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Were the oily rodents impressive enough? More amazing than the family tree of tumors? Than the tiny, autonomous, faux “cells” that went around sucking up water pollutants?

These were the pressing questions three judges considered as all eyes were on them in a New York City conference room Thursday afternoon. The judges, Jitka Amira Ismail Virag (Brody School of Medicine, East Carolina University), Nicole Renaud (Novartis Institutes for BioMedical Research), and Rick Berke (STAT), had to pick the most outstanding research as part of STAT Madness, a global contest to find cutting-edge innovations in science and medicine.

The tournament, which kicked off on March 1 with 64 entries, is something like March Madness, with a bit of “Shark Tank,” except that during the presentations by three finalists at the STAT Breakthrough Science Summit, there were no personal insults or brawls in the paint.

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Instead, judges see-sawed between the presentations they had just seen, complimenting each of the researchers. “I was hoping to come here and pick one but it’s really impossible,” said Berke, co-founder and executive editor of STAT. “It’s like apples and oranges but they’re all really impressive.”

Dian Yang went first, pitching his team’s work: using CRISPR gene-editing technology to map the evolution of tumor cells and group the cells in a metastases into “families.” Such phylogenetics tools were used to track the progression of SARS-CoV-2, and its many mutations and spinoff variants over the course of the pandemic.

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In the lab of Jonathan Weissman at the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Sciences, Yang and his team grafted cancer cells into the lungs of mice and then followed them as they multiplied and metastasized. In doing so, they were able to identify new genes that can drive the spread, and start to form a better understanding of the complex ways cancer tumors evolve.

Yang was followed by Taku Kambayashi, a researcher in the Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine. 

His team found that by injecting obese mice with a signaling protein called thymic stromal lymphopoietin, or TSLP, the rodents released fat through their skin. The mice were still eating more of their high-fat diet, but were losing weight. Kambayashi wanted to know why.

“The answer lied in how they looked,” he said. “They’re so oily that they slip out of your hand … they’re skinny, greasy mice.”

Instead of going to the liver or other organs, fat was being diverted to the skin. TSLP works through the immune system, by activating T cells and triggering the secretion of sebum, a high-fat oil that humans naturally produce and that helps protect the skin barrier, Kambayashi explained.

Down the road, as a therapeutic, TSLP could potentially help treat obesity and diseases such as type 2 diabetes, fatty liver disease and atherosclerosis, but people with skin barrier issues, such as alopecia and eczema, might also benefit from the oil-producing function.

The conversation then went from oil secretion to miniature machines that can carry oil droplets, and perform other tasks — autonomously.

Researchers at New York University and the University of Chicago have developed artificial cell-like tools that can be used to ingest pollutants, toxins, and bacteria, hold onto those contents, and expel them, all powered by exposure to light.

Stefano Sacanna, a professor of chemistry at NYU, explained his own version of “Fantastic Voyage,” the 1966 sci-fi film that takes viewers on an adventure inside the body of a scientist to rid him of a blood clot in his brain — before it’s too late.

“My laboratory doesn’t have this technology quite yet, but we are very interested in miniaturization and micro-machines that can be delivered in different environments,” Sacanna told the judges. 

Each artificial cell was created using oil droplets, which were inflated like balloons and then baked to create solid spheres — equivalent to a cell membrane. Researchers punched tiny holes in the shells, to create a channel for sucking in and spitting out materials. And the central “pump” was something like the cell’s mitochondria, powering the orbs when the researchers shined a light on them.

Deployed into water polluted with microplastics, the “cells” swallowed up the trash. In a broth full of E. coli bacteria, the bug would get trapped inside the microscopic vacuums.

Up next: Sacanna’s team wants to make the artificial cells communicate with each other, forming what amounts to “a little army” that can make strategic decisions about cleanup and delivery — of toxic waste, of drugs, and more.

“As a material scientist, what I’ve been after is to develop materials that come closer and closer to living materials,” Sacanna said. “Things that, of course, they’re not alive, they don’t have a brain, but they can still behave in a similar fashion.”

In the end, a vote from the audience delivered the STAT Madness trophy into the oil-slicked hands of Kambayashi, though the online tournament continues. Voting in the final round will end on April 3.

Correction: A previous version of this story misspelled researcher Dian Yang’s last name.