Archive for April, 2012

Asteroid mining plans revealed by Planetary Resources, Inc.

April 24, 2012

Planetary Resources, Inc. announced today its plan to mine Near-Earth Asteroids (NEAs) for raw materials, ranging from water to precious metals. By developing cost-effective exploration technologies, the company aims to initiate prospecting missions targeting resource-rich asteroids that are easily accessible.

Mining from asteroids could deliver huge benefits to humanity – potentially adding trillions of dollars to global GDP. Asteroids are rich in resources, and these could provide a sustainable supply to the ever-growing population on Earth.

A single 500-metre platinum-rich asteroid contains the equivalent of all the Platinum Group Metals mined in history. “Many of the scarce metals and minerals on Earth are in near-infinite quantities in space. As access to these materials increases, not only will the cost of everything from microelectronics to energy storage be reduced, but new applications for these abundant elements will result in important and novel applications,” said Peter Diamandis, Co-Founder and Co-Chairman of Planetary Resources, Inc.

Additionally, water-rich NEAs could serve as “stepping stones” for deep space travel, providing fuel and water to orbiting depots. Accessing these resources in space would revolutionise exploration, making it dramatically more affordable.

“Water is perhaps the most valuable resource in space. Accessing a water-rich asteroid will greatly enable the large-scale exploration of the solar system. In addition to supporting life, water will also be separated into oxygen and hydrogen for breathable air and rocket propellant,” said Eric Anderson, Co-Founder and Co-Chairman, Planetary Resources, Inc.

Of the approximately 9,000 known NEAs, more than 1,500 are energetically as easy to reach as the Moon. The capability to characterise NEAs is on the critical path for Planetary Resources. To that end, the company has developed the first line in its family of deep-space prospecting spacecraft, the Arkyd-100 Series – Leo. This spacecraft will be used in low-Earth orbit and help to prioritise the first NEA targets for the company’s follow-on expeditions by the Arkyd-300 Series – Rendezvous Prospector.

Chris Lewicki, President and Chief Engineer, said “Our mission is not only to expand the world’s resource base, but we want to increase people’s access to, and understanding of, our planet and solar system by developing capable and cost-efficient systems.”

“The promise of Planetary Resources is to apply commercial innovation to space exploration. They are developing cost-effective, production-line spacecraft that will visit near-Earth asteroids in rapid succession, increasing our scientific knowledge of these bodies and enabling the economic development of the resources they contain,” said Tom Jones, Ph.D., veteran NASA astronaut, planetary scientist and Planetary Resources advisor.

Planetary Resources, Inc. is financed by industry-launching visionaries including Google CEO Larry Page and Ross Perot, Jr. Among the company’s advisors is the movie director and explorer James Cameron.

  • Eric Schmidt, Ph.D., Executive Chairman of Google and a Planetary Resources investor: “The pursuit of resources drove the discovery of America and opened the West. The same drivers still hold true for opening the space frontier. Expanding the resource base for humanity is important for our future.”
  • K. Ram Shriram, Founder of Sherpalo and a Planetary Resources investor: “I see the same potential in Planetary Resources as I did in the early days of Google.”
  • Charles Simonyi, Ph.D., Chairman of Intentional Software Corporation and a Planetary Resources investor: “The commercialisation of space began with communications satellites and is developing for human spaceflight. The next logical step is to begin the innovative development of resources from space. I’m proud to be part of this effort.”


Asteroid mining company to be unveiled?

April 22, 2012

A group of billionaires, together with former NASA scientists, have announced Planetary Resources, Inc., rumoured to be the first asteroid mining company in history. They claim it will “add trillions of dollars to global GDP” and “help ensure humanity’s prosperity”.

The company is backed by Google’s Larry Page and Eric Schmidt, James Cameron, Charles Simonyi and other big names. It will be officially unveiled at a conference call on Tuesday 24th April.

Video by NewsyScience:

Could stem cells cure AIDS?

April 15, 2012

Expanding on previous research (providing proof-of-principle that human stem cells can be genetically engineered into fighting HIV), a team of UCLA researchers has now demonstrated that these cells can actually attack HIV-infected cells in a living organism.

