An origami-inspired cage could lead to safer drones, gene therapy gives a 7-year-old boy life-saving new skin, and machine learning could help doctors identify patients at risk of suicide. Another week, another set of inspiring stories about science making the world a better place.
A Drone In A Cage
What is it? Researchers at Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) in Switzerland have designed a lightweight drone in a foldable cage inspired by origami.
Why does it matter? Multicopter drones show tremendous promise in delivering packages to hard-to-reach places, but they're often heavy and difficult to transport, and their whirling propellers could hurt people or property. EPFL's caged prototype protects against propeller damage. Operators can fold the cage when not in use, which makes it easier to stow or move.
How does it work? A lightweight carbon-fiber cage encloses the multicopter and parcel during flight, and the propellers automatically halt when the cage is open. 'With this new design, a recipient can easily and safely catch the approaching drone,' the drone's creators wrote in a study. They say this prototype, which weighs 2.2 pounds and measures roughly 2 feet by 1.4 feet when deployed, 'could scale up to fly 2 [kilogram] cargo over 15 [kilometers], which would cover 86 percent of the deliveries made by Amazon.com.'
New Skin, New Life
Scientists in Europe have used gene therapy to grow replacement skin for a 7-year-old boy . Image credit: Getty images.
What is it? Scientists in Europe have used gene therapy to grow replacement skin for a 7-year-old boy suffering from of a rare and painful genetic disease that had left 80 percent of his body without skin.
Why does it matter? Patients with junctional epidermolysis bullosa have skin that blisters and tears easily, which can lead to chronic wounds and infections and can carry an increased risk of skin cancer. Severe cases have a very high mortality rate. The boy in question had a 'devastating, life-threatening form of JEB,' according to the scientists who treated him.
How does it work? Doctors at the Children's Hospital at Ruhr University in Bochum, Germany, took a sample of the boy's skin. Then, researchers at the University of Modena and Reggio Emilia in Modena, Italy, used a virus to replace in his DNA a faulty version of the LAMB3 gene with the non-mutated form. Next they grew these engineered cells into multiple sheets of skin, which surgeons then grafted all over the boy's body. 'The regenerated epidermis remained robust and resistant to mechanical stress and did not develop blisters or erosions during the 21-month follow-up,' according to the team's paper, published in Nature. He can now lead a normal life, attending school and even play soccer with his dad.
A New Tool In Suicide Prevention?
'I can imagine a patient who doesn't say anything to their therapist, but they happen to have a scan, and that scan indicates suicidal ideation,' said Marcel Just, a psychology professor at Carnegie Mellon University. Image credit: Carnegie Mellon University.
What is it? Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh have taught a machine-learning algorithm to help identify patients with suicidal thoughts.
Why does it matter? More than 44,000 people commit suicide every year in the U.S. alone, according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. This new technology could help identify at-risk patients so that they can get help before it's too late. 'I can imagine a patient who doesn't say anything to their therapist, but they happen to have a scan, and that scan indicates suicidal ideation,' said Marcel Just, a psychology professor at Carnegie Mellon University and the study's lead author, in an interview. 'Wouldn't the therapist like to know that?'
How does it work? Researchers took two groups - one containing patients who'd expressed suicidal thoughts and one control group - and asked them to reflect on a series of words while an fMRI machine scanned their brains. They'd broken the words into three sets: positive, negative and suicide-associated. The scientists flagged the words that best discriminated between the two groups and then told a machine-learning program which of those words were correlated with suicidality. 'Based on the brain representations of these six concepts, their program was able to identify with 91 percent accuracy whether a participant was from the control or suicidal group,' according to Carnegie Mellon.
What Ewe Lookin' At?
What is it? Researchers at the University of Cambridge in the U.K. have taught sheep how to recognize four celebrity faces based only on two-dimensional images.
Why does it matter? Sheep are known, at least among experts, for their uncanny knack for recognizing faces (human and sheep alike). But specific details about their 'holistic face-processing abilities' are sparse. Scientists say their research could unlock clues about face-perception problems in patients with conditions like Huntington's disease.
How does it work? The team trained eight sheep to recognize four people - actors Emma Watson and Jake Gyllenhaal, TV journalist Fiona Bruce and former President Barack Obama - by rewarding them with food when they chose their photos rather than a different image. They then showed the sheep a mix of photos that included the celebrities and unknown faces, and the sheep chose the pre-learned face 80 percent of the time. 'These data show that sheep have advanced face-recognition abilities, comparable with those of humans and non-human primates,' the researchers conclude in their study. 'Our face-recognition paradigm provides a means for measuring cognitive function and efficacy of therapeutic agents in sheep models of neurodegenerative diseases such as [Huntington's disease] in which cognitive flexibility is impaired.'
Top image: Sheep are known, at least among experts, for their uncanny knack at recognizing faces. Image credit: Getty Images.
So Long, Suckers
'It's a non-chemical way of dealing with mosquitoes, so from that perspective, you'd think it would have a lot of appeal,' University of Maryland entomologist David O'Brochta told Nature. Image credit: Getty Images.
What is it? The EPA given Kentucky-based biotech company MosquitoMate permission to release its lab-grown mosquitoes carrying a bacteria that prevents them from reproducing.
Why does it matter? The Asian tiger mosquito carries sometimes fatal diseases such as dengue, yellow fever and Zika. 'It's a non-chemical way of dealing with mosquitoes, so from that perspective, you'd think it would have a lot of appeal,' University of Maryland entomologist David O'Brochta told Nature.
How does it work? Mosquito eggs fertilized by males carrying the bacterium Wolbachia pipientis won't hatch. The EPA says MosquitoMate can release infected males in 20 U.S. states and Washington, D.C., where they will in turn infect wild populations.