viernes, 28 de febrero de 2014

Molten Salts Might Provide Half-Price Grid Energy Storage

A startup, Halotechnics, is building a pilot electricity storage system that will use molten salt.

As intermittent renewable sources of energy generate more power, they’re straining the grid.

A small startup based in Emeryville, California, will build a pilot-scale energy storage system that could provide a cheaper, more practical way of storing large amounts of electricity and help enable the power grid accommodate large amounts of renewable energy.

Halotechnics has announced a deal with a partner to construct a one-megawatt plant that will store energy in molten salts—a technique previously used to store energy at some large solar thermal plants. The company says it will cost half as much as battery storage, and could compete with the cheapest way of storing large amounts of electricity—pumping water up a hill and using it to drive a turbine as gravity brings it back down.

Molten salt storage is less efficient than battery storage—only about 70 percent of the energy used to heat up the salts becomes electricity again, whereas batteries can be over 90 percent efficient. So Halotechnics will need to offset that inefficiency with low costs. The company’s energy storage technology is made possible using molten salts discovered using a high-throughput screening system built to discover new materials. Energy storage is becoming ever more important as the share of variable sources of energy like solar and wind power increases. The technology is one of several large-scale energy storage technologies being showcased this week at the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Energy Summit (see “ARPA-E’s Strategy for Survival”) in Washington, D.C.

Cheaper energy storage could also make the power grid more resilient and efficient by giving utilities more flexibility in how they produce and distribute power. Experts in grid energy at the ARPA-E summit say that storage will be central to restructuring the grid in coming decades, but current approaches, such as water storage, only work in certain situations and take up too much space.

Various types of salts are good at storing heat; they can be heated until they melt, and then stored in insulated containers. When the energy is needed, the molten salts can be pumped out to release their heat through a heat exchange system. Molten salts are being employed at solar thermal power plants to store heat from the sun during the day and then generate electricity at night.

Halotechnics is developing a new kind of system that uses a new molten salt chemistry to store energy from any source of electricity. It uses electricity to drive a heat pump, which can take low temperature heat. Halotechnics’s innovation is developing molten salts with the properties that allow them to store heat from off-the-shelf heat pumps. Developing the salts involved the use of a robotic system that combines many different types of salts and tests the properties of the resulting mixture, allowing it to quickly develop mixtures that have different properties.

Halotechnics had previously been focused on developing new energy storage materials for solar thermal technology (see “Cheap Solar Power at Night”). It has a $3.3 million grant from ARPA-E to develop materials that could store heat at temperatures of 1,200 °C, which would make it possible to shrink the number of mirrors used at solar thermal plants to generate electricity. It’s still developing these materials, but solar thermal technology is facing difficult times now that its competitor, photovoltaic solar panels, has fallen in price. Halotechnics’s new plan to store electricity from any source could be easier to bring to market. The company will be announcing the name of its new industrial partner in the coming months.

February 27, 2014


PPlanter is a scalable, reconfigurable public urinal and sink that uses modular biofilters to treat urine and wastewater. A network of sensors for automated monitoring and a web/mobile interface enable public feedback and participation in the PPlanter design and propagation of future iterations.

The PPlanter works for both men and women, and conveniently takes up a single parking space so that the entrance is flush with the sidewalk

The PPlanter system works as follows:
  • An ADA-compliant sink is supplied with a human powered foot or hand pump connected to a freshwater supply tank. The greywater from the sink, along with soap residue, flushes and cleans the urinal, keeping odor to a minimum.
  • The greywater, soap and urine (blackwater) from the ADA-compliant urinal are funneled to a sealed storage tank. The combined water is then pumped into an adjacent planter that houses bamboo plants set in a lightweight mixture of soil and recycled styrofoam coated in pectin. The water from the urinal and sink is evapotranspired by the bamboo and released into the air as distilled, purified water. The bamboo harnesses the incredible amount of nitrogen and phosphorus found in the urine and uses it to produce more bamboo. With high traffic urinals additional planters can be added to the system.
PPlanter is a finalist in the Urban Prototyping Festival's Open Call, and we are applying for additional funding through starting soon (stay tuned!!).

Come to our fundraiser "Refreshed + Relieved" at 111 Minna Gallery on October 8th from 6-9 pm! Then, come see the first PPlanter prototype on October 20th at 5th St and Minna, anytime from 12 - 10 pm!

PPlanter is a rapidly deployable, reconfigurable public urinal and sink that uses modular biofilters to treat urine and wastewater. The network of sensors for automated monitoring and this web site are an integral part for public feedback and participation in the design of future iterations.

Learn more about the project:

Stephen Wolfram's Introduction to the Wolfram Language

Stephen Wolfram introduces the Wolfram Language in this video that shows how the symbolic programming language enables powerful functional programming, querying of large databases, flexible interactivity, easy deployment, and much, much more.

To learn more about the Wolfram Language, visit

For the latest information, visit

miércoles, 26 de febrero de 2014

The rapid progress of artificial intelligence


Meet the humanoid robot called Robothespian. He is designed to interact with people even through Skype. Created by England-based Engineered Arts, the Robothespian runs on algorithms and codes, or a form of artificial intelligence. He recognizes people, and sees your emotional state and more.
Humanoid robots are the type of thing that are just the warm-up act for what is coming next in the world of A.I. But first, let's take a step back at just what defines these thinking machines.

For many people artificial intelligence is associated with Hollywood sci-fi like Hal 9000 in the movie "2001: A Space Odyssey" or more recently the film "Her," in which a guy falls in love with his operating system.

In everyday life A.I. is everywhere. We asked Tracey Lull, a doctor in computer science specializing in artificial intelligence for a basic definition. She says in her mind A.I. is systems that exhibit what we would traditionally call intelligence.

From cars that can drive themselves, filtering software utilized by Amazon to predict what you may purchase next, to Apple's voice activated SIRI are all a form of A.I. Like all software now, SIRI can't think on its own, but the advanced recognition technology allows it to intuitively answer questions.

Similarly, IBM's Watson can respond by crunching millions of pieces of data quickly. The results are possible advances in the health industry. And it crushes the human competition on "Jeopardy."

Now researchers are focusing more and more an advanced form of A.I. called deep learning, meaning software programs that won't only sort stored data but will learn to recognize things like photos and faces by mimicking logic, like a human brain just much, much faster.

Companies like Facebook, Netflix and Google are all investing heavily in this deep learning technology. Futurist Robert Wald imagines the possibilities.

"What if it starts providing more intelligence for how to do a search or say -- you asked about that last week -- here's something I've noticed," Wald says.