The study, published in the 12th April journal PLoS Pathogens, demonstrates for the first time that engineering stem cells to form immune cells that target HIV is effective in suppressing the virus in living tissues in an animal model.

“We believe this study lays the groundwork for the potential use of this type of an approach in combating HIV infection in infected individuals, in the hope of eradicating the virus from the body,” says lead investigator Scott Kitchen, assistant professor at UCLA and a member of the UCLA AIDS Institute.

In previous research, scientists took CD8 cytotoxic T lymphocytes — the “killer” T cells that help fight infection — from an HIV-infected individual and identified the T cell receptor, which guides the T cell in recognizing and killing HIV-infected cells. However, these T cells, while able to destroy HIV-infected cells, do not exist in high enough quantity to clear the virus from the body. So the researchers cloned the receptor, using this to genetically engineer human blood stem cells. They then placed the engineered stem cells into human thymus tissue that had been implanted in mice, allowing them to study the reaction in a living organism.

The engineered stem cells developed into a large population of mature, multi-functional HIV-specific CD8 cells that could specifically target cells containing HIV proteins. The researchers also discovered that HIV-specific T cell receptors have to be matched to an individual in much the same way an organ is matched to a transplant patient.

In this current study, the researchers similarly engineered human blood stem cells and found that they can form mature T cells that can attack HIV in tissues where the virus resides and replicates. They did so by using a surrogate model — the humanised mouse — in which HIV infection closely resembles the disease and its progression in humans.

HIV virus (click to enlarge)

In a series of tests on the mice’s peripheral blood, plasma and organs conducted two weeks and six weeks after introducing the engineered cells, the researchers found that the number of CD4 “helper” T cells — which are depleted by HIV infection — increased, while levels of HIV in the blood decreased. CD4 cells are white blood cells that are a vital part of the immune system, helping to fight off infections. These results indicated that the engineered cells were able to develop and migrate to the organs to fight infection there.

The researchers did note a potential weakness with the study: Human immune cells reconstituted at a lower level in the humanised mice than they would in humans. As a result, the mice’s immune systems were mostly, though not completely, reconstructed. Because of this, HIV may be slower to mutate in the mice than in human hosts. So the use of multiple, engineered T cell receptors may be one way to adjust for the higher potential for HIV mutation in humans.

“We believe this is the first step in developing a more aggressive approach in correcting the defects in the human T cell responses that allow HIV to persist in infected people,” Kitchen said.

The researchers will now begin making T cell receptors that target different parts of HIV and that could be used in more genetically matched individuals, he said.

Targeted nanoparticles show success in clinical trials

April 12, 2012

Tiny particles designed to home in on cancer cells achieve tumor shrinkage at lower doses than traditional chemotherapy.

Targeted therapeutic nanoparticles that accumulate in tumors while bypassing healthy cells have shown promising results in an ongoing clinical trial, according to a new paper.

The nanoparticles feature a homing molecule that allows them to specifically attack cancer cells, and are the first such targeted particles to enter human clinical studies. Originally developed by researchers at MIT and Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, they are designed to carry the chemotherapy drug docetaxel, used to treat lung, prostate and breast cancers, among others.

In the study, which appears in the journal Science Translational Medicine, the researchers demonstrate the particles’ ability to target a receptor found on cancer cells and accumulate at tumor sites. The particles were also shown to be safe and effective: Many patients’ tumors shrank as a result of the treatment, even when they received lower doses than those usually administered.

“The initial clinical results of tumor regression even at low doses of the drug validates our preclinical findings that actively targeted nanoparticles preferentially accumulate in tumors,” says Robert Langer, the David H. Koch Institute Professor in MIT’s Department of Chemical Engineering and a senior author of the paper. “Previous attempts to develop targeted nanoparticles have not successfully translated into human clinical studies because of the inherent difficulty of designing and scaling up a particle capable of targeting tumors, evading the immune system and releasing drugs in a controlled way.”

The Phase I clinical trial was performed by researchers at BIND Biosciences, a company cofounded by Langer and Omid Farokhzad.

“This study demonstrates for the first time that it is possible to generate medicines with both targeted and programmable properties that can concentrate the therapeutic effect directly at the site of disease, potentially revolutionizing how complex diseases such as cancer are treated,” says Farokhzad, a senior author of the paper.

