Glimpse of the Future

A skin-like device listens for coughs to catch early signs of Covid-19

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Photo: Northwestern University

Future Human

This flexible wireless sensor is designed to be worn just below the suprasternal notch — the dent at the base of the throat — to track symptoms of Covid-19. Developed by researchers at Northwestern University and the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab in Chicago, it continuously measures and interprets body temperature, heart rate, and respiratory activity, including coughing.

Many conventional wearable devices, like the Fitbit or Oura smart ring, also measure body temperature and heart rate but do so from the wrist or finger. The Northwestern team, led by bioelectronics expert John Rogers, PhD, wanted to design something that could better monitor breathing and respiratory sounds closer to the source. …


Reengineering Life

Gates plans to launch trials in the U.S. and sub-Saharan Africa within the next 10 years

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Photo illustration; Image sources: EzumeImages/Getty Images

Future Human

In sub-Saharan Africa, millions of people suffer from sickle cell disease, and an estimated 50% to 90% of children born with the ailment die before the age of five. Bill Gates says he has a plan to cure it.

The Microsoft co-founder and billionaire is investing millions of dollars into the development of low-cost gene-editing treatments that could be far more accessible than current transplant-based treatments. …


Glimpse of the Future

The tiny structures mimic Covid-19 infection in patients

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Photo: Arvind Konkimalla/Tata Lab

Future Human’s

These balloon-like structures are actually miniature lungs made of living tissues that “breathe” like the real thing. Known as lung organoids, they mimic the tiny air sacs of the lungs, called alveoli — where coronavirus infection and serious lung damage occur. They measure just a fraction of a millimeter in diameter.

To make them, researchers at Duke University started with lung stem cells and fed them a cocktail of nutrients and growth factors until they grew into 3D clumps that resemble miniature alveoli. When exposed to SARS-CoV-2 in a biosafety lab, the mini-lungs reacted to the virus in the same way as the lungs of Covid-19 patients. For instance, the cells launched an inflammatory response and released a “cytokine storm” of immune molecules. …


Reengineering Life

They used CRISPR to instill a genetic mutation that protects against the virus

A collage of photos: macaque monkeys, a dropper, and a nucliec acid stain
A collage of photos: macaque monkeys, a dropper, and a nucliec acid stain
Photo illustration, source: Mladen Antonov/Getty Images

Future Human

In 2008, Timothy Ray Brown became the first person to be cured of HIV. The year before, he received a bone marrow transplant to treat his leukemia that doctors hoped would treat his HIV, too.

In a bone marrow transplant, a person receives an infusion of blood stem cells from a donor, which find their way to the bone marrow and start making new, healthy blood cells. The donor, in Brown’s case, wasn’t just any donor: It was a person who had a rare genetic mutation in a gene called that effectively blocks HIV from entering cells. …


If approved, the companies’ Covid-19 vaccines would be the first of their kind

Syringe against covid-19 background.
Syringe against covid-19 background.
Photo: JOEL SAGET/AFP/Getty Images

Last week, drugmaker Pfizer and German biotech partner BioNtech announced that their Covid-19 vaccine was more than 90% effective in a clinical trial, sparking hope that an end to the pandemic may soon be achievable. More good news came this week, with an announcement from Massachusetts-based biotech firm Moderna that its vaccine was 94.5% effective. Not to be outdone, Pfizer released more data on Wednesday, showing 95% efficacy.

Stocks of the companies soared on the news. Anthony Fauci, MD, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, called the results “very impressive” and said 20 million Americans could be vaccinated against the coronavirus by the end of December or beginning of January. …


Reengineering Life

CRISPR was used to identify a gene for heat tolerance in corals

Filtered image of coral against a background of pipette and DNA.
Filtered image of coral against a background of pipette and DNA.
Photo illustration; Image source: Alexis Rosenfeld/Getty Images

Future Human

In 2016, the Australian Bureau of Meteorology recorded the hottest sea temperatures on record near the Great Barrier Reef, the world’s largest coral reef system. The heat wave lasted for weeks, triggering the worst bleaching event the reef has ever experienced. Nearly 30% of its corals died as a result.

Rising temperatures due to climate change threaten to bring on more coral bleaching and mass die-offs. Coral reefs are home to an estimated 25% of all marine species at some point in their life cycle, protect coastal areas from storms and erosion, and provide jobs to local communities. …


Limiting capacity to 20% could dramatically reduce infections

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Photo: Dan Gold via Unsplash

Using cellphone data, researchers have developed a new computer model that shows which indoor places, aside from people’s homes, drove the most Covid-19 infections in major U.S. cities this spring. The verdict? Restaurants, gyms, coffee shops, and hotels were the riskiest places for transmitting SARS-CoV-2.

Their report, published in the journal on November 10, also calls for restricting capacity at these places in lieu of complete lockdowns.

“Restaurants are by far the riskiest, about four times riskier than the next category, which are gyms and coffee shops, followed by hotels,” Jure Leskovec, PhD, an associate professor of computer science at Stanford University and senior author on the paper, said during a press briefing on Tuesday. …


Reengineering Life

Using gene editing to make heat-tolerant cows could result in ‘super calves’

Photo illustration of pipette in background with cows in foreground.
Photo illustration of pipette in background with cows in foreground.
Photo illustration; Image courtesy of AgResearch

Future Human

If we want to survive as the planet gets hotter, the animals we rely on for food will need to adapt to climate change. Some scientists think they can speed up that adaptation using gene editing.

One problem that farmers face is heat stress in dairy cattle, which happens when cows are exposed to high temperatures for too long. Cows that are heat stressed eat less, make less milk, and have a hard time conceiving. In hot temperatures with high humidity, heat stress can even cause death. In the United States, heat stress costs the dairy industry $900 million a year or more, and in the developing world, where small farmers rely on just a few animals for their livelihood, the impact can be devastating. …


What scientists are learning could make a difference in treatment

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Photo illustration sources (Getty Images): Jonathan Knowles; Andrew Brookes

In the early throes of the coronavirus pandemic, two brothers in the Netherlands fell sick with Covid-19. They were young — 29 and 32 — and previously healthy. But both brothers developed severe symptoms and, at the end of March, were admitted to the intensive care unit. Within days, the older brother couldn’t breathe on his own and needed ventilation. His younger brother came down with an unusually high fever and eventually died from complications of the disease.

A physician took note of the cases and contacted Alexander Hoischen, PhD, a geneticist at Radboud University Medical Center in Nijmegen, who set out to investigate why these brothers were so unusually affected. Sure, it could have been a coincidence, but Hoischen thought it was also possible that the brothers shared a genetic trait that compromised their immune systems. …


DNA storage could decrease our reliance on energy-intensive data centers

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Photo: DEA/A. Dagli Orti/Getty

So much of modern life is digital that the amount of data we’re generating is quickly outpacing the amount of storage space we have for that data. Not only does this mean we may need to build more massive data centers, but it’s bad news for climate change, too. The energy needs of data centers already account for about 1% of global electricity consumption, and that will only continue to increase.

As an alternative to computer servers, scientists have been exploring the idea of storing data in synthetic DNA. …

About

Emily Mullin

Staff writer, Future Human at Medium. I write about biotechnology and teach science writing at Johns Hopkins. Previously at MIT Technology Review.

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