A Google researcher predicts that by 2029 the machines will match human intelligence.

That is a topic that Grey Scott, publisher of online tech site Serious Wonder, has often pondered.

"Imagine a machine that becomes so intelligent that it decides it wants to improve its own operating system," Scott says.

Luke Muehlhauser is executive director of California-based Machine Intelligence Research Institute, part of a growing field focused on making sure good things happen when machines surpass human intelligence. The company just published the ebook "Smarter Than Us."

"Humans rule the planet not because we're the strongest or the fastest -- but because we're the smartest and so once the machines become even smarter than we are," Muehlhauser says. "They'll be steering the future rather than us."

It is a rational human fear that brings us back to that robot. I asked him what he thinks of humans being worried that robots intend to take over the world.

"I would never want to take over the world," Robothespian says. "Politics leaves no time for acting."

Or maybe that's just what they want us to think.

Follow us: @myfoxny on Twitter | Fox5NY on Facebook

By DAN BOWENS, @danbowensfox5 
Feb 25, 2014

Printer makes human skin for burn patients

Technology can replace cosmetic healing and is seen as biggest breakthrough since antibiotics's invention.

A new invention could signal a major breakthrough in the way patients with burns injuries are treated.

A researcher in Canada has developed a three-dimensional prototype printer which will produce human skin from a patient's own cells.

Doctors say it will revolutionise the process of skin graft operations, and can save the lives of hundreds of burns victims every year.

And not just skin: the technology may also pave the way for producing entire organs for transplants.

Al Jazeera's Danel Lak reports from Toronto.

26 Feb 2014

After 400 years, mathematicians find a new class of solid shapes

The work of the Greek polymath Plato has kept millions of people busy for millennia. A few among them have been mathematicians…

Not so special anymore. fdecomite

The work of the Greek polymath Plato has kept millions of people busy for millennia. A few among them have been mathematicians who have obsessed about Platonic solids, a class of geometric forms that are highly regular and are commonly found in nature.

Since Plato’s work, two other classes of equilateral convex polyhedra, as the collective of these shapes are called, have been found: 
  • Archimedean solids (including truncated icosahedron) and 
  • Kepler solids (including rhombic polyhedra). 
Nearly 400 years after the last class was described, researchers claim that they may have now invented a new, fourth class, which they call Goldberg polyhedra. Also, they believe that their rules show that an infinite number of such classes could exist.

Platonic love for geometry

Equilateral convex polyhedra need to have certain characteristics.
  1. First, each of the sides of the polyhedra needs to be of the same length
  2. Second, the shape must be completely solid: that is, it must have a well-defined inside and outside that is separated by the shape itself. 
  3. Third, any point on a line that connects two points in a shape must never fall outside the shape.

Platonic solids, the first class of such shapes, are well known. They consist of five different shapes: tetrahedron, cube, octahedron, dodecahedron and icosahedron. They have four, six, eight, twelve and twenty faces, respectively. 
Platonic solids in ascending order of number of faces. nasablueshift

These highly regular structures are commonly found in nature. For instance, the carbon atoms in a diamond are arranged in a tetrahedral shape. Common salt and fool’s gold (iron sulfide) form cubic crystals, and calcium fluoride forms octahedral crystals.

The new discovery comes from researchers who were inspired by finding such interesting polyhedra in their own work that involved the human eye. Stan Schein at the University of California in Los Angeles was studying the retina of the eye when he became interested in the structure of protein called clathrin. Clathrin is involved in moving resources inside and outside cells, and in that process it forms only a handful number of shapes. These shapes intrigued Schein, who ended up coming up with a mathematical explanation for the phenomenon.
Goldberg polyhedron.

During this work, Schein came across the work of 20th century mathematician Michael Goldberg who described a set of new shapes, which have been named after him, as Goldberg polyhedra. The easiest Goldberg polyhedron to imagine looks like a blown-up football, as the shape is made of many pentagons and hexagons connected to each other in a symmetrical manner (see image above).

However, Schein believes that Goldberg’s shapes – or cages, as geometers call them – are not polyhedra. “It may be confusing because Goldberg called them polyhedra, a perfectly sensible name to a graph theorist, but to a geometer, polyhedra require planar faces,” Schein said.

Instead, in a new paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Schein and his colleague James Gayed have described that a fourth class of convex polyhedra, which given Goldberg’s influence they want to call Goldberg polyhedra, even at the cost of confusing others.
Blown up dodecahedron. stblaize

A crude way to describe Schein and Gayed’s work, according to David Craven at the University of Birmingham, “is to take a cube and blow it up like a balloon” – which would make its faces bulge (see image). The point at which the new shapes breaks the third rule – which is, any point on a line that connects two points in that shape falls outside the shape – is what Schein and Gayed care about most.

Craven said, “There are two problems: the bulging of the faces, whether it creates a shape like a saddle, and how you turn those bulging faces into multi-faceted shapes. The first is relatively easy to solve. The second is the main problem. Here one can draw hexagons on the side of the bulge, but these hexagons won’t be flat. The question is whether you can push and pull all these hexagons around to make each and everyone of them flat.

During the imagined bulging process, even one that involves replacing the bulge with multiple hexagons, as Craven points out, there will be formation of internal angles. These angles formed between lines of the same faces – referred to as dihedral angle discrepancies – means that, according to Schein and Gayed, the shape is no longer a polyhedron. Instead they claimed to have found a way of making those angles zero, which makes all the faces flat, and what is left is a true convex polyhedron (see image below).

Their rules, they claim, can be applied to develop other classes of convex polyhedra. These shapes will be with more and more faces, and in that sense there should be an infinite variety of them.

Playing with shapes

Such mathematical discoveries don’t have immediate applications, but often many are found. For example, dome-shaped buildings are never circular in shape. Instead they are built like half-cut Goldberg polyhedra, consisting of many regular shapes that give more strength to the structure than using round-shaped construction material.
  Only the one in the right bottom corner is a convex polyhedra. Stan Schein/PNAS

However, there may be some immediate applications. The new rules create polyhedra that have structures similar to viruses or fullerenes, a carbon allotrope. The fact that there has been no “cure” against influenza, or common flu, shows that stopping viruses is hard. But if we are able to describe the structure of a virus accurately, we get a step closer to finding a way of fighting them.

If nothing else, Schein’s work will invoke mathematicians to find other interesting geometric shapes, now that equilateral convex polyhedra may have been done with.

