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Desensitization Therapy Might Someday Cure Autoimmune Disorders
Autoimmune disorders--what do we know about them? Turns out not much. Why are they increasing? Our squeaky clean environments and lack of contact with bacteria may be the reason. Fortunately, recent breakthroughs have brought new treatments, and a cure might even be on the horizon.
For sailors, a mutiny was one of the most harrowing and fearsome events, though if a sea captain was a tyrant, it could be justified. In the military and in government circles, treason is considered one of the most heinous crimes. It can see you put to death in many countries, and have your name maligned for generations. We’re looking at you Benedict Arnold! But what about when your own body turns against you, the ultimate form of treason? For 50 million Americans, this is their reality. They suffer from what is known as an autoimmune disorder.
Over 80 conditions fall into this category, 150 total if you count the rare varieties. This is when the body’s own immune system goes haywire and begins producing antibodies that attack healthy tissue, mistaking it for a foreign invader. Between five and eight percent of people living in the U.S. experience such a condition. That’s about 20% of the population. Common disorders include lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), multiple sclerosis (MS), type-1 diabetes, asthma, allergies, and psoriasis. In truth, autoimmunity can affect any organ or tissue in the body. Cases have been increasing in recent years, though scientists are unsure why.
Science has no clue currently what causes the immune system to act this way. One theory is called the hygiene hypothesis. The idea is that since we in developed nations live in tidy, antiseptic environments and don’t come into contact with bacteria that often, our immune systems aren’t sufficiently trained and so have a higher likelihood of breaking down and attacking the body.
Diagram of an antibody.
Such conditions usually strike women of childbearing age. These so favor females that at least one nonprofit says it should be treated as a woman’s health issue. There is a racial element too. Hispanic, African-American, and Native-American women are more prone to such conditions than Caucasians. Those who have a family history of a certain disease are at higher risk. Genetic factors however do not sentence one to such a fate. It will remain latent until something triggers it. Perhaps an infection or certain environmental factor. Usually symptoms come and go, but many conditions are progressive, even debilitating, leading to high medical costs and a hampered quality of life.
Currently, there is no cure. Autoimmune suppressing drugs are the most common treatment. This is dangerous however, for if the immune system is suppressed too far, it could leave the patient vulnerable to infection. These drugs also disrupt normal bodily systems and even make the patient more prone to tumor development. Steroids, physical therapy, and in extreme cases surgery are other options. Researchers are on the lookout for better ones. Thanks to advancements in stem cell and genetic research, biologics are now on the scene, and being used to treat cancer as well as autoimmune disorders. These are drugs that use the body’s own systems to help fight disease. Anti-TNF agents are one such type. These inhibit the tumor necrosis factor (TNF) which is essential to the development of inflammation.
Human stem cell.
Monoclonal antibodies is another method. These are molecules that mimic our actual antibodies, as a way to reconnoiter the immune system. These drugs are quite new, and must be given intravenously. That and the high cost have caused some patients to shy away from them. However, nine medications have recently been introduced, which have a good safety profile and are effective in significantly reducing symptoms in some patients.
Tissue and organ engineering is seen as another avenue for overcoming autoimmunity. Also, stem cell transplantation shows promise. Here, normal immune cells can be fashioned to replace those attacking the body, and in this way rework the immune system. Researchers are also discovering new biomarkers for these conditions, which should help them to determine what stage the disease is at, how active it is, how far it has progressed, and which therapy should return a sufficient response. These may even help develop new targets for therapy.
Three relatively new studies may have each found a pathway to reigning in or even eliminating these ghastly conditions. One study out of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) was led by Shimpei Kasagi. T-cells are the enforcers of the immune system, out to whack any disease causing pathogens in their way. In the NIH study, researchers fashioned specialized T-cells called regulatory T-cells, or Tregs which could eliminate faulty T-cells while preserving good ones. The experiment was successful in mice. But that doesn’t mean it will be in humans. If it is, it could provide what immunologists call the “holy grail” of treatment, leaving the immune system intact while eliminating the bad players in it.
