Archive for May, 2013

One of the things I recall best from Mass Effect 2 is the awesome start video introducing Project Lazarus, where the main character is reconstructed from his/her charred remains after a fatal incident by a scientific team and awesome robotic equipment.

Whereas the Frankenstein approach to the problem looks a bit excessive even for scifi standards, we have seen similar scenes in many scenarios where the patient was still alive. It is easy to recall the bacta tanks in Star Wars, where people is submerged in a healing agent, but our focus today is Private Rico, from Starship Troopers, instead. Why? Because there is actually a robot regenerating the tissue of his leg to fix it. And because there is research in that direction nowadays.

It all starts with 3D printing (stereolithography), a concept invented by Chuck Hull  in the 80s, when he founded 3D Systems, Inc. 3D printing basically consists of designing an object with a CAD program and supplying it to the printer software to be sliced into thin planes. Then, the printer hardware recreates the object layer by layer by recreating each plane on top of the next using rubber, plastics, paper, metals and more. This is typically achieved by heating up the material and sending it as a filament to a extruder, that moves over the plane according to whatever shape the software wants to recreate.

So far, so good. If you are a hobbyist, you can actually purchase a basic 3D plastic printer for 400 USD (if you don’t mind to construct it yourself from the components). If you want something more complex or in a different material, there are many companies out there that will print it for you if you provide the CAD design. However, the real kick comes when someone starts to wonder how far 3D printing can be taken.

As was to be expected, someone already wondered what would happen if, instead of inorganic stuff, we fed the 3D printer with something organic. Obviously, the first design was a chocolate printer, but, shortly after, doctors and engineers started to think about the possibility of actually printing human tissue. And, believe it or not, there are even companies like Organovo engaged in this kind of product.

The living tissue 3D printing process involves 3 different research areas:

– First, it is necessary to determine which materials to use in order to print a given item. This process is far from easy and, in fact, may require molecular analysis to determine how it is formed.  Once the proper combination of living cells for the (piece of) organ to be printed are available, we are ready to feed them to the organic 3D printer.

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-Second, it is necessary to create the proper CAD models of the tissue to be printed. Realistic models are not that easy to come by. For example, the structure of bone has been recently decoded by MIT researchers and revealed to be a complex combination of collagen and mineral forms into a nano composite that creates a very tough, strong and reliable material (see image above). Needless to say, this information would become really handy for bone transplantation and orthopaedic surgery. The image below presents liver tissue as bioprinted by Organovo.

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– Finally, when the CAD model and the required cells are available, a special kind of 3D printer is needed. However, the technology below the bioprinter is very similar to your everyday plastic ones. According to Michael Renard (Organovo):

“Tissues are built layer by layer, using a combination of hydrogel and cell aggregates deposited in specific spatial arrangements that are programmed into the bioprinter. A wide variety of shapes and orientations can be created using the combination of these materials.

When you deposit cells they have to be the right cells and in the right biological state; the hydrogel holds them in the right place. Then the cells fuse, form junctions, and the hydrogel can be removed to yield a tangible piece of material made up entirely of human cells.”

It is not time to get our hopes too high yet. At the moment, they are growing small parts like a small piece of blood vessel or liver. Organovo expects results like nerve grafts, patches to assist a heart condition, blood vessel segments, or cartilage for a degenerating joint in the next 10 years, but reports that more complex organs are not to be expected in the next 20. However, in the meantime, scientists from Princeton and John Hopkins report to have printed a bionic ear, although all hearing capacity is provided by sensors and they also acknowledge that it is far from something a human can use.

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Now, about the ethics considerations, it might be advisable to note that the main big targets of this kind of technology are transplants -possibly using the receptor’s tissue as a model for the printed one- and testing on living tissue. Whereas it undoubtfully seems better to use printed stuff than animals for these applications, it might bring to the mind of the most paranoid readers movies like the Island or comicbooks like World of Krypton.

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Rapture, Andrew Ryan’s underwater city somewhere near Iceland and just one of many examples of the humanity utopia of living under the sea. While this kind of project remains a dream, there have been some (less ambitious) approaches to underwater cities, like Amsterdam Underwater Project. The idea here, rather than living underwater, is to drain the canals, use the extra building space and fill them back. Since the construction is not really deep and it is connected to the surface city, this approach neatly avoids all the problems related to real underwater cities, like pressure and decompression (see this post on Abbyss to review the decompression issue), and regenerative systems for air, water, food, electricity, and other resources, and only needs to focus on ventilation and air conditioning. However, recent  underwater habitats allow for required resources to be delivered using pipes, or generated within the habitat.

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Construction of a whole city underwater is obviously, out of the table, but there have been several projects to create underwater habitats, most of them operating as marine labs. This idea has been constantly repeated in scifi movies and TV series like the Abyss, Deep Blue Sea, Seaquest or, more recently, Lost, not to mention they seem to be the second best location for evil fortresses, after volcanic tropical islands (see, for example, Mazinger Z, The Spy Who Loved Me or Call of Duty Black Ops).

