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With Some Structure, Stem Cells Might Still Stop Vision Loss

Getting older is supposed to give you perspective. But for one out of five people over the age of 65, it does the opposite. Macular degeneration is a common progressive eye condition, one that thins and breaks down a tissue behind the center of the retina. Without that tissue, the light-sensing cells it supports atrophy and die, making it impossible to get a clear picture of anything straight ahead of you—like, say, the faces of your loved ones or anything past your steering wheel. Treatments can slow the loss of vision, but there’s no way to reverse it.

Which is why scientists have long been excited about the prospect of using stem cells to restore that tissue, and with it the sharp central vision necessary for driving, reading, and navigating the world. Clinical trials in the last few years have shown that injecting stem cell-derived retinal pigment cells into the eye can be done safely. But so far they haven’t been that effective, because the support cells often don’t wind up in the right place. They need a little help, a little structure.

And for the first time, that’s exactly what a group of scientists from the University of Southern California are giving them. By building a synthetic scaffold, the team of bioengineers could get retinal pigment cells derived from embryonic stem cells into a single, fixed layer that mimics the natural tissue. And when ophthalmologist Amir Kashani and Mark Humayun surgically cemented the implant beneath the retinas of four patients, the new cells didn’t just stay put—they began activating photoreceptors that had gone dormant in the damaged tissue above.

The researchers published initial results from this first human clinical trial Wednesday in the journal Science Translational Medicine. The implant successfully stopped further vision loss in all four patients in follow-ups that ranged from four months to a year. The youngest patient, a 69-year-old woman, actually got some vision back. She went from only being able to see seven letters on an eyesight test—you know, the one where the letters of the alphabet get smaller and smaller each row you go down—to being able to see 24 just four months post-surgery.

Of course, with a sample size this small it’s impossible to say whether the improvement is statistically (or clinically) significant. The study will continue enrolling until it gets 20 patients, and will follow them for five years. “We certainly need more subjects to be able to say how it works and when it works, and even why it works,” says Kashani. “But the fact we’re getting any improvement in any of these patients who have such advanced diagnoses is a pretty good sign of its potential.”

To pass regulatory muster, treatments like this one—which would be manufactured as an off-the-shelf implant—will require much bigger, longer, more prospective studies to prove their effectiveness. As more of them inch closer to commercialization, the Food and Drug Administration has begun cracking down on the more than 600 clinics across the US that hawk stem cells harvested from the blood and fat of patients, claiming they can treat everything from arthritis to autism. In 2015, doctors at one such clinic in Florida charged three elderly women with macular degeneration $5,000 each to inject these kinds of stem cells into their eyes. All three went blind.

Last August the FDA sent a warning letter to the clinic, which has since ceased administering the treatment for age-related vision loss. “Without commitment to the principles of adequate evidence generation that have led to so much medical progress, we may never see stem cell therapy reach its full potential,” wrote former FDA Commissioner Robert Califf, in an editorial that accompanied a case study of one of the Florida women in the New England Journal of Medicine.

It’s a concern that researchers like Kashani share. The implants he’s studying are the result of a decade of lab work at public research institutions and private companies in southern California. And he fears that in that decade, stem cell treatments have been tarnished by the doctors that rushed ahead to turn a quick profit. “It makes it more difficult when you lose a lot of public trust, frankly,” says Kashani. “At the end of the day you can’t develop these therapies without patient involvement.” A bonafide stem cell cure for macular degeneration is going to take more than a little perspective. It’s going to take patience, too.

Stem Cell Hopes

  • Stem cells have the potential to treat a wide range of diseases, but therapies administered by stem cell clinics across the US are not FDA-approved.
  • Such experimental regenerative medicines got a big boost from the 21st Century Cures Act.
  • And the results can be truly astonishing: In one case, scientists used genetically corrected stem cells to grow a new skin for a boy with a rare genetic disorder.

Read More On This At Science Latest

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Science & Technology

Here’s How Cars Are Secretly Making You Sleepier

Most of us have probably felt sleepy on a car journey, but it’s not always due to an early start, or a long day, or a lack of caffeine.

New research shows that something in the actual act of car travel can make even the most alert of us start to feel drowsy.

It’s all to do with the vibrations a car makes as it moves: they can bring on sleepiness in just 15 minutes, the new study shows.

That’s something for both car manufacturers and road safety experts to think about, according to the researchers from RMIT University in Australia. They want to conduct further studies into how car seat vibrations could be secretly bringing on sleep.

“When you’re tired, it doesn’t take much to start nodding off and we’ve found that the gentle vibrations made by car seats as you drive can lull your brain and body,” says one of the team, Stephen Robinson.

sleep drive 2The virtual simulator. (RMIT)

“Our study shows steady vibrations at low frequencies – the kind we experience when driving cars and trucks – progressively induce sleepiness even among people who are well rested and healthy.”

