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#434643 Sensors and Machine Learning Are Giving ...

According to some scientists, humans really do have a sixth sense. There’s nothing supernatural about it: the sense of proprioception tells you about the relative positions of your limbs and the rest of your body. Close your eyes, block out all sound, and you can still use this internal “map” of your external body to locate your muscles and body parts – you have an innate sense of the distances between them, and the perception of how they’re moving, above and beyond your sense of touch.

This sense is invaluable for allowing us to coordinate our movements. In humans, the brain integrates senses including touch, heat, and the tension in muscle spindles to allow us to build up this map.

Replicating this complex sense has posed a great challenge for roboticists. We can imagine simulating the sense of sight with cameras, sound with microphones, or touch with pressure-pads. Robots with chemical sensors could be far more accurate than us in smell and taste, but building in proprioception, the robot’s sense of itself and its body, is far more difficult, and is a large part of why humanoid robots are so tricky to get right.

Simultaneous localization and mapping (SLAM) software allows robots to use their own senses to build up a picture of their surroundings and environment, but they’d need a keen sense of the position of their own bodies to interact with it. If something unexpected happens, or in dark environments where primary senses are not available, robots can struggle to keep track of their own position and orientation. For human-robot interaction, wearable robotics, and delicate applications like surgery, tiny differences can be extremely important.

Piecemeal Solutions
In the case of hard robotics, this is generally solved by using a series of strain and pressure sensors in each joint, which allow the robot to determine how its limbs are positioned. That works fine for rigid robots with a limited number of joints, but for softer, more flexible robots, this information is limited. Roboticists are faced with a dilemma: a vast, complex array of sensors for every degree of freedom in the robot’s movement, or limited skill in proprioception?

New techniques, often involving new arrays of sensory material and machine-learning algorithms to fill in the gaps, are starting to tackle this problem. Take the work of Thomas George Thuruthel and colleagues in Pisa and San Diego, who draw inspiration from the proprioception of humans. In a new paper in Science Robotics, they describe the use of soft sensors distributed through a robotic finger at random. This placement is much like the constant adaptation of sensors in humans and animals, rather than relying on feedback from a limited number of positions.

The sensors allow the soft robot to react to touch and pressure in many different locations, forming a map of itself as it contorts into complicated positions. The machine-learning algorithm serves to interpret the signals from the randomly-distributed sensors: as the finger moves around, it’s observed by a motion capture system. After training the robot’s neural network, it can associate the feedback from the sensors with the position of the finger detected in the motion-capture system, which can then be discarded. The robot observes its own motions to understand the shapes that its soft body can take, and translate them into the language of these soft sensors.

“The advantages of our approach are the ability to predict complex motions and forces that the soft robot experiences (which is difficult with traditional methods) and the fact that it can be applied to multiple types of actuators and sensors,” said Michael Tolley of the University of California San Diego. “Our method also includes redundant sensors, which improves the overall robustness of our predictions.”

The use of machine learning lets the roboticists come up with a reliable model for this complex, non-linear system of motions for the actuators, something difficult to do by directly calculating the expected motion of the soft-bot. It also resembles the human system of proprioception, built on redundant sensors that change and shift in position as we age.

In Search of a Perfect Arm
Another approach to training robots in using their bodies comes from Robert Kwiatkowski and Hod Lipson of Columbia University in New York. In their paper “Task-agnostic self-modeling machines,” also recently published in Science Robotics, they describe a new type of robotic arm.

Robotic arms and hands are getting increasingly dexterous, but training them to grasp a large array of objects and perform many different tasks can be an arduous process. It’s also an extremely valuable skill to get right: Amazon is highly interested in the perfect robot arm. Google hooked together an array of over a dozen robot arms so that they could share information about grasping new objects, in part to cut down on training time.

Individually training a robot arm to perform every individual task takes time and reduces the adaptability of your robot: either you need an ML algorithm with a huge dataset of experiences, or, even worse, you need to hard-code thousands of different motions. Kwiatkowski and Lipson attempt to overcome this by developing a robotic system that has a “strong sense of self”: a model of its own size, shape, and motions.

