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November 2012
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January 2013

Super-fine sound beam could one day be an invisible scalpel

ANN ARBOR—A carbon-nanotube-coated lens that converts light to sound can focus high-pressure sound waves to finer points than ever before. The University of Michigan engineering researchers who developed the new therapeutic ultrasound approach say it could lead to an invisible knife for noninvasive surgery.

Today's ultrasound technology enables far more than glimpses into the womb. Doctors routinely use focused sound waves to blast apart kidney stones and prostate tumors, for example. The tools work primarily by focusing sound waves tightly enough to generate heat, says Jay Guo, a professor of electrical engineering and computer science, mechanical engineering, and macromolecular science and engineering. Guo is a co-author of a paper on the new technique published in the current issue of Nature's journal Scientific Reports.

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The Wisconsin Biotech Story: Slow and Steady Wins the Race

Luke Timmerman

They say you can’t go home again. But sometimes you can go home after a few years and notice that your home has changed quite a bit.

This past week, I went back to Wisconsin, where I’m originally from, to visit family and do some reporting. I stopped by the capitol, Madison, to take stock of what’s happening in Wisconsin biotech, and maybe come away with a story idea or two.

My bias coming into this visit was bi-coastal: Most of the action in biotech happens on the East and West coasts. Wisconsin, like several other Midwestern states, has a great research university, but hasn’t quite been able to leverage that asset into a thriving commercial biotech cluster. Like a lot of states and regions around the world, Wisconsin officials have worked hard to create a biotech hub, without making it into the major leagues. There’s a lack of venture capital, and the business culture doesn’t really support super-speculative biotech startups. When I left Wisconsin a dozen years ago, it was famous for its work in human embryonic stem cell research, but many people were moaning about how the commercial rights were licensed to a company in the San Francisco Bay Area (Geron).

Those perceptions, as I soon realized on this trip, are out of date and only half-true.

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Brain cells made from urine

Human excreta could be a powerful source of cells to study disease, bypassing some of the problems of using stem cells.

Monya Baker

Some of the waste that humans flush away every day could become a powerful source of brain cells to study disease, and may even one day be used in therapies for neurodegenerative diseases. Scientists have found a relatively straightforward way to persuade the cells discarded in human urine to turn into valuable neurons.

The technique, described online in a study in Nature Methods this week, does not involve embryonic stem cells. These come with serious drawbacks when transplanted, such as the risk of developing tumours. Instead, the method uses ordinary cells present in urine, and transforms them into neural progenitor cells — the precursors of brain cells. These precursor cells could help researchers to produce cells tailored to individuals more quickly and from more patients than current methods.

Researchers routinely reprogram cultured skin and blood cells into induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells, which can go on to form any cell in the body. But urine is a much more accessible source.

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