Have researchers really discovered a ‘new miracle drug to cure nine in 10 cancers’? No, but the research is fascinating

October 18, 2015


You may have seen some of the headlines today reporting a new ‘miracle drug’ that could cure nine out of 10 cancers. It sounds amazing, but is it true?

Unfortunately, the answer is no. At least for now. But that’s not to say this isn’t important, promising new research.

The reports centre on the supposedly serendipitous discovery of a link between an experimental malaria vaccine for pregnant women and a molecule that sits on the surface of cancer cells.

So what did the study – published in the journal Cancer Cell – actually show?

What they did

The researchers – based at the University of Copenhagen – had been studying malaria in pregnant women, and the role a particular type of sugar molecule, called chondroitin sulphate, plays in the disease.

They already knew that the molecule, which is found on the surface of cells in the placenta, sticks to a protein – called VAR2CSA – that’s produced by the malaria parasite Plasmodium falciparum. And the team have been working on an experimental vaccine that uses the sticky interaction between chondroitin sulphate and VAR2CSA as a possible way to prevent malaria in pregnant women.

But the latest study behind today’s headlines showed something new – the specialised sugar molecule can also be found on the surface of some cancer cells. So the researchers decided to see if tweaking their experimental malaria vaccine might turn it into something that could kill cancer cells.

To test this, they added a toxin designed to kill cancer cells to the VAR2CSA protein, and added the modified vaccine to cancer cells grown in the lab. They also tested the vaccine by treating mice with prostate cancer, melanoma and a type of lymphoma.

Their experiments showed that the VAR2CSA was able to stick to the chondroitin sulphate on the cancer cells, delivering the deadly toxin that killed the cancer cells, but left healthy cells alone.

It’s exciting stuff. But did this research show that this modified malaria vaccine could be a ‘cure’ for nine in 10 cancers?

The short answer is no. (We think this press release might be where that misleading figure came from).

Not nine in 10

What the researchers actually showed was that in the group of cancer cells they studied – which didn’t include all types of cancer – the majority (95 per cent) of them also produced chondroitin sulphate on their surface.

This means that the malaria vaccine could potentially be used to target these cancers in the future. But not without a lot more research.

This study was done in mice, meaning before this modified malaria vaccine can be used to treat cancer in people we need to understand more about it, and whether it’s safe to be used in humans.

This would also require larger studies to see if the vaccine kills cancer cells in the same way in people, while leaving healthy cells alone and which patients with which cancers could benefit.

Only more research and clinical trials will be able to answer these questions.

So while this certainly is exciting research that could one day help cancer patients in the future, at the moment, it is not a ‘miracle’ drug that will cure nine out of 10 cancers.



By 2050, human-on-robot sex will be more common than human-on-human sex, says report

October 18, 2015


Can you imagine having sex with a humanoid robot? Apparently, this will be the norm in a few short decades. Futurologist Dr Ian Pearson has released a report in which he predicts the future of sex.

He released the report in partnership with Bondara, one of the UK’s leading sex toy shops.

Dr. Pearson makes the point that robotic sex toys – vibrators – have been in use for around a century, and that virtual reality porn is about to become mainstream.

So, what really is the taboo around sex robots – which have got some campaigners incredibly fired up?

In the report, Dr. Pearson writes:

  • By 2030, most people will have some form of virtual sex as casually as they browse porn today
  • By 2035 the majority of people will own sex toys that interact with virtual reality sex
  • We will start to see some forms of robot sex appearing in high-income, very wealthy households as soon as 2025
  • We will start to see robot sex overtaking human-human in 2050
  • Leisure spending could grow by a factor of five, and the sex market in 20 years could be three times bigger than today and seven times bigger by 2050.
  • Sex toys will account for a UK market of over £1bn

He makes the point that augmented and virtual reality technology are in development, with Oculous Rift being due for release in 2016.

As with the internet – over a quarter of internet searches, according to the report, are related to pornography – this will almost certainly be used for sex.

Some think that the ethics of watching virtual reality porn – simulating sex acts with a fake, 3D person – are no different than the ethics of having sex with a robot.

