The Future of Medicine: The “Human Body-on-a-Chip”

bodyonachip One of the aims of modern medicine is perfecting the way we tests treatments and drugs, so that the lengthy guess-work and clinical trials can be shortened or even cut out of the equation. While this would not only ensure the speedier delivery of drugs to market, it would also eliminate the need for animal testing, something which has become increasingly common and controversial in recent years.

Over the last century, animal testing has expanded from biomedical research to included things like drug, chemical, and cosmetic testing. One 2008 study conducted by The Guardian estimated that 115 million animals are used a year for scientific research alone. It is therefore no surprise that opposition is growing, and that researchers, regulators and even military developers are looking for more accurate, efficient, and cruelty-free alternatives.

bodyonachip1Enter the National Insitute of Health in Besthesda, Maryland; where researchers have teamed up with the FDA and even DARPA to produce a major alternative. Known as the “Human Body-on-a Chip”, this device is similar to other “Organs-on-a-chip” in that it is basically a small, flexible pieces of plastic with hollow micro-fluidic channels lined with human cells that can mimic human systems far more effectively than simple petri dish cell cultures.

Dan Tagle, the associate director of the NIH’s National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences, explained the benefits of this technology as follows:

If our goal is to create better drugs, in a way that is much more efficient, time and cost-wise, I think it’s almost inevitable that we will have to either minimize or do away with animal testing.

https://i2.wp.com/images.medicaldaily.com/sites/medicaldaily.com/files/styles/large/public/2014/03/18/new-technology-may-obviate-need-animal-testing.jpgWhat’s more, chips like this one could do away with animal testing entirely, which is not only good news for animals and activists, but drug companies themselves. As it stands, pharmaceutical companies have hit a wall in developing new drugs, with roughly 90% failing in human clinical trials based on safety and effectiveness. One reason for this high rate of failure is that drugs that first seem promising in rodents often don’t have the same response in people.

In fact, so-called “animal models” are only typically 30% to 60% predictive of human responses, and there are potentially life-saving drug therapies that never make it to human clinical trials because they’re toxic to mice. In these cases, there’s no way to measure the lost opportunity when animals predict the wrong response. And all told, it takes an average of 14 years and often billions of dollars to actually deliver a new drug to the market.

bodyonachip2According to Geraldine Hamilton, a senior staff scientist at Harvard University’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering, it all began five years ago with the “lung-on-a-chip”:

We’ve also got the lung, gut, liver and kidney. We’re working on skin. The goal is really to do the whole human body, and then we can fluidically link multiple chips to capture interactions between different organs and eventually recreate a body on a chip.

This has led to further developments in the technology, and Hamilton is now launching a new startup company to bring it to the commercial market. Emulate, the new startup that will license Wyss’s technology, isn’t looking to literally create a human body but rather to represent its “essential functions” and develop a platform that’s easy for all scientists and doctors to use, says Hamilton, who will become Emulate’s president and chief scientific officer.

lung-on-a-chip-5Borrowing microfabrication techniques from the semiconductor industry, each organ-on-a-chip is built with small features – such as channels, vessels, and flexible membranes – designed to recreate the flow and forces that cells experience inside a human body. All that’s needed are different chips with different culture of human cells; then researchers can performed tests to see how drugs work in one region of the body before being metabolized by the liver.

This might one day help the military to test treatments for biological or chemical weapons, a process that is unethical (and illegal) with humans, and cruel and often inaccurate with animals. Hospitals may also be able to use a patient’s own stem cells to develop and test “personalized” treatments for their disease, and drug companies could more quickly screen promising new drugs to see if they are effective and what (if any) side effects they have on the body’s organs.

It’s a process that promises speedier tests, quicker delivery, a more cost-effective medical system, and the elimination of cruel and often inaccurate animal testing. Can you say win-win-win?

Source: fastcoexist.com, ncats.nih.gov, wyss.harvard.edu, theguardian.com

Biomedical Breakthroughs: Vascular Network Bioprinting

bioprintingThe ability to generate biological tissues using 3-D printing methods – aka. “bioprinting” – may one day help medical researchers and hospitals to create artificial, on-demand custom body parts and organs for patients. And numerous recent advancements – such as the creation of miniature kidneys, livers, and stem cell structures – are bringing that possibility closer to reality.

