Chip Lets Robots “Imagine” Their Actions Before Moving

Robots that can rapidly plan out their movements could accelerate factory automation—and help keep fragile humans safe.

Putting your hand in front of an industrial robot arm is not, generally, a good idea. These machines might move quickly and precisely, but they are so blind and stupid that they’ll gladly break a limb without so much as an “oops.”

realtime robotics logo

So it took a little courage to try this trick with a robot arm being tested at Realtime Robotics, a startup located in Boston’s Seaport neighborhood. I reached forward to intercept its movement as it grasped a widget from a table and moved to put it in a box. Thankfully, the robot paused, moved deftly around my outstretched arm, and then neatly deposited the item in its box. No broken limbs today.

This kind of graceful adaptability could prove incredibly useful for the robotics industry. There are some robots that can work alongside people, but they tend to be low-power, imprecise, and of limited use. The most capable, and powerful, industrial machines still have to work in very precisely controlled environments, away from soft, breakable humans.

“Even if you’re not worried about having humans next to the robot, you might want to modify your cell without incurring the cost of bringing in a technician,” says Sean Murray, a robotics engineer and cofounder at Realtime Robotics who showed me around.

The movement problem

A number of companies are trying to find ways around this problem. Some are testing sensors that will stop a powerful robots in its tracks if it spots an obstacle. Realtime Robotics is trying to go further, by giving robots the kind of low-level intelligence needed to move through the real world. This is the physical awareness that humans and animals take for granted whenever they move an arm or a leg.

In several different rooms at Realtime, industrial robot arms are testing the capabilities of a new chip that the company has developed to make this possible. When hooked up to 3D sensors, this chip lets the machines rapidly consider a range of different actions, effectively “imagining” the outcome, before choosing the one best suited to the task at hand. In one room, I watched as two robots performed balletic feats of teamwork, gliding around one another and occasionally handing over items.

“The fundamental challenge is that robots are so stupid,” says George Konidaris, founder and chief roboticist at Realtime as well as an assistant professor at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. “We have this basic motor competence and robots don’t.”

Motion planning is deceptively difficult for a robot, partly because each joint adds an extra dimension to the calculations that must be performed.

Make your move

The company’s chip supercharges the mathematical computations behind a relatively simple motion-planning algorithm developed by Konidaris and others while he was at Duke University. By running the computations in parallel, the dedicated chip can perform them more than 10,000 times more quickly than a regular computer chip, while also using less power.

“The approach is very clever,” says Tomás Lozano-Pérez, a professor at MIT who advised Konidaris when he was a graduate student.


[Originally posted by MIT Technology Review — June 17, 2019]


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Enzyvant: FDA Acceptance of Biologics License Application

Enzyvant Announces FDA Acceptance of Biologics License Application (BLA) and Priority Review Status for RVT-802, a Novel Investigational Tissue-Based Regenerative Therapy for Pediatric Congenital Athymia

RVT-802, a one-time therapy, leverages Enzyvant’s T cell generation platform designed to treat profound immunodeficiencies

Left untreated, congenital athymia is uniformly fatal, with death typically occurring in first 24 months of life

Company to present at Roivant Pipeline Day in New York City on June 6, 2019

enzyvant logo

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. & BASEL, Switzerland–(BUSINESS WIRE)–Enzyvant, a biopharmaceutical company focused on developing and commercializing transformative therapies for patients with rare, often fatal conditions, today announced that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has accepted for filing its Biologics License Application (BLA) for RVT-802, a novel investigational tissue-based regenerative therapy designed to treat pediatric congenital athymia, and granted Priority Review. Congenital athymia is a rare and deadly condition associated with complete DiGeorge Anomaly (cDGA), CHARGE syndrome, and FOXN1 deficiency. At this time, the FDA is not planning to hold an Advisory Committee meeting to discuss the application, and Enzyvant anticipates a regulatory decision in December 2019.

“We look forward to the potential of RVT-802 becoming available as an approved regenerative medicine to all families and patients who could benefit from it.”

