Scientists develop fluid-filled artificial womb to help premature babies

An artists impression shows a lamb inside a fluid-filled womb-like bag known as an extra-uterine support device developed by the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.MANDATORY CREDIT Children's Hospital of Philadelphia handout via REUTERS

By Kate Kelland

LONDON, (Reuters) – Scientists in the United States have developed a fluid-filled womb-like bag known as an extra-uterine support device that could transform care for extremely premature babies, significantly improving chances of survival.

In pre-clinical studies with lambs, the researchers were able to mimic the womb environment and the functions of the placenta, giving premature offspring a crucial opportunity to develop their lungs and other organs.

Around 30,000 babies in the United States alone are born critically early – at between 23 and 26 weeks of gestation, the researchers told reporters in a telephone briefing.

At that age, a human baby weighs little more than 500 grams, its lungs are not able to cope with air and its chances of survival are low. Death rates are up to 70 percent and those who do survive face life-long disability.

“These infants have an urgent need for a bridge between the mother’s womb and the outside world,” said Alan Flake, a specialist surgeon at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia who led the development of the new device.

His team’s aim, he said, was to develop an extra-uterine system where extremely premature babies can be suspended in fluid-filled chambers for a vital few weeks to bring them over the 28-week threshold, when their life chances are dramatically improved.

It could take up to another 10 years, but by then he hopes to have a licensed device in which babies born very prematurely are given the chance to develop in fluid-filled chambers, rather than lying in incubators being artificially ventilated.

“This system is potentially far superior to what hospitals can currently do for a 23-week-old baby born at the cusp of viability,” Flake said. “This could establish a new standard of care for this subset of extremely premature infants.”

The team spent three years evolving their system through a series of four prototypes – beginning with a glass incubator tank and progressing to the current fluid-filled bag.

Six preterm lambs tested in the most recent prototype were physiologically equivalent to a 23- or 24-week-gestation human baby and were able to grow in a temperature-controlled, near-sterile environment, Flake said.

The scientists made amniotic fluid in their lab and set up the system so that this flowed into and out of the bag.

Lung development in fetal lambs is very similar in humans, said fetal physiologist Marcus Davey, who worked on team.

“Fetal lungs are designed to function in fluid. We simulate that environment … allowing the lungs and other organs to develop while supplying nutrients and growth factors,” he said.

Flake said the success of the system, details of which were published on Tuesday in the journal Nature Communications, was due to its mimicking life in the uterus as closely as possible.

It has no external pump to drive circulation, because even gentle artificial pressure can fatally overload an underdeveloped heart, and there is no ventilator, because the immature lungs are not yet ready to breathe air.

Instead, the baby’s heart pumps blood via the umbilical cord into a low-resistance oxygenator that acts as a substitute for the placenta in exchanging oxygen and carbon dioxide.

Flake’s team plans to refine the system further and then downsize it for human infants, who are around a third of the size of the lambs used in the study.

(Editing by Tom Heneghan)

Waymo testing self-driving car ride service in Arizona

Waymo unveils a self-driving Chrysler Pacifica minivan during the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, Michigan, U.S., January 8, 2017. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid

SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) – Alphabet Inc’s Waymo autonomous vehicle group will begin testing a self-driving car program for hundreds of families in Phoenix, Arizona and is buying 500 Chrysler minivans to do so, the companies said on Tuesday.

Waymo, which along with Google is owned by Alphabet Inc<GOOGL.O>, recently has been quietly testing the service for a handful of families, learning what potential customers would want from a ride service, the company said in a blog post.

It urged people to apply to take part in an expanded test, which is the first public trial of Waymo’s self-driving cars. The vehicles include human operators from Waymo behind the wheel, in case intervention is required and to take feedback.

Silicon Valley is racing to master self-driving technology, betting that it will transform the auto industry and be a gold mine for leading companies. Waymo has one of the best technology track records, and it has an alliance with Fiat Chrysler Automobiles <FCHA.MI>.

Many companies expect that customers will use autonomous vehicles as a service, rather than owning them outright. Ride service Uber in particular expects to use autonomous cars.

The new Waymo test in Arizona is meant to help the company understand what people want out of self-driving cars and see how they use and integrate the service. Testers will get access every day at any time.

Waymo already has with 100 Chrysler Pacifica minivans and is acquiring five times more, partly to be able to support the service.

(Reporting by Peter Henderson; Editing by Mary Milliken)

UK and Swedish watchdogs warn of international cyber attack

A magnifying glass is held in front of a computer screen in this picture illustration taken in Berlin May 21, 2013. REUTERS/Pawel Kopczynski

STOCKHOLM (Reuters) – A large-scale cyber attack from a group targeting organizations in Japan, the United States, Sweden and many other European countries through IT services providers has been uncovered, the Swedish computer security watchdog said on Wednesday.

