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

December 16, 2021

A scanner, cheaply

Despite the many lives modern medical MRI machines could save, 70 percent of the world’s population is untouched by the technology—simply because the high cost of these devices make them unavailable to most. How could a clinic in a rural, low-income setting without so much as clean water possibly afford a room-sized, two-ton instrument with supercooled, high-field electromagnets and fancy gantries? But now researchers at the University of Hong Kong are having a bring-the-mountain-to-Muhammed moment, developing a low-cost, low-power prototype MRI brain scanner that uses “ultra low-field” permanent magnets, which could dramatically reduce the cost of such instruments to under $20,000—compared to standard MRIs, which cost millions of dollars to purchase and take an estimated $15,000 a month to maintain. In a preliminary clinical demonstration, they showed its feasibility for diagnosing brain tumors and stroke with accuracies comparable to commercial MRIs with 50-times-more-powerful magnets. Nature Communications

3D-printed soy burgers with cocoa butter

Whenever someone describes extruding edible soybean patties from a 3D printer, we feel like putting one of those 3D printed guns in our mouths instead. But a new approach to making a more sustainable source of future protein that incorporates cocoa butter is causing us to rethink my soy-icidal ideation. Described by researchers at Zhejiang University in Hangzhou, China, the new approach mixed thermosensitive cocoa butter with wheat gluten, soy protein, shiitake mushroom powder, starch, and other ingredients to make a formable—and formidable—dough that they 3D printed into a heart-shaped puck. According to the researchers, the basic formula could also be tweaked to make soft gels suitable for elderly people and infants. ACS Food & Science Technology

Yeast engineered to make drug-like compounds

One of the big dreams—and challenges—of synthetic biology is to engineer organisms to produce drug-like chemical compounds in greater abundance or more cheaply than they can be found in nature. A team of researchers at Stanford University has designed strains of yeast that can synthesize chemicals naturally found in plants that are known as “benzylisoquinoline alkaloids,” a class of compounds that includes many different medicinally important chemicals, including morphine. They report a 10,000-fold improvement in yield for the production of one such chemical, and they say their techniques could be applied to produce other drug-like natural products in yeast. PNAS

A neurosurgeon and an aerospace engineer walk into a bar…

You don’t have to be a brain surgeon or a rocket scientist to spot a good scientific study, as we do for you dear readers each week. But describing those studies is often no walk in the park. Thus we were amused to read about a new study at University College London that advocates for pushing brain surgeons and rocket scientists off their lofty pedestals as gatekeepers of the absurdly difficult. The study administered an online IQ test to 329 aerospace engineers and 72 neurosurgeons, measuring things like cognition, working memory, attention, and emotion processing, and both groups had scores that fell basically within the range of the general population. Both specialties may be held unnecessarily high on the synonymous-with-difficult index, therefore, and the researchers suggest using, “a walk in the park” to describe a facile task instead. BMJ

The coming “digital” vaccine renaissance

Scientists at a GlaxoSmithKline R&D facility in Siena, Italy, are calling the future of mRNA vaccines nothing short of a renaissance. They call them “digital” vaccines because they are derived from short-strip genetic sequences—information that can be readily emailed or otherwise transmitted electronically—as opposed to live bacteria or virus samples. The most famous digital vaccines to date, of course, are the Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna jabs for COVID-19, which were both developed, tested, and approved in under a year (and not the 10–15 years such efforts have taken in the past). The authors concede, however, that future mRNA vaccine may not be as easy to produce or as effective as the examples from the coronavirus pandemic. Science Translational Medicine

HIV vaccine shows promise in monkeys

Unlike the COVID-19 vaccines, a number of which were successfully developed in record time last year, the history of HIV vaccine development has been a nearly-four decade-long, singularly frustrating story of failure. But now a team of researchers at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and Moderna has developed a new experimental HIV vaccine that looks promising in animal studies. Similar to the COVID-19 vaccines, the mRNA-based HIV vaccine induces a neutralizing antibodies response in mice after two doses, and gave vaccinated rhesus macaques a 79 percent lower risk of infection. The researchers are now improving the vaccine in anticipation of future phase 1 human clinical trials. Nature Medicine

Me-too cancer drugs dominate FDA approvals

Doctors at Geneva University Hospital in Switzerland and the University of California, San Francisco analyzed all 332 anticancer drugs approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration from 2009–2020, and they report only 16 percent were based on a new mechanism of action. This means the rest were “me-too” drugs, already approved to fight some other form of cancer entering a market with other existing drugs that work the same way. Economists argue the societal good of me-too drugs is solid because they offer improved, next-in-class therapies with fewer side-effects or better efficacy, and they drive down prices. But drugs with novel mechanisms are still critical because they are more innovative and often most transformative for patient care. Since they represent such a small minority of new drugs approved in the last decade, the development of high-risk, high-reward novel drugs should be incentivized in the future, the researchers suggest. JAMA Network Open