Reprogrammed skin cells give hope for Huntington’s treatment

Scientists have developed a method of converting human skin cells into the type of brain cells that are affected by Huntington’s disease, prompting hopes that the technique could one day be used to provide a treatment for the devastating condition.

The approach, which unlike other regenerative research does not involve the production of stem cells, has been successfully demonstrated in mice, and is now being trialled in humans with the disease.

“Not only did these transplanted cells survive in the mouse brain, they showed functional properties similar to those of native cells,” said study senior author Dr Andrew S Yoo, assistant professor of developmental biology at  Washington University School of Medicine in St Louis.

Huntington’s disease is a neurodegenerative disorder that causes movement-controlling brain cells know as medium spiny neurons to deteriorate, resulting in a slow loss of control over movement, the onset of dementia and eventual death. There is no cure at present.

Although a hereditary disease, the symptoms of Huntington’s can begin at any age, but most typically occur in the late 30s or early 40s. Between five and ten people per 100,000 will be afflicted by Huntington’s, depending on ethnicity and location.

This new technique would in theory allow degenerated brain cells to be replaced with newly reprogrammed ones, potentially reversing the decline in motor control that Huntington’s sufferers experience.

The treatment could also involve converting the patient’s own skill cells, which would dramatically reduce the chance of the body rejecting the new brain cells.

Skin cells already contain the DNA instructions to become other types of cells, so for the scientists the focus was on developing a system to encourage this to happen.

They already knew that exposing skin cells to microRNAs – small molecules of ribonucleic acid, a close cousin of our own DNA – would cause them to change into other cell types, so the primary work was fine-tuning the process to produce the specific type of brain cells needed.

“We think that the microRNAs are really doing the heavy lifting,” said study co-first author Matheus Victor, a graduate student in neuroscience.

“They are priming the skin cells to become neurons. The transcription factors we add then guide the skin cells to become a specific subtype, in this case medium spiny neurons.”


This reprogramming technique not only offers hope for Huntington’s, but could also be applied to other types of cells, giving it promise for a wide range of genetic conditions.

“We think we could produce different types of neurons by switching out different transcription factors,” added Victor.

The research was published today in the neuroscience journal Neuron.

Featured image courtesy of Jensflorian. Inline image courtesy of Leevanjackson.



Is anti-surveillance clothing the fashion of the future?

Yesterday at the launch of Biometrics 2014 in London, Isabelle Moeller, chief executive of the Biometrics Institute, came onstage wearing a rather unusual face mask.

With a lace-style finish, the mask covered most of her face, finishing in a point some 10cm beyond her head. She described it as a piece of head jewellery designed with the sole purpose of protecting her identity, bought from an unnamed designer at a wearables event.

“I started wondering if people will start wearing these kinds of headpieces and jewellery in order to protect their identity,” she said, a comment that was met with amused giggles from the assembled biometrics and surveillance experts.

However, as the day continued, her point seemed increasingly valid.

Biometrics 2014, a highly regarded event in its 17th year, is by no means encouraging Big Brother to rise up. The speakers are focused on improving the field and refining technologies to weed out errors, and there is impressive work being done on many different aspects.


Yet there is much in the field to make non-experts concerned. Dr Itier Dror of the University of London’s Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, for example, brilliantly demonstrated how operators of biometrics systems can unintentionally introduce bias into technologies we think of as incorruptible, such as the leading fingerprinting system AFIS (automated fingerprint identification system).

Possible new recognition systems were also highlighted. Dr Maja Pantic, professor of affective and behavioural computing at Imperial College London, explained how our range of facial expressions are so unique that they too could be used as a form of biometric identification, in the same way iris scans and fingerprints are.

With so many developing and emerging ways to identify us, and an increasing range of surveillance options to boot, there is naturally growing concern that surveillance is getting too good, and many of us are starting to long for the ability to move around untracked.

Could, then, face masks such as the one worn by Moeller really become a viable part of future fashion?

A number of organisations have started developing high fashion-style anti-surveillance wear, as well as more technologically-focused designs and DIY-centric users can take matters into their own hands using online guides. Dazzle makeup designed to prevent facial recognition from surveillance cameras is also gaining prominence.

The trend does not just extend to head wear – a growing range of clothing designed to protect our identity is also emerging, such as the Stealth Wear range designed by Adam Harvey.