And now, according to a new study produced by researchers from the University of Sydney, it is now possible to bioprint artificial vascular networks that mimic the body’s circulatory system. Being able to bio-print an artificial vascular network would give us the ability to keep tissue and organs alive where previously it would not have been possible. The body’s vascular network enables it to transport blood and, therefore, oxygen and nutrients, to tissues and organs.

vascularIt also provides a means of transporting waste materials away from tissues and organs. Dr. Luiz Bertassoni. the lead author of the study explained:

Cells die without an adequate blood supply because blood supplies oxygen that’s necessary for cells to grow and perform a range of functions in the body. To illustrate the scale and complexity of the bio-engineering challenge we face, consider that every cell in the body is just a hair’s width from a supply of oxygenated blood. Replicating the complexity of these networks has been a stumbling block preventing tissue engineering from becoming a real world clinical application.

In order to solve this problem, the researchers used a bioprinter to create a framework of tiny interconnected fibers to serve as a mold. The structure was then covered with a “cell-rich protein-based material” and solidified using light. The fibers were removed to leave a network of tiny channels that formed into stable human blood-capillaries within just a week’s time.

stem_cells3According to the University of Sydney study, the technique demonstrated better cell survival, differentiation and proliferation compared to cells that received no nutrient supply. In addition, it provides the ability to create large, life-supporting three-dimensional, micro-vascular channels quickly and with the precision required for application to different individuals.

This is a major step forward for the bioprinting industry, according to Bertassoni:

While recreating little parts of tissues in the lab is something that we have already been able to do, the possibility of printing three-dimensional tissues with functional blood capillaries in the blink of an eye is a game changer.

bioprinter1In addition, Bertassoni claims that the ultimate aim of the research is for patients to be able to walk into a hospital and have a full organ printed with all the cells, proteins and blood vessels in the right place:

We are still far away from that, but our research is addressing exactly that. Our finding is an important new step towards achieving these goals. At the moment, we are pretty much printing ‘prototypes’ that, as we improve, will eventually be used to change the way we treat patients worldwide.

Bioprinting that uses a patient’s own DNA to generate custom-made organs and tissues offers a world of medical possibilities in which organ donors are no longer necessary, and the risk of rejection and incompatibility is negligible. Not only that, it will usher in a world where no injury is permanent and prosthetics are a thins of the past.

Sources: gizmag.com, sydney.edu.au

Looking Forward: 10 Breakthroughs by 2025

BrightFutureWorld-changing scientific discoveries are emerging all the time; from drugs and vaccines that are making incurable diseases curable, to inventions that are making renewable energies cheaper and more efficient. But how will these develops truly shape the world of tomorrow? How will the combination of advancements being made in the fields of medical, digital and industrial technology come together to change things by 2025?

Well, according to the Thomson Reuters IP & Science unit – a leading intellectual property and collaboration platform – has made a list of the top 10 breakthroughs likely to change the world. To make these predictions, they  looked at two sorts of data – current scientific journal literature and patent applications. Counting citations and other measures of buzz, they identified 10 major fields of development, then made specific forecasts for each.

As Basil Moftah, president of the IP & Science business (which sells scientific database products) said:

A powerful outcome of studying scientific literature and patent data is that it gives you a window into the future–insight that isn’t always found in the public domain. We estimate that these will be in effect in another 11 years.

In short, they predict that people living in 2025 will have access to far more in the way of medical treatments and cures, food will be more plentiful (surprisingly enough), renewable energy sources and applications will be more available, the internet of things will become a reality, and quantum and medical science will be doing some very interesting thins.

1. Dementia Declines:
geneticsPrevailing opinion says dementia could be one of our most serious future health challenges, thanks in no small part to increased life expectancy. In fact, the World Health Organization expects the number of cases to triple by 2050. The Thomson Reuters report is far more optimistic though, claiming that a focus on the pathogenic chromosomes that cause neuro-degenerative disease will result in more timely diagnosis, and earlier, more effective treatment:

In 2025, the studies of genetic mutations causing dementia, coupled with improved detection and onset-prevention methods, will result in far fewer people suffering from this disease.

2. Solar Power Everywhere:
solarpowergeWith the conjunction of increased efficiencies, dropping prices and improved storage methods, solar power will be the world’s largest single source of energy by 2025. And while issues such as weather-dependence will not yet be fully resolved, the expansion in panel use and the incorporation of thin photovoltaic cells into just about every surface imaginable (from buildings to roadways to clothing) will means that solar will finally outstrip fossil fuels as coal as the predominant means of getting power.

As the authors of the report write:

Solar thermal and solar photovoltaic energy (from new dye-sensitized and thin-film materials) will heat buildings, water, and provide energy for devices in the home and office, as well as in retail buildings and manufacturing facilities.