The cyber attack, uncovered through a collaboration by Britain’s National Cyber Security Centre, PwC and cyber security firm BAE Systems, targeted managed service providers to gain access to their customers’ internal networks since at least May 2016 and potentially as early as 2014.

The exact scale of the attack, named Cloud Hopper from an organization called APT10, is not known but is believed to involve huge amounts of data, Sweden’s Civil Contingencies Agency said in a statement. The agency did not say whether the cyber attacks were still happening.

“The high level of digitalization in Sweden, along with the amount of services outsourced to managed service providers, means that there is great risk that several Swedish organizations are affected by the attacks,” the watchdog said.

The agency said those behind the attacks had used significant resources to identify their targets and sent sophisticated phishing e-mails to infect computers.

It also said Swedish IP addresses had been used to coordinate the incursions and retrieve stolen data and that APT10 specifically targeted IT, communications, healthcare, energy and research sectors.

(Reporting by Johan Ahlander; Editing by Niklas Pollard and Stephen Powell)

U.S. Zika vaccine begins second phase of testing

FILE PHOTO: A pair of Aedes albopictus mosquitoes are seen during a mating ritual while the female feeds on a blood meal in a 2003 image from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). REUTERS/Centers for Disease Control/James Gathany/Handout via Reuters

By Julie Steenhuysen

CHICAGO (Reuters) – Researchers have begun the second phase of testing of a Zika vaccine developed by U.S. government scientists in a trial that could yield preliminary results as early as the end of 2017.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institutes of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), said on Friday the $100 million trial has already been funded and will proceed, irrespective of the $7 billion in cuts to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) budget proposed by the Trump Administration over the next 18 months.

In a conference call with reporters, Fauci would not comment on the proposed cuts because it is not clear yet what the actual budget will be. Both Democratic and Republican lawmakers oppose cuts to the NIH, which funds 21 institutes, including NIAID.

NIH Director Dr. Francis Collins is scheduled to speak with President Donald Trump later on Friday. “I will certainly be talking to Francis Collins when he returns from the White House,” Fauci said.

Zika typically causes mild symptoms, but when the virus infects a pregnant women, she can pass it to her fetus, causing a variety of birth defects including microcephaly, in which the baby’s head is abnormally small.

Fauci said the current Zika vaccine candidate had cleared preliminary safety hurdles, and would now enter testing for efficacy, which would occur in two phases.

The first phase will continue testing for safety and evaluate the vaccine’s ability to stimulate the immune system to develop antibodies to fight Zika. It will also test different doses to see which works best.

The second phase, set to begin in June, will attempt to determine if the vaccine can actually prevent Zika infection.

Several companies are developing Zika vaccines, including Sanofi SA, GlaxoSmithKline Plc and Takeda Pharmaceuticals.

In the NIAID study, researchers aim to enroll at least 2,490 healthy volunteers in areas with confirmed or potential active transmission of Zika by mosquitoes. These include parts of the continental United States, Puerto Rico, Brazil, Peru, Costa Rica, Panama and Mexico. They will receive either the vaccine, or a placebo, and be followed for two years.

If enough people are exposed to the virus, Fauci said they could get an effectiveness signal as early as the end of this year. The trial is expected to be completed by 2019.

Fauci said the government is already in discussions with pharmaceutical companies that would share the costs of the final stage of testing and handle manufacturing.

Zika is primarily transmitted by mosquitoes, but it can also be transmitted sexually. According to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 5,182 people in the continental United States have been infected by Zika either locally or through travel to places where the virus is spreading. Another 38,303 cases have been reported in U.S. territories, including Puerto Rico.

(Reporting by Julie Steenhuysen; editing by Diane Craft)

U.S. experts soften on DNA editing of human eggs, sperm, embryos

DNA Double Helix

By Julie Steenhuysen

CHICAGO (Reuters) – Powerful gene editing tools may one day be used on human embryos, eggs and sperm to remove genes that cause inherited diseases, according to a report by U.S. scientists and ethicists released on Tuesday.

The report from the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) and the National Academy of Medicine said scientific advances make gene editing in human reproductive cells “a realistic possibility that deserves serious consideration.”

The statement signals a softening in approach over the use of the technology known as CRISPR-Cas9 that has opened up new frontiers in genetic medicine because of its ability to modify genes quickly and efficiently.

In December 2015, scientists and ethicists at an international meeting held at the NAS in Washington said it would be “irresponsible” to use gene editing technology in human embryos for therapeutic purposes, such as to correct genetic diseases, until safety and efficacy issues are resolved.

Though the technology is still not ready, the latest NAS report says clinical trials for genome editing of the human germline could be permitted, “but only for serious conditions under stringent oversight.”

Such editing is not legal in the United States, and other countries have signed a convention prohibiting the practice on concerns it could be used to create so-called designer babies.

