Artificial leaf copies nature to manufacture medicine

Dutch scientists have developed an artificial leaf that can act as a mini-factory for producing drugs, an advance that could allow medicines to be produced anywhere there is sunlight.

The work taps into the ability of plants to use sunlight to feed themselves through photosynthesis, something industrial chemists have struggled to replicate because sunshine usually generates too little energy to fuel chemical reactions.

The leaf-inspired micro factory mimics nature’s efficiency at harvesting solar radiation by using new materials called luminescent solar concentrators with very thin channels through which liquid is pumped, exposing molecules to sunlight.

“Theoretically, you could use this device to make drug compounds with solar energy anywhere you want,” said lead researcher Timothy Noel at Eindhoven University of Technology.

By doing away with the need for a power grid, it may be possible one day to make malaria drugs in the jungle or even medicines on Mars in some future space colony, he believes.

The device, made from silicone rubber, can operate even when there is diffuse light, which means it will work under cloudy skies. However, there is still a way to go to scale up the process to make it commercially viable.

Noel and his colleagues, who published their research in the science journal Angewandte Chemie on Wednesday, are now trying to improve energy efficiency further and increase output.

Because the artificial leaf relies on micro-channels to bring chemicals into direct contact with sunlight, each unit needs to be small – but they could be easily linked together to increase production.

“You can make a whole tree with many, many different leaves placed in parallel,” Noel told Reuters. “These are very cheap things to make, so there is a lot of potential.”

He thinks the process could start to become broadly available to chemical engineers within five to 10 years.

It is not the first time that scientists have drawn inspiration from plants when considering novel ways to manufacture pharmaceuticals.

In 2012, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved a drug called Elelyso from Pfizer and Protalix Biotherapeutics for Gaucher disease, a rare genetic condition, made with genetically modified carrot cells.

Other researchers are also cultivating crops that have been specially bred to produce useful medicines and vaccines in their leaves.

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Berlin Police Search For New Suspect In Christmas Market Attack

A heavily-armed policeman stands on Wednesday at the site where a man drove a heavy truck into a Berlin Christmas market on Monday. Among the dead is a Polish man with a gunshot wound who was found on the passenger seat of the truck. Police are investigating the possibility that the truck, which belongs to a Polish trucking company, was hijacked the morning of the attack. Sean Gallup/Getty Images hide caption

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Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Police are searching for a new suspect in Monday’s attack on a Berlin Christmas market, when a truck barreled into the crowded market and killed 12 people.

Multiple German media outlets, citing unnamed sources, say the police are now looking for a Tunisian man with several aliases, after his temporary residency papers were found under the seat of the cab in the tractor-trailer.

The man identified on the papers is in his mid-20s. Whoever was driving the truck appears to have been injured, and police have been searching hospitals in case the suspect sought medical treatment, German media report.

The search for the man has been expanded to all of Germany.

The police had previously arrested a Pakistani asylum-seeker, whom they picked up more than half a mile from the crash site. They later said that the eyewitnesses had been chasing the fleeing driver but lost sight of him before the Pakistani man was identified as a suspect. While the man they picked up matched the description of the truck driver, an investigation revealed no evidence tying him to the attack, prosecutors told the media.

He was released on Tuesday.

The Islamic State has claimed responsibility for the attack, NPR’s Soraya Sarhaddi-Nelson reports from Berlin.

“But in a late-night interview with public broadcaster ARD, Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere says the government isn’t buying the ISIS claim of responsibility, at least not yet,” she reports.

“He said investigators are still following many leads — more than 80 at last count — and encouraged the public to give them a chance to do their job.

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“But critics of Chancellor Angela Merkel are not waiting,” Soraya says. “They blame her government’s asylum policy for the attack and a few are demanding she step down.”

The Associated Press reports that leaders in Berlin say security measures are being enhanced, but within limits:

“Berlin Mayor Michael Mueller said Wednesday it was ‘good to see that Berliners aren’t being intimidated.’

