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Advances from Therapeutics to Enhancements

10 July 2017
Giulio Prisco

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This week’s Pulse issue presents many intriguing research advances all over the spectrum of advanced therapeutics and enhancement, from brain research to 3D printed biopsy robots. Of course, you shouldn’t hope that all these promises become medical reality too soon, but things are certainly moving (slowly but steadily) in the right direction.

“There are so very many [exciting advances in today's biomedical research]!,” notes Thrivous Science Advisor Dr. Jordan Roberts in an interview to be published here soon. “CRISPR-Cas9 is the most precise, effective and potentially revolutionary suite of gene-editing technologies the world has yet seen,” continues Dr. Roberts, adding that current advances in medicine and biotech “will eventually lead human beings to learn to read and (re-)write their 'source code,' and that of other life.”

If you find this interesting, chances are that you’ll discuss it on Facebook. In fact, activity on social networks like Facebook represent a more and more important aspect of life. It can be argued, in fact, that social networks - which are becoming chaotic and messy just like life - represent a form of human enhancement.

In a study published in International Journal of Virtual Communities and Social Networking, Brigham Young University researchers trying to bring order to the chaos have identified four categories of Facebook users: relationship builders, town criers, selfies and window shoppers. The scientists note that Facebook users may identify to some degree with more than one category. However, I don’t recognize my own Facebook usage pattern in any of these categories, which seems to indicate that social network life is complex, just like the rest of life.

Mind reading with fMRI. Scientists at Carnegie Mellon University have found ways to use brain activation patterns to identify complex thoughts. The research results, published in Human Brain Mapping, indicate that complex thoughts are non-verbal “building blocks” formed by the brain’s various sub-systems. By analyzing activation responses of brain systems in functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) data, a program based on machine learning algorithms can tell what types of thoughts are being contemplated.

Complex mechanism for memory formation in the brain. Neuroscientists from the University of Chicago have suggested that “synaptic plasticity” - the ability of connections between neurons to strengthen or weaken over time based on what information they receive - is not sufficient to account for learning. The study, published in Neuron, argues that a second process called "intrinsic plasticity" -  changes in the intensity of activity of neurons - plays an important role as well.

Nanotubes integrated with neurons. Scientists at the the International School for Advanced Studies in Trieste, Italy, are investigating nanostructures capable of ensuring an effective integration with nerve cells, which is essential for developing innovative systems targeting the repair of neuronal damage. The study, published in Nanomedicine: Nanotechnology, Biology and Medicine, shows that carbon nanotubes are able to facilitate neuronal regeneration, bridge groups of neurons whose connection has been interrupted, and re-establish connections between nerve cells, for instance at the spinal level, lost on account of lesions or trauma.

A GPS for high-precision CRISPR. Researchers at the University of Copenhagen (Denmark) have discovered that Cpf1, a member of the CRISPR-Cas family of “molecular scissors” (see previous Pulse issue), acts like a high-precision GPS to identify its destination within the intricate map of the genome. The research work is published in Nature. According to the scientists, the high precision of Cpf1 will improve the use of this type of technology in repairing genetic damage and in other medical and biotechnological applications.

Strong anti-tumor response to personalized vaccine. Scientists at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard have found that a personal vaccine tailored to a patient’s tumor can be produced and generates highly specific responses to that patient’s tumor after vaccination. The study, published in Nature, shows that a personal cancer treatment vaccine, which targets distinctive “neoantigens” on tumor cells, stimulates a potent, safe, and highly specific immune anti-tumor response in melanoma patients.

Transparent mice for cancer research. Researchers at the RIKEN Quantitative Biology Center and the University of Tokyo have found a way to make the body and organs of lab mice transparent. The method permits visualizing and profiling cancer metastasis throughout the body at the single-cell level, and creating 3D maps of cancer cells throughout the body and organs. The research results, published in Cell Reports, indicate that the technique is able to detect changes in the total volume and number of cancer colonies throughout the lungs of lab mice, offering new opportunities to study the action of cancer drugs, and even to detect individual cancer cells.

A 3D printed plastic biopsy robot. Scientists at the University of Twente have unveiled Stormram 4, a tiny robot made from 3D-printed plastic and driven by air pressure, and claimed it’s the world’s smallest and most accurate 3D-printed biopsy robot. The plastic robot, which won a prestigious award during the Surgical Robotic Challenge at the international Hamlyn Symposium in London, is able to operate within a Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) scanner, which significantly increases accuracy.

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