Not All News Needs to Be Gloomy

One of the joys of working on the subject of human progress is learning about the many ways in which the world is becoming a better place. Keeping up with all of the scientific and technological breakthroughs is, of course, impossible. And so, here is a sliver of the good news that caught my eye last week.

We are one step closer to solving the problem of organ shortages

Harvesting organs from animals may provide the solution to the shortfall of human donors. However, two technical obstacles need to be overcome before animal-human transplants can become a medical reality. One is that human immune systems often reject foreign tissue. The second problem comes from the risk of disease transfer. According to George Church of Harvard Medical School, genetically engineering pigs may provide the key to overcoming this second problem.

Due to their size, pigs are natural candidates for animal-human transplants, but their DNA is naturally rife with dangerous PERVs, or porcine endogenous retroviruses. An innovative gene-editing technique known as CRISPER/Cas9 has the capacity to identify and delete specific sequences out of the genome. Upon discovering that a single porcine gene enables PERVs to infect human hosts, Dr. Church and his colleagues turned CRISPER/Cas9 against the culprit. Initial results suggest that this procedure may be a success, preventing human infection without compromising the pig cells.

Dissolving stent for heart arteries is coming to the hospital near you  

The Absorb stent, a dissolvable heart stent that is already marketed in Europe, has passed its first major test in a large study, paving the way for FDA approval in the United States. Heart stents are tiny cages inserted into an arterial passage to keep blood vessels from reclogging after specific angioplasty procedures. While metal stents are already available in the United States, they sometimes result in long term complications such as inflammation. In contrast, Absorb stents are designed to stay intact for a certain period, and then harmlessly dissolve, resulting in fewer such complications in the long-term. 

Looking to the animal kingdom for cancer cure

Two animals, elephants and naked mole rats, experience dramatically lower rates of cancer, which may provide inspiration to cancer researchers looking to tackle the problem in humans.  Since cancer is the result of errors in cell division, one would expect larger organisms with longer lives to experience higher cancer rates. Contrary to these predictions, elephants die from cancer in much lower rates than humans. A gene responsible for repairing DNA, TP53 gene is likely responsible for this disparity. While Elephants posses 20 copies of the TP53 gene, human only posses 1.

Naked mole rats also provide potential insights for fighting cancer since they apparently never develop it. Researchers discovered a polymer between naked mole rat cells, called hyaluronan. Experiments suggest that hyaluronan prevents cancer growth through regulating whether a cell grows or not.

Machine upgrades for the brain?

Cathy Hutchinson lost control of limbs due to brain-stem stroke at age 53, but advances in computer/brain interfacing have returned her ability to lift things on her own. As a research subject for the company Cyberkinetics, Cathy had a pill-sized brain implant inserted that enables her to control robotic limbs. This procedure works through converting the brain’s neural signals into a language comprehensible to computers. Computer/brain interfacing has the potential to link the brain to countless digital environments such as internet browsers and computerized exoskeletons.

Genetically modified cassava could help combat Vitamin B6 deficiency

Cassava is a staple of the sub-Saharan African diet, yet this plant contains woefully low levels of vitamins. As a consequence, vitamin B6 deficiency is prevalent in sub-Saharan Africa, which results in higher rates of cardiovascular and nervous diseases. However, a group of Swiss plant scientists claim to have engineered a genetically modified cassava with a several-fold increase in B6 levels over natural varieties. These scientists identified the two enzymes responsible for B6, PDX1 and PDX2, and introduced genes to augment their production. Field tests of these modified cassava plants resulted in stable yields under a variety of growing conditions, thereby confirming is potential efficacy as a means of reversing sub-Saharan Africa’s widespread B6 deficiency problem.