News Bites brings you 6 weekly news in bite-sized form.

1. Smartphones can now test quality of semen samples

Researchers at Brigham and Women's Hospital and Massachusetts General Hospital have developed a smartphone-based test for infertile men to test their semen at home.

The test can identify abnormal semen samples with an approximately 98% accuracy according to the researchers. The simple and inexpensive at-home test aims to relieve men of stress and embarrassment that they face at infertility centres.

It involves a disposable device and microchip that holds and handles the sample that is attached to an optical attachment connected to a smartphone which uses an app to guide the user through each step of testing. The device only costs about USD5 and the optical attachment can be 3D-printed. A tiny weight scale also measures the total number of sperm swimming in the sample.

The test is still in its prototyping stages but is seeking approval from the FDA as the team claims that the potential in fertility testing is great.

2. Scientists build working human heart muscle from spinach leaf

Video by Worcester Polytechnic Institute

A team of scientists have found a way to use spinach leaves to build working human heart muscle, solving a long-standing problem of tissue engineering - growing a vascular system.

The team from Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) in Massachusetts have used the spinach veins to replicate the way blood moves through human tissue. They modified a spinach leaf to remove its plant cells, leaving a cellulose frame behind that is biocompatible.

The cellulose flame was then doused with live human cells to allow human tissue to develop on the spinach scaffolding and its tiny veins. Fluids and microbeads were pumped through the veins to show that blood cells were capable of flowing through the system.

The team hopes that the same methods could be adapted in different types of plants to advance tissue repair. For example, replacing plant cells in wood might help fix human bones.

3. Blood test able to detect and pinpoint location of cancer in the body

A blood test that detects and identifies where cancer is in the body now exists. Developed by scientists from the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA), the CancerLocator test works by looking for tumour DNA which circulates in the blood of cancer patients.

As tumours from different parts of the body hold a distinctive 'footprint', the team has developed the test to pick up on the 'footprints'. This breakthrough could allow doctors to early-detect specific cancers, even before signs begin to show. The test claims to be simple enough to be included in routine annual health checks.

"The technology is in its infancy and requires further validation, but the potential benefits to patients are huge," said UCLA professor Jasmine Zhou, co-lead author.

4. Lungs have been found to play a part in producing blood

Scientists from the University of California San Francisco have discovered that the lungs are not just important for respiration, but they also play a key role in producing blood.

Imaging the lungs of living mice, the team found that the majority of the body's platelets are produced in the lungs and the organ also serves as a backup reservoir of blood stem cells when the bone marrow runs dry.

To confirm their finding, lungs from healthy mice were transplanted into mice with low platelet counts. The team noticed that the animals' platelet counts returned to healthy levels. In another transplant study, the team also found that the lungs helped in producing platelets, neutrophils, B cells and T cells when the bone marrow was unable to.

5. World's first 'period-in-a-petri-dish' can revolutionise female health

A time lapse of the period-on-a-chip system in action. Image: Northwestern University

The female menstrual cycle has been translated onto a petri dish by scientists at Northwestern University. In an attempt to understand the female reproductive system, the team used tissue cultures to create a miniature 3D model of the female reproductive tract including the ovaries, fallopian tubes and other reproductive organs to mimic the functions of a 28-day menstrual cycle.

The period-in-a-petri-dish was part of a larger effort led by the National Institutes of Health to recreate the entire human body on a "chip".

It is hoped that this work will allow researchers to study the differences between individuals at a functional level and test new drugs more efficiently, leading to personalised therapies. However, the chip is only useful for research purposes currently.

6. First person with quadriplegia regains arm and hand functions through groundbreaking technology

How the device worked. Photo credit: Case Western University
How the device worked. Photo credit: Case Western University

Scientists from Case Western University, Ohio have proven that paralysed individuals can regain control of their own limbs, through a groundbreaking technology.

The device has been first fitted into Bill Kochevar, 56, who was left paralysed from the neck down following a cycling accident. Two electrode arrays, each around the size of baby aspirin have been implanted on the surface of his brain to record signals when he imagines moving his own arm and hand.

The signal is then fed into a computer before the command is translated into an electrical pulse which triggers 36 electrodes in his hand, wrist, arm, elbow and shoulder. After 45 weeks of training, Mr Kochevar can move each joint in his arm independently just by thought.

The team is developing the technology further to give more accurate control and a wider range of actions, transforming the lives of paralysed individuals. MIMS

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