Episode 67-Freaky Research and Questions from the Mail Feed

Episode 66 was kind of all over the map. I touched on several bits of weird research that all have ethical concerns and answered a listener question about psychedelic therapy.

First up was the discussion on brain organoids that mimic infant brain development. The story cited was from FierceBiotech.com and can be found here. Other science outlets covered this one too so a quick search will turn up more on this. For an introduction to organoids the Wikipedia page is a good place to start.

The questions concerning psychedelic therapy brought up stuff that was discussed in my talk with VICE senior staff writer Shayla Love on TBFY In Conversation 20. You can check out her work here. It also touched on some things I covered in my podcast for Undark Magazine which you can find here. The placebo effect came up, along with the mention of convincing people they took a drug when in fact it was a placebo. This study is an example of that. A lot of my answer comes from the reporting I did for that podcast and reading of primary sources on psychedelics. If you’re interested again start with the Wikipedia, Shayla’s work and the Undark pod to get an overview. Reach out to me if you have further questions or try MAPS and The MIND Foundation. Both have links to resources and are at the forefront of the clinical trials. Finally, I also mentioned a Wiki page outlining the legality of psilocybin by country.

Rounding out the weird and freaky research topics was the story on human/monkey chimeras, in other words hybrid embryos. I mentioned both the Live Science story on the topic and The Economists article as well. The latter is behind a paywall but if you sign up you get 3 free articles a month. Both are worth a read and touch on the science and the ethical stuff. And finally, we have the re-infection trials upcoming at Oxford. This is the most interesting one for me and there isn’t any data to report yet. Just the info on what the trial will look like and what they are hoping to find, all of which can be found in Medical News Today.

Thanks as always for listening/reading and I want to mention that we set up a donations page for the show via Buy Me A Coffee. It is super easy to donate there and we appreciate any and all support. Mostly the costs are web hosting and online video call/interviewing subscriptions, plus my time researching, recoding, editing and posting. If you want to/can chip in that’d be great.

As always tell a friend about the show and get in touch so you too can be part of the show.

Be a part of the show by sending us your questions, comments or thoughts on Twitter, Instagram (@TwoBradForYou), by email at twobradforyou@gmail.com or leave a voice message at www.speakpipe.com/twobradforyou. We will read and listen to everything you send and play/read your messages on the show.

Episode 66 – Leaky Labs, Lockdowns and Revived Ebola

I’ve been having a lot of conversations about both the lab leak and are lockdowns harmful questions recently and also found some interesting new takes on both, meaning we had enough for a pod. Plus there was some fascinating new Ebola news that needed to be shared. Here are the references and some thoughts on this episode.

Both the lab leak and lockdown issues are waaaayyy to politicized. Hot take I know. Thankfully, I’ve felt the temperature decrease since the shitstorm in chief left office and it appears as though the discussion may be able to take place more rationally. Wishful thinking? Maybe. When looking at both questions though it becomes clear to me that no one can say definitely if lab leak or natural spillover is more likely or acccurately quantify the harm from lockdowns. That’s right, this episode is some classic fence sitting. As it should be with these contentious issues.

When it comes to lab leak there are two recent pieces I found helpful. One is from Undark magazine, by Charles Schmidt titled Lab Leak: A Scientific Debate Mired in Politics — and Unresolved. The other which Charles links to and references in his piece is an opinion pieces by Dr. David Relman (a legit doctor and disease researcher) published in the academic journal PNAS. His piece, Opinion: To stop the next pandemic, we need to unravel the origins of COVID-19, does a really nice job laying out what we know, what we don’t and how that missing information is essential to determining the origin. Without it, no one can say for certain how SARS 2 entered the population. Until then we wait and question anyone who says they know for sure.

