The Mass of Human-Made Materials Now Equals the Planet’s Biomass (Earth Science)

We are doubling the mass of the human-made, “anthropogenic” part of the world every twenty years and the curve is not flattening. Our team quantified and compared the numbers of human-made mass, referred to as ‘anthropogenic mass’, with that of overall living biomass on Earth, and we found that the number is currently equals approximately 1.1 teratonnes.

The mass of all human-produced materials – concrete, steel, asphalt, etc. – has grown to equal the mass of all life on the planet, its biomass. According to a new study at the Weizmann Institute of Science, we are right at this tipping point, and humans are currently adding new buildings, roads, vehicles and products at a rate that is doubling every 20 years, leading to a “concrete jungle” that is predicted to reach over two teratonnes (i.e. two million million) – or more than double the mass of living things, by 2040.

©Weizmann Institute of Science

The study, published today in Nature and conducted in the group of Prof. Ron Milo of the Plant and Environmental Sciences Department by Emily Elhacham and Liad Ben Uri, shows that at the outset of the 20th century, human-produced “anthropogenic mass” equaled just around 3 % of the total biomass. How did we get from 3% to an equivalent mass in just over a century? Not only have we humans quadrupled our numbers in the intervening years, the things we produce have far outpaced population growth: Today, on average, for each person on the globe, a quantity of anthropogenic mass greater than their body weight is produced every week. 

The paths of human-made and natural materials, by dry mass, cross sometime around this decade ©Weizmann Institute of Science

The upswing is seen markedly from the 1950s on, when building materials like concrete and aggregates became widely available. In the “great acceleration” following World War II, spacious single-family homes, roads and multi-story office buildings spang up around the US, Europe and other countries. That acceleration has been ongoing for over six decades, and those two materials, in particular, make up a major component of the growth in anthropogenic mass.

 “The study provides a sort of ‘big picture’ snapshot of the planet in 2020. This overview can provide a crucial understanding of our major role in shaping the face of the Earth in the current age of the Anthropocene. The message to both the policy makers and the general public is that we cannot dismiss our role as a tiny one in comparison to the huge Earth. We are already a major player and I think with that comes a shared responsibility.” says Milo.

Referring to the dynamics of the human-made materials in our world as a “socio-economic metabolism,” the study invites further comparison with the way that natural materials flow through the planet’s living and geologic cycles. “By contrasting human-made mass and biomass over the last century, we bring into focus an additional dimension of the growing impact of human activity on our planet,” says Elhacham.

Milo: “This study demonstrates just how far our global footprint has expanded beyond our ‘shoe size.’ We hope that once we all have these somewhat shocking figures before our eyes, we can, as a species, behave more responsibly.”

©Weizmann Institute of Science

Milo and Elhacham teamed with graphic designer Itai Raveh to create a website, Anthropomass.org, to help explain these figures in clear, simple terms. 

Reference: Elhacham, E., Ben-Uri, L., Grozovski, J. et al. Global human-made mass exceeds all living biomass. Nature (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-020-3010-5

Provided by Weizmann Institute of Science

A Smartphone Is All You Need For Indoor Positioning In Large Spaces (Science & Technology)

Prof. Choi Lynn’s team has obtained NET certification for a “deep learning-based geomagnetic indoor positioning technology.” The technology is planned to be implemented at pilot sites in various indoor spaces such as airports, shopping malls, museums and factories.

Image 1. Principle of positioning technology based on magnetic vector sequence ©KU

The deep learning-based geomagnetic indoor positioning technology developed by Professor Choi Lynn’s research team (School of Electrical Engineering, College of Engineering) has obtained New Excellent Technology (NET) certification from the Korean Agency for Technology and Standards under the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy. This technology was named a leading new technology at the 2nd New Technology Certification Awards 2020. Click to view a video on the technology:

https://drive.google.com/a/korea.ac.kr/file/d/1SW_tTWfxB50H57vpNMnrt-OFaWw2iBVK/view?usp=drive_web

The purpose of NET certification is to accredit the excellence and reliability of new technologies developed in Korea and to promote the commercialization and transfer of those technologies. The certification is conferred by the Korea Industrial Technology Association (KOITA), and the award has been mostly given to conglomerates and SMEs. Professor Choi’s team is the first at the KU Research and Business Foundation to be independently certified for a new technology and is the only university research unit to earn NET certification for two consecutive years (2019 and 2020).

