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Golden Scholars: Berkeley helps paraplegics walk and finds connection between old age with cancer

Understanding the molecular mechanisms behind the prevalence of breast cancer in older patients and designing the optimal, affordable, and functional solution to help paraplegics walk.


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Congratulations to Professor Jay Keasling for winning a 2014 Eni Award for Renewable Energy!

Professor Maurice Obstfeld has been named to President Obama's Council of Economic Advisers

Ever considered the carbon dioxide usage of Netflix streaming? LBNL has.

Check out these amazing student projects from the Mechatronics Design showcase, taught by Professor Homayoon Kazerooni of Berkeley exoskeleton fame (we'll have more on Kazerooni's work later in this post). They're Berkeley undergrads, so you'll see all kinds of Blue and Gold and Bear-based projects.

Kazerooni's exoskeletons in the news again

After briefly mentioning Professor Kazerooni in Week One of the Golden Scholars and showing his undergrads' work earlier today, it's probably a good idea to discuss his work in more detail. Kazerooni and his research became national news two years ago when his exoskeletons helped a paraplegic student literally walk at his commencement ceremony. While there are a number of competitors—including one that will get significant coverage as part of the World Cup—Kazerooni is aiming to make his products lightweight and affordable.

In contrast to the complex array of sensors, gyroscopes and hydraulics worn in Brazil [at the World Cup], the Berkeley test pilots wore a robotic system called an exoskeleton that costs about $20,000, weighs just 22 pounds, and can be worn under clothing. With 2 million paraplegics in the U.S., Kazerooni's goal was to use state-of-the-art robotics to give as many people as possible the chance to walk again - and do it quickly.

"Many paraplegics are not in a situation to afford a $100,000 device, and insurance companies don't pay for these devices," Kazerooni said. "Our job as engineers is to make something people can use."

Kazerooni employs a system of simple devices to help keep the costs low and the user safe. To check out the devices in use and to hear from some of his team members and users, check out the video below:

Linking old age to breast cancer

It's not exactly surprising that older people are more susceptible to cancer, but Mark LaBarge's lab of LBNL is revealing some likely reasons as to why.

There are two issues they believe come into play here. Firstly, old women have an accumulation of multipotent cellswhich are like an undefined "blank slate" of a cell that can still turn into a number of specialized cellsin their breast tissue. Secondly, and the major finding of LaBarge's work, these cells are less responsive to their environment around them.

Your cells aren't just floating or swimming around; most of them are attached to and grow on structure known as the extracellular matrix (ECM). They anchor themselves to the ECM with proteins called integrins; more importantly, the cells are able to pick up cues from this microenvironment and use it to regulate the genes they're expressing. It's like if you step on a slippery surface, your brain knows to start walking more carefully to avoid slipping, but know to move quickly if you're walking on hot coals.

They found that multipotent progenitors in tissue from women less than 30 years old are extremely responsive to changes to their immediate surroundings. When tissue from young women was placed on a soft polymer [that mimics healthy tissue], multipotent progenitors differentiated into milk-producing luminal cells. When the tissue was placed on a stiff polymer [similar to a rigid tumor], the cells reduced the production of luminal cells and ramped up the production of tumor-fighting myoepithelial cells.

"We think this is a defense mechanism. The epithelia tissue recognizes that stiffness isn't good and produces tumor suppressants," says LaBarge.

But this defense wasn't observed in tissue from women older than 55.

In the cells of older patients, the messenger that act between the integrins and the gene expression have been "inefficiently activated." If researchers can find another way to keep these messengers workingthus ensuring the cells remain responsivethen this may help with patients in remission and make it harder for another tumor to form.