The week’s most astounding developments from the neobiological frontier.

March 17, 2022

I heard it on the clothesline: A stethoscope shirt

Could a simple pullover become the next EKG? That’s just one of many possibilities MIT researchers announced this week for the acoustic fabric they’re developing that acts as a microphone. A simple weave of cotton yarn in the warp with a synthetic Kevlar-like yarn called Twaron in the weft gives the fabric a distinct stiffness mimicking the tympanic membrane of the human ear. The fabric converts sound pressure waves into mechanical vibrations just like the eardrum, and an interwoven single strand of piezoelectric fiber in the cloth then converts those vibrations into electrical impulses. As a proof-of-principle, the team demonstrated how one shirt could detect sound direction, two shirts could send and receive audio from each other, possibly even underwater, and a specialized “stethoscope shirt” could monitor a person’s heart rate. We wonder if the microphone shirt could talk to David Eagleman’s Buzz wristband. Nature

Acoustic fiber and fabric with fiber preform Fink Lab MIT/Elizabeth Meiklejohn RISD/Greg Hren

The unclear genetics of leadership

People who claim that leadership is genetic often point to John F. Kennedy, calling the former president a born leader. But this is controversial, given that he was also a senator’s son and scion of a powerful political family. But now a massive genome-wide association study by researchers at National University of Singapore and the Chinese University of Hong Kong looked at the genomes of 248,640 Europeans, asked whether they held managerial or leadership positions, and identified several loci that appear to contribute genetic components of leadership (though there was no one “leadership gene”). It found that being a boss is correlated with high levels of subjective well-being, low levels of anxiety and depression, and more intelligence, but these same genomic regions were also correlated with higher incidence of bipolar disorder and alcohol intake. For more on these correlations, also see our recent story, “The Brain of an Entrepreneur.” PNAS

Artificial muscles for untethered miniature medical robots

Next generation small, soft, crawly, and navigable robots could revolutionize minimally invasive surgeries in the future, but while standalone soft-bodied medical devices already exist, their on-board actuators that would manipulate tools the way a tiny surgeon’s hands would are too weak to operate effectively inside the body. Now a team of researchers at Max Planck Institute for Intelligent Systems in Stuttgart, Germany, has designed a new type of artificial muscle for soft robots based on coils that operate via radio frequency-magnetic heating, and they say these muscles are strong enough to power tiny surgical tools like scissors, drills, sutures, and clamps. Science Advances

Laser-plasma proton accelerators—the future of cancer therapy?

Scientists at the Helmholtz-Zentrum Dresden-Rossendorf research institute in Dresden, Germany, are reporting an important technological breakthrough that could potentially lead to new types of proton radiation therapies for cancer. Killing tumors by blasting them with protons has been a powerful way of treating cancer for many years, but it’s limited by the availability of proton sources—large linear or ringed particle accelerators that are so expensive to build that only 39 clinical proton therapy centers exist in the United States. An alternative and potentially cheaper way of accelerating protons by using short, powerful laser blasts could feasibly bring proton therapy to the masses, but up to now protons generated from lasers have been difficult to control. The Dresden researchers showed they can reliably deliver lethal radiation from a compact, laser-driven proton source to tumors in mice, setting the stage for clinical development. While there’s a long way to go before any such laser-plasma proton accelerator device is in routine clinical use, this is an important first step in that direction. Nature Physics

Gene therapy for hemophilia A

Hemophilia A is a common, genetic form of the bleeding disorder in which the body does not produce enough Factor VIII protein to properly clot blood. This protein is linked to the X chromosome, which makes the disease far more common in males (because they inherit only one copy), and there are more than 30,000 men and boys in America who have the disease. For decades, it was treated prophylactically with infusions of Factor VIII protein—historically from plasma donors but mainly produced recombinantly today. A phase 3 clinical trial involving 134 men in 13 countries suffering from severe hemophilia A suggests that we may be on the verge of a new treatment: the gene therapy valoctocogene roxaparvovec, which was found to increase Factor VIII production and reduce bleeding compared to normal treatment, according to doctors at University of Campinas in Sao Paulo, Brazil, who led the study. New England Journal of Medicine

Effects of homeopathy may be overestimated

A meta-analysis of 193 randomized, controlled clinical trials of homeopathic medicine conducted from 2000–2013 has called into question the validity of medical evidence in homeopathy, a $5.5 billion industry in the United States and Europe alone. It found more than half of the trials were never registered on databases like clinicaltrials.gov, that the results of many of the trials that were registered were never actually published, and that the primary outcomes of the registered trials were changed by the time they were published. Taken together, write researchers at Danube University in Krems, Austria, who conducted the study, all this “may overestimate the true treatment effect of homeopathic remedies.” BMJ Evidence Based Medicine