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Robotic Device Provides Extra Fingers to Enhance Human Grip

Faye Wu wearing robotic device

Faye Wu wears the supernumerary robotic fingers (Melanie Gonick, MIT)

18 July 2014. Engineers at Massachusetts Institute of Technology designed a glove-like robotic device that adds two more fingers and coordinates with a person’s hand to help with manual activities. Mechanical engineering professor Harry Asada and graduate student Faye Wu discussed the device earlier this week at the Robotics Science and Systems conference in Berkeley, California.

Asada and Wu are seeking to build a device that can help people with limited hand functions or only one hand perform day-to-day activities, such as lifting objects or opening a letter. Rather than building a device that requires separate commands, the researchers instead are building a system that adjusts to and coordinates with an individual’s natural gripping patterns.

The device designed by Asada and Wu, called supernumerary robotic fingers, has two larger fingers on either side of a glove with sensors and actuators worn on the wrist. The two larger fingers make it possible for the wearer to hold and lift heavier objects.

The researchers devised an algorithm to coordinate the two extra fingers with the motions of the wearer’s natural hand and five fingers. In first learning the physiology of hand movements, Asada and Wu discovered the muscles in a person’s hands and fingers are highly coordinated. And while grasping various objects requires some differences in muscle movements, they discovered in grasping any object, the hand uses the same basic two actions: bringing the fingers together and closing them in toward the palm.

When adding the two robotic fingers, Wu — who conducted tests of the device — discovered a similar pattern. She grabbed various objects, from a cookie to a football, multiple times and from various angles, with the hand assisted by the robotic device, recording the movements and actions each time. The tests revealed two or three basic grasping actions, when using the robotic device.

The algorithm then reads the posture of the wearer’s hand and coordinates the movements of the two extra fingers to enhance a person’s grip when performing manual activities. In further  development of the device, Wu seeks to better understand the amount of force needed to assist the human grasp. “With an object that looks small but is heavy, or is slippery,” says Wu in a university statement, “the posture would be the same, but the force would be different, so how would it adapt to that?”

The researchers hope to compile a collection of posture and force patterns for the algorithm in next versions of the device. Because of subtle differences in grasping behavior between individuals, future versions may need to learn a person’s grasp, much like voice command systems today learn a person’s vocal patterns.

In the following video Asada and Wu discuss and demonstrate the supernumerary robotic fingers.

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U.S. Energy, Ag Depts Fund Genomic Research for Biofuels

Flowering sorghum (Agricultural Research Service/USDA)

Flowering sorghum (Agricultural Research Service/USDA)

18 July 2014. The U.S. energy and agriculture departments are funding 10 new studies that aim to improve plant feedstocks for biofuels and other bio-based products. Department of Energy (DoE) is contributing $10.6 million in 2014, while Department of Agriculture (USDA) is adding $2 million. The studies run for 3 years.

The joint DoE/USDA Plant Feedstock Genomics for Bioenergy program started in 2006 with the aim of improving the capacity of renewable feedstocks for biofuels, such as ethanol, and chemicals. The research is particularly focused on dedicated plant species that grow on land that can’t support food crops and require less intensive production practices.

The new projects funded for 2014 are:

- Patrick Brown, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign ($1.3 million) is studying genetic variations in 600 types of sorghum to reveal traits that affect their cellulosic content and potential energy yields.

- Amy Brunner, Virginia Tech, Blacksburg ($1.4 million) is investigating an integrator of signaling pathways in poplar trees considered a biofuel source with high potential, that regulate their seasonal growth and dormancy, and respond to day-length and nutrient stress.

- Robin Buell, Michigan State University, East Lansing ($1 million) is researching genetic mechanisms and outputs, such as metabolites and RNAs — nucleic acids providing genetic instructions to cells — in switchgrass to better understand how this feedstock adapts to cold and to improve its breeding efficiency.

- Luca Comai, University of California, Davis ($1.3 million) is studying the dosage of genes in hybrid varieties of poplar trees to identify and field test dosage variations that contribute to their optimal biofuel feedstock properties.

- Maria Harrison, Boyce Thompson Institute for Plant Research, Ithaca, New York ($864,400) is investigating the genomes of Brachypodium distachyon, a model grass species, as well as the biofuel feedstock sorghum to identify proteins in sorghum development that can benefit its breeding and sustainability.