On the lockdown issue, I came across epidemiologist, writer (he has written for such publications as The Guardian and The Observer) and podcaster Gideon Meyerowitz-Katz. Give him a follow on Twitter at @GidMK. He also writes a blog on Medium and he has looked into some of the available regarding the harms of lockdowns. Two blogs you should definitely check out are What Are the Negative Effects of COVID-19 Lockdowns? and Have Lockdowns Caused Suicides During COVID-19?. The short answer to the question of harm caused by lockdowns is that, at least in the short term, there doesn’t appear to be an increase in suicide or death. Gideon covers this quite nicely and uses data from this preprint paper The World Mortality Dataset: Tracking excess mortality across countries during the COVID-19 pandemic to demonstrate that “lockdowns” such as the drastically restrictive one in Australia didn’t lead to excess mortality. Remember the caveats of preprint papers of course that we discussed with Martin Nielsen in the last TBFY In Conversation episode. Gideon also explains how it is incredibly difficult to tease out the cause of any increase in mental health issues or disruptions to health care. Are they from being locked down or a consequence of the raging pandemic itself. Point being, again, we can’t say they are harmful or harmless.

Finally, the Ebola update!! There is unfortunately a new outbreak as of February 14th in Guinea. If you remember Guinea was the source of the huge West Africa outbreak in 2014-2016. This current one is so far small and efforts are underway to vaccinate people in the area. The interesting and alarming new piece of data is that it appears as though this outbreak was started by an yet unidentified individual who was still carrying virus from the 2014-2016 outbreak. We have discussed post Ebola syndrome several times on the show, most recently in Episode 65. Post Ebola syndrome is when survivors of the disease are found with virus hiding out in the body, particularly in tissues that the immune system has trouble reaching, the eyes, the testicles and central nervous system. Now, it looks as though this virus can in some cases revive itself and be infectious once more. This obviously has huge implications for Ebola prevention and management and is a new attribute of the virus. We will follow this of course and keep you Ebola updated. For an overview of this new finding check out this NY Times piece or coverage from The Scientist.

Be a part of the show by sending us your questions, comments or thoughts on Twitter, Instagram (@TwoBradForYou), by email at twobradforyou@gmail.com or leave a voice message at www.speakpipe.com/twobradforyou. We will read and listen to everything you send and play/read your messages on the show.

Episode 65 – Corona Variants, Ebola and Crap Fueled Rockets

Well, we took a short break mostly because Brad and his wife had a baby!! Thanks to everyone who reached out with congratulations.

While we were on this break, we received a listener question via Instagram regarding the new coronavirus variants. In short, the listener was wondering if aggressive travel restrictions might in fact create pockets of new isolates in each country/region that would then each require new vaccines and treatments? In other words, is there potential harm in isolating a new variant within a region or population. The quick answer is no, and we go into more depth about what we know about these new variants, evolution, selection and speciation in the episode, but every person the virus comes into contact with is a chance to mutate again so you want to limit those as much as possible. Therefore, travel restrictions are necessary, with the caveat that they aren’t perfect and will only slow spread not contain it. Obviously, we also want to limit spread as it these new variants are more contagious and left unchecked could create big surges in the case numbers and hospitalizations. For a nice summary of the situation check out this paper in JAMA. For the twitter users a good follow for reporting on the situation is Kai Kupferschmidt (@kakape). He writes regularly for Science magazine and his Twitter offers a lot of updates on this changing situation.

Next, we moved to our favorite virus…Ebola. No, there isn’t a new outbreak but rather some new research on survivors of the disease. A new Nature paper describes a study that found a high proportion of Ebola survivors have a surge in antibodies roughly 200 days after they’ve recovered (press release here). This was an interesting finding and the researchers aren’t really sure what’s causing it. We do know that Ebola virus particles can stay in the body, especially in places where the immune system can’t reach it like the eyes and testicles. It could be that these particles start replicating again and trigger the surge of antibodies. This might also point to the cause of post-Ebola syndrome, the situation where survivors suffer symptoms long after they’ve recovered, and this led us to speculate on similarities with long haul COVID cases. SARS-CoV-2 has also been found in many tissues throughout the body including the testes. Might pockets of remaining virus also be found in COVID survivors? Will we see similar antibody surges in survivors? Who knows but it is an interesting similarity.

