Technology Tuesday: May 9

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Welcome to Technology Tuesday! Every week The Job Shop Blog will bring you our 5 top science and technology news stories from around the web.

This week: BART plans to transition to running entirely on renewable energy, a brain surgeon robot reduces operating time by 50X, curing cancer with CRISPR, new improvements to artificial retina, and a new gene therapy treats its first patient.


BART to Transition Entirely to Renewable Energy

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Public transportation is an excellent way to reduce the cumulative emissions of the region it services. Fewer fossil-fuel guzzling commuter vehicles on the road lead to less pollution. San Fransisco’s train service, the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART), is going to be completely revamping how the train operates to reduce its environmental footprint. The program will slowly roll out through 2045 with the goal of the system’s complete reliance on green energy.

The first phase of the initiative will target the gradual limiting of carbon dioxide emissions through 2024. A year later in 2025, the plan calls for at least half of the system’s energy to be drawn from renewable sources. Additionally, 90 percent of the total energy use must come from low or zero-carbon sources.

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Brain Surgeon Robot Setting Records

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Brain surgery is precision business, and one slip can spell doom for affected patients. Even in one of the most skilled jobs in the world, human error can still be a factor. Researchers from the University of Utah are looking to provide less opportunity for those errors to occur. A robot that the team is developing is able to reduce the time it takes to complete a complicated procedure by 50 times. According to CNN, the robot can reduce the time it takes to drill into the skull from two hours to two-and-a-half minutes.

The research was published in the journal Neurosurgical Focus and the team says it is a “proof of principle” that the robot is capable of performing complex surgeries. The robot is guided around vulnerable areas of the skull by data gleaned from CT scans and entered into the robot’s programming. The CT scans show the programmer the location of nerves or veins that the bot will have to avoid.

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New CRISPR Technique Eliminates Cancer “Command Center”

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The past several months have been no less than astounding ones for the CRISPR gene-editing tool. In September, 2016, researchers in Germany discovered a way to use CRISPR to edit out cancer mutations. In November, Chinese researchers used CRISPR technology on a person for the first time. Then, in January if this year, researchers uncovered two distinct anti-CRISPR proteins that could lead to a CRISPR “off switch” and greater control over the gene editing tool in human subjects.

Now, researchers from the University of Pittsburgh have used CRISPR to target cancer’s “command center,” increasing survival rates and shrinking aggressive tumors without harming healthy cells in mice. The method targets fusion genes, mutations that develop when two distinct genes combine into a single, hybrid gene — one that often leads to cancer. They published their results in Nature Biotechnology earlier this week.

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A Better Set of Artificial Eyes

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Anyone who’s ever had a stray eyelash or a piece of dust land in their eye can attest to the pain even the tiniest foreign object can cause. While this sensitivity is essential for keeping our eyes in working order, it can also be a problem for those with retinal implants.

The retina is a light-sensitive layer of tissue at the back of the eye that plays an important role in sight, and damage to it can lead to blindness. For the past few years, retinal implants have been restoring vision for patients with such problems, but those implants have all been mechanical devices, which can wreak havoc on already damaged eyes.

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New Gene-Therapy Treats Its First Ever Patient

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This March, child with severe combined immune deficiency (SCID) became the second commercial gene therapy patient ever. The patient started receiving a drug called Strimvelis from GlaxoSmithKline — a drug that appears to be able to cure the rare, inherited immune disorder SCID. The drug was approved for use in commercial gene therapy in May of 2016, but delays beset the process. Most of the delays — according to MIT Technology Review‘s report of comments from the Strimvelis project leader — were the result of difficulties traversing national borders and arranging for reimbursement.

Gene therapies, which revise the genetic makeup of patients in an attempt to cure them, are far more complex and costly than traditional treatments. This is in part because they target rare diseases which, by nature, affect few people. Strimvelis, for example, has a list price of 594,000 euros ($648,000) and very few people have SCID — the disease it treats. Somewhere between 40 to 100 are diagnosed with SCID each year in the U.S., and 15 in the EU. That being said, untreated children with the disease rarely live past the age of two

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