The Future is Here: Cancer Drug Developed by AI

AI'sThe development of cancer drugs is a costly, expensive, time-consuming process that has a high probability rate of failure. On average, it takes 24 to 48 months to find a suitable candidate and costs upwards of $100 million. And in the end, roughly 95% of all potential drugs fail in clinical trials. Because of this, scientists are understandably looking for a way to speed up the discovery process.

That’s where the anti-cancer drug known as BPM 31510 comes in play. Unlike most pharmaceuticals, it was developed by artificial intelligence instead of a group of researchers toiling away in a lab. Created by biotech company Berg (named after real estate billionaire Carl Berg) the company seeks to use artificial intelligence to design cancer drugs that are cheaper, have fewer side effects, and can be developed in half the time it normally takes.

drugsTowards this end, they are looking to data-driven methods of drug discovery. Instead of generating cancer drugs based on chemical compounds identified in labs, the company compares tissue, urine, and blood samples from cancer patients and healthy patients, generating tens of trillions of data points that are fed into an artificial intelligence system. That system crunches all the data, looking for problems.

BPM 31510, which is the first of Berg’s drugs to get a real-world test, focuses on mitochondria – a framework within cells that’s responsible for programmed cell death. Normally, mitochondria triggers damaged cells to die. When cancer strikes, this process goes haywire, and the damaged cells spread. Berg’s drug, if successful, will be able to restore normal cell death processes by changing the metabolic environment within mitochondria.

MitochondriaSpeaking on the subject of the drug, which is now in human-clinical trials, Berg president and co-founder Niven Narain said:

BPM 31510 works by switching the fuel that cancer likes to operate on. Cancer cells prefer to operate in a less energy-efficient manner. Cancers with a high metabolic function, like triple negative breast cancer, glioblastoma, and colon cancer–that’s the sweet spot for this technology.

IBM is also leveraging artificial intelligence in the race to design better cancer treatments. In their case, this involves their much-heralded supercomputer Watson looking for better treatment options for patients. In a trial conducted with the New York Genome Center, Watson has been scanning mutations found in brain cancer patients, matching them with available treatments.

dna_cancerAll of these efforts are still in early days, and even on its accelerated timeline, BPM 31510 is still years away from winning an FDA approval. But, as Narain points out, the current drug discovery system desperately needs rethinking. With a success rate of 1 out of 20, their is definitely room for improvement. And a process that seeks to address cancer in a way that is more targeted, and more personalized is certainly in keeping with the most modern approaches to medicine.

Source: fastcoexist.com

The End of HIV: Two Men Cleared After Marrow Transplant

hiv-virus-cuFor decades, bone marrow transplants have been used for the treatment of cancer, particularly lymphoma, leukemia, and multiple myeloma. However, after three years of receiving transplants, two Australian men who were previously diagnosed with HIV have shown no signs of the AIDS virus. Moreover, one of the patient’s is the first recorded case of clearing the virus without the presence of a rare anti-HIV gene in the donor marrow.

The two patients, a 53-year-old and 47-year-old male, were diagnosed with leukaemia and lymphoma respectively at St Vincent’s Hospital in Sydney, Australia, which has been working in partnership with the University of New South Wales’ Kirby Institute. To date, there have been several reported cases of patients cleared of HIV that were related to bone marrow transplants, but this is something new entirely.

HIV_virusTimothy Ray Brown, a US citizen, was treated in 2007/8 for leukaemia with transplanted stem cells from a donor with the CCR5 delta32 mutation – which is resistant to HIV – and was reported clear of the virus. Afterward, Brown stopped taking his antiretroviral medication and remained HIV-free. In 2012, two other US patients were treated with marrow that did not contain the mutation and initially tested clear. But when they ceased taking antiretroviral medication, the virus returned.

The Australian lymphoma patient, treated in 2010, did receive one transplant of bone marrow that contained one of two copies of a gene that is possibly resistant to HIV. However, the leukaemia patient, treated in 2011, received donor marrow with no resistive gene. Both patients remain on antiretroviral medication as a precaution, since the virus may be in remission rather than completely cured.

