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

November 4, 2021

The great American stem cell swindle

The promise of stem cells to alleviate human suffering is profound—which is why we were deeply disturbed this week to read about the explosion of clinics in the United States marketing unproven stem cell snake oil directly to consumers. The analysis from the Stem Cell Research Center at the University of California, Irvine, found there were 1,480 U.S. businesses operating 2,754 stem cell clinics in the United States in 2021—more than four times as many as five years ago. Hawking therapies to minors and people suffering severe pain, a third of these clinics are in just three states: California, Florida, and Texas. Their products lack convincing clinical proof of safety and efficacy, they are not FDA approved, and the average price for treatment was more than $5,000. Cell Stem Cell

The unexpected spark that makes two people click

Looking for what makes two people in a blind date situation attracted to one another, scientists at Leiden University in the Netherlands observed 70 heterosexual male-female pairs meeting each other in a laboratory speed dating set-up. They monitored their smiles, laughter, eye gaze, and physiological cues like their heart rates and skin conductance as they sat across from one another, and what they found was surprising. The greatest predictor of mutual attraction was not a conscious signal, like prolonged eye contact or shared laughter, but an unconscious one: When the heart rates and skin conductances between two people rose and fell in synchrony, that’s when they clicked. Tantalizingly, the researchers predict that you might be able to use this phenomenon to gauge mutual attraction using smart watches or some other device. Nature Human Behavior

Fair play for equal pay

Are men really more competitive than women? According to a recent study by researchers at the University of Arizona and the University of San Francisco, women are just as competitive as men when offered “prosocial” incentives that allow winners to share earnings with their losing competitors. While men were equally likely to engage in a competition regardless of whether it was prosocial or winner-take-all, women were almost twice as likely to compete in prosocial contests. These findings suggest women can be just as competitive as men depending on the perceived outcome, which could provide new ways to incentivize teams and reduce the gender wage gap in the typically zero-sum fields of American business. PNAS

Dirty mice make for better vaccines

Researchers at the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, have made a discovery so simple and provocative, it’s hard to believe nobody has tried it before. They took laboratory mice out of the sterile cages and clean facilities typical of preclinical vaccine testing protocols, and they raised them instead in the same cages as pet-store mice, thus exposing them to lots of different microbes. Then looking at their immune responses to influenza vaccines, they found the mice co-housed with their pet store cousins more closely mimicked human immune responses than laboratory mice kept in sanitized settings their whole lives. Cell Host & Microbe

New method promises inexpensive aging biomarker

Epigenetic “clocks”, or biomarkers of aging based DNA methylation, are what you might call an application still in search of the right technology. Having a reliable way to quantitatively assess any one person or animal’s objective healthspan could improve disease diagnosis and speed the testing of new drugs and interventions, but existing methods are slow and expensive, making their widespread use difficult. Now researchers at Harvard University have unveiled a new method in a (not-yet peer reviewed) preprint, which they call TIME-Seq. It sounds promising. Already licensed to the Boston-based startup Longevity Sciences, the new method reportedly cuts analysis time from around a week to a day, and it reduces the cost of analyzing a sample by two orders of magnitude (from $30–$50 per sample to about 65 cents). bioRxiv

Origami-inspired stem cell pouch heals mouse hearts

Notwithstanding the stem cell swindles alluded to above, regenerative medicine with stem cells really does have the potential to heal people who suffer many forms of tissue injury, including rebuilding heart tissue lost after a heart attack. The downside is that implanting therapeutic patches in someone’s heart requires open-chest surgery with each dose, which severely limits its treatment potential. Now researchers at North Carolina State University have developed an origami-inspired heart pouch filled with stem cells that can release multiple doses after a single, minimally invasive surgery. They demonstrated its safe implantation into pig hearts, and they showed it could rebuild injured heart tissue and improve cardiac function in mice. Med

How to spend $1.25 on an egg

Swiss retail giant Migros, which operates the largest chain of supermarkets in that country, has announced the launch of a gorgeous-looking, lab-made, soy-based molded egg they call “The Boiled,” which closely resembles the real thing. A Swiss daily newspaper allowed to sample it claims the taste is correct, even if the texture is a bit off. The company plans to market the faux oeuf in 4-packs for about $5 through their grocery stores, and their announcement was accompanied by a video showing its manufacture. The Spoon