A Monthly Snapshot of Life-Changing Technology
June 30th, 2021
1. First Blood
A diagnostic tool developed using artificial intelligence can detect over 50 types of cancer before symptoms emerge.
The test from Grail, a US-based healthcare innovator, works by using a machine learning algorithm to examine chemical changes in DNA called methylation patterns. It's able to identify many types of cancer that are historically difficult to diagnose in early stages with an accuracy rate earning it a roll out for official screening. Because early detection of these diseases is so essential to effective treatment, scientists believe the test will have a profound impact on public health.
Up to Data
While the current data looks very promising to scientists, understanding the complexities of the test's accuracy involves a nuanced approach (namely because it's possible to test for so many types of cancer in so many areas of the body). NHS England's pilot later this year will involve 140,000 participants and expects study results in 2023. We're staying tuned!
2. The Little Things
A new microscope able to image tiny biological structures is hailed a noteworthy step forward in quantum technology.
The name's Bond. Atomic Bond.
Looking Into It
The microscope uses quantum technology to image the behavior of previously invisible biological structures, like atoms and subatomic particles. It's exceeded the limitations of classical physics and associated conventional methods to image with 34% more clarity––even at the scale of bonds between atoms. The technology uses principles in quantum entanglement to reduce the random light fluctuations in an image that would have previously obscured its subject.
Scope of Impact
This microscope is only an early prototype, but the engineers who worked on it believe its transcendence of classical limitations will impact many sciences with a range of possible applications. The technology is just a glimmer of its future self; field leading scientists purport it will be around 10 years before we see the real fruits of quantum microscopy.
3. In The Write Mind
A new device enables a paralyzed man to type words using only his imagination.
F. Willett et al./Nature 2021/Erika Woodrum
⏩100 years: I lay in bed, imagine doing my work...
Mind Over Chatter
An experimental brain-computer interface from Stanford University and Howard Hughes Medical Institute yields astonishing results for a spinal cord injury patient suffering from paralysis. Using two implanted sensors called microelectrode arrays, the device measures signals from about 100 neurons near the region of the brain used for handwriting. As the patient would imagine writing individual letters by hand, the computer monitored his brain activity and trained the program accordingly, differentiating the neural activity based on each letter. After years of training and development, he can now type up to 18 words per minute using the device, just by mental visualization.
The device is being called "a remarkable advancement" in the field of neural engineering and assistive tools for people with paralysis. Other approaches involve eye-tracking, or in the famous case of Steven Hawking, cheek-tensing. However, the "imagining" method looks to be a better alternative as it involves less energy output from the patient and doesn't require one to keep a direct focus on one specific spot.
4. In Plane Sight
Technology-souped-up airplanes might help save dying coral reefs by giving scientists much clearer insights.
Another win for perspective shifting!
The Global Airborne Observatory is an airplane equipped with infrared and laser imaging technologies designed to create maps that distinguish between living and dying/dead coral––a big update from previous methods, which involved either sending divers out to collect detailed (but limited) samples, or gathering vast-spanning and rather un-insightful satellite images.
Greg Asner (a director on the project) has been developing some of the technology since 1998. It use spectrometers, instruments capable of separating various wavelengths of light from a single source. The spectrometers can discern chemical compositions from great distances, especially coral's, given its rare and complex molecular structure. The technology can be used to tell where coral is healthy, stressed, or bleached, offering scientists insights into which reefs are doing poorly and why, and where officials should focus preservation efforts.
4. In-Brain Pain Killer
Yes, another neural implant story: this one detects and kills pain.
Might sound a little Dystopian at first, but as an alternative to the opioid crisis––I'll take it!
At New York University School of Medicine, a group of researchers has engineered "a neural bridge" between two brain regions associated with pain detection and moderation. One part of the implant observes the electrical movement in the area of the brain where pain is processed, sending that information to a computer chip in the front region of the brain. The chip then uses a light beam trigger to activate the neurons necessary to override pain signals, effectively killing the pain.
As of now, the implant has only been tested in rats, but it establishes a guideline for a pretty fascinating break-through therapy. To date, brain-machine interfaces help humans interact with computers to enable tasks like moving a cursor or typing. Linking from one region to the brain to another to enact a physiological response is a whole new world, and the implications of this early success story are something to...keep in mind.
Did you enjoy The Wonder?