Finally, we very briefly touched on a news story about a bio-fueled rocket company. This is the second story in a row we covered that could be categorized under sustainable space travel. The company bluShift Aerospace has designed a rocket and engine that runs on bio-fuel called Stardust. While they are keeping tight lipped about what exactly that fuel is (we think it has to be shit right?) they say it can be sourced from farms around the globe. The rocket itself is small and the company hopes that it can help make space research more accessible to students, researchers and small business because it is cheaper and simpler to launch. They’re pitch is that if SpaceX is like the freight trains to space, they will be the Uber to space, taking smaller payloads and launching on a polar orbit. This orbit doesn’t go around the equator but circles the globe longitudinally, crossing over the poles. These orbit paths offer more exposure to land and so projects looking to survey the world’s land masses may also find this an attractive option. Stardust 1.0 was a success and flew one mile high before parachuting down. Launch 2.0 will aim for sub-orbit with further models, called Red Dwarf planned to make the polar orbit trip.

Be a part of the show by sending us your questions, comments or thoughts on Twitter, Instagram (@TwoBradForYou), by email at twobradforyou@gmail.com or leave a voice message at www.speakpipe.com/twobradforyou. We will read and listen to everything you send and play/read your messages on the show.

Episode 63 – Coronavirus mRNA Vaccines Real Talk

If you don’t want to read the whole post, scroll directly to the bottom for all the references.

I was hearing questions and concerns from some listeners, friends and family about the new coronavirus vaccines and mRNA vaccines in general. These were all valid too. It’s important that we can chat about this stuff and express concerns that come from a genuine place of wanting to know more. Obviously, there is a group of folks that don’t want answers they want to tell you not to trust anything and for whatever reason, sow fear and confusion. We aren’t talking to them, but by addressing legit questions and doing our best to provide accurate and honest info, hopefully, the folks with dishonest, inaccurate info and intentions will occupy less space in the public conversation and the minds of people looking for answers.

Alright, with those intentions clearly stated, the types of concerns I saw revolved around how quickly these vaccines were developed and all the talk of them being new technology or a new type of vaccine. These things are true. They were developed faster than any vaccine in history (which is a great thing actually) and yes, mRNA vaccines have never received widespread approval in humans before. However, there are very normal, ordinary reasons and explanations as to why. It’s not that corners were cut, or that mRNA vaccines are inherently risky or dangerous.

First off, these vaccines undergo and continue to undergo the same safety/regulatory scrutiny and processes that any medicine or vaccine does, and this system works quite well. Vaccines are among the safest medical interventions we have. The reasons these came out so fast has to do with, the great need for a coronavirus vaccine and therefore attention and money that went into this, the technology behind mRNA vaccines themselves and the fact that both coronavirus specific vaccines and mRNA technology has been in development since at least 2003, even longer.

Two great sources I follow that help explain this are Peter Hotez and Florian Krammer. Both are vaccine and virus researchers at Baylor University and Mount Sinai, respectively. Follow them on Twitter (linked above on their names) as both actively provide quality information. Here is a short video of Dr. Hotez discussing how long these have been in the works and a link to Dr. Krammer, and others, debunking common coronavirus vaccine myths.

I also highly recommend this piece in STAT Magazine that lays out the whole history of mRNA technology. These advances are decades in the making and the promise of mRNA technology is huge. This is all covered in more detail on the pod, but in short, our ability to understand the genetic code and build short pieces of mRNA allow us to write recipes for our cells to build stuff. Our bodies do this all the time too, so really we are just taking advantage of normal, everyday biology. In cells, DNA from the genome, which contains all of the recipes (genes) to make each individual protein needed to build a living thing, are individually translated into short messages made of mRNA. This message can then move to the protein making machines in the cell, be read and produce a single protein. What scientists have been working on for years is, fine tuning a way that we can write our own mRNA messages and instruct our bodies to make medicines, proteins we are missing due to a genetic disease like Huntington’s disease, or in this case the spike protein from a coronavirus. In doing so our immune system reacts like it would to any vaccine. It recognizes that viral protein and builds antibodies.