CRISPR-Cas9 works as a type of molecular scissors that can selectively trim away unwanted parts of the genome, and replace it with new stretches of DNA.

Genome editing is already being planned for use in clinical trials of people to correct diseases caused by a single gene mutation, such as sickle cell disease. But these therapies affect only the patient.

The concern is over use of the technology in human reproductive cells or early embryos because the changes would be passed along to offspring.

Research using the powerful technique is plowing ahead even as researchers from the University of California and the Broad Institute battle for control over the CRISPR patent.

Although gene editing of human reproductive cells to correct inherited diseases “must be approached with caution, caution does not mean prohibition,” the committee said in a statement.

Sarah Norcross of the Progress Educational Trust, which advocates for people affected by genetic conditions, called the recommendations “sensible and prudent.”

But Marcy Darnovsky of the Center for Genetics and Society said they were “unsettling and disappointing,” arguing that they “constitute a green light for proceeding with efforts to modify the human germline” – changes that can be passed to future generations.

(Reporting by Julie Steenhuysen; Editing by Marguerita Choy and Andrew Hay)

Meteor lights up the night sky over Illinois and Wisconsin

National Weather Service tweet about meteor

(Reuters) – (This February 6th story has been refiled to correct location of Lisle to west of Chicago in paragraph three.)

A meteor plummeted in a fireball over Lake Michigan early on Monday, lighting up the night sky in bright blue just before scattering over the lake in many pieces, according to a police video and an expert’s description.

Lisle, Illinois, police officer Jim Dexter recorded the meteor’s descent on the dash camera of his patrol car at 1:25 a.m.

Aside from Lisle, which is less than 30 miles (48 km) west of Chicago, and other parts of Illinois; witnesses reported seeing the meteor from Wisconsin, Michigan and as far away as New York state and the Canadian province of Ontario, according to a description on the website of the American Meteor Society.

The meteor’s fiery descent is likely to rank as one of the most spectacular events of its kind anywhere in the world this year, Mike Hankey, operations manager for the society, said by telephone.

The meteor broke apart into pieces of rock and metallic dust that descended in a cloud onto Lake Michigan, Hankey said. No one is reported to have been injured by debris, he said.

(Reporting by Alex Dobuzinskis in Los Angeles; Editing by Sandra Maler)

Trump expected to sign cyber security executive order Tuesday: source

President Donald Trump signing executive orders

By Dustin Volz and Steve Holland

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump is expected to sign an executive order on cyber security on Tuesday, two sources familiar with the situation said, marking the first action to address what he has called a top priority of his administration.

The order is expected to commission several different reviews of the government’s offensive and defensive cyber capabilities, according to one of the sources and a third briefed on a draft of the order that circulated last week.

The move follows a presidential campaign that was dominated by running storylines related to cyber security, including the hacking and subsequent leaking of Democratic emails as part of what U.S. intelligence agencies determined was a wide-ranging influence operation intended to help Trump win the White House and denigrate his challenger, Democrat Hillary Clinton.

For months Trump refused to accept the conclusions of the agencies that Russia was responsible, before stating at a press conference on January 11 that, “as far as hacking I think it was Russia.”

In his answer, Trump, then the president-elect, pivoted to say that “we also get hacked by other countries, and other people” while vowing to launch a government-wide review of vulnerabilities to cyber attacks.

The order is expected to also initiate a audit of several federal agencies’ cyber capabilities, seek input on how to improve protections for critical infrastructure, and review government efforts to attract and train a technically sophisticated workforce, according to two of the sources briefed on the draft, which was first published by the Washington Post.

The draft order would also seek ways to give the private sector incentives to adopt strong security measures.

(Reporting by Steve Holland and Dustin Volz; Editing by Chris Reese and Grant McCool)

Airbus CEO sees ‘flying car’ prototype ready by end of year

Chief executive discusses flying cars

MUNICH (Reuters) – Airbus Group plans to test a prototype for a self-piloted flying car as a way of avoiding gridlock on city roads by the end of the year, the aerospace group’s chief executive said on Monday.

Airbus last year formed a division called Urban Air Mobility that is exploring concepts such as a vehicle to transport individuals or a helicopter-style vehicle that can carry multiple riders. The aim would be for people to book the vehicle using an app, similar to car-sharing schemes.

“One hundred years ago, urban transport went underground, now we have the technological wherewithal to go above ground,” Airbus CEO Tom Enders told the DLD digital tech conference in Munich, adding he hoped the Airbus could fly a demonstration vehicle for single-person transport by the end of the year.

“We are in an experimentation phase, we take this development very seriously,” he said, adding that Airbus recognized such technologies would have to be clean to avoid further polluting congested cities.

He said using the skies could also reduce costs for city infrastructure planners. “With flying, you don’t need to pour billions into concrete bridges and roads,” he said.