The market is going to grow as new technologies for sex develop

People are constantly looking for new ways to spice up their sex lives. This is proven by the fact that the sex toy market has been growing by 6% every year.

Dr. Pearson says: “That rate of growth can’t continue forever or it would soon be our entire spend, but underlying economic growth could stay around 2% for the next few decades at least, tripling incomes, and basic survival will take a smaller share of thatdue to automation and other technology reducing costs.

“That means that leisure spending could grow by a factor of five, and the sex market in 20 years could be three times bigger than today and seven times bigger by 2050.”

As the offerings become more diverse – so, when technology such as virtual reality and sex robots go on the market – people will be willing to spend more.

Why do we feel weird about sex robots?

Perhaps because they aren’t mainstream. It’s the belief of Dr. Pearson that, like porn, once a lot of people use it and it becomes normalised, people won’t be freaked out by it anymore.

This belief is shared by sex robot developer Matt McMullen, who has made it his life’s work to develop something that can turn humans on emotionally and physically.

McMullen uses a phrase called the ‘uncanny valley’ – he believes that if a sex robot is too human-like and too realistic, we get put off. He thinks it’s more effective to keep them slightly unrealistic.

He said: “A moving doll is different from a, you know, detailed-to-the-finest-skin-pore copy of a person — and then making it move, for me, is a little off-putting,

“If you keep it far enough away from super-realism, I think you’re in safer territory.”

Dr. Pearson is of the opinion that when robots improve in terms of look and feel, people will be less squeamish.

He said: “A lot of people will still have reservations about sex with robots at first but gradually as they get used to them, as the AI and mechanical behaviour and their feel improves, and they start to become friends with strong emotional bonds, that squeamishness will gradually evaporate.

“While some people will enthusiastically embrace relationship-free robot sex as soon as they can afford one, as early as 2025, it won’t have much chance of overtaking sex with humans overall until 2050.”


Mapping the genes that increase lifespan

October 18, 2015


Following an exhaustive, ten-year effort, scientists at the Buck Institute for Research on Aging and the University of Washington have identified 238 genes that, when removed, increase the replicative lifespan of S. cerevisiae yeast cells. This is the first time 189 of these genes have been linked to aging. These results provide new genomic targets that could eventually be used to improve human health. The research was published online on October 8th in the journal Cell Metabolism.

“This study looks at aging in the context of the whole genome and gives us a more complete picture of what aging is,” said Brian Kennedy, PhD, lead author and the Buck Institute’s president and CEO. “It also sets up a framework to define the entire network that influences aging in this organism.”

The Kennedy lab collaborated closely with Matt Kaeberlein, PhD, a professor in the Department of Pathology at the University of Washington, and his team. The two groups began the painstaking process of examining 4,698 yeast strains, each with a single gene deletion. To determine which strains yielded increased lifespan, the researchers counted yeast cells, logging how many daughter cells a mother produced before it stopped dividing.

“We had a small needle attached to a microscope, and we used that needle to tease out the daughter cells away from the mother every time it divided and then count how many times the mother cells divides,” said Dr. Kennedy. “We had several microscopes running all the time.”

These efforts produced a wealth of information about how different genes, and their associated pathways, modulate aging in yeast. Deleting a gene called LOS1 produced particularly stunning results. LOS1 helps relocate transfer RNA (tRNA), which bring amino acids to ribosomes to build proteins. LOS1 is influenced by mTOR, a genetic master switch long associated with caloric restriction and increased lifespan. In turn, LOS1 influences Gcn4, a gene that helps govern DNA damage control.

“Calorie restriction has been known to extend lifespan for a long time.” said Dr. Kennedy. “The DNA damage response is linked to aging as well. LOS1 may be connecting these different processes.”

A number of the age-extending genes the team identified are also found in C. elegans roundworms, indicating these mechanisms are conserved in higher organisms. In fact, many of the anti-aging pathways associated with yeast genes are maintained all the way to humans.

The research produced another positive result: exposing emerging scientists to advanced lab techniques, many for the first time.

“This project has been a great way to get new researchers into the field,” said Dr. Kennedy. “We did a lot of the work by recruiting undergraduates, teaching them how to do experiments and how dedicated you have to be to get results. After a year of dissecting yeast cells, we move them into other projects.”

