Science & Health: artificial blood advance; Stradivarius ‘recreated’; swearing helps; urinal fun


By Steve Elliott our science and Health correspondent

This week: creating artificial blood in the lab; recreating a 307 year-old Stradivarius; a little bad language is good for you; urinal game playing could be hygienic

Biotechnology – First Steps Towards Artificial Blood Transfusion A Success
Luc Douay, of Pierre and Marie Curie University, Paris, produced artificial blood cells from hematopoietic stem cells that can differentiate into various kinds of mature blood cells in the body.

By Steve Elliott our science and Health correspondent

This week: creating artificial blood in the lab; recreating a 307 year-old Stradivarius; a little bad language is good for you; urinal game playing could be hygienic

Biotechnology – First Steps Towards Artificial Blood Transfusion A Success
Luc Douay, of Pierre and Marie Curie University, Paris, produced artificial blood cells from hematopoietic stem cells that can differentiate into various kinds of mature blood cells in the body.

They extracted these stem cells from a volunteer donor’s bone marrow and then grew them in a cocktail of growth factors whereupon they successfully developed into cultured red blood cells.  In a first step for this new technology, Douay’s team then injected 10 billion cells – the equivalent of 2 millilitres of blood – back into the original donor to see how they behaved in situ.

Dr Douay’s results published in the November 10 issue of the journal Blood, showed that the artificial red cells functioned as normal, carrying oxygen around the body and also showed normal blood cell survival rates in the blood circulation of the volunteer subject.  After five days, 94 to 100 percent of the blood cells remained circulating round the body.  After 26 days, 41 to 63 percent remained – a normal survival rate for naturally produced blood cells.  The cultured blood cells appeared safe and showed no signs of transforming into a malignant cell types – they behaved like normal red blood cells, binding oxygen and releasing it around the body as required.

Scientists have been searching for the holy grail of artificial blood manufacture for decades and this breakthrough comes after many attempts to create artificial blood substitutes that were either ineffective or deemed unsafe.

However, the technology requires much advancement to become a practical application in medicine: a normal transfusion requires 200 times the amount of red blood cells created in Dr Douay’s experiment, requiring with the technology used in this trial, 400 litres of the fluid used to culture those stem cells – a highly impractical amount.

In the long term, this kind of technology shows promise for producing as much blood as is needed by hospitals in a world where blood is in shorter supply and a population that is continually increasing.  Douay projects that he will be able to improve the technology and bring it to a practical scale of application within a few years. 

Dr Douay said: “The results show promise that an unlimited blood reserve is within reach.”

Technology – Stradivarius Violin ‘Recreated’
A radiologist and violin player, Dr Steven Stirr, has virtually recreated the fabled violins of master instrument maker Antonio Stradivari using a computerised axial tomography (CAT) scanner.  The device, normally used to detect cancers and injuries, was employed to delve into and reveal the anatomical secrets of the iconic Stradivarius violin.

Dr Sirr first had the idea of using a CAT scanner to take images of violins in 1988 when he was an assistant professor at the University of Minnesota.  He would take his violin with him to play in the peaceful quiet of his office and on one particular day whilst supervising the CAT scan of a patient he had a bit of a brainwave.

Dr Sirr: “I put the violin of the side on a table near the scanner and then after the patient went to surgery I turned round and saw my violin and thought – well it would be interesting to scan that”.

The CAT scan revealed there was a great deal of ‘anatomy’; he took the CAT scan images to a violin maker friend John Waddle who would better understand the significance of the CAT scan images.  The two men proceeded scan hundreds of instruments, including guitars, mandolins as well as other violins – the CAT scans of older instruments revealed worm holes, cracks and damage all of which add together to produce each instrument’s distinctive and identifiable sound.

Dr Sirr and John Waddle were allowed the use of a Stradivarius called “Betts” from the US Library of Congress.  The two men teamed with up with another expert violin maker, Steve Rossow, and used the “Betts” CAT scanned data and images to build 3 “nearly exact copies” of the 307-year-old instrument.

More than 1,000 CAT scan images from the original instrument were used to create a virtual three-dimensional object using computer-aided design (CAD) software.  The resulting virtual violin data was used by a CNC (computer numerical control) machine to physically carve the various pieces of the violin using various woods picked to match the original grain and density as closely as possible.  The violins’ back and front plates, neck and the “scroll” carving at the neck’s end were then assembled and varnished by hand.

Dr Sirr said: “The copies are amazingly similar to originals in their sound quality”.