ORIGINAL: The Conversation
15 February 2014

martes, 25 de febrero de 2014

Experimenta, revista de divulgación científica de la UdeA

A partir febrero entra en circulación Experimenta, revista dedicada a la divulgación científica producida por la Universidad de Antioquia. La publicación, primera en su género en la Universidad, busca mostrar a la comunidad los conocimientos producidos en los distintos proyectos de investigación para estimular la curiosidad y el interés de los lectores por los temas científicos, presentando la ciencia como una opción profesional y de vida. 
Con mucha frecuencia esa producción se queda en los círculos académicos especializados y no llega a la gente, la idea es subsanar esta deficiencia, proyectando a un público más amplio los resultados de la labor académica e investigativa”, dice Guillermo Pineda Gaviria, profesor del Instituto de Física y director de la revista.
Experimenta está dirigida a estudiantes de secundaria, especialmente a aquellos próximos a terminar su bachillerato, con el fin de motivarlos a estudiar en la U de A. Así mismo quiere llegar a los estudiantes universitarios, para incentivarlos a vincularse a los grupos de investigación.

El nombre de Experimenta quiere exaltar el carácter del conocimiento adquirido de primera mano, sustentado en la experiencia y en la investigación, sobre aquel que ha llegado de oídas, o de leídas, sustentado en autoridades desconocidas e incuestionables”, agrega Pineda Gaviria.

La revista, que circula con cinco mil ejemplares, contará con una edición semestral y se distribuirá de forma gratuita en la ciudad universitaria a través de los puntos de información. Así mismo se enviará a las bibliotecas y los colegios de todo el departamento; se buscará especialmente hacerla llegar a profesores interesados en procesos de investigación, como los que participan en la Feria de la Ciencia que organiza el Parque Explora.

Experimenta cuenta con un equipo que acompaña a los investigadores que quieren divulgar algún tema y necesitan asesoría o apoyo para la redacción del texto. “Las colaboraciones son bienvenidas, nos interesan especialmente textos que expliquen una investigación de la U de A que se esté realizando o que ya tenga resultado”, explica Lina Gómez, coordinadora de producción de la revista.

Sin tratarse de una edición temática, en el primer número de Experimenta predominan los artículos sobre enfermedades tropicales y los agentes que las producen, por ser esta área una de las grandes fortalezas de la investigación en la U de A. Así mismo el lector podrá encontrar, entre otros textos, un artículo sobre el derecho a la salud, una reseña del libro “Los Botones de Napoleón” y un perfil de la investigadora Silvia Blair. La revista cuenta con fotos e ilustraciones a todo color e incluye además una historieta sobre Galileo y la Ley de la caída de los cuerpos.

ORIGINAL: Universidad de Antioquia
31 de Enero de 2014

Hilarious monkey steals a GoPro camera and takes a selfie

Hey Mister Man, what are you doing filming us with that camera over there. Hey Mister Man, I don't appreciate you tempting me with food to trick me into dancing like a monkey. Hey Mister Man, that's it, I'm stealing your camera.

That's—I'm assuming—what went through the head of this funny little monkey in Bali who nabbed a guy's GoPro camera, tossed it around, pointed it at itself for some hilarious selfies, pried the case open and removed the GoPro's battery to the horror of the camera's owner (and to the enjoyment for the rest of us).

Casey Chan

El impacto del mayor meteorito que chocó contra la Luna

"Me quedé espantado", contó el profesor José Madiedo, el científico que observó el impacto del meteorito.

Se trata del meteorito más grande detectado hasta el momento que haya chocado contra la Luna y pudo haber generado un cráter de por lo menos 40 metros de diámetro.

"Esa noche estaba observando las imágenes que arrojaba el telescopio, como de costumbre, monitoreando los impactos de meteoritos sobre la Luna y de repente me quedé congelado", le cuenta a BBC Mundo el profesor José Madiedo, de la Universidad de Huelva, en España.

Contenido relacionado
Madiedo recuerda con lujo de detalles aquella noche del 11 de septiembre de 2011, cuando observó el evento. Ahí se inició una investigación, publicada este lunes, sobre el impacto de un fenómeno que los científicos califican de sin precedentes.

El equipo de investigadores está acostumbrado a observar con regularidad los destellos de rocas que chocan contra la Luna y que son, por lo general, del tamaño de una nuez o de una pelota de tenis.

Lo llamativo aquella noche fue que el haz de luz que generó el impacto fue muchísimo más brillante y que duró unos ocho segundos.

"Cuando observé la magnitud del destello y la duración, me di cuenta de que aquello no era normal, que aquí había ocurrido algo bastante extraordinario", le dijo a BBC Mundo el científico.

Por lo general, los impactos de estas rocas sobre el satélite lunar tienen una corta duración, literalmente fracciones de segundos, señaló el profesor Madiedo.

Por ejemplo, el que hasta ahora se consideraba el impacto más grande, que fue detectado por la Nasa en marzo del año pasado, duró poco más de un segundo, comparado con los ocho segundos que registró este último.

"Nos movilizamos inmediatamente"

"Me conecté con el segundo telescopio", cuenta Madiedo, para comprobar que había grabado las mismas imágenes y efectivamente así había sido".

"Cuando observé la magnitud del destello y la duración me di cuenta de que aquello no era normal, que aquí había ocurrido algo bastante extraordinario" José Madiedo, investigador de la Universidad de Huelva, en España

"Eran las ocho de la noche y avisé al resto de mis colegas. Nos movilizamos inmediatamente y dejamos de lado otras cosas para comenzar a analizar el tamaño de la roca y su posible impacto", destacó.

El choque del meteorito fue observado mediante el Sistema de Análisis y Detección de Impactos sobre la Luna, Midas por sus siglas en inglés.


El científico estima que la roca tenía un peso de unos 400 kilos, y llevaba una velocidad de unos 61.000 kilómetros por hora.

El meteorito dectectado por la NASA hace un año, en comparación, pesaba alrededor de 40 kilogramos.

El destello que generó fue tan brillante que podía haber sido observado a simple vista desde la Tierra.

Por qué importa este fenómeno

Es obvio que un fenómeno como este es espectacular, aún más cuando la tecnología hoy en día nos permite ser testigo de toda su fuerza e impacto.

El científico le dijo a BBC Mundo que la roca tenía un peso aproximado de 400 kilogramos.

Pero, ¿qué relevancia tiene para los seres humanos aquí en la Tierra?

"Justamente el proyecto busca conocer mejor con qué frecuencia rocas como éstas pueden impactar la Tierra. Observando la Luna podemos saber con más certeza la frecuencia con la que pueden producirse esos impactos en nuestro planeta", dijo el científico.

