biology, medicine, Organ transplantation, Robotics, Science, SF and science

The future of artificial limbs

I’ve written on this blog before about how advances in our understanding and application of genetic engineering and stem cell technology is raising the realistic possibility of growing replacement human organs. What I haven’t really covered is replacing limbs. This is a somewhat different proposition: if we grew human organs in a dish (so to speak), we’d transplant them into the people that needed them. These kinds of transplant operations now have a substantial surgical history and practice behind them, so it wouldn’t require the development of new techniques. Replacing limbs, however, does not: people have instead relied on artificial prostheses. These are a staple of science fiction too: from Luke Skywalker to the 6 million dollar man to Robocop, prosthetics and – at the extreme end – full human “cyborgs” are everywhere. Replacing limbs with actual biological limbs, however, well…the first thing that springs to mind is Frankenstein, which is unfortunate. There are a few scifi societies where regrowing replacement limbs is the norm (notably lain M Banks’ Culture) but scifi seems to think prostheses are the future, as they are our present. But are they?

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biology, evolution, medicine, Science, Science and society, science news

Sunday Science Stories 19/08/17

I’ve got a regular post in the works, but for now here’s the weekly round-up of some selected science stories you may have missed in the mainstream press.

There’s been quite a lot of controversy about the use of AI lately, because the problems of it incorporating our own biases (notably racism and sexism) because the data we feed it is biased. Fortunately, some things are hard to bias. AI can be used to successfully identify plant species.

This story is something we should all know anyway, but it’s nice to have some empirical proof: Choosing “alternative” medicine makes you more likely to die from cancer. That’d be because it doesn’t work. The link is to a New Scientist short piece as the original paper is paywalled.

This is a long and slightly technical but fascinating report into the benefits of working on non-model organisms, i.e. those which haven’t been used traditionally for decades in scientific research, such as mice. They may not necessarily be as easy to work with, because of the lack of genetic tools available in particular (although CRISPR/Cas9 is changing that) but they can yield invaluable knowledge and medicines. Examples given here include a treatment for diabetes from the gila monster, and anti-coagulants from the vampire bat. Unfortunately it’s not open access, but I wanted to flag it up for those of my readers who have institutional access as it’s a great overview.

Another long and slightly technical one, but free for all and highly interesting. Can animal culture drive evolution? The main example is that of orca hunting strategies (pictured) and song in birds: can different animal cultures lead to speciation? It’s a compelling and controversial idea that is gaining some traction (not least because it was once thought only humans had “culture”). This is something for the science fiction writers to think about as well.

Finally, something to digest: historically, millets used to be an important human food source. They may now be a food for the future, building resilience and diversity into our food supply.


biology, Developmental biology, genetic modification, medicine, Science

Genetically engineered human embryos have arrived

Well, it was only a matter of time. All the major news outlets are reporting the breakthrough of a research team that managed to use CRISPR/Cas9 to edit human embryos that carried a mutation which causes cardiac hypertrophy (MYBPC3) – a thickening of the heart muscle that is the leading cause of death in young atheletes. Continue reading

Biological therapy, biology, genetic modification, medicine, News, Science, science news

A successful first for gene therapy

Who would like to hear some really good news? Thought so. One of the promises of the molecular biology and genomics revolutions was that gene therapy – replacing defective, disease-causing genes with functioning ones, or otherwise treating these diseases by genetic means – would become a reality. Even, optimistically, something commonplace. Like so many things, however, it has proved more complicated than hoped, and those longed-for treatments elusive. There has never been a therapy of any kind that alters the disease progress of a neurodegenerative disease – until now. Continue reading

biology, medicine, Science

Health inequalities persist into the genomic age

Back in my childhood when I first got into science fiction, I read all those classics, from early romantic science fiction like Jules Verne into the “golden age” of Asimov, Clarke and beyond. Ah, all those wonderful dreams of perfect societies, robots and spaceships! Except that the overwhelming majority of those perfect societies bore a striking resemblance to a certain ideal of 1950s America, where women were love interests/to be rescued/in the kitchen and people of colour were…er, nowhere to be seen, actually.  Now that we’re in the timeline of the future that a lot of those books imagined, it’s refreshing that the science fiction is a lot more reflective of the wide variety of human experience that exists. I’d like to say that societies have progressed along with the technology, and, very unevenly, they have. A bit. And yet somehow it’s still really disappointing to me when I read something about personalised medicine, and that something is: it’s heavily biased towards white people.  Continue reading

biology, medicine, News, science news

New antibiotics could be right under – or in – our noses

There is increasing concern over the rise in antibiotic resistance, with many infections now becoming resistant not just to commonly used, long-established antibiotics like penicillin, but to last-resort newer antibiotics like vancomycin. The search for new antibiotics is becoming increasingly urgent – and it seems that some are lurking in surprising places. Continue reading