They do this using deep machine learning. The robot begins with no prior knowledge of its own shape or the underlying physics of its motion. It then repeats a series of a thousand random trajectories, recording the motion of its arm. Kwiatkowski and Lipson compare this to a baby in the first year of life observing the motions of its own hands and limbs, fascinated by picking up and manipulating objects.

Again, once the robot has trained itself to interpret these signals and build up a robust model of its own body, it’s ready for the next stage. Using that deep-learning algorithm, the researchers then ask the robot to design strategies to accomplish simple pick-up and place and handwriting tasks. Rather than laboriously and narrowly training itself for each individual task, limiting its abilities to a very narrow set of circumstances, the robot can now strategize how to use its arm for a much wider range of situations, with no additional task-specific training.

Damage Control
In a further experiment, the researchers replaced part of the arm with a “deformed” component, intended to simulate what might happen if the robot was damaged. The robot can then detect that something’s up and “reconfigure” itself, reconstructing its self-model by going through the training exercises once again; it was then able to perform the same tasks with only a small reduction in accuracy.

Machine learning techniques are opening up the field of robotics in ways we’ve never seen before. Combining them with our understanding of how humans and other animals are able to sense and interact with the world around us is bringing robotics closer and closer to becoming truly flexible and adaptable, and, eventually, omnipresent.

But before they can get out and shape the world, as these studies show, they will need to understand themselves.

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Posted in Human Robots

#434616 What Games Are Humans Still Better at ...

Artificial intelligence (AI) systems’ rapid advances are continually crossing rows off the list of things humans do better than our computer compatriots.

AI has bested us at board games like chess and Go, and set astronomically high scores in classic computer games like Ms. Pacman. More complex games form part of AI’s next frontier.

While a team of AI bots developed by OpenAI, known as the OpenAI Five, ultimately lost to a team of professional players last year, they have since been running rampant against human opponents in Dota 2. Not to be outdone, Google’s DeepMind AI recently took on—and beat—several professional players at StarCraft II.

These victories beg the questions: what games are humans still better at than AI? And for how long?

The Making Of AlphaStar
DeepMind’s results provide a good starting point in a search for answers. The version of its AI for StarCraft II, dubbed AlphaStar, learned to play the games through supervised learning and reinforcement learning.

First, AI agents were trained by analyzing and copying human players, learning basic strategies. The initial agents then played each other in a sort of virtual death match where the strongest agents stayed on. New iterations of the agents were developed and entered the competition. Over time, the agents became better and better at the game, learning new strategies and tactics along the way.

One of the advantages of AI is that it can go through this kind of process at superspeed and quickly develop better agents. DeepMind researchers estimate that the AlphaStar agents went through the equivalent of roughly 200 years of game time in about 14 days.

Cheating or One Hand Behind the Back?
The AlphaStar AI agents faced off against human professional players in a series of games streamed on YouTube and Twitch. The AIs trounced their human opponents, winning ten games on the trot, before pro player Grzegorz “MaNa” Komincz managed to salvage some pride for humanity by winning the final game. Experts commenting on AlphaStar’s performance used words like “phenomenal” and “superhuman”—which was, to a degree, where things got a bit problematic.

AlphaStar proved particularly skilled at controlling and directing units in battle, known as micromanagement. One reason was that it viewed the whole game map at once—something a human player is not able to do—which made it seemingly able to control units in different areas at the same time. DeepMind researchers said the AIs only focused on a single part of the map at any given time, but interestingly, AlphaStar’s AI agent was limited to a more restricted camera view during the match “MaNA” won.

Potentially offsetting some of this advantage was the fact that AlphaStar was also restricted in certain ways. For example, it was prevented from performing more clicks per minute than a human player would be able to.

Where AIs Struggle
Games like StarCraft II and Dota 2 throw a lot of challenges at AIs. Complex game theory/ strategies, operating with imperfect/incomplete information, undertaking multi-variable and long-term planning, real-time decision-making, navigating a large action space, and making a multitude of possible decisions at every point in time are just the tip of the iceberg. The AIs’ performance in both games was impressive, but also highlighted some of the areas where they could be said to struggle.

