New chemical reaction could eventually yield new fuels and medications

When scientists develop the chemical formulas for new products such as fuels and medications, they often must first create molecules that haven’t previously existed.

A basic step toward creating new molecules is selectively breaking and re-forming the chemical bonds that connect the atoms that make them up. One of the chief challenges is that the bond between carbon and hydrogen atoms — the building blocks of many molecules — is exceptionally strong, so chemists often have to resort to using rare and expensive chemicals like iridium to convert it into other, more useful types of chemical bonds. Scientists refer to this process as “functionalizing” the bonds.

Now, a team of UCLA chemists has developed a new technique for breaking carbon-hydrogen bonds and making carbon-carbon bonds. The approach uses catalysts made of two abundant and inexpensive elements, silicon and boron. Their research was published in Science.

Hosea Nelson, a UCLA assistant professor of chemistry and biochemistry and senior author of the study, said the energy industry has been interested in taking very simple hydrocarbon molecules like methane and turning them into new fuels.

“This new method will enable scientists to incorporate methane into bigger molecules,” he said.

Another potential application would be converting methane, one of the primary components of natural gas, into something that’s denser and easier to contain after it has been drilled from Earth. The current process is complicated because methane, a light gas, tends to escape into the atmosphere.

Nelson collaborated on the study with UCLA graduate students Brian Shao, Alex Bagdasarian and Stasik Popov.

The researchers used their new technique to create a compound similar to a phenyl cation, a chemical substance that has been studied theoretically but rarely investigated in actual laboratory experiments. They then used the compound to slice through carbon-hydrogen bonds in methane and benzene, which allowed them to insert other atoms and form carbon-carbon bonds, which are the basic building blocks of molecules that make up living organisms, as well as fuels and pharmaceuticals.

Besides demonstrating that phenyl cation-like compounds exist, the new technique allows complex molecules to be assembled in far fewer reaction steps than was previously possible, which could save chemical and pharmaceutical manufacturers time and money. Another advantage of the method is that, unlike previous approaches, it can be performed at temperatures and gas pressures that are easily attainable in a laboratory.

The process could also be used to alter the molecules in existing pharmaceuticals to make them more effective, safer or less addictive.

The chemists have tested their technique using very small samples of reactants — far less than a gram. But Nelson is hopeful that the methodology can be scaled up to be useful for a broad range of real-world chemical reactions.

Storing a memory involves distant parts of the brain

New research from scientists at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Janelia Research Campus shows that distant parts of the brain are called into action to store a single memory. The brain’s cortex which is the outer layer of tissue thought to be responsible for generating most thoughts and actions relies on connections with a small region in the center of the brain called the thalamus.

The thalamus is best known as a relay center that passes incoming sensory information to other parts of the brain for processing. But clinical discoveries indicate that certain areas of the thalamus may also play a vital part in consciousness and cognitive function. When a memory is formed in the brain, activity in the cells that store the information changes for the duration of the memory. Since individual neurons cannot remain active for more than a few milliseconds on their own, groups of cells work together to store the information. Neurons signaling back and forth can sustain one another’s activity for the seconds that it takes to store a short-term memory.


Svoboda and his colleagues wanted to understand if ALM stores these memories by itself, or if other parts of the brain work in concert with the ALM to store memories. ALM connects to several other brain regions via long-range connections. Zengcai Guo and Hidehiko Inagaki, postdoctoral researchers in Svoboda’s lab, tested those connections one by one, evaluating whether switching off neurons in various brain regions interfered with memory-associated activity in the ALM and impacted animals’ ability to remember their cues.

In further experiments, the team discovered that information flows both ways between the thalamus and the ALM portion of the cortex. The back and forth movement maintains these activity patterns that correspond to the memory. The finding highlights the functional importance of connections between distant parts of the brain, which are often neglected as neuroscientists focus their attention on activity within specific areas.


Lab-grown stem cells may carry an increased risk of cancer

If you’ve followed the latest medical research, you know that stem cells are a big deal. They let you repurpose cells so that you can theoretically grow them into whatever you need. However, scientists just got a good reason to be more cautious than they have in the past. A Harvard team has discovered that five of the 140 human embryonic stem cell lines registered for research use in US labs have cells whose mutations can cause cancer. Two of the lines have been used in human trials, too. None of those patients has developed cancer, thankfully, but there’s a “very real risk” it could happen.

This doesn’t mean that the medical community is about to hit the brakes on stem cell research. There’s still some review necessary to decide what happens next. And there are ways to make sure cells are healthy before they’re used. However, this raises the possibility that there are other, less common mutations that haven’t been caught. And these stem cell lines have been in use for nearly 20 years — that’s a lot of time for risks to go unchecked.

