Cool Stuff Last Week: miniature hearts, a new use for coal, and a possible new Alzheimer’s drug

Science is awesome, and it’s always changing. Here’s a recap of what happened last week.

  1.   “Micro-Heart Muscle” arrays may help us understand heart development and disease

Many scientists seeking to understand complex biological systems will use animals such as mice as a model. However, there are inherent problems with this approach. Mice, despite their evolutionary similarities to humans, are not, in fact, human, and many times we will work for years to cure mice of a disease only to find that the amazing new cure doesn’t work very well in humans.

Researchers in recent years have begun using tissue engineering to create new and better ways of modeling human systems. A research group from the University of California, San Francisco has created a new, miniaturized model of cardiomyocytes in hopes of being better able to model human conditions. The new Micro-Heart Muscle system is not the first three-dimensional heart stem cell model, but it is the first time someone has created a small scale, physiologically relevant cardiac model. These tiny hearts use only a small number of cells, meaning it is a cost-effective system, and they act like real hearts, organizing into complex fibers that beat and can respond to signals that a human heart would respond to. The group hopes these tiny hearts will be able to be used for studying development and testing drugs in the future.

  1.   The hot new electronics material? Coal.

Sometime during the Bronze Age, humans discovered coal, and we’ve been setting it on fire ever since. For thousands of years, and particularly since the Industrial Revolution, coal has been seen as a practical and readily available source of fuel. However, scientists at MIT are looking at coal in a new light – as an intricate material that could be used in sophisticated electronics.

In a paper published in NanoLetters, a team led by Jeffrey Grossman describes in details the chemical and electrical properties of thin film of coal. The most interesting result of their study was that, through simple processing techniques, the same coal films could be made more or less conductive. This makes coal a versatile material that could potentially be used for many applications. As proof of concept, the team used their coal-based films to create a simple heating device.  

  1.   A protein called IL-33 reverses Alzheimer’s symptoms in mice

A new injection that may help treat Alzheimer’s is about to enter clinical trials. The injection is a protein, known as IL-33, that is produced by many cell types, including neurons. A research group from the University of Glasgow found that an injection of IL-33 into mice with Alzheimer’s-like syndrome was enough to improve the memory and cognitive function after only a week.

The protein purportedly works by activating immune cells in the brain. These immune cells then target amyloid plaques, toxic lesions that build up in some people’s brains as they age and are believed to be a major cause of Alzheimer’s disease. No one yet know why amyloid plaques build up, but they are considered an important target for curing the often devastating condition.

Like I mentioned earlier, treatments found using mouse studies don’t always (or even usually) translate into effective human treatments. Regardless, the IL-33 injection is slated to begin the rigorous and lengthy clinical trial procedure to determine whether it might in fact prove useful to humans with Alzheimer’s. For now, we will consider this finding another piece in the puzzle of understanding a complex neurological disease and hope this treatment fares well in trials.

Jessica (Editor)
10891702_10152475816767115_155735200795992761_nJess is a fourth year biology PhD student who studies the liver and its regenerative capabilities. In her admittedly limited free time, she enjoys traveling, writing, and being outdoors.

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