Y precisamente una de las conclusiones del estudio es que "la frecuencia con la que estas rocas pueden chocar contra la Tierra es diez veces mayor de lo que se pensaba".

Sin embargo, para que un meteorito tenga un impacto así sobre nuestro planeta tiene que ser mucho más grande.

La mayoría de las rocas de ese tamaño se desintegran cuando entran en contacto con la atmósfera y se convierten en una bola de fuego.

Según Madiedo, a lo sumo se hubieran encontrado algunos fragmentos del meteorito.


Redacción BBC Mundo
25 de febrero de 2014

Celebrate this week for Life’s Birthday!

Life has an incredible amount to teach us about living sustainably, in no small part due to the fact that organisms have been surviving and thriving on Earth for 3.85 billion years. But, how long is that really? If we take the age of Earth (4.5 billion years) and compress it into one year, we can better grasp the time-tested wisdom our fellow planet-mates can bring to the design table. And referencing this compressed calendar (see below), February 25, is life’s birthday!

To celebrate, for this week only we are offering a 38% discount on the following biomimicry resources:

Biomimicry Resource Handbook: A Seed Bank of Best Practices
Reg. $69.00 now for only $42.00. Promo code: BookBDay2014

Introduction to Biomimicry Online Foundational Course
Reg. $99.00, now for only $62.00. Promo code: CourseBDay2014

In addition, 38% of the proceeds will go directly to the Biomimicry 3.8 Institute to provide biomimicry education tools to students, educators, and practitioners around the world.

This birthday party ends on Friday, February 28 at 11:59 p.m. MST, so take advantage of the special now. To get your 38% discount, please follow these steps:

Click “Enroll” to sign up for a new account or log in

In the shopping cart enter the promo code(s)
Click “Checkout” to complete the process

Earth’s Calendar


Science of the Times: Widener experiments with ‘green chemistry'

In keeping with the running theme of environmentally aware columns recently, I spoke with Widener University’s chair of the Chemistry Department, Dr. Loyd Bastin, last week about that institution’s recent move to sign the Green Chemistry Commitment.

Widener now numbers among the 17 colleges and universities nationwide (as well as the first in Pennsylvania) to have signed the pledge, which basically recognizes the work that has already been taking place on the campus to bring the chemistry department in line with a sustainable and environmentally friendly curriculum.

For those who haven’t heard of it, “green” chemistry is more of a philosophy than anything else. Obviously, it is bound by the laws of physics that dictate how certain chemical compounds interact with one another, so it’s more a matter of choice in which of those compounds are used.

It does so with an eye to conservation, sustainability and safety by holding to a set of 12 principles laid out by Dr. John Warner, founder of Beyond Benign, the flagship nonprofit promoting these ideals.

The idea of “green chemistry” is not at all new. Bastin has been immersed in the stuff for 14 years and has been instrumental in developing its concepts at the college for half of that time.

What is somewhat new is that this philosophy is no longer on the fringes. Where Bastin used to go to conferences that first explained what green chemistry is before focusing on how to teach it, they now assume attendees know what they’re there for and simply go ahead with the latter part.

This environmentally conscious chemistry requires the use of less noxious substances, renewable stocks and even extends to reducing waste at the atomic level. The goal is to find ways of filling the needs of the various fields associated with chemistry in such a way that there are no remainders in the equation, so to speak.

I want sustainability really to be in everyone’s consciousness,” said Bastin. “I want everyone to think about the effect we’re having on the environment.

To that end, Bastin and colleagues like Dr. Krishna Bhat, assistant professor of chemistry, have been working to expand the scope of green chemistry at Widener. The seed he planted there in 2007 has since grown and spread not just within the chemistry and biology departments, but even into the business school, which now emphasizes environmentally sustainable business practices.

Even the president of the United States has gotten in on the action with the Environmental Protection Agency’s annual Presidential Green Chemistry Challenge.

The EPA has received nearly 1,500 nominations for 755 unique technologies between 1996 and 2012, according to its website, some of which have revolutionized the way chemistry impacts our daily lives.

Bastin pointed to one such innovation that found a more environmentally friendly way of producing ibuprofen, which has since become the industry standard.

And there are some surprising participants in these awards. Scattered among the various institutions of higher learning and think tanks one might expect are names like DOW Corning, Lockheed Martin and DuPont.

These might not typically be thought of as shining pillars of responsible chemical management, but that appears to be changing. The reason some of these companies are coming around to greener methods could be attributed to a conscious desire to have a less harmful impact on the planet, although the fact that less waste equals less chance to get sued probably plays a part, as well.

See, the problem with noxious byproducts is that you have to dispose of them properly or face the EPA firing squad. Neither option is necessarily cheap.

If, on the other hand, you can make essentially the same product with little or no waste, then you have a lot less to worry about in that regard. You can probably even charge a premium by slapping an “environmentally friendly!” sticker on it.

No one is going to fault you for wanting to make more money, not in this country. They will fault you, however, if you ruin the water table doing it.

And there is evidently a lot of money to be made. According to a 2011 report from Pike Research, green chemistry is expected to become a $100 billion industry within the next six years, more than half of which will be centered in the United States.

While there are currently no grant programs open solely to those who have signed onto the Green Chemistry Commitment, Bastin said Beyond Benign does envision a time when some professional development or research grants would only be available to signers.

For his part, Bastin will continue instilling these principles in the chemical engineers and business leaders of tomorrow. About one-quarter of incoming freshman will now have to take green chemistry classes as part of their respective majors next year, and even non major classes are getting in on the action.

The faster we can get these kids out into the real world with this idea of responsible, sustainable chemistry tucked squarely away inside their noggins, the sooner this will become the norm.

We might even one day achieve Warner’s dream that it will no longer be referred to as “green chemistry,” but simply “chemistry.

Alex Rose covers the Delaware County Courthouse for the Daily Times. Follow him on Twitter at @arosedelco. Check out his blog at Email him at His column appears every Tuesday.

ORIGINAL: DelcoTimes
By Alex Rose, Delaware County Daily Times

Urine test detects not pregnancy but cancer

Paper strip uses nanoparticles to pick up evidence of tumors or blood clots in mice

TEST STRIP A new paper test can pick up signs of cancer and cardiovascular disease in the urine of mice injected with nanoparticles. The top reddish line indicates the test is working and the bottom line reveals the presence of disease. A. Warren

Peeing on a strip of paper could one day reveal signs of cancer and cardiovascular disease. An experimental test uses worm-shaped nanoparticles to spot evidence of tumors and blood clots in mouse urine, researchers report February 24 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Unlike existing diagnostic tools, the test doesn’t rely on expensive equipment or detection of molecules made by sick people’s bodies. Instead the test looks for synthetic molecules injected into the bloodstream.