- Michael Marks, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis ($1 million) is researching the agronomic traits of pennycress — a hearty, low-growing, flowering weed — as a potential oilseed feedstock for biodiesel and cover crop in the upper Midwest.

- John McKay, Colorado State University, Fort Collins ($1.5 million) is studying the newly sequenced genome of Camelina, an oilseed that grows on marginal land with no irrigation,  to improve its performance as a biofuel feedstock in arid regions of the West.

- Todd Mockler, Donald Danforth Plant Science Center, St. Louis, Missouri ($1.5 million) is investigating Brachypodium distachyon genomes to find traits in the model grass plant that can improve drought resistance and other desirable properties of engineered bioenergy grass feedstocks.

- John Mullet, Texas A&M University, College Station ($1.2 million) is researching traits of sorghum and related plant species to increase their water efficiency and drought resistance, as well as field testing engineered hybrid sorghum varieties.

- Erik Sacks, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign ($1.5 million) is studying miscanthus to identify and field test molecular markers associated with traits that improve this plant feedstock’s yield and adaption, as well as those of related sugar and energy cane varieties.

The research is not only expected to advance knowledge of biofuel feedstocks, but also contribute to economic development in rural areas, by providing additional opportunities for growers using marginal lands and needing few resources.

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Arcadia Awarded U.S. Patent for Longer Shelf-Life Tomato

Tomatoes at farmers market

(A. Kotok)

17 July 2014. Arcadia Biosciences, an agricultural biotechnology company in Davis, California received a patent for its engineered tomato that ripens slower after harvesting. Patent number 8,772,606, “Non-transgenic tomato varieties having increased shelf life post-harvest,” was awarded by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office on 8 July to two inventors and assigned to Arcadia Biosciences.

The technology covered by the patent seeks to lengthen the amount of time vine-ripened tomatoes can sit on the shelf, and still have the texture, firmness, and taste desired by consumers. Traditional breeding methods, says Arcadia, are labor intensive and can take years before producing noticeable results, which even then may add only modest amounts of time to shelf life.

Many tomatoes sold in stores are picked before ripening, says the company, which allows them to develop a red color during transit and storage, but they lose the vine-ripened flavor sought by consumers. In addition, Arcadia is seeking a process that would not require introducing a gene from another plant to slow ripening, given some consumer resistance to transgenetic modification.

The Arcadia solution covered by the patent induces a mutation in at least one of the tomato’s non-ripening genes that changes the sequence of genetic molecules in the tomato to preserve the color and firmness of the fruit after harvesting. The patent also covers proteins and amino acids produced by the mutated non-ripening genes, as well as food products produced by tomatoes grown with the altered genes.

Arcadia’s technology for extending shelf life in tomatoes and other produce is based on a genetic screening technique called Targeting Induced Local Lesions in Genomes or TILLING, first developed at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle. With TILLING, Aracadia produces seeds and plants with the desired mutations, then screens the DNA from plants until the desired mutation and traits are identified.

The company says it first developed its extended shelf-life technology under a Department of Defense contract, where DoD was seeking ways of preserving fresh produce for longer periods in remote regions. “This technology,” says Arcadia CEO Eric Rey in a company statement, “offers tremendous value for both producers and consumers of tomato food products, including fresh market tomatoes, canned tomatoes, ketchups, soups, sauces, pastes and juices.”

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Food Safety Test Systems Company Raises $60 Million in IPO

Wall Street signs

(A. Kotok)

17 July 2014. Roka Bioscience Inc., a developer of molecular-level food safety tests in Warren, New Jersey, issued 5 million shares in its initial public offering (IPO) yesterday. The company priced the shares at $12.00, raising $60 million. Roka Bioscience will trade on the Nasdaq exchange under the symbol ROKA.

The company develops tests for foodborne pathogens, such as salmonella and E. coli, by testing samples for suspect RNA, the nucleic acids produced by genes with instructions governing the functions of living cells. Roka’s systems analyze ribosomal RNA that regulates production of proteins. The company says organisms produce many more copies of ribosomal RNA than DNA, providing an easier target and higher test sensitivity.

Roka’s says its technology automates the testing process, making it possible to test samples with little or no further preparation. Its tests capture genetic material that bind to magnetic particles and separated in purified form. RNA molecules in the samples are then amplified and combined with a luminescent agent that responds to detectors for specific pathogens.

The company offers testing equipment under its Atlas brand, covering tests for two types of E. coli and listeria, as well as salmonella. The company says the Atlas equipment fully automates the testing process, even producing bar codes for samples.