In Dota 2 and StarCraft II, AI bots have seemed more vulnerable in longer games, or when confronted with surprising, unfamiliar strategies. They seem to struggle with complexity over time and improvisation/adapting to quick changes. This could be tied to how AIs learn. Even within the first few hours of performing a task, humans tend to gain a sense of familiarity and skill that takes an AI much longer. We are also better at transferring skill from one area to another. In other words, experience playing Dota 2 can help us become good at StarCraft II relatively quickly. This is not the case for AI—yet.

Dwindling Superiority
While the battle between AI and humans for absolute superiority is still on in Dota 2 and StarCraft II, it looks likely that AI will soon reign supreme. Similar things are happening to other types of games.

In 2017, a team from Carnegie Mellon University pitted its Libratus AI against four professionals. After 20 days of No Limit Texas Hold’em, Libratus was up by $1.7 million. Another likely candidate is the destroyer of family harmony at Christmas: Monopoly.

Poker involves bluffing, while Monopoly involves negotiation—skills you might not think AI would be particularly suited to handle. However, an AI experiment at Facebook showed that AI bots are more than capable of undertaking such tasks. The bots proved skilled negotiators, and developed negotiating strategies like pretending interest in one object while they were interested in another altogether—bluffing.

So, what games are we still better at than AI? There is no precise answer, but the list is getting shorter at a rapid pace.

The Aim Of the Game
While AI’s mastery of games might at first glance seem an odd area to focus research on, the belief is that the way AI learn to master a game is transferrable to other areas.

For example, the Libratus poker-playing AI employed strategies that could work in financial trading or political negotiations. The same applies to AlphaStar. As Oriol Vinyals, co-leader of the AlphaStar project, told The Verge:

“First and foremost, the mission at DeepMind is to build an artificial general intelligence. […] To do so, it’s important to benchmark how our agents perform on a wide variety of tasks.”

A 2017 survey of more than 350 AI researchers predicts AI could be a better driver than humans within ten years. By the middle of the century, AI will be able to write a best-selling novel, and a few years later, it will be better than humans at surgery. By the year 2060, AI may do everything better than us.

Whether you think this is a good or a bad thing, it’s worth noting that AI has an often overlooked ability to help us see things differently. When DeepMind’s AlphaGo beat human Go champion Lee Sedol, the Go community learned from it, too. Lee himself went on a win streak after the match with AlphaGo. The same is now happening within the Dota 2 and StarCraft II communities that are studying the human vs. AI games intensely.

More than anything, AI’s recent gaming triumphs illustrate how quickly artificial intelligence is developing. In 1997, Dr. Piet Hut, an astrophysicist at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton and a GO enthusiast, told the New York Times that:

”It may be a hundred years before a computer beats humans at Go—maybe even longer.”

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Posted in Human Robots

#434580 How Genome Sequencing and Senolytics Can ...

The causes of aging are extremely complex and unclear. With the dramatic demonetization of genome reading and editing over the past decade, and Big Pharma, startups, and the FDA starting to face aging as a disease, we are starting to find practical ways to extend our healthspan.

Here, in Part 2 of a series of blogs on longevity and vitality, I explore how genome sequencing and editing, along with new classes of anti-aging drugs, are augmenting our biology to further extend our healthy lives.

In this blog I’ll cover two classes of emerging technologies:

Genome Sequencing and Editing;
Senolytics, Nutraceuticals & Pharmaceuticals.

Let’s dive in.

Genome Sequencing & Editing
Your genome is the software that runs your body.

A sequence of 3.2 billion letters makes you “you.” These base pairs of A’s, T’s, C’s, and G’s determine your hair color, your height, your personality, your propensity to disease, your lifespan, and so on.

Until recently, it’s been very difficult to rapidly and cheaply “read” these letters—and even more difficult to understand what they mean.