3. Type 1 Diabetes Prevention:
diabetes_worldwideType 1 diabetes strikes at an early age and isn’t as prevalent as Type 2 diabetes, which comes on in middle age. But cases have been rising fast nonetheless, and explanations range from nutritional causes to contaminants and fungi. But the report gives hope that kids of the future won’t have to give themselves daily insulin shots, thanks to “genomic-editing-and-repairing” that it expects will fix the problem before it sets in. As it specifies:

The human genome engineering platform will pave the way for the modification of disease-causing genes in humans, leading to the prevention of type I diabetes, among other ailments.

4. No More Food Shortages:
GMO_seedsContrary to what many speculative reports and futurists anticipate, the report indicates that by the year 2025, there will be no more food shortages in the world. Thanks to a combination of lighting and genetically-modified crops, it will be possible to grow food quickly and easily in a plethora of different environments. As it says in the report:

In 2025, genetically modified crops will be grown rapidly and safely indoors, with round-the-clock light, using low energy LEDs that emit specific wavelengths to enhance growth by matching the crop to growth receptors added to the food’s DNA. Crops will also be bred to be disease resistant. And, they will be bred for high yield at specified wavelengths.

5. Simple Electric Flight:
Solar Impulse HB-SIA prototype airplane attends his first flight over PayerneThe explosion in the use of electric aircraft (be they solar-powered or hydrogen fueled) in the past few decades has led to predictions that by 2025, small electric aircraft will offset commercial flight using gas-powered, heavy jets. The report says advances in lithium-ion batteries and hydrogen storage will make electric transport a reality:

These aircraft will also utilize new materials that bring down the weight of the vehicle and have motors with superconducting technology. Micro-commercial aircraft will fly the skies for short-hop journeys.

6. The Internet of Things:
internet-of-things-2By 2025, the internet is likely to expand into every corner of life, with growing wifi networks connecting more people all across the world. At the same time, more and more in the way of devices and personal possessions are likely to become “smart” – meaning that they will can be accessed digitally and networked to other things. In short, the internet of things will become a reality. And the speed at which things move will vastly increase due to proposed solutions to the computing bottleneck.

Here’s how the report puts it:

Thanks to the prevalence of improved semiconductors, graphene-carbon nanotube capacitators, cell-free networks of service antenna, and 5G technology, wireless communications will dominate everything, everywhere.

7. No More Plastic Garbage:
110315-N-IC111-592Ever heard of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (aka. the Pacific Trash Vortex), the mass of plastic debris in the Pacific Ocean that measures somewhere between 700,000 and 15,000,000 square kilometres (270,000 – 5,800,000 sq mi)? Well, according to the report, such things will become a thing of the past. By 2025, it claims, the “glucose economy” will lead to the predominance of packaging made from plant-derived cellulose (aka. bioplastics).

Because of this influx of biodegradable plastics, there will be no more permanent deposits of plastic garbage filling our oceans, landfills, and streets. As it says:

Toxic plastic-petroleum packaging that litters cities, fields, beaches, and oceans, and which isn’t biodegradable, will be nearing extinction in another decade. Thanks to advancements in the technology related to and use of these bio-nano materials, petroleum-based packaging products will be history.

8. More Precise Drugs:
drugsBy 2025, we’ll have sophisticated, personalized medicine, thanks to improved production methods, biomedical research, and the growth of up-to-the-minute health data being provided by wearable medical sensors and patches. The report also offers specific examples:

Drugs in development are becoming so targeted that they can bind to specific proteins and use antibodies to give precise mechanisms of action. Knowledge of specific gene mutations will be so much more advanced that scientists and physicians can treat those specific mutations. Examples of this include HER2 (breast cancer), BRAF V600 (melanoma), and ROS1 (lung cancer), among many others.

9. DNA Mapping Formalized:
DNA-1Recent explosions in genetic research – which include the Genome Project and ENCODE – are leading to a world where personal genetic information will become the norm. As a result, kids born in 2025 will be tested at the DNA level, and not just once or twice, but continually using nano-probes inserted in the body. The result will be a boon for anticipating genetic diseases, but could also raise various privacy-related issues. As it states:

In 2025, humans will have their DNA mapped at birth and checked annually to identify any changes that could point to the onset of autoimmune diseases.

