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

May 4, 2023

Conscientiousness fails tech founders when it comes to the liquidity event

Tech startups are important drivers of the Californian, American, and global economies, creating millions of jobs and valuations in the trillions of dollars. But the road to a successful unicorn is littered with dead horses. How do you predict whether a new tech company will fail? According to researchers at Columbia University, just look at the founder. Examining 10,541 founders and their startups, they discovered evidence that personality drives some business outcomes. Some traits, like neuroticism, were negatively associated with outcomes across the life of a startup—while others, like openness, helped initially but made no difference later. Conscientiousness turned out to be a paradox, helping founders raise funds in the early stages but negatively impacting outcomes later on during acquisitions or IPOs. PNAS

Ibogaine-like drugs without the toxicity

Researchers at the University of California, San Francisco, Duke University, and Yale have discovered potentially safer drug-like compounds based on the structure of ibogaine, a dissociative psychedelic naturally found in the bark of the Central African shrub Tabernanthe iboga. Like other psychedelics, ibogaine holds promise for treating depression and substance abuse, but it also has a concerning safety profile. It’s known to be toxic to the heart and has caused at least 33 deaths during experimental treatment episodes since 1990, some under close clinical supervision. The new research identified potentially safer ibogaine-like compounds derived by searching a large virtual library of hundreds of millions of compounds based on the structure of ibogaine when it’s bound to its target, the serotonin transporter, which is also the target of drugs like Prozac, Celexa, and Paxil. The researchers developed inhibitors based on the structure and showed they can alleviate opioid withdrawal and have antidepressant-like properties in mice. Cell

Cities as living systems for digital twins

Many of our greatest challenges in modern society—disease outbreaks and other threats to human health, environmental degradation, wealth disparity, hunger, and homelessness—are closely tied to the unabated trend of increased urbanization worldwide. But technology can help. Building “digital twins” of cities to model and optimize their operations in real-time could improve urban planning, identify problems, and help people thrive in new built environments. So how do you model something as complex as a city? Researchers at the Ca’Foscari University of Venice in Italy say we should start by embracing that very complexity: We need to stop thinking of cities as mere socio-economic and physical constructs that happen to contain lots of people. Instead, the best way to model modern cities is to treat them as throbbing, living, mutually interwoven, self-organizing, nonlinear beasts—which “evolve,” they write, “to an extent, like living systems.” Nature Computational Science

Cognitive functional therapy—a better treatment for chronic pain

In the you-heard-it-here-first category comes a new treatment called cognitive functional therapy (CFT), which is an individualized approach to pain management that helps patients understand their pain better, and targets unhelpful thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that contribute to pain and disability. A new phase 3 clinical trial led by a team of Australian doctors at Curtin University in Perth, Macquarie University in Sydney, and Monash University in Melbourne compared cognitive functional therapy to the standard of care in 492 people suffering chronic lower back pain. “This treatment resulted in substantial clinically important effects in both the short term and long term,” the researchers write, adding CFT was also much more cost-effective. Lancet

Implanted ultrasound device for brain cancer

A diagnosis of recurrent glioblastoma multiforme is dire—it’s a deadly form of brain cancer that’s almost always fatal. Surgeries and radiation therapies are complicated by the fact that you often need to cut tumors from the most sensitive surrounding tissues in the brain, and chemotherapy is challenged by the blood-brain barrier and our difficulty getting drugs across it. One promising experimental approach in recent years involves using ultrasound, which can permeate this barrier and allow chemo drugs to cross. Now doctors at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine have shown the promise of this approach in the clinic. In a phase 1 clinical trial involving 17 people with glioblastoma, they demonstrated how an ultrasound device implanted into the skull allowed round after round of the chemotherapy drug paclitaxel to be safely delivered. A phase 2 trial is now recruiting. Lancet Oncology

Mommy, please don’t kill me with your cleaning products

From shampoos to lotions to nail polish remover to paint thinner, many common household products contain volatile organic compounds—exposure to which can cause health problems, including developmental harm and cancer. The problem, according to researchers at the Silent Spring Institute in Newton, Massachusetts, and the University of California, Berkeley, is that those products are often not labeled. Looking at data collected by the California Air Resources Board on chemicals common in consumer products known to pose health risks, they found more than 5,000 tons of volatile chemicals were released from consumer products in California in 2020 alone. Because companies are not required to disclose what’s in their products or how much, it’s difficult to know what people might be exposed to. “Consumers often believe—wrongly—that the products they buy have been comprehensively assessed for safety before they are sold,” the researchers write. Environmental Science & Technology

The mystery of a rose’s smell, sweetly solved

Just in time for Mother’s Day, scientists at CRNS and Jean Monnet University in Saint-Étienne, France, have discovered the sweet smell of success. We already solved a mystery of the common rose, whose petals give off their distinctive smell because they contain the volatile terpenoid chemical geraniol—but nobody knew where the compound came from. The researchers uncovered its biosynthesis in the plant, which features a special enzyme involved in producing the scent. So this year, you can thank your mother by buying her some volatile terpenoids buds—at least a dozen. PNAS