research briefs

Using Chemistry as a Lens to Aid in Diagnosing Diseases

A team of researchers led by Assistant Professor of Biological Sciences Yongxin (Leon) Zhao has improved a powerful cellular magnification technique, making it more practical for use in clinical settings.

Conventional optical microscopes are unable to see minute, but important, details in tissue samples. More powerful techniques and devices do exist; however, they are expensive and technically complex.

To get around this issue, Zhao and collaborators pioneered a technique known as Expansion Pathology, which can magnify the details of human tissues by physically making them larger.

In a study published in the journal Nature Protocols, Zhao and his colleagues laid out step-by-step how Expansion Pathology can enable pathologists to inexpensively and rapidly track even the subtlest changes in human tissue.

Future of Human Healing

The Future of Human Healing Lies in the Brain of a Starfish

The incredible benefits of stem cell therapy are widely known — but the treatment is prohibitively expensive. The key to making this therapy more affordable might lie in the regenerative powers of starfish.

Stem cells are the body’s raw material, able to become any type of cell. In humans, when stem cells differentiate into other cells, they are unable to change back, or dedifferentiate. But this is not the case with starfish.

Professor of Biological Sciences Veronica Hinman and Professor of Chemical Engineering Kris Dahl are creating an artificial model of the starfish larval system that will allow them to manipulate the chemical and mechanical factors that exist in the starfish embryo. The goal of the model is to help them discover exactly what it is that tells starfish cells to dedifferentiate back into stem cells.

Understanding how cellular reprogramming occurs in nature has great potential for scientists to translate these findings to human cell cultures to identify cheap and robust ways to generate stem cells,” said Hinman.

All Purpose Platform

All-Purpose” Platform for Exosome-Mediated Delivery

Carnegie Mellon researchers have created an “all-purpose” platform for utilizing exosomes to deliver cargo in living organisms, which could lead to the development a new class of hybrid nanoparticles for delivering therapeutics, including anti-cancer drugs and immunotherapies.

Chemistry doctoral candidate Sushil Lathwal and his interdisciplinary collaborators created a method that rapidly and efficiently engineers exosomes with a DNA-cholesterol tether. The tether can bind with a complementary strand of DNA linked to a bioactive agent. As a result, different types of cargo can be connected to the exosome’s surface enabling a variety of functions, including labeling the exosome with a dye molecule for imaging or attaching an antibody or drug for disease treatment or prevention.



Global Warning System for Pathogens

Pandemics, including COVID-19, are caused by pathogens. Before infecting humans, pathogens often lie dormant in other organisms, where they replicate and mutate until the conditions are right for them to return.

“If we can detect an uptick in the presence of a pathogen in a localized environment, we can warn those who are likely to be infected. This will afford them time to take potentially life-saving precautions,” said Chemistry Professor Danith Ly.

Ly developed a molecular circuit that can simply and inexpensively detect the genetic signature of a pathogen in a soil or water sample. The circuit converts and amplifies the sequence to emit a signal that can be revealed with UV light and sent to a command center by a smart phone. With funding from the DSF Charitable foundation, Ly will take the next steps towards developing a Global Pathogen Surveillance System that integrates his circuits with existing telecommunications technology.


Mathematical Models Predict Impact of COVID-19 Mitigation

As people worldwide have been social distancing and wearing masks to prevent the spread of COVID-19, mathematician Wesley Pegden has been using math to evaluate the impact mitigation efforts could have on mortality rates from the disease.

Pegden and the University of Pittsburgh’s Maria Chikina used mathematical modeling to look at how strategies, including those that focus on the entire population and those that focus on at-risk groups, impacted overall mortality rates during an outbreak of a virus with a similar profile to COVID-19. They found that, in their model, focusing strategies on the most at-risk populations was most effective in reducing deaths.

“Our models suggest that by focusing on the most vulnerable, we can reduce deaths not only by reducing the number of cases of an infection but by lessening the burden on the health care system,” said Pegden.


Pinning Down Neutrino Mass

CMU Professor Assists International Experiment in Pinning Down Elusive Neutrino Mass

An international team of scientists, including Assistant Professor of Physics Diana Parno, announced a breakthrough in its quest to measure the mass of the neutrino, one of the most abundant, yet elusive, elementary particles in our universe.

Leaders from the Karlsruhe Tritium Neutrino (KATRIN) experiment reported that the estimated range for the rest mass of the neutrino is between 0.02 and 1 electron volts, or eV. These inaugural results cut the mass range for the neutrino by more than half.

“Neutrino mass is a big hole in our understanding of particle physics,” said Parno, an analysis co-coordinator for the worldwide collaboration behind KATRIN. “This result addresses that empty spot.”


Physicists Superconducting Material

Carnegie Mellon Physicists’ Superconducting Material Holds Promise for Quantum Computing

Research from Carnegie Mellon physicists details the creation of a kind of superconducting material that could allow for the creation of more robust quantum computers.

“The main result is that we created a new state of matter,” said Assistant Professor of Physics Ben Hunt, who led the research in collaboration with Professor of Physics Randall Feenstra.

This state of matter, a one-dimensional topological superconductor, has actually been made before, Hunt clarified, but their study published in the journal Nature Physics proved its first creation in a particular material — tungsten ditelluride.

“To make this one-dimensional topological superconductor is a fundamental element in building a topological quantum computer,” Hunt said. These quantum computers may be more robust against environmental conditions, allowing them to be more compact and resilient to errors.

NSF Funds Neocortex

NSF Funds Neocortex, a Groundbreaking AI Supercomputer, at PSC

$5 million National Science Foundation (NSF) award will allow the Pittsburgh Supercomputing Center (PSC) to deploy a unique high-performance artificial intelligence (AI) system. Neocortex will introduce fundamentally new hardware to greatly speed up AI research. PSC, a joint research organization of Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh, will build the new supercomputer in partnership with Cerebras Systems and Hewlett Packard Enterprise.

Neocortex will go beyond the technologies that have powered much of the advancement in AI since 2012. The balanced system will expand researchers’ access to game-changing computational power for artificial intelligence training. Neocortex is planned to be available at no cost to researchers nationwide starting later in 2020.