Full face transplant lets firefighter finally feel like a ‘normal guy’ again

August 25, 2016

Just one year after receiving the world’s most extensive face transplant, a firefighter in Mississippi says he feels like a ’normal guy’ for the first time since a burning building collapsed on top of him 15 years ago, the Guardian reported this week.

Speaking to reporters at NYU Langone Medical Center, Patrick Hardison, 42, said, “I’m here today because I want others to see that there is hope beyond the injury.”

As a result of the surgery performed in August, 2015, he reported that he can now see, hear, eat and breathe normally. Moreover, he no longer worries about, “people pointing and staring or kids running away crying.”

Back in 2001, Patrick Hardison was a volunteer firefighter in Senatoba, Mississippi, when a burning building came crashing down on top of him.

In the years following, he underwent 71 reconstructive surgeries before receiving the transplant. 

According to a BBC News article, the history of face transplants is very recent, only dating back eleven years.

In 2005, a French woman received a partial face transplant to replace her nose, lips and chin. Since then, there have apparently been just under 40 face transplant surgeries conducted around the world.

Yet what set’s the surgery conducted on Hardison apart is that it is said to be the first transplant to include a scalp and functioning eyelids, the Guardian informs us.

Since the transplant, doctors have also apparently removed Hardison’s breathing and feeding tubes, and made a few adjustments to his features.

In terms of his appearance, the Mississippi firefighter now looks much like he once did. There are no scars on his face, and he once again has a mop of sandy brown hair. Only now his face is rounder and his eyes smaller than before.

The transplant has also made huge practical changes on his daily life.

Prior to the surgery, his field of vision was severely restricted, he said, because doctors had partially sewn shut his eyelids to protect his eyes. 

This has changed thanks to the transplant, as he is once again able to drive and live independently. 

According to Hardison, the effect on his emotional wellbeing has also been dramatic. 

“Before the transplant, every day I had to wake up and get myself motivated to face the world,” he said. 

Now, he said, “I’m pretty much back to being a normal guy doing normal activities. My life has changed, and it has been renewed.”

Back in June, on a trip to Disney World, he said, “I swam in the pool with my children for the first time in 15 years.”

At the news conference, Hardison was joined by four of his five children. His daughter Allison, 21, also noticed a marked difference in her father.

“After the injury he wasn’t normal on the inside. He was very unhappy.” She said. “Now he’s happy with himself and happy with life.”

The Mississippi firefighter, whose donor was a 26 year old artist said to have died in a bike accident in Brooklyn, has been lucky not to have faced any issues with his body rejecting the transplant. 

Eduardo Rodriguez, chairman of the plastic surgery department at Langone, puts this down to the medication, Hardison’s children, as well as his own strength. 

Rodriguez described the man as a “remarkable individual.”

Hardison said he hopes to meet with his donor’s family in the autumn.

 

Sources include: BBC News, Guardian

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Neuroscientists publish most detailed human brain map yet

July 21, 2016

In a new paper published in Nature, neuroscientists have set out the most comprehensive brain atlas to date.

Over the centuries, countless attempts have been made to classify the regions of the brain, however, this research is the most advanced to date, BBC News has reported. 

Specifically, the authors of the paper have demarcated 180 compartments of the cortex, 97 of which have been identified for the first time.

Image by David Shattuck, PhD. and Paul M. Thompson, PhD. http://www.humanconnectomeproject.org/gallery/

Behind this paper is the Human Connectome Project, a US-led collaboration which aims to demystify both the wiring of the brain and how this affects our behaviour. 

According to Dr Emma Robinson, co-author of the paper and a member of the Oxford University team behind the software used to analyse the project’s massive amount of data, “This is the culmination of the entire HCP project that we’ve been working towards,”

“This paper is really a mammoth effort by Matthew Glasser and David Van Essen (of Washington University in St Louis, Missouri) – manually labelling brain regions, but also pulling together all the streams that we’ve been working on, trying to collect incredibly high quality images and state of the art imaging processing techniques.”