Since 2001, the cost to sequence a whole human genome has plummeted exponentially, outpacing Moore’s Law threefold. From an initial cost of $3.7 billion, it dropped to $10 million in 2006, and to $5,000 in 2012.

Today, the cost of genome sequencing has dropped below $500, and according to Illumina, the world’s leading sequencing company, the process will soon cost about $100 and take about an hour to complete.

This represents one of the most powerful and transformative technology revolutions in healthcare.

When we understand your genome, we’ll be able to understand how to optimize “you.”

We’ll know the perfect foods, the perfect drugs, the perfect exercise regimen, and the perfect supplements, just for you.
We’ll understand what microbiome types, or gut flora, are ideal for you (more on this in a later blog).
We’ll accurately predict how specific sedatives and medicines will impact you.
We’ll learn which diseases and illnesses you’re most likely to develop and, more importantly, how to best prevent them from developing in the first place (rather than trying to cure them after the fact).

CRISPR Gene Editing
In addition to reading the human genome, scientists can now edit a genome using a naturally-occurring biological system discovered in 1987 called CRISPR/Cas9.

Short for Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats and CRISPR-associated protein 9, the editing system was adapted from a naturally-occurring defense system found in bacteria.

Here’s how it works:

The bacteria capture snippets of DNA from invading viruses (or bacteriophage) and use them to create DNA segments known as CRISPR arrays.
The CRISPR arrays allow the bacteria to “remember” the viruses (or closely related ones), and defend against future invasions.
If the viruses attack again, the bacteria produce RNA segments from the CRISPR arrays to target the viruses’ DNA. The bacteria then use Cas9 to cut the DNA apart, which disables the virus.

Most importantly, CRISPR is cheap, quick, easy to use, and more accurate than all previous gene editing methods. As a result, CRISPR/Cas9 has swept through labs around the world as the way to edit a genome.

A short search in the literature will show an exponential rise in the number of CRISPR-related publications and patents.

2018: Filled With CRISPR Breakthroughs
Early results are impressive. Researchers from the University of Chicago recently used CRISPR to genetically engineer cocaine resistance into mice.

Researchers at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center used CRISPR to reverse the gene defect causing Duchenne muscular dystrophy (DMD) in dogs (DMD is the most common fatal genetic disease in children).

With great power comes great responsibility, and moral and ethical dilemmas.

In 2015, Chinese scientists sparked global controversy when they first edited human embryo cells in the lab with the goal of modifying genes that would make the child resistant to smallpox, HIV, and cholera.

Three years later, in November 2018, researcher He Jiankui informed the world that the first set of CRISPR-engineered female twins had been delivered.

To accomplish his goal, Jiankui deleted a region of a receptor on the surface of white blood cells known as CCR5, introducing a rare, natural genetic variation that makes it more difficult for HIV to infect its favorite target, white blood cells.

Setting aside the significant ethical conversations, CRISPR will soon provide us the tools to eliminate diseases, create hardier offspring, produce new environmentally resistant crops, and even wipe out pathogens.

Senolytics, Nutraceuticals & Pharmaceuticals
Over the arc of your life, the cells in your body divide until they reach what is known as the Hayflick limit, or the number of times a normal human cell population will divide before cell division stops, which is typically about 50 divisions.

What normally follows next is programmed cell death or destruction by the immune system. A very small fraction of cells, however, become senescent cells and evade this fate to linger indefinitely.

These lingering cells secrete a potent mix of molecules that triggers chronic inflammation, damages the surrounding tissue structures, and changes the behavior of nearby cells for the worse.

Senescent cells appear to be one of the root causes of aging, causing everything from fibrosis and blood vessel calcification, to localized inflammatory conditions such as osteoarthritis, to diminished lung function.

Fortunately, both the scientific and entrepreneurial communities have begun to work on senolytic therapies, moving the technology for selectively destroying senescent cells out of the laboratory and into a half-dozen startup companies.