Image 2. Process of indoor positioning ©KU
Image 3. An example of indoor 3D navigation ©KU
Image 4. PCB inside a wearable device which enables indoor positioning without a smartphone ©KU

The research team’s deep learning-based geomagnetic (terrestrial magnetic) indoor positioning technology is a unique technology developed in Korea. It tracks the indoor location of a person or object by machine learning the distribution pattern of the indoor geomagnetic field using a deep learning recurrent neural network. It is notable that this newly developed indoor positioning system is an innovative world-class technology that greatly improves the performance and economic feasibility by supporting 50 to 80 centimeters of positioning performance in large indoor spaces using only a smartphone, without the need to install additional equipment such as beacons or APs.

To locate positions outdoors, GPS-based locating services are widely used, such as in car navigation systems or smartphone maps. However, a different technology is required for positioning a person or object inside a building because GPS signals cannot be received indoors. Despite research and development over the past 30 years, the most commonly used radio wave-based positioning technology has a large error range (3 to 20 meters), and additional cost is inevitable for the installation and maintenance of beacons or APs. The positioning error range of the system developed by the research team is 73 centimeters, according to an official test conducted by the Korea Laboratory Accreditation Scheme (KOLAS).

Image 5. Demonstration of indoor positioning at KU’s SK Future Hall ©KU
Image 6. Demonstration of 3D indoor navigation at KU’s Hana Square ©KU
Image 7. New Excellent Technology (NET) certificate ©KU

The team’s indoor positioning technology was introduced as an example of a participatory smart campus, in which technology developed by school members is applied to a campus, when KU’s SK Future Hall was completed in November 2019. For the first time, location-based services such as indoor map guidance and electronic attendance were applied to an actual campus and could be accessed using only a smartphone without any additional equipment such as beacons. This system is being implemented in two services under construction: location tracking and indoor 3D navigation services for patients and medical staff at Korea University’s Anam Hospital and navigation services for the disabled on KTX, subway lines 1 and 4, the Gyeongui line and at Seoul Station. There are plans to build pilot sites over the next two to three years in various indoor spaces such as airports, shopping malls, museums and factories.

Professor Choi explained: “The indoor positioning technology is a core platform technology of the Fourth Industrial Revolution that enables the development of new location-based services and applications, such as indoor navigation, museum tours, advertisements, logistics, smart safety, augmented reality and customer traffic analysis. It is a state-of-the-art technology that will have a huge ripple effect on the future society and culture comparable to that of semiconductor technology.”

Provided by Korea University

Professor Choi Jung-kyu’s Group Develops the World’s First Swiss Cheese-like Zeolite Membrane (Chemistry)

Doctor Hong Sung-won and Jeong Yang-hwan, a student in the integrated Master/Ph.D course, from Professor Choi Jung-kyu’s group in the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering, College of Engineering, developed a zeolite membrane having a Swiss cheese-like hierarchical structure by introducing mesopores.

(From left) Jeong Yang-hwan (integrated Master/Ph.D course), Doctor Hong Sung-won and Professor Choi Jung-kyu. ©KU

The zeolite membrane developed in their study has an excellent capability of separating xylene isomers that are normally quite difficult to separate due to their thermodynamic properties.

The oil refining and petrochemical industries are essential to daily lives because they provide key energy sources and basic compounds as well as many currently necessary chemical products (e.g., plastics, fertilizers, pharmaceuticals, packaging materials and fibers). It is true that such energy sources should be phased out as we transition to greener energies if we are to stop global heating and reverse its effects. According to some, the existing fossil fuels may not be immediately replaced due to reasons such as economic feasibility, and further research and development is needed. In addition, renewable energy sources are unable to replace the numerous petrochemical products that are used in our daily lives. Hence, efforts should be taken to increase energy efficiency by optimizing the existing industrial facilities and their processing operations. Therefore, the oil refining and petrochemical industries are essential industries in Korea that are expected to grow continuously, even in the future.

In particular, p-xylene, an important material in the petrochemical industry, is used as a critical raw material for the synthesis of terephthalic acid and dimethyl terephthalate, which are chemical intermediaries necessary in producing polyethylene terephthalate (PET; plastic bottles) and polyester (PES; clothing) (Figure 1). However, p-xylene exists as a mixture with its isomer, o-xylene/m-xylene. Hence, obtaining high purity p-xylene, which is highly demanded in industry, requires a process for separating the isomers.

