Archive for the ‘Health’ Category

#1,104 – Metformin

Over the last five years I’ve written about a lot of amazing inventions, technological breakthroughs, and scientific discoveries.  I’m constantly marveling at all that we’ve accomplished and the breakneck speed at which new innovations continue to occur.  But through it all one nagging thought has always bothered me: what’s the point?

None of us are going to be around in a hundred years to reap the benefits.  Humanity may not even survive much longer anyway.  For the steady march of innovation to be worth all the time and attention we pour into it we need an end game.  We need something to aim for.  Figuring out a way to live forever or to download our consciousness into a machine would achieve that goal.  With time on our side we could fully appreciate technological progress the way it was meant to be appreciated.  Thankfully, that goal may now be within reach.  All thanks to a cheap, over the counter drug that might be able to not only extend our lives, but also improve our health along the way.

As Wired puts it, “The drug in question, Metformin, costs about five cents a pill. It’s a slightly modified version of a compound that was discovered in a plant, Galega officinalis. The plant, also known as French lilac and goat’s rue, is hardly the stuff of cutting-edge science. Physicians have been prescribing it as an herbal remedy for centuries. In 1640, the great English herbalist John Parkinson wrote about goat’s rue in his life’s work, Theatrum Botanicum, recommending it for ‘the bitings or stings of any venomous creature,’ ‘the plague,’ ‘measells,’ ‘small pocks,’ and ‘wormes in children,’ among other conditions.”

In modern times Metformin is primarily used to treat people who have diabetes or who have been diagnosed as being at risk of getting diabetes.  It’s worked so well though that doctors began to notice its other health benefits.

According to Wired, “When the FDA approved it as a diabetes treatment in 1994, there was little reason to think it would someday become one of the hottest topics in medicine. But in the following two decades, researchers started comparing the health of diabetics on Metformin to those taking other diabetes drugs.  What they discovered was striking: The Metformin-takers tended to be healthier in all sorts of ways. They lived longer and had fewer cardiovascular events, and in at least some studies they were less likely to suffer from dementia and Alzheimer’s. Most surprising of all, they seemed to get cancer far less frequently—as much as 25 to 40 percent less than diabetics taking two other popular medications. When they did get cancer, they tended to outlive diabetics with cancer who were taking other medications.”

But that’s not all.

“In addition to exploring its potential to help treat the most common afflictions of aging, researchers are now also investigating whether metformin might improve symptoms of autoimmune disorders, tuberculosis, and erectile dysfunction, among other conditions. And while much of this research is still in its early stages and may fizzle, Metformin is already prescribed off-label to treat obesity, polycystic ovarian syndrome, infertility, nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, and acne—not bad for a plant that the USDA officially lists as a noxious weed.”

To be clear, Metformin, isn’t a true fountain of youth.  Technically speaking it’s not going to extend our lifespans.  But it may do something equally important: expand our healthspans.  That period of time that enables us to live healthy lives before the onset of alzheimers, dementia and other age related diseases.  After all, living longer but suffering along the way isn’t something that most people would be in favor of.  Having a better qualify of life for longer on the other hand?  Now, that’s something that everyone would sign up for.

Is Metformin really as good as advertised? That remains to be seen.  But given its long history, lack of side effects, and the amount of attention currently being paid to it, I’d have to say that I like its chances.

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Is Metformin the Greatest Idea Ever?

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To some people the future will always be out of our reach; impossible to predict despite the best efforts of today’s leading futurists and science fiction authors.  To others, we’re already living in it.  There are plenty of examples that could be used to help support either argument but one idea happens to work as an example for both: synthetic biology.  On the one hand, we’re starting to scratch the surface of what is possible so you could argue that the technology has already arrived.  On the other hand, the science is so new to use that we probably can’t even imagine how it will play out.

One person who may have a good idea of what is possible though is maverick pioneer Craig Venter.  Already one of the world’s leading synthetic biologists, Venter has now, for the first time, invented a machine capable of turning his own wild science fiction fantasies into a reality.