” ‘I don’t think there’s any need to be afraid,’ he told ZDF television. ‘The police presence has been significantly heightened … and of course other measures taken to find the perpetrator quickly.’

“Mueller argued that there are limits to increasing security, given the number of public spaces and events.

” ‘It wouldn’t be our free and open life any more if we escalated security measures so much that people worry about going anywhere, that there are strict entry checks,’ he said. ‘We don’t want that. It must be appropriate and goal-oriented.’ “

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Pop star Marx helps subdue 'dangerous' airline passenger

American soft rock singer Richard Marx helped subdue a “chaotic” and “dangerous” passenger who launched a lengthy, violent scuffle on board a Korean Air flight from Vietnam to South Korea, the singer said on his Twitter account.

Marx, along with fellow passengers and cabin crew, tried to restrain the unruly traveler with rope on the Tuesday flight, he said.

“Passenger next to us attacked passengers and crew. Crew completely ill trained,” Marx said.

The singer had been in Vietnam to sing at a Christmas concert at Hanoi’s Opera House this week.

Photographs uploaded to an Instagram account belonging to Marx’s wife, Daisy Fuentes, showed a man with thick-rimmed spectacles being held back by flight attendants on one side and Marx on the other.

Some video footage of the incident was also posted on YouTube.

“Stop it, you sons of a bitch!” the passenger said in Korean, spitting at airline staff as they used cable ties and a rope to restrain him.

“Do what you like!”.

One photo on Fuentes’s Instagram account showed a flight attendant aiming a stun gun at the passenger.

The man was handed over to police after the plane landed at Incheon airport in the South Korean capital, a spokesman for Korean Air told Reuters.

“The incident happened about an hour and 40 minutes after takeoff,” the spokesman said.

“It seems like the passenger had a drink with his meal”.

Marx described the incident as a “chaotic and dangerous event”, which cabin crew had been “completely ill-equipped to handle”.

The spokesman said cabin crew followed regulations and did not fire the stun gun for fear of injuring nearby passengers in the melee.

Fans of Marx expressed concern on Twitter for the 53-year-old’s safety.

“No big ‘hero’ move at all,” he responded.

“Just did what I would hope anyone would do in same situation”.

(Reporting by Christine Kim and Nataly Pak; Writing by James Pearson; Editing by Robert Birsel)

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Students: Colleges Are Tracking You Online. It Can Help You Graduate

The College Game

Martin Gee for NPR

Companies use lots and lots of data, including your daily Web surfing, to help them sell you stuff. They follow you across the Internet with annoying ads, and the data they collect is now essential for their business.

So why aren’t the best minds in higher education doing more to tap all that information to improve teaching and learning?

Now, some of them are. Schools such as Valencia College in Orlando, Fla., are wading into the data streams of what’s being called “predictive and learning analytics.”

Basically it means big data goes to college. How engaged is a student with online course material? With discussion forums? What could schools do with information on his or her academic background?

The goal is, of course, to use all that data to boost graduation rates. Teachers and counselors can identify students who need help, and intervene quickly: a compelling nudge, a note from a counselor, a meeting with an adviser.

Not Just A Name

It’s 20-year-old Randall Lofton’s third shot at college. The first two times, he says, didn’t stick. Too much partying and basketball and not enough studying. “I didn’t apply myself.”

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Randall Lofton, 20, is trying to balance a full-time job and three classes at Valencia College. Eric Westervelt/NPR hide caption

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Eric Westervelt/NPR

Lofton is now trying to balance a full-time job with three classes at community college. He’s taking a mix of online and in-class work at Valencia College, just a dozen miles from Walt Disney World.

“So this is pretty much my last chance,” he says. “This is something that I want to do, so I’m gonna work my heart off.”

So far, he is. Here’s one thing that made a difference: His professor sent several personalized messages of support. Lofton keeps one email from his English professor, Neal Phillips.

