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Notebook Science

Treatment in sight



Treatment in sight

Non-embryonic stem cells could treat age-related blindness

Nearly 11 million Americans suffer from age-related macular degeneration (AMD), the leading cause of vision loss in people 65 and older. Currently, no cure exists.

But now the federally run National Eye Institute has announced plans to begin human trials of a stem cell therapy to treat the disease, pending FDA approval. The treatment technique avoids the use of embryonic stem cells, which require the destruction of human embryos, and instead uses alternative lab-produced cells called induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs). If the human trials gain approval, it will be the first time researchers have used iPSCs to treat a human disease, said National Eye Institute researcher Kapil Bharti in a statement. And since iPSCs are made with a patient’s own cells, they face a minimal chance of rejection once implanted.

In the advanced stages of AMD, retinal pigment epithelial cells (RPEs) begin to die. Light-sensing cells in the retina, or photoreceptor cells, depend on the RPEs to supply them with nutrition and oxygen. When RPEs die, so do the retinal cells, causing blindness.

In animal studies described in the Jan. 16 issue of Science Translational Medicine, the researchers took iPSCs derived from rat and pig blood cells and programmed them to become RPEs. They then grew these cells into small, thin sheets and inserted them into the animals’ eyes between their RPEs and photoreceptor cells. The lab-made RPEs integrated with the animals’ retinas within 10 weeks and kept the remaining photoreceptor cells alive, stopping progression of the disease.

Any stem cell therapy involves the potential risk that the cells will form tumors, but when the researchers analyzed their lab-created cells, they found no mutations that would lead to tumor growth.

Image from video

Image from video

Photon printer

It may be a while before a machine can produce meals on demand like the replicator on Star Trek. But researchers recently developed a 3D-printing device that can make whole objects seemingly appear out of nothing.

Most 3D printers build objects by slowly solidifying gels layer by layer, but the new technology uses a computer-controlled light projector to cast a sequence of 2D images through a photosensitive gel contained in a spinning vial. As the projector directs light to pinpoint-size spots in the rotating gel, photons enter it from different angles. At points where the photons intersect, their combined energy solidifies the gel into plastic. Where they don’t intersect, the photons simply pass through, leaving the gel unaltered.

In a study published Jan. 31 in Science, the researchers used the technology to rapidly produce a centimeter-size replica of the famous statue The Thinker and to fashion a plastic handle around a metal screwdriver shaft. —J.B.



Say what you will

Can a computer translate a person’s thoughts into speech? Engineers at Columbia University hope their new technology will soon do so.

When people speak or imagine speaking, their brains produce specific patterns of activity. The Columbia researchers trained a speech synthesizing machine to detect specific brain patterns produced when subjects heard people reciting the digits 0 to 9. Then a type of artificial intelligence translated those brain patterns into intelligible words like one, two, three, etc.

If the system is further developed, the researchers believe doctors could implant it into the brains of people who have lost the ability to speak, and the system would then translate their thoughts into verbal speech. The team’s paper was published Jan. 29 in Scientific Reports. —J.B.