Children with congenital athymia are born without a thymus, resulting in a severe immunodeficiency due to the inability to produce normally functioning T cells, which defend against infection and regulate essential processes in the immune system. Approximately 20 infants are born each year in the United States with congenital athymia, which is fatal if untreated. Death typically occurs in the first 24 months of life due to susceptibility to infection. Currently, there are no FDA-approved therapies for this condition. RVT-802 stimulates and facilitates the body’s production of naive, immunocompetent T cells, with the goal of bolstering the immune system and restoring the body’s ability to fight infection. Investigational RVT-802 is designed to be administered as a single treatment.

“We are proud to be advancing RVT-802, a regenerative therapy that embodies bold, transformative science. The intense urgency to treat infants and young children who would otherwise succumb to congenital athymia drew us to forge a partnership with Duke University and continues to motivate us to advance toward a potential approval with focus and speed,” said Rachelle Jacques, Chief Executive Officer of Enzyvant. “The long-term data for RVT-802 as a one-time treatment reinforces the potentially life-saving value and durable impact of this therapy. We are committed to working collaboratively with payers to establish a value-based reimbursement model that accelerates access for patients.”

The BLA filing for RVT-802 included clinical data that demonstrated long-term durability of treatment with RVT-802. At the time of the BLA filing, a total of 93 patients received RVT-802 across multiple clinical studies, including 85 patients who met the criteria for inclusion in the efficacy analysis. The Kaplan-Meier estimates of survival [95% confidence interval] at year one and year two post treatment were 76% [66 – 84] and 75% [66 – 83], respectively. For patients surviving 12 months post-treatment, there was a 93% probability of surviving 10 years post-treatment. During clinical development, the most commonly (≥ 5%) reported RVT-802 related adverse events included thrombocytopenia (11%), neutropenia (8%), pyrexia (5%), and proteinuria (5%).

“The journey of this therapy has involved the dedication and contributions of so many and, most notably, the bravery of patients and their families,” said Dr. Louise Markert, Professor of Pediatrics at Duke University School of Medicine, whose pioneering work at Duke led to the development of RVT-802. “It is gratifying to see this therapy advance a significant step closer to a potential FDA approval. We are hopeful we can look to a future of continuing to save children’s lives.”

“We congratulate the Enzyvant team on this important milestone, as well as Dr. Markert and her colleagues at Duke for their remarkable scientific accomplishments and dedication to athymic patients and their families,” said Myrtle Potter, Vant Operating Chair at Roivant Pharma, and Chair of Enzyvant’s Board of Directors. “We look forward to the potential of RVT-802 becoming available as an approved regenerative medicine to all families and patients who could benefit from it.”

Ms. Jacques will be presenting at Roivant Pipeline Day in New York City tomorrow, June 6, at 4:20 p.m. ET. To request access to the webcast or to learn more about Roivant Pipeline Day, please email

About RVT-802

RVT-802 is a novel investigational tissue-based regenerative therapy designed to treat primary immune deficiency resulting from pediatric congenital athymia. In a healthy, functioning immune system, T cells that start as stem cells in bone marrow become fully developed in the thymus. RVT-802 is designed to replicate this process in the absence of a thymus.

Derived from infant thymus tissue, RVT-802 is processed and cultured prior to implantation into a patient’s quadricep muscle. The patient’s bone marrow stem cells migrate to the implanted tissue product, where they are trained to become naïve, immunocompetent T cells. With the renewed ability to generate T cells, immune system function can be restored.

RVT-802 has been granted Breakthrough Therapy, Regenerative Medicine Advanced Therapy (RMAT), Rare Pediatric Disease, and Orphan Drug designations by the FDA.

In 2016, Enzyvant entered into an exclusive worldwide licensing agreement with Duke University to develop RVT-802. M. Louise Markert, M.D., Ph.D., Professor of Pediatrics at Duke University School of Medicine, has led research on the treatment of immunodeficiency in patients with congenital athymia. The findings of Dr. Markert and her research team have been published in the New England Journal of Medicine as well as numerous other peer-reviewed scientific journals and clinical publications.

