Medicine

Can This New Treatment Stop the Common Cold? (fortune.com) 66

"Researchers may have identified a compound that can stop some of the most common cold viruses, the rhinovirus, in its tracks, according to a new report published in the journal Nature." An anonymous reader quotes Fortune: The scientists' work is early-stage. But the mechanism it uses to tackle colds is striking. Developed at the Imperial College London, the molecule targets a protein in human cells that cold viruses use in order to replicate and conquer. By targeting this specific pathway, the compound could theoretically be used to thwart most viruses (and since it focuses on human proteins, it may not cause the virus to mutate its way away from danger)...

"The common cold is an inconvenience for most of us, but can cause serious complications in people with conditions like asthma and [chronic lung disease]," said lead researcher Ed Tate in a statement. "A drug like this could be extremely beneficial if given early in infection, and we are working on making a version that could be inhaled, so that it gets to the lungs quickly."

Biotech

Alan Turing's Chemistry Hypothesis Turned Into a Desalination Filter (arstechnica.com) 38

An anonymous reader quotes a report from Ars Technica: Alan Turing is rightly famed for his contributions to computer science. But one of his key concepts -- an autonomous system that can generate complex behavior from a few simple rules -- also has applications in unexpected places, like animal behavior. One area where Turing himself applied the concept is in chemistry, and he published a paper describing how a single chemical reaction could create complex patterns like stripes if certain conditions are met. It took us decades to figure out how to actually implement Turing's ideas about chemistry, but we've managed to create a number of reactions that display the behaviors he described. And now, a team of Chinese researchers has figured out how to use them to make something practical: a highly efficient desalination membrane.

To make this a true Turing-style system, the researchers dissolved a large molecule in water. This had the effect of making the water more viscous, which slowed the diffusion of the activator. In addition, the molecule was chosen so that the activator would stick to it, slowing things down even further. The end result was a system similar to the ones defined over a half-century ago. Imaging of the features show that rather than simply thickening the membrane, the membrane retained the same width in these areas; instead, it bulged out to form the structures. That's critical, as the amount of surface area exposed to a salt solution should influence how much water gets through the membrane. In fact, the researchers confirmed that more water was purified when the new membranes were used (the version with the stripes outperformed the dotted one). Unfortunately, the researchers don't compare this system to commercially available membranes.
The report has been published in the journal Science.
Businesses

'Biology Will Be the Next Big Computing Platform' (wired.com) 70

An anonymous reader writes: "Amazon, but for Crispr." It's a notion that may sound far-fetched -- but it's exactly what Synthego, a Silicon Valley biotech startup, wants to be. Synthego's first product let scientists order a custom Crispr kit and have it delivered within a week; in the next few weeks, the startup will add custom Crispr'd human cell lines to its on-demand offerings, which will help scientists working on potentially life-saving medicines. Crispr, as this WIRED guide explains, "is a new class of molecular tools that scientists can use to precisely target and cut any kind of genetic material." It's revolutionizing biology -- but neither of Synthego's founders is a biologist. Turns out, in the ever-expanding industry around genome engineering, that's hardly a disqualifier.

Across the country, companies are trying to snag a seat on the fast-moving Crispr train. There's Inscripta, which is gunning to be the Apple of gene-editing by building the biological equivalent of the personal computer. In theory, that hardware will make gene editing as easy as pushing a button. And then there's Twist Biosciences, which can print out a powerful Crispr guide (the tool that identifies the bits of genetic code a scientist is hoping to target) on a single semiconductor chip -- the Intel of genome engineering, if you will. As Megan Molteni writes, "all these analogies to the computing industry are more than just wordplay." Rather, they offer a language for understanding the complex world of Crispr. "Crispr is making biology more programmable than ever before," Molteni writes. "And the biotech execs staking their claims in Crispr's backend systems have read their Silicon Valley history. They're betting biology will be the next great computing platform, DNA will be the code that runs it, and Crispr will be the programming language."