For now, however, the trend is still very much on the fringes, and it will undoubtedly be some time before it has any chance of gaining prominence.

Mainstream anti-surveillance fashion would require the perfect storm of increased privacy concerns, adoption by celebrities and other high-profile individuals and the inclusion in collections by leading fashion houses.

This is all likely to be prompted by how visible future surveillance is. If it remains quiet and largely unseen, or at least unnoticed, most people will undoubtedly spend little time worrying. However, if it becomes more visible, such as through increased drone use and police body cameras, then anti-surveillance fashion may become a serious prospect.

Featured image courtesy of Fabrica. Inline image courtesy of Adam Harvey.



The future fracturing of the internet: How access will define the web of tomorrow

The future of the web is a system that is completely different depending on the method of access, to the point where many will think of it as several completely different things, thanks to the future evolution of technologies such as virtual reality.

When the World Wide Web launched a quarter of a century ago, it was accessed on hulking desktop computers in university labs and the homes of the wealthy but nerdy.

Over time this spread, first to more affordable computers and then to laptops and palmtops, and finally on to smartphones and tablets.  Now we expect to be able to access the web in some form from almost every electronic device we own, including TVs, smartwatches, music players and more.

The abilities that the internet has given us have made us almost superhuman. We can find the answer to almost any question in moments, and learn almost any skill just through online resources.

In some countries the internet is now even regarded as a human right, something so important that it would be abhorrent to prevent people from accessing it.


Evolving the web

The internet as we know it know is just a step on the road to what it will become. Just as it has moved far beyond the first web page, so will it continue to change and grow as technology allows.

Most interesting, however, will be the fact that it will evolve to become several different forms of internet, depending on the method of access.

We are already starting to see the embryo of this at present.

CSS3 mobile queries have enabled websites to appear differently depending on the device they are accessed from. While for most websites this just means a simplified version for smartphones, some have gone to greater extremes by tailoring content and in some cases serving completely different designs to suit the audience.

But this is nothing on what we are going to see in the future.

At present, while we might get different sites depending on whether we log on with a tablet or a desktop, we are always accessing the information in basically the same way.

However, our future selves might be accessing the internet through a number of different means, which require the information to be displayed in ways that are virtually incompatible.


Virtual reality and the future of the internet

While some of these technologies are yet to be invented, there are a few that look likely to grow in use and dominance.

The most prominent of these is virtual reality. Oculus Rift is nearing consumer-readiness, and tech giants such as Sony have finally started to wade into the VR pool.

For most, VR is about gaming, but there is also a movement to make it work on the web.

For anyone who has dreamed about a fully immersive internet such as the one portrayed in the Futurama episode A Bicyclops Built for Two, the prospect is very exciting.

The leading work in this area is a project called Janus VR, which is an internet browser developed specifically for the Oculus Rift.

In its most basic form, Janus VR reinterprets the web as 3D spaces, with links as doors and images as pictures on a virtual wall. However, inventor James McCrae has also added Janus-specific code that web designers can add to any site they build.

Users browsing from regular computers won’t see any effects of the code, but if you visit the site with a Rift you could be met with a full 3D world, complete with interactive elements. Other users can even meet you there and communicate over voice or text.

Janus VR is very much in its infancy, buts its potential is obvious and support is growing. Before long it could become a common browsing method with its own set of standards, completely separate from those used for the traditional web.

Hearing the web through virtual assistants

The projected rise of virtual assistants – starting with today’s technologies such as Apple’s Siri and Google Now – also present a possible alternative version of the web.

Chris Brauer, co-director of CAST at Goldsmiths, University of London, recently said that virtual assistants (VAs) would in the future be our primary access point to the web.

We would ask questions of our own personal VAs, who would provide us with answers through their own web searches.

If VAs become this common, web design – or at least a part of it – but undoubtedly evolve to match.

Just as web design trends have closely followed the best approaches to getting a high Google ranking, the web’s content could be increasingly presented in a manner meant for virtual assistants, not humans, to access.

Given that some of us will still wish to access the web through traditional means, this information is likely to end up in its own separate space – a section of the internet only accessible by VAs just as the VR web is only viewable on a VR-compatible browser.