The machine is known as a DBC, a Digital to Biological Converter, and it sounds like something straight out of Star Trek.  The machine, once further refined, and shrunken down to a more manageable size so as to be commercially viable, would be capable of completing some pretty mind blowing tasks.  A homeowner could have one to print out the medications that they need to take or to create a sudden vaccine during a disease outbreak.  An astronaut could use one to print out life on another planet, thereby eliminating the need to transport already existing people across the vastness of space.  The machine could even be used to terraform a planet or to send unique alien lifeforms back to Earth from another world.  The possibilities are truly endless.

The Singularity Hub explains how it works:

“While automated DNA printers have already hit the market, the DBC takes it one step further. The machine is capable of building proteins from the genetic code (printing biological hardware, so to speak), bringing it one step closer to building living cells from scratch.

At the heart of the system is Archetype, proprietary software that optimally breaks down the input DNA sequence into more manageable short sequences to synthesize in parallel. This massively increases efficiency and reduces sequencing errors that increase with longer DNA strands.

Once assembled, the machine scans the strands for any errors before ‘pasting’ the bits back into complete DNA assembles. From there, a series of robotic arms transfer the DNA from module to module, automatically adding reagents that turn the synthetic genes into functional proteins.”

Obviously there is still a lot more work that needs to be done before we start seeing DBC’s on every street corner.  And if the struggles of the 3-D printing industry have taught us anything it’s that printing on demand isn’t as widely a sought after convenience as one might have imagined.  But then again, having the ability to print out your own medicine and vaccines could change that.  As could its ability to help us colonize space.

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Is the DBC the Greatest Idea Ever?


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#1,088 – AtomNet

Penicillin was discovered by accident.  Viagra was originally intended as heart medication.  When it comes to drug discovery we’re often flying blind, hoping that we get lucky and stumble upon a game-changing medication.  Our only other option isn’t very appealing: good old fashioned, labor-intensive trial and error.

As the Singularity Hub explains:

“To create a new drug, researchers have to test tens of thousands of compounds to determine how they interact. And that’s the easy part; after a substance is found to be effective against a disease, it has to perform well in three different phases of clinical trials and be approved by regulatory bodies.  It’s estimated that, on average, one new drug coming to market can take 1,000 people, 12-15 years, and up to $1.6 billion.”

Thankfully, we may now have a workaround.  A new AI drug discovery process known as AtomNet capable of analyzing all of the potential molecule pairings in order to point us in the right direction.  The system can’t directly discover drugs on its own, not yet at least, but it can significantly increase our odds of doing it ourselves.

So how does it work?!

According to the Singularity Hub, “The technology aims to streamline the initial phase of drug discovery, which involves analyzing how different molecules interact with one another—specifically, scientists need to determine which molecules will bind together and how strongly. They use trial and error and process of elimination to analyze tens of thousands of compounds, both natural and synthetic.  AtomNet takes the legwork out of this process, using deep learning to predict how molecules will behave and how likely they are to bind together. The software teaches itself about molecular interaction by identifying patterns, similar to how AI learns to recognize images.”

This is sort of like a video game cheat code for pharmaceutical companies.  Instead of putting in countless man hours to brute force hack the solution we now have a way to skip a level.  And best of all the process is already proven to work, leading to the development of new drugs to target Ebola and multiple sclerosis, with further testing on the way.

I’ve long held the belief that we’ve only begun to scratch the surface of drug discovery.  That there surely must be hundreds of other drugs still out there that we have yet to discover or create synthetically.  Now, thanks to AtomNet we might finally find out for sure.

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Is AtomNet from AtomWise the Greatest Idea Ever?

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With a massive heat wave heading our way now would be as good a time as any to talk about a new breakthrough that could enable all of us to get amazing tans this summer without ever exposing ourselves to the sun and the inherent risk of skin cancer.  The key to pulling off this feat is to trick the body into producing melanin instead of waiting for it to happen naturally.