If the discovery holds up, researchers may have little choice but to look for mutations through DNA sequencing, which is expensive at about $1,000 for every genome. That screening could soon be government-mandated, in fact. Still, it might be necessary to make sure that stem cell treatments aren’t just substituting one disease for another.

Scientists successfully grew fetal lambs inside ‘uterus-like’ bags

Robotic limbs aren’t a new technology, though the range of motion and strength of such limbs continue to improve. Controlling prosthetics with your mind is another area of refinement, but they’re typically connected directly to a patient’s brain. A new technique where the robotic arm clicks directly to the bone, however, is showing promise. Johan Baggerman is the first patient in the Netherlands to get a click-on prosthetic arm that he can control with his mind.

With a direct connection to the bone, click-on appliances like this don’t need a prosthesis socket, making it easy to take on and off and avoiding chafing and other skin problems. The “mind control” is enabled by connecting a patient’s nerves to the socket, with a special Bluetooth bracelet to receive the signals. It takes three surgeries to make it happen, though, including one to insert the a metal rod into a patient’s bone marrow, one to implant the piece that will eventually connect the robot arm, and a third — performed by a specialized plastic surgeon — to connect all the nerves that used to control the patient’s hand muscles to the upper arm stump. This amplifies the neural signals, which helps when the patient is healed and imagines opening and closing their hand to control the new artificial limb.

The entire process, including surgery and rehab, is strenuous and takes a while to complete. Baggerman lost his arm in a truck accident in 2010, received the next three surgeries between 2013 and 2016 and just started the final phases of the rehabilitation process. No matter how tough it is to train a new robotic arm and hand, though, being able to use it by just thinking about it has got to feel amazing.

A 3D-printed patch could help you recover from a heart attack

Scientists have dreamed of easily patching up heart tissue in the wake of heart attacks, but there are always gotchas: for example, it’s no mean feat to replicate the complex structures of real tissue. However, there may be a solution in sight. Researchers have produced a 3D-printed cell patch that can heal scarred heart tissue. The team used laser-based bioprinting to fit stem cells (based on adult human heart cells) to a matrix developed around a 3D scan of heart tissue’s native proteins. When those cells grew, the matrix not only replicated the structures of regular heart tissue (down to 1 micron) but started beating in sync. And the early results are very promising.

After the team tested its patch on a mouse, the rodent’s heart saw a “significant increase” in functional capacity in the space of 4 weeks. Moreover, it eventually absorbed into the heart — the team didn’t have to perform follow-up operations to make sure it was a good fit.

Naturally, a mouse heart is easier to fix than a much larger human heart. The researchers see this as just a matter of time, though. They believe that human-scale patches should be viable “within the next several years.” If so, recovering from a heart attack may just be a matter of implanting some custom-printed tissue and waiting for your health to improve.

Study Finds a Link Between Diet Drinks and Strokes That Cause Dementia

So you thought you’d live life to the max and reduce your sugar intake to zero by switching to diet fizzy drinks? If only it were that simple.

New research is hinting that what might be good for your waist-line just might pose a problem for your brain later.

As part of a series of investigations into how sweet carbonated drinks affect our brains, Boston University School of Medicine used surveys to identify any long term neurological effects of consuming drinks artificially sweetened with substances such as aspartame or saccharine.

Participants were taken from the long-term Framingham Heart Study Offspring cohort – a group of about 5,000 men and women who have volunteered to provide data over their lifetime since 1971.

The team studied 2,888 members of the cohort aged over 45 for signs of a stroke, and found 97 cases (of which 87 were clots that restricted blood flow, called ischemic strokes).

A total of 81 cases of dementia were found among 1,484 members aged over 60 were, with 63 of those having symptoms consistent with Alzheimer’s disease.

They then used questionnaires that the participants had filled out at several points in their life over a seven year period to determine their food intake.

Crunching the numbers and accounting for factors such as age, education, caloric intake, smoking, and exercise, it appears throwing back at least one diet soda a day makes it nearly three times more likely you’ll have an ischemic stroke – a condition that can cause dementia – or develop Alzheimer’s.

On the other hand, a parallel study failed to find evidence that drinking sugary drinks increased the risk of stroke or dementia at all.

Before you run to the fridge and pour several litres of Pepsi Max down the sink, it’s important to put all of this into perspective.

First of all, three times a really tiny risk is still a tiny risk.

“In our study, three percent of the people had a new stroke and five percent developed dementia, so we’re still talking about a small number of people developing either stroke or dementia,” said the study’s lead researcher, Matthew Pase.

And of course there is the all-important mantra ‘correlation isn’t causation’. While the statistics suggest something could be going on, it doesn’t necessarily draw a straight line from sweetener to stroke.

