Tag Archives: 2019

#434508 The Top Biotech and Medicine Advances to ...

2018 was bonkers for science.

From a woman who gave birth using a transplanted uterus, to the infamous CRISPR baby scandal, to forensics adopting consumer-based genealogy test kits to track down criminals, last year was a factory churning out scientific “whoa” stories with consequences for years to come.

With CRISPR still in the headlines, Britain ready to bid Europe au revoir, and multiple scientific endeavors taking off, 2019 is shaping up to be just as tumultuous.

Here are the science and health stories that may blow up in the new year. But first, a note of caveat: predicting the future is tough. Forecasting is the lovechild between statistics and (a good deal of) intuition, and entire disciplines have been dedicated to the endeavor. But January is the perfect time to gaze into the crystal ball for wisps of insight into the year to come. Last year we predicted the widespread approval of gene therapy products—on the most part, we nailed it. This year we’re hedging our bets with multiple predictions.

Gene Drives Used in the Wild
The concept of gene drives scares many, for good reason. Gene drives are a step up in severity (and consequences) from CRISPR and other gene-editing tools. Even with germline editing, in which the sperm, egg, or embryos are altered, gene editing affects just one genetic line—one family—at least at the beginning, before they reproduce with the general population.

Gene drives, on the other hand, have the power to wipe out entire species.

In a nutshell, they’re little bits of DNA code that help a gene transfer from parent to child with almost 100 percent perfect probability. The “half of your DNA comes from dad, the other comes from mom” dogma? Gene drives smash that to bits.

In other words, the only time one would consider using a gene drive is to change the genetic makeup of an entire population. It sounds like the plot of a supervillain movie, but scientists have been toying around with the idea of deploying the technology—first in mosquitoes, then (potentially) in rodents.

By releasing just a handful of mutant mosquitoes that carry gene drives for infertility, for example, scientists could potentially wipe out entire populations that carry infectious scourges like malaria, dengue, or Zika. The technology is so potent—and dangerous—the US Defense Advances Research Projects Agency is shelling out $65 million to suss out how to deploy, control, counter, or even reverse the effects of tampering with ecology.

Last year, the U.N. gave a cautious go-ahead for the technology to be deployed in the wild in limited terms. Now, the first release of a genetically modified mosquito is set for testing in Burkina Faso in Africa—the first-ever field experiment involving gene drives.

The experiment will only release mosquitoes in the Anopheles genus, which are the main culprits transferring disease. As a first step, over 10,000 male mosquitoes are set for release into the wild. These dudes are genetically sterile but do not cause infertility, and will help scientists examine how they survive and disperse as a preparation for deploying gene-drive-carrying mosquitoes.

Hot on the project’s heels, the nonprofit consortium Target Malaria, backed by the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation, is engineering a gene drive called Mosq that will spread infertility across the population or kill out all female insects. Their attempt to hack the rules of inheritance—and save millions in the process—is slated for 2024.

A Universal Flu Vaccine
People often brush off flu as a mere annoyance, but the infection kills hundreds of thousands each year based on the CDC’s statistical estimates.

The flu virus is actually as difficult of a nemesis as HIV—it mutates at an extremely rapid rate, making effective vaccines almost impossible to engineer on time. Scientists currently use data to forecast the strains that will likely explode into an epidemic and urge the public to vaccinate against those predictions. That’s partly why, on average, flu vaccines only have a success rate of roughly 50 percent—not much better than a coin toss.

Tired of relying on educated guesses, scientists have been chipping away at a universal flu vaccine that targets all strains—perhaps even those we haven’t yet identified. Often referred to as the “holy grail” in epidemiology, these vaccines try to alert our immune systems to parts of a flu virus that are least variable from strain to strain.

Last November, a first universal flu vaccine developed by BiondVax entered Phase 3 clinical trials, which means it’s already been proven safe and effective in a small numbers and is now being tested in a broader population. The vaccine doesn’t rely on dead viruses, which is a common technique. Rather, it uses a small chain of amino acids—the chemical components that make up proteins—to stimulate the immune system into high alert.

With the government pouring $160 million into the research and several other universal candidates entering clinical trials, universal flu vaccines may finally experience a breakthrough this year.

In-Body Gene Editing Shows Further Promise
CRISPR and other gene editing tools headed the news last year, including both downers suggesting we already have immunity to the technology and hopeful news of it getting ready for treating inherited muscle-wasting diseases.