As the NY Post explains, “When UV light hits the skin, the body starts producing melanin, which acts as a natural sunblock – so a good tan is just the body trying to protect itself. This new discovery tricks the body into producing melanin without being exposed to the sun’s harmful radiation.”

The article adds that:

“The discovery has been more than a decade in the making. In 2006, the same researchers discovered forskolin, a protein that, in mice, tricked the skin into releasing melanin.  Unfortunately, forskolin proved too weak to have the same effect on human skin, which is at least five times thicker than the skin of mice.  But this time around, the researchers explored a different protein, called salt-inducible kinases (SIK.) After adjusting and shrinking these proteins, scientists successfully darkened a petri-filled dish of leftover human skin collected from surgery rooms.”

It’s still going to be several years  before this breakthrough is turned into a commercial product as human trials would still have to be completed first.  But eventually we could see a product, such as a cream or lotion, that could essentially enable us to acquire tans even if we don’t venture outside.

This product wouldn’t be a substitute for suntan lotion but rather a supplement that would aid in our efforts to get the perfect tan and would be perfect for introverts who don’t like to go outside, for people who fear getting skin cancer, or for people who don’t live in sunny climates.

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Is tricking the body into getting a tan the Greatest Idea Ever?


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On a seemingly daily basis there’s a new invention or innovation that demonstrates that we are living in the future.  Today is no different thanks to the creation of organic electronics that are capable of revolutionizing a myriad of fields from manufacturing to healthcare.  So, what exactly are we dealing with here?

As Futurism explains, “Organic electronics are devices that rely on organic semiconductors. Those are electronic components made from carbon instead of the usual silicon. There are two kinds of these: small molecules or atoms, and long chains of plastics that have semiconducting properties. These organic semiconductors give new properties to electronic devices. They can make electronics soluble, allowing them to become inks, thus making them printable. We may then be able to print electronic devices as fast as printing documents.”

Being able to print electronic devices on demand sounds like our wildest 3-D printing dreams come true.  However, there are far more exotic uses for this technology that could wind up having an even bigger impact on everyday life.

According to Futurism, “More ambitious projects are using organic electronics for ultra-thin LED displays that can be worn on the skin, known as optoelectronic skins. There are also projects on biodegradable gadgets, and using those optoelectronic skins for health monitoring.”

Screens on our skins? Health monitoring devices seamlessly intertwined with the organic material in our bodies?  It sounds to me like our wildest Sci-Fi fantasies are also coming true.  But that’s not all!  Scientists are also hard at work developing a new thermoelectric fabric that could power these electronics using our own body heat.

As Futurism puts it:

“While researchers tinker away at making us part cyborg — or otherwise enhanced humans — scientists at Purdue University are working to make sure that we efficiently recycle human energy. With a specially designed fabric that can be woven to harness body heat and provide energy to power Internet of things (IoT) devices, the technology could mark a the dawning of a new age in medicine.

Using the flexible thermoelectric generator technology they designed, Kazuaki Yazawa of Purdue’s Discovery Park’s Birck Nanotechnology Center was able to weave semiconductor strings into a fabric. The technology is so precise that it can take heat from any complex surface and convert it into electricity.  Although it’s only a small amount of usable energy, it’s an improvement on existing thermoelectric generators: unlike technology before it, Yazawa’s unique semiconductor strings are far more flexible and easier to manage.”

Organic electronics.  Thermoelectric fabrics.  What’s tomorrow going to bring?  I have no idea.  Our current pace of innovation is staggering.  But that’s what’s great about the times that we live in.  Breakthroughs are happening all around us on a daily basis.  Blink and you might just miss something.

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Are Organic Electronics the Greatest Idea Ever?