 In order to procure this data, the HCP team initially held long scanning sessions of the brains of 210 individuals.

One part of the research consisted of observing the physical properties of the brain. For example, variations in the folds and thickness of the cortex; and within the cortex, the amount of myelin, a substance which enfolds nerve fibres, that could be detected throughout.

The researchers also examined brain activity, looking specifically at which parts of the brain were triggered by particular activities, and the degree to which activity levels in different parts of the brain correlated and coordinated with one another. 

The 180 areas of the brain were distinguished using automatic computational tools, which the HCP team then tested and confirmed through 210 fresh brain scans. 

Prof Tim Behrens, who is involved in the HCP but who did not have a hand in the paper said, “Every one of those 180 areas in this paper is described in detail – its relation to the previous literature, its functional properties, its anatomical properties… Nobody will do as good a job as this for a long time.”

“It will now be the parcellation that is used by all of neuroscience, I would think.”

Prof Simon Eickhoff of the University of Dusseldorf in Germany, who was not involved in the research,meanwhile described the research as “a really big step forward”.

At the same time, he sought to put the paper in context. 

“If you look at the classical brain maps, even from the 19th century – they were whole-brain maps; they had a label for every spot on the cortex. Any part of the brain has already been looked at.

“[This work] certainly defines something clearly, where knowledge has been imprecise and maybe contradictory. But ‘new’ is a tricky term.”

Nevertheless, Prof Behrens proposed that this new map “conceptually changes things.”

“Brain areas are not coarsely divided with, say, 50 pieces that we need to figure out what they’re doing.”

“As you get more and better data, you can subdivide it further and further – and we should be thinking about the brain in this much more granular way.”

Sources: BBC News and humanconnectomeproject.org

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Antarctic ozone hole “healing” say scientists

July 3, 2016

A study published in Science claims to offer the first compelling evidence that the hole in the ozone layer above the Antarctic is shrinking. This study, conducted by US and UK scientists, contains data collected annually between September 2000 and September 2015, which demonstrates a decline of 4 million sq km in the size of the ozone hole during this period.

The study’s authors attribute the good news to the phasing out of Chlorofluorocarbon (CFC) chemicals since a global ban was introduced with the 1987 Montreal Protocol.

The study is also the first to highlight the role of volcanic activity in ozone depletion.

Ozone depletion and CFCs

Ozone is a gas which is present in the stratosphere, where it serves to protect humans, animals and plants on Earth by blocking harmful ultraviolet radiation coming from the Sun. For humans, exposure to UV radiation raises the risk of skin cancer and cataract damage.

Although depletion and production of ozone both occur naturally in the stratosphere, the level of ozone has been historically constant.

Yet in the mid 1980s British scientists discovered a dramatic thinning of the ozone layer above the Antarctic. Subsequently, in 1986, work by US researcher Susan Soloman called attention to the destructive effects on the ozone of the chlorine and bromine molecules in CFCs, which at the time were present in everything from aerosols to refrigerators and air conditioning units.

On the back of this research, in 1987 the Montreal Protocol introduced a global ban on CFC production, which was ratified by all UN member countries.

Ozone hole shrinkage

According to a BBC News article, the declining influence of CFCs has been reported by other studies prior to this latest research; however, this is the first time evidence has been put forward that the hole in the ozone layer is actually shrinking.

Between 2000 and 2015, Prof Solomon and her colleagues conducted detailed measurements of ozone in the stratosphere using weather balloons, satellites and model simulations. By so doing, they found that the hole above the Antarctic has shrunk by 4 million sq km over this period. Over half of this gain was due to the reduction of atmospheric chlorine.

For Dr Markus Rex from the Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research in Germany, “This is the first convincing evidence that the healing of the Antarctic ozone hole has now started.” He ascribes this achievement to the Montreal Protocol, and sees this latest finding as “a big step forward.”

Nevertheless as Professor Soloman made clear, “Even though we phased out the production of CFCs in all countries including India and China around the year 2000, there’s still a lot of chlorine left in the atmosphere.”