But what wasn’t widely broadcasted was the in-body gene editing experiments that have been rolling out with gusto. Last September, Sangamo Therapeutics in Richmond, California revealed that they had injected gene-editing enzymes into a patient in an effort to correct a genetic deficit that prevents him from breaking down complex sugars.

The effort is markedly different than the better-known CAR-T therapy, which extracts cells from the body for genetic engineering before returning them to the hosts. Rather, Sangamo’s treatment directly injects viruses carrying the edited genes into the body. So far, the procedure looks to be safe, though at the time of reporting it was too early to determine effectiveness.

This year the company hopes to finally answer whether it really worked.

If successful, it means that devastating genetic disorders could potentially be treated with just a few injections. With a gamut of new and more precise CRISPR and other gene-editing tools in the works, the list of treatable inherited diseases is likely to grow. And with the CRISPR baby scandal potentially dampening efforts at germline editing via regulations, in-body gene editing will likely receive more attention if Sangamo’s results return positive.

Neuralink and Other Brain-Machine Interfaces
Neuralink is the stuff of sci fi: tiny implanted particles into the brain could link up your biological wetware with silicon hardware and the internet.

But that’s exactly what Elon Musk’s company, founded in 2016, seeks to develop: brain-machine interfaces that could tinker with your neural circuits in an effort to treat diseases or even enhance your abilities.

Last November, Musk broke his silence on the secretive company, suggesting that he may announce something “interesting” in a few months, that’s “better than anyone thinks is possible.”

Musk’s aspiration for achieving symbiosis with artificial intelligence isn’t the driving force for all brain-machine interfaces (BMIs). In the clinics, the main push is to rehabilitate patients—those who suffer from paralysis, memory loss, or other nerve damage.

2019 may be the year that BMIs and neuromodulators cut the cord in the clinics. These devices may finally work autonomously within a malfunctioning brain, applying electrical stimulation only when necessary to reduce side effects without requiring external monitoring. Or they could allow scientists to control brains with light without needing bulky optical fibers.

Cutting the cord is just the first step to fine-tuning neurological treatments—or enhancements—to the tune of your own brain, and 2019 will keep on bringing the music.

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Posted in Human Robots

#434303 Making Superhumans Through Radical ...

Imagine trying to read War and Peace one letter at a time. The thought alone feels excruciating. But in many ways, this painful idea holds parallels to how human-machine interfaces (HMI) force us to interact with and process data today.

Designed back in the 1970s at Xerox PARC and later refined during the 1980s by Apple, today’s HMI was originally conceived during fundamentally different times, and specifically, before people and machines were generating so much data. Fast forward to 2019, when humans are estimated to produce 44 zettabytes of data—equal to two stacks of books from here to Pluto—and we are still using the same HMI from the 1970s.

These dated interfaces are not equipped to handle today’s exponential rise in data, which has been ushered in by the rapid dematerialization of many physical products into computers and software.

Breakthroughs in perceptual and cognitive computing, especially machine learning algorithms, are enabling technology to process vast volumes of data, and in doing so, they are dramatically amplifying our brain’s abilities. Yet even with these powerful technologies that at times make us feel superhuman, the interfaces are still crippled with poor ergonomics.

Many interfaces are still designed around the concept that human interaction with technology is secondary, not instantaneous. This means that any time someone uses technology, they are inevitably multitasking, because they must simultaneously perform a task and operate the technology.

If our aim, however, is to create technology that truly extends and amplifies our mental abilities so that we can offload important tasks, the technology that helps us must not also overwhelm us in the process. We must reimagine interfaces to work in coherence with how our minds function in the world so that our brains and these tools can work together seamlessly.

Embodied Cognition
Most technology is designed to serve either the mind or the body. It is a problematic divide, because our brains use our entire body to process the world around us. Said differently, our minds and bodies do not operate distinctly. Our minds are embodied.

Studies using MRI scans have shown that when a person feels an emotion in their gut, blood actually moves to that area of the body. The body and the mind are linked in this way, sharing information back and forth continuously.

Current technology presents data to the brain differently from how the brain processes data. Our brains, for example, use sensory data to continually encode and decipher patterns within the neocortex. Our brains do not create a linguistic label for each item, which is how the majority of machine learning systems operate, nor do our brains have an image associated with each of these labels.