Prominent companies in the field include the following:

Unity Biotechnology is developing senolytic medicines to selectively eliminate senescent cells with an initial focus on delivering localized therapy in osteoarthritis, ophthalmology and pulmonary disease.
Oisin Biotechnologiesis pioneering a programmable gene therapy that can destroy cells based on their internal biochemistry.
SIWA Therapeuticsis working on an immunotherapy approach to the problem of senescent cells.

In recent years, researchers have identified or designed a handful of senolytic compounds that can curb aging by regulating senescent cells. Two of these drugs that have gained mainstay research traction are rapamycin and metformin.

Originally extracted from bacteria found on Easter Island, Rapamycin acts on the m-TOR (mechanistic target of rapamycin) pathway to selectively block a key protein that facilitates cell division.

Currently, rapamycin derivatives are widely used as immunosuppression in organ and bone marrow transplants. Research now suggests that use results in prolonged lifespan and enhanced cognitive and immune function.

PureTech Health subsidiary resTORbio (which started 2018 by going public) is working on a rapamycin-based drug intended to enhance immunity and reduce infection. Their clinical-stage RTB101 drug works by inhibiting part of the mTOR pathway.

Results of the drug’s recent clinical trial include:

Decreased incidence of infection
Improved influenza vaccination response
A 30.6 percent decrease in respiratory tract infections

Impressive, to say the least.

Metformin is a widely-used generic drug for mitigating liver sugar production in Type 2 diabetes patients.

Researchers have found that Metformin also reduces oxidative stress and inflammation, which otherwise increase as we age.

There is strong evidence that Metformin can augment cellular regeneration and dramatically mitigate cellular senescence by reducing both oxidative stress and inflammation.

Over 100 studies registered on ClinicalTrials.gov are currently following up on strong evidence of Metformin’s protective effect against cancer.

Nutraceuticals and NAD+
Beyond cellular senescence, certain critical nutrients and proteins tend to decline as a function of age. Nutraceuticals combat aging by supplementing and replenishing these declining nutrient levels.

NAD+ exists in every cell, participating in every process from DNA repair to creating the energy vital for cellular processes. It’s been shown that NAD+ levels decline as we age.

The Elysium Health Basis supplement aims to elevate NAD+ levels in the body to extend one’s lifespan. Elysium’s clinical study reports that Basis increases NAD+ levels consistently by a sustained 40 percent.

These are just a taste of the tremendous momentum that longevity and aging technology has right now. As artificial intelligence and quantum computing transform how we decode our DNA and how we discover drugs, genetics and pharmaceuticals will become truly personalized.

The next blog in this series will demonstrate how artificial intelligence is converging with genetics and pharmaceuticals to transform how we approach longevity, aging, and vitality.

We are edging closer to a dramatically extended healthspan—where 100 is the new 60. What will you create, where will you explore, and how will you spend your time if you are able to add an additional 40 healthy years to your life?

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Posted in Human Robots

#434534 To Extend Our Longevity, First We Must ...

Healthcare today is reactive, retrospective, bureaucratic, and expensive. It’s sick care, not healthcare.

But that is radically changing at an exponential rate.

Through this multi-part blog series on longevity, I’ll take a deep dive into aging, longevity, and healthcare technologies that are working together to dramatically extend the human lifespan, disrupting the $3 trillion healthcare system in the process.

I’ll begin the series by explaining the nine hallmarks of aging, as explained in this journal article. Next, I’ll break down the emerging technologies and initiatives working to combat these nine hallmarks. Finally, I’ll explore the transformative implications of dramatically extending the human health span.

In this blog I’ll cover:

Why the healthcare system is broken
Why, despite this, we live in the healthiest time in human history
The nine mechanisms of aging

Let’s dive in.

The System is Broken—Here’s the Data:

Doctors spend $210 billion per year on procedures that aren’t based on patient need, but fear of liability.
Americans spend, on average, $8,915 per person on healthcare—more than any other country on Earth.
Prescription drugs cost around 50 percent more in the US than in other industrialized countries.
At current rates, by 2025, nearly 25 percent of the US GDP will be spent on healthcare.
It takes 12 years and $359 million, on average, to take a new drug from the lab to a patient.
Only 5 in 5,000 of these new drugs proceed to human testing. From there, only 1 of those 5 is actually approved for human use.

