Innovation and Technology Weekly – No. 22, 2015

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Issue 22, 2015

This week's headlines:

First drug to help you live longer could go on trial next year
July 08, 2015

Anti-ageing pills are no longer drugs of the future - the first trial in people could begin as early as next year.

Last month, the scientists behind the trial began talks with the US Food and Drug Administration to hammer out the practicalities. The trial aims to test whether a diabetes drug called metformin also delays death and age-related conditions such as heart disease, cancer and mental decline. It would be the first time a medicine has been tested specifically for delaying ageing in a human trial.

Metformin has been used to treat type 2 diabetes for decades. That means the researchers could go straight to large-scale testing in people. New drugs typically have to be tested on animals first and then small groups of people. This one aims to follow 3000 people in their 70s for five years, and positive results should be enough for the FDA to approve it.

Interest in metformin's possible anti-ageing effects arose because diabetics taking the drug have lower rates of cancer and heart disease and, in one study, lived 15% longer than people without diabetes. The explanation is unclear as the compound has multiple effects on cells but one theory is that it mimics the effects of calorie restriction, which delays ageing in many animals. When food is scarce, cells shift into energy-conserving mode, and this seems to have knock-on effects on lifespan.

Full story: New Scientists Back to top

Genome researchers raise alarm over big data
July 07, 2015

The computing resources needed to handle genome data will soon exceed those of Twitter and YouTube, says a team of biologists and computer scientists who are worried that their discipline is not geared up to cope with the coming genomics flood.

By 2025, between 100 million and 2 billion human genomes could have been sequenced, according to the report. The data-storage demands for this alone could run to as much as 2-40 exabytes (1 exabyte is 10^18 bytes), because the number of data that must be stored for a single genome are 30 times larger than the size of the genome itself, to make up for errors incurred during sequencing and preliminary analysis.

The team says that this outstrips YouTube's projected annual storage needs of 1-2 exabytes of video by 2025 and Twitter's projected 1-17 petabytes per year (1 petabyte is 10^15 bytes). It even exceeds the 1 exabyte per year projected for what will be the world's largest astronomy project, the Square Kilometre Array, to be sited in South Africa and Australia. But storage is only a small part of the problem: the paper argues that computing requirements for acquiring, distributing and analysing genomics data may be even more demanding.

Full story: Nature / PLoS Biology Back to top

Gene therapy restores hearing in mice
July 08, 2015

In a possible step toward treating genetic human deafness, US scientists have used gene therapy to partially restore hearing in deaf mice.

The ear's sound-sensing hair cells convert noises into information the brain can process. Hair cells need specific proteins to work properly, and alterations in the genetic blueprints for these proteins can cause deafness. To combat the effects of two such mutations, the scientists injected viruses containing healthy genes into the ears of deaf baby mice. The virus infected some hair cells, giving them working genes.

The scientists tried this therapy on two different deafness-causing mutations. Within a month, around half the mice with one mutation showed brainwave activity consistent with hearing and jumped when exposed to loud noises. Treated mice with the other mutation didn't respond to noises, but the gene therapy helped their hair cells, which normally die off quickly due to the mutation, survive. All of the untreated mice remained deaf.

The mice that recovered hearing received a partial fix. Most of their inner hair cells, which allow basic hearing, used the new genes. But few outer hair cells, which amplify noises, accepted the viral delivery. The scientists hope to eventually identify the right virus and genetic instructions to treat all hair cells and get complete recovery of hearing. The team's immediate goals are to improve the viral infection rate and test if the treatment can last for long time periods.

Full story: Science News / Science Translational Medicine Back to top

IBM claims breakthrough in developing tiny computer chip
July 09, 2015

IBM says it has achieved a breakthrough in shrinking computer chips, creating a test version of the world's first semiconductor that shrinks down the circuitry by overcoming what's been one of the grand challenges of the industry.

The microchip industry has long been able to consistently create smaller and more powerful chips, but this has grown increasingly difficult because of physical and technological limits. IBM's new chip is the first with transistors that are 7 nanometres.

The breakthrough - the result of research at IBM and the State University of New York Polytechnic Institute in Albany - could allow as many as 20 billion transistors to be placed on a chip the size of a fingernail and is half the size of the current 14 nanometre standard, company officials said.

While the technology is a prototype chip, it could have a tremendous impact 'on the anticipated demands of future cloud computing and Big Data systems, cognitive computing, mobile products and other emerging technologies,' according to the company.