“I screen-shot it and I saved it,” Lofton says. “And he was basically saying, like, ‘Don’t quit, you’re very hardworking in this class. … I appreciate how you’re very diligent and very intrigued by the work.’ That touched me that somebody was paying attention.”

English professor Neal Phillips sits at a Valencia campus computer in Orlando, Fla., crafting an email blast to students who’ve been flagged by a new program that analyzes how they’re performing. Eric Westervelt/NPR hide caption

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Eric Westervelt/NPR

Lofton says that email from Phillips showed genuine care. “I’m not just in somebody’s class just as a name,” he says. “That was cool.”

It was also, perhaps unbeknownst to Lofton, part of the college’s strategy to merge data science with interventions to improve performance.

Call it higher ed’s version of Moneyball. Only the goal isn’t a World Series ring; it’s to help more students stick with college, improve academically and graduate.

‘Autopsy Data’

Yes, colleges and universities have long used student data at higher levels, to help shape policy.

But too often, critics say, the approach is retro — looking at performance data in spreadsheets that administrators funnel into sparsely read reports for faculty. Or the information is kept in silos and used for alumni fundraising, marketing or reports for the board of directors.

It is, in effect, academic autopsy data. The information rarely has anything to do with helping improve student learning in real time.

That’s where companies like Civitas Learning come in — helping schools like Valencia College develop evidence-based data-analysis tools.

“It’s our mission to democratize data,” says Mark Milliron, co-founder and chief learning officer with the software company. “And to to get that data to people who need it most — the faculty, students and advisers.”

There are other companies doing similar work, including Starfish and Blackboard.

Here’s how it works at Valencia, and how Randall Lofton came to get that email from his professor. The system vacuums up data on things such as student participation online, time spent on the school’s learning platform and pairs it with a student’s academic record. It’s refreshed four times a day to create a student “engagement score.”

It’s early in the semester, but using these tools, Neal Phillips can already see danger signs for a handful of students in his online Intro to English Composition class. Some students haven’t logged in lately or seem academically adrift.

And so, he’s spending an afternoon crafting an email blast to those students. He wants to reach out to them before it’s too late. The emails will look personalized to each student. And they are — sort of.

“Your ole professor Phillips here,” he writes.

“I wanted to know if there’s anything additional I could do to assist you in the course,” he writes to half a dozen red-flagged students.

These introductory or “gateway” courses are hugely important for Valencia, and other schools nationally.

Research nationally and at this college show that if students withdraw from or fail even one of their first five course attempts, their chance of graduating is cut in half. Fail or withdraw twice, and those chances are cut in half again.

Phillips’ email blast is just one intervention. Other students might receive one-on-one or group tutoring, peer-to-peer mentoring, meetings with an adviser or professor or other steps.

As for the college as a whole? “It is still early to determine the impact of the analytic tools,” says Kurt Ewen, a senior administrator.

Nonetheless, he adds, professors and administrators are seeing the benefits. “Now,” says Ewen, “they don’t have to wait until after midterm.”

Randall Lofton says all the nudges pushed him to buckle down. He got an A in Phillips’ class.

A version of this story was published on NPR Ed in October 2015.

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Death Sentences And Executions Are Down, But Voters Still Support Death Penalty Laws

A 2010 photo shows the interior of the lethal injection facility at San Quentin State Prison in San Quentin, Calif. Eric Risberg/AP hide caption

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Eric Risberg/AP

In 2016, 30 people were sentenced to death in America, and 20 people were executed.

Those numbers are the lowest in decades, according to a report by the Death Penalty Information Center, which collects data on capital punishment in the United States, and advocates against the death penalty.

The 2016 numbers fit with a multi-decade trend. Death sentences and executions have been declining steadily since the mid-1990s.

But 2016 also generated seemingly contradictory information about how the public views capital punishment. Even as jurors have increasingly voted for life in prison instead of execution, voters in three states rejected propositions that would have eliminated the death penalty.

In California, Nebraska and Oklahoma — states with widely varying electorates – people voted by large margins to retain the death penalty.