BIND-014, a targeted nanoparticle. Credit: MIT

Targeted particles

Langer’s lab started working on polymeric nanoparticles in the early 1990s, developing particles made of biodegradable materials. In the early 2000s, Langer and Farokhzad began collaborating to develop methods to actively target the particles to molecules found on cancer cells. By 2006 they had demonstrated that targeted nanoparticles can shrink tumors in mice, paving the road for the eventual development and evaluation of a targeted nanoparticle called BIND-014, which entered clinical trials in January 2011.

For this study, the researchers coated the nanoparticles with targeting molecules that recognize a protein called PSMA (prostate-specific membrane antigen), found abundantly on the surface of most prostate tumor cells as well as many other types of tumors.

One of the challenges in developing effective drug-delivery nanoparticles, Langer says, is designing them so they can perform two critical functions: evading the body’s normal immune response and reaching their intended targets.

“You need exactly the right combination of these properties, because if they don’t have the right concentration of targeting molecules, they won’t get to the cells you want, and if they don’t have the right stealth properties, they’ll get taken up by macrophages,” says Langer.

The BIND-014 nanoparticles have three components: one that carries the drug, one that targets PSMA, and one that helps evade macrophages and other immune-system cells. A few years ago, Langer and Farokhzad developed a way to manipulate these properties very precisely, creating large collections of diverse particles that could then be tested for the ideal composition.

“They systematically made a set of materials that varied in the properties they thought would matter, and developed a way to screen them. That’s not been done in this kind of setting before,” says Mark Saltzman, a professor of biomedical engineering at Yale University who was not involved in this study. “They’ve taken the concept from the lab into clinical trials, which is quite impressive.”

All of the particles are made of polymers already approved for medical use by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Clinical results

The Phase I clinical trial involved 17 patients with advanced or metastatic tumors who had already gone through traditional chemotherapy. In Phase I trials, researchers evaluate a potential drug’s safety and study its effects in the body. To determine safe dosages, patients were given escalating doses of the nanoparticles. So far, doses of BIND-014 have reached the amount of docetaxel usually given without nanoparticles, with no new side effects. The known side effects of docetaxel have also been milder.

In the 48 hours after treatment, the researchers found that docetaxel concentration in the patients’ blood was 100 times higher with the nanoparticles as compared to docetaxel administered in its conventional form. Higher blood concentration of BIND-014 facilitated tumor targeting resulting in tumor shrinkage in patients, in some cases with doses of BIND-014 that correspond to as low as 20 percent of the amount of docetaxel normally given. The nanoparticles were also effective in cancers in which docetaxel usually has little activity, including cervical cancer and cancer of the bile ducts.

The researchers also found that in animals treated with the nanoparticles, the concentration of docetaxel in the tumors was up to tenfold higher than in animals treated with conventional docetaxel injection for the first 24 hours, and that nanoparticle treatment resulted in enhanced tumor reduction.

The Phase I clinical trial is still ongoing and continued dose escalation is underway; BIND Biosciences is now planning Phase II trials, which will further investigate the treatment’s effectiveness in a larger number of patients.

Surviving Progress

April 11, 2012

Technological advancement, economic development, population increase – are they signs of a thriving society? Or too much of a good thing? Based on the best-selling book A Short History of Progress, this provocative documentary explores the concept of progress in our modern world, guiding us through a sweeping but detailed survey of the major “progress traps” facing our civilization in the arenas of technology, economics, consumption, and the environment.

Featuring powerful arguments from such visionaries as Jane Goodall, Margaret Atwood, Stephen Hawking, Craig Venter, Robert Wright, Michael Hudson, and Ronald Wright, this enlightening and visually spectacular film invites us to contemplate the progress traps that destroyed past civilizations and that lie treacherously embedded in our own. Leading critics of Wall Street, cognitive psychologists, and ecologists lay bare the consequences of progress-as-usual as the film travels around the world – from a burgeoning China to the disappearing rainforests of Brazil to a chimp research lab in New Iberia, Louisiana – to construct a shocking overview of the way our global economic system is eating away at our planet’s resources and shackling entire populations with poverty.