It’s brilliant work — a totally different paradigm for detecting disease,” says analytical chemist Andres Martinez of California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo.

Note: To comment, Science News subscribing members must now establish a separate login relationship with Disqus. Click the Disqus icon below, enter your e-mail and click “forgot password” to reset your password. You may also log into Disqus using Facebook, Twitter or Google.

ORIGINAL: ScienceNews
by Meghan Rosen
February 24, 2014

Fellowships in Biochemistry, Cell Biology, Developmental Biology, Epigenetics, Immunobiology and Molecular Biology. Max Planck Institute

PhD overview

Our programme provides outstanding students with excellent research-oriented interdisciplinary training in Biochemistry, Cell Biology, Developmental Biology, Epigenetics, Immunobiology and Molecular Biology. We train students to become self-reliant and to acquire and utilize the knowledge necessary for their research project. Students have the chance to interact with experts in various fields both to extend their scientific knowledge and to learn critical thinking as well as acquire problem-solving skills.

The IMPRS-MCB fellows have 3 to 4 years to obtain their degree. Most of this time they work on their individually supervised research project. In addition to the experimental part all fellows have a possibility and are obliged to participate in curricular activities of the programme. These are:
  • scientific and soft skills courses offered by the programme (see Curriculum)
  • institute seminars
  • PhD retreat
  • supervision of junior students (master students or summer trainees)
  • conference attendance
  • career evenings

Our students are funded during the whole time of their PhD (3-4 years). The payment is sufficient for monthly living costs in Freiburg to be covered. There are no tuition fees to be paid.

Graphical overview of the curricular activities during your PhD
Figure Legend: Orange - activities related to research and the PhD project; Blue - courses; Green - scientific conference/retreats

ORIGINAL: Max Planck Institute

domingo, 23 de febrero de 2014

This is the oldest fragment of Earth ever found

You're looking at the oldest fragment of Earth ever found: a zircon 4.375 billion years old, something that has deep implications in our understanding of the planet's formation. While some scientists said other samples weren't genuine, new research just published in the journal Nature Geoscience proves that this is the real McCoy.

John Valley—a geochemist at the University of Wisconsin, Madison—and his colleagues, used a new technique called atom-probe tomography. This technology allowed the scientists to count individual lead atoms within the zircons found in Jack Hills, a range in the midwest of Western Australia.

The previous method—which counted the number of lead isotopes—was imperfect because the radioactive uranium trapped inside the zircons moves lead isotopes around as it decays. According to Valley, "if there's a process by where lead can move from one part of the crystal to another place, then the place where lead is concentrated will have an older apparent age and the place from where it moves will have a younger apparent age."

Valley claims that atom-probe tomography doesn't suffer from this defect, something that has allowed them to obtain the definitive age: "We've proved that the chemical record inside these zircons is trustworthy."

Their research demonstrates that these zircons were formed only 100 million years after the massive cosmic impact that smashed Earth to create the Moon as we know it today. Since they think the crystals formed from granodiorite or tonalite—materials that are rich in water—this means that Earth cooled down really quickly. So fast, in fact, that it's possible there was water on its surface, says Valley:

The zircons show us the earliest Earth was more like the Earth we know today. It wasn't an inhospitable place.


Spinning fishing line and sewing thread into artificial muscle

Researchers have transformed everyday plastic fibers into super strong artificial muscles just by twisting them like rubber bands until they coil up.

Since these materials are cheaper than high-tech shape memory alloys and carbon nanotubes, the new technology could soon be widely applied, from robotics and prosthetics to clothing that adjusts to your temperature.

To be clear, the muscles I’m talking about are actuators, powerful rotating motors. Science explains:

The term “artificial muscles” is actually a bit of a grab bag that refers to materials that 
  • contract, 
  • expand, or
  •  rotate 
  • heated, 
  • zapped with electricity, or 
  • hit with some other stimulus. 
The materials return to their original shape when the stimulus is reversed.
An international team of researchers led by Ray Baughman of University of Texas at Dallas wanted to twist plastic fibers and threads into yarn. Their “extreme twisting” of high-strength polymer fibers -- found in ordinary items such as fishing lines and sewing threads -- allowed the coiled plastic yarn to act like torsional muscles that can lift loads 100 times heavier than human muscles of the same length and weight.

Specifically, these muscles are powered by temperature changes: They contract lengthwise when heated and return to their initial length when cooled. Compared to natural muscles -- which contract by about 20 percent -- these new muscles contract by up to 50 percent of their length. Per weight, they can generate about the same mechanical power as a jet engine.

Today’s most advanced humanoid robots, prosthetic limbs and wearable exoskeletons are limited by motors and hydraulic systems, whose size and weight restrict dexterity, force generation and work capability,” Baughman says in a news release. These muscles can be used whenever superhuman strengths are needed, cheaply. Producing this force, Science reports, requires only off-the-shelf materials that cost about $5 per kilogram (or $10 a pound). According to the release:

Twisting together a bundle of polyethylene fishing lines, whose total diameter is only about 10 times larger than a human hair, produces a coiled polymer muscle that can lift 16 pounds. Operated in parallel, similar to how natural muscles are configured, 100 of these polymer muscles could lift about 1,600 pounds.

Here’s a cool video of the artificial muscle lifting weights:

On a smaller scale, they’ve woven textiles from the twisted yarns of polymer that can adjust to temperature changes. That means clothing that opens its pores to keep you cool and close them to warm you up, as well as window shutters that open and close to keep the temperature comfortable.

The work was published in Science this week.

Read more: UT Dallas news release, UBC release, Science, Popular Mechanics
Images: Science/AAAS (top) and University of Texas at Dallas (thumbnail)

ORIGINAL: Smart Planet
February 21, 2014

Revolution in Artificial Limbs Brings Feeling Back to Amputees

A new generation of prosthetic devices allows patients to control them with their thoughts.

Dennis Aabo Sørensen tests a prosthetic arm with sensory feedback in a laboratory in Rome in March 2013. PHOTOGRAPH BY PATRIZIA TOCCI, LIFEHAND 2

Something is missing. Every amputee knows it, and it is more than the arm or leg they have lost. They can get replacements for those limbs: substitutes made from metal and plastic, controlled by advanced computer chips, with the ability to grip, to turn, to step. On the outside the limbs can appear lifelike, and on the inside they are amazing machines.