Geographic Isolation

Another trend is clearer than ever: for years, just a handful of states have accounted for most of the death sentences in America. In 2015 and 2016, Texas, Georgia and Missouri carried out 85 percent of executions.

In fact, the geographical isolation of capital punishment in America goes down to the county level. This year, just 27 of the more than 3,000 U.S. counties are responsible for every death sentence this year.

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Even in states that impose the most death sentences, the overall trend away from capital punishment holds true. “Texas juries imposed only four new death sentences in 2016, and juries in Georgia and Missouri did not impose any [new death sentences] in 2015 or 2016,” the report notes.

Death Row Numbers Down

Overall, the number of people on death row – who are waiting to be executed after being sentenced to die – decreased this year, because the number of prisoners either dying in custody or having their sentences reversed outpaced the number of new death sentences.

California has by far the most people on death row, with 741, followed by Florida with 396, Texas with 254 and Alabama with 194. However, when you consider each state’s population, Alabama rises to the top, with nearly 4 people on death row for every 100,000 residents. In Texas, which the Marshall Project has reported carried out more than a third of nationwide executions since 1976, that population-adjusted number is less than one per hundred thousand.

The Marshall Project tracks the cases of those on death row in Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Missouri, Ohio, Oklahoma, Texas and Virginia.

Sentencing Challenges

2016 was also a busy year for court challenges related to the death penalty. In January, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Florida’s death penalty sentencing system, which allowed judges to disregard the jury’s sentence to impose the death penalty even if jurors recommended life in prison.

In October, Florida’s Supreme Court ruled that juries must vote unanimously in order to sentence someone to die. “It’s not clear how many people on Florida’s death row will get the opportunity to change their death sentence to life in prison,” as a result of the decision, Nick Evans of member station WFSU reported.

At the beginning of this year, Delaware and Alabama were the other two states that allowed judicial overrides of jury decisions in death penalty cases. In the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court decision, Delaware’s court struck down its law, and this month the state’s Supreme Court said all 12 men on Delaware’s death row would have their sentences automatically converted to life in prison.

In contrast, the Alabama Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the judicial override statute in September, reported Kent Faulk for The Marshall Project. If Alabama followed Florida’s lead, and required a unanimous jury decision to impose the death penalty, it could have a large effect on the number of death sentences in the state.

“Of the 57 executions in Alabama since the death penalty was reinstated in 1983, 29 involved non-unanimous jury votes, ranging from 11 to 1 for death to 11 to 1 for life, according to an, Marshall Project review of each case,” Faulk reported.

Lethal Injection Protocol

States also struggled with challenges to lethal injection protocols, and with where to get the drugs used in executions.

In May, Pfizer joined other drug companies in its decision not to allow its drugs to be used for lethal injections. Pfizer was the last open-market source for execution drugs, as we reported. More than 20 other U.S. and European drugmakers had already blocked their drugs from being used to kill prisoners.

After the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that using the sedative midazolam was constitutional in 2015, multiple states moved forward with executions using that drug as part of multi-chemical protocols for executing people.

The Death Penalty Information Center says three executions used the drug this year – one in Florida and two in Alabama. As we have reported, the Alabama defendant Ronald Smith, “unsuccessfully argued that midazolam was an unreliable sedative and could cause them to feel pain, citing its use in problematic executions including the botched execution of an Oklahoma man in 2014. A federal judge dismissed the case in November.”

Smith was executed in December. Witnesses said he, “appeared to be struggling for breath and heaved and coughed and clenched his left fist,” for 13 minutes after he was injected with midazolam. It took 34 minutes for Smith to die.

On Tuesday, Arizona announced it would stop using midazolam for executions. In 2014, Arizona prisoner Joseph Randolph Wood died slowly, over the course of nearly two hours during which he gasped and snorted after he had been injected with the drug.

And, after a botched execution in Oklahoma in 2015, a state investigation released this year found prison authorities had “ordered the wrong execution drugs” from a pharmacist.