Roka Biosciences was formed in 2009 as a spin-off from the medical diagnostics company Gen-Probe, now called Hologic. The company says it raised some $105 million in four funding rounds since 2009, from venture investors OrbiMed Advisors, New Enterprise Associates, TPG Biotech, and Aisling Capital. At 12:30 pm today Roka’s stock was trading at $11.90 a share.

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Hat tip: Fortune/Term Sheet

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Immunocore, Lilly Collaborate on T-Cell Cancer Therapies


T-cell (NIAID/NIH)

16 July 2014. Drug maker Eli Lilly and Company in Indianapolis and Immunocore Ltd., a biotechnology company in Oxford, U.K. are jointly discovering new cancer therapies based on T-cells in the body’s immune system. The deal will pay Immunocore $15 million for each new therapy identified, with additional payments of $10 million for each therapy candidate the companies agree to develop into clinical stages.

Immunocore’s technology platform harnesses T-cells in the immune system to generate an immune response to fight cancer. The technology designs T-cell receptors, viral fragments appearing on the surface of T lymphocytes, the white blood cells in the immune system that fight invading viruses. These receptors attract the antigens that bind with antibodies, the molecules that do the fighting.

With this technology, Immunocore produces engineered molecules called Immune Mobilizing Monoclonal T-Cell Receptors Against Cancer or ImmTACs, which find and control disease cells that would normally escape recognition by the immune system. ImmTACs are monoclonal or highly targeted T-cell receptors that control diseased cells more effectively than monoclonal antibodies, the usual method employed with cancer immunotherapies.

The engineered T-cell receptors, says the company, enable the killing of cancer cells aimed at proteins on the surface of the cell — like monoclonal antibodies — but unlike monoclonal antibodies, can also find targets inside the cells, including proteins secreted by the cells. Because of their precise targeting, says Immunocore, ImmTACs destroy only cancer cells, while avoiding damage to healthy cells.

Under the agreement, Immunocore receives from Lilly an initial payment of $15 million for each new ImmTAC-based therapy discovered, with the two companies jointly selecting the cancers to address. Each new therapy candidate will progress through preclinical stages.

Should the companies agree to develop and commercialize therapies beyond the preclinical stage, Lilly will pay Immunocore $10 million for each candidate, with the companies sharing profits and costs. If Immunocore chooses not to take part in development of the candidates, it can still be eligible for future milestone payments and royalties.

Immunocore, founded in 2008, is a spin-off company from Avidex, a biotechnology enterprise itself spun-off from Oxford University in 1999. Avidex was founded by Oxford immunologist Bent Jakobsen, who is now Immunocore’s chief scientist. The company has one immunotherapy candidate, code-named IMCgp100, in intermediate-stage clinical trials as a treatment for malignant melanoma.

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Geisinger, Indivumed Partner on Personalized Cancer Therapy

DNA in test tube


15 July 2014. Geisinger Health System that serves central and eastern Pennsylvania is partnering with Indivumed GmbH, a biotech company and biobank in Hamburg, Germany to provide individualized cancer diagnostics for Geisinger clients. Financial details of the deal first announced in May 2013, but formalized this week, were not disclosed.

Indivumed maintains a biorepository of tumor samples from about 20,000 cancer patients, which are collected and preserved within 10 minutes of removal for biopsies or resection to limit changes in proteins expressed from tumor cells. This collection of samples serves as a base for research on cancer biomarkers and drug screening, as well as providing insights for physicians in determining treatments for their patients. The company says it adds about 1,500 new cases each year.

Under the agreement, Geisinger will share with Indivumed tissue and blood samples from consenting cancer patients. The quantity of tissue removed during resection needed for diagnosis will be saved in Geisinger’s MyCode genetic repository with some 45,000 samples. The MyCode program performs a genomic sequencing of the cancerous tissue which is linked to the patient’s individual health record, but also shared in anonymous form in a research database.

The remainder of the patient’s tissue sample will be analyzed by Indivumed, to develop an individualized cancer therapy for the patient. Indivumed plans to integrate its biobanking standards with Geisinger’s electronic health records and clinical data repository to form a joint diagnostics platform.

In January 2014, Geisinger and Regeneron Pharmaceuticals in Tarrytown, New York announced a plan to collect blood specimens from 100,000 Geisinger patients for DNA sequencing by Regeneron. The results will be linked to patients’ individual health records at Geisinger and in its MyCode database to provide more individualized therapies.

