How patient-on-a-chip tech could be the future of drug discovery

By Ben Hargreaves

Testing drug compounds on a chip designed to mimic human organs sounds closer to science fiction than reality, yet the technology already exists and is already being put to use. Ben Hargreaves discovers how the technology could provide more accurate safety predictions and even discover new treatments.

The limits of animal models in drug discovery are well known. If you are reading this then you are likely not a mouse, and as a result, will react to drug compounds differently. In testing new treatments, what is promising in animal models may not transfer particularly well to humans, which helps to explain why there is a 90% failure rate during clinical development. The low rate of success is one of the contributors to the high cost and the slow R&D process that takes promising compounds through early testing and into the clinic. Moreover, there is the question of the ethics of using animals, numbering in the millions each year, in clinical trials, which sees most euthanized at the end of the process.

The challenge that the pharma industry faces is the lack of better alternatives to animal models. There are existing alternatives, with one being human cell culture systems, which provide an environment that is closer to that which will eventually receive treatment but do not contain the complexity of a complete organism. An organoid system approach takes self-organising clusters of cells that grow in three dimensions, closely resembling real tissue and organs. Despite the potential, there are limiting factors such as the need to provide optimal culturing conditions for different types of organoid, with each potentially containing a range of cells types. An alternative to these systems is one that is growing in popularity and commercial application, a technology referred to as ‘organ-on-a-chip’.

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App could soon provide at-home test for brain diseases via ‘eye selfies’

A smartphone user can image the eye using the RGB selfie camera and the front-facing near-infrared camera included for facial recognition. Measurements from this imaging could be used to assess the user’s cognitive condition.

By John Anderer
SAN DIEGO, Calif. — You may soon be able to screen yourself for neurological diseases like dementia and ADHD using nothing but a smartphone. All you’d have to do is take a selfie — of your eyes. Researchers at the University of California-San Diego are developing a new app that uses eye recordings to assess cognitive health.

The app uses both a near-infrared camera (built into most new smartphones available today) and a “regular selfie camera” to track pupil size dilations. Those pupil measurements can then help to assess a person’s cognitive condition, study authors explain.

“While there is still a lot of work to be done, I am excited about the potential for using this technology to bring neurological screening out of clinical lab settings and into homes,” says first study author Colin Barry, an electrical and computer engineering Ph.D. student at UC San Diego, in a university release. “We hope that this opens the door to novel explorations of using smartphones to detect and monitor potential health problems earlier on.”

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Anti-aging technology is coming. Here’s how you can be ready for it

Billionaires like Jeff Bezos believe that aging is a disease that can be slowed, stopped, even reversed. But you have to be ready to receive its benefits.

The world’s billionaires are pouring money into age-reversal investments.

Last September, it came out that Jeff Bezos had invested in Altos Labs, a company pursuing biological reprogramming technology. “Reprogramming” is the scientific term for turning old cells young again. It was discovered in 2012 by Japanese scientist Shinya Yamanaka, who called it a potential “elixir of life.” The Nobel Prize in Medicine Committee seemed to agree.

Bezos—and Altos—aren’t the only ones.

There’s Google-backed Calico Labs, also focused on longevity via reprogramming. And Lineage Cell Therapeutics, backed by BlackRock, Raffles Capital Management, Wells Fargo, and others.

Coinbase Co-founder and CEO Brian Armstrong recently invested in a company working to radically extend human healthspan using epigenetic reprogramming therapies. Altogether, the anti-aging industry is expected to grow to over $64 billion by 2026, a 45% increase from its 2020 value ($44 billion).

So, why are billionaires like Jeff Bezos investing in age-reversal or “anti-aging” tech?

Because they have a Longevity Mindset.

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This robot could help surgeons treat stroke remotely

By Jennifer Chu.

MIT engineers have developed a telerobotic system to help surgeons quickly and remotely treat patients experiencing a stroke or aneurysm.

With a modified joystick, surgeons in one hospital may control a robotic arm at another location to safely operate on a patient during a critical window of time that could save the patient’s life and preserve their brain function.

The robotic system, whose movement is controlled through magnets, is designed to remotely assist in endovascular intervention — a procedure performed in emergency situations to treat strokes caused by a blood clot.

Such interventions normally require a surgeon to manually guide a thin wire to the clot, where it can physically clear the blockage or deliver drugs to break it up.

One limitation of such procedures is accessibility: Neurovascular surgeons are often based at major medical institutions that are difficult to reach for patients in remote areas, particularly during the “golden hour” — the critical period after a stroke’s onset, during which treatment should be administered to minimize any damage to the brain.