Full story: Seattle Times / AP / ABC News Back to top

Tiny wires could provide a big energy boost
July 07, 2015

Wearable electronic devices for health and fitness monitoring are a rapidly growing area of consumer electronics; one of their biggest limitations is the capacity of their tiny batteries to deliver enough power to transmit data. Now, researchers at MIT and the University of British Columbia have found a promising new approach to delivering the short but intense bursts of power needed by such small devices.

The key is a new approach to making supercapacitors - devices that can store and release electrical power in such bursts, which are needed for brief transmissions of data from wearable devices such as heart-rate monitors, computers, or smartphones, the researchers say. They may also be useful for other applications where high power is needed in small volumes, such as autonomous microrobots.

The new approach uses yarns, made from nanowires of the element niobium, as the electrodes in tiny supercapacitors. Nanotechnology researchers have been working to increase the performance of supercapacitors for the past decade. Among nanomaterials, carbon-based nanoparticles - such as carbon nanotubes and graphene - have shown promising results, but they suffer from relatively low electrical conductivity.

In this new work, the team has shown that desirable characteristics for such devices, such as high power density, are not unique to carbon-based nanoparticles, and that niobium nanowire yarn is a promising an alternative. The new nanowire-based supercapacitor exceeds the performance of existing batteries, while occupying a very small volume.

Full story: MIT News / ACS Applied Materials and Interfaces Back to top

3D-printed robot jumps six times its height
July 09, 2015

Engineers at Harvard University have printed a bot that can leap about six times its own height. The secret to its success? It's made from a combination of soft and rigid parts.

Soft robots are more adaptable, safer, and more resilient than stiff metal machines, say the researchers. But they also tend to take longer to produce. 3D printing lets us cheaply and quickly produce things that combine the advantages of rigid and soft materials. The former could help power and control bots; the latter make them better at withstanding stress.

To jump, this bot inflates a number of its pneumatic legs, which will control the direction it will travel in once the legs 'fire'. Then, a mixture of butane and oxygen is ignited in a central chamber, setting off an explosion that sends it flying. The inflated legs help cushion the landing.

In resilience tests, one bot performed more than 100 jumps without breaking, and another survived dozens of drops from a height of about 1 metre. A hard bot could jump higher but shattered after just five jumps.

Previously, the group has worked on other innovative robots, such as swarms of mechanical bees and a bot that folds up like origami.

Full story: New Scientist Back to top

NASA tests underwater drone to investigate Europa for life
July 09, 2015

NASA is preparing to launch an autonomous vehicle to Europa, a moon floating above Jupiter that's almost entirely covered in water.

NASA's Buoyant Rover for Under Ice Exploration (BRUIE) is undergoing its final rounds of testing in a Los Angeles aquarium before it makes the 390,400,000 mile trip to Europa. Scientists believe that, since the moon is covered with ice, there's almost certainly a sea of water beneath it, and water means the possibility of extraterrestrial life.

There's no firm launch date but word that NASA is putting BRUIE through another round of testing is the latest step forward for a trip to Europa, a goal that's ranked at the top of NASA's priority list.

The autonomous vehicle was the first to be controlled via satellite, and is designed for ocean depths of up to 200 metres, NASA said. It's equipped with sensors, computers, lights and communication equipment with software that's similar to what's used on the Mars Cube One spacecraft.

Before the rover was dropped to the bottom of the aquarium tank it underwent a round of successful tests in Alaska, where researchers proved the ability to attach the drone to underside of a frozen lake surface and gaze on the water below.

Full story: International Business Times Back to top

Winning formula reveals if your team is too far ahead to lose
July 03, 2015

You're glued to the TV as your favourite team is winning with 10 minutes left in the game, but you have pressing work to attend to. Should you switch it off, confident they have an unassailable lead, or stay tuned and agonise over each remaining second?

After analysing more than a million encounters in basketball, hockey and American football - sports where contests have a fixed duration - researchers from the University of Colorado, Boulder, have developed a way to help you decide. Their data set revealed that much of the dynamics of these competitive team sports can be accurately captured by a simple model in which the score difference randomly moves up or down over time.

The researchers used their model to work out the probability that a lead would be 'safe' at any given time. For an NBA basketball game lasting 48 minutes, they calculated that a team with a lead of 18 points when the match is halfway through will win 90% of the time. To work out what size of basketball lead is 90%t safe in general, multiply the square root of the remaining seconds in the game by 0.4602.

This is stunningly accurate considering the model knows almost nothing about the rules of the game. But it doesn't work for all sports - the lower scores in football make the model less reliable, so you probably shouldn't use it when betting on the English Premier League.

Models of this type have broader implications for competitive situations as they imply that extensive training to beat an opponent is ultimately cancelled out by their own preparations, making the result essentially random when both sides are well prepared.

Full story: New Scientist / Physical Review E Back to top