10. Teleportation Tested:
quantum-entanglement1Last, but certainly not least, the report says research into teleportation will be underway. Between the confirmation of the Higgs Boson (and by extension, the Standard Model of particle physics), recent revelations about quantum entanglements and wormholes, and the discovery of the Amplituhedron, the field of teleportation is likely to produce some serious breakthroughs. No telling what these will be – be it the ability to teleport simple photons or something larger – but the fact that the research will be happening seems a foregone conclusion:

We are on the precipice of this field’s explosion; it is truly an emerging research front. Early indicators point to a rapid acceleration of research leading to the testing of quantum teleportation in 2025.

Summary:
Will all of these changes come to pass? Who knows? If history has taught us anything, it’s that predictions are often wrong and much in the way of exciting research doesn’t always make it to the market. And as always, various factors – such as politics, money, public resistance, private interests – have a way of complicating things. However, there is reason to believe that the aforementioned 10 things will become a viable reality. And Moftah believes we should be positive about the future:

[The predictions] are positive in nature because they are solutions researchers and scientists are working on to address challenges we face in the world today. There will always be obstacles and issues to overcome, but science and innovation give us hope for how we will address them.

I, for one, am happy and intrigued to see certain items making this list. The explosion in solar usage, bioplastics, and the elimination of food scarcity are all very encouraging. If there was one thing I was anticipating by 2025, it was increased drought and food shortages. But as the saying goes, “necessity is the mother of invention”. And as someone who has had two grandmothers who lived into their nineties and have both suffered from the scourges of dementia, it is good to know that this disease will be on the wane for future generations.

It is also encouraging to know that there will be better treatments for diseases like cancer, HIV, and diabetes. While the idea of a world in which all diseases are preventable and/or treatable worries some (on a count of how it might stoke overpopulation), no one who has ever lived with this disease, or known someone who has, would think twice if presented with a cure. And hardship, hunger, a lack of education, resources and health services are some of the main reasons for population explosions.

And, let’s face it, its good to live in an age where the future looks bright for a change. After a good century of total war, totalitarianism, atomic diplomacy, terrorism, and oh so much existential angst and dystopian fiction, it’s nice to think that the coming age will turn out alright after all.

Sources: fastcoexist.com, ip-science.thomsonreuters.com

The Future is Here: “Terminator-style” Liquid Metal Treatment

t1000_1For ideal physical rehab, it might be necessary to go a little “cyborg”. That’s the reasoning a Chinese biomedical firm used to develop a new method of repairing damaged nerve endings. Borrowing a page from Terminator 2, their new treatment calls for the use of liquid metal to transmit nerve signals across the gap created in severed nerves. The work, they say, raises the prospect of new treatment methods for nerve damage and injuries.

Granted, it’s not quite on par with the liquid-metal-skinned cyborgs from the future, but it is a futuristic way of improving on current methods of nerve rehab that could prevent long-term disabilities. When peripheral nerves are severed, the loss of function leads to atrophy of the effected muscles, a dramatic change in quality of life and, in many cases, a shorter life expectancy. Despite decades of research, nobody has come up with an effective way to reconnect them yet.

nerveVarious techniques exist to sew the ends back together or to graft nerves into the gap that is created between severed ends. And the success of these techniques depends on the ability of the nerve ends to grow back and knit together. But given that nerves grow at the rate of one mm per day, it can take a significant amount of time (sometimes years) to reconnect. And during this time, the muscles can degrade beyond repair and lead to long-term disability.

As a result, neurosurgeons have long hoped for a way to keep muscles active while the nerves regrow. One possibility is to electrically connect the severed ends so that the signals from the brain can still get through; but up until now, an effective means of making this happen has remained elusive. For some time, biomedical engineers have been eyeing the liquid metal alloy gallium-indium-selenium for some time as a possible solution – a material that is liquid at body temperature and thought to be entirely benign.

Liquid metal nervesBut now, a biomedical research team led by Jing Liu of Tsinghua University in Beijing claims they’ve reconnected severed nerves using liquid metal for the first time. They claim that the metal’s electrical properties could help preserve the function of nerves while they regenerate. Using sciatic nerves connected to a calf muscle, which were taken from bullfrogs, they’ve managed to carry out a series of experiments that prove that the technique is viable.

Using these bullfrog nerves, they applied a pulse to one end and measured the signal that reached the calf muscle, which contracted with each pulse. They then cut the sciatic nerve and placed each of the severed ends in a capillary filled either with liquid metal or with Ringer’s solution – a solution of several salts designed to mimic the properties of body fluids. They then re-applied the pulses and measured how they propagated across the gap.

liquid metal nerves_1The results are interesting, and Jing’s team claim that the pulses that passed through the Ringer’s solution tended to degrade severely. By contrast, the pulses passed easily through the liquid metal. As they put it in their research report:

The measured electroneurographic signal from the transected bullfrog’s sciatic nerve reconnected by the liquid metal after the electrical stimulation was close to that from the intact sciatic nerve.