About Enzyvant

Enzyvant, a wholly owned subsidiary of Roivant Sciences, is a biotechnology company focused on developing transformative therapies for patients with rare diseases. Enzyvant leverages the Roivant platform to develop therapies that address high unmet medical needs while driving greater efficiency in research, clinical development, and commercialization. The FDA has accepted Enzyvant’s Biologics License Application submission for RVT-802, a novel investigational tissue-based regenerative therapy for the treatment of congenital athymia and granted Priority Review. Enzyvant anticipates a regulatory decision in December 2019. The company is also preparing to initiate a clinical trial of RVT-801, an investigational enzyme replacement therapy for the treatment of Farber disease. For more information, please visit

About Roivant

Roivant aims to improve health by rapidly delivering innovative medicines and technologies to patients. Roivant does this by building Vants – nimble, entrepreneurial biotech and healthcare technology companies with a unique approach to sourcing talent, aligning incentives, and deploying technology to drive greater efficiency in R&D and commercialization. For more information, please visit

About Roivant Pharma

Roivant Pharma is the biopharmaceutical business unit of Roivant Sciences. Roivant Pharma is focused on end-to-end biopharmaceutical company creation, launch, and oversight. Roivant Pharma companies include Altavant, Aruvant, Axovant, Dermavant, Enzyvant, Genevant, Immunovant, Metavant, Myovant, Respivant, Urovant, and Arbutus.

About Roivant Pipeline Day

Roivant Pipeline Day will be held on Thursday, June 6, 2019 in New York City. The event will feature presentations and Q&A sessions from executives across the Roivant family of companies highlighting new clinical data and investments in technology. The event is scheduled to begin at 1:00 p.m. ET and will continue until approximately 4:30 p.m. ET. A live webcast will be available to interested parties. To request access to the webcast or to learn more about the event, please email


Liz Melone


New Ag Tool: Plant Hormone that Speeds Root Growth

Scientists have identified a plant hormone, beta-cyclocitral, that makes tomato and rice plant roots grow faster and branch more. The hormone could help farmers enhance crop plant growth.

Biologist Examining Plant Roots

A molecule sold as a food additive has an underground role, too: helping roots grow faster.

When added to soil, the molecule, called beta-cyclocitral, speeds root growth in rice and tomato plants, scientists report May 8, 2019, in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. It also makes rice plants resistant to salty soil, which usually turns plants sickly and stunted. The molecule, a hormone found naturally in plants, could be a useful tool for farmers seeking healthier and more drought-resistant crops.

For centuries, plants have been bred for vigorous foliage and other easily visible traits. Because roots are hidden underground, “they’ve been largely ignored,” says developmental biologist Philip Benfey, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator at Duke University.

And yet, roots make up half the plant, points out coauthor Jazz Dickinson, also at Duke. She and Benfey wanted to find plant hormones that affected root development. Their previous research had hinted that some molecule chemically related to carotenoids – the pigments that give carrots their vibrant orange hue – might be important. But the researchers weren’t sure exactly which one, Dickinson says.

Many of these carotenoid relatives have been repurposed and are available commercially as food additives or dietary supplements. Dickinson rounded up about 20 and tested their effects on a common lab plant, Arabidopsis. She added each compound to the clear agar gel in which the plants were growing – a setup that let her easily see the roots – and monitored what happened over 10 days.

“Beta-cyclocitral stood out,” she says. It made the roots grow faster and also branch out more. And it had the same effect in rice and tomato plants, follow-up tests showed.

In rice plants, the team noticed an even more striking effect: the plants could also withstand salty soil. Irrigation of farm fields can make soil saltier, especially near the top. The team mimicked those conditions in the lab, and then watched how rice plants grew. “Untreated rice plants were very unhappy with that level of salt,” Benfey says. But with beta-cyclocitral added, the plants didn’t seem perturbed.

It’s possible that the compound helped the roots push down through the salty topsoil to reach the deeper, less-salty soil more quickly, Dickinson proposes.

The researchers hope that beta-cyclocitral will be useful agriculturally, either added to soil or sprayed onto crops. And since the molecule worked in both rice and tomatoes – two very different plants – it may boost root growth in crops more broadly.

[Originally posted by HHMI, May 9, 2019]


HARVEY Helps Move Bioprinted Organs Closer to Reality

Supercomputer code successfully models behavior of interwoven vasculature created with new 3D printing technique

Supercomputer code successfully models behavior of interwoven vasculature created with new 3D printing technique

With the help of a dash of turmeric and blueberry, bioengineers have developed a technique for 3D printing complex, interwoven vascular networks that mimic many of the movements and forces of those found in real organs.

The technique could help researchers understand how the flexing of entangled pathways for blood, air, lymph and other vital fluids affect each systems’ function and move the field closer toward bioprinting entire organs.

