Today, we’re continuing our Hidden Gems two-parter (you can read part-one here). Using examples from recent breakthroughs, we’re zeroing in on the key trends dominating biotech research. These are the breakthroughs that will be transforming investment portfolios in coming decades.
Microbiome: Parkinson’s cracked
We recently reported on the importance of the microbiome. If you missed last week’s special on this exciting field, you can read it here. This week’s big story on the bugs living inside you concerns their role in Parkinson’s disease. In common with many human diseases, scientists use a “mouse model” to investigate the condition – a strain of mice that’s bred for its vulnerability to a closely analogous disease.
The research involved doing a poo transplant, from human patients to the mice – to detect any changes resulting. This revealed a clear link, with the poo of Parkinson’s sufferers triggering the development of the condition in the mouse model. Bugs from healthy people had no such effect, and uncovering this disease mechanism means that the condition could potentially be managed or prevented in future. The interventions could be very simple, such as by using food supplements, poo transplants, or antibiotics to change the gut microbiome. (Time/Cell)
Superbugs: alien vs predator
We’ve covered the antibiotic apocalypse in Exponential Investor before. The medicines we’ve relied on for decades are slowly failing, due to overuse. We need a new generation of treatments for the bugs of tomorrow – and now there’s some real hope. It turns out that some bacteria are highly-specific predators of other bugs. Instead of swallowing their prey, they break in through the cell wall – eating their victims from the inside out. Now, experiments on zebrafish have shown that an injection of predatory bacteria into the site of an infection can offer a miraculous cure – tipping the balance between a fatal infection and a speedy recovery. Human treatments are a long way off, but this is a very promising line of biotech research for a growing and deadly problem. (BBC Inside Science/Current Biology)
Quantified self: heart murmurs
A new kind of sticking-plaster microphone can listen to every rumble and squeak of your body – even at frequencies beyond the range of the human ear. I just love this MacGyver-like contraption and what it can do. Made from off-the-shelf components, it’s a cheap but powerful new biotech tool. Heartbeats are obviously noisy, but you might not think your muscles make much sound when they move. However, this mic can even pick up such whispers. The result could be a whole new approach to medicine – opening up a world of diagnostic insights. Such breakthroughs create medical revolutions. To help appreciate the significance, imagine the world without MRI, ultrasound or X-rays. Perhaps this plaster will soon be diagnosing everything from dodgy knee cartilage to fatal heart arrhythmias. (Quartz/Science Advances)
Gene editing: CRISPR cancer computer
There’s been a cancer breakthrough from CRISPR – the ultra-precise gene-editing tool that’s shaking up genetic engineering. Reporting on this particular story has focused on the capacity of the technology to treat cancer. However, the implications are actually far wider. What the researchers have done is edit the cellular machinery, so that it starts to act like the beginnings of a computer’s circuits. This really is a fantastic biotech breakthrough – opening up a future in which biological computations can be performed at the cellular level. This is simply revolutionary, and could lead to a whole new field of biology. There’s no word for it yet, so I’ll suggest a couple: bio-logic or cellular computation. We’ll have to wait and see on that one, but my guess is it’s going to be big. (BioNews/Nature Methods)
AI: Cash for your PTSD
Anxiety disorders affect a wide variety of people, from combat veterans to arachnophobes. Many people recover naturally – but others become disabled by terror, left unable to engage in normal activities. A very clever technique has just been developed, which has the potential to disrupt these entrenched fears. This involves some very fast, very clever artificial intelligence (AI). To cut a long story short, an fMRI brain scanner looks at the patient, to see when they’re subconsciously starting to think about what frightens them. Then, the machine gives them a small cash reward. Of course, you can’t just pay people to get over their anxiety disorder, but the pleasant surprise disrupts the self-reinforcing process of fear. (NewScientist/Nature Human Behaviour)
Did we get that nailed? If not, tell us what we’ve missed or misjudged: firstname.lastname@example.org.
PS The source for our stories is (in brackets) – so you can check we’re not publishing drivel. I’ll normally use more than one source to check a story and list the most useful one. Where there are (two/sources) on a scientific story, the first one is normally the media report and the second is normally the academic journal. (House style is to italicise journal names, so that’s normally a good indicator of it being a peer-reviewed journal.) It’s important to read media reports, as sometimes the wider implications of a paper aren’t detailed in the text. As a matter of principle, I don’t publish anything based on a scientific paper unless I’ve read at least the abstract. (Unlike lazy churnalists, I don’t rewrite press releases.) Occasionally, there are exceptions – because the entire paper is paywalled, including the abstract.
Category: Genetics and Biotechnology