Materials shape human progress – think stone age or bronze age. The 21st century has been referred to as the molecular age, a time when scientists are beginning to manipulate materials at the atomic level to create new substances with astounding properties.
Taking a step in that direction, Jens Bauer at the Karlsruher Institute of Technology (KIT) and his colleagues have developed a bone-like material that is less dense than water, but as strong as some forms of steel. "This is the first experimental proof that such materials can exist," Bauer said.
Since the Industrial Revolution our demand for new materials has outstripped supply. We want these materials to do many different things, from improving the speed of computers to withstanding the heat when entering Mars' atmosphere. However, a key feature of most new materials still remains in their strength and stiffness – that is, how much load can they carry without bending or buckling.
All known materials can be represented quite neatly in one chart where each line means the strength or density of the material goes up ten times: The line in the middle at 1000 kg/m3 is the density of water – all materials to its left are lighter than water and those on the right are heavier. No solid material is lighter than water unless it is porous. Porous materials like wood and bone exhibit exquisite structures when observed under a microscope, and they served as inspiration for Bauer's work.
For many years, material scientists have thought that some empty areas on the compressive strength-density chart should be filled by materials that theory predicts. Computer simulations could be used to indicate an optimum microstructure that would give a material the right properties. However, nobody had tools to build materials with defined patterns at the scale of a human hair.
With recent developments in lasers and 3D printing, however, a German company called Nanoscribe started offering lasers that could do just what Bauer wanted. Nanoscribe's system involves the use of a polymer that reacts when exposed to light and a laser that can be neatly focused on a tiny spot with the help of lenses.
By switching off a single gene, scientists have converted human gastrointestinal cells into insulin-producing cells, demonstrating in principle that a drug could retrain cells inside a person’s GI tract to produce insulin. The finding raises the possibility that cells lost in type 1 diabetes may be more easily replaced through the reeducation of existing cells than through the transplantation of new cells created from embryonic or adult stem cells. The new research was reported in the online issue of the journal Nature Communications.
"People have been talking about turning one cell into another for a long time, but until now we hadn't gotten to the point of creating a fully functional insulin-producing cell by the manipulation of a single target," said the study's senior author, Domenico Accili, MD, the Russell Berrie Foundation Professor of Diabetes (in Medicine) at Columbia University Medical Center (CUMC).
The finding raises the possibility that cells lost in type 1 diabetes may be more easily replaced through the reeducation of existing cells than through the transplantation of new cells created from embryonic or adult stem cells.
For nearly two decades, researchers have been trying to make surrogate insulin-producing cells for type 1 diabetes patients. In type 1 diabetes, the body's natural insulin-producing cells are destroyed by the immune system.
Although insulin-producing cells can now be made in the lab from stem cells, these cells do not yet have all the functions of naturally occurring pancreatic beta cells.
This has led some researchers to try instead to transform existing cells in a patient into insulin-producers. Previous work by Dr. Accili's lab had shown that mouse intestinal cells can be transformed into insulin-producing cells; the current Columbia study shows that this technique also works in human cells.
The Columbia researchers were able to teach human gut cells to make insulin in response to physiological circumstances by deactivating the cells' FOXO1 gene. Accili and postdoctoral fellow Ryotaro Bouchi first created a tissue model of the human intestine with human pluripotent stem cells. Through genetic engineering, they then deactivated any functioning FOXO1 inside the intestinal cells. After seven days, some of the cells started releasing insulin and, equally important, only in response to glucose.
The team had used a comparable approach in its earlier, mouse study. In the mice, insulin made by gut cells was released into the bloodstream, worked like normal insulin, and was able to nearly normalize blood glucose levels in otherwise diabetic mice: New Approach to Treating Type I Diabetes? Columbia Scientists Transform Gut Cells into Insulin Factories. That work, which was reported in 2012 in the journal Nature Genetics, has since received independent confirmation from another group.
When I am not out with my camera I can sometimes suffer with such terrible ISFS – that’s “Itchy Shutter-Finger Syndrome” if you’re wondering, and can be quite psychologically debilitating, I promise you! Over the past few days I have been wanting more than I have for a while, to just get out for a day and explore. On Friday, I made up my mind, that Saturday was to be that day. And what happened on Saturday? The rain came down longer and harder than I have seen over the past couple of weeks. Still, my mind was made up, wet weather gear at the ready and I was going out. Not even the threat from above would stop me.....
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