But they are tools, not part of the patients themselves. They have no sensitivity, and no instant response to a patient's intentions.

Because of that lack of feeling and control, says Dennis Aabo Sørensen, a 36-year-old from Denmark who lost his left hand in a fireworks explosion nearly a decade ago, he could tell what he was touching with his prosthetic hand only by looking at it.

Now, for Sørensen and other amputees, all that is changing. Earlier this month, scientists announced they had wired pressure sensors in the fingers of an artificial hand to sensory nerves in Sørensen's upper arm. He grabbed a block, and his nerves tingled. "I could feel round things and soft things and hard things," he says. "It's so amazing to feel something that you haven't been able to feel for so many years." (See "Boston Bombing Amputees Face Lengthy Recovery.")

This is more than a psychological boost; experiments show that sensory feedback vastly improves a patient's ability to control a prosthetic, even to the point of picking stems off of fruit.

PHOTOGRAPH BY BRAIN KERSEY, AP Zac Vawter, shown here at the Willis Tower in Chicago in October 2012, was the first person to climb 103 flights of stairs wearing a prosthesis controlled with his mind.

Giant Steps

Sørensen's case is just one of several efforts under way to endow artificial limbs with real feeling. Researchers at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, have also restored sensation through an artificial hand, transmitting differences not just of pressure but of texture, too.

At the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, scientists last fall breached one of the biggest barriers in prosthetics, creating a thought-controlled leg that can climb stairs and go from sitting to standing in response to signals from nerves in a patient's stump. Researchers have also developed something called pattern recognition, in which the prosthetics can "learn" to interpret nerve signals from patients in real time, responding directly to intentions.

"We can get people to view the limb as if it actually belongs to them," says Paul Marasco, a neuroscientist at the Cleveland Clinic's Lerner Research Institute, who works on sensation and prosthetics. "We're getting a critical mass of research, not just results here and there, so I think this is really going to happen in five to ten years."

The work is still experimental, the scientists hasten to emphasize, and other advances need to occur before these prosthetics are ready for daily use. For one thing, the connections need to become wireless instead of wired, because nobody is going home with wires sticking through their skin. "But when this becomes perfected, it will be huge," says Robert Lipschutz, a prosthetist at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago.

PHOTOGRAPH BY BRIAN KERSEY, AP Zac Vawter practices walking with his experimental "bionic" leg at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago in October 2012.

Sensation's Gauntlet

Sørensen already had an artificial hand that opened and closed in response to muscle contractions in his stump. To add sensory feedback, Silvestro Micera and colleagues at the Scuola Superiore Sant'Anna in Italy and the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne in Switzerland added sensors to mechanical tendons in the prosthetic's fingers. The sensors generated electrical signals as the tendons pushed on an object. Those signals were fed to a computer that relayed them through wires that went into Sørensen's skin. The wires led to electrodes on the sensory nerves in his stump that formerly ended in his hand.

For a month, Sørensen went through a gauntlet of tasks designed to simulate the challenges of daily living—reaching, turning, squeezing, pinching—things that two-handed people do without much thought, but Sorensen hadn't done in nine years. In response, he felt different tingling sensations, depending on the amount of pressure he needed to apply to hold the object. In this way, he gradually came to associate the tingles with different qualities, such as hardness, softness, and roundness.

At the same time that Micera and his colleagues were working with Sørensen, Dustin Tyler, of Case Western Reserve and the Cleveland VA Medical Center, and his team were developing a similar system. At a scientific meeting in November 2013, Tyler reported success in two patients. And not for a month, but for a year.

"The longevity proves this system is really stable," he says. "And we've placed electrodes at eight different places on the patients' nerves. One patient can feel sensation from eight distinct places on the hand: the thumb, some fingers, the back of the hand, and the palm. We can adjust the size of these spots by adjusting the signal. So we pretty much have restoration over the entire hand."

Receiving sensory feedback from an object is a game-changer in the patient's relationship to the world. Without such touch, for example, amputees have to watch their prosthetic hands to see if they are gripping a paper cup too hard—often too late to prevent a spill. Some can gain modest control by listening to the sound of the motors in the prosthetic, which changes as they encounter resistance.

But with direct sensory feedback, Tyler found, "our patients can twist stems off of cherries. That was really something to see. If we turned off the touch, they would grasp too hard and crush the fruit. Or they would grip too softly and the stems would slip through their fingers."

Tyler's group is currently working on altering the electrical signals generated by the finger sensors to allow patients to experience different textures, like rough and smooth, in addition to pressure. "We think we can get a whole suite of sensation," Tyler says. "The brain wants that. It's looking for it."

Eventually, he thinks the system will be fully implanted under the skin and will communicate with the artificial limb wirelessly, like a Bluetooth headset for your cell phone.

Thought Amplifiers

To further enhance the sense of a prosthetic as an organic part of its wearer, doctors and engineers at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago have developed artificial limbs that respond seamlessly to the patient's own thoughts.

Computer chips inside the prosthetic are connected to sensors that pick up motor signals from nerves in a patient's stump that formerly commanded a hand to open, for instance, or a wrist to twist. No wires penetrate the skin. Using a method called targeted muscle reinnervation, the nerves have first been rerouted by a surgeon into large muscles at the end of the stump. Muscles are electrically active: They act as amplifiers for the nerve signals, strengthening them enough for the prosthetic sensors to pick them up and send them on to motors that move the hand. 

Until recently, these signals have been interpreted one at a time—turn wrist, then open hand—resulting in motions lacking the fluid, connected motion of a real arm. Now, more refined computer algorithms in the chips recognize patterns, linking one movement to the next. The results are smoother and require less conscious planning; a patient merely has to think, and the limb moves.

Amanda Kitts' arm is inked with target points where wires will be attached; the wires will detect her nerve signals and map them to a computer so she can control the prosthetic with her brain..

Amanda Kitts, an arm amputee who lives in Florida (and who was featured in a January 2010 National Geographic cover story on bionics), simply slips on her arm in the morning. "I do a wrist flexion, a rotation, a few other things, and I'm good to go," she says. "I used to have to think much more about what I am doing."

This technology has now been extended to one of the thorniest problems in prosthetics: getting a leg to stand up. The position of the knee and ankle when a person is sitting, and the loads the joints bear, is radically different from the position and load when walking. Artificial leg makers have resorted to putting a manual switch onto their prosthetics that users have to hit to shift between sitting and upright positions—a long way from motion controlled by thought.

