Hi again, everyone. Sorry for the (very) extended absence. I should have posts out more regularly now; I am aiming for every other week or so. I will pick right back up where I left off, talking about medical advancements because a lot of exciting news has come out in the last few months. Specifically, I want to talk about three broad categories: Synthetic or engineered medical research or treatments, biological (DNA) research and procedures, and various transplants that have been performed or are being researched.
Synthetic Medical Advances:
A lot of research recently has been targeted at creating synthetic life. These are not robotic solutions (so, for these purposes at least, synthetic does not mean artificial intelligence or cyborgs) but instead largely biological entities that have been tinkered with.
For example, Kurzweilai.net reports that chemists have created cells with self-assembling, artificial membranes. Because creating truly artificial life will require both an artificial membrane and an artificial genome (which has also been created) this is an important step towards creating entirely new organisms. The best part: it seems to be easy and cheap to create these new artificial membranes, so we should see a lot of movement in this area in the near future.
Once we have entirely synthetic cells, how could we make more? No problem: Scientists have created artificial DNA. i09 reports that scientists have created XNA; a polymer much like DNA or RNA that can evolve and reproduce. The article notes that artificial DNA has been around for a decade or so, but what makes this new discovery special is that it can pass along its information and evolve in a very life-like manner. “Using a crafty genetic engineering technique called compartmentalized self-tagging (or “CST”), Pinheiro’s team designed special polymerases that could not only synthesize XNA from a DNA template, but actually copy XNA back into DNA. The result was a genetic system that allowed for the replication and propagation of genetic information.”
Discover Magazine, reporting on the same breakthrough, also focused on the implications of synthetic DNA for our understanding of life: “’They are very interesting with respect to the origin of life,’ says Jack Szostak, a Harvard biologist who studies life’s beginnings and was not involved in the study. ‘In principle, many different polymers could serve the roles of RNA and DNA in living organisms. Why then does modern biology use only RNA and DNA?’” Both articles mention the benefits of XNA: It is more robust than DNA, is less prone to environmental dangers, and they could be more effective than DNA in targeting different proteins for medical diagnostics.
With synthetic XNA and synthetic cells, what is the next step? An H+ article by Dr. Bratton and Dr. Shackleford suggests that full on synthetic life is likely. In the article, the doctors detail much of the work that has been going on for the last forty years in creating synthetic life and write that in the near future “[s]pecific applications include the creation of synthetic organisms that can: 1) efficiently produce pharmaceuticals and vaccines that are otherwise difficult and expensive to produce, 2) efficiently produce hydrocarbon biofuels (replacing oil, coal, etc.), and 3) be useful as plant feedstock in agriculture, lowering the need for increasingly expensive petroleum-based fertilizers.”
Finally, IEET posted a video from George Church, Pioneer in Synthetic Biology from Harvard and MIT, who argues that syntheticDNA could have numerous benefits, including bringing back extinct species. Additionally, synthetic biology could “prevent ecosystems from losing diversity” or create new species to make ecosystems more diverse than they ever have been.
Biological Research and Procedures:
ScienceDaily reports that scientists have discovered that printing cells onto slides using an inkjet printer disrupts the membranes of the cells enough that they can put molecules into the cells that otherwise would not fit. This allows scientists to alter biological cells more easily, and in greater numbers.
Speaking of cell printing, Discover Magazine recently ran an article about a creepy looking, but still awesome, blood vessel printing machine. The machine literally weaves “threads of human tissue” into blood vessels and can potentially be used to replace the blood vessels of dialysis patients or others whose vessels are not working as they should.
There has been a lot of interesting movement in cancer research recently too. Kurzweilai.net reports that scientists from the University of Arizona have made progress in diagnosing breast cancer; one of the “leading worldwide health concern[s.]” By scanning cells in 3D, scientists are better able to see the defects that indicate cancerous cells.
Another article from ScienceDaily, however, suggests that improved detection for cancer might be a moot discovery. Scientists from the Stanford University School of Medicine have used an antibody to kill a broad range of cancer cells including breast, ovarian, colon, bladder, brain, liver, and prostate cancers. The process seems to work by blocking a protein flag on cancer cells that usually shield it from an immune response. Once that protein is blocked, the immune system kicks in and annihilates the cancer; no matter what stage it is in. By breaking the stealth protein of cancer cells, the immune system regains its efficiency and destroys the cancer. Although it is much too early to call, this is at least a very promising step on the road to a cure.