Our bodies move information through us instantaneously, in a sense “computing” at the speed of thought. What if our technology could do the same?

Using Cognitive Ergonomics to Design Better Interfaces
Well-designed physical tools, as philosopher Martin Heidegger once meditated on while using the metaphor of a hammer, seem to disappear into the “hand.” They are designed to amplify a human ability and not get in the way during the process.

The aim of physical ergonomics is to understand the mechanical movement of the human body and then adapt a physical system to amplify the human output in accordance. By understanding the movement of the body, physical ergonomics enables ergonomically sound physical affordances—or conditions—so that the mechanical movement of the body and the mechanical movement of the machine can work together harmoniously.

Cognitive ergonomics applied to HMI design uses this same idea of amplifying output, but rather than focusing on physical output, the focus is on mental output. By understanding the raw materials the brain uses to comprehend information and form an output, cognitive ergonomics allows technologists and designers to create technological affordances so that the brain can work seamlessly with interfaces and remove the interruption costs of our current devices. In doing so, the technology itself “disappears,” and a person’s interaction with technology becomes fluid and primary.

By leveraging cognitive ergonomics in HMI design, we can create a generation of interfaces that can process and present data the same way humans process real-world information, meaning through fully-sensory interfaces.

Several brain-machine interfaces are already on the path to achieving this. AlterEgo, a wearable device developed by MIT researchers, uses electrodes to detect and understand nonverbal prompts, which enables the device to read the user’s mind and act as an extension of the user’s cognition.

Another notable example is the BrainGate neural device, created by researchers at Stanford University. Just two months ago, a study was released showing that this brain implant system allowed paralyzed patients to navigate an Android tablet with their thoughts alone.

These are two extraordinary examples of what is possible for the future of HMI, but there is still a long way to go to bring cognitive ergonomics front and center in interface design.

Disruptive Innovation Happens When You Step Outside Your Existing Users
Most of today’s interfaces are designed by a narrow population, made up predominantly of white, non-disabled men who are prolific in the use of technology (you may recall The New York Times viral article from 2016, Artificial Intelligence’s White Guy Problem). If you ask this population if there is a problem with today’s HMIs, most will say no, and this is because the technology has been designed to serve them.

This lack of diversity means a limited perspective is being brought to interface design, which is problematic if we want HMI to evolve and work seamlessly with the brain. To use cognitive ergonomics in interface design, we must first gain a more holistic understanding of how people with different abilities understand the world and how they interact with technology.

Underserved groups, such as people with physical disabilities, operate on what Clayton Christensen coined in The Innovator’s Dilemma as the fringe segment of a market. Developing solutions that cater to fringe groups can in fact disrupt the larger market by opening a downward, much larger market.

Learning From Underserved Populations
When technology fails to serve a group of people, that group must adapt the technology to meet their needs.

The workarounds created are often ingenious, specifically because they have not been arrived at by preferences, but out of necessity that has forced disadvantaged users to approach the technology from a very different vantage point.

When a designer or technologist begins learning from this new viewpoint and understanding challenges through a different lens, they can bring new perspectives to design—perspectives that otherwise can go unseen.

Designers and technologists can also learn from people with physical disabilities who interact with the world by leveraging other senses that help them compensate for one they may lack. For example, some blind people use echolocation to detect objects in their environments.

The BrainPort device developed by Wicab is an incredible example of technology leveraging one human sense to serve or compliment another. The BrainPort device captures environmental information with a wearable video camera and converts this data into soft electrical stimulation sequences that are sent to a device on the user’s tongue—the most sensitive touch receptor in the body. The user learns how to interpret the patterns felt on their tongue, and in doing so, become able to “see” with their tongue.

Key to the future of HMI design is learning how different user groups navigate the world through senses beyond sight. To make cognitive ergonomics work, we must understand how to leverage the senses so we’re not always solely relying on our visual or verbal interactions.

Radical Inclusion for the Future of HMI
Bringing radical inclusion into HMI design is about gaining a broader lens on technology design at large, so that technology can serve everyone better.

Interestingly, cognitive ergonomics and radical inclusion go hand in hand. We can’t design our interfaces with cognitive ergonomics without bringing radical inclusion into the picture, and we also will not arrive at radical inclusion in technology so long as cognitive ergonomics are not considered.

This new mindset is the only way to usher in an era of technology design that amplifies the collective human ability to create a more inclusive future for all.

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Posted in Human Robots