Given that this has a lifetime of between 50 to 100 years, recovery is expected to be slow. “We don’t expect to see a complete recovery until about 2050 or 2060,” said Professor Soloman.

Volcanic Activity

Yet, seemingly contrary to the reports conclusions, the reading taken in October 2015 showed the largest ozone hole on record; findings which at first baffled the researchers.

According to Prof Solomon, “Until we did our recent work no-one realised that the Calbuco eruption in Chile, actually had significantly affected the ozone loss in October of last year.”

The reason that thinning of the ozone layer occurred predominantly over the Antarctic is due to the extreme cold and ample light in this region. Conditions which helped to create Polar Stratospheric Clouds, in which CFCs linger and eat away at the ozone.

Prof Solomon explained that “”After an eruption, volcanic sulphur forms tiny particles and those are the seeds for Polar Stratospheric Clouds.”

“You get even more of these clouds when you have a recent major volcanic eruption and that leads to additional ozone loss.”

In fact this study has been hailed as “historically significant” by some in the field for being the first to draw a connection between volcanic activity and ozone loss.

Doubts

At the same time, there have been doubts raised by some in the field that the shrinkage in the ozone hole can be attributed to the decreasing amount of chlorine in the stratosphere.

Nasa’s Dr Paul Newman, for example, said, “The data clearly show significant year to year variations that are much greater than the inferred trends shown in the paper.”

“If the paper included this past year, which had a much more significant ozone hole due to lower wave driven forcing, the overall trend would be less.”

Even so, the researchers behind the study clearly believe strongly in their findings. For them, international efforts to tackle the hole in the ozone should serve as a model for other global environmental problems.

“This was an era in which international co-operation went rather well on some issues. I was inspired by the way the developed and developing countries were able to work together on dealing with the ozone hole,” said Prof Solomon.

Sources: BBC News, Guardian Newspaper

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Scientists map wheat genome

July 17, 2014

Bread is a staple food for one third of the world’s population, and accounts for a huge 20 per cent of the world’s calorie intake.

In terms of science however, wheat has been rather overlooked. Until now that is.

Since 2011, scientists and members of the International Wheat Genome Sequencing Consortium, have worked to find out what exactly the humble grain is made of. On Tuesday, they published the first draft genome sequence of “common” or “bread wheat”: an accomplishment which they believe could help farmers meet the ever-increasing demand for a high-quality crop – something which is particularly important in the context of climate change and an ever-growing population.

The research, published in the journal Science on Tuesday, reveals the result of what has been nearly 3 years work and around USD 68 million. The team of scientists, including researchers from Germany, the United States, the Czech Republic, and Canada has so far succeeded in deciphering the blueprint for nearly all the genes of bread wheat and roughly 60 percent of the whole genome.

The unusual size and form of the genome made the sequencing especially difficult for the team, the article said. Indeed, that of wheat contains a staggering 100,000 or so genes, 5 times more than the human genome, which contains roughly 20,000.

The largely repetitive nature of the wheat genome also made its untangling more difficult.

The advantages of the project are manifold. “Wheat improvement is crucial to ensure food security and the development of sustainable agriculture in a context of climate change and growing population,” said Frederic Choulet, plant genomicist at the French National Institute for Agricultural Research (INRA), and one of the lead researchers on the project.

The new draft genome is also expected to significantly decrease the time it will take to identify and isolate genes of interest to plant breeders, such as those which express resistance to heat, stress, insects, or disease.

The consortium plans to finish the full genome within three years. “We have a clear path forward for completing high quality sequences of all bread wheat chromosomes,” said Kellye Eversole, the consortium’s executive director.

Source: The Japan Times; National Geographic

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Blooming bouquets! Japanese scientists discover flower aging cure

July 4, 2014

morning-glory-173440_640Japanese Scientists at the National Agriculture and Food Research Organization in Tsukuba, Ibaraki Prefecture, claim to have found a way to delay the aging process in flowers by up to half, keeping bouquets fresh for longer.