Medicine

'Is Curing Patients a Sustainable Business Model?' Goldman Sachs Analysts Ask (arstechnica.com) 368

In an April 10 report for biotech clients, Goldman Sachs analysts noted that one-shot cures for diseases are not great for business as they're bad for longterm profits. The investment banks' report, titled "The Genome Revolution," asks clients: "Is curing patients a sustainable business model?" The answer may be "no," according to follow-up information provided. Slashdot reader tomhath shares the report from Ars Technica: Analyst Salveen Richter and colleagues laid it out: "The potential to deliver 'one shot cures' is one of the most attractive aspects of gene therapy, genetically engineered cell therapy, and gene editing. However, such treatments offer a very different outlook with regard to recurring revenue versus chronic therapies... While this proposition carries tremendous value for patients and society, it could represent a challenge for genome medicine developers looking for sustained cash flow."

For a real-world example, they pointed to Gilead Sciences, which markets treatments for hepatitis C that have cure rates exceeding 90 percent. In 2015, the company's hepatitis C treatment sales peaked at $12.5 billion. But as more people were cured and there were fewer infected individuals to spread the disease, sales began to languish. Goldman Sachs analysts estimate that the treatments will bring in less than $4 billion this year. [Gilead]'s rapid rise and fall of its hepatitis C franchise highlights one of the dynamics of an effective drug that permanently cures a disease, resulting in a gradual exhaustion of the prevalent pool of patients," the analysts wrote. The report noted that diseases such as common cancers -- where the "incident pool remains stable" -- are less risky for business.

Businesses

Theranos Lays Off Almost All of Its Remaining Workers (marketwatch.com) 91

A few months ago, Theranos laid off almost half of its workforce as it struggled to recover from the backlash generated when the company failed to provide accurate results to patients using its proprietary blood test technology. Now, according to people familiar with the matter, the company is laying off most of its remaining workforce in a last-ditch effort to preserve cash and avert or at least delay bankruptcy for a few more months. MarketWatch reports: Tuesday's layoffs take the company's head count from about 125 employees to two dozen or fewer, according to people familiar with the matter. As recently as late 2015, Theranos had about 800 employees. Elizabeth Holmes, the Silicon Valley firm's founder and chief executive officer, announced the layoffs at an all-employee meeting at Theranos's offices in Newark, Calif. on Tuesday, less than a month after settling civil fraud charges with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. Under the SEC settlement, Holmes was forced to relinquish her voting control over the company she founded 15 years ago as a 19-year-old Stanford dropout, give back a big chunk of her stock, and pay a $500,000 penalty. She also agreed to be barred from being an officer or director in a public company for 10 years.
Biotech

Researchers Test Tooth-Mounted Sensor-Enabled Chips (go.com) 28

Researchers at Tufts University are testing tooth-mounted RFID chips which sense and transmit data on what goes in your mouth. ABC News reports: The sensors looks like custom microchips stuck to the tooth. They are flexible, tiny squares -- ranging from 4 mm by 4 mm to an even smaller size of about 2 mm by 2 mm -- that are applied directly to human teeth. Each one has three active layers made of titanium and gold, with a middle layer of either silk fibers or water-based gels. In small-scale studies, four human volunteers wore sensors, which had silk as the middle "detector" layer, on their teeth and swished liquids around in their mouths to see if the sensors would function. The researchers were testing for sugar and for alcohol.

The tiny squares successfully sent wireless signals to tablets and cell phone devices. In one of their first experiments, the chip could tell the difference between solutions of purified water, artificial saliva, 50 percent alcohol and wood alcohol. It would then wirelessly signal to a nearby receiver via radiofrequency, similar to how EZ Passes work. They demonstrated that different concentrations of glucose, a type of sugar, could be distinguished, even in liquids that had sugar concentrations like those found in fruit drinks.

Biotech

Can We Fight Drug-Resistant Bacteria With Non-Antibiotic Drugs? (economist.com) 62

Slashdot reader Bruce66423 shares what researchers learned by studying the effect of drugs on bacteria in the gut: The research reveals that it's not just antibiotics that have the effect of causing resistance to antibiotics. "Of the drugs in the study, 156 were antibacterials (144 antibiotics and 12 antiseptics). But a further 835, such as painkillers and blood-pressure pills, were not intended to harm bacteria. Yet almost a quarter (203) did....

"However, Dr Maier's study also brings some good news for the fight against antimicrobial resistance. Some strains she looked at which were resistant to antibiotics nevertheless succumbed to one or more of the non-antibiotic drugs thrown at them. This could be a starting point for the development of new antimicrobial agents which would eliminate bacteria that have proved intractable to other means."