This process of building an mRNA message for our cells also happens to be way easier and quicker from a lab work perspective compared to other vaccines. So-called traditional vaccines use a dead or weakened version of the virus or a viral protein that has been chopped off. To make these the whole virus must be grown in cell-cultures (small dishes full of cells), then removed, then killed, weakened or broken apart. This is time consuming and expensive work. So all of these factors together, the huge need and subsequent funding, the ease of building mRNA vaccines and the fact that mRNA technology and vaccines have been in the works for decades all contributed to the speed. And, the success of these vaccines so-far in clearing the normal regulatory process bodes really well for mRNA tech and vaccines moving forward. Here is a piece from Wired talking about this. If you want a reaaallll deep, nerdy dive here is a Nature review paper on mRNA vaccines. At least seven different mRNA vaccines, for diseases like Zika, flu, rabies and more, have been previously developed and are at various stages of clinical trial as well. So it’s not like these haven’t been in people before.

In terms of safety and the fact that this is the first use of these vaccines, well, there is a first time for everything. Again, the need, the decades of groundwork and the speed at which these can be made all led to now being the time to try out a mRNA vaccine in a big way. It is true though, that the idea of using injected genetic material to direct your cells to make virus protein sounds totally messed up. I’ve heard concerns that these will somehow mess with our own genomes and mutate us, or mutate in a super virus that we are now producing. Real talk? This can’t happen.

Messages made of mRNA can’t be translated back into and mess with the DNA that makes up your genome. This would required a very specific enzyme which humans don’t produce. If we did any virus we naturally got infected with would be able to do this and we would be totally effed. Remember that this process of using our cells to make viral proteins is exactly what viruses already do. They get in, release their genetic material and instruct our cells to make copies, die and then explode apart so all the copies can go infect more cells. The second backstop is that in an mRNA vaccine the instructions to make the whole virus, kill the cell and explode it aren’t there. The whole virus is never created, just a small piece that gets chopped up by the body after a little while. Without all of the instructions present the virus can’t replicate, mutate or run wild in your body.

Finally, people are worried about long term data, and yes, we still need more data. However, we have lots to work with and all of it indicate these are just as safe as any other vaccines. Both the mRNA vaccines coming out from Moderna and Pfizer recruited around 30-40 000 people for phase 3 trials. These are really big numbers and if there were major concerns we would know. If there wasn’t an emergency, yes more trials with more people from more places would occur and would continue to build on what we already know, that these are very safe but small groups of people with certain conditions may have complications. People with allergies or auto-immune disorders for example. And we would never hear about these trials until the vaccines gained full approval. What is happening now with emergency use approval is that rather than gathering this data through the slow closed off process of clinical trials; we’ve deemed ( and rightly so) that these are safe enough to start giving to people, especially high risk people, and collecting this extra data that way. Essentially, nothing has changed in terms of safety checks, data collection etc., except we are all watching the process play out in real time.

Things people do need to be aware of though. These vaccines have been shown to prevent people from getting sick. We don’t know if they stop you from getting and transmitting the virus or how long any protection lasts. Therefore, we should expect to continue masking and distancing for awhile. Also, there are reports that the usual vaccine side-effects of sore arm, fever, or chills that occur in some people and that indicate the vaccine is working, can be pretty bad. Here are a few sources on that from Medscape and Science. So if you get a bad headache, fever etc., this can last for 24-48 hours, but you’ll be fine.

The pod itself has some more details and thoughts from me, so do check it out. We can be excited about the vaccines but will need to stay vigilant with the other measures for awhile longer. If we do it’s possible we are at the beginning of the end. Stay safe y’all!!

References

Dr. Peter Hotez: The covid vaccine discovery was not a 4 month process, it was a 17 year process -MSN

6 dangerous COVID-19 vaccine myths debunked – Yahoo

The story of mRNA: How a once-dismissed idea became a leading technology in the Covid vaccine race – STAT

Why It’s a Big Deal If the First Covid Vaccine Is ‘Genetic’ – Wired

The promise of mRNA vaccines: a biotech and industrial perspective – Nature

COVID-19 Vaccine Has Potential Side Effects, Nurse Volunteer Says – Medscape 

Fever, aches from Pfizer, Moderna jabs aren’t dangerous but may be intense for some – Science

Episode 61-We Aren’t Culling Humans…Yet

I clearly missed the opportunity at the obvious Shakespeare quote for this episode as there are 15 million things rotten in the state of Denmark. They are of course mink carcasses

In this episode we talked about the new strain of coronavirus that appeared in Danish mink, spread to humans, leading to the culling of 15 million of the countries farmed mink and lockdown of roughly 250 000 people. Mink appear to be good hosts for coronavirus mutation too and this isn’t the first time new strains have popped up among them. There is currently no evidence that these strains are more deadly or infectious. The reason are for the immense precautions and strict measures has more to do with vaccines. If the new strain has a mutation in the now famous spike protein, which many vaccines being developed use as the thing they teach the body to recognize, then the vaccines may be less effective or even useless against this strain. None of this is confirmed as we don’t even have a working vaccine yet (although the Pfizer release was certainly a step in the write direction), but the Danish government and others aren’t taking any chances.

