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Against Cancer from Science Fiction to Fact

12 June 2017
Giulio Prisco

Guts Over Fear

In this issue of Pulse we report on encouraging cancer-related news, including recent clinical trials presented at the 2017 Annual Meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) in Chicago, June 2-6. See also the ASCO news page for other cancer-related news and research results discussed at the meeting.

Recently, Elon Musk and Bryan Johnson independently announced the Neuralink and Kernel projects for brain/computer interfacing, covered in previous issues of Pulse. Now, a high-profile team led by Prof. Newton Howard, is joining the race to the fusion of human brains and machines.

"I would like to see us all working together, as we have already established a mathematical foundation and software framework to solve so many of the challenges they will be facing," said Prof. Howard. "We could all get there faster if we could work together - after all, the patient is the priority."

The full announcement (see below) is an energizing cocktail of contemporary neuroscience buzzwords caught in translation from science fiction to science fact. We’ll follow Howard’s work closely.

Of course the fusion of human brains and machines, and other advanced research areas such as medical nanotecthology, are no longer science fiction but not yet science fact, not in the clinical sense. We should never let enthusiasm make us forget that research needs time to reach operational maturity.

CAR-T cell immunotherapy proven effective against multiple myeloma. Scientists from Xi’an Jiaotong University, China, revealed that, in an early clinical trial, 33 out of 35 (94 percent) patients had clinical remission of multiple myeloma, a deadly cancer of plasma cells. The patients received Chimeric Antigen Receptor (CAR)-T immunotherapy, a gene therapy treatment where immune cells are extracted from a patient, genetically engineered in the lab to recognize and fight cancer cells, and injected back into the patient. Most patients had only mild side effects. In a research paper, presented at the 2017 Annual Meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO), the scientists noted that, based on the encouraging safety and efficacy outcomes, their CAR-T cell therapy seems to represent an innovative and highly effective treatment for multiple myeloma.

Cancer immunotherapy drug shows promise. Researchers at ETH Zurich have shown that a promising drug, known as F8-TNF, injected into the bloodstream, summons killer cells from the body’s immune system to attack and destroy sarcomas. The study, published in Cancer Research, shows that the killer cells called by F8-TNF are guided by proteins from specific dormant viruses (endogenous retroviruses). F8-TNF has been able to completely cure sarcomas in mice when combined with a chemotherapeutic agent. Now, a drug closely related to F8-TNF is being tested as part of clinical trials in humans.

Stem cell therapies could prevent age-related muscular degeneration. Researchers at the University of Rochester Medical Center have discovered that loss of muscle stem cells is the main driving force behind muscle decline in old age in mice. An open access research study published in eLife shows that muscle stem cell depletion induces neuromuscular degeneration in young lab mice and, conversely, prevention of muscle stem cell loss reduces age-related neuromuscular degeneration. The scientists hope this discovery will open the way to developing drugs or therapies that can slow muscle stem cell loss and muscle decline.

A wireless, battery-less pacemaker. Scientists at Rice University and Texas Heart Institute have developed a wireless, battery-less pacemaker that can be implanted directly into a patient’s heart. A prototype device, presented at the IEEE’s International Microwave Symposium (IMS) in Honolulu, is wirelessly powered by radio frequency radiation transmitted by an external battery pack, which can be up to a few centimeters away. According to the researchers, this technology opens the way to treating critical heart conditions with external powering, wireless pacing, and painless and imperceptible cardiac defibrillation.

Promising combination therapies for metastatic brain cancer patients. Researchers at the University of Texas M. D. Anderson Cancer Center have shown that a combination of two immunotherapies, and another combination of two targeted therapies, each significantly shrank metastatic brain tumors in at least 50 percent of patients in separate multi-center clinical trials. The research results, presented at the 2017 Annual Meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO), point to new options for metastatic cancer patients whose disease has spread to the brain.

Advances in nanotherapeutics for cancer. Scientists at Washington State University have demonstrated a way to deliver "nanotherapeutics" to a tumor. The research work, published in Advanced Materials, shows how the scientists injected lab mice with gold nanoparticles engineered to attach to white blood cells, called neutrophils. Implanted tumors in the mice were then exposed to infrared light causing an inflammation that attracted the neutrophils, and the light’s interaction with the gold nanoparticles produced heat that killed the tumor cells. According to the researchers, this technology could one day target tumors with powerful anticancer drugs that might otherwise damage healthy tissues.

High-bandwidth nanoscale, AI-powered brain implant. Researchers at the Oxford Computational Neuroscience Lab and other institutions, led by Prof. Newton Howard, former Director of the MIT Mind Machine Project, have developed a nanoscale, Artificial Intelligence (AI)-powered, high-bandwidth brain implant. First tests on lab mice are scheduled to start soon. Ni2o (“neuron input to output,” pronounced “Nitoo”), a new neuroscience project to bridge the gap between man and machine, launched by Howard and an impressive team, will further develop, market and promote these technologies.

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