Every drug the researchers tested has already been approved for human use -- which means they could all eventually be used as a second wave of antibiotics.
United States

The American Midwest Is Quickly Becoming a Blue-Collar Version of Silicon Valley (qz.com) 171

An anonymous reader quotes a report from Quartz: The economic engine of Silicon Valley seems to have driven right by the midwest. America's urban coastal cities have enjoyed an explosion in their technology sectors. New York's Silicon Alley and Boston's biotech corridor are world-class incubators of talent and startups. Austin (Texas), Seattle (Washington), Washington, D.C, and even Miami Beach claim a piece of the digital economy (and Silicon-something monikers). But what about Columbus and Indianapolis and Kansas City? After years in the doldrums, their fortunes are rising. Venture capital firms are setting up shop. Startups are clustering in old industrial strongholds. But the region's tech sectors look different than their coastal cousins. The midwest is seeing the rise of "mid-tech."

Alongside the traditional high-flying software jobs that are plentiful in Silicon Valley, mid-tech jobs, loosely defined as tech jobs requiring less than a college degree, are growing fast in the Midwest. While not an official designation, mid-tech jobs can be defined as skilled tech work that doesn't require a college degree: just intense, focused training on the job or in vocational programs like those of blue-collar trades of the industrial past. [...] Mid-tech jobs composed more than a quarter of all tech employment in major midwestern metropolitan areas, including Columbus, Ohio; Cincinnati, Ohio; St. Louis, Missouri; Detroit, Michigan; Nashville, Tennessee; and Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minnesota-Wisconsin. More than 100,000 people were employed in such jobs in these cities alone. That proportion never cracked 20% in Bay Area metropolises, the heart of Silicon Valley. While the analyses did not include all cities, it reveals the tech sector's evolution in the Midwest along different lines than Silicon Valley.
The findings come from the Brookings Institute, a nonprofit public policy research group, which crunched data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. High and mid-tech jobs in midwestern cities also grew at an annual compounded rate of about 5%. What do these jobs look like? "In Kentucky, the technical skills once applied to things like calculating blast trajectories in mines are going into Javascript," reports Quartz. "The software firm Interapt has set up a training program in Eastern Kentucky to turn former coal miners and others with technical aptitude into software developers."
Science

A Biohacker Regrets Publicly Injecting Himself With CRISPR (theatlantic.com) 131

Sarah Zhang, reporting for The Atlantic: When Josiah Zayner watched a biotech CEO drop his pants at a biohacking conference and inject himself with an untested herpes treatment, he realized things had gone off the rails. Zayner is no stranger to stunts in biohacking -- loosely defined as experiments, often on the self, that take place outside of traditional lab spaces. You might say he invented their latest incarnation: He's sterilized his body to "transplant" his entire microbiome in front of a reporter. He's squabbled with the FDA about selling a kit to make glow-in-the-dark beer. He's extensively documented attempts to genetically engineer the color of his skin. And most notoriously, he injected his arm with DNA encoding for CRISPR that could theoretically enhance his muscles -- in between taking swigs of Scotch at a live-streamed event during an October conference. (Experts say -- and even Zayner himself in the live-stream conceded -- it's unlikely to work.) So when Zayner saw Ascendance Biomedical's CEO injecting himself on a live-stream earlier this month, you might say there was an uneasy flicker of recognition.

Ascendance Bio soon fell apart in almost comical fashion. The company's own biohackers -- who created the treatment but who were not being paid -- revolted and the CEO locked himself in a lab. Even before all that, the company had another man inject himself with an untested HIV treatment on Facebook Live. And just days after the pants-less herpes treatment stunt, another biohacker who shared lab space with Ascendance posted a video detailing a self-created gene therapy for lactose intolerance. The stakes in biohacking seem to be getting higher and higher. "Honestly, I kind of blame myself," Zayner told me recently. He's been in a soul-searching mood; he recently had a kid and the backlash to the CRISPR stunt in October had been getting to him. "There's no doubt in my mind that somebody is going to end up hurt eventually," he said.