Last, but not least, some exciting transplant procedures have been performed.
Both the BBC and (the hilariously named) boingboing.net have reported that the world’s first jaw transplant procedure was successfully performed on an 83 year old woman when her badly infected jaw was replaced with a titanium / bioceramic replica. The jaw was constructed using 3-D printers (another emerging technology) and, though the artificial jaw was about 30% heavier than a biological jaw, the “patient can easily get used to it.” Within a day, she was talking and swallowing. The jaw, once designed, took only a “few hours” to print, suggesting that widespread 3-D printing technology in hospitals could provide a quick way to replace many bone structures in the body (never mind organ printing that is still in its infancy.) The surgery itself also was much quicker than a traditional transplant; it took only four hours.
The BBC also reported on ever improving efforts to grow patients new limbs from their own cells. As the article states, there are essentially four complexities of tissue building, and three of them have been successfully implemented in humans. [Dr. Anthony Atalia] breaks tissue building into four levels of complexity.
- Flat structures, such as the skin, are the simplest to engineer as they are generally made up of just the one type of cell.
- Tubes, such as blood vessels and urethras, which have two types of cells and act as a conduit.
- Hollow non-tubular organs like the bladder and the stomach, which have more complex structures and functions.
- Solid organs, such as the kidney, heart and liver, are the most complex to engineer. They are exponentially more complex, have many different cell types, and more challenges in the blood supply.
Dr. Atalia argues that we will not likely see a hand grown in his lifetime, but I am not so sure. The doctor is only a little older than fifty, and I would not be surprised to see the kind of improvement needed to print a hand occur within the next fifty years.
Image courtesy of Cytograft
I haven’t talked about general breakthroughs in medicine recently, and I have a considerable backlog of cool stories on the topic, so let’s explore that a bit today. These breakthroughs aren’t necessarily transhumanist in nature, but they certainly all contribute to the general goal of better healthcare and are but a few steps away from some truly amazing technologies. So, without further ado, the Top 10 Medical Stories in My Queue:
10) The explosion of personalized medicine. The Wall Street Journal wrote a piece earlier this year about the idea of a “doctor in your pocket.” The idea is to have cheap, quick, accurate medical screening on a device that people can carry with them. Daniel Kraft has been very vocal about the explosion of this sort of technology in a limited sense, and Peter Diamandis recently announced an X-Prize for essentially the same concept; a lab on a chip that can diagnose a patient better than a group of board certified physicians. While diagnosis itself is not necessarily transhuman, clearly other transhumanists are interested in the idea, and if successful this sort of technology ought to keep people healthier for longer. With a $10 Million prize pool, there ought to be plenty of incentive to stuff Watson into a cell phone and make med students everywhere cry crocodile tears. The next step: An AI doctor in every house.
9) Likely to be included in these new personalized medicine machines: A cancer sniffing sensor for early detection. Gizmodo has a great article detailing what NASA’s been up to recently, including sensors that can detect toxins in the air and cancer. The really cool thing about this sensor is that it’s virtually production ready and can be attached to a cell phone right out of the box; that is, this isn’t a theoretical device, it’s all but here. Despite all the grumping about the government that frequently goes on, two federal programs (the Department of Homeland Security is the other) are pushing hard to get this technology into circulation. DHS, however, is mostly interested in the toxin and bomb chemical detecting properties while, for our purposes, the cancer detecting ability is probably more interesting (although if bomb making chemicals -are- detected near my cell phone, I sure wouldn’t mind a heads-up!) I don’t know what technology this sensor is using exactly, but it seems reasonable to include the sensor that MIT recently reported on that detects lung cancer through a breath test at an astounding 83% accuracy. There is room for improvement, as trained dogs can detect lung cancer with 98% accuracy, but as Gizmodo quipped, at least you won’t have to carry a Labrador around in your pocket.
