Space Blood Mutations

There are many risks to be considered when sending someone into space, but no one ever predicted that an astronaut’s blood might genetically mutate as a result of leaving Earth. But this is exactly what researchers discovered when they examined the blood samples from 14 NASA astronauts who were active in missions between 1998 and 2001.

The blood samples, which were decades old, all showed a specific DNA mutation. Although they didn’t believe the mutations were serious enough to cause a major threat to the astronauts long term heath, it underlines the need for regular screenings, particularly for those heading off on longer missions in the future.

The mutation is caused by exposure to excess ultraviolet radiation and chemotherapy, and is known as Hematopoiesis, and shows a high proportion of blood cells from a single clone, compared to a normal blood sample. It seems possible that due to the length of exposure of astronauts to high levels of space radiation, the Hematopoiesis mutation is more likely, especially considering that every one of the blood sample tested from the astronauts showed exactly the same result. Hematopoiesis is similar to mutations we might normally see in older individuals, but in the samples taken, the median age of the astronauts was much younger at only 42.

David Goukassian, professor of medicine at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, explained that “astronauts work in an extreme environment where many factors can result in somatic mutations, most importantly space radiation, which means there is a risk that these mutations could develop into clonal hematopoiesis.”

With the prospect of heading to Mars in the future, or developing a potential colony on the moon, the expectation of longer exposure to space radiation is a hot topic for NASA, who have already made proposals to change the radiation limit that astronauts can be exposed to.  This latest study seems to add weight to this proposal.

Goukassian added that “the presence of these mutations does not necessarily mean that the astronauts will develop cardiovascular disease or cancer, but there is the risk that, over time, this could happen through ongoing and prolonged exposure to the extreme environment of deep space.”

Living Longer

With the world on the brink of a potential nuclear Armageddon, sea levels rising, and micro plastics poisoning our oceans as well as our bodies, perhaps the last thing on your mind right now would be how to extend the length of time you endure on planet Earth. However, scientists have discovered a way to extend the life expectancy of mice by ten percent – which some people are considering a potential answer to extending human life.

Scientists from Harvard Medical School, administered a drug called Rapamycin into 130 genetically different mice during the first 45 days of life through their mother’s milk. 40 other mice also took part in the study, acting as a control group, and were not provided with Rapamycin. All of the 170 mice were kept in exact conditions until they reached a natural end to their life.

Those mice who had received Rapamycin during the early days of their lives lived significantly longer than those who hadn’t. Not only did they live longer, but scientists also believed that the aging process actually slowed down in the male mice, taking them longer to progress through the normal life cycles expected in rodents. In addition, the male mice were also faster, stronger and healthier than normal.

But why would this be? Once the study had finished the scientists found that there were cellular changes that made the mice live longer. They appeared to have younger liver transcriptomes (genetic codes) giving additional fuel to the hypothesis than the secret to anti-ageing begins with our early development.

“Overall, the results demonstrate that short-term Rapamycin treatment during development is a novel longevity intervention that acts by slowing down development and aging,” the study explains, “suggesting that aging may be targeted already early in life.”

Researchers have also tested the drug on a crustacean with similar results.

Rapamycin is an immunosuppressive drug used in the treatment of cancers, as well as being used to prevent rejection during organ transplants, but has gained the attention of medical scientists as a potential anti-ageing drug.

This study could be merely the beginning to a whole new scientific breakthrough in extending life on earth. Although it appears to work in mice, the administration of Rapamycin for humans could be a long way away, with health implications for a human remaining unclear.

Cancer Killing Virus

A genetically modified form of the Herpes virus has been successfully used to attack tumors in cancer patients. Scientists at The Institute of Cancer Research and The Royal Marsden NHS Foundation Trust created this unusual solution from the virus that causes the cold sore!

Even though this is in its early stages of development and requires many more follow up trials and studies, the initial results seem to be positive.

Krzysztof Wojkowski from West London was diagnosed with cancer of the salivary gland in 2017. “I was told there were no options left for me and I was receiving end-of-life care,” he explains. “It was devastating, so it was incredible to be given the chance to join the trial.”

The trial works by injecting the virus (RP2) directly into the tumor. The virus invades the cancer cells, causing them to burst and activating the patient’s immune system to help.

“I had injections every two weeks for five weeks which completely eradicated my cancer. I’ve been cancer-free for two years now.”

There were 40 participants in the trial – nine had the RP2 injections, while the rest had a combined treatment of RP2 and another drug called nivolamb. The tumors of three of the patients who had the RP2 injections shrunk after treatment.

Project lead researcher Kevin Harrington said, “It is rare to see such good response rates in early stage clinical trials, as their primary aim is to test treatment safety, and they involve patients with very advanced cancers for whom current treatments have stopped working.”

Using viruses to attack cancers isn’t actually a new treatment. In 2021 researchers from the University of Zurich modified a respiratory virus called adenovirus, to enter tumor cells and deliver genes that tricked tumor cells into producing therapeutic antibodies.

“We trick the tumor into eliminating itself through the production of anti-cancer agents by its own cells,” said Sheena Smith at University of Zurich.

Whilst traditional therapies such as Chemotherapy and radiotherapy attack the normal healthy cells in a patient’s body, this doesn’t happen when using viral based therapies. Interestingly the recent COVID vaccines utilize adenoviruses.

