Artificial intelligence can detect eye disease with the best of them (the best being trained doctors), a crucial protein could be leukemia’s Achilles’ heel, and disease treatment might be revolutionized by drugs that “silence” gene expression — the medical field is advancing by leaps and bounds in this week’s best scientific discoveries. Also, there’s “weaponized slime” against pirates.
What is it? Picture a college campus. In addition to paved sidewalks framing the green, you probably see more organic-looking paths, made by human feet tracing diagonals across the lawn as they seek the shortest route between two points. Human brains function similarly, with memories and sensory signals finding the quickest path to where they’re going. Now, in Ireland, researchers have gotten computers one step closer to mimicking those organic neural pathways.
Why does it matter? Simply put, because the brain is still much better at processing information — so the better we can get our computers to mimic our brains, the better our computers will be. “The human brain develops preferred communication pathways that link together different brain circuits or loops to quickly and efficiently complete specific tasks,” says a release from Trinity College Dublin, where the discovery was made in the materials science lab AMBER. “This research shows evidence for the same behavior in a nanowire network.”
How does it work? According to their paper, just published in Nature Communications, researchers tested nanowires made from different materials. These wires are just a few hundred atoms thick, and about a thousandth of the width of a human hair. They found that different configurations led to the establishment of different pathways, experimenting their way toward a “winner takes all” path along which information was transmitted most quickly and efficiently. “These results point to the possibility of developing and independently addressing memory levels in complex systems, which we expect to have important implications for computers that operate in a more brain-like fashion,” said professor and research lead John Boland.
What is it? The company DeepMind and Moorfields Eye Hospital, both in London, announced that they’d developed an AI system that can reliably interpret routine eye scans and suss out vision-threatening conditions “with unprecedented accuracy,” according to DeepMind. “It can correctly recommend how patients should be referred for treatment for over 50 sight-threatening eye diseases as accurately as world-leading expert doctors.”
Why does it matter? Eye doctors use optical coherence tomography, or OCT, to a render a 3D image they then interpret to make diagnoses. But the process is time-consuming and needs the input of experts to work, leading to delays. DeepMind says its deep-learning technology could speed this process by handling “the wide variety of patients found in routine clinical practice,” helping to identify conditions like macular degeneration and diabetic eye disease and prevent future vision loss.
How does it work? The tech developed by DeepMind and Moorfields can spot indicators of eye disease within seconds. It’s also learned to triage the results by severity, offering information to doctors on the urgency of a given case and supplying them with information on how it reached its decision. The team, which used a data set of some 14,000 eye scans to train its algorithm to detect signs of disease, published its results in the journal Nature Medicine (PDF). In order to be turned into a product that can be widely used, though, it’ll need to go through clinical trials and regulatory processes.
What is it? Treatment of many types of childhood leukemia is improving, but a disease called mixed-lineage leukemia remains stubbornly fatal. In Prague, a team of researchers has discovered a vulnerability of one protein involved with the disease — which may help develop treatments for it in the future.
Why does it matter? For children affected by mixed-lineage leukemia, survival rates are only about 50 percent — it’s a form of blood cancer for which effective treatment is desperately needed.
How does it work? The researchers, an international team working out of the Institute of Organic Chemistry and Biochemistry at the Czech Academy of Sciences, zeroed in on LEDGF/p75, a protein that “tethers other proteins to gene bodies,” according to the paper announcing the results in PNAS. This process is “hijacked” by two diseases: HIV and mixed-lineage leukemia. The Prague team, though, was able to identify a vulnerability in the binding process, which leads to the possibility of developing “entirely new therapeutic strategies against mixed-lineage leukemia.”
What is it? For the first time, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has given the go-ahead to a treatment that involves using RNA to “silence” the expression of genes implicated in certain diseases — in this case, in the development of a rare condition that impedes nerve function.
Why does it matter? As Scientific American reports, scientists have been trying for decades to develop treatments based on RNA interference, or RNAi — in which ribonucleic acid molecules are introduced into the body to target and silence the genes responsible for disease. SciAm calls the FDA’s decision to allow an RNAi treatment to proceed a “landmark” for the field, which has proceeded in fits and starts. It introduces the possibility of not just a new drug but a whole new class of drugs, and a whole new approach to treating disease. RNAi researcher Ricardo Titze-de-Almeida said, “We are inaugurating a new pharmacological group. We will have many more such drugs in the coming years.”
How does it work? One hitch in the long process to develop RNAi treatments was getting the RNA molecules to the target organs without them being broken down in the bloodstream or absorbed into the kidneys or liver. The drug approved by the FDA, called patisiran and developed by the biotech company Alnylam, takes advantage of the fact that RNA accumulates in the kidneys and liver — it targets a liver-produced protein called transthyretin that’s implicated in a disease that damages nerves and leads to trouble walking. In clinical trials, the drug improved walking speed among subjects who received it, while walking speed in a placebo group declined. Alnylam and other biotech companies are working on similar RNAi therapies that target the kidneys, eyes and spinal cord.
What is it? A team of researchers at Utah State University has been awarded a 15-month contract from the U.S. Navy to carry out a sticky task: Their goal is to develop a “weaponized slime” that can be fired at other ships to stop them from moving.
Why does it matter? As Digital Trends reports, the Navy’s current tech for stopping pirate ships and the like is pretty old-school: a plastic rope fired by pneumatic launcher that, if all goes well, tangles the other boat’s propeller. Slime, by contrast, could be safer and more reliable, not to mention much cooler. Researchers developing it are taking their cues from the hagfish, an eel-like creature that “defends itself against would-be attackers by using jet of slime to fill predators’ mouths and gills with goo”; the slime swells in contact with water. The synthetic biomaterial being cooked up would be nontoxic — it wouldn’t contribute to ocean pollution.
How does it work? “We are attempting to create hagfish thread keratins synthetically,” USU biologist Justin Jones told Digital Trends. “Hagfish thread keratins, in their native form, rival spider silk in their mechanical properties.” Such threads, though, can’t be farmed — so Jones’ team is working on producing the individual proteins that make them up on a host system of E. coli bacteria. After the proteins are grown, they’ll be “spun” into threads using a previously pioneered technique for spinning synthetic spider silk.