Robinson and his colleagues hooked 15 volunteers up to a virtual simulator that they could vibrate at different frequencies. The volunteers were tested twice, once with no vibration, and once with low-frequency 4-7KHz vibrations.

They then measured the heart rate variability (HRV) of the participants over the course of each 60-minute session. HRV is an indicator of drowsiness because it shows the body tweaking its central nervous system as it gets tired.

The monitors showed drowsiness kicking in for the drivers after just 15 minutes. On average, the drowsiness was “significant” by 30 minutes, and the volunteers continued to feel sleepier and sleepier until the tests finished.

What might be happening, the researchers say, is that the brain becomes synchronised to the vibrations and enters an early stage of sleep – hence why you might get a whole car full of people nodding off on a long trip.

The study does have some limitations we should talk about: only 15 people were tested, and at only one narrow range of frequencies.

They were also sent down a rather monotonous, two-lane virtual highway, without the distractions of a real drive.

But with tiredness a factor in around 1 in 5 fatal accidents on the road, it’s important that we find out exactly what’s going on. The researchers want to continue their work by looking at bigger groups of people and more ranges of frequencies.

Even if the effect can’t be negated completely, changes in car seat design could minimise it. In fact, the study team thinks the opposite effect could be engineered – at least until self-driving cars arrive and we can all fall asleep in peace.

“Our research also suggests that vibrations at some frequencies may have the opposite effect and help keep people awake,” says Robinson.

“So we also want to examine a wider range of frequencies, to inform car designs that could potentially harness those ‘good vibrations’.”

The research has been published in Ergonomics.

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New BlackFly flying car prototype that anyone can pilot

A Silicon Valley startup has developed a flying car prototype that it claims ‘anyone can pilot.’

Called BlackFly, the single-seat, all-electric aircraft doesn’t require the flyer to have a pilot license in order to operate it in the US, according to Palo Alto-based Opener.

Opener first drew up concepts for BlackFly nine years ago and has now built an early prototype that can travel 25 miles at speeds of up to 62mph.

A Silicon Valley startup has developed a flying car prototype that it claims ‘anyone can pilot.’ Called BlackFly, the single-seat, all-electric aircraft doesn’t require a pilot’s license to fly

BlackFly is an ultralight vehicle that consumes less energy than a traditional electric car and is also built to be steathily quiet.

The battery can be recharged in as little as 25 minutes.

Users don’t need a pilot’s license to operate it, but they must take part in minimal training, including sitting in a simulator for about five minutes.

It’s powered by eight, small electric motors and controlled using a responsive joystick.

Opener CEO Marcus Leng hopes that the BlackFly flying car will be ready to go on sale as soon as next year.

Unlike other flying car models, Leng plans to keep BlackFly affordable, with a price tag near the cost of a traditional SUV.

Earlier models may be more expensive, however.

‘Opener is re-energizing the art of flight with a safe and affordable flying vehicle that can free its operators from the everyday restrictions of ground transportation,’ Leng said in a statement.

The hope is to democratize ‘three-dimensional transportation’ such as flying cars, while maintaining safety.

Opener has conducted rigorous testing on BlackFly, including 1,000-plus flights and 10,000-plus miles flown.

‘We first flew 10,000 miles. We did a thousand-plus flights,’ Leng told CBS. ‘Autonomous. And we had a payload of 2,000 pounds.’

Users don’t need a pilot’s license to operate it, but they must take part in minimal training given by Opener, including sitting in a simulator for about five minutes

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Video Shows Car-Like Acceleration of Tesla’s Electric Truck

I happen to find trucks, big rigs or whatever you prefer to call them, very fascinating. I’ve always been awe struck by them since I was younger, and still have the same fascination to this day. Similar to trains, I think part of that fascination is the power. Thanks to Elon Musk, trucks are now taking advantage of the tremendous leaps that have been made in electric power technology.

This is quite incredible!

via Science Alert:

In Elon Musk’s future, you’ll never have to change lanes to avoid being stuck behind a truck at the lights again.

Here’s some more footage of someone having an excellent time testing Tesla’s electric truck in a residential area recently:

You might notice the hammer goes down as soon as the driver hits the 25mph (40km/h) zone.

And it’s not just because it’s unladen that the truck is pulling stunts you’ll only otherwise see at a drag strip.

Tesla claims the truck can hit 100 km/h in 20 seconds, even when fully loaded.

We can’t wait to see more.

This article was originally published by Business Insider.

Additional Video via johannes h. – YouTube

The new Tesla Semi Truck:
+ 0-60 mph (96km/h) in 5 sec
+ 500miles (800km) of range
+ $180.000

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