021204-N-0696M-180The next step is to figure out why the body responds to a bone marrow transplant in a way that makes the virus retreat. One possible explanation is that the body’s immune response to the foreign cells of the transplant causes it to fight harder against HIV. This is because, while bone marrow transplant seems to be the most effective means of clearing the AIDS virus to date, it is not an acceptable risk for patients whose lives aren’t already endangered by bone cancer.

As Professor David Cooper, the study’s senior author and the director of the UNSW Kirby Institute, explained:

We’re so pleased that both patients are doing reasonably well years after the treatment for their cancers and remain free of both the original cancer and the HIV virus… The procedure itself has an up to 10 percent mortality rate. But you take that risk in someone with leukemia or lymphoma because they’re going to die without it, and the transplantation will result in cure. For someone with HIV, you would certainly not transplant them when they have an almost normal life span with standard antiretroviral therapy.

We still don’t know why these patients have undetectable viral loads. One theory is that the induction therapy helps to destroy the cells in which the virus is hiding and that any remaining infected cells are destroyed by the patient’s new immune system.. We need more research to establish why and how bone marrow transplantation clears the virus. We also want to explore the predictors of sustained viral clearance and how this might be able to be exploited without the need for bone marrow transplantation.

The team will be presenting their research 19 July 2014 at the 20th International AIDS Conference in Melbourne, Australia. There, they will be amongst such high-profile speakers as former President Bill Clinton, UNAIDS Executive Director Michel Sidibé and artist and activist Sir Bob Geldof, as well as thousands of the world’s top AIDS researchers, community leaders, people living with HIV and policy-makers at AIDS 2014.

Source: cnet.com, aids2014.com

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 of Medicine: New Cancer Tests and Treatments

cancer_growingWhile a cure for cancer is still beyond medical science, improvements in how we diagnose and treat the disease are being made every day. These range from early detection, which makes all the difference in preventing the spread of the disease; to less-invasive treatments, which makes for a kinder, gentler recovery. By combining better medicine with cost-saving measures, accessibility is also a possibility.

When it comes to better diagnostics, the aim is to find ways to detect cancer without harmful and expensive scans or exploratory surgery. An alternative is a litmus test, like the one invented by Jack Andraka to detect pancreatic cancer. His method, which was unveiled at the 2012 Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF), won him the top prize due to the fact that it’s 90% accurate, 168 times faster than current tests and 1/26,000th the cost of regular tests.

cancer_peetestSince that time, Jack and his research group (Generation Z), have been joined by such institutions as MIT, which recently unveiled a pee stick test to detect cancer. In research published late last month in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, MIT Professor Sangeeta Bhatia reported that she and her team developed paper test strips using the same technology behind in-home pregnancy tests, ones which were able to detect colon tumors in mice.

The test strips work in conjunction with an injection of iron oxide nanoparticles, like those used as MRI contrast agents, that congregate at tumor sites in the body. Once there, enzymes known as matrix metalloproteinases (MMPs), which cancer cells use to invade healthy tissue, break up the nanoparticles, which then pass out through the patient’s urine. Antibodies on the test strip grab them, causing gold nanoparticles to create a red color indicating the presence of the tumor.

cancer_peetest2According to Bhatia, the technology is likely to make a big splash in developing countries where complicated and expensive medical tests are a rarity. Closer to home, the technology is also sure to be of significant use in outpatient clinics and other decentralized health settings. As Bhatia said in a press release:

For the developing world, we thought it would be exciting to adapt (the technology) to a paper test that could be performed on unprocessed samples in a rural setting, without the need for any specialized equipment. The simple readout could even be transmitted to a remote caregiver by a picture on a mobile phone.

To help Bhatia and her research team to bring her idea to fruition, MIT has given her and her team a grant from the university’s Deshpande Center for Technological Innovation. The purpose of the grant is to help the researchers develop a startup that could execute the necessary clinical trials and bring the technology to market. And now, Bhatia and her team are working on expanding the test to detect breast, prostate cancers, and all other types of cancer.

