July 18, 2008, CNN Science – Researchers at the University of Minnesota have regenerated a rat’s heart in the lab hoping they can do the same for a human heart.

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The three stages of a rat’s heart decellularization. Photo by Thomas Matthiesen

With a rat’s heart, they removed its existing cell structure by washing it off with a soap solution much like shampoo. After this decellularization process, they introduced new heart cells from another rat and attached it to a machine that functions like a body — complete with blood supply, blood pressure and a pacemaker.

“The first couple of days we didn’t see much. By day four we actually saw tiny microscopic beating and by day eight it was the home run. We could actually see beating in the heart,” says Professor Doris Taylor.

Taylor and her team are now working with a pig’s heart because it resembles a human heart in size and shape. An actual transplant to a human is still many years away but Taylor says it is a possibility.

“It’s not unreasonable to think that we could take a pig heart, remove all the cells and then if you needed a heart, take stem cells from your body, grow them in a dish and transfer them to a pig heart and make a heart that matches your body.”

Researchers also say the same process can be done for other organs like the liver and kidneys.

If you needed a new heart, would you wait until a suitable donor appeared or would you accept the outline of a pig’s heart, with the content created out of your own stem cells, grown to order for a new custom heart? In a way, a donor heart would be more foreign than the latter heart, custom made for each individual.

Your Inner Astronaut

July 17, 2008, CNN Science – Well they’re not moon shoes, but a new device called the iShoe developed by an MIT graduate student may have your grandmother channeling her inner astronaut.

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Lieberman demonstrates how sensors on the iShoe insole can diagnose balance problems.

That’s because Erez Lieberman and researchers at the Harvard-MIT Division of Health Sciences and Technology are designing new sensory insoles that may soon help doctors diagnose balance problems in senior citizens before major falls occur.

It’s based on a technology astronauts now use every time they return to earth, and one that Lieberman himself helped develop while an intern at NASA.

“The problem NASA faces is that the altered-gravity environment of spaceflight messes with the astronaut’s sense of balance,” says Lieberman, “[This technology] is currently being used to evaluate astronaut balance after return from zero-G.”

Lieberman and the iShoe team are now testing a new version of the technology; one that can help the elderly by analyzing pressure distribution on their feet.

“If we flag the existence of the problem early, a doctor or physical therapist can come in and make a better determination of the causes,” says Lieberman, “We can detect all kinds of effects. If a patient closes their eyes, our insole will know.”

With more than 250,000 Americans breaking their hips each year during major falls and 1-in-4 dying within a year of their injury, the device would be a welcome help to doctors, patients, and their families. In fact, it was his grandmother’s death after a fall that first inspired Lieberman to apply the NASA technology to senior citizens.

In the future, Lieberman hopes that iShoe will be equipped with technology that would help correct a patient’s balance issue as it occurs. It could even sound an alert when a fall occurs.

“Eventually we hope to provide subtle auditory and vibrational cues which will help the person adjust their balance. These cues will help them stand up straight and walk around confidently,” Lieberman says.

The iShoe team expects their product to be on the market with in two years.

wi-fi net keeps track of available spaces by displaying on street signs or smart phones

July 16, 2008, CNN Science – Finding parking in a big city usually involves lots of circling, wasted time and a whole lot of luck.

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With that in mind, officials in San Francisco are launching an ambitious, $23 million project to install sensors on 6,000 of the city’s 24,000 parking spots that will alert drivers to open spaces.

The sensors, which were developed by researchers at the University of California–Berkeley and adapted by the company Streetline, will use a city-wide wi-fi network to keep track of how many spaces are open by displaying them on street signs or on smart phones.

And if you’re too lazy to even cruise for the new signs in San Francisco, a separate Web site, www.gottapark.com, will let you reserve a parking spot in advance. The spots come from a database of private spaces put up for rent by their owners. People looking for extra gas money can rent out their driveways and businesses can rent out their spots by registering on the site. Users can search for a specific date, time and area and the availability is displayed. The rental fee is set by the spot’s owner.

The sensors and spot reservations could help curtail traffic woes and environmental concerns across the country. A recent study by a University of California urban planner found that nearly 30 percent of traffic congestion in major business cities was a result of hunting for parking. The study also found the time spent searching for spots would be equal to 38 trips around the world, burning 47,000 gallons of gasoline and producing 730 tons of carbon dioxide.