Since we recorded an in-depth investigation of 16 known mink farm outbreaks in the Netherlands was published in Science. The investigators used whole genome sequencing to reveal some interesting insights into mink-rona. First, they report that the mink likely got it from us in the first place, your welcome mink. The mink then gave it back after they passed it amongst themselves, no thanks mink. It is probable that there was widespread circulation of the rona among mink for awhile before it was detected. This provides the virus ample opportunity to mutate because mink aren’t built exactly like us so the virus adapts to work better in them, giving rise to the mink strain. There was some indication that the mutation rate, meaning how often a single base pair in the DNA changes, is higher in mink, but that isn’t 100% yet.

The mink-rona detectives also found three big transmission events in the Netherlands despite the strict measures enforced when mink outbreaks were first detected. They aren’t totally sure how this happened though, could be temporary workers moving between farms that weren’t identified and tested, could be moving animals, who knows. Finally, and this is important, they found direct evidence that the mink were indeed giving the strain back to humans. Mink farm workers were getting infected but the larger community in the areas around the farm weren’t. They even looked at some strains in Poland as a lot of the workers on these farms are seasonal and come from Poland to work, but there was no evidence the mink strains had travelled east.

The whole mink situation is interesting/concerning because it shows that these animals could be become a reservoir host. Reservoir hosts are animal populations that can carry disease and transmit it to humans so not ideal to be adding to the list of species that can cause a rona outbreak. It’s interesting from a biology perspective because if it is mutating faster in mink, why? Also, where are in the SARS-2 genome are the mutations occuring? Does the mink immune system exert some kind of specific pressure that causes the virus adapt in a certain way or is it just accumulating mutations at a faster rate? Fascinating stuff.

The other topic we covered this episode was the ethics of paying or compensating people for getting vaccinated. Here is the press release that alerted me to the story and the paper written by philosopher and ethicist Julian Savulescu. Essentially, he argues that if a vaccine is safe enough to roll out for voluntary use, it is ethical to offer incentives to those who get it in order to increase uptake. Honestly, it makes sense to me and if the economics of it work out, meaning if it costs less to pay people to get than it does to deal with the disruptions to business and stimulus needed to deal with a pandemic than I’m in. Savulescu points out that society already does something similar by paying for blood donations. I also saw the same argument being made for paying people to isolate/quarantine after exposure to corona. Again, whatever ends up being cheaper and more effective, I say do it. This does have me shook though because I always going on and on about most people being good and informed etc. The idea that we have to pay people to do the right thing blows a hole in that. It could still be that I am essentially right and this just demonstrates how the actions of a few ruin it for the rest. Also, a shitty reality to come to terms with, but one I find easier to accept.

I’m not going to recap the Nobel stuff we talked about. I figure if you’re interested in that beyond our cursory overview you’ve either already read all about this years awards, or you can do so yourself. These two were the interesting stories I wanted to link to and in the case of mink-rona provide a bit more info with the release of the Science paper.

Hit us up on the new show email, twobradforyou@gmail.com or the socials, @twobradforyou on Twitter and Instagram.

Episode 60-Corona Vaccines, Big Pharma and DIY’ers

The goals of this episode were to talk about why a vaccine trial may be halted, as one of the big one’s recently was, highlight why it is important to adhere to these protocols (ahem, Russia, China) and to explain a bit about the somewhat new technology being used in the COVID-19 vaccine frontrunners. Oh, and I heard about vaccine DIY’ers and had to bring that up.

