Researchers in Berkeley are working on a way to implant and erase sensations in the brain with a holographic laser, engineers in Canada plan to use “spooky action at a distance” to sniff out planes and missiles invisible on radar, and a “stealth startup” near Boston is seeking to reverse aging in dogs and potentially humans. This weekly dose of science could have a lasting impact.
What is it? Neuroscientists at University of California, Berkeley used a holographic laser to activate neurons in mice “to simulate real brain activity and insert false sensations.” The university reported that the team is building equipment that could one day “activate or suppress dozens and ultimately thousands of neurons at once, hundreds of times each second, copying real patterns of brain activity to fool the brain into thinking it has felt, seen or sensed something.”
Why does it matter? The university reported that the goal was to “read neural activity constantly and decide, based on the activity, which sets of neurons to activate to simulate the pattern and rhythm of an actual brain response, so as to replace lost sensations after peripheral nerve damage, for example, or control a prosthetic limb.” Alan Mardinly, an assistant professor of molecular and cell biology at the school, told Berkeley News that the technology had “great potential for neural prostheses. This is one of the first steps in a long road to develop a technology that could be a virtual brain implant with additional senses or enhanced senses,” he said.
How does it work? The team has tested the technology on “a small chunk of the somatosensory cortex of a mouse’s brain,” activating as many as 50 neurons at once up to 300 times per second. Before the test, they attached a special protein to each of the 2,000 to 3,000 neurons in the “chunk.” The protein made the individual neurons fire when hit with the laser. The university reported that the team now plans to “start capturing real patterns of activity in the cortex in order to learn how to reproduce sensations and perceptions to play back through their holographic system.”
What is it? MIT Technology Review reported that a “stealth startup” called Rejuvenate Bio and cofounded by Harvard geneticist and molecular engineer George Church is working to “reverse aging in dogs, and humans could be next.” The magazine quoted Church as saying that the goal of the work was to “have the body and mind of a 22-year-old but the experience of a 130-year-old.” Church is already leading another project using biotechnology to bring the woolly mammoth back from extinction.
Why does it matter? A bio published online last year by Harvard Business School states that the company’s objective was to “treat pets with targeted gene therapies directed at curing specific disease states associated with old age that also have the potential to extend overall health and maximal lifespan.”
How does it work? Earlier this year, the startup filed a patent application describing “methods of gene therapy…for treating or preventing age-related diseases or conditions by regulating one or more functional proteins associated with age-related diseases or conditions.” In 2017, the company won a grant from the Department of Defense just shy of $100,000 seeking to measure the effectiveness of “three gene therapies that can increase the stress-resistance, health and lifespan of mice as well as mitigate three different age-related diseases (heart failure, diabetes and obesity)” in mice as well as dogs.
What is it? A team of researchers working at the Sidney Kimmel Cancer Center at Jefferson Health in Philadelphia used modified immune cells to “eliminate metastatic colorectal cancer in mice.”
Why does it matter? The results are the latest example of the power of this type of treatment, called CAR-T therapy. Last year, the FDA approved CAR-T therapies to treat a kind of leukemia in children and a type of lymphoma in adults. Adam Snook, assistant professor at Thomas Jefferson University, said that the antigen — a molecule that can rev up the immune response — the team targeted for colorectal cancer was “one that is shared across several high mortality cancers including esophageal and pancreatic cancer. Taken together, 25 percent of people who die from cancer could potentially be treated with this therapy.”
How does it work? Doctors first extract a patient’s T cells, a type of white blood cells that help guide the body’s immune response by targeting foreign cells in the bloodstream, and send them to a lab where they’re carefully re-engineered and multiplied so they recognize the antigen. Then the manipulated cells are shipped back to the patient’s treatment location, where they’re injected into the patient’s bloodstream so they can do their work. The team engineered its CAR-T therapy to target colorectal and other cancers expressing the GUCY2C antigen. Jefferson Health reported that “all of the mice studied survived without side effects for the duration of the observation period – or 75 days, compared to a 30-day average survival of mice with control treatment.”
What is it? Researchers at the University of Waterloo used the quantum principle of entanglement — a phenomenon Albert Einstein called “spooky action at a distance” — to develop a quantum radar that can expose stealth aircraft and missiles “with unparalleled accuracy.”
Why does it matter? Jonathan Baugh, who teaches at Waterloo’s the Institute for Quantum Computing, said that in the Arctic, space weather events such as geomagnetic storms and solar flares interfere with radar operation and make it harder to identify objects. “By moving from traditional radar to quantum radar, we hope to not only cut through this noise, but also to identify objects that have been specifically designed to avoid detection,” Baugh said. Canada’s Department of National Defense has sponsored the project.
How does it work? Stealth planes are designed to jam conventional radar systems and absorb and deflect their radio waves. The quantum radar, on the other hand, uses the entanglement principle to achieve “quantum illumination” by entangling two photons together. “The method works by sending one of the photons to a distant object, while retaining the other member of the pair,” the university reported. “Photons in the return signal are checked for telltale signatures of entanglement, allowing photons from the noisy environmental background to be discarded. This can greatly improve the radar signal-to-noise in certain situations.” Added Baugh: “The goal for our project is to create a robust source of entangled photons that can be generated at the press of a button.”
What is it? Scientists working at Duke University and Massachusetts General Hospital and the International Centre for Diarrheal Disease Research in Dhaka, Bangladesh, have trained an artificial intelligence system to look at patterns of bacteria living in the human gut and pick out people susceptible to cholera. The university reported that the patterns “could indicate who among the approximately one billion people around the globe at risk of cholera infection will get sick with the diarrheal disease.”
Why does it matter? “While some people are warning about artificial intelligence leading to killer robots, we are showing the positive impact of AI in its potential to overcome disease,” said Lawrence A. David, a senior author of the study and assistant professor of molecular genetics and microbiology at Duke University School of Medicine. Regina C. LaRocque from Massachusetts General Hospital’s infectious diseases division said the team “essentially identified a whole new component of cholera risk that we did not know about before.” The results “showed that the model generated by artificial intelligence could predict illness even better than models previously built by infectious disease experts,” Duke said.
How does it work? The researchers used sequencing technology to profile the bacteria in rectal swabs collected from people who shared a household with a cholera patient “and thus were at imminent risk of developing the disease.” They loaded the data into a computer and used a set of algorithms to look for patterns in the 4,000 different kinds of bacteria found in the samples. They were able to identify 100 microbes linked to cholera. “Scientists have long had a hunch that gut bacteria might affect a person’s susceptibility to diarrheal diseases, but our study is among the first to show this in a real-world setting,” LaRocque said.