Last fall, however, Levi Hargrove, director of neural engineering at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, gave amputees a thinking leg to stand on —and even climb stairs. Robotic sensors detect speed changes, orientation, and weight and feed the information to onboard computer chips, helping the leg respond to differences in terrain. To avoid the awkward mechanical switch and allow the limb to respond instead to the user's intent, motor nerves formerly controlling ankle movements have been rerouted into thigh muscles, taking advantage of the fact that thigh muscles fire during normal walking when ankle muscles move.

"We're able to make use of those patterns, so the thigh muscle signals predict what the ankle muscle will do," Hargrove says. Tension at the thigh, for instance, sends a signal for the knee to straighten and the ankle to move the foot perpendicular to the leg: in other words, to stand up. Pattern recognition software smooths the motions so the patient doesn't fall down. A different degree of tension in the thigh flexes the leg to step up a stair.

Prosthetics are taking a huge step forward. This time, with feeling.

Josh Fischmann for National Geographic
February 22, 2014

¡Cucarachas, por su buena reputación! Parque Explora Medellín 27 de Febrero de 2014

"Algo tiene que estar mal en un monstruo que prefiere el merengue a la carne" M. Copeland

¡Medellín una ciudad para la biodiversidad!

Estuvieron antes que las flores y los dinosaurios. Han resistido todas nuestras persecuciones y por su fortaleza tienen el secreto de nuestra supervivencia. De las 5.000 especies de cucarachas menos del 1% conviven con humanos ¿Por qué son entonces tan temidas?

Invitado: Andrés Vélez Bravo, biólogo MSc en entomología, identificó una nueva especie de cucaracha en Antioquia Schistipeltis microschistos.

Espere más de la serie “Maravillosos perseguidos”. Con “una nueva ética de la vitalidad” construimos entre todos la Política para la Gestión Integral de Biodiversidad y Servicios ecosistémicos en Medellín.

ORIGINAL: Parque Explora

20 de Febrero de 2014

En el río Medellín viven hasta iguanas y nutrias

Increíble que, pese a la contaminación, en el cauce se encuentre un ecosistema tan variado.

(Click en la imagen para ampliarla)

Los 100 kilómetros de extensión del río Medellín o Aburrá, desde su nacimiento en el alto de San Miguel hasta la desembocadura en el río Nechí, les sirven de hábitat a 38 especies de fauna, entre aves, reptiles, mamíferos y anfibios, según estudios de Corantioquia, autoridad en parte de la cuenca.

El dato es sorprendente, debido a los índices de contaminación que se aprecian en el cauce, sobre todo en el área metropolitana. Aun así, y aunque parezca mentira, el ecosistema que se desarrolla en algunas zonas del río es rico en variedad y, además, sus aportes a los seres humanos tienen una trascendencia invaluable.

Esto, sin contar la gran cantidad de microbios que también viven en el agua.

El Área Metropolitana controla el mayor tramo del río. Víctor Vélez Bedoya, coordinador de Fauna Silvestre de la entidad, afirma que de Caldas a Copacabana, donde está casi todo el asentamiento humano, habitan en el cauce o en sus orillas aves, iguanas, serpientes cazadoras y yarumas, "y en la parte norte podemos hablar de especies incluso características del sistema Cauca - Porce, como zorros, nutrias y babillas, que remontaron un poco la cuenca".

Agrega el especialista que también hay algunos peces en el norte, antes de que se le empiece a denominar río Porce, como sabaleta, bocachico, bagre y doncella.

"Con el programa de saneamiento que vienen adelantando el Área Metropolitana, el Municipio de Medellín y EPM, mejoraron las características fisicoquímicas del río, aumentaron los insectos y estos promueven la llegada de otras especies", comenta.

Por su parte, David Echeverri López, biólogo de Cornare, entidad con jurisdicción en el río Porce, a la altura de San Roque y Santo Domingo, dice que en este sector de la cuenca detectaron tortuga hicotea. Cornare hace un repoblamiento de sabaletas al año.

El biólogo Juan David Sánchez, integrante del colectivo Aburrá Natural, anota que en el norte también habitan basiliscos. Y claro, hay muchas especies que ya no viven en el río. "Al río llegaban pelícanos que ya no quedan", afirma Juan y señala que hay servicios ecosistémicos que se perdieron por la contaminación del agua y porque "es un río canalizado en el 80% de su longitud y hay poca vegetación asociada a la cuenca, lo que genera desprotección".

Desde el punto de vista de la experta en gestión ambiental y sostenibilidad y docente de la Universidad Eafit, Paula Marcela Hernández, "gracias a la conservación de las especies que habitan los ríos, se conservan los servicios ecosistémicos en las ciudades. Es decir, podemos disfrutar de aire y agua limpios, que son vitales para nuestra existencia".

Y, en palabras de la directora ejecutiva de la Sociedad Antioqueña de Ornitología, Jorjany Botero, "a pesar de la contaminación, las especies que habitan en el río Medellín hacen parte de nuestro patrimonio natural y equilibran el ecosistema, de ahí la importancia de proteger esa biodiversidad".

Sin embargo, aunque conocemos la importancia del río, Juan Darío Restrepo, experto en transporte de sedimentos y erosión en las cuencas hidrográficas de Colombia, sostiene que uno de los males más graves es que "en Medellín no tenemos cultura de río, si es que se puede llamar así, porque considero que este es más un canal" que recibe aguas de desechos industriales y humanos.



Para Jorjany Botero, de la Sociedad Antioqueña de Ornitología, "es vital fortalecer esfuerzos de conservación, que protejan los remanentes de bosques nativos de las laderas, así como de los corredores biológicos de Medellín - entre ellos el del río -, que favorecen la biodiversidad y son hábitat potencial para especies endémicas de Colombia". Y Paula Hernández, profesora de Eafit, dice que los ciudadanos debemos tener mejores prácticas ambientales.


Los índices de contaminación del río Medellín limitan la existencia de animales en el cauce, pero, aun así, hay especies que sobreviven. Expertos piden implementar políticas de conservación.

ORIGINAL: El Colombiano

23 de febrero de 2014

sábado, 22 de febrero de 2014

The Discovery and Potential of Nerve Growth Factor (NGF) by Rita Levi-Montalcini

Rita Levi-Montalcini was working with chick embryos in 1938, investigating how neurons find their way to the limbs they are to innervate, when she was barred from the University of Turin, a Jew in Mussolini’s Italy. She continued work in a laboratory she set up in her bedroom in Turin, then in the countryside.