What’s more, since liquid metal clearly shows up in x-rays, it can be easily removed from the body when it is no longer needed using a microsyringe. All of this has allowed Jing and colleagues to speculate about the possibility of future treatments. Their goal is to make special conduits for reconnecting severed nerves that contain liquid metal to preserve electrical conduction and therefore muscle function, but also containing growth factor to promote nerve regeneration.

future_medicineNaturally, there are still many challenges and unresolved questions which must be resolved before this can become a viable treatment option. For example, how much of the muscle function can be preserved? Can the liquid metal somehow interfere with or prevent regeneration? And how safe is liquid metal inside the body – especially if it leaks? These are questions that Jing and others will hope to answer in the near future, starting with animal models and possibly later with humans..

Sources: technologyreview.com, arxiv.org, cnet.com, spectrum.ieee.org

Happy DNA Day!

dna_cancerThough I am a week late in expressing this sentiment, I feel I must acknowledge this rather interesting of events. As it stands, this past April 22nd was the sixty-first anniversary of the molecular structure of DNA being revealed to the world. What began as a publication in the magazine Nature has now become emblematic of the programming language of life, and our understanding of DNA has grown by leaps and bounds over the past six decades.

To commemorate such an important landmark in the history of humanity, a look back at some of the more recent developments in the field of genetic research would seem to be in order. For example, it was on April 22nd of this year that a rather interesting study was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The lead on this study was none other than Svante Pääbo – the world’s foremost expert in Neanderthal genetics.

humanEvolutionBased on the genomes of three neanderthals that were found in disparate locations in Eurasia, Pääbo and his colleagues have concluded that the genetic diversity in Neanderthals is significantly less when compared to present-day Homo sapiens. It also appears as if the Neanderthal populations were relatively isolated and tiny, so gene flow was extremely limited for these groups. In short, our homonid cousins didn’t get around and interbreed quite as much as we’ve done, which may shed some light on their disappearance.

On the very same day, an article was published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B that proposed that skin cancer from the sun’s damaging UV rays was actually a driving force in the national selection for dark skin in early humans. In the article, Mel Greaves delivers a compelling argument that the deadliness of skin cancer in young albino children in Africa and Central America demonstrates just how vital it was for early humans to develop dark skin.

GenoChipAnd on April 25th, National Geographic and Family Tree DNA teamed up to announce the release of a brand new version of the human Y-DNA tree. This new tree of Y chromosome mutations has over 1,200 branches — almost double the number of branches that the Genographic Project was displaying before. With this much refinement, it’s now even easier to track the historical migrations of your distant ancestors.

To celebrate this monumental roll-out, Family Tree DNA offered a 20% discount on the 37-marker Y-DNA test and all individual Y-DNA SNP (single-nucleotide polymorphism) tests, an offer which sadly expired on April 27th. However, interested parties can still have this cutting-edge anthropological genetic test performed for $200. And it’s something to keep in mind for next year certainly. What better way to celebrate DNA day than to have a full genetic profile of yourself made?

encodeAnd let’s not forget, 2012 was also the year that the Encyclopedia of DNA Elements (ENCODE) Consortium – an international collaboration of research groups funded by the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI) – released the world’s most complete report on the human genome to date. Unlike the Human Genome Project, which released the first catalog of human DNA back in 2003, ENCODE was not only able to catalog the human genome’s various parts, but also what those components actually do.

Among the initiative’s many findings was that so-called “junk DNA” – outlier DNA sequences that do not encode for protein sequences – are not junk at all, and are in fact responsible for such things as gene regulation, disease onset, and even human height. As I’ve said before, these findings will go a long way towards developing gene therapy, biotechnology that seeks to create artificial DNA and self-assembling structures, and even cloning.

Tree-600x405Yes, it’s an exciting time for the field of DNA research, and not just because of the many doors its likely to open. Beyond medical and bioresearch, it helps us to understand of ourselves as a species, our collective origins, and may perhaps help us to see just how interconnected we all truly are. For centuries now, a great many evils and prejudices have been committed in the name of “racial superiority” or racial differences.

Armed with this new knowledge, we might just come to realize that this great organism known as humanity is all fruit of the same tree.

Sources: extremetech.com, genome.ucsc.edu, newswatch.nationalgeographic.com