SciTech Briefs

New polymer leads to self-repairing, artificial muscles

Researchers at Northwestern University have developed a completely new hybrid polymer that could one day be used in artificial muscles or other life-like materials, drug delivery, biomolecules, self-repairing materials, and for replaceable energy sources.

“We have created a surprising new polymer with nano-sized compartments that can be removed and chemically regenerated multiple times,” said materials scientist Samuel I. Stupp, the senior author of the study. The hybrid polymer combines two types of known polymers formed with strong covalent bonds and with weak non-covalent bonds. The integrated polymer offers two distinct “compartments” with which chemists and materials scientists can work to create and showcase some useful features.

“Our discovery could transform the world of polymers and start a third chapter in their history: that of the ‘hybrid polymer,’” Stupp asserted. “This would follow the first chapter of broadly useful covalent polymers, then the more recent emerging class of supramolecular polymers.” The study was published in the Jan. 29 issue of Science.

Source: Science Daily

Worm research shows regular patterns of aging

Previously, aging was thought to be determined by statistically random factors. However, researchers in the lab of Walter Fontana, Harvard Medical School professor of systems biology, discovered patterns which provide insight into the aging process.When examining the life span of the Caenorhabditis elegans worm, the team discovered a surprisingly statistical regularity in genetic and environmental factors, suggesting that aging does not have a single discrete molecular cause, but is rather a systemic process involving many components within a complex biological network.

“There are many important molecular changes that occur with age, but it might not make sense to call all of them ‘causes of aging,’ per se,” said Novartis Fellow Nicholas Stroustrup, first author on the paper and leader of the research team. To monitor the worms’ life spans, Stroustrup constructed the Lifespan Machine, a device comprised of 50 flatbed scanners purchased from an office supplies store that are capable of recording 16 petri dishes every hour, totaling 800 dishes and 30,000 worms. The Lifespan Machine recorded how long it took the worms to die when certain factors were manipulated.

Source: Science Daily

Immune system gene leads to schizophrenia clue

On Jan. 27, a research team published a study in Nature that examined variants of a protein that severs nerve connections in the brain as a contributor to schizophrenia. This study marks the first voyage into biology for this research.

The study is the first time scientists have been able to move from genetic studies to a biological insight into schizophrenia risk, says geneticist David Goldstein of Columbia University. “Genetics got us there,” he said. “That’s why this is a big deal.” By examining genetic material of more than 60,000 people with or without schizophrenia, the team pinpointed versions of a gene within the major histocompatibility complex (MHC), a section of DNA that helps the immune system identify invaders, called complement component 4 (C4) that elevates the risk of schizophrenia.

C4 also helps control synaptic pruning, and too much C4 causes excessive pruning. According to Goldstein, some scientists suspect that synaptic pruning goes into overdrive in schizophrenia. Postmortem brains showed a deficiency of synapses, for instance. But this study is the “clearest, strongest evidence we have of synaptic pruning” being implicated in schizophrenia, Goldstein says.

Source: Science News

New technique changes nano-scale material production

Materials scientists at the University of Wisconsen-Madison have developed a novelty technique that creates nearly 2-D sheets of compounds that cannot naturally form such thin material. This 2-D nanosheet, just a few atoms thick, has huge implications for the future of electronic and biomedical devices.

“What’s nice with a 2-D nanomaterial is that because it’s a sheet, it’s much easier for us to manipulate compared to other types of nanomaterials,” said Xudong Wang, a UW-Madison professor of materials science and engineering. The team applied a special surficant to a liquid surface heavy with zinc ions. Due to differing charges, the surfactant assembles into a single layer at the surface of the liquid, forming a nanosheet.

“Under the correct conditions, a surfactant will self-assemble to form a monolayer. This is a well-known process that I teach in class. So while teaching this, I wondered why we wouldn’t be able to reverse this method and use the surfactant monolayer first to grow the crystalline face.” The researchers described their findings in the journal Nature Communications on Jan. 20.


Carbon dioxide in air converted into methanol fuel

Recently, researchers have demonstrated that carbon dioxide captured from the air can be directly converted into methanol fuel using a homogenous catalyst. This process would be successful in removing harmful carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and in providing an alternate source of fuel to gasoline.

The study was led by G. K. Surya Prakash, a professor of chemistry at the University of Southern California, and Nobel Laureate George A. Olah, a distinguished professor at the University of Southern California. The researchers have published their paper on the carbon dioxide-to-methanol conversion process in a recent issue of the Journal of the American Chemical Society.

A key factor in the carbon dioxide-to-methanol conversion process was finding a good homogeneous catalyst, which would speed up the chemical reaction and produce methanol at a faster rate. “We will continue the studies to develop more robust catalysts that work around 100 to 120 °C,” Prakash said. “We would like to perform the chemistry in a preparatively useful way, wherein there are no solvent or reagent losses.”


Proton beam treats cancer patients, fewer side-effects

According to new research published in The Lancet Oncology, proton beam therapy is as effective as other treatments and causes fewer side effects in children than conventional radiotherapy. Proton beam therapy uses charged particles instead of X-rays to deliver radiotherapy for cancer patients, and allows high-charged protons to be targeted directly at a tumor.

Researchers looked at 59 patients aged between three and 21 from 2003 to 2009. The study found that, after five years, the survival rate of the patients was similar to that of patients treated with conventional X-ray radiotherapy, but there were fewer side effects to the heart and lungs.

“The major finding is that proton therapy is as effective as photon therapy (conventional X-ray radiotherapy) in curing these patients,” Yock said. “What is also very exciting is that it is maintaining these high rates of cure but doing so with less late toxicity, which has dramatic quality of life improvements.” The U.K. Department of Health states that the treatment will be offered to up to 1500 cancer patients at hospitals in London and Manchester in April 2018.