Humans have an amazing capacity for destruction. We blow stuff up, wipe things out, eradicate entire species, and still wander blithely along as though it’s God’s will or something. A single nuclear warhead could kill a couple million people in seconds. There are thousands of those bad boys dotting the Earth. If they all went off at once there are estimates that the top layer of the planet would vaporize. So there’s your happy thought for the day.
Back in September of 2012 I wrote a story about how we could all die a little more slowly, but still pretty damn quick, if all the bees disappeared. Essentially all pollinated plants would die, the animals that subsist on them would soon follow, and then we’re done. Figure about four years. Yes, there might be dystopian pockets of survivors, but the human race, for all intents and purposes, would be done.
Eijio Miyako, a chemist at AIST in Japan, takes the whole “end of the world due to lack of bees” thing seriously. And, unlike you and I, he’s a scientist and can do something about it.
Also, because he’s from Japan, his solution involves robot bees.
Stefan Kostarelis at Techly in Australia, tells us all about it.
In an example of life imitating art, scientists have come up with a technology straight out of an episode of Black Mirror: Bee-like pollinating drones.
A team at the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology (AIST) in Japan engineered the devices using a combination of horsehair, $USD 100 drones and a sticky ion gel.
It’s pretty simple really – first, the drones fly into flowers much like a bee would. Inside the flower, pollen gets stuck to the drone due to the combination of the ion gel and horsehair. That same pollen is then shaken off into the next flower, and so on. It’s just your run of the mill birds and the robots bees.
Popular Mechanics reports that Eijio Miyako, a chemist at AIST actually created the sticky ion gel by accident in 2007. The gel, which Miyako considered a failure, sat unused for a decade. When Miyako picked it up again recently he was pleased to find that it was still sticky and figured it would be perfect for his new project.
Miyako is now the project leader behind the “Robo-bees”. In the video above, you can see the first time that a drone has successfully pollinated a flower, in this case Japanese lilies. Blink and you’ll miss it!
“What’s wrong with regular bees?”, you may ask.
The answer is “nothing”, except for the fact that they have reportedly been dying at an unprecedented rate. Although the death of bees was a mystery at first, we now have a better idea of why it’s happening. And as usual, it looks like we are to blame. Predictable.
In 2014, Time reported on a study from Harvard’s School of Public Health. It found that pesticides were the cause of Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), which is the phenomenon in which worker bees just suddenly up and leave a colony without warning. The pesticides in question are those that contain neonicotinoids (NNIs) and they are partially or completely banned in the EU, Canada and the U.S.
Above, if you click on the article I wrote, there’s a link to Zom-Bee-Watch. When I wrote the article infected, and dangerous, bees were in very limited locales. They now cover about forty percent of the U.S. and are spreading. Those are bees that no longer pollinate. They just eat, breed, and die. Coupled with the drastic uptick in the number of bees just kicking the bucket this is a problem.
While “make a healthier planet” would be my go-to answer, robot bees can work in the interim.
So science marches on trying to make our lives better whether we want it to or not. One thing science has been assiduously working on is how to cure paralysis. Or, barring that, at least give the paralyzed a way to live normal lives. Two years ago I wrote about a scuba styled suit that a person could wear and regain total movement. It works. But issues with durability and cost have kept it from commercial production.
In the meantime, way back in 2016, a company called SuitX came up with an exoskeleton that worked, gave the person complete mobility, and allowed them to work a normal job. While flashier ideas have come and gone, SuitX is still here, working, and costs about as much as a car.
Signe Brewster at MIT’s Technology Review, tells us all about it.
Paralyzed from the waist down after a BMX accident, Steven Sanchez rolled into SuitX’s Berkeley, California, office in a wheelchair. A half-hour later he was standing and walking thanks to the Phoenix—a robotic exoskeleton now available for around $40,000.
The suit returns movement to wearers’ hips and knees with small motors attached to standard orthotics. Wearers can control the movement of each leg and walk at up to 1.1 miles per hour by pushing buttons integrated into a pair of crutches.
At 27 pounds, the Phoenix is among the lightest and cheapest medical exoskeletons. It also has unique abilities; the suit is modular and adjustable so it can adapt to, say, a relatively tall person who just needs mobility assistance for one knee.
A battery pack worn as a backpack powers the exoskeleton for up to eight hours. An app can be used to track the patient’s walking data. SuitX has mainly worked with patients with spinal cord injuries, who can use the Phoenix to walk again.
“We can’t really fix their disease. We can’t fix their injury. But what it would do is postpone the secondary injuries due to sitting,” says SuitX founder and CEO Homayoon Kazerooni. “It gives a better quality of life.”
The technology behind SuitX’s industrial and medical exoskeleton originated at the Robotics and Human Engineering Laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley, which Kazerooni leads. He said his major goal is to build a version of the exoskeleton for children. Children with neurological disorders sometimes need intensive walking training or can risk losing their mobility.
The device could also have therapeutic benefits for people who have experienced a stroke or other motor injury, but more research needs to be conducted.
Since this article came out SuitX has made tremendous advances. Their goal is to make a suit that is as lightweight as possible that can still provide the support and mobility a person requires.
But not all research is being done in the areas of exoskeletons. In Australia they are developing a bionic spine which can control prosthetic limbs, mobility devices such as mechanized wheel chairs, and many other things that allow paralyzed people to become functional. It is, literally, implanted at the base of the patient’s spine and takes over motor control.
