Thursday, June 11, 2015

Totally overwhelmed in the best possible way

This has been a mind-expanding week.

This is the only way to describe it

Perhaps because my PI is on vacation with his family, I've found more time than usual to catch up on reading.  In addtion to scientific articles relevant to our work, I've started reading a sci fi novel called "Nexus", by Ramez Naam.  "Nexus" is about two neuroscience grad students at UC Santa Cruz in 2040 who make some huge advances in interfacing computers with the brain by using illegal technology.  The language is convincing enough to feel eerily believable, even if the content is beyond anything we can currently do.  The real life science I've been exposed to recently seems like it would have seemed equally fantastic 25 years ago, though, so I can't totally rule out the possibility of something like this coming to pass.

If you really consider the implications, you quickly begin to recognize that a person sufficiently networked with computers and other other people directly would not be easily relatable.  They would have such a different set of abilities than you and such a different set of experiences from you that it is hard to imagine what they would be like.  You encounter similar confusion if you try to imagine an artificial intelligence or a person so intelligent that we are to them what an ape is to us.  These concepts of unpredictable technological developments are often described under the concept of "Transhumanism" or "Posthumanism".

Here are a few of the recent scientific advances that seem relevant:

Stem cell-based limb replacements
The lab of Harold Ott at Harvard has grown rat stem cells of muscle and blood vessels on a scaffold made of connective tissue from a deceased rat limb.  They surgically attached this successfully to the stem cell donor, which paves a path towards eventually replacing lost limbs in humans without the body rejecting the graft.

Organ-on-a-chip systems models
A forthcoming paper in Nature describes the generation of organ tissues in microfluidics environment by directing stem cells into cell types.  What this means is that they built small chambers with fluid fed in at controlled rates that can regulate the environment of the cells far better than you can in a Petri dish.  The closer you mimic conditions in a womb or a body, the more you can accomplish.

Here is the craziest part: I'm not impressed.  You see, several researchers in my department have entered into a collaboration with a group that has already developed a far more advanced version of this technology.  Dhruv is one of them, and I'll be working hands-on with this stuff in several weeks.  I am under a non-disclosure agreement, but trust me when I say that it is cray-cray.

Deep-brain implants
I am now aware of three possible cures for Parkinsons: deep-brain electrical stimulation, in which an electrical implant regulates neural activity; deep-brain drug delivery, in which microfluidic implants (microfluidics is a big thing now) deliver drugs directly to the site of disfunction in the center of the brain; and stem-cell grafting, in which stem cells replace the damaged tissue.  That link, again, doesn't really impress me: they were unable to fully treat the patient due to the limited availability of fetal stem cells.  Guess what?  We don't need fetal stem cells anymore.

Best of all: Genetic Engineering
This is possibly one of the biggest discoveries of the decade.  In any other age, it'd be the discovery of the century.  Our ability to rewrite the DNA of living humans has seen a rapid advance thanks to the use of what is called CRISPR (sometimes CRISPR/Cas9).  While it sounds like a cell phone app, CRISPR stands for Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats.  Radiolab recently did a great report on this technology.  I just discovered today while reviewing a proposal our lab is submitting that we're jumping on the CRISPR train.  The plan is to take cell lines from obese patients which have a recently discovered gene associated with metabolic disfunction and then make new cell lines that are clones of the originals, but with the suspicious mutation corrected.  We'll compare the way each behave to find the exact effect of this mutation.  You remember that Parkinson's treatment from before?  What if instead of using fetal stem cells, we took cells from the patient's skin, removed the mutations causing Parkinsons disease, and then regrafted those.  These kind of treatments are already in clinical trials in bone marrow, I think: you won't need a match when we give you back your own marrow minus your disease.

So you can see my enthusiasm.  The stuff I read on my break feels less like fantasy and more and more like the work I should be getting back to when my break ends.  My mind is blown, and I'm loving it.

If you listen to that RadioLab link (and you should) you'll notice that they made the same joke about CRISPR soundling like a cell phone app.  Well shut up, because it does.

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