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Scientists Grow Blood Stem Cells in the Lab for the First Time

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One little cell can go a very long way—especially if that cell is a blood stem cell. Now two research groups have developed two different methods for growing these cells, a development that could help us understand and fight cancer. The scientists published their papers in the journal Nature.

Hematopoietic, or blood-making, stem cells (HSCs) are extraordinary things, so full of creative potential that a single cell can be used to restore an entire mammal circulatory system. Unfortunately, this same generative power also makes them prone to developing cancer-causing genetic mutations. If we could figure out how these HSCs work, we might be able to separate their skills from their weaknesses.

The most efficient way to access and study these complex cells would be to grow them in the lab. The authors of the new papers present two different approaches that may get us there.

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Hematopoietic stem and progenitor cells (HSPC) from human iPS cells.
Rio Sugimura

The first group, led by Boston-based cancer experts George Daley and Ryohichi Sugimura, used chemical signals and genetic tinkering to transform human pluripotent stem cells into blood cells, and then, from there, into human HSCs.

The second team, led by Weill Cornell Medicine's Shahin Rafii and Raphael Lis, started with blood cells taken from mice, then changed the cells’ genes to coax them into becoming mouse HSCs.

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Guibentif & Göttgens 2017. Nature.

Both groups’ freshly minted HSCs were functional, surviving transplant and producing more blood cells once they’d settled in.

Writing in an accompanying News & Views article for Nature, researchers Carolina Guibentif and Berthold Göttgens say both teams’ progress “opens up exciting opportunities” in the field. They note that neither method solves the problem of cancer-causing mutations, and the new cells’ success was only tracked for a short period of time.

Still, “although further studies are needed,” they write, “the long journey to translate the promise of stem-cell research into direct patient benefit may just have become a little shorter.”

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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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May 23, 2017
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