New technology targets cancer cells, leaves healthy ones alone

From ScienceDaily:

Two University of Rhode Island associate professors, biophysicists Yana Reshetnyak and Oleg Andreev, have discovered a technology that can detect cancerous tumors and deliver treatment to them without the harming the healthy cells surrounding them, thereby significantly reducing side effects.

The key lies in the acidity level of cells. While normal cells maintain a pH of 7.4 with little variation, cancer cells, expend a great deal of energy as they rapidly proliferate, pumping protons outside and creating an extracellular pH level of 5.5 to 6.5.

While scientists have known about tumor acidity for years, they had not devised a way to target it.

After making some modifications to [pHLIP, the peptide that targets acidity, Reshetnyak and Andreev], they demonstrated that pHLIP could find a tumor in a mouse and deliver imaging or therapeutic agents specifically to cancer cells.

In addition to targeting cancerous tumors, the couple has discovered a novel delivery agent, a molecular nanosyringe, which can deliver and inject diagnostic or therapeutic agents specifically to cancer cells.

Articificial classical music composer: Emily Howell

“Emily Howell” is a computer programme created by David Cope, a professor of the University of California – Santa Cruz. Emily – named after Experiments in Musical Intelligencemakes classical music. Initially, Cope had her learn and emulate the style of the great classical composers. Now he’s made her come up with original bits.

Mark Lawson at the Guardian, along with others, thinks that artificially-created music will never have the “soul” of human-created music, and implies that it’ll never reach us in the same way.

I think I disagree. It’s very early days for computer-generated music. And if you’re a materialist – like me – then you probably think that the brain is only a biochemical computer anyway. There’s no reason why an electronic brain couldn’t experience and consolidate and reflect and create just like a biochemical one does.

Listen to some of Emily’s earlier compositions and see what you think.Her first full album, From Darkness, Light, is due out next spring.

The technology behind the Sampler

The synthesizer was a big step in electronic music, as it could create sounds from scratch that mimicked other instruments. You didn’t need a full orchestra anymore, you could synthesize it.

The sampler was a related piece of electronics, but rather than synthesizing the sounds it would record (or “sample”) them and make them available for playback. You also get the chance to fiddle with the sound you’ve recorded and play it back in different ways. Samplers are now ubiquitous in hip-hop and electronic music.

The Guardian has a nifty piece about the technological history of the sampler.

And an article on Electronic Musician explains the complications of transposing sounds up and down in frequency without distorting them.

Music sampler application for the iPhone
Music sampler application for the iPhone

Improving the efficiency of diamond lasers

In just a few weeks I’ll be making a move to Australia, so here’s a science story about some laser research being done Down Under.

When photons hit the atoms or molecules of a material most of them rebound and scatter away in different directions with the same energy that they had before they hit (this is called Rayleigh scattering). A few photons, though, will bounce away with a different (usually lower) amount of energy (called Raman scattering).

A few, though, will scatter with higher energy. And for certain crystalline materials like silicon, and with the addition of some energy, you can use incoming photons to create a coherent laser.

Last year a team of physicists at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia, built the world’s first diamond laser. This is a significant development from silicon, barium nitrate or other lasers, as diamond has a greater ability to amplify light, as well as a greater thermal conductivity, which make it more useful for high-power applications. Diamonds can also generate a wider variety of wavelengths of light, each of which has its own applications. Their first laser wasn’t terribly efficient, though, requiring a lot more energy than a typical silicon laser would.

Now that same research group at Macquarie U, plus folks from the Defence Science and Technology Organisation in Edinburgh, South Australia, have shown that they can get comparable efficiencies from diamond lasers.

Blinded soldier will be first Brit to see with his tongue

Our brain is what does all of our information processing. We don’t perceive things directly, after all: we take inputs from our senses, electrical impulses are sent to our brain, and – through evolution and training – our brain knows how to interpret those impulses as representing something about the outside world.

For instance, light enters our eyeballs, hits cells in the back of our eyes, and those send electrical impulses – which vary with the frequency and amount of light hitting them – through a nerve to our brain. Our brain then knows how to interpret and assemble that info.

But there are ways of using other senses to take over for ones we lose. Some people who are deaf, and cannot process sound information because it can’t get transmitted to their brain, learn to use visual information – sign language or lip reading – to communicate. Some blind people learn braille to read.

There’s now a device called BrainPort that lets blind people “see” by translating visual information into something your tongue can interpret and pass to the brain. A soldier returning from Afghanistan will be the first Brit to benefit from this device.

A British serviceman blinded in combat will become the first UK patient to be fitted with revolutionary technology that enables users to see with their tongue.

The BrainPort vision system, developed in the US, transforms light images into champagne-like tingling sensations to help sufferers visualise their surroundings.

The device is part of an array of medical equipment and techniques unveiled by the Ministry of Defence today to help soldiers returning from Afghanistan overcome their injuries.

For more information about how the BrainPort does it click this link atHowStuffWorks.

Half a million songs on your iPod? Colossal magnetoresistance might make it happen

About 20 years ago Albert Fert and Peter Grünberg discovered a means to significantly increase the density of information that could be stored on computer hard drives. The trick relied on something called Giant Magnetoresistance.

That’s a cool-sounding term, but what is it?

