November 10, 2005

Other Tech: Bionic arm controlled via thinking and chest nerves

Non-nano technology: Mass produced small nuke reactors to solve energy crisis

Self-contained power plants could supply growing energy demand in poor countries is discussed in a MIT technology review article. This year's Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Mohamed ElBaradei is a proponent of small nuclear reactors. In a talk at MIT last week he cited a new report from the International Energy Agency that said world energy demand will increase by 50 percent in the next 25 years. Global warming emissions (CO2) will increase by the same percentage. Nuclear power could provide a significant amount of that power, without producing the carbon dioxide. One solution being proposed, according to ElBaradei, is to build hundreds of small nuclear power plants, each designed to serve a single town. Such plants could be built for a fraction of the cost of the current large-scale regional ones. And they could be installed without the need to also build an extensive and expensive power grid.

I think this is a good bridging plan until better technology becomes available.

Researchers at Argonne National Laboratory in Argonne, IL, described a concept for such a small-scale reactor this summer. One of the safeguards is a passive cooling system, which continues to work even if power goes down. The reactors could also operate for 30 years without refueling, which would mean fewer deliveries that could be hijacked. And stealing the fuel while it was in the reactor would require bringing to the site extensive heavy equipment, which would be easily visible by satellite, according to David Wade, Senior Technical Advisor at Argonne and one of the developers of the concept.

On the downside, building small reactors means losing out on the economy of scale that has driven a trend toward bigger and bigger reactors, says Wade. He hopes to make up for this by creating ways to mass-produce the reactors in modules that can be quickly assembled on site.

Non-nano policy: Shortening approval cycle for vaccines

The Wall Street Journal discusses plans by the FDA to expedite vaccine approval. Expedited approval processes and enhancing the overall speed and efficiency of validating the safety and effectiveness of new drugs and technology would be useful and critical in accelerate the adoption of new technology like molecular manufacturing with medical applications.

The FDA would quickly work to approve any generic versions of Roche Holding AG's antiviral Tamiflu. Roche has said it would set up licensing arrangements with other companies to produce Tamiflu as part of an effort to boost the supply of the drug, which governments are stockpiling in the event of a flu pandemic.

Dr. von Eschenbach, who took over the FDA about six weeks ago, said by working with the NIH -- which is helping to test the Sanofi bird-flu vaccine -- and companies in the beginning of the process that a vaccine or drug would then be able to be approved in about six to eight weeks once a formal approval application is submitted, rather than a more typical 10-month review period. He said by working with a company during the vaccine and drug development process that the FDA would be able to advise companies on the manufacturing and testing processes.

Dr. von Eschenbach, who also heads the National Cancer Institute, a unit of the NIH, said there are efforts under way at the NIH to develop new vaccines and flu treatments. Typically, the FDA doesn't get significantly involved in the drug development process and waits for companies to submit applications to approve a new drug or vaccine. The agency will advise a company in setting up proper clinical studies and other technical aspects before an application is submitted if requested by the company.

November 08, 2005

Singularity related: trying to map Brain cells to behavior

MIT's new McGovern Institute for Brain Research hopes to connect the dots between brain cell activity and behavior changes. When fully staffed, the Institute will house 16 principal investigators. One group of scientists will work to develop more sensitive and accurate imaging technologies, which can probe the activities of single neurons. Another team will investigate the impact of genetics on normal mental processes and disease. A third will use computational techniques to interpret large quantities of physiological data from live organisms in order to understand the neuronal bases of behavior.

November 07, 2005

somewhat related technology: Fast robot Muscles

MIT researchers, led by Professor Sidney Yip, have proposed a new theory that might eliminate one obstacle to more capable robots - the limited speed and control of the "artificial muscles" that perform such tasks. Currently, robotic muscles move 100 times slower than ours. But engineers using the Yip lab's new theory could boost those speeds - making robotic muscles 1,000 times faster than human muscles - with virtually no extra energy demands and the added bonus of a simpler design. This study appears in the Nov. 4 issue of the journal Physical Review Letters.

In the past few years, engineers have made the artificial muscles that actuate, or drive, robotic devices from conjugated polymers. "Conjugated polymers are also called conducting polymers because they can carry an electric current, just like a metal wire," says Xi Lin, a postdoctoral associate in Yip's lab. (Conventional polymers like rubber and plastic are insulators and do not conduct electricity.)

Conjugated polymers can actuate on command if charges can be sent to specific locations in the polymer chain in the form of "solitons" (charge density waves). A soliton, short for solitary wave, is "like an ocean wave that can travel long distances without breaking up," Yip adds. (See figures.) Solitons are highly mobile charge carriers that exist because of the special nature (the one-dimensional chain character) of the polymer.

Scientists already knew that solitons enabled the conducting polymers to conduct electricity. Lin's work attempts to explain how these materials can activate devices. This study is useful because until now, scientists, hampered by not knowing the mechanism, have been making conducting polymers in a roundabout way, by bathing (doping) the materials with ions that expand the volume of the polymer. That expansion was thought to give the polymers their strength, but it also makes them heavy and slow.

Lin discovered that adding the ions is unnecessary, because theoretically, shining a light of a particular frequency on the conducting polymer can activate the soliton. Without the extra weight of the added ions, the polymers could bend and flex much more quickly. And that rapid-fire motion gives rise to the high-speed actuation, that is, the ability to activate a device.

pre-Molecular manufacturing nanotechnology versus Cancer

A online Wired magazine article discussing the use of nanoparticles and nanoscale sensors for detecting and treating cancer

The National Cancer Institute, which recently announced two waves of funding for nanotech training and research, sees nanotechnology as vital to its stated goal of "eliminating suffering and death from cancer by 2015." Nanotech gives us the opportunity to detect cancer tumors at 1,000 cells, whereas we're now seeing them at 1 million cells. By the time you detect some cancers today, there's no option of curing them, only of prolonging life," said Sri Sridhar, director of Northeastern University's Nanomedicine Science and Technology Program. One such application involves metallic molecules that adhere to cancer cells and can then be heated with microwaves, a magnetic field or infrared light, destroying the tumor while leaving surrounding tissues unharmed. Researchers at Rice University have done just this with gold-coated particles and breast cancer tissue cultures.

We've become very good at building nanoparticles decorated with biological particles, from DNA to proteins," said Bob Langer, a professor of chemical and biochemical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Researchers are trying to create multi-function particles that detect and treat suspected cancer areas.

No less important is nanotechnology's possible use in collecting information about molecular processes. Combined with information about how cells and tissues interact, this could produce detailed digital models of cancer.

"We want to have quantitative computer simulations that will actually predict how a tumor will evolve in a patient," said Vito Quaranta, a cancer biology professor at Vanderbilt University's Integrative Cancer Biology Center. "One of the major problems today is that we're not capable of knowing to what extent and when a particular cancer will be invasive -- when it will spread from prostate to bone, lung to brain. It's the invasion that kills."

Physicians could use this knowledge to guide their treatment. Moreover, said Quaranta, they might even be able to predict a therapy's outcome by simulating how it would modify the tumor over time, perhaps even looking years into the future.

How soon these cancer nanotechnologies will be commercially available is hard to guess. Though the NCI's Cancer Nanotechnology Plan calls for clinical trials on out-of-body applications within three years, and trials on in-body therapies and diagnostics within five years, researchers are cautious about promising too much.

Although there are concerns about toxicity...since the goal is treat cancer and patients are often likely to die with current ineffective treatments could be expedited to market.

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