Discovery of the gene believed to be responsible for the short shelf-life of flowers in one Japanese variety of morning glory is responsible for the breakthrough. By suppressing this gene — named “EPHEMERAL1″ — scientists found the life span of each flower was almost doubled.

“Morning glory” is the name for a large group of flowering plants whose petals unfurl early in the day and begin to fade and curl by nightfall. So far, the scientists have managed to isolate the aging gene in just one variety of Japanese morning glory but believe these methods could be applied to other flower species.

“Unmodified flowers started withering 13 hours after they opened, but flowers that had been genetically modified stayed open for 24 hours,” said Kenichi Shibuya, one of the lead researchers in the study carried out jointly with Kagoshima University.

This means the plant has fresh purple flowers alongside the paler blooms from the previous day, he said.

This gene is linked to petal aging, the researchers discovered. Although the scientists have only modified the genes of living flowers in the study, their discovery could lead to  the development of methods to extend the life of cut flowers.

“It would be unrealistic to modify genes of all kinds of flowers, but we can look for other ways to suppress the (target) gene . . . such as making cut flowers absorb a solution that prevents the gene from becoming active,” said Shibuya.

Some florists currently use chemicals to inhibit ethylene, a plant hormone which sometimes causes blooms to ripen, in the preparation of some cut flowers. This does not always help as ethylene is not present in the aging process of some very popular flowers, such as lilies, tulips and irises.

A gene similar to EPHEMERAL1 could be responsible for petal aging in these plants, Shibuya said, meaning the ability to suppress it would extend their life.

Source: The Japan Times

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A robot with a heart: Japanese company unveils newest creation

June 6, 2014

Japanese company Softbank has unveiled its newest design: a robot able to respond to human emotions. Using a cloud-based artificial intelligence system and an “emotional engine”, the robot, known as “Pepper”, is able to to interpret human voice tones, expressions and gestures, and perform various tasks.

In the past several different robotics companies have claimed to have created robots that read or mimic human emotions, but Softbank CEO Masayoshi Son told a press conference it is the first time in history a robot has been given a heart.

The firm said people can communicate with Pepper “just like they would with friends and family” and believes it could become a household aid to the elderly, especially in countries like Japan with rapidly ageing populations.

“Even if one can pre-programme such robots to carry out specific tasks based on certain commands or gestures, it could go long way in helping improve elderly care,” said Rhenu Bhuller, senior vice president healthcare at consulting firm Frost & Sullivan.

Softbank is a majority stakeholder in French company, Aldebaran Robotics. The two firms developed Pepper in collaboration. Bruno Maisonnier, founder and chief executive of Aldebaran said: “The emotional robot will create a new dimension in our lives and new ways of interacting with technology.”

Japan has one of the world’s largest robotics markets, which was estimated to be worth around 860 billion yen (approx £5 billion) in 2012.  The country employs more than 250,000 industrial robot workers. According to a trade ministry report last year, the Japanese robotics market is expected to have more than tripled in value to 2.85 trillion yen (£16.5 billion) by the year 2020.

Pepper will go on sale to the public next year for 198,000 yen ($1,930; £1,150). According to the company, it will be available at stores nationwide.

A prototype version of the robot will also serve customers in Softbank’s mobile phone stores.
Sources: BBC News; The Telegraph
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Formula 1 know how speeds up clinical drug tests and toothpaste manufacturing

April 30, 2014

During each of the 19 F1 Grand Prix races held in cities worldwide each year, McLaren engineers use continuous telemetry, or wireless telecommunication systems, to monitor cars streaking around tracks at speeds up to 220 mph in all kinds of weather. They gather information on everything from aerodynamics, fuel consumption, road conditions and tyre life. Those pieces of data are then streamed to McLaren’s servers back in Woking, suburban London, and fed into an algorithmic model that can instantly run thousands of possible scenarios and spit out predictive intelligence that its trackside crew uses to make super-fast decisions—when to schedule a pit stop, for instance—in races where milliseconds rule.