?????????????In a separate but related story, researchers are also working towards a diagnostic methods that do not rely on radiation. While traditional radiation scanners like PET and CT are good at finding cancer, they expose patients to radiation that can create a catch-22 situation where cancer can be induced later in life, especially for younger patients. By potentially inducing cancer in young people, it increases the likelihood that they will have to be exposed to more radiation down the line.

The good news is that scientists have managed to reduce radiation exposure over the past several years without sacrificing image quality. But thanks to ongoing work at the Children’s Hospital of Michigan, the Stanford School of Medicine, and Vanderbilt Children’s Hospital, there’s a potential alternative that involves combining MRI scans with a contrast agent, similar to the one Prof. Bhatia and her MIT group use in their peestick test.

cancer_braintumorAccording to a report published in the journal The Lancet Oncology, the researchers claimed that the new MRI approach found 158 tumors in twenty-two 8 to 33-year-olds, compared with 163 found using the traditional PET and CT scan combo. And since MRIs use radio waves instead of radiation, the scans themselves have no side effects. While the study is small, the positive findings are a step toward wider-spread testing to determine the effectiveness and safety of the new method.

The next step in testing this method will be to study the approach on more children and investigate how it might work in adults. The researchers say physicians are already launching a study of the technique in at least six major children’s hospitals throughout the country. And because the cost of each method could be roughly the same, if the MRI approach proves just as effective yet safer, radiation-free cancer scans are likely to be the way of the future.

cancer_georgiatechAnd last, but not least, there’s a revolutionary new treatment pioneered by researchers at Georgia Tech that relies on engineered artificial pathways to lure malignant cells to their death. This treatment is designed to address brain tumors – aka. Glioblastoma multiform cancer (GBM) – which are particularly insidious because they spread through the brain by sliding along blood vessels and nerve passageways (of which the brain has no shortage of!)

This capacity for expansion means that sometimes tumors developed in parts of the brain where surgery is extremely difficult – if not impossible – or that even if the bulk of a tumor can be removed, chances are good its tendrils would still exist throughout the brain. That is where the technique developed by scientists at Georgia Tech comes in, which involves creating artificial pathways along which cancer can travel to either more operable areas or even to a deadly drug located in a gel outside the body.

cancer_georgiatech1According to Ravi Bellamkonda, lead investigator and chair of the Wallace H. Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering at Georgia Tech and Emory University:

[T]he cancer cells normally latch onto … natural structures and ride them like a monorail to other parts of the brain. By providing an attractive alternative fiber, we can efficiently move the tumors along a different path to a destination that we choose.

The procedure was reported in a recent issue of the journal Nature Materials. It involved Bellamkonda and his team implanting nanofibers about half the size of a human hair in rat brains where GBMs were growing. The fibers were made from a polycaprolactone (PCL) polymer surrounded by a polyurethane carrier and mimicked the contours of the nerves and blood vessels cancer cells like to use as a biological route.

cancer_georgiatech2One end of a fiber was implanted into the tumor inside the brain and the other into a gel containing the drug cyclopamine (which kills cancer cells) outside the brain. After 18 days, enough tumor cells had migrated along the fiber into the gel to shrink the tumor size 93 percent. Not only does Bellamkonda think his technique could be used to relocate and/or destroy cancers, he says he believes it could be used to help people live with certain inoperable cancers as a chronic condition.

In a recent statement, Bellakomba had this to say about the new method and the benefits its offers patients:

If we can provide cancer an escape valve of these fibers, that may provide a way of maintaining slow-growing tumors such that, while they may be inoperable, people could live with the cancers because they are not growing. Perhaps with ideas like this, we may be able to live with cancer just as we live with diabetes or high blood pressure.

