Nanotechnology vs. cancer: How tiny particles sniff out the deadly disease
We may be able to detect cancer soon by simply peeing on a stick.
SUSAN HOCKFIELD: Take them away from their loved ones, And cancer has been, for all of human history, among the most insidious. The best way to address cancer or any disease is to prevent it. Vaccines are enormously important in preventing disease. It's much harder to fix a disease once you get it than it is to prevent you from getting the disease. So vaccines are very important. For cancer, we've determined a number of carcinogens things that will drive the development of cancer in some people. And so prevention is sometimes avoidance. Stopping smoking. In the United States, smoking cessation has resulted finally in a reduction of deaths from cancer.
Staying away from asbestos, wearing sunscreen when you go in the sun. But even if all of us were to have all the vaccines that are prescribed and exercise all of the preventions, cancer would still be with us. Cancer is an aberrant function of a normal cell, where the regulators of that cell's dividing are broken and the cell starts to divide without regulation. Left to its own devices, that dividing without regulation will overcome the entire body. And that is how cancer kills you. Now cancer is easier to treat if you can stop it where it starts. Cancer usually starts as a very small group of aberrantly dividing cells. With time, those cells break loose from the original site and will metastasize to other sites and set up new cancers there. And these cells are very mutagenic.
That means their DNA changes very rapidly. Most cancer cells have lost the ability to regulate their DNA mutation. And it is a biological challenge to control cancer once it has progressed to a certain level. So if you can't prevent cancer, the next best strategy is early diagnosis. Because if you can stop it when it's only a few hundred cells, before it's escaped its original location and gone to another location, there's a very high probability of cure. We have some very good diagnostic tests that have reduced the rates of death from colon cancer and breast cancer. Quite remarkable advances on those two cancers and some others. But even those technologies don't detect cancer when they're small enough and don't detect it reliably enough. There is a possibility I say a very real possibility that using a biology-engineering convergence based on nanotechnology, we may have a way to diagnose cancers much earlier than we can today.
One example that I give in the book is from the laboratory of Sangeeta Bhatia. And she has devised a young approach that she calls synthetic biomarkers. Biomarkers are things that measure something that's going on biologically in the body. Synthetic means that her biomarkers are something that she has synthesized, and she's synthesized them using nanotechnology. So one of the remarkable things about living things, about humans, all animals and plants, is there's a lot of specificity. There's a specificity in different tissues. There's a specificity in different diseases. So for example, our skin looks different from our liver. It looks different from our brain. And it's because the cells that make up each of those tissues expresses a different set of genes and a different set of proteins. It's absolutely remarkable, and one of the most interesting pursuits in biology is understanding that kind of gene regulation. It is magical. It's fantastic.
We understand a little bit about it, but there's much more to be learned. Suffice it to say that in cancer, there's a certain set of genes that get turned on and those genes express a certain set of proteins. For a cancer cell to grow and spread, it has to get rid of the things that would normally inhibit spreading. So our normal cells don't migrate around. They don't even grow beyond the bounds of where they're supposed to be. But cancer cells make proteins called enzymes, and enzymes are molecular scissors that cut up the things that stand in the way of cancer growing and spreading. And these enzymes are relatively specific for cancer. So Sangeeta Bhatia has thought, well, if we could detect the expression of those enzymes, we would have a way of detecting cancer. And she does it with a very, very clever device.
She starts with a nanoparticle, and she decorates the nanoparticle with a short stretch of a protein that contains she has synthesized it to contain the site that a cancer enzyme will cut. So if you don't have cancer and you're injected with these nanoparticles, the nanoparticles continue to be whole and eventually will go the way of all things that we don't need in the body. But if you do have cancer, the cancer enzymes will clip these little proteins off and produce very, very tiny peptides, short stretches of protein. She's made those short stretches of proteins small enough that the kidney the kidney is the organ that filters our blood and produces urine but in the urine are no real proteins. The kidney's filter only allows very small things to pass. So these clipped off bits of protein, these little peptides, get filtered from the kidney into the urine.