Figure 1. Process in producing the critical raw material for plastic bottles, PET from p-Xylene.

The separation of xylene isomers is generally performed by the PAREX method, in which the mixture is separated by using a simulated moving bed (SMB), and the isomerization process is achieved by distillation or crystallization. However, these processes include complicated procedures and consume much energy. The separation process employing a zeolite membrane having excellent thermal and chemical stability may be operated in a more energy-efficient manner in comparison with the traditional separation processes. Based on this advantage, the separation process may also be conducted more flexibly, saving the huge space required by the conventional processes.

Zeolite Socony Mobil-five (MFI) crystals have micropores that are suitable for the separation of xylene isomers, and a continuous membrane made of the crystals thus has great potential for effectively separating and purifying p-xylene. Therefore, a continuous membrane consisting of MFI crystals may play the role of a molecular-sieve that can selectively separate p-xylene from a mixture of xylene isomers according to molecular size (Table 1).

Table 1. The molecular structures and properties of xylene isomers and the pore structure and size of the MFI zeolite crystals.

However, since the pore size of the MFI zeolite is similar to the size of the p-xylene that permeates the membrane, the membrane has a low permeance. Using a membrane having a low permeance decreases the treatment capacity and lowers its economic feasibility because a large process is required. This drawback limits the application of a zeolite membrane in real-world processes despite its high separation capability. Recognizing the problem, Professor Choi Jung-kyu’s group proposed the world’s first method for preparing a zeolite membrane of a hierarchical structure by introducing mesopores (a next-generation zeolite membrane having a micropore/mesopore hybrid structure) (Figure 2). This unique membrane structure gives a high permeance. In particular, from a pragmatic engineering perspective, an easy and highly reproducible method was employed to prepare the membrane.

Figure 2. Schematics of a common MFI zeolite membrane and a MFI zeolite membrane having a micropore/mesopore hybrid structure.

Specifically, when micropores and mesopores are present together in a zeolite membrane, the molecules passing through the membrane may move quickly through the mesopores, and the membrane permeance is thus improved. Therefore, while the mechanical strength is maintained by the same membrane thickness, the substantial distance through which the gas molecules penetrate is reduced to effectively enhance the penetration rate. In addition, the MFI membrane having a micropore/mesopore hybrid structure has a high p-xylene permeance, as well as a high process stability at high temperatures. High temperature separation processes generally decrease the penetration performance because of the coke (coal residue) formed in the membrane. However, the MFI membrane of the hybrid structure, including larger mesopores, may keep the entire membrane performance high for a long time, even if the undesired coke is formed.

Therefore, the hybrid Swiss cheese-like MFI zeolite membrane of a hierarchical structure with micropores and mesopores has a high permeance, as well as excellent separation performance. In addition, the separation performance is maintained and the permeance is little decreased, even in a long high temperature separation process thanks to the mesopores, and the membrane can be appropriately applied to a real-world membrane process (Figure 3).

Figure 3. Schematic of the hybrid MFI zeolite membrane, including micropores and mesopores, and the introduced mesopores and TEM images of the hybrid MFI zeolite cross-section and the actual mesopores.

Professor Choi Jung-kyu of Korea University said, “Doctor Hong Sung-won and Jeong Yang-hwan, one of my students, were able to synthesize the world’s first zeolite membrane having a unique micropore/mesopore hybrid structure through their creative research. That was possible because they were aiming at the development of technologies that are required by and applicable to the actual oil refining and petrochemical industries.” He also explained the significance of the study: “Our zeolite membrane technology may be applied to the petrochemical industry to achieve the process in a more energy-efficient manner.”

The present study was supported by the Mid-Career Researcher Program of the National Research Foundation of Korea, the Korea Carbon Capture and Storage R&D Center (KCRC, President Park, Sang-do) and the Engineering Research Center Program (Super Ultra Low Energy and Emission Vehicle Center led by Lee, Gwan-yeong). The article was published in the online edition of the Angewandte Chemie International Edition, which is an internationally renowned chemistry journal, on October 7.