A research team at the University of Bristol in the UK has discovered a way, not to eliminate aggressive cells, but to reprogram them. This type of therapy has been successful with allergies, what is known as “allergic desensitization.” The theory behind this new therapy is a century old. Here researchers offered a tiny amount of myelin—the protein which makes up the membrane that covers nerves. Affected T-cells attack this membrane, causing M.S. The team was able to convert aggressive cells back into protector cells. A third research team at Brigham and Women's Hospital (BWH) identified NAD+ (Nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide), a compound they say can also convert aggressive T-cells back into protective ones. These aren’t the end all and be all of the story, but there is hope that one such approach may someday lead to a cure to one, or perhaps all autoimmune disorders.
To learn more about autoimmunity click here:
How would the ability to genetically customize children change society? Sci-fi author Eugene Clark explores the future on our horizon in Volume I of the "Genetic Pressure" series.
- A new sci-fi book series called "Genetic Pressure" explores the scientific and moral implications of a world with a burgeoning designer baby industry.
- It's currently illegal to implant genetically edited human embryos in most nations, but designer babies may someday become widespread.
- While gene-editing technology could help humans eliminate genetic diseases, some in the scientific community fear it may also usher in a new era of eugenics.
Tribalism and discrimination<p>One question the "Genetic Pressure" series explores: What would tribalism and discrimination look like in a world with designer babies? As designer babies grow up, they could be noticeably different from other people, potentially being smarter, more attractive and healthier. This could breed resentment between the groups—as it does in the series.</p><p>"[Designer babies] slowly find that 'everyone else,' and even their own parents, becomes less and less tolerable," author Eugene Clark told Big Think. "Meanwhile, everyone else slowly feels threatened by the designer babies."</p><p>For example, one character in the series who was born a designer baby faces discrimination and harassment from "normal people"—they call her "soulless" and say she was "made in a factory," a "consumer product." </p><p>Would such divisions emerge in the real world? The answer may depend on who's able to afford designer baby services. If it's only the ultra-wealthy, then it's easy to imagine how being a designer baby could be seen by society as a kind of hyper-privilege, which designer babies would have to reckon with. </p><p>Even if people from all socioeconomic backgrounds can someday afford designer babies, people born designer babies may struggle with tough existential questions: Can they ever take full credit for things they achieve, or were they born with an unfair advantage? To what extent should they spend their lives helping the less fortunate? </p>
Sexuality dilemmas<p>Sexuality presents another set of thorny questions. If a designer baby industry someday allows people to optimize humans for attractiveness, designer babies could grow up to find themselves surrounded by ultra-attractive people. That may not sound like a big problem.</p><p>But consider that, if designer babies someday become the standard way to have children, there'd necessarily be a years-long gap in which only some people are having designer babies. Meanwhile, the rest of society would be having children the old-fashioned way. So, in terms of attractiveness, society could see increasingly apparent disparities in physical appearances between the two groups. "Normal people" could begin to seem increasingly ugly.</p><p>But ultra-attractive people who were born designer babies could face problems, too. One could be the loss of body image. </p><p>When designer babies grow up in the "Genetic Pressure" series, men look like all the other men, and women look like all the other women. This homogeneity of physical appearance occurs because parents of designer babies start following trends, all choosing similar traits for their children: tall, athletic build, olive skin, etc. </p><p>Sure, facial traits remain relatively unique, but everyone's more or less equally attractive. And this causes strange changes to sexual preferences.</p><p>"In a society of sexual equals, they start looking for other differentiators," he said, noting that violet-colored eyes become a rare trait that genetically engineered humans find especially attractive in the series.</p><p>But what about sexual relationships between genetically engineered humans and "normal" people? In the "Genetic Pressure" series, many "normal" people want to have kids with (or at least have sex with) genetically engineered humans. But a minority of engineered humans oppose breeding with "normal" people, and this leads to an ideology that considers engineered humans to be racially supreme. </p>
