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My perspectives as an investor and consumer

A glimpse into the future V

Webster_Messenger1.  A new target may help maintain healthy blood pressure. In trying to understand the role of prostaglandins – a family of fatty compounds key to the cardiovascular system – in blood pressure maintenance, researchers at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine discovered that mice that lack the receptor for one type of prostaglandin – PG F2-alpha – have lower blood pressure and less atherosclerosis than their non-mutant brethren. The normal role for PG F2-alpha is to increase blood pressure and accelerate atherosclerosis, at least in rodents.  Targeting this pathway could represent a novel therapeutic approach to cardiovascular disease.  Results were published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.  The delicate balance the body maintains to keep blood pressure stable involves not only the prostaglandin system, but another biological pathway, the renin-angiotensin-aldosterone system, or RAAS.  Mice lacking the PG F2-alpha receptor also showed reduction in levels of renin, angiotensin I, and aldosterone, a biological situation leading to lower blood pressure.

2.  A smartphone can now serve as an ultrasound imager. William D. Richard and David Zar, researchers at Washington University in St. Louis, are bringing the minimalist approach to medical care and computing by coupling USB-based ultrasound probe technology with a smartphone, enabling a compact, mobile computational platform and a medical imaging device that fits in the palm of a hand.  It is now possible to build smartphone-compatible USB ultrasound probes for imaging the kidney, liver, bladder, and eyes, endocavity probes for prostate and uterine screenings and biopsies, and vascular probes for imaging veins and arteries for starting IVs and central lines.  The vision of the new system is to train people in remote areas of the developing world on the basics of gathering data with the phones and sending it to a centralized unit many miles, or half a world, away where specialists can analyze the image and make a diagnosis.  A typical, portable ultrasound device may cost as much as $30,000. Some of these USB-based probes sell for less than $2,000 with the goal of a price tag as low as $500.

3.  Blood cells can be reprogrammed to act as embryonic stem cells. In a recent study, U.S. researchers have reprogrammed cells found in circulating blood into cells that are molecularly and functionally indistinguishable from embryonic stem cells which provide a readily accessible source of stem cells and an alternative to harvesting embryonic stem cells. Embryonic stem cells have long been coveted for their potential to treat a multitude of diseases as a result of their unique properties of self-renewal and pluripotency (the ability to develop into any type of cell in the body), but their use has been the subject of political controversy.  To generate induced pluripotent stem cells (dubbed iPS cells), scientists isolated CD34+ cells – a type of stem cell that produces only blood cells – from blood samples.  The CD34+ cells were infected with viruses carrying reprogramming factors that can reset the blood cells to an embryonic state. The colonies of cells exhibited physical characteristics similar to embryonic stem (ES) cells and expressed the same markers as ES cells.

4.  A super-fast 167-processor chip is ultra energy-efficient. A new, extremely energy-efficient chip, containing an array of 167 processors, that provides breakthrough speeds for a variety of computing tasks has been designed by a group at the University of California, Davis. The chip, dubbed AsAP, is ultra-small, fully reprogrammable and highly configurable, so it can be widely adapted to a number of applications. The chip is designed for digital signal processing. While not the principal kind of processor chip used in desktop computers, digital signal processing chips are found in a myriad of everyday and specialized devices such as cell phones, MP3 music players, video equipment, anti-lock brakes and ultrasound and MRI medical imaging machines.  Twelve chips working together could perform more than half-a-trillion operations per second (.52 Tera-ops/sec) while using less power than a 7-watt light bulb – up to 10 times the speed of currently available chips while decreasing power consumption up to 75 times.  Details of the chip design have been published in IEEE Journal of Solid State Circuits.

5.  The future of infrastructure could be in self-healing concrete. A concrete material developed at the University of Michigan can heal itself when it cracks. No human intervention is necessary, just water and carbon dioxide.  Self-healing is possible because the material is designed to bend and crack in narrow hairlines rather than break and split in wide gaps, as traditional concrete behaves.  Self-healed specimens recovered most, if not all, of their original strength after researchers subjected them to a 3 percent tensile strain.  It’s the equivalent of stretching a 100-foot piece an extra three feet – enough strain to severely deform metal or catastrophically fracture traditional concrete.  Traditional concrete will fracture and cannot carry a load at .01 percent tensile strain.  Today, builders reinforce concrete structures with steel bars to keep cracks as small as possible. But they’re not small enough to heal, so water and deicing salts can penetrate to the steel, causing corrosion that further weakens the structure.  The self-healing concrete needs no steel reinforcement to keep crack width tight, so it eliminates corrosion.

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