Though quite extensive, this research is only part of a larger process to map the relationships between all the gene pathways that govern aging, illuminating this critical process in yeast, worms and mammals. The researchers hope that, ultimately, these efforts will produce new therapies.

“Almost half of the genes we found that affect aging are conserved in mammals,” said Dr. Kennedy. “In theory, any of these factors could be therapeutic targets to extend healthspan. What we have to do now is figure out which ones are amenable to targeting.”

Other Buck Institute researchers involved in the study include: Mark A. McCormick (first co-author), Mitsuhiro Tsuchiya, Scott Tsuchiyama, Arianna Anies, Juniper K. Pennypacker, Shiena Enerio, Dan Lockshon, Brett Robinson, Ariana A. Rodriguez, Marc K. Ting, and Rachel B. Brem. A full list of authors is included in the paper.

This research was supported by NIH grants R01AG043080, R01AG025549, R01AG039390 and P30AG013280, as well as NIH training grants T32AG000266, T32AG000057 and T32ES007032 and the Ellison Medical Foundation.

Story Source:

The above post is reprinted from materials provided by Buck Institute for Research on Aging. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.

Journal Reference:

  1. Mark A. McCormick et al. A Comprehensive Analysis of Replicative Lifespan in 4,698 Single-Gene Deletion Strains Uncovers Conserved Mechanisms of Aging. Cell Metabolism, 2015; DOI: 10.1016/j.cmet.2015.09.008

Elon Musk: We need to leave Earth as soon as possible

October 18, 2015


In all the billions and billions of planets in our home galaxy, humanity happens to find itself on one perfectly suited for life.

Earth isn’t without its hazards though. The planet has seen five mass extinctions throughout its history, due to cataclysmic disasters like giant asteroids and massive volcanic eruptions.

Billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk is worried about the next apocalypse.

He’s so concerned that he thinks we need to get off Earth and become a multi-planet species as quickly as possible, according to a post written by blogger Tim Urban called “How (and Why) SpaceX Will Colonize Mars.”

Musk’s reasoning is straightforward. Maybe by the time the next giant asteroid heads our way, we’ll have the technology to shield the planet or redirect the space rock. But if it’s something more catastrophic, like a nearby star exploding, we may all get vaporized. Musk says we can’t afford to wait around and find out.

In his blog post, Urban gives us another way to think about it: Imagine Earth as a hard drive, and every species is a word document saved on that hard drive. The hard drive has already crashed five times (those five mass extinctions), and each time it loses a huge chunk of those documents (species going extinct). So you can think of the human species as an incredibly valuable document created on that hard drive:

Now—if you owned a hard drive with an extraordinarily important Excel doc on it, and you knew that the hard drive pretty reliably tended to crash every month or two, with the last crash happening five weeks ago—what’s the very obvious thing you’d do? You’d copy the document onto a second hard drive.

That’s exactly why Musk is so hell-bent on Mars — it could become humanity’s backup drive.

Musk doesn’t want to send a handful of colonists, either; he’d like to launch 1 million people to the red planet. If we want anything resembling the industry and infrastructure here on Earth, and ample genetic diversity, then we’ll need at least that many people to get things going. That’s the only way we’ll survive as a species on Mars, Musk reportedly told Urban.

Later this year, via his rocket company SpaceX, Musk plans to reveal a spacecraft designed to carry as many as 100 people at a time to the red planet.


NASA challenged designers to make a Martian home — one company created something incredible

October 17, 2015


In response to a NASA challenge, 3D design firm Fabulous designed the Sfero – a  burrowing robot that 3D prints homes on Mars. The Sfero will access the iron in the Martian soil and the permafrost that NASA believes is underground to create a dome-shaped habitat that Mark Watney could only dream of.


The Future of Health and Medicine: In Your Pocket, Continuous, and Connected to the Cloud

October 11, 2015


This short video (with some fun integrated graphics) is from an interview I did with El País (the largest newspaper in Spain). It highlights some of the emerging technologies and approaches which have the potential to shift health, medicine and biopharma from an intermittent and reactive physician-centric mode, to an era of more continuous data and a proactive approach in which the individual is increasingly empowered and integrated into personalized wellness, diagnosis and therapy.