First of all, the AstraZeneca trial was halted due to one participant having neurological symptoms. Sounds scary but this is exactly why you do large trials. If you enroll enough people you will hopefully get a sample that is representative of the huge amounts of diversity in humans. These symptoms could be from some pre-existing condition that they and potentially other may have. Or, it could solely be due to the vaccine, but in that case we would expect to see lots of people getting sick. The pre-existing condition could be a genetic factor that influences the way their immune system reacts to the vaccine. It could be an underlying health condition, like a bad heart for example. It could be that the vaccine pushed their body over a tipping point of sorts that then caused another condition. There are so many possibilities and again, exactly why you need to enroll tens of thousands of people so that no matter how rare the conditions, you’ve tested the vaccine against them.

But, the symptoms could be completely unrelated to the vaccine entirely. Perhaps, this persons caught some other disease or was genetically going to present with a disease like MS or Parkinson’s at this time regardless. This is what the vaccine trials are meant to determine and what researchers are investigating when they halt the trial. Point being, the trial stopping shows that the process is working not, the opposite.

This is why what Russia did is so concerning. They approved the use of their vaccine without doing these large Phase 3 trials. I think they tested their vaccine in roughly 80 people. Furthermore, scientists from outside of Russia, upon seeing the data available on these limited patients, were skeptical of the results. In an open letter they first criticized the lack of data made available for such a trial and laid out concerns that some of the data points appeared duplicated. They did point out that this doesn’t mean they fabricated the data but that two patients having the exact same responses to two different formulations of the vaccine, in terms of antibody levels, etc., is extremely unlikely. This points to either an error or artificially inflating your sample size. Either way not good.

Finally, I talked about mRNA and DNA vaccines. The front-runners for a COVID-19 vaccine are mostly using these types of vaccines and while this type of vaccine platform has been around for many years, it has never be widely or successfully used in a human vaccine. Let’s back it up and explain what I mean by vaccine platform. All vaccines work on the principle that you expose the immune system to something that will trigger a response, called an antigen. The response you are trying to provoke is the production of antibodies. These are immune cells that learn to recognize different antigens and they are stored in the body so that the next time you encounter this antigen, the stored antibodies for said antigen are ready to quickly identify it, start to attack it and direct the rest of the immune system to attack it, before it can cause a serious infection. So what we mean by vaccine platform is, what specific type of antigen are you using and how are you getting it into the body to be recognized and provoke the creation of antibodies. Common platforms are inactivated or weakened viruses, pieces of a virus, like a protein or something, or small amounts of a toxin produced by bacteria. Depending on the infectious agent, bacteria or virus, different platforms have been proven to work better than others and they all have pros and cons.

DNA and mRNA vaccines are a unique and new platform because rather than using a weakened or dead pathogen, or a piece of a pathogen, they introduce a segment of the pathogens genetic material into the body. DNA and mRNA are both types of genetic material and the goal is that our cells will take up this material and read-it, just like read our own genes and produce proteins. In this way our own cells will create the antigen and expose our immune system to it. This has a major advantage in terms of speed of production which is why COVID vaccines are moving along a such fast pace and if successful could change the vaccine game forever. Unlike the traditional vaccine platforms where scientists must culture and grow a shit ton of virus or bacteria then kill it or isolate the one bit they are going to use in the vaccine, which takes a ton of time and effort, the genetic vaccines only need a small bit of DNA or mRNA which is extremely easy and quick to make. The trick is finding the right way to introduce this genetic material into the body. One of the delivery mechanisms being trialed involves inserting the antigen gene into another harmless virus. And I know, all of this sounds scary but this is what viruses already do. Infect our cells and get them to produce their own DNA and genes rather than our own. So, it really isn’t unprecedented. What remains to be seen is whether or not these types of vaccines can produce a strong enough immune response.

Finally, we need to temper expectations. These things should be safe, but the only way we’ll know is if we allow the trial process to play out as it should. Meaning not allowing politics to get in the way. Check out the interview I referenced between Medscape editor Eric Topol and known vaccine bad-ass Paul Offit. I also mention in the episode how communications surrounding these vaccines needs to better and mention another OG in the vaccine world that is out there doing his best to communicate this stuff, Peter Hotez.