The survey was also limited to data that had already been collected as a part of the Framingham Heart Study, which was made up of people from a mostly Caucasian ethnic background.

Culture could therefore be hiding some important details, especially given the differences in sugary drinks consumed across demographics, the researchers note.

There also was no indication of whether a specific artificial sweetener was to blame given participants didn’t note down the variety of beverage consumed.

But with public health messages encouraging people to lose weight, it might be worth considering the potential impact of more people drinking sugar-free if it isn’t completely risk-free.

“Our study shows a need to put more research into this area given how often people drink artificially-sweetened beverages,” said Pase.

The American Beverage Association is keen to take the results with a grain of non-sweetened salt.

“Low-calorie sweeteners have been proven safe by worldwide government safety authorities as well as hundreds of scientific studies and there is nothing in this research that counters this well-established fact,” it said in a statement.

“The FDA, World Health Organization, European Food Safety Authority and others have extensively reviewed low-calorie sweeteners and have all reached the same conclusion – they are safe for consumption.”

More research is always a good thing. But we all like to know what this means for us now, without holding out for the next round of grants.

The best solution might just be to swap soft drinks for water or drinks without added sweeteners as much as possible.

“They may have a role for people with diabetes and in weight loss, but we encourage people to drink water, low-fat milk or other beverages without added sweeteners,” said professor of nutrition at the University of Vermont, Rachel K. Johnson.


This research was published in the journal Stroke.

Study Finds the Birth Control Pill Has a Pretty Terrible Impact on Women’s Wellbeing

A new study has reinforced what many women have been saying for years – the oral contraceptive pill is associated with reduced quality of life and wellbeing in healthy women.

The double-blind, randomised, placebo-controlled trial found that healthy

women reported reduced quality of life, mood, and physical wellbeing after taking a common birth control pill containing ethinylestradiol and levonorgestrel for three months.

The findings reinforce earlier research and anecdotal claims that women are struggling with the side effects of the contraceptive pill.

But there was no significant evidence that the contraceptive increased depressive symptoms in the latest study… so, there’s that.

Surprisingly, this is one of the most rigorous studies to date to look into the impact of the pill on women’s quality of life.

“Despite the fact that an estimated 100 million women around the world use contraceptive pills we know surprisingly little today about the pill’s effect on women’s health,” said lead researcher Angelica Lindén Hirschberg from the Karolinska Institutet in Sweden.

“The scientific base is very limited as regards the contraceptive pill’s effect on quality of life and depression and there is a great need for randomised studies where it is compared with placebos.”

To fix that, her team took 340 healthy women aged between 18 and 35 and gave them either placebo pills, or contraceptive pills containing ethinylestradiol and levonorgestrel over a three-month period.

Ethinylestradiol and levonorgestrel-containing pills are among the most common form of combined oral contraceptive pills around the world because they’re the least associated with a risk of blood clots, and they include brand names such as Levlen, Microgynon, Portia, and Alesse.

The study was double blind, which meant that neither the researchers giving out the pills or the women taking them knew whether they were getting a placebo or not.

At the start of the study, the women had their general health measured, including weight, height, and blood pressure.

They also filled out two well-known surveys on general wellbeing and depressive symptoms – the Psychological General Wellbeing Index and the Beck Depression Inventory.

They then went through the same tests at the end of the three months so the researchers could compare the results.

The women who were given contraceptive pills reported that their quality of life was significantly lower at the end of the study than those who were given placebos.

This was true for general quality of life and also specific aspects of wellbeing, such as self control and energy levels.

No significant increase in depressive symptoms was observed.

While it’s an interesting first step towards better measuring the pills’ side effects, the researchers caution that the changes were relatively small so we can’t read too much into them just yet. And we can only apply these findings to ethinylestradiol and levonorgestrel-containg pills.

Also, the study only looked at women over three months – it will require longer monitoring to get a more accurate idea of how the contraceptive pill affects women.

“This might in some cases be a contributing cause of low compliance and irregular use of contraceptive pills,” said one of the researchers, Niklas Zethraeus.

“This possible degradation of quality of life should be paid attention to and taken into account in conjunction with prescribing of contraceptive pills and when choosing a method of contraception.”

With recent research also providing insight into why periods can be so damn painful and heavy, it seems scientists are finally starting to take women’s reproductive health and contraceptive side effects seriously.

And we’re getting some male options too – scientists are making progress with a hormonal contraceptive injection for men, as well as a reversible, condom-free gel that blocks sperm.

More research is needed before we can identify more accurately how the pill impacts women, but these early results are reassuring for many women who’ve struggled with side effects while on the pill.