Businesses

Why Hiring the 'Best' People Produces the Least Creative Results (qz.com) 333

An anonymous reader shares an excerpt from a report written by Scott E. Page, who explains why hiring the "best" people produces the least creative results: The burgeoning of teams -- most academic research is now done in teams, as is most investing and even most songwriting (at least for the good songs) -- tracks the growing complexity of our world. We used to build roads from A to B. Now we construct transportation infrastructure with environmental, social, economic, and political impacts. The complexity of modern problems often precludes any one person from fully understanding them. The multidimensional or layered character of complex problems also undermines the principle of meritocracy: The idea that the "best person" should be hired. There is no best person. When putting together an oncological research team, a biotech company such as Gilead or Genentech would not construct a multiple-choice test and hire the top scorers, or hire people whose resumes score highest according to some performance criteria. Instead, they would seek diversity. They would build a team of people who bring diverse knowledge bases, tools and analytic skills. That team would more likely than not include mathematicians (though not logicians such as Griffeath). And the mathematicians would likely study dynamical systems and differential equations.

Believers in a meritocracy might grant that teams ought to be diverse but then argue that meritocratic principles should apply within each category. Thus the team should consist of the "best" mathematicians, the "best" oncologists, and the "best" biostatisticians from within the pool. That position suffers from a similar flaw. Even with a knowledge domain, no test or criteria applied to individuals will produce the best team. Each of these domains possesses such depth and breadth, that no test can exist. When building a forest, you do not select the best trees as they tend to make similar classifications. You want diversity. Programmers achieve that diversity by training each tree on different data, a technique known as bagging. They also boost the forest 'cognitively' by training trees on the hardest cases -- those that the current forest gets wrong. This ensures even more diversity and accurate forests.

Science

Naked Mole Rats Defy Mortality Mathematics (discovermagazine.com) 320

An anonymous reader shares a report: Naked mole rats are adorably ugly creatures that challenge what we think we know about aging. Naked mole rats can live to be 30 years old. Further, female mole rats show no signs of menopause, and remain highly fertile even into their final years of life. Neurogenesis in naked mole rats continues over two decades, and their hearts and bones don't seem to change significantly over time. They rarely get cancer. Hell, they can even live up to 18 minutes utterly deprived of oxygen.

[...] At Google's biotech company, Calico, in San Francisco, California, biologist Rochelle Buffenstein is looking to the naked survivors to unlock their secrets of aging. Buffenstein says naked mole rats violate to the Gompertz-Makeham law, and she has over 3,000 data points to back her conclusion. After reaching adulthood six months into their lives, a naked mole rat's mortality risk remained the same for the rest of its days her analysis revealed. Rather than grow exponentially, a naked mole rat's risk of death on any given day, no matter their point in life, hovered around 1 in 10,000. Surprisingly, their mortality risk even fell a little when they grew very old. In this sense, Buffenstein writes, naked mole rats have established themselves as "a non-aging mammal. This life-history trend is unprecedented for mammals," Buffenstein and colleagues wrote in a study published recently in the journal eLife.

Medicine

New Antifungal Provides Hope in the Fight Against Superbugs (sciencedaily.com) 33

dryriver shares news about the ongoing war against drug-resistant fungus. ScienceDaily reports: Microscopic yeast have been wreaking havoc in hospitals around the world -- creeping into catheters, ventilator tubes, and IV lines -- and causing deadly invasive infection. C. auris is particularly problematic because it loves hospitals, has developed resistance to a wide range of antifungals, and once it infects a patient doctors have limited treatment options.

But in a recent Antimicrobial Agents and Chemotherapy study, researchers confirmed a new drug compound kills drug-resistant C. auris, both in the laboratory and in a mouse model that mimics human infection. The drug works through a novel mechanism. Unlike other antifungals that poke holes in yeast cell membranes or inhibit sterol synthesis, the new drug blocks how necessary proteins attach to the yeast cell wall. This means C. auris yeast can't grow properly and have a harder time forming drug-resistant communities that are a stubborn source of hospital outbreaks... The drug is first in a new class of antifungals, which could help stave off drug resistance.