At the end of this difficult period, there was a seed for what has been one of most fantastic developments in one field of neuroscience”—the identification of nerve growth factor (NGF), said Piergiorgio Strata, president of Italy’s National Institute of Neuroscience, and a member of the European Dana Alliance for the Brain (EDAB).

The occasion was a memorial symposium for Levi-Montalcini, a founding member of EDAB who died in 2012 at the age of 103. Neuroscientists who knew, worked or studied with Levi-Montalcini honored her life by elaborating her legacy—a morning's tour through research that followed the groundbreaking discoveries for which she received The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1986.

Working at Washington University in St. Louis after the war, she and Stanley Cohen (with whom she shared the Nobel) identified a compound, expressed by peripheral cells, that attracted spinal neurons and induced neurite formation, then isolated this substance—NGF—from tumors, snake venom, and mouse salivary glands—all in the face of relentless skepticism from the scientific community.

Speakers at the symposium, presented by the Italian Cultural Institute and Centro Primo Levi in NYC, stressed the characteristics that enabled her to flourish intellectually and prevail in adversity
  • a powerful, charismatic personality, 
  • enormous drive and passion for her work, and 
  • an approach that combined intuition with analysis. 
"She often noted that she viewed herself as an artist more than a scientist," said a Neuron obituary.

The importance of this work, speakers said, could hardly be overestimated. "If we look at the history of 20th century neuroscience, Rita ranks with the giants... she was the first major molecular neurobiologist," wrote fellow Nobelist (and member of the Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives) Eric Kandel, in a tribute read at the meeting. "Her extraordinary discovery of NGF affected all aspects of our field."

As the first identified growth factor, NGF introduced a radically new concept, said Lloyd Greene of Columbia University. "We knew from insulin that organs could communicate via substances that went into the bloodstream. A major implication of Rita's findings was that there was another means of communication between cells, at short range.” Her inquiry into embryonic development illuminated key processes in mature neuronssurvival, plasticity, neuroprotection—and beyond, “an explosion of findings within and outside the nervous system."

Ralph Bradshaw of University of California, San Francisco, called NGF a "Rosetta Stone" that helped decode key aspects of nervous system function, proteins, receptors, and cancer biology.

He reviewed some of his involvement in elaborations of the NGF discovery—beginning with the sequencing, in collaboration with Ruth Angeletti (who had been Levi-Montalcini's only PhD student, now at Albert Einstein College of Medicine), of the NGF molecule. The structure, he said, suggested a compound that acted like insulin on target cells. "It turned out we were right, but not for all the right reasons."
The idea that NGF was an endocrine-like substance led to pursuit of the receptor,” Bradshaw said, summarizing research that eventually characterized not one but two receptors (a fact that “befuddled the field for 15-20 years”) and then to elucidation of the molecular signaling pathways by which NGF and related compounds modulate cellular function.

The picture started to evolve that these factors were not only involved in growth and development, but also as regulators in growth disorders, namely cancer… that these were very important discoveries,” Bradshaw said.

Greene’s research exemplified this importance. "In science, you start working on one thing and end up with something far different," he said. “NGF led us, in ways we never would have anticipated, to a potential treatment for brain tumors.

It began with studies in the 1990s to explore how NGF regulates genes. Using serial analysis of gene expression, Greene’s research team identified hundreds of genes that became more or less active after exposure to the compound. The researchers then focused on transcription factors—proteins that determine whether genes are turned on or off. They found that one of these compounds, ATF5, was particularly abundant in neural progenitor cells, but not in mature neurons or astrocytes, and that NGF shut down production of ATF5.

This led us to the idea that ATF5 is important for proliferation of [stem] cells that eventually give rise to the brain. When they encounter growth factor, they turn into differentiated cells and stop proliferating,” Greene said. Neural progenitor cells that were experimentally deprived of ATF5 differentiated prematurely and failed to migrate. Cells infected with a retrovirus to keep on producing the transcription factor never differentiated and continued to divide—much like a tumor.

We wondered: is ATF5 present in glioblastomas?” he said.

It was; cells from 29 of these highly virulent, virtually incurable tumors all expressed the transcription factor. When the researchers silenced ATF5 in cultured glioblastoma cells, the cells died.

In subsequent in vivo studies, the researchers gave mice with experimentally induced glioblastomas subcutaneous injections of a molecule that hybridized dominant-negative ATF5 protein, which neutralizes ATF5, with penetratin, a peptide that crosses the blood-brain barrier.

Within days of treatment, tumor cells began to die; 19 days and 6 months later, the tumors had disappeared on MRI. Treated animals all survived for 6 months, while 60% of the others died. There was no apparent kidney, brain, liver, or blood toxicity.

As work proceeds with other animals, “we’re collecting data to go to the FDA for possible clinical trials,” Greene said. The approach “could work for other tumors as well.

Antonio Cattaneo of the European Brain Research Institute in Rome (which Levi-Montalcini helped establish in 2002), described research linking the NGF system to Alzheimer’s disease pathology, and suggesting a novel treatment strategy.

Using antibodies that target NGF, he showed that neutralizing the growth factor in the brains of adult mice initiated a process of neuroinflammation and neurodegeneration. While the effect on cholinergic neurons—a key population in Alzheimer’s disease (AD)—was first implicated, it became clear that astrocytes and glia were compromised as well.

Further studies characterized this neurodegeneration process as an imbalance between NGF and a precursor protein, proNGF, and showed that the same result could be achieved by modifying mouse brain cells to overexpress proNGF.

Cattaneo has been exploring ways to “strengthen the balance by increasing NGF.” When mice, genetically modified to express AD-like pathology, were given a modified form of NGF intranasally, amyloid plaques regressed, and learning and memory deficits improved.

This may be a viable candidate for a non-invasive therapeutic approach to AD,” he said. “We’re collaborating with the pharmaceutical industry to get clinical trials.”

Looking toward the future of NGF-related research, Cattaneo cited an "agenda" that Levi-Montalcini proposed in 2009, at the age of 100. In addition to work (like the studies described above) aiming to develop its therapeutic potential, she urged investigations of the NGF system’s role earlier in embryonic development than the nervous system, and in more primitive species.

Her agenda called for studies of NGF in other tissues, particularly the reproductive system. “Rita predicted it would be found to participate in processes like activation of sperm or implantation of ova,” Cattaneo said.

Her scientific intuitions were still reliable, he said. In a paper published three years later, researchers described their work identifying a substance in the semen of diverse mammals that induces ovulation. It was NGF. 

by Carl Sherman

February 20, 2014