As I said before, if these vaccines work it could be a game changer. With todays sequencing technology the number of genes for all sorts of antigens we could identify is enormous and this could be done extremely quickly. Then, with a proven delivery method, vaccines for new pathogens that pop up could be made rapidly, hopefully halting a pandemic in it’s early stages. Optimistic I know, but this a potential silver lining to the bucket of shit this pandemic has been.

To keep track of all the latest on COVID-19 vaccine and treatment developments follow the STAT News COVID Drugs and Vaccine tracker. And as always shout out to STAT for all their biotech and corona coverage.

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Episode 59-Emerging from the Internet Chrysalis

Episode 59-Emerging from the Internet Chrysalis

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When I suggested to the boys we talk cyborgs it was because of two stories that crossed my desk. The one about hacking into biological communication networks and the new organic polymer coatings for neural implants that reduce interference in the signal. The idea of tapping more directly into cellular electrical systems was interesting to me and different from the classic cyborg idea. 

We did of course talk about the usual robot limbs and prosthetic technology and got around to a start-up I found that wants to develop a tail for astronauts, unfortunately there isn’t a lot to this project yet. In related cyborg projects that sound cool but don’t have a lot to show yet, we touched on Elon’s Neuralink project and the demo they had earlier this week. This one, for me, is interesting and I do love the futurist speculation that comes along with it, but it’s a long way off and definitely feels like more hype than substance. I’m waiting to see them do something or show some potential that hasn’t already been done. In terms of linking things to brains, be it computers or robotics, I brought up Brazilian neuroscientist Miguel Nicolelis. This isn’t the first time he’s come up on the show and he’s done some interesting things with rodent and primate studies showing how amenable the brain is to adding new abilities via computer/electronic interfaces. The other neuroscientist we mentioned was Kevin Warwick, the guy who is experimenting on himself by implanting chips and stuff in his own body. I’m sure he’s a real hoot to have at the dinner table. 

As we alluded to at the beginning of the episode, we had to postpone this podcast because Jared slept in. However, he and I did chat that day for a good long time about many things, including robot skin. We were bouncing ideas back and forth about what other robot organs would be cool and skin was one of them. A lot of what I found on this topic is based on giving prosthetic’s a sense of touch or the ability to feel pain. This improves function as grip strength and pressure can be better controlled by the user. There are other ideas though too, including straight up robot skin and also skin for robots.

Fun topic and I’m glad we covered it. Here is one final website I found that is quite interesting if you’re interested in all things robotics, it’s from the robotics department of the Swiss National Center ofCompetence in Research. Enjoy!!

Episode 58-Updates on Ebola, Malaria, Corona and Starships

Episode 58-Updates on Ebola, Malaria, Corona and Starships

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Here are the usual Ebola update resources from the World Health Organization and Doctors Without Borders.

For the information on the new finding of drug-resistance in malaria parasites from Rwanda you can check out the news clip from the BBC-Malaria in Africa: Parasite ‘resistant to artemisinin’ or the research paper published in Nature-Emergence and clonal expansion of in vitro artemisinin-resistant Plasmodium falciparum kelch13 R561H mutant parasites in Rwanda.

Again from the Nature is the research paper describing another pathway for SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus from bats to humans, Evolutionary origins of the SARS-CoV-2 sarbecovirus lineage responsible for the COVID-19 pandemic. For a more generalized take on the story you can check multiple news sources such as Live Science-Ancestors of coronavirus have been hiding out in bats for decades, ready to infect humans, Bloomberg-New Coronavirus Turns Out to Be Decades Old — in Bats or again the BBC-Covid-19: Infectious coronaviruses ‘circulating in bats for decades’.

And finally, Elon’s starship. Here is a piece from Inverse-SPACE X Starship: Elon Musk outlines next steps for ‘crazy tall’ ship. Also, check out the Space X website for the starship that Brad talked about on the show.

 

Cut Free Gene Editing and Ancestral Genetic Potential

The ability to edit the genetic code – the recipe book for making every living thing – is ground breaking technology and the discovery of CRISPR has made it drastically easier to do. CRISPR, as you’ve likely heard, is often described as DNA scissors that scientists can use to more precisely edit genomes. Make no mistake though; we have been editing the genomes of domestic plants and animals for thousands of years via selectively breeding. Only in the last 60 or 70 years have we  brought this process into labs, and CRISPR is just the latest innovation.

