Monday, 17 March 2014

The Playing Fields of Science: Searching for a New Earth

The Playing Fields of Science: Searching for a New Earth: Is there anybody else out there? Or are we the only living things in the universe? Humans have  asked themselves this question for as long ...

Thursday, 27 February 2014

Human Lungs made from Stem Cells for the First Time

In a remarkable scientific breakthrough, scientists at the University of Texas Medical Branch has created a human lung in the laboratory. Research into the process of developing new lungs started in July 2010.

In experiments on rats, the scientists stripped down rat lungs from all cells by a process of freezing and thawing and exposure to detergent. This caused only the scaffolding of the lungs, composed of structural protein like collagen and elastin tissue, to remain. This acellular scaffold was then seeded with  mouse embryonic stem cells. The cells thrived on this scaffold and developed into new lungs .

The lung is one of the most complex organs in the body - the   cells in the respiratory tree ( trachea and bronchii) is different from the cells in the alveoli (small air sacs). These different cells were successfully grown in the experiment.

On 14th February  this year, the scientists  could repeat the process in human lungs. Lungs were taken from two children who had died from a trauma. The lungs were too damaged to be used for transplants but still had some healthy tissue.

One of the lungs was used as the scaffold by stripping away all cells. Cells from the other lung was was then seeded onto the scaffold. The structure was then immersed in a  media containing nutrients and stimulating factors (placed in a fish tank bought from a pet store!). And in about 4 weeks, the human lung emerged.

The picture on the left is of the scaffold  of collagen tissue. Image B is of the lungs after they have  formed - they look pinkish and dense because of the   new cells.

The scientists have managed to repeat the process successfully in another two children who had died.

Lungs developed from stem cells will probably become available for transplants into humans after about 12 years. They will be first transplanted into pigs to see how well they perform in the body.

This is an exciting step forward in regenerative medicine. For people who suffer from  serious respiratory conditions like COPD and Cystic Fibrosis, lung transplants often provide the only hope for long term survival. Many persons die of the disease before a matching donor can be found. The successful engineering of human lungs in the lab for the first time provides a definite ray of hope  for humans.

Tuesday, 25 February 2014

Indian team among finalists for Google lunar X prize

Team Indus , founded by Rahul Narayan and Indranil Chakravarty has been named among the five finalists aiming for a milestone prize  in the Google Lunar X Prize. The milestone prizes are meant to help fund some of the competitions best ideas.

 The Google Lunar X Prize  was announced in September 2007.  The total prize at stake was 30 million in incentive based prizes with a deadline of December 2015. There were 33 teams in the competition when registrations closed in 2011.  Currently, 18 remain in the competition.

The aim was something never accomplished at any time - the safe landing of a private craft on the surface of the moon.  The private company which wins the prize will not only have to land the spacecraft safely on the moon surface but also travel 500 meters above, below or on the surface of the moon and also send back at least two 'Mooncasts' to the earth. Bonus prizes could be picked up for exploring lunar artifacts or surviving the lunar night. Milestone prizes for reaching certain milestones were also declared.

The teams have to:
 (a) develop a spacecraft that can do a soft and safe landing on the moon,
 (b) develop a rover that can dismount from the landing craft and travel at least 500 meters on the moon
(c) develop an imaging system that can send back high quality images and videas from the surface of the moon.

On 19th February, the organisers announced the Milestone prizes in these three categories. Team Indus is among  three finalists for the landing system and among the four named for the imaging system.

The other teams among the finalists are Astrobotic and Moon Express from the USA, Hakuto from Japan and Part Time Scientists from Germany.

Chakraborty and Narayan, friends since Standard 6 in school,  resigned from their jobs and decided to focus on this space venture but had barely any funds to do so. They  managed to borrow the $50,000 required for the registration  from friends and family. They also manage to stimulate enough interest to garner support from a large number of people, especially from the social media.

But it is not going to be easy -  they need a further $34 million to build and launch the spacecraft. Since this is a competition for a private  space craft, they cannot take government help.

Nevertheless, doors do open up and here is hoping that Team Indus succeeds in winning the prize. That will be a great day for India and all Indians.