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Deadly Explosion Rips Through Fireworks Market Near Mexico City

An explosion ripped through the San Pablito fireworks market in Tultepec, Mexico, on Tuesday. AP hide caption

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Updated 9 p.m. ET, Dec. 20

An explosion at a fireworks market outside Mexico City killed 29 people and injured dozens more, according to Mexican authorities.

The governor of the state of Mexico raised the death toll from the earlier reports, NPR’s Carrie Kahn reports.

A video of the blast that rocked the open-air San Pablito market on the northern outskirts of Mexico’s capital city showed fireworks shooting in every direction and smoke billowing into the sky.

WATCH: Video shows moment a massive fireworks explosion hits a market near Mexico City

— BNO News (@BNONews) December 20, 2016

Another video posted on social media showed people running away from the explosion.

Así se vivió la tragedia en #Tultepec. Así trataba la gente de escapar a la explosión de cohetes en #SanPablito.


The Associated Press reported:

“Sirens wailed and a heavy scent of gunpowder lingered in the air after the afternoon blast at the market, where most of the fireworks stalls were completely leveled. The smoking, burned-out shells of vehicles ringed the perimeter, and first responders and local residents wearing blue masks over their mouths combed through the rubble and ash. Firefighters hosed down still-smoldering hotspots.”

Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto tweeted: “My condolences to the families of those who lost their lives in this accident and my wishes for a quick recovery for the injured.”

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This wasn’t the first time the San Pablito Market, well-known for its fireworks vendors, has been leveled by explosions. The AP reported that a “fire engulfed the same market in 2005, touching off a chain of explosions that leveled hundreds of stalls just ahead of Mexico’s Independence Day.”

Then a year later, “a similar fire at the San Pablito Market also destroyed hundreds of stands,” the news service wrote.

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Police Say Zurich Mosque Shooter Not Linked To Radical Islam

Ambulance and police cars outside an Islamic Center in central Zurich on Monday after three people were injured by gunfire. Police say the gunman later killed himself. Michael Buholzer/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

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Michael Buholzer/AFP/Getty Images

Swiss police say a man who shot and wounded three worshipers in a Zurich mosque Monday has no apparent links to radical Islam and appears to have killed himself after the attack.

In a press conference Tuesday afternoon, Zurich cantonal police confirmed that a body found under a nearby bridge was the mosque shooter. A pistol was lying nearby.

Police say it appears the 22-year-old Swiss man of Ghanaian origin took his own life shortly after storming into the Somali-Islamic center near Zurich’s main train station on Monday and opening fire on people praying.

Three men, aged 30, 35 and 56, were injured — two of them seriously.

Police say the man, whose name was not released, is also most likely the murderer of a man with South American roots whose body was found in a Zurich playground Sunday morning. The mosque attacker’s DNA was found at the playground crime scene. He also seemed to have been acquainted with the playground victim.

The attack was a rare case of gun violence in Switzerland and investigators are still puzzling over a motive that set off the chain of events.

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“He is Swiss and we don’t know anything about the motives,” said Christiane Lentjes Meili, head of criminal investigations for the Zurich cantonal police.

With the Berlin Christmas market attack claimed by ISIS, terrorism is the first thought in everyone’s mind. But Swiss police say there is no apparent link to radical Islam.

The man had a juvenile record for assault and bike theft.

Lentjes Meili said there are also indications he took an interest in occult sciences. She said it was not clear whether he was mentally ill.

Like some other European countries, largely Christian Switzerland, has also been wrestling with the role of Islam as its Muslim population grows. Seven years ago Swiss voters approved a nationwide referendum banning the building of new minarets.

Worshipers at the mosque, mostly from Somalia, Eritrea and North Africa, were stunned by the intrusion and the shooting. Some told local media they were anxious to know whether they were targeted “or whether it is just coincidence, that brought him to us,” said Saad Subaan.

One worshiper told newspaper Neue Zuercher Zeitung that people there were very scared.

“Our children come to the mosque every weekend. But now I wonder if we’re still safe here,” he said.

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