And in her system, you do a urine test to see whether those little peptides are present. If you don't have they're not going to be there because you don't have the enzyme that cuts them off. If you do have cancer, you'll detect these peptides in the urine. Everyone knows about over-the-counter pregnancy tests, peeing on a stick. The same principle, that there are proteins that appeared in the urine if you're pregnant because these are very, very small proteins that get filtered by the kidney into the urine. They're cheap. So Sangeeta Bhatia's technology has a possibility of giving us inexpensive non-invasive tests so we can follow the progress of a disease, you can determine whether you have a disease or not.
She has a company called Glympse Bio that's Working on this for the marketplace. And I'm an enthusiast. I think this is a marvelous set of ideas. I wouldn't be surprised if in five or 10 years part of your annual physical exam would include the urine sample, which you give anyway, but monitoring that urine sample for the appearance of the signals of any number of diseases that if you can detect early, you can cure them and not simply contain them.
- Cancer is an aberrant function of a normal cell, where the regulators of that cell's dividing are broken and the cell starts to divide without regulation. Left to its own devices, that dividing without regulation will overcome the entire body.
- Until we have a cure, early detection is the holy grail. MIT professor Sangeeta Bhatia is currently devising a simple urine test that works just like a pregnancy test to detect cancer the moment it starts.
- How does it work? Nanoparticles are injected into the body that force specific peptides, previously invisible signs of cancer, to be easily detected in urine. In the future, this test may be part of your yearly physical check up.
- Scientists create 10-minute test that can detect cancer anywhere in ... ›
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While not the first such minister, the loneliness epidemic in Japan will make this one the hardest working.
- The Japanese government has appointed a Minister of Loneliness to implement policies designed to fight isolation and lower suicide rates.
- They are the second country, after the U.K., to dedicate a cabinet member to the task.
- While Japan is famous for how its loneliness epidemic manifests, it isn't alone in having one.
The Ministry of Loneliness<iframe width="730" height="430" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/I5FIohjZT8o" frameborder="0" allow="accelerometer; autoplay; clipboard-write; encrypted-media; gyroscope; picture-in-picture" allowfullscreen></iframe><p><a href="https://www.jimin.jp/english/profile/members/114749.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Tetsushi Sakamoto</a>, already in the government as the minister in charge of raising Japan's low birthrate and revitalizing regional economies, was appointed this <a href="https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2021/02/21/national/japan-tackles-loneliness/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">month</a> to the additional role. He has already announced plans for an emergency national forum to discuss the issue and share the testimony of lonely <a href="https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2021/02/12/national/loneliness-isolation-minister/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">individuals</a>.</p><p>Given the complexity of the problem, the minister will primarily oversee the coordination of efforts between different <a href="https://www.insider.com/japan-minister-of-loneliness-suicides-rise-pandemic-2021-2" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">ministries</a> that hope to address the issue alongside a task <a href="https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2021/02/21/national/japan-tackles-loneliness/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">force</a>. He steps into his role not a moment too soon. The loneliness epidemic in Japan is uniquely well known around the world.</p><p><a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hikikomori" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Hikikomori</em></a><em>,</em> often translated as "acute social withdrawal," is the phenomenon of people completely withdrawing from society for months or years at a time and living as modern-day hermits. While cases exist in many <a href="https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyt.2019.00247/full" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">countries</a>, the problem is better known and more prevalent in Japan. Estimates vary, but some suggest that one million Japanese live like this and that 1.5 million more are at <a href="https://www.nationalgeographic.com/photography/article/japan-hikikomori-isolation-society" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">risk</a> of developing the condition. Individuals practicing this hermitage often express contentment with their isolation at first before encountering severe symptoms of loneliness and <a href="https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2020/01/200110155241.htm" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">distress</a>.</p><p><a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kodokushi" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Kodokushi</em></a>, the phenomenon of the elderly dying alone and remaining undiscovered for some time due to their isolation, is also a widespread issue in Japan that has attracted national attention for decades.</p><p>These are just the most shocking elements of the loneliness crisis. As we've discussed before, loneliness can cause health issues akin to <a href="https://www.inc.com/amy-morin/americas-loneliness-epidemic-is-more-lethal-than-smoking-heres-what-you-can-do-to-combat-isolation.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">smoking</a>. A lack of interaction within a community can cause social <a href="https://bigthink.com/in-their-own-words/how-religious-neighbors-are-better-neighbors" target="_self">problems</a>. It is even associated with changes in the <a href="https://bigthink.com/mind-brain/loneliness-brain" target="_self">brain</a>. While there is nothing wrong with wanting a little time to yourself, the inability to get the socialization that many people need is a real problem with real <a href="https://bigthink.com/mind-brain/brain-loneliness-hunger" target="_self">consequences</a>.</p>