Many of today’s methods for treating cancer focus on using drugs to kill tumors. The Georgia Tech team’s approach was engineering-driven and allows cancer to be treated with a device rather than with chemicals, potentially saving the patient many debilitating side effects. Part of the innovation in the technique is that it’s actually easier for tumors to move along the nanofibers than it is for them to take their normal routes, which require significant enzyme secretion as they invade healthy tissue.

cancer_georgiatech3Anjana Jain, the primary author of the study, was also principally responsible for the design of the nanofiber technique. After doing her graduate work on biomaterials used for spinal cord regeneration, she found herself working in Bellamkonda’s lab as a postdoctoral fellow and came up with the idea of routing materials using engineered materials. In a recent statement, she said the following of her idea:

Our idea was to give the tumor cells a path of least resistance, one that resembles the natural structures in the brain, but is attractive because it does not require the cancer cells to expend any more energy.

Extensive testing, which could take up to 10 years, still needs to be conducted before this technology can be approved for use in human patients. In the meantime, Bellamkonda and his team will be working towards using this technology to lure other cancers that like to travel along nerves and blood vessels. With all the advances being made in diagnostics, treatments, and the likelihood of a cure being found in the near future, the 21st century is likely to be the era where cancer becomes history.

Sources: news.cnet.com, (2), (3)

The Future of Medicine: Elastic Superglue and DNA Clamps

nanomachineryIf there’s one thing medical science is looking to achieve, it’s ways of dealing with sickness and injuries that are less invasive. And now more than ever, researchers are looking to the natural world for solutions. Whether it is working with the bodies own components to promote healing, or using technologies that imitate living organism, the future of medicine is all about engineered-natural solutions.

Consider the elastic glue developed by associate professor Jeffrey Karp, a Canadian-born medical researcher working at Harvard University. Created for heart surgery, this medical adhesive is designed to replace sutures and staples as the principle means of sealing incisions and defects in heart tissue. But the real kicker? The glue was inspired by sticky natural secretions of slugs.

hlaa-4Officially known as hydrophobic light-activated adhesive (HLAA), the glue was developed in a collaboration between Boston Children’s Hospital, MIT, and Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women’s Hospital. And in addition to being biocompatible and biodegradable (a major plus in surgery), it’s both water-resistant and elastic, allowing it to stretch as a beating heart expands and contracts.

All of this adds up to a medical invention that is far more user-friendly than stitches and staples, does not have to be removed, and will not cause complications. On top of all that, it won’t complicate healing by restricting the heart’s movements, and only becomes active when an ultraviolet light shines on it, so surgeons can more accurately bind the adhesive exactly where needed.

hlaa-3The technology could potentially be applied not just to congenital heart defects, but to a wide variety of organs and other body parts. In an recent interview with CBC Radio’s Quirks & Quarks, Karp explained the advantages of the glue:

Sutures and staples really are not mechanically similar to the tissues in the body, so they can induce stress on the tissue over time. This is a material that’s made from glycerol and sebacic acid, both of which exist in the body and can be readily metabolized. What happens over time is that this material will degrade. Cells will invade into it and on top of it, and ideally the hole will remain closed and the patient won’t require further operations.

In lab tests, biodegradable patches coated with HLAA were applied to holes in the hearts of live pigs. Despite the high pressure of the blood flowing through the organs, the patches maintained a leakproof seal for the 24-hour test period. HLAA is now being commercially developed by Paris-based start-up Gecko Biomedical, which hopes to have it on the market within two to three years.

dnaclampIn another recent development, scientists at the Université de Montréal have created a new DNA clamp capable of detecting the genetic mutations responsible for causing cancers, hemophilia, sickle cell anemia and other diseases. This clamp is not only able to detect mutations more efficiently than existing techniques, it could lead to more advanced screening tests and more efficient DNA-based nanomachines for targeted drug delivery.

To catch diseases at their earliest stages, researchers have begun looking into creating quick screening tests for specific genetic mutations that pose the greatest risk of developing into life-threatening illnesses. When the nucleotide sequence that makes up a DNA strand is altered, it is understood to be a mutation, which specific types of cancers can be caused by.

DNA-MicroarrayTo detect this type of mutation and others, researchers typically use molecular beacons or probes, which are DNA sequences that become fluorescent on detecting mutations in DNA strands. The team of international researchers that developed the DNA clamp state that their diagnostic nano machine allows them to more accurately differentiate between mutant and non-mutant DNA.