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Scientists Use New Ultrasound Tech To Treat Type 2 Diabetes Without Insulin

By Bharat Sharma

Scientists claim to have found a way to treat diabetes without insulinA new study published in the journal Nature Biomedical Engineering in late March deployed a special type of ultrasound called peripheral focused ultrasound stimulationThe treatment was able to treat type 2 diabetes in three animal species without requiring any additional medicines

Scientists claim to have found a way to treat diabetes without insulin. Apparently, the treatment worked in animals and human trials are on the cards next.

A new study published in the journal Nature Biomedical Engineering in late March deployed a special type of ultrasound called peripheral focused ultrasound stimulation(pFUS) to treat diabetes. It focused on the livers of subjects to assess whether sugar levels could be reduced.

The treatment was able to treat type 2 diabetes in three animal species without requiring any additional medicines.

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UK scientists’ breakthrough could save millions from drug-resistant infections

A “game-changing” antibiotic could be used as a “last line of defence” against superbugs to save millions of lives from otherwise drug-resistant infections after a breakthrough by UK scientists, a study suggests.

By Nina Lloyd

Researchers say they have developed new versions of the molecule teixobactin, which is thought to be capable of killing bacteria without damaging mammalian tissue.

Teixobactin was first hailed as a “game-changing” antibiotic in 2015, but the new project has developed “synthetic” classes of the drug, according to scientists.

These versions could destroy a wide range of microbes taken from human patients, a team including researchers from the University of Liverpool has found.

They also successfully eradicated methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus – a so-called superbug known as MRSA, which is resistant to several widely used antibiotics – in a study on mice.

More than 1.2 million people died in 2019 from antibiotic-resistant bacterial infections, according to a study published in The Lancet in January.

Scientists said the tests suggested that in future, patients may be treated with just one dose of teixobactin per day for systemic life-threatening resistant bacterial infections.

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Worm-on-a-Chip’ Could Diagnose Lung Cancer

A “worm-on-a-chip” device tracks nematodes’ movements toward odor molecules produced by lung cancer cells.

By Katie Cottingham, American Chemical Society

It could noninvasively diagnose cancer at an earlier stage.

Dogs can use their incredible sense of smell to sniff out various forms of cancer in human breath, blood and urine samples. Similarly, in the lab a much simpler organism, the roundworm C. elegans, wriggles its way toward cancer cells by following an odor trail. Today, scientists report a device that uses the tiny worms to detect lung cancer cells. This “worm-on-a-chip” could someday help doctors noninvasively diagnose cancer at an earlier stage.

The researchers will present their results at the spring meeting of the American Chemical Society (ACS). ACS Spring 2022 is a hybrid meeting being held virtually and in-person March 20-24, with on-demand access available March 21-April 8. The meeting features more than 12,000 presentations on a wide range of science topics.

Early diagnosis of cancer is critical for effective treatment and survival, says Nari Jang, a graduate student who is presenting the work at the meeting. Therefore, cancer screening methods should be quick, easy, economical and noninvasive. Currently, doctors diagnose lung cancer by imaging tests or biopsies, but these methods often can’t detect tumors at their earliest stages. Although dogs can be trained to sniff out human cancer, they aren’t practical to keep in labs. So Jang and Shin Sik Choi, Ph.D., the project’s principal investigator, decided to use worms called nematodes, which are tiny (~1 mm in length), easy to grow in the lab and have an extraordinary sense of smell, to develop a noninvasive cancer diagnostic test.

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Cell fusion ‘awakens’ regenerative potential of human retina

Cross-section of a retinal organoid, showing the location of different types of neurons such as ganglions (red) and Müller glia (green).

by Center for Genomic Regulation 

Fusing human retinal cells with adult stem cells could be a potential therapeutic strategy to treat retinal damage and visual impairment, according to the findings of a new study published in the journal eBioMedicine. The hybrid cells act by awakening the regenerative potential of human retinal tissue, previously only thought to be the preserve of cold-blood vertebrates.

Cell fusion events—the combination of two different cells into one single entity—are known to be a possible mechanism contributing to tissue regeneration. Though rare in humans, the phenomenon has been consistently detected in the liver, brain, and gastrointestinal tract.

A team led by ICREA Research Professor Pia Cosma at the Centre for Genomic Regulation (CRG) in Barcelona and funded by Fundació “la Caixa” has now found that cell fusion events also take place in the human retina.

The researchers tested whether cell fusion events could differentiate into cells that turn into neurons, which would show potential for tissue regeneration. The team fused Müller glia, cells that play a secondary but important role in maintaining the structure and function of the retina, with adult stem cells derived from human adipose tissue or bone marrow.