Enders said Airbus, as the world’s largest maker of commercial helicopters, wanted to invest to make the most of new technologies such as autonomous driving and artificial intelligence, to usher in what amounts to an era of flying cars.

“If we ignore these developments, we will be pushed out of important segments of the business,” he said.

A spokesman for Airbus declined to say how much the company was investing in urban mobility.

(Reporting by Eric Auchard; Writing by Victoria Bryan; Editing by Ruth Pitchford)

Snow, rain pummel parts of California, Nevada and Oregon

clearing snow from a driveway

(Reuters) – Heavy rain and snowfall hit parts of California, Nevada and Oregon early on Wednesday, causing roads to be closed, schools to cancel classes and widespread flooding along already swollen waterways.

A National Weather Service blizzard warning remained in effect until late on Wednesday morning for ski resort towns in the greater Lake Tahoe area, including Truckee and South Lake Tahoe, California, and neighboring Nevada enclaves of Stateline and Incline Village.

Snow accumulations of 5 to 10 feet (1.5 to 3 meters) were forecast above elevations of 7,000 feet, with fierce wind gusts reaching 100 miles (160 km) per hour along the ridge of the Sierra Nevada mountain range, the National Weather Service reported.

An avalanche warning was issued for much of the same mountain regions.

“Those venturing outdoors may become lost or disoriented so persons in the warning area are advised to stay indoors,” the weather service said.

Roadways, including Interstate 80 near the border of California and Nevada, were closed on Wednesday morning.

Schools throughout the region canceled Wednesday classes, including the Portland Public Schools district in Oregon, attended by about 50,000 students.

Several flood warnings remained in effect until Wednesday morning for lower elevations in northern and central California and in western Nevada, where creeks and rivers were expected to overrun their banks.

Several communities in the region opened evacuation centers for people who heeded warnings from officials to move to higher ground to avoid flooding.

Heavy downpours sent a wall of mud down onto a house in Fairfax, California, trapping an elderly couple and their two granddaughters, according to local media. Firefighters rescued the couple and children and no one was injured, an ABC affiliate reported.

A series of floodgates on the Sacramento River, just upstream of California’s capital, were opened for the first time in 11 years on Tuesday to divert high water around the city and into a special drainage channel, said Lauren Hersh, a spokeswoman for the state Water Resources Department.

The cascade of rain and snow marked the fourth round of extreme precipitation unleashed during the past month by a weather pattern meteorologists call an “atmospheric river” – a dense plume of moisture flowing from the tropical Pacific into California.

The storms have brought some sorely needed replenishment to many reservoirs left low by five years of drought, while restoring California’s mountain snowpack to 135 percent of its average water-content level for this time of year as of Tuesday, state water officials said.

(Reporting by Brendan O’Brien in Milwaukee; editing by Dominic Evans)

Artificial leaf copies nature to manufacture medicine

Artificial leaf to produce medicine

By Ben Hirschler

(Reuters) – Dutch scientists have developed an artificial leaf that can act as a mini-factory for producing drugs, an advance that could allow medicines to be produced anywhere there is sunlight.

The work taps into the ability of plants to use sunlight to feed themselves through photosynthesis, something industrial chemists have struggled to replicate because sunshine usually generates too little energy to fuel chemical reactions.

The leaf-inspired micro factory mimics nature’s efficiency at harvesting solar radiation by using new materials called luminescent solar concentrators with very thin channels through which liquid is pumped, exposing molecules to sunlight.

“Theoretically, you could use this device to make drug compounds with solar energy anywhere you want,” said lead researcher Timothy Noel at Eindhoven University of Technology.

By doing away with the need for a power grid, it may be possible one day to make malaria drugs in the jungle or even medicines on Mars in some future space colony, he believes.

The device, made from silicone rubber, can operate even when there is diffuse light, which means it will work under cloudy skies. However, there is still a way to go to scale up the process to make it commercially viable.

Noel and his colleagues, who published their research in the science journal Angewandte Chemie on Wednesday, are now trying to improve energy efficiency further and increase output.

Because the artificial leaf relies on micro-channels to bring chemicals into direct contact with sunlight, each unit needs to be small – but they could be easily linked together to increase production.

“You can make a whole tree with many, many different leaves placed in parallel,” Noel told Reuters. “These are very cheap things to make, so there is a lot of potential.”

He thinks the process could start to become broadly available to chemical engineers within five to 10 years.

It is not the first time that scientists have drawn inspiration from plants when considering novel ways to manufacture pharmaceuticals.

In 2012, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved a drug called Elelyso from Pfizer and Protalix Biotherapeutics for Gaucher disease, a rare genetic condition, made with genetically modified carrot cells.

Other researchers are also cultivating crops that have been specially bred to produce useful medicines and vaccines in their leaves.