According to the research team, the DNA clamp is designed to recognize complementary DNA target sequences, binds with them, and form a stable triple helix structure, while fluorescing at the same time. Being able to identify single point mutations more easily this way is expected to help doctors identify different types of cancer risks and inform patients about the specific cancers they are likely to develop.

dna_cancerDiagnosing cancer at a genetic level could potentially help arrest the disease, before it even develops properly. Alexis Vallée-Bélisle, a Chemistry Professor at the Université de Montréal, explained the long-term benefits of this breakthrough in a recent interview:

Cancer is a very complex disease that is caused by many factors. However, most of these factors are written in DNA. We only envisage identifying the cancers or potential of cancer. As our understanding of the effect of mutations in various cancer will progress, early diagnosis of many forms of cancer will become more and more possible.

Currently the team has only tested the probe on artificial DNA, and plans are in the works to undertake testing on human samples. But the team also believes that the DNA clamp will have nanotechnological applications, specifically in the development of machines that can do targeted drug-delivery.

dna_nanomachineFor instance, in the future, DNA-based nanomachines could be assembled using many different small DNA sequences to create a 3D structure (like a box). When it encounters a disease marker, the box could then open up and deliver the anti-cancer drug, enabling smart drug delivery. What’s more, this new DNA clamp could prove intrinsic in that assembly process.

Professor Francesco Ricci of the University of Rome, who collaborated on the project, explained the potential in a recent interview:

The clamp switches that we have designed and optimized can recognize a DNA sequence with high precision and high affinity. This means that our clamp switches can be used, for example, as super-glue to assemble these nano machines and create a better and more precise 3D structure that can, for example, open in the presence of a disease marker and release a drug.

Hmm, glues inspired by mollusc secretions, machines made from DNA. Medical technology is looking less like technology and more like biology every day now!

Sources: cbc.ca, gizmag.com, (2)

Year-End Health News: Anti-Aging and Artificial Hearts

medtechHere we have two more stories from last year that I find I can’t move on without posting about them. And considering just how relevant they are to the field of biomedicine, there was no way I could let them go unheeded. Not only are developments such as these likely to save lives, they are also part of a much-anticipated era where mortality will be a nuisance rather than an inevitability.

The first story comes to us from the University of New South Wales (UNSW) in Australia and the Harvard Medical School, where a joint effort achieved a major step towards the dream of clinical immortality. In the course of experimenting on mice, the researchers managed to reverse the effects of aging in mice using an approach that restores communication between a cell’s mitochondria and nucleus.

MitochondriaMitochondria are the power supply for a cell, generating the energy required for key biological functions. When communication breaks down between mitochondria and the cell’s control center (the nucleus), the effects of aging accelerate. Led by David Sinclair, a professor from UNSW Medicine at Harvard Medical School, the team found that by restoring this molecular communication, aging could not only be slowed, but reversed.

Responsible for this breakdown is a decline of the chemical Nicotinamide Adenine Dinucleotide (or NAD). By increasing amounts of a compound used by the cell to produce NAD, Professor Sinclair found that he and his team could quickly repair mitochondrial function. Key indicators of aging, such as insulin resistance, inflammation and muscle wasting, showed extensive improvement.

labmiceIn fact, the researchers found that the tissue of two-year-old mice given the NAD-producing compound for just one week resembled that of six-month-old mice. They said that this is comparable to a 60-year-old human converting to a 20-year-old in these specific areas. As Dr Nigel Turner, an ARC Future Fellow from UNSW’s Department of Pharmacology and co-author of the team’s research paper, said:

It was shocking how quickly it happened. If the compound is administered early enough in the aging process, in just a week, the muscles of the older mice were indistinguishable from the younger animals.

The technique has implications for treating cancer, type 2 diabetes, muscle wasting, inflammatory and mitochondrial diseases as well as anti-aging. Sinclair and his team are now looking at the longer-term outcomes of the NAD-producing compound in mice and how it affects them as a whole. And with the researchers hoping to begin human clinical trials in 2014, some major medical breakthroughs could be just around the corner.

carmat_artificialheartIn another interesting medical story, back in mid-December, a 75 year-old man in Paris became the  recipient of the world’s first Carmat bioprosthetic artificial heart. Now technically, artificial hearts have been in use since the 1980’s. But what sets this particular heart apart, according to its inventor – cardiac surgeon Alain Carpentier – is the Carmat is the first artificial heart to be self-regulating.