The internet’s fractured future

Undoubtedly there will be other means of access that require different versions of the web for their own suiting, brought about by new developments in technology that are barely ideas at present.

All of this will result in an internet with many faces – although it will all be one system, the code for each access type will be unreadable by the others.

As a result the internet as we use it on different devices will be so radically different that non-techy users will think of it a several completely separate things.

The internet as we know it will be one of several, and may even fade into obscurity as other access methods become more popular.

Featured image courtesy of Sergey Galyonkin. Second inline image: screenshot from Futurama S2E13. Third inline image courtesy of Martin Deutsch.



Seasteading Institute puts floating city technology to the test

The Seasteading Institute, the most high-profile organisation involved in the development of floating cities, has announced that it has begun testing the technology that forms the basis for its planned floating metropolis.

Designed by urban consultancy firm DeltaSync, the city is intended to be made up of modular square platforms measuring 50m x 50m each and pentagon-shaped platforms with 50m long sides.

These platforms would allow multiple configurations, and allow the city to be adjusted and changed as needs required.

The tests underway are to assess the suitability of the square platforms for the purpose, in particular to determine how well they will endure a varying marine environment.


For the tests, a scale model of the platform has been constructed measuring 1.5m long.

This will be tested in a towing tank at the University of New Orleans, School of Naval Architecture and Marine Engineering. Such tanks are traditionally used to test ships and other offshore structures during their design, making it an ideal environment for the floating city’s development.

During its time in the tank, the structure will be subjected to waves of a variety of heights and frequencies, to test its ability to withstand different conditions.

“By employing the physical testing methods of the model basin, systematic variation in vessel properties (displacement and weight placement) and environmental conditions (wave heights, lengths, and periods) are iterated, and their effects on vessel performance (speed, stability, seakeeping) are observed,” explained Michael Capitain, an engineer at Welwynd Marine who is undertaking the study.

It is hoped that the research should help to keep development costs for the platforms – which are estimated to cost $15m each – relatively low.

“This process directs the design towards a final product of improved performance,” added Capitain.

“The cost savings and ease of property variation make the development of novel systems – such as the Seastead – more attainable, achieving an optimal platform or operational envelope in less time and for smaller budgets.”

The tests mark the start of Phase II of the institute’s project to build the world’s first floating city, a key step for the institute and its supporters.

As part of Phase I the Seasteading Institute conducted a feasibility report of a floating city, undertook successful crowdfunding to commission a city design and received detailed designs for two approaches to the floating city concept.

The organisation also selected a design to pursue further, initiated ongoing research about potential citizens of this floating city and sought a suitable location for the city.

Now Phase II has started, the organisation is set to research and assess the design further to develop more accurate financial projections, begin discussions with would-be investors, gain feedback from potential residents and firm up diplomatic relations with potential host countries.

Images courtesy of the Seasteading Institute.



Video: Inside the pioneering urban farm growing plants under London

Deep under the surface of London a series of abandoned tunnels could lead the way in revolutionising how food is grown in our cities. Here, herbs and micro-herbs grow without the need for soil or natural light – and there’s potential to grow vast amounts of produce.

London’s first underground farm, which is still in construction, also benefits from the absence of pests, fast growing times and the ability to transport produce across the city within hours, rather than days.

It has been created by two men, Steven Dring and Richard Ballard, who are, rather ironically, from Bristol, which has rather a lot more greenery that the area surrounding their farm – but certainly can’t offer the sound of the Northern Line rumbling past meters above your head as you water your crops.

There is a lot of space under a lot of cities

The pair, which does business as Growing Underground, got the idea from reading about Dickson Despommier, who envisions a world where vertical farming takes over cities in a bid to help tackle problems such as growing city populations and a lack of space.

“We realised that you could grow without natural light and that kind of transferred through to us. Building it in an office block is really expensive – so could we build a farm in a tunnel?,” says Dring. “There is a lot of space under a lot of cities. You look at the catacombs under Rome, lots of empty Metro sites under Paris, you’ve got the same under New York. So yes, it can expand, yes, there’s opportunity to do it.”


Proving the underground farm concept

In some parts of the world where the climate doesn’t allow for crops to be grown in the traditional way, underground spaces could offer more suitable conditions.