CRISPR, for as often as it is praised, is actually not as easy to use as it seems. Snipping out exact pieces of DNA is tricky, repairing these cuts even trickier and the most difficult trick of all is adding new genes into the genome. This cutting of DNA can also be harmful if cuts are not properly repaired. So, while CRISPR is extremely useful perhaps there is an easier way to make some useful changes to our genetics, a way in which genes are not cut out, but switched on and off.

Genes, segments of DNA that code for proteins, are found within the genome and the proteins they code for are what living things are made of. In every cell exist all the biological machinery necessary to scan DNA for genes, read the code, translate this code into a message (mRNA) and send this message off to a protein builder (the ribosomes). The process of gene editing by way of  CRIPSR therefore removes a gene, meaning our cells will never again produce that protein. This is obviously a good thing if that protein is faulty and leads to disease. It turns out though that our cells have their own systems for deciding which genes get read.

Within each cell are all the genes needed to make up the whole organism, but only a fraction of these are ever used by any particular cell. So, while the recipe for an entire human exists in every cell, the cells in our bodies never use all of the genes in the recipe book. Skin cells only read and activate the genes that make skin; heart cells only use genes that make heart muscles.  Our cells regularly decide which genes to read and translate at any given time. Understanding these controls, a field of research known as epigenetics, is a potentially safer way to selectively edit the genome.

Epigenetics researchers have discovered a number of ways in which the body decides which genes to use. Sometimes, the message, the strand of mRNA that has been created by reading the DNA, is destroyed on route to the protein building machines, effectively silencing the gene. This method is being explored in Huntington’s disease research to halt the production of the faulty Huntington protein and stop progression of the disease (we discuss this on episode 22 of the TBFY podcast). Methods are also being developed that inactivate the cutting mechanisms of CRIPSR, instead using them to find and activate the natural on / off switches cells use. Another method is to block access of the cells gene reading machinery to areas of the genome you don’t want read. This is done by adding methyl groups to the DNA which prevent the binding of the gene reading proteins.

What is truly fascinating about epigenetics though is that things like environment, age or stress play a role in turning genes on and off. Because of this, our bodies can retain certain genes that are only switched on when we are faced with certain external situations. These genes are never lost, but, rather kept tucked away in case we one day need them again. Sometimes, ancient genes which have long been turned off are turned on by accident resulting in humans with tails, or whales and dolphins born with tiny legs. Ancient traits from long ago, turned off overtime, only to be turned on again by a slight malfunction in one of the many gene regulation mechanisms.

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Label C on this whale skeleton shows the reduced former legs of whales that sometimes develop further into actual legs or extra fins.

One fascinating example of unlocking this ancestral genetic potential was conducted by researchers working with the genus of ant Pheidole. Within this genus of ant there exists many different species that all evolved from a single ancestor. Like most types of ants, the species in the Pheidole genus have at least two different castes of individuals, smaller workers who forage and build and larger soliders who defend the nest. Ants become one or the other depending on the environment and food they are provided during the larval stage. However, in some species of Pheidole ant a super soldier subcaste is also produced.

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Super soldier next to a worker. Photo credit Alex Wild @ alexanderwild.com

Super soldiers are even larger and have huge jaws they use to protect the openings of nests from raids by army ants. Naturally, the species that produce super soldiers exist in areas where army ant raids are common and where the terrain creates nest openings that are cracks, something the large headed soldiers are perfectly adapted to defend. When researchers noticed what looked like super solider-esque anomalies in a species in which they did not typically occur they began to wonder, could we induce super soldier development and show that the trait is in fact present but has been turned off?

By studying the development of real super soldiers they were able to find the right set of modifications to the larval environment needed to produce super soldiers. As it turns out this trait likely exists in most species of the Pheidole genus but has been turned off in all but two.

Exploiting the natural genetic on / off switches is extremely complicated no doubt, but, it could be safer for treating genetic disease and may also unlock some of our own ancestral genetic potential. What ancient secrets might our genomes hold? Do we too have “super” potential from a time when human existence required more strength, speed or even tails?