References: Hong, S., Jeong, Y., Baik, H., Choi, N., Yip, A.C.K. and Choi, J. (2020), An Extrinsic‐Pore‐Containing Molecular Sieve Film: A Robust, High‐Throughput Membrane Filter. Angew. Chem. Int. Ed.. https://doi.org/10.1002/anie.202010957 https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1002/anie.202010957

Provided by Korea University

Development of Microfluidic Chip for Genomic Editing and Manipulation of Stem and Immune Cells (Medicine)

Various genetically modified materials may be delivered into cells without using electric energy or a virus. Substantial contributions to cell therapy research are expected. Professor Chung A-ram’s group publishes their results in the online edition of the internationally renowned journal, ACS Nano.

Professor Chung A-ram (left); and Hur Jeong-soo (right, first author, researcher) of the School of Biomedical Engineering, Korea University. ©KU

Professor Chung A-ram’s group from the School of Biomedical Engineering, College of Health Science, developed a microfluidic chip for the genomic editing and manipulation of stem cells or immune cells. Their report was published in the online edition of the internationally renowned journal ACS Nano (If: 14.5) on October 9.

Unlike general cell lines, primary cells, such as stem cells or immune cells, have a limited lifetime, and their genes are very difficult to manipulate. Nevertheless, because the genomic editing of primary cells is necessary in the development of therapeutic cells, there has been a need for developing a technology that can effectively transform primary cells. In particular, recent cancer immunotherapy has successfully treated intractable cancers, including hematologic malignancies. There is now an urgent need for developing a genomic editing technology for a large amount of immune cells to commercialize the therapy and apply it to the treatment of solid cancers.

The microfluidic intracellular delivery platform developed by Professor Chung A-ram’s group is different from existing technologies because it is capable of delivering various genetically modified materials into cells by using only a fluid flow formed within microchannels without using electric energy or a virus. The versatility of the technology allows for the high-efficiency delivery of materials of various sizes regardless of cell type. In particular, with regard to stem cells (human umbilical cord-derived stem cells and lipid-derived stem cells) and immune cells (dendritic cells from mouse bone marrow), which are primary cells, the technology showed a higher transformation yield than commercial electroporation technology and polymer carrier-based technology. In addition, the technology can be used to transform a large amount of cells (over 1 million cells per minute), and thus is expected to make substantial contributions to studies on cell therapy.

Figure 1. (A) Schematic of microfluidic channel-based intracellular delivery platform and cell membrane penetration process (i–iii). (B) An image of the K562 cell into which a fluorescent material has been delivered.©KU

While various nanoparticles are actively studied to edit cellular functions, the research group showed that nanoparticles having a diameter of up to 300 nm can be delivered into the cytoplasm by using this technology, which may provide a cornerstone on which future nanoparticle-based cellular engineering can build.

Figure 2. (A) Comparison of primary cell genomic editing efficiency between the microfluidic intracellular delivery platform and conventional technologies. (B) Images of the control and the K562 cell into which a fluorescent material has been delivered.©KU

Hur Jeong-soo, the first author of the article, said, “Intracellular delivery is an essential technology for various studies in biotechnology.” He also explained the significance of the study: “For the first time in the world, we successfully transformed the DNA of stem cells by using only the flow within microchannels, and the efficiency of the primary cell genomic editing was higher than that of the existing, commercially available technologies.”

The present study was supported by the Samsung Research Funding and Incubation Center for Future Technology, Korea University, and the National Research Foundation of Korea.

Reference: Hur Jeong-soo (Korea University, first author), Park In-ae (POSTEC), Lim Kyung-min (Konkuk University), Doh Junsang (Seoul National University), Cho Ssang-goo (Konkuk University) and Chung A-ram (Korea University, corresponding author), “Microfluidic Cell Stretching for Highly Effective Gene Delivery into Hard-to-Transfect Primary Cells”, ACS, 2020. https://pubs.acs.org/doi/10.1021/acsnano.0c05169

Provided by Korea University

Festive Treat For Stargazers as Geminid Meteors Peak (Astronomy)

Stargazers across the northern hemisphere could see as many as 70 meteors an hour this coming Sunday (13-14 December), as the Geminids meteor shower reaches its peak. Prospects for what should be this year’s best display of meteors are particularly good, as there will be no Moon in the sky to interfere with the view.