“Certainly in places like Kuwait and the UAE they’re looking at taking farming into tunnels because they have tried it in polytunnels and it is too hot. It is really difficult for them to grow in that environment,” says Dring. “So they are just looking at burying the polytunnels just so they have got a controlled environment, as we’ve got here. If we prove the concept I can see people taking the idea and running with it elsewhere and we may well expand into other countries.”

Japan, the Netherlands and the US also host underground farm projects

It’s quite clear that others share his vision. Under a tower block in Japan there’s an underground farm. PlantLab in the Netherlands is experimenting with underground farming and in the US, The Plant is testing underground and urban farming in an old meat factory.

At present the pair’s farming tunnels are leased from Transport for London for free, as it was necessary to prove the concept before they are properly used. In coming years rent for the tunnels will be charged by the the government body.


Tunnels gone by

The tunnels, which are currently being looked after by Dring, Ballard, their farm manager Gabriel DeFranco and an intern, lie 178 steps and 100ft below the surface. To make matters more complicated there’s no lift going up or down at the moment.

In the past they were used as air raid shelters during World War II. The Clapham North tunnels in south London, which have been converted into the farm, are part of a series of deep level shelters that were finished in 1942 – after the peak of the Blitz. Eight shelters were built overall; other planned ones – including a shelter at St Paul’s Cathedral, were scrapped due to fears they may be targeted and damaged by bombs.

Author Nick Cooper, in his book London Underground at War, says that there were plans to use the tunnels as an express underground line after the war, but their diameter was not enough to accommodate trains.

The tunnels were used as air raid shelters during World War 2

The farm’s tunnels were previously used as a hostel for male National Fire Service personnel in 1943 and then as public air raid shelters from July to October 1944. After the war they sat largely unused until 2006, when they were put back on the market. Other tunnels were used as accommodation for a festival and during the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II.

One set of the tunnels, just down the road from the farm at Clapham South, inadvertently helped to give birth to a cultural section of London.

Almost 500 immigrant workers from Jamaica were housed in the tunnels in 1948 after they had arrived on the MV Empire Windrush.

According to Transport for London tunnel expert Philip Aish the nearest labour exchange was in Brixton which goes to “explaining why Brixton became such a centre of the West Indian Community,” he told the Independent.

Now it is hoped the Clapham North tunnels can revive their former glory and help to contribute to London life once more.


Growing underground

The growing process works using LED lights and an 18-hour light cycle. At present the farmers are trying to work out the best type of light, testing three types with different spectrums of light.

The type and colour of the light will also depend on the plant that is being grown, DeFranco explains. Red plants, for instance, grow best under blue lights.

The herbs and micro-herbs are grown using hydroponic techniques. This means no soil is needed as the plants are provided with nutrients four times a day when they are flooded with enhanced water.

It allows the farm to grow produce quickly in an environment that is unlike any other, which poses challenges that traditional farmers would not face.

“At the moment we’re trying to do organic best practice, as I like to call it,” DeFranco says. “We can’t get organically certified down here because the soil association states that we have to be on ground surface to be organically certified. But we use all the best practices that organic farming would use.”

Their micro-herbs, he says, have an incredibly fast growing and turnaround time, the shortest period being seven days and the longest 21 days. Coriander, for example, can be grown at 4kg per square metre and the farm will have 10,000 square metres of growing space. This illustrates the potential of this type of farming if it is taken to a scale where plants can be mass produced.


Going into production

The next step for the team at Growing Underground will see them kitting out the first stages of the tunnels and moving in to a production cycle. Dring says enough funding has come from “crowd funding and private investors” to allow them to fully expand into the first part of the tunnel and start creating revenue. The challenges now involve moving products up and down the stairs until a new lift can be fitted.

“By the time we have finished the build here this will all be lined completely. It will all be white, painted floor, it will look more like a lab than a farm,” Dring says.

Although it is clear that a lot of work needs to be done to make the tunnels a safe place for growing large amounts of plants, in doing so the farmers will also grow the trust of their eventual end consumers.

The customer will ultimately be the deciding factor in whether farms underground and indoors, that do not use traditional methods, become a success or not.

If the sales are right, this innovative approach could take off and also bring the benefits of underground farming to other cities. Having gotten a taste of the team’s underground herbs, we’ll have to say they rival anything you can buy in established shops.