Partly based on that research scientists at the University of California came up with a cap that stimulates brain activity and allows a patient to walk unaided.
It’s days like this that make you proud to be human. Using the power of the patient’s mind, scientists have enabled a man completely paralyzed in both legs to walk again. And this astonishing feat didn’t involve the help of an exoskeleton or robotic limbs, and no brain implants were required, making this a first for rehabilitation.
The patient was a 26-year-old man who had no motor (movement) function in his lower limbs due to a spinal cord injury sustained five years ago. He also lost sensation below his injury, although he could just about feel when his bladder was full.
Describing the results in the Journal of Neuroengineering and Rehabilitation, the team’s goal was to allow him to regain voluntary control of his legs using his brain, but without the need for invasive brain surgery. To achieve this, the researchers created a brain-computer interface system using an electroencephalogram (EEG) cap to read patterns of brain activity while he thought about walking.
Next, he underwent training to learn how to acquire brain control of an avatar’s walking within a virtual reality environment. Once he achieved this, he then had to build up strength in his leg muscles that had deteriorated through a lack of use, which involved electrical stimulation combined with weight shifting maneuvers.
After his muscles were reconditioned enough to stand, it was time for the really hard work to begin. Instead of going for gold straight away, the team first got him to practice walking movements while he was suspended a few centimeters off the ground. As he thought about walking, his brain signals (read by the EEG cap) bypassed his damaged spinal cord and were pinged to electrodes that had been positioned around his knees, providing muscular stimulation. Nineteen sessions later, the man had improved so much that he was ready to put his feet to the ground.
Wearing a system that supported his weight and helped prevent falls, he was able to successfully translate what he had learned and walked unsuspended. Over time, his control improved and he was able to walk several meters.
An undeniably incredible feat, but whether or not such a system could ultimately offer benefits to the wider population will rest on future trials involving more people. Obviously everyone is different, as are their injuries, but it is hoped that this technology could benefit many people. However, it might not be suitable in some circumstances.
“It can be speculated that a very severe traumatic brain injury in tandem with a spinal cord injury could prevent this brain-computer interface system from working,” An Do, one of the study’s lead researchers, told IFLScience.
There is also, as always, room for improvement, with the technology requiring tweaking and streamlining, which Do predicts will take a significant amount of time. Do also said that the team is working towards developing a simplified version as well as a system that would involve a brain implant, which could potentially offer improved control.
The link in the article for the Journal of Neuroscience will take you to the doctors who are working on this. It’s not commercially available yet but candidates are still being accepted. Since it’s a study there is no cost involved other than travel.
But the absolute best news comes from the work of Dr. Edward D. Wirth III, chief medical director of Asterias Biotherapeutics. He has come up with a way to use stem cells to regrow euro pathways and allow a patient to regain full mobility with no artificial enhancements.
Spinalcord.com has the full story.
Scientists have begun using stem cell injections to treat those who have been paralyzed in accidents resulting in a spinal cord injury. In March 2016, Kristopher Boesen (Kris) was in a car accident that paralyzed him from the neck down. After the accident, Kris had difficulty breathing on his own due to his injuries and was told he may never be able to regain control of his limbs again.
Kris could undergo the standard surgery given to patients suffering from a spinal cord injury that would stabilize the spine, but it would most likely do little to nothing for his motor and sensory functions. Kris did not choose to do this surgery. Instead, he discovered a clinical trial being done involving treatment with stem cells which was looking to enroll patients just like him and decided to take the chance.
The clinical trial was being led by Dr. Edward D. Wirth III, chief medical director of Asterias Biotherapeutics. It involves injections of “AST-OPC1– an agent consisting of oligodendrocyte progenitor cells (OPCs) that derive from embryonic stem cells. OPCs are the myelin-forming cells of the brain and spinal cord that help nerve cells to function.”
This treatment is supposed to reduce the size of the injury cavity and replace the myelin coating of the nerve cells, stimulate nerve cell growth, and produce blood vessels that will bring oxygen and healing to the injured site. In order to participate in this study, Kris was required to be able to breathe on his own. With the help and care of his respiratory team, he was breathing without a ventilator and approved for the trial.
The National Spinal Cord Injury Statistical Center states that “each year there are approximately 17,000 new cases of spinal cord injury in the United States.” This study is just one example of how regenerative medicine is bringing hope to those who had thought they would never be able to move their limbs again. The procedure that Kris took part in was a part of a phase 1/2a clinical trial evaluating the safety of the doses being given to the patients. The AST-OPC1 cells being injected are developed by the Asterias Biotherapeutics based in Fremont, CA. These cells come from the embryonic stem cells that are found in the brain and the spinal cord.
The clinical trial is now at the 10 million cell level, which is the amount that was found to be most effective in the pre-clinical studies. In order to be involved in the study, “enrollees must be between 18 and 69, and their condition must be stable enough to receive an injection of AST-OPC1 between the 14th and 30th days following their injury. Keck Medical Center is one of the 6 sites in the United States that is authorized to enroll subjects and administer the clinical trial dosage.”
After 2 weeks, Kris was able to achieve some minor motion in his arms and hands. It took about 3 months, but he was eventually able to write his own name with pen and paper and accomplish a good deal of other normal daily tasks. Kris went from having complete immobility to being able to function on his own again.
If you, or someone you know, is interested in, and qualified for, this study please contact The Keck Institute via the link. They have six locations in the U.S.
ALl in all not everything’s bleak. Science is making great strides in many areas, whether people believe in it or not.
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