The main focus of the McLaren Applied Technologies (MAT) division is selling this ability to capture vast amounts of data in real time, feed it into models and run simulations that can be used to solve problems, aid decision making, design products and increase efficiency, all at blinding speed. McLaren’s expansion into applied technologies was instigated five years ago by Ron Dennis, McLaren’s chairman and CEO. In the decades since it was founded in 1968, McLaren has amassed technical expertise in the many areas required to keep complex race cars running as efficiently and safely as possible. Dennis wondered, Why not market that trackside-honed know-how to other industries? So McLaren is now applying its technological expertise—in areas that include exotic materials, aerodynamics and electronics—in sectors far removed from motor sports, ranging from health care and public transportation to data centers and oil-and-gas exploration.

This type of real-time data monitoring and response could have a tremendous impact on one of the biggest choke points in the drug development processes: testing efficiency. Patients in clinical trials for new drugs usually have their vital signs checked every few weeks or so, when they visit their doctor. Data collected at checkups are used by manufacturers to determine the efficacy of the drugs. It’s an inherently slow process: Many months are needed to gather enough patient data to be useful. It’s also a big reason why it usually takes 10 long and costly years to bring a drug to market after it’s discovered.

But that doesn’t mean the process can’t be improved. Last year, consultants McKinsey & Co. urged U.S. drugmakers to make better use of big data—for instance, to improve clinical trials or to model biological processes—claiming it “could generate up to $100 billion in value annually across the U.S. health care system.”

McLaren and the British multinational pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) are attempting to answer this call with a big-data experiment using a technology called “biotelemetry.” McLaren has customized the telemetrics technology that studies the “health” of its race cars to measure 24/7 the vital signs and mobility of patients involved in drug trials—in this case for arthritis and stroke-recovery therapies—so researchers can determine more quickly if a drug is or isn’t working, or is causing troubling side effects. If a trial needs to be stopped or altered, the faster that’s known, the more it saves time and money—and the more it can help patients. “Speed is a real imperative for [patients],” says Steve Mayhew, GSK’s head of research and development strategy, since some new drugs, like cancer therapies, might prolong lives by months and years.

Moreover, says Geoff McGrath, vice president in charge of MAT at McLaren, data streamed from patients in real time are a much richer source of intelligence than vital stats taken every few weeks at a doctor’s office. “When [a patient] goes to a clinic, it’s not really a real-world test.”

Now imagine applying the consistent efficiency of an F1 pit crew to a team of workers that runs a toothpaste manufacturing line. As improbable as that sounds, that’s what happened when GSK also began working with the McLaren Group to help it cut production times at its Sensodyne toothpaste plant in Maidenhead, England.

Formula One race cars barrel into the pit lane, decelerating rapidly from around 200 mph in the track to 50 mph in the lane, just before stopping in front of a 20-man team standing and squatting at the ready. Instantly, the team springs into its well-rehearsed and elaborately choreographed routine, and in just about 2.3 seconds, it’s done: four tires removed and replaced, the car ready to streak back onto the track. Sneeze and you miss it. To carry out this complex choreography with the speed and precision of an atomic clock clearly requires some serious planning.  After each stop, the team holds a debriefing session, going over what went right and what could have been improved.

McLaren engineers applied their pit stop processes initially to one production line. They grabbed data from the line’s machines, fed it into a model and ran simulations. They discovered that one of the biggest bottlenecks was changeover time—stopping the line to make a product change, say, to a different flavor—which took around 39 minutes. The line’s workers were then tutored in the kinds of time-saving procedures developed by McLaren pit crews. And they worked. The line’s downtime was halved, enabling it to boost production by nearly 7 million additional tubes a year.That’s why, this year, GSK will roll out McLaren-derived efficiency procedures at its consumer product manufacturing plants worldwide, beginning in three of its eight global regions: the U.S., U.K. and Spain.

 Source: News Week

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