattern from these cores as in Central America” says geophysicist Dr Marion Jegen from GEOMAR, who also participated in the recent study.

Together with colleagues at Harvard University, the geologists and geophysicists searched for a possible explanation. They found it with the help of geological computer models. “In times of global warming, the glaciers are melting on the continents relatively quickly. At the same time the sea level rises. The weight on the continents decreases, while the weight on the oceanic tectonic plates increases. Thus, the stress changes within in the Earth to open more routes for ascending magma” says Dr Jegen.

Cripes. One more thing we get to consider preparing for – as part of climate change.

Perhaps – in addition to requiring climate change-deniers and their Republican flunkies to live on the seashore – we could add an alternative requirement for them to build their McMansions atop “extinct” volcanoes. 🙂

Harvard Doctor turns hedge fund profiteer, then, convict – after sentence for insider trading

From the age of six, Joseph F. “Chip” Skowron III aspired to be a doctor. At Yale, he earned both a medical degree and a doctorate in molecular and cellular biology, then qualified for Harvard’s elite, five-year residency program. Three years in, Skowron quit medicine for Wall Street. He and two partners started a group of health-care investment funds under the auspices of FrontPoint Partners LLC, a hot new property in the exploding world of hedge funds.

Skowron was soon making millions of dollars a year. He built a gabled, 10,000-square-foot home on three acres in the nation’s hedge-fund capital, Greenwich, Connecticut. He assembled a small fleet of pricey cars, including a 2006 Aston Martin Vanquish and a 2009 Alfa Romeo Spider 8C. He also spent vacation time engaged in Third World humanitarian causes…

Today, Skowron…is serving a five-year term for insider trading at the federal prison at Minersville, Pennsylvania. At FrontPoint, Skowron lied to his bosses and law enforcement authorities, cost more than 35 people their jobs and stooped to slipping envelopes of cash to an accomplice. FrontPoint is gone. Morgan Stanley, which once owned FrontPoint, is seeking more than $65 million from Skowron, whose net worth a year ago was $22 million. Until he’s a free man, his wife of 16 years will have to care for their four children and Rocky, their golden retriever, on her own…

Health care has become America’s sweet spot for insider traders like Skowron. Among researchers, physicians, government officials and corporate executives, the lure of easy money in health-care insider trading has become epidemic. Since 2008, about 400 people were sued by regulators or charged with insider trading; of those, at least 94 passed or received tips involving pharmaceutical, biotechnology or other health-care stocks.

RTFA for the cautionary tale of humanitarian physician – turned scumbag profiteer, insider trader on Wall Street.

Harvard investigates cheating on exam about government

Harvard University is investigating 125 students accused of collaborating on a spring take-home final exam, in what could prove to be the largest Ivy League cheating scandal in recent memory.

Nearly half the students in an introductory government class are suspected of jointly coming up with answers or copying off one another. Groups of students appear to have worked together on responses to short questions and an essay assignment, violating a no-collaboration policy that was printed on the exam itself, said Jay Harris, Harvard’s dean of undergraduate education.

Although no students appear to have lifted text from outside sources, some apparently plagiarized their classmates’ work, submitting answers that were either identical or “too close for comfort,” Harris said Thursday…

The students whose tests were flagged as problematic — nearly 2 percent of the college’s approximately 6,700 undergraduates — have been notified and will appear before the board individually in the next few weeks, Harris said. Some may be exonerated, but those found guilty could face a range of punishments up to yearlong suspensions…

College officials declined to name the course or any students involved, citing federal privacy laws. But the Harvard Crimson identified the class late Thursday as Government 1310: Introduction to Congress, taught by assistant professor Matthew Platt…

How appropriate can the study of a corrupt body become?

When a democratic republic allows our law-making body to continue archaic practices like the electoral college and the filibuster, corruption becomes inevitable. When a body like the Senate incorporates self-serving rules allowing a single member to prevent voting on an issue, when that same body disables access to majority voting – democracy is subverted, representative leadership and responsibility to voters becomes impossible.

When ethics and economics are subservient to lobbying, real and apparent buying and selling of votes – I can only guess these students have learned their lessons well.

Scientists create biological tissue with embedded wiring

Under its human skin, James Cameron’s Terminator was a fully-armored cyborg built out of a strong, easy-to-spot hyperalloy combat chassis – but judging from recent developments, it looks like Philip K. Dick and his hard-to-recognize replicants actually got it right. In a collaboration between Harvard, MIT and Boston Children’s Hospital, researchers have figured out how to grow three-dimensional samples of artificial tissue that are very intimately embedded within nanometer-scale electronics, to such an extent that it is hard to tell where one ends and the other begins. It could lead to a breakthrough approach to studying biological tissues on the nanoscale, and may one day be used as an efficient, real-time drug delivery system – and perhaps, why not, even to build next-generation androids.

Putting aside futuristic cyberpunk dreams, embedding electronics deep within biological tissue has concrete and immediate uses in the applied sciences of today, because it could lead to a finely tuned, two-way communication link between the biological and the synthetic. On the one hand, nanoscale sensors could be used to monitor cellular activity on a scale and precision never seen before; on the other, electrical signals could regulate the cells’ activity on a hyperlocal scale. One day, tying the two together could create a feedback loop capable of emulating much of the same functionality of our very own autonomic nervous system…

If we are to monitor and interact with biological tissues more effectively, we need a new approach that can gather data from deep within the tissues, and do so without damaging or even affecting them. One way would be to create three-dimensional structures in which nanoscale sensors reach all the way inside the tissue. The technique developed by the Boston-based researchers does exactly that…

In preliminary experiments, heart and nerve cells were grown inside the nanostructured scaffolding. Using the networks of nanowires, the researchers could detect the cells’ electrical signals generated deep within the tissues and measure how they responded to cardio- or neurostimulating drugs. Then, they constructed bioengineered blood vessels with embedded nanowiring networks and showed that they could measure changes in pH, which normally happen in response to inflammation.

A couple dozen small steps in the direction of expanding understanding of physiological and neurological processes. Someday, affecting those processes in a positive way.

“We took a rat apart and rebuilt it as a jellyfish”

Using rat heart cells and silicone polymer, researchers have bioengineered a “jellyfish” that knows how to swim.

The odd jellyfish mimic, dubbed a “Medusoid” by its creators, is more than a curiosity. It’s a natural biological pump, just like the human heart. That makes it a good model to use to study cardiac physiology, said study researcher Kevin Kit Parker, a bioengineer at Harvard University.

“The idea is to look at a muscular pump other than the heart or other muscular organ and see if there are some fundamental similarities, or design principles, that are conserved across them,” Parker told LiveScience. “This study revealed that there are…”

The ingredients were rat heart muscle cells and a thin silicone film…Along with researchers from the California Institute of Technology, he and his team engineered the cells and silicone in a pattern that mimicked the structure of a real jellyfish. They then stuck the creature in a tank full of electrically conducting fluid and zapped it with current.

The result was a swimming, pulsating creature that acts not unlike a real jellyfish

Parker is interested in using the Medusoids for cardiovascular drug development and as a step in new designs for artificial hearts. He also has plans to go bigger.

The next step, he said, is to “pick another animal that has a more difficult anatomy and function, and build it. Give me a year or two!”

My kind of scientist. As interested in the next challenge as the success of his last work.