Raising the bar for miracles
Arthur C Clarke is best known for his novel, 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Unlike most books that are turned into films, the novel was actually written at the same time as Stanley Kubrick was working on the screenplay.
“Toward the end, novel and screenplay were being written simultaneously, with feedback in both directions. Thus I rewrote some sections after seeing the movie rushes – a rather expensive method of literary creation, which few other authors can have enjoyed,” said Clarke.
What Clarke is slightly less well known for are his “three laws”:
- When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.
- The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.
- Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
I’d bet you’ve probably heard the third one before. It’s been quoted regularly in recent years, as many of our technologies have become “sufficiently advanced”.
Today, we’re going to take a look at the latest wave of these magical bio technologies, starting with one of history’s most popular miracles.
Helping the blind to see
Macular degeneration is the leading cause of blindness in the UK, and the third leading cause globally.
And this week, scientists at Moorfields Eye Hospital in London cured it. Well, they say it isn’t a proven cure yet. But the results look good.
“We’ve restored vision where there was none. It’s incredibly exciting. As you get older, parts of you stop working and for the first time we’ve been able to take a cell and make it into a specific part of the eye that’s failing and put it back in the eye and get vision back,” Prof Lyndon da Cruz, of Moorfields, told the BBC.
The researchers brought sight back to two patients with macular degeneration, using a new stem cell “patch”.
Both patients, a man in his 80s and a woman in her 60s, can now read again with the affected eye.
The results are so promising that the people behind research say it could lead to “an affordable ‘off-the-shelf’ therapy that could be made available to NHS patients within the next five years.”
I find it crazy that this news barely made headlines on Monday. The leading cause of blindness in the UK appears to have been cured and yet you had to dig into the papers to find anything on it.
Maybe people are just getting too used to miracles now.
Or maybe it was more important for the media to repeatedly tell us that – shock horror – companies have been using data from Facebook to try to win elections.
So, what’s next on the good news list?
Antibiotic resistance may not be a problem after all
Remember all the horror stories about antibiotic resistance, and how we’re all going to end up dying from infected paper cuts?
I suppose you don’t really need to try and remember too hard as there’s a new one every week or so.
The problem is usually blamed on people taking antibiotics for things they should just tough out. At least that’s what we’re told. That, and antibiotics routinely being given to most of the animals we eat.
It’s been a favourite of scaremongering journalists for years. After all, it’s a pretty scary thought.
Imagine if you stood a good chance of getting gangrene or dying from something as minor as an ingrowing toenail. Imagine living in a world where paper cuts were killing people by the thousand!
Thankfully, we may not have to worry about paper cuts after all.
It turns out a good way to kill bacteria is by using viruses. As Wired reported yesterday:
A recently-published paper details the use of an experimental bacteriophage virus, OMKO1, to eliminate a life-threatening antibiotic-resistant infection that took hold in a patient’s heart following aeortic repair surgery (Ars Technica). The bacteriophage, which originated in a pond near Yale University in the USA, attacks bacteria like the patient’s drug-resistant Pseudomonas aeruginosa infection by targeting the bacterium’s exposed efflux pump mechanism, used to remove antibiotics before they can harm the bacterium. The experimental treatment was a success, further proving the merits of bacteriophage-based medicine as antibiotic resistance becomes more prevalent.
Which is good news, because…
AI discovers almost 6,000 new species of virus
As reported in Nature:
Although viruses influence everything from human health to the degradation of trash, they are hard to study. Scientists cannot grow most viruses in the lab, and attempts to identify their genetic sequences are often thwarted because their genomes are tiny and evolve fast.
In recent years, researchers have hunted for unknown viruses by sequencing DNA in samples taken from various environments. To identify the microbes present, researchers search for the genetic signatures of known viruses and bacteria — just as a word processor’s ‘find’ function highlights words containing particular letters in a document. But that method often fails, because virologists cannot search for what they do not know. A form of AI called machine learning gets around this problem because it can find emergent patterns in mountains of information. Machine-learning algorithms parse data, learn from them and then classify information autonomously.
This new AI method will help researchers look into conditions that have stumped people in the past, such as chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia and inflammatory bowel disease.
It has long being suspected that conditions like these have been caused, in some part, by viruses. But until now we didn’t have the means to discover them. That’s where this new AI virus finder could help.
As Nature concludes:
With machine learning, Unutmaz says, researchers might identify viruses in patients that have remained hidden. Further, because AI has the ability to find patterns in massive data sets, he says, the approach might connect data on viruses to bacteria, and then to protein changes in people with symptoms. Says Unutmaz, “Machine learning could reveal knowledge we didn’t even think about.”
One of my best friends was diagnosed with diabetes a couple of years ago. He did a lot of research into the condition and found some evidence that certain viruses can trigger the condition.
He’s a bit of a crazy one, but he’s pretty sure that’s what caused his. Before he told me about that I had no idea it could happen.
I’d bet there are many, many conditions that are impacted, or result from, viruses that we have no idea about yet. It will be amazing to see which dots this AI virus finder eventually connects.
Okay, that’s all the good biotech news for today.
Until next time,
Editor, Exponential Investor
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