In this case, self-regulating refers to the Carmat’s ability to speed or slow its flow rate based on the patient’s physiological needs. For example, if they’re performing a vigorous physical activity, the heart will respond by beating faster. This is made possible via “multiple miniature embedded sensors” and proprietary algorithms running on its integrated microprocessor. Power comes from an external lithium-ion battery pack worn by the patient, and a fuel cell is in the works.

carmat_2Most other artificial hearts beat at a constant unchanging rate, which means that patients either have to avoid too much activity, or risk becoming exhausted quickly. In the course of its human trials, it will be judged based on its ability to keep patients with heart failure alive for a month, but the final version is being designed to operate for five years.

The current lone recipient is reported to be recuperating in intensive care at Paris’ Georges Pompidou European Hospital, where he is awake and carrying on conversations. “We are delighted with this first implant, although it is premature to draw conclusions given that a single implant has been performed and that we are in the early postoperative phase,” says Carmat CEO Marcello Conviti.

medical-technologyAccording to a Reuters report, although the Carmat is similar in size to a natural adult human heart, it’s is somewhat larger and almost three times as heavy – weighing in at approximately 900 grams (2 lb). It should therefore fit inside 86 percent of men, but only 20 percent of women. That said, the company has stated that a smaller model could be made in time.

In the meantime, it’s still a matter of making sure the self-regulating bioprosthetic actually works and prolongs the life of patients who are in the final stages of heart failure. Assuming the trials go well, the Carmat is expected to be available within the European Union by early 2015, priced at between 140,000 and 180,000 euros, which works out to $190,000 – $250,000 US.

See what I mean? From anti-aging to artificial organs, the war on death proceeds apace. Some will naturally wonder if that’s a war meant to be fought, or an inevitably worth mitigating. Good questions, and one’s which we can expect to address at length as the 21st century progresses…

Sources: gizmodo.com, newsroom.unsw.edu.au, (2), carmatsa.com, reuters.com

Looking Forward: Science Stories to Watch for in 2014

BrightFutureThe year of 2013 was a rather big one in terms of technological developments, be they in the field of biomedicine, space exploration, computing, particle physics, or robotics technology. Now that the New Year is in full swing, there are plenty of predictions as to what the next twelve months will bring. As they say, nothing ever occurs in a vacuum, and each new step in the long chain known as “progress” is built upon those that came before.

And with so many innovations and breakthroughs behind us, it will be exciting to see what lies ahead of us for the year of 2014. The following is a list containing many such predictions, listed in alphabetical order:

Beginning of Human Trials for Cancer Drug:
A big story that went largely unreported in 2013 came out of the Stanford School of Medicine, where researchers announced a promising strategy in developing a vaccine to combat cancer. Such a goal has been dreamed about for years, using the immune system’s killer T-cells to attack cancerous cells. The only roadblock to this strategy has been that cancer cells use a molecule known as CD47 to send a signal that fools T-cells, making them think that the cancer cells are benign.

pink-ribbonHowever, researchers at Stanford have demonstrated that the introduction of an “Anti-CD47 antibody” can intercept this signal, allowing T-cells and macrophages to identify and kill cancer cells. Stanford researchers plan to start human trials of this potential new cancer therapy in 2014, with the hope that it would be commercially available in a few years time. A great hope with this new macrophage therapy is that it will, in a sense, create a personalized vaccination against a patient’s particular form of cancer.

Combined with HIV vaccinations that have been shown not only to block the acquisition of the virus, but even kill it, 2014 may prove to be the year that the ongoing war against two of the deadliest diseases in the world finally began to be won.

Close Call for Mars:
A comet discovery back in 2013 created a brief stir when researchers noted that the comet in question – C/2013 A1 Siding Springs – would make a very close passage of the planet Mars on October 19th, 2014. Some even suspected it might impact the surface, creating all kinds of havoc for the world’s small fleet or orbiting satellites and ground-based rovers.

