Livin' on the MDedge

Gene therapy is bad business, and hugging chickens is just … bad


Look ma, I’m writing with no hands

Imagine being able to type every thought you had without using your hands, the words just magically appearing on the screen as fast as you can think of writing them down. Well, with the help of a new brain-computer interface (BCI), you can.

In a recent paper published in Nature, a team of researchers described how they developed a whole new way of communicating that blows previous BCIs, which used a method of pointing and clicking on letters, out of the water as far as accuracy and speed are concerned.

Developed for individuals with medical conditions or other disabilities that prevent them from communicating verbally or manually, the technology involves placing tiny sensors on the brain in the areas that control hand and arm movements. All the individual has to do is think of the process of writing and the system does the rest.

Illustration of the brain ©Thinkstock

Even better, with continual use, the program’s algorithm comes to recognize the patterns of each letter, speeding up the number of words written. The previous record held for a BCI was about 40 characters per minute, but this new program enables users to type 90 characters per minute.

Think of how many emails you could reply to with just a thought. Or the LOTMEs we could write … or think? … Or think about writing?

Chicken noodle salmonella

Chickens and ducks sure are cute, especially babies, but humans should be extra careful around these animals for risk of salmonella. This isn’t a new thing to loyal readers of Livin’ on the MDedge.

As more people keep such creatures at home – Emily Shoop of Penn State University told the N.Y. Times that raising poultry was “the fastest-growing animal-related hobby in the United States” – the ducks and chickens are being treated more like house pets, which is sweet but not safe.

In the latest outbreak, more than 160 people, mostly children under 5 years old, have fallen ill from salmonella poisoning and more than 30 have been hospitalized across 43 states, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suspects the numbers could be higher because many did not get tested and recovered on their own.

Chickens JasonJiron/Thinkstock

People should refrain from kissing these animals and should wash their hands for at least 20 seconds after handling them, their products, or their manure. If they do happen to kiss and cuddle these animals, they should wash their face and brush their teeth.

It’s not that ducks and chickens are dirty creatures, but they naturally carry bacteria. Some can get salmonella from contaminated food, or even contract it from their mothers before birth.

We can’t speak for everyone, but we would find it hard to connect with an animal that’s going to end up on our dinner plate.

This kidney research rocks!

When kids pick teams on the playground, someone is going to get their feelings hurt by being chosen last. There’s no way around it. Someone has to be last.

It’s the same way with research teams. When scientists are trying to cure diseases or pioneer new surgical techniques, they get a team together. And who always gets picked last? That’s right, the geologist, because who needs a geologist when you’re studying brain-computer interfaces?

Turns out, though, that there was a research team that needed a geologist: The one studying kidney stones.

Illinois geology professor Bruce Fouke explains: “The process of kidney stone formation is part of the natural process of the stone formation seen throughout nature. We are bringing together geology, biology, and medicine to map the entire process of kidney stone formation, step by step.”

Kidney stones Mayandi Sivaguru

In its latest work, the team found that kidney stones develop as tiny bits of mineral called microspherules, which can then come together to form larger crystals if they are not flushed out of the kidney tissue. Some eventually become large enough to cause excruciating pain.

Their transdisciplinary approach, known as GeoBioMed, has produced a device the team calls the GeoBioCell, which is “a microfluidic cartridge designed to mimic the intricate internal structures of the kidney,” they said.

Great stuff, no doubt, but we’re thinking the geologists haven’t quite gotten over the whole last-picked-for-the-team business, or maybe they’re just really into Batman. They’ve named the GeoBioCell after themselves, and he had the Batmobile and the Bat-tweezers. Also the Bat-funnel. And the Bat-scilloscope.

Gene therapy: What is it good for? Absolutely nothing!

Gene therapy has the potential to permanently cure all sorts of terrible diseases, and one would assume that this would be something we all could agree on. Yes, no more cancer or diabetes or anything like that, no sane person could possibly be against this, right?

Oh, you poor naive fool.

To be fair, the report written by Goldman Sachs does lay out many potential applications for gene therapy, and all the markets it can expand into. But then the writers ask the question that they’re not supposed to say out loud: Is curing patients a sustainable business model?

Pogonic/Getty Images

They go on to say that, while it would obviously be of enormous benefit to patients and society to give a one-shot cure rather than forcing a long, drawn-out series of treatments, current therapies for chronic disease represent a major source of money that would be cut off if a permanent treatment were found. They specifically mentioned hepatitis C, which has achieved a cure rate of over 90% in the past few years. In 2015, Gilead – the maker of these treatments – brought in sales of over $12 billion from its hepatitis C cure, but the report estimated that in 2021 they would bring in only $4 billion.

The authors of the report suggested that developers focus on “large markets,” such as hemophilia; diseases with high incidence like spinal muscular atrophy; and on diseases such as the various inherited retinal disorders, where there’s plenty of room to constantly bring out new and exciting treatments without sabotaging the all-important money flow.

While we can accept that Goldman Sachs may be technically correct in their assertion that curing disease is bad for business, that’s about as far as our sympathy goes, unless the big biotech companies of the world would like a sad song played on the world’s smallest violin.

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