And Yet, We Live in the Healthiest Time in Human History
Consider these insights, which I adapted from Max Roser’s excellent database Our World in Data:

Right now, the countries with the lowest life expectancy in the world still have higher life expectancies than the countries with the highest life expectancy did in 1800.
In 1841, a 5-year-old had a life expectancy of 55 years. Today, a 5-year-old can expect to live 82 years—an increase of 27 years.
We’re seeing a dramatic increase in healthspan. In 1845, a newborn would expect to live to 40 years old. For a 70-year-old, that number became 79. Now, people of all ages can expect to live to be 81 to 86 years old.
100 years ago, 1 of 3 children would die before the age of 5. As of 2015, the child mortality rate fell to just 4.3 percent.
The cancer mortality rate has declined 27 percent over the past 25 years.

Figure: Around the globe, life expectancy has doubled since the 1800s. | Image from Life Expectancy by Max Roser – Our World in Data / CC BY SA
Figure: A dramatic reduction in child mortality in 1800 vs. in 2015. | Image from Child Mortality by Max Roser – Our World in Data / CC BY SA
The 9 Mechanisms of Aging
*This section was adapted from CB INSIGHTS: The Future Of Aging.

Longevity, healthcare, and aging are intimately linked.

With better healthcare, we can better treat some of the leading causes of death, impacting how long we live.

By investigating how to treat diseases, we’ll inevitably better understand what causes these diseases in the first place, which directly correlates to why we age.

Following are the nine hallmarks of aging. I’ll share examples of health and longevity technologies addressing each of these later in this blog series.

Genomic instability: As we age, the environment and normal cellular processes cause damage to our genes. Activities like flying at high altitude, for example, expose us to increased radiation or free radicals. This damage compounds over the course of life and is known to accelerate aging.
Telomere attrition: Each strand of DNA in the body (known as chromosomes) is capped by telomeres. These short snippets of DNA repeated thousands of times are designed to protect the bulk of the chromosome. Telomeres shorten as our DNA replicates; if a telomere reaches a certain critical shortness, a cell will stop dividing, resulting in increased incidence of disease.
Epigenetic alterations: Over time, environmental factors will change how genes are expressed, i.e., how certain sequences of DNA are read and the instruction set implemented.
Loss of proteostasis: Over time, different proteins in our body will no longer fold and function as they are supposed to, resulting in diseases ranging from cancer to neurological disorders.
Deregulated nutrient-sensing: Nutrient levels in the body can influence various metabolic pathways. Among the affected parts of these pathways are proteins like IGF-1, mTOR, sirtuins, and AMPK. Changing levels of these proteins’ pathways has implications on longevity.
Mitochondrial dysfunction: Mitochondria (our cellular power plants) begin to decline in performance as we age. Decreased performance results in excess fatigue and other symptoms of chronic illnesses associated with aging.
Cellular senescence: As cells age, they stop dividing and cannot be removed from the body. They build up and typically cause increased inflammation.
Stem cell exhaustion: As we age, our supply of stem cells begins to diminish as much as 100 to 10,000-fold in different tissues and organs. In addition, stem cells undergo genetic mutations, which reduce their quality and effectiveness at renovating and repairing the body.
Altered intercellular communication: The communication mechanisms that cells use are disrupted as cells age, resulting in decreased ability to transmit information between cells.

Over the past 200 years, we have seen an abundance of healthcare technologies enable a massive lifespan boom.

Now, exponential technologies like artificial intelligence, 3D printing and sensors, as well as tremendous advancements in genomics, stem cell research, chemistry, and many other fields, are beginning to tackle the fundamental issues of why we age.

In the next blog in this series, we will dive into how genome sequencing and editing, along with new classes of drugs, are augmenting our biology to further extend our healthy lives.

What will you be able to achieve with an extra 30 to 50 healthy years (or longer) in your lifespan? Personally, I’m excited for a near-infinite lifespan to take on moonshots.

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Posted in Human Robots

#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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