a, Research Briefs, Science & Technology

Research Briefs—Oct. 15

Seeing is believing

In a preliminary UCLA study led by eye specialist Steven Schwartz, 18 legally blind patients were given embryonic stem cells; 10 showed substantial improvements in their vision. Although the research is in its initial steps, Schwartz and other scientists believe that the embryonic stem cell treatment shows promise for future cures for other medical conditions.

The stem cells used, known as human embryonic stem cells (hESCs), are able to become any type of cell in the body by using differentiating factors. In this study, they were differentiated into retinal pigment epithelium cells, which were then transplanted into patients with visual diseases known as Stargadt’s macular dystrophy and dry atrophic age-related macular degeneration. Neither disease currently has a viable cure, but this study shows promise for potential solutions.

A few of the patients exhibited minor side effects, which were attributed to the transplantation itself and the drugs that were taken to aid the process, not the hESCs. According to Schwartz, this study has the potential for paving the way for research.

“[It marks] an exciting step towards using hESC-derived stem cells as a safe source of cells for the treatment of various medical disorders requiring tissue repair or replacement,” he said.

Such great heights

A robotic airship featuring a ‘stabilizing fin’ designed at Greentown Labs in Somerville, Massachusetts has been developed in order to mimic a wind turbine—the most noticeable difference being the airship’s staggering height. While wind turbines are typically around 200 feet tall, this airship stands at 2,000 feet, features blade tips 720 feet long, and is surprisingly inflatable. This turbine, known as a buoyant airborne turbine (BAT), is one of Altaeros Energies’ most significant projects.

One of the most significant differences between ordinary wind turbines and the BAT is in installation. While wind turbines typically require a full crew and an extended period of time to put together, the BAT can be used right away.

According to Altaeros, the BAT will be most useful in areas where non-renewable energy sources are not economically feasible and solar panels are not practical, particularly in regions plagued with snow and frost. The Alaska Energy Authority has already given Altaeros a $740,000 grant to begin working with the BAT.

“We’re not trying to replace wind turbines,” said Altaeros co-founder and lead director Adam Rein. “We’re trying to expand wind energy to places where it doesn’t work today.”

In the dark

Dr. Prajwal Kafle, an astrophysicist from the University of Western Australia, worked with other astronomers to use an age-old method developed in 1915 to study the Milky Way—except their discoveries were far from ancient. In fact, they discovered that the galaxy is only half the size that scientists were previously led to believe.

According to Kafle, the reason for this discrepancy lies in the distribution of matter versus dark matter. Because four per cent of the galaxy is visible and 25 per cent is composed of dark matter, the remainder is considered to be ‘dark energy.’ Kafle’s study was unique in that it focused on the speed of stars all the way to the edges of the galaxy in order to measure the mass of the dark matter that exists in the Milky Way.

Professor Geraint Lewis, an astrophysicist from the University of Sydney, emphasized that the makeup of the galaxy has perplexed scientists for years.

“Dr Kafle’s work has shown that it might not be as bad as everyone thought, although there are still problems to overcome,” he said.

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