An image of Geminid meteors in December 2013. The meteors are the bright streaks, set against a background of stars. © Asim Patel

Meteors are small pieces of interplanetary debris burning up in the Earth’s atmosphere. They come in at high speeds, in the case of the Geminids typically at 130,000 kilometres an hour. Friction with the upper atmosphere quickly heats up the incoming debris, the air around them glows brightly, and the particles are rapidly destroyed. The resulting streak of light is what we see from the ground as a meteor, or ‘shooting star’.

Outside of meteor showers, there are perhaps six random meteors (sporadics) visible each hour from a given location on any night. But throughout the year the Earth’s orbit intersects material left behind by comets, or in the case of the Geminids, the asteroid Phaethon. When we encounter these thicker streams of debris there is a surge in meteor numbers – a shower.

Diagram showing the position of the Geminid meteor shower radiant at 2230 GMT on 13 December, as seen looking south in southern England. Meteors appear to emanate from this point, located in the constellation of Gemini, above and to the left of the bright constellation of Orion. (Diagram based on chart created in Stellarium.) RAS / Lucinda Offer

Meteors in the upcoming shower can appear anywhere in the sky, but their trails appear to originate from a single point (known as the radiant) in the constellation of Gemini, hence the name Geminids. These meteors appear to be fairly slow moving, and can be intensely coloured.

To see the shower, observers should look upwards after 22:00 GMT, when the radiant will be high in the southeastern sky. Covid restrictions permitting, the best views are always away from city lights, but with a clear sky even urban skywatchers should see at least a few meteors.

The shower will be visible all over the UK, as long as the skies are clear. Meteor showers are easy to observe and need no special equipment, though December nights demand warm clothing, and a reclining chair and blankets make viewing more comfortable. If clouds do make viewing impossible this weekend, the showers will continue for a few days more with reduced activity.

Provided by Royal Astronomical Society

Why Did Some Planets Become Habitable and Others Did Not? (Planetary Science)

In a paper published in Nature Communications Earth and Environment, researchers, including Alexander Krot at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology (SOEST), used paleomagnetic (Earth’s magnetic field in rocks, sediment or archeological materials) records to determine when carbonaceous chondrite asteroids, some of which are rich in water and organics, first arrived in the inner solar system.

Solar wind (white) magnetizes asteroid (red) in early solar system. (Photo credit: Michael Osadciw, UR)

The research helps inform scientists about the early origins of the solar system and why some planets, such as Earth, became habitable and were able to sustain conditions conducive for life, while other planets, such as Mars, did not. The research also gives scientists data that can be applied to the discovery of new exoplanets, planets that orbit stars outside of the solar system and the search for other habitable planets.

Solving a paradox using a meteorite in Mexico

Some meteorites are pieces of debris from outer space objects such as asteroids. After breaking apart from their “parent bodies,” these pieces are able to survive passing through the atmosphere and eventually hit the surface of a planet or moon.

Studying the magnetization of meteorites can give researchers a better idea of when the objects formed and where they were located early in the solar system relative to the Sun.

The Allende meteorite is the largest carbonaceous chondrite on Earth and contains pebble-sized objects—calcium-aluminum inclusions—that are thought to be the first solids formed in the solar system. New experiments by University of Rochester graduate student Tim O’Brien, the first author of the paper, found that magnetic signals in the meteorite were produced during metasomatic alteration experienced by the parent asteroid.

“The metasomatic alteration recorded by Allende resulted from water and carbon dioxide-rich fluid-rock interaction at about 300–400 degrees Celsius about 3 million–4 million years after formation of the solar system and is quite unique among carbonaceous chondrites,” said Krot.

Having solved this paradox, O’Brien was able to identify meteorites with other minerals that could faithfully record early solar system magnetizations.

Determining Jupiter’s role in asteroid migration

John Tarduno, co-author and lead professor at the University of Rochester’s magnetics group, combined this work with theoretical work and computer simulations. The team determined that solar winds draped around early solar system bodies and it was this solar wind that magnetized the bodies; and that the parent asteroids from which carbonaceous chondrite meteorites broke off arrived in the Asteroid Belt from the outer solar system about 4,562 million years ago, within the first five million years of solar system history.

The analyses and modeling offer more support for the idea that the inner and outer solar system asteroids (non-carbonaceous and carbonaceous, respectively) were separated by the gravitational forces of the giant planet Jupiter, whose subsequent migration then mixed the two asteroid groups.

“This early motion of carbonaceous chondrite asteroids sets the stage for further scattering of water-rich bodies—potentially to Earth—later in the development of the solar system, and it may be a pattern common to exoplanet systems,” said Tarduno.