Medicine

A Popular Sugar Additive May Have Fueled the Spread of Two Superbugs (latimes.com) 125

Zorro (Slashdot reader #15,797) quotes the Los Angeles Times: Two bacterial strains that have plagued hospitals around the country may have been at least partly fueled by a sugar additive in our food products, scientists say. Trehalose, a sugar that is added to a wide range of food products, could have allowed certain strains of Clostridium difficile to become far more virulent than they were before, a new study finds. The results, described in the journal Nature, highlight the unintended consequences of introducing otherwise harmless additives to the food supply.
Nearly half a million people were sickened by C. difficile in 2011, when it was directly linked to 15,000 deaths. "The misuse and overuse of antibiotics has long been thought to be responsible for the rise of many kinds of antibiotic-resistant 'superbug'," notes the article, before citing a researcher who now believes "the circumstantial and experimental evidence points to trehalose as an unexpected culprit."
Biotech

The Orange Goo Used In Everything From Armor To Football Helmets (cnn.com) 96

dryriver writes: CNN has a story about a slimy, gooey orange gel developed by British company D3O as far back as 1999 that is very soft and fluid-like normally, but that hardens immediately when it receives an impact: It's a gel that acts as both a liquid and a solid. When handled slowly the goo is soft and flexible but the moment it receives an impact, it hardens. It's all thanks to the gel's shock-absorbing properties... Felicity Boyce, a material developer at D3O, told CNN, "if you hit it with great force, it behaves more like a solid that's absorbing the shock and none of that impact goes through my hand."

American football has become a huge market for the British company, where the gel is incorporated in padding and helmets to absorb the impact of any hits a player receives. D3O claims it can reduce blunt impact by 53% compared to materials like foam. The material can also be put inside running shoes to improve performance and reduce the risk of foot injury. Usain Bolt ran with D3O gel insoles in his shoes at the 2016 Rio Olympics.

The material is being tested in body armor. "While we don't have a material that can stop a bullet, we do have a material that can reduce the amount of trauma that your body would experience if you got shot." There are also soft smartphone casings using the gel that harden when the phone is dropped and hits a hard surface.

Medicine

America's Doctors Are Performing Expensive Procedures That Don't Work (vox.com) 233

"The proportion of medical procedures unsupported by evidence may be nearly half," writes a professor of public policy at Brown University. An anonymous reader quotes his article in Vox: The recent news that stents inserted in patients with heart disease to keep arteries open work no better than a placebo ought to be shocking. Each year, hundreds of thousands of American patients receive stents for the relief of chest pain, and the cost of the procedure ranges from $11,000 to $41,000 in US hospitals. But in fact, American doctors routinely prescribe medical treatments that are not based on sound science.

The stent controversy serves as a reminder that the United States struggles when it comes to winnowing evidence-based treatments from the ineffective chaff. As surgeon and health care researcher Atul Gawande observes, "Millions of people are receiving drugs that aren't helping them, operations that aren't going to make them better, and scans and tests that do nothing beneficial for them, and often cause harm"... Estimates vary about what fraction of the treatments provided to patients is supported by adequate evidence, but some reviews place the figure at under half.

Biotech

How Big Tech is Getting Involved in Your Health Care (bendbulletin.com) 50

Apple's financing a study to see whether irregular heart rhythms can be detected with an Apple Watch. But that's just the beginning, according to a New York Times article shared by Templer421: As consumers, medical centers and insurers increasingly embrace health-tracking apps, tech companies want a bigger share of the more than $3 trillion spent annually on health care in the United States, too... The companies are accelerating their efforts to remake health care by developing or collaborating on new tools for consumers, patients, doctors, insurers and medical researchers. And they are increasingly investing in health startups. In the first 11 months of this year, 10 of the largest tech companies in the United States were involved in health care equity deals worth $2.7 billion, up from just $277 million for all of 2012, according to data from CB Insights, a research firm that tracks venture capital and startups.

Each tech company is taking its own approach, betting that its core business strengths could ultimately improve people's health -- or at least make health care more efficient. Apple, for example, has focused on its consumer products, Microsoft on online storage and analytics services and Alphabet, Google's parent company, on data... Physicians and researchers caution that it is too soon to tell whether novel continuous-monitoring tools, like apps for watches and smartphones, will help reduce disease and prolong lives -- or just send more people to doctors for unnecessary tests. There's no shortage of hype," said Dr. Eric Topol, a digital medicine expert who directs the Scripps Translational Science Institute in San Diego. "We're in the early stages of learning these tools: Who do they help? Who do they not help? Who do they provide just angst, anxiety, false positives?"