Well, resistance is an electrical property of things that describes how well (or poorly) they conduct electricity. Things with high resistance (like plastic or glass) don’t conduct electricity very well; things with low resistance (like copper or gold) do. Magnetoresistance was the discovery – in the mid 19th-century by Lord Kelvin – that some materials change the amount of resistance they have when they’re exposed to a magnetic field. Kelvin was never able to change it by more than 5%, though.

Fert and Grünberg were, however, eventually able to create a much larger effect – thus, giant magnetoresistance. They did this  by sandwiching alternate thin layers of material that magentises with material that doesn’t.  This worked very well, dropping electrical resistance of the layers by 10-80% when exposed to a magnetic field. It’s this technology that has allowed a huge reduction in hard drive sizes in the last couple of decades. Fert and Grünbergwon the Nobel prize in physics in 2007 as a result.

Scientists are now trying to take advantage of another effect that could mark yet another quantum increase in memory efficiency: colossal magnetoresistance. It’s been seen to happen, but scientists do not yet have any idea how it works. It’s been observed in manganese-based oxides. It appears to be dependent on things like pressure and temperature. And it can bring resistance levels down extremely low.

It looks like we’re nowhere near the limits of how much memory-per-square-inch we can cram into hard drives, then.

Brain on a chip?

Cool stuff over at

How does the human brain run itself without any software? Find that out, say European researchers, and a whole new field of neural computing will open up. A prototype ‘brain on a chip’ is already working.

“We know that the brain has amazing computational capabilities,” remarks Karlheinz Meier, a physicist at Heidelberg University. “Clearly there is something to learn from biology. I believe that the systems we are going to develop could form part of a new revolution in information technology.”

It’s a strong claim, but Meier is coordinating the EU-supported which brings together scientists from 15 institutions in seven countries to do just that. Inspired by research in neuroscience, they are building a ‘neural’ computer that will work just like the brain but on a much smaller scale.

How Formula 1 helps us in everyday life: a Science Museum exhibit

There’s a special (and free) exhibit on at London’s Science Museum just now called Fast Forward: 20 ways F1™ is changing our world.

It’s promoting the idea that Formula 1 racing isn’t just about going really fast around a track. It’s about cutting-edge engineering, about developing new technology from raw science. And mostly it’s about how those developments often turn out to have real-world applications.

The ways I find most fascinating are how tyre pressure-monitoring technology has made its way into consumer road cars, how to make rubber boots that slip less, and how the time-critical methods of pit stop crews have translated into faster procedures for hospital intensive care operating theatres.

I certainly didn’t know that this much F1 technology had such broad and interesting applicability. I’ll be down to see this exhibit as soon as I can.

F1 hydraulic dampers to keep a racecar in contact with the road can also prevent knee damage to soldiers in fast-moving inflatable boats

NASA’s Kepler mission to look for other planets capable of sustaining life

Tomorrow evening (US eastern time) is the earliest window in which NASA’s Kepler mission may launch. This is very exciting because Kepler’s main mission is to locate planets that are similar, and in similar positions, to our own. Planets like Earth are the ones where we’d be most likely to find life as we know it.

Nearly all of the planets we’ve spotted that are located outside our own Solar System have so far been gas giants like Jupiter and Saturn. They’re easy to spot, though, because they’re big and hot. Kepler will find smaller, rockier, Earth-like planets.

Photometer Being Lowered onto Kepler Spacecraft

There’s a huge amount of really fascinating science, from the general to the detailed, on the mission page. Here are some excerpts I really like.

How will Kepler look for extrasolar planets? By looking at stars, and watching for signs that something has moved across the front of them:

The Kepler spacecraft…will orbit our own Sun, trailing behind Earth in its orbit, and stay pointed at Cygnus starfield for 3.5 years to watch for drops in brightness that happen when an orbiting planet crosses (transits) in front of the star. Cygnus was chosen because it has a very rich starfield and is in an area of sky where the Sun will not get in the way of the spacecraft’s view for its entire orbit.

How does a transit tell us that there’s a planet there?

Transits by terrestrial planets produce a small change in a star’s brightness of about 1/10,000 (100 parts per million, ppm), lasting for 2 to 16 hours. This change must be absolutely periodic if it is caused by a planet. In addition, all transits produced by the same planet must be of the same change in brightness and last the same amount of time, thus providing a highly repeatable signal and robust detection method.

Once detected, the planet’s orbital size can be calculated from the period (how long it takes the planet to orbit once around the star) and the mass of the star using Kepler’s Third Law of planetary motion. The size of the planet is found from the depth of the transit (how much the brightness of the star drops) and the size of the star. From the orbital size and the temperature of the star, the planet’s characteristic temperature can be calculated. From this the question of whether or not the planet is habitable (not necessarily inhabited) can be answered.

What else will Kepler do?

The scientific objective of the Kepler Mission is to explore the structure and diversity of planetary systems. This is achieved by surveying a large sample of stars to:

  1. Determine the percentage of terrestrial and larger planets there are in or near the habitable zone of a wide variety of stars;
  2. Determine the distribution of sizes and shapes of the orbits of these planets;
  3. Estimate how many planets there are in multiple-star systems;
  4. Determine the variety of orbit sizes and planet reflectivities, sizes, masses and densities of short-period giant planets;
  5. Identify additional members of each discovered planetary system using other techniques; and
  6. Determine the properties of those stars that harbor planetary systems.

This is a really exciting mission to undertake during the International Year of Astronomy.