Speaking to the Dead

Artificial Intelligence has come a long way in the last decade, but this latest advancement might be one of the most unusual applications for it – allowing the dead to speak to you!

In what was a surprise to the mourners at her funeral, Marina Smith was able to address them via a holographic conversational video experience, which was created by a startup company called StoryFile. Interestingly StoryFile was founded by Marina Smith’s son, Stephen Smith, based in LA. StoryFile was originally created to preserve the memories, recollections and stories of the Holocaust survivors. But, with Marina, they took 20 cameras and filmed her answering about 250 questions, allowing them to virtually recreate her in their software to make her appearance at her own funeral appear as natural as possible.

With so much visual and vocal data, Stephen Smith was able to converse with his mother at the funeral, as well as allowing other attendants to ask questions.

“The extraordinary thing was that she answered their questions with new details and honesty,” Stephen explained. “People feel emboldened when recording their data. Mourners might get a freer, truer version of their lost loved one.”

However, this wasn’t the first time StoryFile had used their technology to recreate a dead person at their own funeral. Earlier this year former Screen Actors Guild president Ed Asner answered questions from the mourners at his own funeral.

“Nothing could prepare me for what I was going to witness when I saw it,” said Matt Asner, Ed’s son. “Other attendees were ‘a little creeped out’ because it was like having him in the room.”

Currently, in Silicon Valley, there seems to be a bit of a trend to technology which allows users to speak to the dead. Amazon added a new feature to their Alexa speaker, allowing the voice of a dead relative to read a bedtime story to a child. Amazon made this possible, not by taking hours of recording in a studio, but by sampling less than a minute of speech. “We are unquestionably living in the golden era of AI, where our dreams and science fictions are becoming a reality,” said Rohit Prasad, head scientist for Alexa.

Whilst the application of mimicking a dead person’s voice might be comforting to some, it’s also seen by many as a step too far and an obscure use of Artificial Intelligence. It could also open up the possibilities for criminals using a person’s voice, dead or alive, for nefarious purposes.

Brain Implants

For many years medical teams have tried to come up with a permanent prevention or cure for paralysis, and it appears that scientists and medical researchers have made significant breakthroughs in the form of a brain implant.

Fortunately, brain implants have worked for many patients who were sure they were going to live the rest of their lives without being able to move their arms and legs due to severe spinal cord or head injuries. By using a brain-computer interface the lost connection between the brain and other organs was restored, allowing the patient to live their life like a normal healthy individual. It is a huge step forward in medicine.

There is an argument about whether the much sought-after treatment will be available for patients from all social classes? More importantly, will it be easily available in third-world countries where the rate of disease leading to paralysis is significantly high?

The procedure costs somewhere between $70,000 and $100,000 making it too expensive for most people with or without health insurance.

It will be quite a few decades until the procedure is available, but the procedure does not seem to be widely available due to the complex nature and cost. Even more common performed treatments like liver and kidney transplants are not easily available in many parts of the world.

Despite this, it is a remarkable discovery by scientists. Hopefully, with more researches and investment, more accessible options might be available for the benefit of everyone.

In a separate study, Scientists from Stanford successfully implanted a device into a man’s brain that allowed his paralyzed hands to type words with nothing more than the power of thought. Known as a Brain-Computer Interface (BCI), it enables the user to restore basic motor skills including talking and moving, by decoding the neural activity in the motor cortex. But this could only be the start of some incredible things to come, including curing mental health issues.

Theodore Berger, a neuroscientist in Southern California, has been working on a memory chip that mimics the function of the Hippocampus – the part of the brain responsible for memories. Using the chip Berger has successfully managed to restore long term memory in rats. Trials in humans are in the very early stages, but with millions of people suffering from neurodegenerative complications from Alzheimers, Strokes or brain injuries, it seems that there are many applications for Berger’s technology should it be successful in trial.

Restoring Sight

Scientists have been immersed in the journey of discovering great mysteries for decades. To comprehend the complexities of this earth to human life, we have witnessed exciting theories and claims over the years. However, this time, it is even more surprising as the collaborative efforts of these remarkable scientists have resulted in a fantastic discovery – reviving the twinkle in a dead human eye!

In medical science, the life space of human cells effects the process of organ transplants, for instance, kidneys remain usable 24 to 36 hours after the donor’s demise if preserved in the appropriate surroundings. However, this is not the case for human eye cells, as the nervous system stops working immediately after a human dies due to deprivation of oxygen. Nevertheless, earlier last week, an article was published in the New York Post spelling out the successful revival of photosensitive neurons, pioneering a revolution into the possibilities for brain and eye disorders, including blindness. 

This outcome gives hope to people with eye disorders. “Just being able to take these donor’s eyes and learn how the retina works, and what is going wrong in these illnesses is a significant deal,” said Fatima Abbas, lead author of the new study at the University of Utah.

Regrettably, light-sensing cells, termed ‘photoreceptors,’ do not communicate with neighboring cells due to oxygen deprivation after death. Therefore, a particular transport unit was designed to solve this problem that included artificial blood, oxygen, and essential nutrients. This approach found that they could make the retinal cells communicate in the same way they do in living bodies.

“Past studies have restored very little electrical activity in organ donor eyes, but never to the amount we have now proven,” said Frans Vinberg, a Moran Eye Centre scientist who also participated in the study.

This breakthrough might also contribute to advances in optogenetics, allowing some patients with eye illnesses to regain their eyesight. The University of Utah research has been published in the journal eLife.