Regulating designer babies<p>On a policy level, there are many open questions about how governments might legislate a world with designer babies. But it's not totally new territory, considering the West's dark history of eugenics experiments.</p><p>In the 20th century, the U.S. conducted multiple eugenics programs, including immigration restrictions based on genetic inferiority and forced sterilizations. In 1927, for example, the Supreme Court ruled that forcibly sterilizing the mentally handicapped didn't violate the Constitution. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendall Holmes wrote, "… three generations of imbeciles are enough." </p><p>After the Holocaust, eugenics programs became increasingly taboo and regulated in the U.S. (though some states continued forced sterilizations <a href="https://www.uvm.edu/~lkaelber/eugenics/" target="_blank">into the 1970s</a>). In recent years, some policymakers and scientists have expressed concerns about how gene-editing technologies could reanimate the eugenics nightmares of the 20th century. </p><p>Currently, the U.S. doesn't explicitly ban human germline genetic editing on the federal level, but a combination of laws effectively render it <a href="https://academic.oup.com/jlb/advance-article/doi/10.1093/jlb/lsaa006/5841599#204481018" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">illegal to implant a genetically modified embryo</a>. Part of the reason is that scientists still aren't sure of the unintended consequences of new gene-editing technologies. </p><p>But there are also concerns that these technologies could usher in a new era of eugenics. After all, the function of a designer baby industry, like the one in the "Genetic Pressure" series, wouldn't necessarily be limited to eliminating genetic diseases; it could also work to increase the occurrence of "desirable" traits. </p><p>If the industry did that, it'd effectively signal that the <em>opposites of those traits are undesirable. </em>As the International Bioethics Committee <a href="https://academic.oup.com/jlb/advance-article/doi/10.1093/jlb/lsaa006/5841599#204481018" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">wrote</a>, this would "jeopardize the inherent and therefore equal dignity of all human beings and renew eugenics, disguised as the fulfillment of the wish for a better, improved life."</p><p><em>"Genetic Pressure Volume I: Baby Steps"</em><em> by Eugene Clark is <a href="http://bigth.ink/38VhJn3" target="_blank">available now.</a></em></p>
Meteorologists propose a stunning new explanation for the mysterious events in the Bermuda Triangle.
One of life's great mysteries, the Bermuda Triangle might have finally found an explanation. This strange region, that lies in the North Atlantic Ocean between Bermuda, Miami and San Juan, Puerto Rico, has been the presumed cause of dozens and dozens of mind-boggling disappearances of ships and planes.
A unique exoplanet without clouds or haze was found by astrophysicists from Harvard and Smithsonian.
- Astronomers from Harvard and Smithsonian find a very rare "hot Jupiter" exoplanet without clouds or haze.
- Such planets were formed differently from others and offer unique research opportunities.
- Only one other such exoplanet was found previously.
Munazza Alam – a graduate student at the Center for Astrophysics | Harvard & Smithsonian.
Credit: Jackie Faherty
Jupiter's Colorful Cloud Bands Studied by Spacecraft<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="8a72dfe5b407b584cf867852c36211dc"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/GzUzCesfVuw?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
Scientists discover burrows of giant predator worms that lived on the seafloor 20 million years ago.
- Scientists in Taiwan find the lair of giant predator worms that inhabited the seafloor 20 million years ago.
- The worm is possibly related to the modern bobbit worm (Eunice aphroditois).
- The creatures can reach several meters in length and famously ambush their pray.
A three-dimensional model of the feeding behavior of Bobbit worms and the proposed formation of Pennichnus formosae.
Credit: Scientific Reports
Beware the Bobbit Worm!<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="1f9918e77851242c91382369581d3aac"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/_As1pHhyDHY?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
The idea behind the law was simple: make it more difficult for online sex traffickers to find victims.