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Gadgets, Brains, and Healthcare

January 5, 2012 4 comments

Only five days in to 2012, and mind-blowing articles are already dropping.

According to Pentagon scientists (reported by Physorg.com and others), Cornell students have created a device that splits beams of light, hiding an event from sight. They’re calling it a time cloak. For around 40 picoseconds (trillionths of a second) the scientists are able to create a gap in the light by using a time-lens to split the light into slower red and faster blue components. This makes anything occurring in the gap invisible. In theory scientists could make the device effective for a few millions of a second, or perhaps even a few thousandths of a second, but a device large enough to erase a whole second would need to be approximately 18,600mi long. Even for someone like me who envisions mechanical implants for humans and perhaps even brain uploading into a computer, this article is fantastic. I’d love to see some confirmations of this technology and a better explanation for how, exactly, it works. Still, it seems it won’t be a very effective Ring of Gyges anytime soon, if at all.

Researchers in Japan, meanwhile, have created super sensitive sensors out of carbon nanotubes. The sensor is flexible enough to be woven into clothing, and can be stretched to three times its normal size. In addition to rehabilitation uses, this sort of sensor seems great for the blossoming world of controllerless video game systems like the Xbox Kinect. Such sensors are also implantable into people receiving organs (biological or otherwise) or could just be used to record biometrics in your everyday clothing.

Finally, Klaus Stadlmann gives a TED Talk about inventing the world’s smallest 3-D printer. It seems to be about the size of a Playstation 2, and can print in incredible detail. I thought the talk was a little dry, but still interesting.

There have been several interesting brain articles in the last few days. Forbes ticks down their top-10 brain articles from 2011, including memory-assisting chips, using magnetism to affect moral judgments, potential treatments for people suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, and thought-controlled apps for your cell phone. Although the brain is still largely mysterious, scientists are making massive amounts of progress on all fronts yearly.

Discover Magazine reports that anesthesia might be the key to better understanding how consciousness works. Apparently it’s not unusual for patients under anesthesia to wake up, then go back under and never remember that they woke up. I’ve talked a bit about the problem of recognizing consciousness before (one essentially has to rely on reports of consciousness, but consciousness itself cannot be directly tested for) and this article does a good job of reiterating the problem. The researchers hope that by putting people under and eliciting subjective reports of consciousness after the fact, they will be better able to pin down just what it is that makes a person conscious.

Medicalxpress.com posted an article in December asking Why Aren’t We Smarter Already? The authors suggest that there is an upper-limit to various brain functions, and that while drugs and other things could potentially bring low-scoring individuals up, those already at or near peak performance would see little or no gain from the same drugs. If this is right, then there is reason to doubt that mind-enhancing drugs (say, Adderall) could make the smartest people even smarter. Yet, the article only talks about improving the mind that we have, and not about whether it is possible to create an artificial brain (or introduce artificial implants into a biological brain) that -could- break past these natural barriers. It’s no secret that the body is well, but not optimally, designed, and that the same is true of the brain shouldn’t really be surprising.

TechCrunch offers a predictive list of technologies coming in 2012 in an article penned by tech luminary and SingularityU professor Daniel Kraft. According to Daniel, A.I. will become increasingly helpful in determining diseases, from cheap phone apps that detect cancer with their cameras to A.I. assisted diagnoses in remote villages. 3-D printing will continue to advance, massive increases in patient data will be shared on social network sites like patientslikeme.com, and videoconferencing technology like Skype will increasingly allow doctors to examine patients without an office visit. All good things.

Last, but not least, a team of scientists at USC have recently mapped an entire human genome in 3-D. They hope to be able to evaluate genomes not just based on their genetic make-up, but also their physical structure. Because genomes take up three dimensions in the body, a 3-D map should be a lot more accurate than the standard model.

 

Mastering DNA: The Pace Of Genetic Innovation

September 17, 2011 2 comments

I’ve said before that I think mechanical augmentation will ultimately surpass biological engineering in the ability to enhance the human body. In the short term, however, we’re so much further ahead in biological engineering than we are in mechanical augmentation that I have to think biological manipulation and biological engineering (growing new organs, limbs, etc) will provide the greater impact early on, then help mechanical augmentations catch up (perhaps by tweaking the body’s rejection process, or making cells more receptive to mechanically generated electrical currents) before the mechanical augmentations really begin to sweep biological manipulation out of the way.

If nothing else, people like Aubrey DeGray are working on biological engineering that will lengthen our lives to the point where superior mechanical augmentations are available. I doubt we’ll ever see 100% adoption, species wide, of mechanical augmentations anyway; some segment of the population will probably always want to remain at least partially biological, and some segment will probably want to remain completely biological (some may even refuse biological engineering, just as some people reject vaccines now.) Some people tie being biological to being human; a not absurd belief considering that the two have been correlated for pretty much the entire time our species has been around. So, for a number of good reasons, it’s important to advance biological engineering and make the most of the materials evolution has given us.