The virus that broke the camel's back<iframe width="730" height="430" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/Hp-L844-5k8" frameborder="0" allow="accelerometer; autoplay; clipboard-write; encrypted-media; gyroscope; picture-in-picture" allowfullscreen></iframe><p> A global loneliness pandemic existed before COVID-19, and the two working in tandem has been catastrophic. </p><p>Japanese society has always placed a value on solitude, often associating it with self-reliance, which makes dealing with the problem of excessive solitude more difficult. Before the pandemic, 16.1 percent of Japanese seniors reported having nobody to turn to in a time of need, the highest rate of any nation <a href="https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2021/02/21/national/japan-tackles-loneliness/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">considered</a>. Seventeen percent of Japanese men surveyed in 2005 said that they "rarely or never spend time with friends, colleagues, or others in social groups." This was three times the average rate of other <a href="http://www.oecd.org/sdd/37964677.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">countries</a>. </p><p>American individualism also creates a fertile environment for isolation to grow. About a month before the pandemic started, nearly<a href="https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2020/01/23/798676465/most-americans-are-lonely-and-our-workplace-culture-may-not-be-helping" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"> 3 in 5</a> Americans reported being lonely in a <a href="https://www.cigna.com/about-us/newsroom/studies-and-reports/combatting-loneliness/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">report</a> issued by Cigna. This is a slight increase over previous studies, which had been pointing in the same direction for years. </p><p>In the United Kingdom, the problem prompted the creation of the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness. The commission's <a href="https://www.ageuk.org.uk/globalassets/age-uk/documents/reports-and-publications/reports-and-briefings/active-communities/rb_dec17_jocox_commission_finalreport.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">final report </a>paints a stark picture of the U.K.'s situation in 2017, with millions of people from all parts of British society reporting feeling regular loneliness at a tremendous cost to personal health, society, and the economy.</p><p>The report called for a lead minister to address the problem at the national level, incorporating government action with the insights provided by volunteer organizations, businesses, the NHS, and other organizations on the crisis's front lines. Her Majesty's Government acted on the report and appointed the first Minister for Loneliness in <a href="https://time.com/5248016/tracey-crouch-uk-loneliness-minister/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">2018</a>, <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tracey_Crouch" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Tracey Crouch</a>, and dedicated millions of pounds to battling the problem. </p><p>The distancing procedures necessitated by the COVID-19 epidemic saved many lives but exacerbated an existing problem of loneliness in many parts of the world. While the issue had received attention before, Japan's steps to address the situation suggest that people are now willing to treat it with the seriousness it deserves.</p><p>--</p><p><em>If you or a loved one are having suicidal thoughts, help is available. The suicide prevention hotline can be reached at 1-800-273-8255.</em></p>
MIT professor Azra Akšamija creates works of cultural resilience in the face of social conflict.
Scientists use new methods to discover what's inside drug containers used by ancient Mayan people.
- Archaeologists used new methods to identify contents of Mayan drug containers.
- They were able to discover a non-tobacco plant that was mixed in by the smoking Mayans.
- The approach promises to open up new frontiers in the knowledge of substances ancient people consumed.
PARME staff archaeologists excavating a burial site at the Tamanache site, Mérida, Yucatan.
Do they really need the human touch?
- In Pinduoduo's Smart Agriculture Competition, four technology teams competed with traditional farmers over four months to grow strawberries.
- Data analysis, intelligent sensors and greenhouse automation helped the scientists win.
- Fourth Industrial Revolution technologies such as AI are forecast to deliver huge productivity gains – but need the right governance, according to the Global Technology Governance Report 2021.
Pinduoduo<h3>Growing potential</h3><p>Numerous studies show the potential for Fourth Industrial Revolution technologies like AI to boost economic growth and productivity.</p><p>By 2035, labour productivity in developed countries could rise by 40% due to the influence of AI, according to<a href="https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2020/12/ai-productivity-automation-artificial-intelligence-countries/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"> analysis from Accenture and Frontier Economics</a>.</p><p>Sweden, the US and Japan are expected to see the highest productivity increases.</p>