Mars_A1_Latest_2014Though refinements from subsequent observations have effectively ruled that out, the comet will still pass by Mars at a close 41,300 kilometers, just outside the orbit of its outer moon of Deimos. Ground-based observers will get to watch the magnitude comet close in on Mars through October, as will the orbiters and rovers on and above the Martian surface.

Deployment of the First Solid-State Laser:
The US Navy has been working diligently to create the next-generation of weapons and deploy them to the front lines. In addition to sub-hunting robots and autonomous aerial drones, they have also been working towards the creation of some serious ship-based firepower. This has included electrically-powered artillery guns (aka. rail guns); and just as impressively, laser guns!

Navy_LAWS_laser_demonstrator_610x406Sometime in 2014, the US Navy expects to see the USS Ponce, with its single solid-state laser weapon, to be deployed to the Persian Gulf as part of an “at-sea demonstration”. Although they have been tight-lipped on the capabilities of this particular directed-energy weapon,they have indicated that its intended purpose is as a countermeasure against threats – including aerial drones and fast-moving small boats.

Discovery of Dark Matter:
For years, scientists have suspected that they are closing in on the discovery of Dark Matter. Since it was proposed in the 1930s, finding this strange mass – that makes up the bulk of the universe alongside “Dark Energy” – has been a top priority for astrophysicists. And 2014 may just be the year that the Large Underground Xenon experiment (LUX), located near the town of Lead in South Dakota, finally detects it.

LUXLocated deep underground to prevent interference from cosmic rays, the LUX experiment monitors Weakly Interacting Massive Particles (WIMPs) as they interact with 370 kilograms of super-cooled liquid Xenon. LUX is due to start another 300 day test run in 2014, and the experiment will add another piece to the puzzle posed by dark matter to modern cosmology. If all goes well, conclusive proof as to the existence of this invisible, mysterious mass may finally be found!

ESA’s Rosetta Makes First Comet Landing:
This year, after over a decade of planning, the European Space Agency’s Rosetta robotic spacecraft will rendezvous with Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. This will begin on January 20th, when the ESA will hail the R0setta and “awaken” its systems from their slumber. By August, the two will meet, in what promises to be the cosmic encounter of the year. After examining the comet in detail, Rosetta will then dispatch its Philae lander, equipped complete with harpoons and ice screws to make the first ever landing on a comet.

Rosetta_and_Philae_at_comet_node_full_imageFirst Flight of Falcon Heavy:
2014 will be a busy year for SpaceX, and is expected to be conducting more satellite deployments for customers and resupply missions to the International Space Station in the coming year. They’ll also be moving ahead with tests of their crew-rated version of the Dragon capsule in 2014. But one of the most interesting missions to watch for is the demo flight of the Falcon 9 Heavy, which is slated to launch out of Vandenberg Air Force Base by the end of 2014.

This historic flight will mark the beginning in a new era of commercial space exploration and private space travel. It will also see Elon Musk’s (founder and CEO of Space X, Tesla Motors and PayPal) dream of affordable space missions coming one step closer to fruition. As for what this will make possible, well… the list is endless.

spaceX-falcon9Everything from Space Elevators and O’Neil space habitats to asteroid mining, missions to the Moon, Mars and beyond. And 2014 may prove to be the year that it all begins in earnest!

First Flight of the Orion:
In September of this coming year, NASA is planning on making the first launch of its new Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle. This will be a momentous event since it constitutes the first step in replacing NASA’s capability to launch crews into space. Ever since the cancellation of their Space Shuttle Program in 2011, NASA has been dependent on other space agencies (most notably the Russian Federal Space Agency) to launch its personnel, satellites and supplies into space.

orion_arrays1The test flight, which will be known as Exploration Flight Test 1 (EFT-1), will be a  short uncrewed flight that tests the capsule during reentry after two orbits. In the long run, this test will determine if the first lunar orbital mission using an Orion MPCV can occur by the end of the decade. For as we all know, NASA has some BIG PLANS for the Moon, most of which revolve around creating a settlement there.