Those advances are coming quickly; perhaps as quickly as the mechanical augmentation advances. For instance, researchers at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute and the University of Oxford have recently developed blueprints of mouse genetics, much like the human genome project. By comparing the genetic coding of 17 different strains of mice, the researchers were able to discover 700 differences in the genetic code of the mice, including differences that seem to account for diseases like heart disease and diabetes. By studying these genetic differences, researchers can better understand how human genes control disease, and can thus test and offer new cures for human heart disease and diabetes, among other diseases. Although this will be a long project, researcher Dr. Thomas Keane had this to say about the rate of progress in researching genetic impact:

“In some cases it has taken 40 years – an entire working life – to pin down a gene in a mouse model that is associated with a human disease, looking for the cause. Now with our catalogue of variants the analysis of these mice is breathtakingly fast and can be completed in the time it takes to make a cup of coffee.”

With this sort of research, what used to take one scientist their entire life can be accomplished dozens (or more) of times per day. Even if we don’t have any more scientists, those scientists that we have are becoming more effective because of technology, and they are better able to identify important genetic traits and ultimately will be able to push through life saving (or enhancing) knowledge at a quicker rate.

Richard Resnick recently spoke at TEDxBoston about the impact technology is having on biological engineering. The human genome, according to Resnick, consists of approximately 3 billion base pairs, and was mapped from 1988-2003 at a cost of 3.8 billion dollars (or about a buck twenty-six per base pair.) Modern machines can sequence approximately 200 billion base pairs per run, and each run takes about one week. Resnick suspects that these machines will soon be able to sequence about 600 billion base pairs per run.

While we’re now able to run more base pairs simultaneously, we’re also able to sequence the genomes more cheaply. By an order of about 100 million times cheaper. That means the original human genome project that cost 3.8 billion can today be sequences for about $38 in less than a week; this dramatic improvement has happened in my lifetime, and shows no signs of slowing down. This year, Resnick expects about 50,000-100,000 human genomes will be mapped, and he expects this number to double, triple, or quadruple each year for several years. This is the sort of progress we’ve observed in computing power (and called Moore’s Law) but at an even more rapid pace.

What does this mean for us? Resnick relates a story of Rick Wilson at the Washington University who, over a couple of weeks (weeks!), mapped the genetic sequence of a woman who died of cancer and compared her genome to a healthy human genome. When he compared the two genomes, he found a 2,000 base pair deletion in the cancerous cells (out of the 3 billion base pairs, or about .0000006% genetic difference) that translated into the discovery of a gene that, if present, indicates a 90% chance that the person with the gene will develop the particular type of cancer this woman had. This means we can screen people to see whether they have this gene (or any of a whole lot more, and we’re discovering more frequently) and give those patients who have the gene an extremely powerful incentive to get screened frequently for cancer.

This sort of targeted screen (and, therefore, targeted treatment) is only possible because of our ability to sequence the human genome. Originally sequencing the human genome cost $3.8 billion. A few years ago, it cost about $100,000. Today, most companies charge about $10,000 for a genome sequence. Next year Resnick predicts a genome sequence will cost about $1,000, and the year after $100, give or take a year. Because human genomes can be sequenced quickly and cheaply, and because the costs are minimal (roughly twice the cost of a pre-employment drug test in a few years) treatments targeted to very specific portions of the human genetic code can enable people to live an average of 5, 10, even 20 years longer than they previously could. By aggregating millions or billions of human genomes, computers can discover further disease-causing mutations, enabling more targeted treatments, and longer lifespans. The amount of information is overwhelming, almost unimaginable, but could have profound implications for the future of humanity.

What sort of implications? Geneticist George Church suggests that we are only years away from being able to screen our genomes, and then reverting some of our cells back to a pluripotent stem-cell stage such that we can then edit those cells with desirable mutations discovered in other genomes (mutations linked to long life, better immune systems, better eyesight, etc.) and then reintroduce those cells into our body such that they replace the original genetic code with one that confers additional benefits. Today, a sick person who needs a bone marrow transplant hopes to find a genetic match with someone else who is willing to donate bone marrow. In a few years, scientists should be able to create disease free bone marrow from the patient’s own cells, and perhaps will be able to create bone marrow based on the patient’s own with additional, beneficial mutations.

We are just now approaching the point where we can upgrade the very core of our beings, our DNA, with helpful mutations discovered in other genomes. We are at the point where we can massively and cheaply aggregate massive amounts of information about genomes so that we can rapidly sort beneficial mutations from detrimental mutations, allowing us to introduce the first into DNA and screen for and treat the second much more precisely than any current treatment. Compared to that, mechanical augmentations look downright crude. So, while mechanical augmentations might win the day over the long haul, in the next 25-30 years I expect truly amazing discoveries and treatments from biological engineering.

Edit to add: An interesting take on the ethical implications of this sort of genetic engineering.