Provided by University of Hawaiʻi

First RD-0124MS Engine Manufactured in Voronezh (Astronomy)

The first mockup of the RD-0124MS rocket engine, developed for use in the Soyuz-5 perspective carrier rocket was built at Voronezh Rocket Engine Building Center (part of Roscosmos).

RD-0124MS engine ©roscosmos

The manufactured model is intended for dynamic tests of the rocket stage being a milestone in the creation of the new space rocket complex. In parallel with the manufacturing of the first engine mockup, the Center is completing the assembly of an experimental installation, which includes an engine combustion chamber with a cylindrical nozzle. Its firing tests will take place early next year at the Voronezh firing stand.

Director of the Chemical Automatics Design Bureau Sergey Kovalev: ‘For a year now, the employees of the Chemical Automatics Design Bureau and the Voronezh Mechanical Plant have been performing production tasks as a single team. Despite the epidemiological situation, we have maintained rhythm and dynamics in key areas, with the successful work continuation to create the RD-0124MS engine as an example. Building the first unit can be called the event of the year for our team. This is the first project in which we are implementing PLM-system – a complex of applied software to manage product lifecycle. It helps not only to integrate the work of designers in a digital 3D environment, but also provides further end-to-end automation of the technological preparation of production and the manufacture of developed parts and assemblies.’

Chemical Automatics Design Bureau Сhief Designer Viktor Gorokhov: ‘By the end of this year, we will finish developing the working design documentation for the engine. Technological development of manufacturing of its key units has already been carried out. In parallel, our enterprise is preparing production and testbed base for ground fire tests of experimental installations and RD-0124MS engines. Next year, we will have a large amount of work on this topic: to test an experimental setup with both a cylindrical nozzle and a full-size nozzle, to proceed with development tests of the engine, to ensure the manufacture of an engine for firing bench tests as part of the second stage of the launch vehicle. To do so, in 2020, we conducted serious design and technological training, so we are confident that the upcoming work will be completed in accordance with the approved schedule.’

The RD-0124MS rocket engine with a thrust of 60 tons in the void burns naphthyl and liquid oxygen fuel components and is intended to be used in the second stage of the Soyuz-5 launch vehicle. The engine consists of two blocks located on a common frame. Each of the blocks includes two combustion chambers. The engine allows swinging of the chambers in two planes, as well as work when one of the units is turned off.

Provided by ROSCOSMOS

Using Targeted Microbubbles to Administer Toxic Cancer Drugs (Medicine)

University of Leeds research has shown how microbubbles carrying powerful cancer drugs can be guided to the site of a tumour using antibodies.

Microbubbles carry the anticancer drug to the site of the tumour. Antibodies attached to the microbubbles are attracted to the growth hormone found around cancer cells. Once in situ, an unltrasound device is used to burst the bubbles, releasing the drug. Image credit: Dr Sunjie Ye, University of Leeds

Microbubbles are small manufactured spheres half the size of a red blood cell – and scientists believe they can be used to transport drugs to highly specific locations within the body.  

The findings are published in the journal Theranostics. 

Microbubbles could allow us to use powerful drugs with precision – that reduces the risk of damaging healthy cells.” said Dr. Nicola Ingram, University of Leeds.

The lead authors, Drs Nicola Ingram and Laura McVeigh from the School of Medicine, describe how they targeted microbubbles through the use of a ‘navigational aid’ – antibodies attracted to the growth hormone found in high levels in the blood vessels supplying a tumour. 

The antibodies were attached to the microbubbles. As a result of being attracted to the growth hormone, the microbubbles became concentrated at the site of the tumour. A pulse from an ultrasound device was used to burst open the microbubbles, and that released the anti-cancer agent. 

The study was conducted on animals, which were used as a model to try and develop this technique for use in humans.

Dr Ingram said being able to deliver anticancer drugs in a very targeted fashion would be a major advance in cancer therapy.  

She added: “One of the big problems with cancer drugs is that they are highly toxic to the rest of the body too. Microbubble technology could allow us to use these very powerful drugs with precision and that reduces the risk of the drug damaging healthy cells nearby. 

“It is about finely focused drug delivery.” 

The study also revealed that by attaching the drug directly to the microbubbles allowed it to circulate in the body for longer, increasing delivery into the tumour – in effect making the drug more potent.   