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Novartis Licensing Smart Lens Technology from Google

Smart lens on fingertip

Smart lens (Google)

15 July 2014. The Alcon division of pharmaceutical company Novartis is licensing the rights to Google’s so-called smart lens technology for medical applications involving the eyes. Financial terms of the licensing agreement between Alcon that develops vision care products for Novartis and Google[x], part of the company’s research labs, were not disclosed.

Google[x] announced in January 2014 its smart contact lens project to embed sensors in contact lens that can analyze the composition of tears to gauge blood glucose levels for people with diabetes. The prototype layered a miniaturized glucose sensor and wireless transmitter between two soft contact lenses that measures blood glucose levels up to once a second.

The technology was developed in Google by Brian Otis and Babak Parviz, two research scientists who previously collaborated at University of Washington, and were originally recruited to work on Google Glass. The company said at the time it completed clinical studies of the device and talked with the Food and Drug Administration, but was still seeking partners to take the technology to market.

Novartis says it aims to combine Alcon’s expertise in medical issues involving the eyes with Google’s experience in low-power and miniaturized electronics. Alcon already offers contact lenses, prescription medicines for eye disorders, over-the-counter eye care items, and intraocular surgical products, such as those used in cataract procedures.

The company plans to further develop the smart lens application for people with diabetes, to assess glucose levels in tear fluid and transmit the data to a wireless device. Novartis also is interested in developing a contact or intraocular lens that can restore the eyes’ ability to focus on objects up close for individuals with presbyopia, a condition that makes focusing on near objects difficult for people as they age.

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Foam/Wax Material Adapted for Shape-Changing Robotics

Anette Hosoi

Anette Hosoi (Arthur Petron, MIT)

14 July 2014. Engineers at Massachusetts Institute of Technology developed a process for combining foam and wax materials into components that allow robot devices to become pliable for changing their shape, yet return to a rigid state when needed to do their tasks. The team from the lab of mechanical engineering professor Anette Hosoi, with colleagues from Max Planck Institute for Dynamics and Self-Organisation in Germany and Stony Brook University in New York, published its findings online on 30 June in the journal Macromolecular Materials and Engineering (paid subscription required).

The researchers were seeking a technology to would allow creation of robotic devices that can squeeze through small spaces, even inside the body. Yet the devices would also need to retain their strength and rigidity to apply pressure to objects in their environment to perform their tasks. In addition, a rigid state is also more desirable for predicting and controlling movements of the robot.

To meet these seemingly contradictory properties, the team started with open-cell polyurethane foam that could be squeezed down to a fraction of its original size. To provide the stiffness and rigidity, the researchers coated the foam with wax. In order to switch the pieces from rigid to soft and pliable, the pieces were wired to allow an electric current to flow through the supporting matrix, with the heat from the current melting the wax.

Melting the wax also provides a repair function. “This material is self-healing,” says Hosoi in an MIT statement, “So if you push it too far and fracture the coating, you can heat it and then cool it, and the structure returns to its original configuration.” Cutting off the current then allows the wax to cool and revert back to its original rigid state.

By using commonplace materials, like polyurethane foam and wax, Hosoi and colleagues kept the cost of their process to a minimum, but it restricted their ability to precisely define the properties of the new material. The team found it could gain more control over the materials’ qualities by 3-D printing the foam structure to determine the position of struts and pores.

Hosoi’s lab plans to test more robust coatings, such as solder, and investigate unconventional materials, such as liquids with suspended particles that respond to electric current or magnetic fields.

In the following video, Hosoi and first author Nadia Cheng tell more about and demonstrate the materials.

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Chip Device Developed to Quickly Test for Type 1 Diabetes

Brian Feldman holds chip device

Brian Feldman holds chip device for type 1 diabetes testing (Norbert von der Groeben, Stanford University)

14 July 2014. Medical researchers at Stanford University in California invented a small, handheld microchip that more quickly and easily tests for type 1 diabetes than current methods. The team led by Stanford pediatric endocrinologist Brian Feldman published its results online yesterday in the journal Nature Medicine (paid subscription required). They are also starting a company to bring their invention to market.

Type 1 diabetes is an inherited auto-immune disorder where the body does not produce insulin, and is diagnosed primary in children or young adults. With the the recent increase in childhood obesity, however, it’s becoming more difficult to tell the difference just by the age of patients between type 1 and type 2 diabetes, which is often the result of obesity in people much older. Current testing methods for auto-antibodies — the aberrant molecules that prevent creation of insulin — are labor-intensive, expensive (several hundred dollars, say the authors), use radioactive materials, and require up to 7 days for a lab to turn around results.

