A parallel Worlds

Monday November 10 2014 / Science & Technology

Syringe, needle, iodine, cotton balls and a drop of blood: You are now entering the territory of the most dreaded of all visits to the doctor – the one where you need an injection.

Having cold, surgical steel jabbed into various parts of the body to deliver a necessary vaccination is an event that few of us enjoy.

Luckily, there are people out there who are trying to come up with a way of administering a shot that doesn’t involve pointy steel needles.

Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) are in the process of developing a microscopic “tattoo” that can inoculate patients painlessly.

The “tattoo” is actually a tiny plastic patch, smaller than a penny, equipped with hundreds or even thousands of microneedles coated with a special vaccine.

“You can see this pattern of very small, microscopic needles on the surface of the patch. These needles are actually on the order of half a millimetre or less in length,” says MIT scientist and lead engineer for the tattoo vaccine, Peter DeMuth.

Needles this tiny are not long enough to reach sensitive nerve endings in the dermis, meaning less discomfort. DeMuth says: “Comparing it to feeling like a cat’s tongue is quite accurate.”

Since tattoos are an entirely new method of delivering vaccinations, the vaccine itself has had to be rethought.

Today, the most widely used forms of vaccines are known as first-generation vaccines. They are created from weakened or dead microbes injected into our bodies via syringe.

The presence of these invading microbes in our system creates an immune response from T-cells and antibodies, which fight the infection.

A white blood cell chases a radical bacteria in the human body.

DeMuth and his MIT research team are testing the tattoos with a third-generation or DNA vaccine.

These vaccines work by injecting a thread of weakened microbe DNA directly into your body’s cells.

A strand of DNA

An depiction of microneedles puncturing the skin's epidermis to inject the DNA vaccine.

The DNA holds a code for a protein from a virus or bacteria, foreign to your own body. This triggers your body’s immune response to the invading protein, destroying it before it takes hold.

The real advantage of the DNA tattoo vaccine is that it requires no refrigeration, meaning people living in remote areas of the world could finally have proper access to preventative medicine.

As DeMuth and his colleagues have discovered, getting the DNA vaccine to stick to the plastic microneedles requires some ingenuity.

“The way that we make the coating is that we take the components that make up our vaccine: one of the components is negatively charged and one of the components is positively charged,” says Paula Hammond, David H. Koch Professor in Engineering.

In a fondue-like process, a negatively charged tattoo is dipped into a positively charged polymer (plastic) coating followed by a dip into a negatively charged DNA coating.

This process can be repeated dozens of times, creating a thick film on each individual needle.

A robotic arm dipping the "tattoo" into the vaccine/polymer liquids

“You just apply the patch for a few minutes, take it off and it leaves behind these thin polymer films embedded in the skin,” says Darrell Irvine, MIT Professor of Biological Engineering and Materials Science and Engineering.

These films eventually dissolve and release the vaccine over the following days or weeks.

According to medscape.com, clinical trials have shown that microneedle tattoos are a promising alternative to surgical needles and some products on the market already use this technology, such as Dermaroller – a collagen stimulating tool used to repair sun-damaged or scarred skin.

A Dermaroller treatment session

The DNA vaccines that researchers like DeMuth hope will coat the tattoo’s microneedles are still in trial phase. For now, vaccinations will retain their grimace-provoking, queasiness-inducing reputation.

Children and adults alike will just have to wait that little bit longer for the next best thing since sliced bread… an ouch-free needle.

For more information about the microneedle tattoos and DNA vaccines, please visit: http://newsoffice.mit.edu/2013/vaccine-film-delivery-hiv-0127

Suggested by
Katy Orell

Monday October 27 2014 / Art & Design - A Little Levity

The ancient, pre-Christian Celts believed that there was one day of the year when the ghosts of the dead mingled with the living. This day, called Samhain, was a time to pay tribute to the spirits of their departed ancestors.

Nowadays, this tradition has evolved into “Halloween”, where the dead have become a creepy costume and rather than honouring them, we often find them terrifying.

In his workshop, surrounded by what looks like a set of props from a Hollywood horror flick, Maskull Lasserre seems to be reinvigorating this ancient Celtic tradition, repurposing familiar objects into macabre sculptures and carvings.

Where there were once bell jars, tree branches or axes, Lasserre has chiselled intricate skulls, nooses and snake skeletons.

Monday October 13 2014 / Art & Design

The Cuillin Ridgeline on the Isle of Skye in Scotland is a range of craggy mountains stretching 30 rocky peaks over 12 km (7.5 miles). At their highest outcropping, they reach 992 metres (3,255 feet).

They are a mountain climber’s paradise and some of the most challenging terrain to negotiate on foot…

But then there are those who do it differently.

Ascending these rugged peaks was the dream of Danny Macaskill, a climber of sorts: the kind on two wheels.

This professional bike rider and stunt BMX cyclist decided to push the limits of his incomparable skill by making good on his boyhood ambition: riding up and along the notoriously difficult and dangerous Cuillin Ridgeline and capturing the death-defying climb in his latest film The Ridge.

Monday October 6 2014 / Science & Technology - Art & Design

If you’ve ever listened to Rimsky-Korsakov’s Flight of the Bumblebee, you might remember the frantic pace of the music, evoking the busy life of a buzzing bee.

Now, the flight of the bumblebee is more about the species’ ominous disappearance from earth

Racing to save the six-legged insects from extinction, some people are taking up beekeeping.

While they are donning protective clothing and harvesting honey, Sam Droege is arming himself with a macro lens fitted camera to take extremely detailed photos of his furry friends, the bees.

He hopes to avoid the day when, as he says, “all the bees are gone and now we’re screwed”.

Monday September 29 2014 / Art & Design

In 1959, Ruth Handler gave the world its first “teenage fashion model”. Her name: Barbie. Nearly three decades later, in 1988, Thomas and John Knoll launched the graphics editing software Photoshop.

Both of these inventions have had a hand in shaping modern society’s perception of female beauty.


Graphic designers around the globe have used Photoshop to doctor images of women for billboard posters and magazines, removing perceived blemishes and enhancing features to attain the unrealistic ideals of looks and physique that Barbiehas helped to propagate for over half a century.

Photoshopped image (left) and raw image (right) of Keira Knightley in Cosmopolitan

American freelance journalist Esther Honig observed the growing trend of big lipped, doe-eyed, cellulite-free woman pervading Western print media.

Honig as featured in her "Before and After" project

The 24-year-old decided to make herself the subject of her own experiment, called “Before and After”, to see how graphic designers take raw images and manipulate them according to their cultural and personal perceptions of beauty. The results were fascinating.

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