“We were able to carry out cell fusion in vitro, creating hybrid cells. Importantly, the process was more efficient in the presence of a chemical signal transmitted from the retina in response to damage, resulting in rates of hybridization increasing twofold. This gave us an important clue for the role of cell fusion in the retina,” says Sergi Bonilla, postdoctoral researcher at the CRG at the time of publication and first author of the study.

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Scientists created an artificial muscle from natural proteins that may transform reconstructive medicine

A microscopic photograph of muscle fibers. 

By Andrea Núñez-Torrón Stock
 and Nathan Rennolds

  • Researchers from the University of Freiburg created an artificial muscle from natural proteins.
  • According to the press release, it can contract autonomously by changing pH and temperature.
  • Natural proteins improve biocompatibility for use in implants and other prosthetics.

The creation of synthetic muscles is an important and growing field in robotics and reconstructive medicine. They could be key in the development of new implants and more sophisticated prosthetics. 

German researchers have now managed to create a synthetic muscle entirely from natural proteins, according to a press release from the University of Freiburg.

The team was led by Dr. Stefan Schiller and Dr. Matthias Huber from the livMatS Cluster of Excellence at the University of Freiburg. 

Natural proteins had been used to make artificial muscles before. But until now, there hasn’t been one that can contract autonomously using chemical energy.

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First Woman Has Been ‘Cured’ of HIV Using Stem Cells

The novel treatment using umbilical cord blood could help dozens of people with both HIV and aggressive cancers

By Corryn Wetzel

A woman of mixed race is the third person in the world believed to be cured of HIV after receiving a stem cell transplant from a donor naturally resistant to the virus, scientists announced last week. The success of the new method involving umbilical cord blood could allow doctors to help more people of diverse genders and racial backgrounds, Apoorva Mandavilli reports for the New York Times.

Two previous patients that appear to have been cured of HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, underwent a different treatment. Instead of using stem cells from umbilical cord blood, Timothy Brown and Adam Castillejo received a bone marrow transplant from donors with a genetic mutation that blocks HIV infection, reports Nicoletta Lanese for Live Science. Both bone marrow and umbilical cord blood, which is collected at the time of a baby’s birth and donated by parents, contain adult hematopoietic stem cells. Those stem cells develop into all types of blood cells that support the immune system.

When the female patient needed umbilical cord blood as a treatment for leukemia, her doctors chose a donor with natural immunity to HIV with the hope of helping her fight both illnesses. According to doctors, the woman, who is keeping her identity private, has now been free of the virus for 14 months.

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How sound waves could help regrow bones

Magnified image showing adult stem cells in the process of turning into bone cells after treatment with high-frequency sound waves. Green colouring shows the presence of collagen, which the cells produce as they become bone cells. Magnification: 60X.

by  RMIT University

Researchers have used sound waves to turn stem cells into bone cells, in a tissue engineering advance that could one day help patients regrow bone lost to cancer or degenerative disease.

The innovative stem cell treatment from researchers at RMIT University offers a smart way forward for overcoming some of the field’s biggest challenges, through the precision power of high-frequency soundwaves.

Tissue engineering is an emerging field that aims to rebuild bone and muscle by harnessing the human body’s natural ability to heal itself.

A key challenge in regrowing bone is the need for large amounts of bone cells that will thrive and flourish once implanted in the target area.

To date, experimental processes to change adult stem cells into bone cells have used complicated and expensive equipment and have struggled with mass production, making widespread clinical application unrealistic.

Additionally, the few clinical trials attempting to regrow bone have largely used stem cells extracted from a patient’s bone marrow—a highly painful procedure.

In a new study published in the journal Small, the RMIT research team showed stem cells treated with high-frequency sound waves turned into bone cells quickly and efficiently.

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Bionic eye tech aims to help blind people see

Existing bionic eye systems have a chip fitted to a person’s retina, which connects wirelessly to a camera fitted to glasses

By Bernd Debusmann Jr

Once upon a time there were some unusual Australian sheep, with exceptionally sharp eyesight.

The small flock spent three months last year with bionic, artificial eyes, surgically implanted behind their retinas.

These sheep were part of a medical trial that aims to ultimately help people with some types of blindness to be able to see.

The specific aim of the sheep test was to see if the device in question, the Phoenix 99, caused any adverse physical reactions – the bionic eye was said to have been well tolerated by the animals. As a result, an application has now been made to start testing in human patients.

The project is being carried out by a team of researchers from the University of Sydney and the University of New South Wales.

The Phoenix 99 is wirelessly linked to a small camera attached to a pair of glasses, it works by stimulating a user’s retina. The retina is the layer of light-sensitive cells at the back of the eye that convert light into electrical messages, sent to the brain via the optic nerve, and processed into what we see.

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