Image two via Subterranea Brittania 



Eye implants signal the end for reading glasses

Implants are set to get far more common, with the development of an implantable ring that combats the effects of blurriness in ageing eyes.

The device is currently being reviewed for clinical use in the US after a series of successful global trials, and is already for sale in some parts of Asia, Europe and South America.

Known as the KAMRA inlay, the device is designed to treat a condition known as presbyopia, which causes near-vision blurriness as the eyes age and become less flexible.

More than a billion people worldwide are affected by presbyopia, so the implant, which has been found to help 83% of sufferers, could become incredibly common.


The inlay is a doughnut-shaped ring that is implanted into the cornea at the front of the eye.

At only 3.8mm in diameter with a 1.6mm hole in the middle, the device cannot be felt by the wearer once it is implanted.

It works similarly to a camera aperture, by adjusting the depth of field to respond to the distance the wearer is focusing on.

The implantation procedure is also very quick, taking around 10 minutes with a local anaesthetic.

Unlike previous similar devices, it can also be removed if needed.

“This is a solution that truly delivers near vision that transitions smoothly to far distance vision,” said Dr John Vukich, a clinical adjunct professor in ophthalmology and vision sciences at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.

“Corneal inlays represent a great opportunity to improve vision with a safety net of removability.”


Many will see the implant as an appealing alternative to reading glasses, particularly those who have to switch between tasks requiring close-distance and long-distance vision at regular intervals.

Others may also associate reading glasses with becoming old, and see the implants as a way to maintain a feeling of youthfulness.

However many will undoubtedly prefer to keep glasses rather than undergo a medical procedure.

Nonetheless, if the implant takes off it could pave the way to wider acceptance of implants generally. Such devices can be used for everything from tracking fitness and exercise to monitoring glucose, but at present many find the prospect on implants concerning.

This implant may play a key role in changing that perception.

Featured image courtesy of Katharina_z. Inline image one courtesy of Acufocus. Inline image two courtesy of Dan Foy.



Metal 3D printing: Taking the limits off additive manufacturing

3D printing in metal is going to allow more innovation and products to be designed and changed quickly, taking it beyond the limited industries it is confined to at present.

This is the view of Matt Burris, the CEO of MatterFab, who is trying to bring metal 3D printing to a larger range of applications and industries.

He said that the technique, which involves building up metal structures layer-by-layer, will not have a specific singular use but can be applied to many different scenarios.

“I don’t think there’s going to be a main application, that’s the advantage of additive manufacturing overall, that you are free from a lot of the traditional manufacturing processes,” he said.

At present 3D metal printing is mostly used for printing aircraft components, engine parts and items such as false teeth.

But this market will expand massively in coming years.

“We realised if you can 3D print a part that can go in to a jet engine which is an incredible application, that there’s not going to be a whole lot of limitation on what you can print.

“The question really is around the economics. Can you make a part with a 3D printer affordable enough to replace other manufacturing techniques – so that’s where we wanted to focus.”


Burris said that using the 3D printing method will always provide limitations such as speed and scale at which things can be printed. However, these will change with time as the technology progresses Burris said.

The question of 3D printing larger objects is one of the challenges that faces all different types of 3D printing as, at present, the printer has to be bigger than the item it is creating.

Burris says that this limitation, and the others, will change in time: “So there’s a sweet spot in additive manufacturing and it is going to change over time as machines get faster and faster, but that is going to be one of those limitations on the size of any part that you actually make,” he said.

“It all ties back in to the economics around making that part. If it is not cost effective to use additive manufacturing they are going to find a different process to do on scale production. For prototyping it is going to be the go-to tool for an incredibly long time.”

MatterFab is trying to build a platform that will not only replace traditional manufacturing, but one that will build upon it and make the processes faster.

At present the company is in the process of completing the construction of their printer and its systems, with the view to more testing by third-parties in the coming months.

Burris said: “The next few months for us is about finalising the design for our system and putting it in the hands of some early test partners, so we can get some feedback and really lock down the design of the system and make sure it is something that fits in the manufacturing environment.”

Featured image courtesy of Keith Kissel via Flcikr/Creative Commons Licence. Image one courtesy of Don Solo via Flickr/Creative Commons Licence.


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