Providing an honest look at the risks and pitfalls of running 21st Century “software” (our accumulated knowledge) on 50,000-year-old “hardware” (our primate brains), Surviving Progress offers a challenge: to prove making apes smarter was not an evolutionary dead end.

Major milestone takes “flying car” closer to first delivery

April 10, 2012

Developed by Terrafugia, the “Transition” is a two-seater personal aircraft/car hybrid that can drive on roads and highways, park in a single car garage, and fly with unleaded petrol. This light sport, roadable aircraft has been under development since 2006. It is now a significant step closer to becoming a commercial reality, after the production prototype completed its first test flight at New York’s Plattsburgh International Airport.

It is the first vehicle in the world to have met both the standards of the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) and the NHTSA (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration), making it the first “street legal aeroplane”.

The Transition’s first flight reached an altitude of 426m (1400 ft) above the ground and lasted eight minutes while staying in the vicinity of the airport. During this time, it demonstrated the controllability and safe operational characteristics of the aircraft. Six phases of flight testing are planned to continue development and demonstrate compliance to the Light Sport Aircraft standards.

The production prototype is on display at the New York International Auto Show until 15th April. Initial customer deliveries are expected in 2013, with a price tag of US$279,000.

Battery switch stations could revolutionise the electric car industry

April 9, 2012

Better Place is a venture-backed American-Israeli company based in California, which aims to develop new infrastructure to boost the electric vehicle industry. According to Shai Agassi, the company’s founder and CEO, his vision was inspired by Klaus Schwab at the World Economic Forum, who asked: “How do you make the world a better place by 2020?”

Though they are clean and green, a major issue for electric cars is their limited range and the time needed to recharge batteries, which can be up to several hours. This “range anxiety” has dissuaded many potential buyers until now.

To get around this problem, Better Place has been promoting the idea of battery swapping. Using an automated system, a spent battery can be ejected and replaced with a fully charged one, saving the delay of waiting for the vehicle’s battery to charge up. The driver can remain in their car while the battery is swapped, with the process being completed in less than a minute, which is actually faster than refueling a conventional petrol car.

With networks of battery switching stations in and around cities, drivers would potentially have electric cars with unlimited ranges for long distance trips.

Better Place is partnering with governments and businesses around the world to accelerate this transition to sustainable transport. Retail customer deliveries of Renault’s Fluence ZE – the first electric car to operate in the Better Place network – are scheduled for the second quarter of 2012. The first battery switch stations have already been deployed in China, Denmark and Israel, with plans for additional networks in over 25 regions around the world.

Google’s futuristic, Internet-connected glasses

April 8, 2012

Google this week announced “Project Glass” – a research and development program which aims to prototype and build an augmented reality (AR) head-mounted display.

Although this technology is not a new idea, the project is gaining media attention due to its backing by such a high-profile company, as well as the design concepts which are smaller and slimmer than previous versions of head-mounted displays. These early demos appear to more closely resemble normal eyeglasses, where the lens is replaced by a heads-up display, and may be integrated into people’s day-to-day eyewear in the future.

Project Glass is part of Google X Lab, a secret facility which has worked on other futuristic technologies including a self-driving car. The project’s intended purpose is to allow hands-free displaying of information currently found on smartphones, while providing interaction with the Internet via natural language voice commands, in a manner similar to the iPhone application Siri.

The New York Times reports that the glasses will be available for “around the cost of current smartphones” – $250 to $600 – by the end of 2012.

Flexible touch sensors could revolutionise mobile device design

April 8, 2012

Atmel, a semiconductor manufacturer, this week announced the release of “XSense” – a revolutionary, highly flexible, film-based touch sensor. This will not only enable a new generation of smartphones and tablets, but will also extend touch capabilities into a wider array of new consumer and industrial products.

Based on a proprietary roll-to-roll metal mesh technology, XSense provides a high-performance alternative to existing touch sensors. Larger, lighter, sleeker, curved and edgeless designs could now be developed for smartphones, tablets, Ultrabooks and a host of new touch-enabled devices.

Thinner sensor stacks with flawless touch performance, excellent optical clarity, low sheet resistance and low power consumption will enable designers to turn unique, futuristic concepts into functional designs at lower total system costs compared to current market alternatives.

The first products to feature XSense will appear in Q4 2012, and the company expects “significant volume ramp” in 2013.