Thus, there’s a need for a quicker, inexpensive method to determine if a person, particularly a child, with diabetes has auto-antibodies, since it can determine the type of disease and treatments prescribed. The technology developed by Feldman’s team uses microchips from glass plates coated with gold nanoparticles that interact with near infrared light in a fluorescent effect that illuminates in the presence of the auto-antibodies.

The researchers tested the chip with blood samples from people newly diagnosed with diabetes, as well as those without diabetes. The tests showed a high sensitivity for type 1 diabetes antibodies and also identified other biomarkers for the disorder. The team compared the results to current diagnostic methods with the same subjects for validation.

The authors estimated the chip will cost $20 to produce, and one chip can be used up to 15 times. The chip also requires a pin-prick amount of blood, much less than needed by current methods.

The university has filed for U.S. patents on the chip technology and its use to screen for type 1 diabetes auto-antibodies. Members of the Stanford team are also forming a company to develop a commercial version of the test for review by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Feldman believes the new diagnostic method is so easy and inexpensive, it can also be used to screen for auto-antibodies in the population at large. “With the new test, not only do we anticipate being able to diagnose diabetes more efficiently and more broadly,” says Feldman in a university statement,” we will also understand diabetes better, both the natural history and how new therapies impact the body.”

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Text Messages Help Young Adults Reduce Binge Drinking

Ambulances at night

(Highway Patrol Images/Flickr)

11 July 2014. Medical researchers at University of Pittsburgh show mobile phone text messages can provide feedback to young adults with a history of alcohol abuse that cuts their binge drinking. Findings from the team led by emergency medicine professor Brian Suffoletto were published online earlier this week in the journal Annals of Emergency Medicine.

Suffoletto and colleagues were seeking a way of influencing young men and women, age 18 to 25, who already visited hospital emergency rooms as a result of hazardous drinking behavior. Their study tested the use of short message service, or SMS, texts as a medium for catching these young adults before they made their weekend drinking plans.

The authors cite data showing about half of the estimated 50,000 young adults each day visiting emergency departments have hazardous drinking behaviors. While steps like screening and referrals for treatment can be done while the individuals are in the care of clinicians, only a minority of comprehensive full-time trauma centers (15%) take these steps, and even then, report mixed results.

The need, say the authors, is for a way for clinicians serving this population to communicate with young adults about their drinking behavior away from the emergency department. Mobile phones offer a medium for reaching this age group. A Pew survey in 2011 shows 95 percent of young adults own a mobile phone, and nearly all (97%) of these phone owners send or receive text messages, averaging about 50 texts a day. Other studies show text messages have at least the potential of influencing health-related behaviors, including smoking cessation.

The Pittsburgh team recruited 765 individuals, age 18 to 25, who visited emergency rooms in western Pennsylvania, and with a history of hazardous drinking behavior. Participants in the study were randomly divided into three groups, receiving for 12 weeks one of two types of message interactions, or a control group that received no message at all.

- In one test group, participants received a text message asking about their drinking plans for the weekend. If the participant indicates heavy drinking — more than 4 or 5 drinks in a 24-hour period — he or she received a message expressing concern and suggesting they set a goal to cut down on drinking that week. If the individual responded positively to the feedback, he or she received positive reinforcement. If the person ignored the message or refused to set a goal, he or she was asked to think about their decision.

- Participants in a second test group received a text message asking about drinking plans, with no feedback on their responses.

After 12 weeks, study participants receiving the initial query message and feedback reduced their binge drinking occasions from 3 or 4 on average before the study to 1 or 2. About 1 in 7 (15%) of those receiving the full array of texts reported no occasions of drinking at all. In addition, the number of drinks per day consumed in this group was reduced by 31 percent.

Among participants receiving no messages, heavy drinking occasions increased by 39 percent after 12 weeks. Participants receiving only the initial query message likewise increased their binge drinking occasions, but by a smaller percentage (10%).

The authors believe the results show hospital emergency rooms can keep in touch with patients exhibiting hazardous behavior with inexpensive and ubiquitous mobile phone technology. “The emergency department,” says Suffoletto in a university statement, “provides a unique opportunity to screen young adults for drinking problems and to intervene to reduce future risk.”

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