To better understand the forces and stresses at work in the new networks, the researchers turned to one of the world’s most sophisticated systems for computationally modelling blood flow. Developed by Amanda Randles, the Alfred Winborne and Victoria Stover Mordecai Assistant Professor of Biomedical Sciences at Duke University, HARVEY is a supercomputer code capable of simulating blood flow through the human vasculature down to the cellular level.

Led by bioengineers Jordan Miller of Rice University and Kelly Stevens of the University of Washington (UW), the research appears online on the cover of Science on May 3. It includes a visually stunning proof-of-principle—a hydrogel model of a lung-mimicking air sac in which airways deliver oxygen to surrounding blood vessels.

“One of the biggest road blocks to generating functional tissue has been our inability to print the complex vasculature that can supply nutrients to densely populated tissues,” said Miller, assistant professor of bioengineering at Rice’s Brown School of Engineering. “Our organs contain independent vascular networks—like the airways and blood vessels of the lung or the bile ducts and blood vessels in the liver. These interpenetrating networks are physically and biochemically entangled, and the architecture itself is intimately related to tissue function. Ours is the first bioprinting technology that addresses the challenge of multivascularization in a direct and comprehensive way.”

The new open-source bioprinting technology is dubbed the “stereolithography apparatus for tissue engineering,” or SLATE. The system works by printing a sequence of layers from a liquid pre-hydrogel solution that becomes a solid when exposed to blue light.


Read the full story here

[Originally posted by Duke Pratt School of Engineering — May 2, 2019]

Lab-grown Tissue Patch Could Fix Ailing Hearts

Every 40 seconds, someone in the United States has a heart attack. Each time, up to a billion heart muscle cells suffocate. Those lost cells never regrow, leaving almost 800,000 people a year impaired for life—if they survive at all. Nenad Bursac believes he can patch some of those people up, literally.

Over the past 20 years, the bioengineer from Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, has been developing a “patch” that could take the place of the cells destroyed by a heart attack. In rodents, he has found it can hook up to the circulatory system and contract. Bursac’s patch is now about the size of a poker chip and the thickness of cardboard—big and complex enough to be tested in large animals, he declared this month at the Experimental Biology 2019 meeting in Orlando, Florida.

Like others attempting to repair damaged hearts, Bursac starts with stem cells, which can develop into specialized tissues such as heart muscle. But whereas some researchers inject hundreds of millions of individual heart muscle cells into the body, Bursac’s team and several other groups grow full-fledged pieces of heart muscle in a dish, which surgeons could attach to a damaged heart. “This could be a transformative approach,” says Ralph Marcucio, a developmental biologist at the University of California, San Francisco, School of Medicine. Bursac’s research effort “is the best in the field,” adds Martine Dunnwald, a cell biologist at the University of Iowa in Iowa City.

At one point, cardiologists thought the heart had a secret stash of stem cells that could be stimulated to repair the organ naturally, but now most biologists agree such cells don’t exist in the heart (Science, 18 July 2014, p. 252). An alternative in early clinical trials is to make heart muscle cells in a lab dish from other stem cells, inject them into the artery supplying the heart, and hope they settle in the organ and compensate for any dead tissue.

Bursac is skeptical of that approach, because the percentage of cells that survive injection and make it to the heart is very small. His approach requires open-heart surgery, but it delivers a repair that more closely matches the cell types and architecture of the real organ. “What people are now seeing is you need more structure and more cells,” says Jeffrey Jacot, a bioengineer at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus in Aurora.

Bursac started to work on heart patches as a Ph.D. student, coaxing neonatal rat cells to transform into heart muscle in a dish and contract—a first for mammals. Other researchers developed tiny heart tissue swatches for testing drugs in lab dishes. But Bursac wants to fix hearts directly. Over the years, his team has learned the best scaffolds for culturing stem cells are made of fibrin, a protein that helps form blood clots, and the best way to nurture these scaffolded cells is to gently rock them inside a suspended frame that allows the growing patch to swish back and forth in liquid media. “These cells mature and become strongly contracting,” Bursac says.

In 2016, when his lab figured out how to produce those powerful contractions, the heart patches were tiny. Then, 2 years ago, the team grew a 4-centimeter-by-4-centimeter patch—potentially big enough to repair a damaged human heart.




[Originally posted by Science — April 26, 2019]