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I’ve often wondered why our approach to healthcare is reactive instead of proactive as we treat illnesses and ailments only after they’ve already caused us harm and done damage to our bodies.  Take heart attacks for example.  Right now I have no idea how close I am to having one.  One of my arteries could be blocked 98% of the way and I’d have no idea.  I’d just wake up one day a few months from now, or a few years from now, complaining of shoulder pain, and possibly guess that I was having a minor heart attack.  Wouldn’t it make more sense though to know right this instant what my exact blockage percentage was?  Am I at 98%? Or is it more like 56%? Or 33%?

The same rationale holds true for cancer detection.  Why wait for a malignant diagnosis after cancerous cells have already metastasized and spread throughout your body when you could potentially start searching years ahead of time in order to catch the disease before it even starts?  With your life hanging in the balance wouldn’t you want to do everything possible to minimize the risk as much as possible?

Thankfully, there may soon be something that we can do to detect cancer ahead of time.  And best of all the solution is a simple, painless blood test.

As Science Alert explains, “Right now, our best method for detecting cancer is a biopsy – cutting out a small piece of the tumor tissue for lab analysis. But biopsies are often painful and invasive, and you need to already have a tumor or at least a suspect tumor to cut something out of it.  That’s why scientists have been working on devising blood tests that can do the same thing without any surgery, and with the promise of delivering a diagnosis much earlier.”

Known as liquid biopsies these blood tests are currently in development and offering promising early results.  In theory, they work by detecting fragments of DNA in the bloodstream that were discarded by the cancerous cells.  If these fragments exist you’re likely to develop cancer.  If they don’t, you’re in the clear.

As the Guardian puts it, “Like all cells, cancerous cells shed DNA as they die. Tests in development examine these bits of DNA in the bloodstream, finding mutations in already diagnosed cancers or, experts hope, diagnosing cancer early.”

The hope, in fact, is that these blood tests will become so commonplace that they’ll become a routine part of a regular physical checkup. Making cancer screening a quick and painless process that we won’t hesitate to sign up for.  And bringing us one step closer to the ultimate goal of true 100% proactive healthcare.


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Is a liquid biopsy the Greatest Idea Ever?

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This past weekend I drove up to Sedona and Flagstaff where I hiked by day and star gazed by night.  A light sleeper I decided to bring my pillows and a blanket with me so as to not risk a restless night at the hands of the hotel’s accommodations.  Friday night I was able to park right by my room so no one noticed me coming in.  But Saturday night I had to walk through the hotel lobby in order to get to my room.  Here I am, a grown man, walking through a hotel lobby carrying my blankie.  I dreaded the stares and comments that I would get and sure enough the hot girl at the front desk made fun of me.  Fine.  I probably deserved it.  But there are plenty of people who could soon benefit from carrying around a 25 pound blankie.  And that’s no laughing matter.

According to Futurism:

“In the United States alone, roughly 10% of the population is affected by a sleep disorder, and a staggering 18% of the population lives with an anxiety disorder. More than 11 million people suffer from ADHD. And this is just the beginning of the problem.”

So what can we do about it?  Drape ourselves in a comfortable blankie!!! The blanket, known as Gravity, works by applying pressure to key parts of our body and in so doing helping us to relax.

As Futurism describes, the process is called, “proprioceptive input (also known as “deep touch pressure stimulation”). It works by activating pressure points across your body. This relaxes the nervous system by increasing serotonin and melatonin levels while decreasing cortisol levels. In this respect, research into proprioceptive input shows that deep pressure stimulation produces a calming influence—one that decreases stress, improves sleep, and boosts mental health.”

The Gravity Kickstarter page adds that the blanket is, “engineered to be around 10% of your body weight, [and] helps relax the nervous system by simulating the feeling of being held or hugged.”

So the next time you see someone carrying around a blanket try not to make fun of them.  Even if they are a 34 year old man walking through the lobby of a hotel.  For all you know they could be an anxiety sufferer rocking the Gravity blanket.

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Is the Gravity Blanket the Greatest Idea Ever?

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