As a result, the scientists were able to slow cancer growth with a much smaller drug dose.  

Professor Stephen Evans, head of the Molecular and Nanoscale Physics Group at Leeds and one of the paper’s authors, said: “The results of this study are exciting because we not only show the very precise and targeted way microbubbles can be guided to cancer sites but that the efficacy of drug delivery is substantially improved, opening the way to use highly toxic drugs to fight cancer, without the harmful side effects. 

“Put simply: you get more bang for your buck.” 

Watch the video where Professor Evans describes the potential benefit of microbubble technology

The next stage of the research is to look at using microbubbles to develop targeted, triggered, delivery systems in patients for the diagnosis and treatment of advanced colorectal cancer, the third most common cancer in the UK.  

Co-author Professor Peter Simpson, Chief Scientific Officer at Medicines Discovery Catapult said: “Complex medicines have the potential to be the third wave of medicines, addressing patients’ problems which conventionally administered small molecules and monoclonal antibodies cannot.  

“This project is a very encouraging example of exploring how using an advanced drug delivery technology could improve biodistribution, targeting and efficacy of a potentially toxic therapeutic.” 

This study involved a research team from the universities of Leeds, Bradford, Manchester, and the Medicines Discovery Catapult in Cheshire. The study and a follow-on study were funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council. In addition, several PhD students are also developing microbubbles for treatment of other diseases and have been funded by University of Leeds alumni.

The paper is titled: ‘Ultrasound-triggered therapeutic microbubbles enhance the efficacy of cytotoxic drugs by increasing circulation and tumor drug accumulation and limiting bioavailability and toxicity in normal tissues’ and published in the journal Theranostics.

The University of Leeds has established the Leeds Microbubble Consortium, a group of cancer scientists, engineers, physicists and chemists to develop ways microbubble technology could enhance cancer treatment.

Provided by University of Leeds

Vitamin D The Clue to More Autism Spectrum Disorder in Boys (Biology)

A deficiency in vitamin D on the mother’s side could explain why autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is three times more common in boys, say researchers from The University of Queensland.

In their latest study, Professor Darryl Eyles and Dr Asad Ali from UQ’s Queensland Brain Institute found vitamin D deficiency during pregnancy caused an increase in testosterone in the developing brain of male rats.

“The biological cause of autism spectrum disorder is unknown but we have shown that one of the many risk factors—low vitamin D in mothers—causes an increase in testosterone in the brain of the male foetuses, as well as the maternal blood and amniotic fluid,” Professor Eyles said.

“In addition to its role in calcium absorption, vitamin D is crucial to many developmental processes.

“Our research also showed that in vitamin D-deficient male foetuses, an enzyme which breaks down testosterone was silenced and could be contributing to the presence of high testosterone levels.”

Professor Eyles’ previous research has shown that vitamin D plays a critical role in brain development and that giving vitamin D supplements to mice during pregnancy completely prevented ASD-like traits in their offspring.

Co-author Dr Ali said that excessive exposure of the developing brain to sex hormones like testosterone was thought to be an underlying cause of ASD, but the reasons remained unclear.

“Vitamin D is involved in pathways controlling many sex hormones,” Dr Ali said.

“When the rat mothers were fed a low vitamin D diet, it caused male foetal brains to have high levels of exposure to testosterone.”

Professor Eyles said the study was the first to show that a known risk factor for ASD alters testosterone in both the foetal brain and the mother’s blood — one possible contributor to why ASD is more prevalent in males.

“We have only studied one risk factor for ASD — vitamin D deficiency during development — our next step is to look at other possible risk factors, such as maternal stress and hypoxia – lack of oxygen – and see if they have the same effect,” he said.

This research is published in Molecular Autism (DOI:10.​1186/s13229-020-00399-2).

It is a collaboration with The University of Western Australia’s Dr Andrew Whitehouse and funded by the National Health and Medical Research Council Australia and Queensland Centre for Mental Health Research.

References: Ali, A.A., Cui, X., Pertile, R.A.N. et al. Developmental vitamin D deficiency increases foetal exposure to testosterone. Molecular Autism 11, 96 (2020). https://molecularautism.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.%E2%80%8B1186/s13229-020-00399-2 https://doi.org/10.1186/s13229-020-00399-2

Provided by University of Queensland