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Actually, underwater labs have been there for a while since the 60s. To name a few well known ones, there were Conshelf I-III, SEALAB I, II and III, Hydrolab or Aquarius.

The main concern in these early labs was basically providing  breathing air of suitable quality, usually by means of bottled tanks or by umbilicals to the surface. Most modern facilities use atmospheric recycling technology, similar to that on rebreather rigs, to extend the use of available air.

Coping with pressure was a close second too. Underwater lab hulls need to have rigid, reinforced structures to resist the outside pressure. This is usually assisted by a round structure to disperse the structural stress evenly over their surface area. In really deep labs, health is a main concern, since pressure becomes a  a real issue. The deepest an open-pressure habitat has operated has been at 183 meters. From this point below, closed pressure facilities -where one can keep a pressure closer to the surface one- are required. This is possible by closing to the sea via hatches and an airlock, so that the sea won’t flood the place, whereas older underwater structures were actually open to ambient pressure via a moon pool, meaning the air pressure inside the habitat equals underwater pressure at the same level. However, a closed pressure habitat also implies way stronger structures to prevent implosions.

Providing heating, power and food and disposing of waste products comes next. In most existing cases, these needs were supplied from the surface, but there are (futuristic) plans to make underwater installations self sufficient.

If you are not a scientist or a supervillain, you can still spend a night under water in a hyper-luxurious 10 star hotels under the sea. Of course, one of the first cities to harbour such a project had to be Dubai.

The Hydropolis Underwater Hotel and Resort was designed by Professor Roland Dieterle to be built 20 m below the surface of Persian Gulf. The approximate cost of the project quickly went from 300 million USD to almost 600 million and, as far as I know, the project has been dropped.

The access was supposed to start in a 120 semicircular cilinder (land station) that would bring visitors to the bottom level, where they could board a silent train pushed by wholly automated cable together with a modular, self-helping steel pathway to Hydropolis.

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Another long delayed project, although still not openly discontinued is the Poseidon resort in Fiji, 40 feet underwater, designed by American submarine engineer Bruce Jones. For 1500 USD a night, one can spend a night in a standard suite in the lagoon. The key idea in this case was to keep a one-atmosphere at the resort -the same as in the surface-, so no decompression would be necessary.

Believe it or not, there is actually one operating underwater hotel, but it looks more like a youth hostel than like the previous luxury resorts; after all, it used to be a  used to be a marine lab. This one is called The Jules Undersea Lodge and it is located in Key Largo, Florida. In order to get to this one, the visitor needs a crash introduction to scuba diving: the entrance to the hotel is 21 feet underwater on the sea floor. Obviously, the Lodge offers extensive scuba certification courses and diving excursions. And one does not have to worry about deco until it’s time to go back to civilization.

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Visit Orbital Vector for more information on underwater habitats.

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Believe it or not, scientists from the Duke University School of Medicine have finally managed to prove that telepathy is possible. Not with humans, mind you, but with rats, who are usually game for these things.

First, researchers trained pairs of rats to solve a simple problem: if they pressed a level when a light flashed above it, they received a sip of water. Afterwards, they placed rats into different spaces: in one of them, levels and lights were coupled as the animals saw during their training, but in the other one there were no lights to indicate the correct level. At this point, two rats’ brains were connected via arrays of microelectrodes inserted into the area of the cortex that processes motor information. Scientists checked that rats with visual feedback achieved a 78% task success, but rats without feedback achieved a 70% thanks to the brain connection. Furthermore, they tested cooperation by giving rewards to the rats only when both succeeded in pressing the correct level. This test seems to point out that the transmitter rat was actually capable of “thinking clearer” to get the reward, so that reception would be easier to decode. This proves that transmission was actually bidirectional and both rats could process each other’s brain impulses. According to the research leader, MD PhD Miguel Nicoledis, this is equivalent to “…creating an organic computer that solves a puzzle”.

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Furthermore, in a second set of experiments, the researchers trained pairs of rats to distinguish between a narrow or wide opening using their whiskers. To get their rewards, they had to nose-poke a water port to the left in narrow openings and to the right in wide ones. Locally, receiving rats got a 65% success in the task, but the researchers also placed an transmitting rat in Brazil, at the Edmond and Lily Safra International Institute of Neuroscience of Natal (ELS-IINN), and transmitted its brain signals over the Internet to a receiving rat in Durham, N.C. Apparently, rats could still work together in a networking configuration.

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Indeed, the target of these tests is not (wireless, non intrusive) telepathy in an X Men way, but rather establishing a brain network in what the team is calling an “organic computer” which could allow sharing of motor and sensory information among groups of animals. This idea kind of reminds me to many other scifi movies some of which you probably know…

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the bugs in Starship Troopers or, if we go one step further, the lovely kids in Village of the Damned

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“We cannot predict what kinds of emergent properties would appear when animals begin interacting as part of a brain-net. In theory, you could imagine that a combination of brains could provide solutions that individual brains cannot achieve by themselves. Such a connection might even mean that one animal would incorporate another’s sense of “self,” Nicoledis said.

Full text in Science Daily