Gaia Begins Mapping the Milky Way:
Launched on from the Kourou Space Center in French Guiana on December 19thof last year, the European Space Agency’s Gaia space observatory will begin its historic astrometry mission this year. Relying on an advanced array of instruments to conduct spectrophotometric measurements, Gaia will provide detailed physical properties of each star observed, characterising their luminosity, effective temperature, gravity and elemental composition.

Gaia_galaxyThis will effectively create the most accurate map yet constructed of our Milky Way Galaxy, but it is also anticipated that many exciting new discoveries will occur due to spin-offs from this mission. This will include the discovery of new exoplanets, asteroids, comets and much more. Soon, the mysteries of deep space won’t seem so mysterious any more. But don’t expect it to get any less tantalizing!

International Climate Summit in New York:
While it still remains a hotly contested partisan issue, the scientific consensus is clear: Climate Change is real and is getting worse. In addition to environmental organizations and agencies, non-partisan entities, from insurance companies to the U.S. Navy, are busy preparing for rising sea levels and other changes. In September 2014, the United Nations will hold another a Climate Summit to discuss what can be one.

United-Nations_HQThis time around, the delegates from hundreds of nations will converge on the UN Headquarters in New York City. This comes one year before the UN is looking to conclude its Framework Convention on Climate Change, and the New York summit will likely herald more calls to action. Though it’ll be worth watching and generate plenty of news stories, expect many of the biggest climate offenders worldwide to ignore calls for action.

MAVEN and MOM reach Mars:
2014 will be a red-letter year for those studying the Red Planet, mainly because it will be during this year that two operations are slated to begin. These included the Indian Space Agency’s Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM, aka. Mangalyaan-1) and NASA’ Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN (MAVEN) mission, which are due to arrive just two days apart – on September 24th and 22nd respectively.

mars_lifeBoth orbiters will be tasked with studying Mars’ atmosphere and determining what atmospheric conditions looked like billions of years ago, and what happened to turn the atmosphere into the thin, depleted layer it is today. Combined with the Curiosity and Opportunity rovers, ESA’s Mars Express,  NASA’s Odyssey spacecraft and the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, they will help to unlock the secrets of the Red Planet.

Unmanned Aircraft Testing:
A lot of the action for the year ahead is in the area of unmanned aircraft, building on the accomplishments in recent years on the drone front. For instance, the US Navy is expected to continue running trials with the X-47B, the unmanned technology demonstrator aircraft that is expected to become the template for autonomous aerial vehicles down the road.

X-47BThroughout 2013, the Navy conducted several tests with the X-47B, as part of its ongoing UCLASS (Unmanned Carrier Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike) aircraft program. Specifically, they demonstrated that the X-47B was capable of making carrier-based take offs and landings. By mid 2014, it is expected that they will have made more key advances, even though the program is likely to take another decade before it is fully realizable.

Virgin Galactic Takes Off:
And last, but not least, 2014 is the year that space tourism is expected to take off (no pun intended!). After many years of research, development and testing, Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo may finally make its inaugural flights, flying out of the Mohave Spaceport and bringing tourists on an exciting (and expensive) ride into the upper atmosphere.

spaceshiptwo-2nd-flight-2In late 2013, SpaceShipTwo and passed a key milestone test flight when its powered rocket engine was test fired for an extended period of time and it achieved speeds and altitudes in excess of anything it had achieved before. Having conducted several successful glide and feathered-wing test flights already, Virgin Galactic is confident that the craft has what it takes to ferry passengers into low-orbit and bring them home safely.

On its inaugural flights, SpaceShipTwo will carry two pilots and six passengers, with seats going for $250,000 a pop. If all goes well, 2014 will be remembered as the year that low-orbit space tourism officially began!

Yes, 2014 promises to be an exciting year. And I look forward to chronicling and documenting it as much as possible from this humble little blog. I hope you will all join me on the journey!

Sources: Universetoday, (2), med.standford.edu, news.cnet, listosaur, sci.esa.int