Week in Review: The Curveball

UNC-TV Science Week In Review 

UNC-TV Science Week in Review: July 11, 2013
The Curveball


Imagine watching a baseball game in 1870. You have seen pitchers your whole life hurling fastballs straight from the mound to the plate. But on this particular day you see Fred Goldsmith (or Candy Cummings or Phonney Martin depending on who you believe) take the mound.

He holds the ball like a wine glass and at the top of his throw he snaps his arm downward. It looks goofy, almost like he lost his balance and dropped his throwing arm to catch himself. But as the ball enters the strike zone, its path changes from straight over the plate to a meteoric descent. 

It doesn’t make sense. A pitcher shouldn’t throw like that. A ball shouldn’t change course. But as more batters swing at and miss that diving 12-6 curveball, you can’t help but admire the genius.

This week, North Carolina scientists have thrown a few curveballs of their own. Whether they use liquid building blocks, trick cells into attacking harmful parts of their own bodies or spread out measurements, their findings look odd at the start, but like the curveball, they work.

Liquid Building Blocks

Researchers from NC State University have designed 3D printing processes to build small structures from liquid metal alloys. By now you may be asking, “So what?” Liquids are ideal building materials in many ways. Like solids, they don’t easily compress so they can hold lots of weight. Unlike solids though, liquids can easily take any shape you could want.

Imagine trying to stack drops of water and you can instantly see the problem with liquids. Two water drops will fuse when they touch and then just fall into a puddle. Not something you want to build a skyscraper on.

The researchers, led by professor Michael Dickey and recent graduate Colin Ladd found a way around the puddle problem by using a special alloy of Gallium and Indium. At room temperature, their alloy is a liquid, but when it is exposed to air it reacts with oxygen to form a thin solid film around a liquid interior like a metal Cadbury Egg.

The alloy sticks to itself, allowing researchers to stack the Cadbury Eggs. The alloy can be crafted into complex shapes and wires, either by using a mold or just being injected from a syringe. Check out this video of the alloy in action.

Sicking Macrophages on Developing Cancers
Researchers around the world are searching every plant, animal and molecule for a weapon to fight cancer. This week, scientists from the UNC School of Medicine found a potential weapon sitting in the human body.

Our would-be cancer warriors are cells called macrophages. Macrophages are amazing. These hulking cells are at once signalers, garbage disposals and the blunt instrument of our immune systems. Think of a macrophage as an overenthusiastic guard dog. It searches the body for things it doesn’t recognize, like viruses, bacteria and sometimes even cancer cells, and eats them. It then presents part of what it ate to other immune cells, called T-cells, who decide whether the macrophages should or should not be eating that.

So MacroFido the macrophage will grab everything that wanders into the yard and put it on the doorstep for the T-cell to find. If the T-cell sees that MacroFido got one of the gophers ruining its garden, it calls in more macrophages and specialized T-cells to finish the job. If MacroFido drags in the mailman, the T-cell releases an enzyme called Mer tyrosine kinase (MerTK). MerTK effectively puts a muzzle over the macrophage and it stops attacking.

Some cancers, however, release their own MerTK, which stops the macrophages from attacking them. The researchers found that by blocking MerTK in model tumors implanted into mice, macrophages and T-cells were able to slow tumor growth and decrease the number of metastases, or new tumors.

Scientists Awarded for Smarter Power Grid
Computer engineers from NC State University and the Renaissance Computer Institute (RENCI) brought home an award this week from the US Ignite Application Summit in recognition of their remote system for monitoring power grids.
US Ignite is a non-profit organization that funds internet and technology based projects that contribute to public goods. They recognized Ilya Baldin and Aranya Chakrabortty from RENCI and NC State, respectively, for their use of remote sensors to better monitor power grids.

Many power grids are monitored from a central location. Baldin and Chakrabortty’s system employs many voltage and current sensors at different points on a power grid. These sensors are connected by high-speed computers. With data coming in from sensors all over the grid, monitors can quickly detect and predict blackouts and surges.

- Daniel Lane

Daniel Lane covers science, medicine and the environment as a reporter/writer. He is currently pursuing a master's degree in medical and science journalism at UNC - Chapel Hill.