The video is below and some associated thoughts follow.

Diagnostics: Era of the Digital Black Bag

Digital diagnostics is coming to the home. Examples range from an eye, ear and throat exam—using connected devices designed for the patient like CellScopeMedWand and Tyto—to cardiac exams enabled by low-cost EKGs (AliveCor and Kito). Some devices will even do automated interpretations (i.e., the EKG interpreted by the app and sent to the cloud) where the diagnosis and management of disease will increasingly be enabled outside of the usual clinic, ER or hospital. Wearable patches that integrate multiple vital signs, such as those developed by Vital Connect and Proteus Digital Health, will enable more complex disease management and monitoring with ICU-level data—EKG, respiratory rate, temperature, position and more—outside of the clinical environment.

Connected, continuous and contextual measurements integrating behaviors detected by smartphone and internet of things (IoT) metrics—ranging from movement to social network activity—will be increasingly used in proactive mental health. Pioneers in this space include Ginger.io and technology platforms like Beyond Verbal (which analyzes the voice to detect emotion).

Altogether, as the sensors, wearables and other elements become commoditized, it will be those platforms that can leverage the data to manage, interpret and create the “check engine light,” or “OnStar for the Body” that will have the real value in bringing better care at lower costs.

Telemedicine: Beyond Video Chat

Clinical care will increasingly utilize technologies in the home or pocket of the patient or caregiver. The era of the “medical tricorder” (currently being spurred by the $10M Qualcomm Tricorder XPRIZE) will enable far better triage, diagnosis and guiding of therapy than we have available today—often, at best, a digital thermometer. All this will be combined with AI to make sense of the information and trends. Scanadu, with their Scout device, is already in FDA-sanctioned clinical trials with thousands of devices being tested in the field and as part of the XPRIZE competition.

While live chats with a clinician are now common (from MDLive to Doctor On Demand), asynchronous care is coming. New platforms include Curely which enables you to send text and images and allows the clinician to take their time, do research, and provide guidance. Don’t want to wait for a dermatologist? Try iDoc24, and send an image of your skin to a dermatologist for a consult.

As payors, payment incentives and larger healthcare systems increasingly get on board with value-based incentives, it will increasingly be your own clinician, not a random virtual one, that you may connect to. Feedback loops connecting patient and clinical care team will also be utilized—as exemplified by HealthLoop—to interact and proactively take action with patients following interventions. This will range from surgery to antibiotic prescriptions to tracking (enhanced with machine learning) chronic disease patients at home as is being pioneered by Sentrian Remote Patient Intelligence.

‘Digiceuticals’ Pill + App

As apps, the internet of things (IoT) blends with the internet of medicine (IoM), we will go “beyond the pill.” Apps will be prescribed with many drugs and other interventions as a means to track, tune and optimize, from diabetes to skin conditions.

Managing anxiety and depression, ADHD and sleep disorders and improving mindfulness and cognition with brain computer interfaces (like the Interaxon Muse) will be integrated with video gaming (as pioneered by Dr. Adam Gazzaley and his UCSF lab). Sometimes the app alone will be the therapy. Omada Health and their app plus connected wearables and a social network aimed at turning around pre-diabetic individuals is an example of effectively prescribing behavior change.

Workflow Is Key for the Clinician

More of healthcare is becoming mediated by digital, connected and mobile health (all buzzwords…soon it will just be health) and augmented with AI and machine learning—but these capabilities won’t really become useful until they enter into the clinical workflow. No clinician wants to log into multiple apps or have more raw data to sift.

We are still in the early days. Wearable and other health data is just beginning to flow through smartphones and into the EMR through platforms such as HealthKit. As incentives shift increasingly to value- and outcome-based care, the impetus to prescribe and connect the devices, apps, data and analytics into the clinician dashboard and workflow will become commonplace.

Daniel Kraft, MD is a physician-scientist, chair for medicine at Singularity University, and founder and chair of Singularity University’s Exponential Medicine conference.