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

September 2, 2021

COVID-19, misinformation, free speech, and ER doctors

The U.S. Supreme Court has a long record of upholding abridging exceptions to free speech that involve things like obscenity, defamation, and threats—but what about threats to public health? Oliver Wendell Holmes famously said in 1919 that falsely yelling “fire” in a crowded theater would not be protected speech. But what about yelling, “There is no fire” during a pandemic? This question may soon be tested in future lawsuits now that the American Board of Emergency Medicine, which certifies ER docs, announced it will consider the deliberate spreading of medical misinformation to be a form of professional misconduct. As proto.life reported earlier this year, many experts are now regarding misinformation as a public health crisis, and in a statement, the ABEM board said it will start to deny or withdraw certifications from doctors who spread falsehoods about the COVID-19. MedPage Today

Swallow a needle to take insulin?

RNA vaccines, insulin, therapeutic antibodies, and other biological drugs contain molecules that rapidly break down if swallowed from the stomach’s acids and the onslaught of intestinal enzymes—which is exactly why such drugs are administered as injections rather than less intrusive pills. But in a best-of-both-worlds solution, researchers at MIT and the Danish company Novo Nordisk have developed a pill-like device with a retractable syringe that goes down the gullet and sticks its way through the gut, delivering injections as it passes along the gastrointestinal tract. The latest version of their “L-SOMA” injector capsules is an order of magnitude more efficient at delivering doses than an earlier version, the researchers report, allowing them to administer clinically relevant doses of insulin and other drugs to pigs. Nature Biotechnology

The dementia-protecting effect of mentally stimulating work

Cognitive stimulation at work is thought to possibly prevent or postpone dementia’s onset, but clinical trials have produced inconsistent results, according to a new study called the IPD-Work consortium, based on seven separate prospective population studies involving a total of 107,896 people. Led by researchers at University College London, the study found the risk of dementia in old age is indeed lower for people with cognitively stimulating jobs, and the work also suggested a possible mechanism: People who have higher cognitive stimulation at work have lower blood plasma levels of three proteins that inhibit the formation of axons and synapses in the central nervous system and increase dementia risk—called slit homologue 2, carbohydrate sulfotransferase 12, and peptidyl-glycine α-amidating monooxygenase. BMJ

Efficient CRISPR system successfully placed in a viral vector

Researchers at the Korea Research Institute of Bioscience & Biotechnology and the Korea University of Science and Technology have developed a miniature CRISPR system that fits into a small adeno-associated virus, a standard FDA-approved platform for gene therapy. Packaging CRISPR tools into a single viral vector is seen as a way forward for gene therapy in vivo, which promises new treatments for cancer and genetic or infectious diseases, but the challenge with this approach is that the most efficient CRISPR-Cas proteins are too big to fit inside a single virus particle. Smaller Cas proteins exist, but they are less robust in their ability to edit eukaryotic cell genomes. The Korean team overcame this limited payload capacity by taking a hypercompact Cas protein called Cas12f1 and extensively genetically modifying it to make it more efficient. Nature Biotechnology

Don’t play chicken with a robot

Speaking of creepy robots, a separate study this week out of the Italian Institute of Technology in Genova, Italy, shows the chilling effect of a cute robot’s cold stare. Making eye contact with a robot can affect human decision making, apparently. In the study, humans faced off against a robotic opponent in a simulated form of the game chicken, driving head-on at the robot over and over in a car. Some drivers could see the robot’s face on a screen, and those who saw the robot looking back at them were slower to respond and made worse decisions than those who saw the robot looking off-screen. The withering effect of the robot’s deadeye gaze may be due to the fact that mutual gazing takes brain resources and time to process. Add this to the growing pile of considerations for designing robot behavior. Science Robotics

The creepiness of cloned faces explained

Anyone who finds identical twins a bit creepy when standing side-by-side in their matching sweaters can be forgiven, according to new research by social scientists at Kyushu University in Fukuoka, Japan. Humans apparently attach negative associations with cloned faces because of how facial recognition is processed in our brains. We possess a perceived improbability of duplication, so we expect faces to be unique, and we find it eerie when they’re not. In a set of experiments, the scientists found cloned faces repeatedly induced negative impressions in people—a brand new phenomenon they coined the “clone devaluation effect.” Adding to what we already know about the uncanny valley effect, these are important emotional impacts we’ll have to consider when designing future automated humanoids that aren’t completely creepy. PLOS ONE

An edited photo that shows one of the study author’s face as an example of a clone image. Fumiya Yonemitsu/Kyushu University

Pathogens in pregnant mice prop up immunity in pups

Mild infections which expecting mothers suffer during their pregnancies may alter the epithelial stem cells in their fetuses—the progenitors of the gut lining. A study in mice by scientists at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), shows this effect is mediated by the cytokine protein IL-6. The alterations in utero appear to change the pups’ gut linings after birth, helping them develop optimal immune fitness and enhancing their resistance to infections as adults. The increased immune protection comes at a cost, however, and gives them a predisposition to inflammatory digestive disorders like colitis. Science

Editor’s note: proto.life editorial director Jason Socrates Bardi worked at NIAID from 2005–2007.

More about chocolate

Researchers at the University of Guelph, in Ontario, Canada, have found a way to simplify the complex and time-consuming stage of chocolate making called tempering, which is what keeps the solids from separating and gives the chocolate its snap and shine. By adding a phospholipid molecule during the final stages of the manufacturing process, the scientists found they could force the cocoa butter into the desirable solid state crystal form called “form V,” greatly simplifying a part of the process otherwise fraught with the potential for mistakes. As we reported earlier this year, the $103 billion business of chocolate making, largely unchanged for years, is ripe for disruption. Nature Communications