8) Intelligent pills. Nature ran a story about them earlier this year, and both Scientific American and Pop Bioethics picked up the story long before I got around to it. The pills will have included along with the medicine a placebo that houses a small sensor. When the sensor interacts with stomach acid, the current will transmit information a very short distance; ideally to a Band-Aid-like device that can be worn on the skin and will measure heart rate, respiration, temperature and the like. This skin sensor, in turn, could wirelessly transmit health information to your doctor, allowing them to check in on your vitals without you needing to visit the office. If you frequently forget to take your pills, (a “problem area” in current medicine) your doctor (or, more likely, a digital secretary) can give you a quick call to remind you. Other pills that include cameras and other sensors are also in development, though those probably wouldn’t be used outside of particular contexts.
7) Wirelessly controlled ‘pills’. Science Daily posted an article about a month ago claiming that MicroCHIPS Inc. successfully tested a device that, once implanted into a patient, can deliver medication when it receives a wireless signal to dispense the drug. The device delivered amounts of the drug comparable to an injection (without needles, which I’m a fan of). Like the pills that alert the doctor when they’ve been taken, these devices help to ensure patient compliance with the doctor’s proscribed drug regimen. Unlike those pills, these devices can automatically deliver the proper drug dose, requiring the patient to neither swallow pills nor suffer injections. Although the initial device only carried 20 doses of the drugs, the final product ought to have hundreds. Further clinical trials will follow.
6) Continuing the pill trend, scientists are working on a special type of aspirin that doesn’t cause ulcers. Oh yeah, and it seems to fight cancer, too. In mice, at least, the drug fights colon, lung, breast, prostate, pancreas and blood cancers. Although the drug seems years away from human clinical trials, the lack of side effects and the bolstered cancer fighting properties show a lot of promise for the future.
5) Rounding out the pill discussion, researchers at Oxford University have discovered something curious about common beta-blockers, normally used to treat heart disease. They seem to also lesson racist associations. Although the sample size was small (18 white college students) the results occurred at a “statistically significant” rate as compared to those who received the placebo. The current theory is that the beta blockers affect the portion of the central nervous system that regulates fear and emotional responses. If the study is repeatable, interesting ethical questions arise about medicating out racist beliefs.
4) Chips for humans. MSNBC reports that the FDA recently approved an RFID chip for humans. Although similar technology has been used for years in pets to help reunite lost pets and their owners, human trials go rather a lot more slowly. There’s also some security issues to work out; RFID isn’t the most secure technology in the world (though it does take someone with some know-how to get to the data, and they need to be in fairly close proximity.) Ultimately, I imagine these sorts of chips will carry a lot more than patient information; credit card info, for instance, has been tried elsewhere in the world and offers a unique way to pay. Either the cost will have to come down from its $150-$200 price point, or the functionality is going to have to drastically increase to justify the costs.
3) Someday, we might be able to replace limbs with bionic equivalents that don’t break, in the meantime we’re stuck with the bones we have. Well, that and some new fracture putty if the Department of Defense has their way (those pesky government types again!) The DoD has commissioned research that already is beginning to bear fruit; the fractures bones of rats healed enough within two weeks that they were up and running around again. Next step; pigs and sheep (sheep bones have already been restored within a month.) Following those trials, the putty may be farmed out to the university veterinarian clinic and, if that goes well, to human trials afterwards. It’s not quite the nutrient bath from the movie Wanted, but it’s better than a cast for months.
2) While your bones are being healed by putty, the doctors might as well patch up your internal organs with some new gummy adhesive. Researchers from UCSD have developed a self-healing gummy (meaning the gummy repairs itself when it’s torn or broken) that becomes super adhesive when it comes into contact with acid; acid like that, say, that resides within the stomach. Perhaps the gummy will be useful for organs other than the stomach, but it seems well suited already to help treat stomach wounds.
1) Finally, for the poor sap that’s -really- undergone some punishment, there’s one last piece of tech that’ll help put Humpty Dumpty back together again. San Diego start-up company Organovo is printing muscles, layer by layer, and then placing it into a mold that allows the muscle to grow into something just like that which comes out of a human being. So far, Organovo has printed cardiac muscle, blood vessels, and lung tissue. Right now the company is focusing on creating tissue identical to natural human tissue so that scientists can experiment on the tissue without having to experiment on attached humans, but it hopes to use the same technology to print whole organs for transplant in the future. Between these last three technologies, then, even the worst accident victim ought to be in pretty good shape in the near(ish) future.
Thanks for sticking with me through the hiatus; the next post ought to be coming more quickly next time.