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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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Big data, personalized medicine, artificial intelligence. String these three buzzphrases together, and what do you have?
A system that may revolutionize the future of healthcare, by bringing sophisticated health data directly to patients for them to ponder, digest, and act upon—and potentially stop diseases in their tracks.
At Singularity University’s Exponential Medicine conference in San Diego this week, Dr. Ran Balicer, director of the Clalit Research Institute in Israel, painted a futuristic picture of how big data can merge with personalized healthcare into an app-based system in which the patient is in control.
Dr. Ran Balicer at Exponential Medicine
Picture this: instead of going to a physician with your ailments, your doctor calls you with some bad news: “Within six hours, you’re going to have a heart attack. So why don’t you come into the clinic and we can fix that.” Crisis averted.
Following the treatment, you’re at home monitoring your biomarkers, lab test results, and other health information through an app with a clean, beautiful user interface. Within the app, you can observe how various health-influencing life habits—smoking, drinking, insufficient sleep—influence your chance of future cardiovascular disease risks by toggling their levels up or down.
There’s more: you can also set a health goal within the app—for example, stop smoking—which automatically informs your physician. The app will then suggest pharmaceuticals to help you ditch the nicotine and automatically sends the prescription to your local drug store. You’ll also immediately find a list of nearby support groups that can help you reach your health goal.
With this hefty dose of AI, you’re in charge of your health—in fact, probably more so than under current healthcare systems.
Sound fantastical? In fact, this type of preemptive care is already being provided in some countries, including Israel, at a massive scale, said Balicer. By mining datasets with deep learning and other powerful AI tools, we can predict the future—and put it into the hands of patients.
The Israeli Advantage
In order to apply big data approaches to medicine, you first need a giant database.
Israel is ahead of the game in this regard. With decades of electronic health records aggregated within a central warehouse, Israel offers a wealth of health-related data on the scale of millions of people and billions of data points. The data is incredibly multiplex, covering lab tests, drugs, hospital admissions, medical procedures, and more.
One of Balicer’s early successes was an algorithm that predicts diabetes, which allowed the team to notify physicians to target their care. Clalit has also been busy digging into data that predicts winter pneumonia, osteoporosis, and a long list of other preventable diseases.
So far, Balicer’s predictive health system has only been tested on a pilot group of patients, but he is expecting to roll out the platform to all patients in the database in the next few months.
Truly Personalized Medicine
To Balicer, whatever a machine can do better, it should be welcomed to do. AI diagnosticians have already enjoyed plenty of successes—but their collaboration remains mostly with physicians, at a point in time when the patient is already ill.
A particularly powerful use of AI in medicine is to bring insights and trends directly to the patient, such that they can take control over their own health and medical care.
For example, take the problem of tailored drug dosing. Current drug doses are based on average results conducted during clinical trials—the dosing is not tailored for any specific patient’s genetic and health makeup. But what if a doctor had already seen millions of other patients similar to your case, and could generate dosing recommendations more relevant to you based on that particular group of patients?
Such personalized recommendations are beyond the ability of any single human doctor. But with the help of AI, which can quickly process massive datasets to find similarities, doctors may soon be able to prescribe individually-tailored medications.
Tailored treatment doesn’t stop there. Another issue with pharmaceuticals and treatment regimes is that they often come with side effects: potentially health-threatening reactions that may, or may not, happen to you based on your biometrics.
Back in 2017, the New England Journal of Medicine launched the SPRINT Data Analysis Challenge, which urged physicians and data analysts to identify novel clinical findings using shared clinical trial data.
Working with Dr. Noa Dagan at the Clalit Research Institute, Balicer and team developed an algorithm that recommends whether or not a patient receives a particularly intensive treatment regime for hypertension.
Rather than simply looking at one outcome—normalized blood pressure—the algorithm takes into account an individual’s specific characteristics, laying out the treatment’s predicted benefits and harms for a particular patient.
“We built thousands of models for each patient to comprehensively understand the impact of the treatment for the individual; for example, a reduced risk for stroke and cardiovascular-related deaths could be accompanied by an increase in serious renal failure,” said Balicer. “This approach allows a truly personalized balance—allowing patients and their physicians to ultimately decide if the risks of the treatment are worth the benefits.”
This is already personalized medicine at its finest. But Balicer didn’t stop there.
We are not the sum of our biologics and medical stats, he said. A truly personalized approach needs to take a patient’s needs and goals and the sacrifices and tradeoffs they’re willing to make into account, rather than having the physician make decisions for them.
Balicer’s preventative system adds this layer of complexity by giving weights to different outcomes based on patients’ input of their own health goals. Rather than blindly following big data, the system holistically integrates the patient’s opinion to make recommendations.
Balicer’s system is just one example of how AI can truly transform personalized health care. The next big challenge is to work with physicians to further optimize these systems, in a way that doctors can easily integrate them into their workflow and embrace the technology.
“Health systems will not be replaced by algorithms, rest assured,” concluded Balicer, “but health systems that don’t use algorithms will be replaced by those that do.”
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From how we get around to how we spend our time to how we manage our health, technology is changing our lives—not to mention economies, governments, and cities around the world. Tech has brought good to individuals and societies by, for example, democratizing access to information and lowering the cost of many products and services. But it’s also brought less-desirable effects we can’t ignore, like a rise in mental health problems and greater wealth inequality.
To keep pushing tech in a direction that will benefit humanity as a whole—rather than benefiting a select few—we must encourage open dialogues about these topics among leading figures in business, government, and spirituality.
To that end, SingularityU The Netherlands recently hosted a dialogue about compassion and technology with His Holiness the Dalai Lama. The event was attended by students and tech innovators, ambassadors, members of the Dutch royal family, and other political and business leaders.
The first half of the conversation focused on robotics, telepresence, and artificial intelligence. His Holiness spoke with Tilly Lockey, a British student helping tech companies create bionic limbs, Karen Dolva, CEO of telepresence company No Isolation, and Maarten Steinbuch, faculty chair of robotics at SingularityU the Netherlands and a professor of systems and control at TU Eindhoven.
When asked what big tech companies could be doing to help spread good around the world, His Holiness pointed out that while technology has changed many aspects of life in developed countries, there is still immense suffering in less-developed nations, and tech companies should pay more attention to the poorer communities around the world.
In the second half of the event, focus switched to sickness, aging, and death. Speakers included Liz Parrish, CEO of BioViva Sciences, Kris Verburgh, faculty chair of health and medicine at SingularityU the Netherlands, Jeantine Lunshof, a bio-ethicist at MIT Media Lab, and Selma Boulmalf, a religious studies student at University of Amsterdam. Among other topics, they talked with His Holiness about longevity research and the drawbacks of trying to extend our lifespans or achieve immortality.
Both sessions were moderated by Christa Meindersma, founder and chair of the Himalaya Initiative for Culture and Society. The event served as the ceremonial opening of an exhibition called The Life of the Buddha, Path to the Present, on display in Amsterdam’s 15-century De Nieuwe Kerk church through February 2019.
In the 21st century, His Holiness said, “There is real possibility to create a happier world, peaceful world. So now we need vision. A peaceful world on the basis of a sense of oneness of humanity.”
Technology’s role in that world is being developed and refined every day, and we must maintain an ongoing awareness of its positive and negative repercussions—on everyone.
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