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© Takashi Tsuji, RIKEN

Scientists Grow Hairy Skin in the Lab

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© Takashi Tsuji, RIKEN

Anybody can make skin cells—in fact, you’re doing it right now. But large, transplantable sheets of skin? That’s a bit harder. Still, it’s not impossible: Japanese scientists have successfully grown sophisticated artificial skin, including hair follicles and sweat glands. Their results were published last week in the journal Science Advances

These are heady days for lab-grown tissue. In the last decade, scientists have managed to create petri-dish tear ducts, kidneys, rat legs, muscle and bone, and even beef. All of this is good news, as transplantable organs and other body parts are in high demand, but some have been harder to cook up than others. Skin, for example. 

Your hide may look simple, but there’s actually a lot going on: there are three distinct layers (the epidermis, dermis, and hypodermis, which is composed of fat and connective tissue), sweat glands, and hair follicles. For skin to be skin, it’s got to be functional, lead author Takashi Tsuji said in a press statement. "Up until now, artificial skin development has been hampered by the fact that the skin lacked the important organs, such as hair follicles and exocrine glands, which allow the skin to play its important role in regulation.”

Tsuji and his colleagues decided to start at the very beginning, before skin cells are even skin cells. They used induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS), which are adult cells that have been reprogrammed with the stem-cell-like power to grow into anything.

The researchers used chemicals to activate a gene in the cells called Wnt10b, which is known for its role in skin growth. The iPS were cultured until they grew into little clumps called embryoid bodies (EBs), then transplanted into mice. Once inside the mice, the EBs continued to develop into skin tissue. To test the tissue’s medical potential, the researchers removed the new skin from the mice and transplanted it into other mice. They found that the artificial skin settled in and continued to develop normally as three-layered skin complete with glands and follicles. They also noticed that the new skin was able to connect with nearby nerves and muscles—an essential element in any transplanted tissue. 

Bioengineered skin with hair follicles. Image credit: © Takashi Tsuji, RIKEN

The researchers say their lab-grown skin is a step toward both important medical advances and a reduction in the use of lab animals in research (despite the study's reliance on mice subjects).

“With this new technique, we have successfully grown skin that replicates the function of normal tissue,” Tsuji said. “We are coming ever closer to the dream of being able to recreate actual organs in the lab for transplantation, and also believe that tissue grown through this method could be used as an alternative to animal testing of chemicals."

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Ethan Miller/Getty Images
Look Up! The Orionid Meteor Shower Peaks This Weekend
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Ethan Miller/Getty Images

October is always a great month for skywatching. If you missed the Draconids, the first meteor shower of the month, don't despair: the Orionids peak this weekend. It should be an especially stunning show this year, as the Moon will offer virtually no interference. If you've ever wanted to get into skywatching, this is your chance.

The Orionids is the second of two meteor showers caused by the debris field left by the comet Halley. (The other is the Eta Aquarids, which appear in May.) The showers are named for the constellation Orion, from which they seem to originate.

All the stars are lining up (so to speak) for this show. First, it's on the weekend, which means you can stay up late without feeling the burn at work the next day. Tonight, October 20, you'll be able to spot many meteors, and the shower peaks just after midnight tomorrow, October 21, leading into Sunday morning. Make a late-night picnic of the occasion, because it takes about an hour for your eyes to adjust to the darkness. Bring a blanket and a bottle of wine, lay out and take in the open skies, and let nature do the rest.

Second, the Moon, which was new only yesterday, is but a sliver in the evening sky, lacking the wattage to wash out the sky or conceal the faintest of meteors. If your skies are clear and light pollution low, this year you should be able to catch about 20 meteors an hour, which isn't a bad way to spend a date night.

If clouds interfere with your Orionids experience, don't fret. There will be two more meteor showers in November and the greatest of them all in December: the Geminids.

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11-Year-Old Creates a Better Way to Test for Lead in Water
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In the wake of the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, a Colorado middle schooler has invented a better way to test lead levels in water, as The Cut reports.

Gitanjali Rao, an 11-year-old seventh grader in Lone Tree, Colorado just won the 2017 Discovery Education 3M Young Scientist Challenge, taking home $25,000 for the water-quality testing device she invented, called Tethys.

Rao was inspired to create the device after watching Flint's water crisis unfold over the last few years. In 2014, after the city of Flint cut costs by switching water sources used for its tap water and failed to treat it properly, lead levels in the city's water skyrocketed. By 2015, researchers testing the water found that 40 percent of homes in the city had elevated lead levels in their water, and recommended the state declare Flint's water unsafe for drinking or cooking. In December of that year, the city declared a state of emergency. Researchers have found that the lead-poisoned water resulted in a "horrifyingly large" impact on fetal death rates as well as leading to a Legionnaires' disease outbreak that killed 12 people.

A close-up of the Tethys device

Rao's parents are engineers, and she watched them as they tried to test the lead in their own house, experiencing firsthand how complicated it could be. She spotted news of a cutting-edge technology for detecting hazardous substances on MIT's engineering department website (which she checks regularly just to see "if there's anything new," as ABC News reports) then set to work creating Tethys. The device works with carbon nanotube sensors to detect lead levels faster than other current techniques, sending the results to a smartphone app.

As one of 10 finalists for the Young Scientist Challenge, Rao spent the summer working with a 3M scientist to refine her device, then presented the prototype to a panel of judges from 3M and schools across the country.

The contamination crisis in Flint is still ongoing, and Rao's invention could have a significant impact. In March 2017, Flint officials cautioned that it could be as long as two more years until the city's tap water will be safe enough to drink without filtering. The state of Michigan now plans to replace water pipes leading to 18,000 households by 2020. Until then, residents using water filters could use a device like Tethys to make sure the water they're drinking is safe. Rao plans to put most of the $25,000 prize money back into her project with the hopes of making the device commercially available.

[h/t The Cut]

All images by Andy King, courtesy of the Discovery Education 3M Young Scientist Challenge.


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