The article notes Amazon's investment in cancer-detection startup Grail, Apple's investment in the Beddit sleep monitor, and Alphabet's acquistion of Senosis Health, "a developer of apps that use smartphone sensors to monitor certain health signals."

Alphabet also has a research unit developing tools to collect health data, and it's already financed "Project Baseline," in which 10,000 volunteers have agreed to testing of their blood, mental health, and DNA, as well as monitoring of their skin temperature, heart rate, and sleep patterns.
The Military

Neuro, Cyber, Slaughter: Emerging Technological Threats In 2017 (thebulletin.org) 38

"Wouldn't it be nice if advances in technology stopped throwing new problems at the world? No such luck," writes Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. "Several emerging technological threats could -- soon enough -- come to rival nuclear weapons and climate change in their potential to upend (or eliminate) civilization." Lasrick writes: In 2017, the cyber threat finally began to seem real to the general public. Advances in biotech in 2017 could lead to the deliberate spread of disease and a host of other dangers. And then there were the leaps forward made in AI. Here's a roundup of coverage from the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists on advances in emerging technological threats that were made in the last year.
One article even describes the possibility of malevolent brain-brain networks in the future, warning scientists (and the international community) to "remain vigilant about neurotechnologies as they become more refined -- and as the practical barriers to their malevolent use begin to lower."
Earth

Should Plant-Based Meat Replace Beef Completely? (pbs.org) 669

Long-time Slashdot reader tcd004 writes: Is beef still "what's for dinner?" Plant-based meat substitute startups say they could provide enough protein to feed the world using only 2% of the land on Earth, dramatically reducing the resources required to create beef products. And adopting plant-based burgers could help reduce heart disease, protect water resources, and stop deforestation. But Beef producers say no laboratory can beat a steer's ability to turn plant-based nutrition into tasty protein, and animals are the best source for natural fertilizer to grow crops. There's a coming war for your dinner plate. Who will prevail?
Biotech

Days Before Christmas, Theranos Secures $100 Million in New Funding (fortune.com) 96

An anonymous reader quotes Fortune: Call it a Christmas miracle -- albeit of a rather perverse sort. Theranos, the digraced medical-technology startup that infamously inflated the capabilities of its devices, has secured $100 million in new funding in the form of a loan. The loan, reported by the Wall Street Journal, will come from Fortress Investment Group. Fortress, whose other underdog bets include a private passenger rail line under construction in Florida, is set to be acquired by Japan's SoftBank. Theranos was reportedly on the verge of bankrutpcy...

By the end of 2016, the company reportedly still had $200 million in cash on hand, but had sharply limited prospects for attracting more capital. It has since settled a major lawsuit with Walgreens, a former client, for an undisclosed but likely substantial sum. According to the Journal, the Fortress loan is expected to keep Theranos solvent through 2018. That will give the company more time for its ongoing effort to reboot as a medical device manufacturer, rather than a testing service.

The loan is conditional on "achieving certain product and operational milestones," notes Fortune, adding "It's unclear whether those might include positive outcomes for the multiple investigations and lawsuits still facing the company."
Businesses

US Drugmaker Raises Price of Vitamins By More Than 800% (ft.com) 275

David Crow, reporting for the Financial Times: A US drugmaker is charging almost $300 for a bottle of prescription vitamins that can be bought online for less than $5, in the latest attempt at price gouging in the world's largest healthcare market. Avondale Pharmaceuticals raised the price of Niacor, a prescription-only version of niacin, by 809 per cent last month, taking a bottle of 100 tablets from $32.46 to $295 (Editor's note: the link may be paywalled; alternative source), according to figures seen by the Financial Times. Although niacin, a type of vitamin B3, is available in over-the-counter forms for less than $5 per 100 tablets, some doctors still prefer to use the version approved by the US Food and Drug Administration to treat high cholesterol. Avondale, a secretive Alabama-based company, put the price of Niacor up shortly after acquiring the rights to the medicine in a so-called "buy-and-raise" deal -- a strategy made famous by Martin Shkreli, the disgraced biotech entrepreneur.

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