Recently, a Stradivarius, the Lady Blunt, was sold in June for £10.2m at a charity auction – more than quadruple the previous record price for an instrument created by the legendary Italian craftsman.

Dr Sirr says he now intends to recreate a Stradivarius cello.

Psychology – Swearing helps control pain
Researchers have found that a little swearing goes a long way in easing pain but not if people swear many times a day, according to research.

Psychologists at Keele University’s School of Psychology put 71 undergraduates into two groups – swearers and non-swearers – to repeat either a swear word or a non-swear word while performing a cold-water pain challenge experiment.  The students placed their hands into room temperature water for three minutes to act as a control; they then plunged the same hand into water kept at just above freezing temperature and told to keep it in the 5°C water for as long as they could while repeating their word.

The results showed swearing helped people deal better with pain in the short-term, however frequency of swearing plays an important role.

Perceived pain levels combined with a change in heart rate were measured and used to compare the two groups while people swore or repeated their non-swear word.  The 71 subjects were also asked about how much they swore in daily life – this was factored in to the overall experimental results along with the individual subject’s natural level of pain tolerance.

Writing in the Journal of Pain, the authors concluded: “Swearing increased pain tolerance and heart rate compared with not swearing.  Moreover, the higher the daily swearing frequency, the less was the benefit for pain tolerance when swearing, compared with when not swearing.  The more often participants reported swearing in daily life, the less extra time they were able to hold their hand in ice cold water when they repeated a swear word, compared with when they repeated a non-swear word.”

Scientists believe swearing elicits an emotional response which leads to what is known as “stress-induced analgesia.”

Dr Richard Stephens, a senior lecturer in psychology at Keele, said: “People who don’t swear very much in daily life can keep their hand in roughly double the amount of time when they swear compared to when they don’t swear.  But the people who swear the most do not get any extra benefit”.

Technology – Pub Urinal Game Playing
Game playing even when otherwise occupied is now possible.  Captive Media have developed a game for men only – sexist it’s not.  This game is tasked with improving the public house toilet hygiene of its patrons.

An LED screen above the pub urinal offers a choice of three games for competitors.  The game system even comes with a high score table – competitors will gain points based on skill and physical endurance.

The original idea first appeared in Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport – little bluebottles were painted on the inside of the men’s urinals giving men something to ‘aim at’ – the interesting result was that cleaning staff had less ‘missed opportunities’ to deal with on the floors of the airport’s toilets.

The system has taken four years to develop and the makers are convinced the game will encourage men to aim broadly in the ‘right’ direction.  The game works with a clip-on 12-inch LED screen at the top of the urinal, and a motion sensor aimed down into the ‘business’ area of the urinal. 

There are three games to play: the snowboarding game allows players to steer the snowboarder left and right down a slope; more proficient marksmen can also answer pub quiz questions – the quiz is called Clever Dick; there’s also a classic arcade game version of the brick-smashing game Breakout.  Naturally, the devices are waterproof, shockproof and have toughened glass – disgruntled, inebriated game players may take exception to a low score.

The 12-inch LED unit also displays an advert to the captive audience before the game begins – so the idea is the units will not only promote hygiene but also be profitable for publicans.

So far, the devices have been trialed in a Cambridge pub – but Captive Media hopes to put one of their games in a urinal near you soon.

Weird science
1) There is enough salt in the world’s oceans to cover all the land on all the continents to a depth of nearly 500 feet.
2) Water expands by about 9% as it freezes.
3) The smallest transistor is 50-nanometres wide – roughly 1/2000 the width of a human hair.
4) In a desert, a mirage is caused when air near the ground is hotter than air higher up. As light from the sun passes from cooler to warmer air, it speeds up and is refracted upward, creating the image of water.
5) The largest cell in the human body is the female egg and the smallest is the male sperm.
6) The brain is much more active at night than during the day.
7) During your lifetime, you will produce enough saliva to fill two swimming pools.
8) Your nose can remember 50,000 different scents.
9) Women’s hearts beat faster than men’s.
10) Your eyes are always the same size from birth (but your nose and ears never stop growing).
11) On any given day, sexual intercourse takes place 120 million times on earth.
12) The brain itself cannot feel pain.
13) The largest internal organ is the small intestine.
14) Sneezes regularly exceed 100 mph & nerve impulses to and from the brain travel as fast as  170 miles per hour.
15) It takes 17 muscles to smile and 43 to frown.