The week’s most astounding developments from the neobiological frontier.

April 13, 2023

Share the data with AI

A perspective on the future of artificial intelligence by experts at the University of Cambridge and several other leading institutions and companies calls for a rethink of how we share AI research results—moving away from aggregate metrics, which can conceal systemic biases, safety issues, and other red flags. In medicine and transportation, the experts write, “the consequences of system failures can be devastating. It is therefore vital that researchers and policymakers have a full understanding of the capabilities and weaknesses of AI systems so that they can make informed decisions about where these systems are safe to use and how they might be improved.” Given how private industry has come to dominate the technology, however, we wonder how effective a voluntary call to change data reporting standards would be. Arguably, the whole human race is coming to depend on AI, so we ask: Should AI be regulated, and if so, how? Science

Personalized medicine for hypertension

The promise of personalized medicine is based on the idea that a drug or its dose should not be dispensed based on crude measures like a person’s disease and body mass, but should take into account subtle differences in a person’s genetics, physiology, and psychology. Such individualized treatment is obvious when you are talking about tailor-made therapies for some rare form of cancer using an individual’s own cells. But what promise does personalized medicine have for transforming routine drug regimens for common conditions like hypertension, which strikes nearly half of all U.S. adults? According to doctors at Uppsala University in Sweden, a lot. In a double-blind randomized clinical trial, 280 people were randomly switched between four widely-used blood-pressure lowering drugs and monitored for a few months each time. The effectiveness of the drugs varied significantly from person to person, which suggests that specifically targeting therapies to individuals could achieve greater blood pressure control. JAMA

Bacteria on skin modified to fight melanoma

A novel approach to fighting skin cancer demonstrates that commensal Staphylococcus epidermidis bacteria, which normally colonize people’s skin, could be co-opted to redirect the immune system to target tumors. Researchers at Stanford University showed they could engineer S. epidermidis cells to express tumor antigen molecules that infiltrate nearby tumors and metastatic lesions throughout the bodies of mice. Those antigens attract cancer-killing T cells of the immune system, and they showed the modified bacteria could induce immune responses and slow the progression of subcutaneous melanoma in the rodents. Though early, the work suggests this may be a credible way to fight skin cancer in humans. Science

Birth control theoretically effective at lower doses

Researchers at the University of the Philippines Diliman in Quezon City, Philippines, and Roskilde University in Denmark, mathematically modeled a woman’s menstrual cycle and the effect of hormonal contraceptives to derive minimal doses and optimal timing for taking the birth control pills. They showed, at least theoretically, it’s possible to reduce estrogen doses by 92 percent and progesterone doses by 43 percent in monotherapy—and by combining these therapies to lower the doses even more. “These results may give clinicians insights into optimal formulations and schedule of therapy that can suppress ovulation,” they write. PLOS Computational Biology

Artificial device prevents liver failure after surgery

The human liver has amazing regenerative properties that allow it to survive even after doctors surgically remove a large piece of the organ to cure people with liver cancer. Take away too much of the organ, however, and you risk a condition known as post-hepatectomy liver failure, the major complication and leading cause of death in people who undergo such surgeries. Now researchers at Zhejiang University School of Medicine in Hangzhou, the Shanghai Institute of Biochemistry and Cell Biology, and ShanghaiTech University have created and tested a bioartificial liver device that contains hepatocyte liver cells as a way of supporting people after the surgery and improving survival. They showed in the laboratory that it increased the survival of pigs undergoing liver resections, and in a small clinical study of seven people having extended surgeries, they also demonstrated its safety. Cell Stem Cell

Ping-pong, the robot’s wrong!

“Reading” an opponent is a crucial skill in competitive sports, allowing an athlete to anticipate the opposing player’s movement and execute their own in response. According to experts this is a neurologically complex process, and even a simple reaction during a game (they go left, you go right!) relies on integrating complex sensory cues in the brain’s visual and motor cortex. Taking EEG brain recordings while playing table tennis, two researchers at the University of Florida have demonstrated that the brain responds differently during sports depending on whether you are training against a human or a machine. “Sports training with a machine elicits fundamentally different brain dynamics than training with a human,” they write. eNeuro

A participant plays table tennis against graduate student Amanda Studnicki while having his brain imaged via an EEG cap. Frazier Springfield