“It’s pricking your finger endlessly throughout the day. It’s not being afraid of blood because you get used to seeing so much of it. It’s no longer feeling tremor to a needle because you’ve had no choice than to be poked by them every day. It’s seeing all the scars all over our tummy, arms and legs from all the site changes and pokes and just cry.”
These are Valeria Guerrero’s answers to the question: What is it like to live with Type 1 diabetes?
Sounds absolutely horrible, doesn’t it?
That’s why news of the clinical trials of ViaCyte’s PEC-Direct, an implant that grows insulin-producing cells from stem cells to treat type 1 diabetes patients, is such great news.
Dramatic life-changing intervention
If successful, the implant could change the lives of millions of people living with type 1 diabetes dramatically because they won’t need to inject themselves with insulin anymore.
With type 1 diabetes the body’s immune system attacks cells in the pancreas, preventing the organ from producing enough insulin. With type 2 diabetes the body can’t use the insulin that is produced effectively.
Type 2 diabetes, often referred to as a lifestyle illness, can be treated through lifestyle changes, but type 1 can only be treated with insulin injections.
The World Health Organisation reports that the number of people with diabetes has risen from 108 million in 1980 to 422 million in 2014. WHO projects that diabetes will be the seventh leading cause of death in 2030.
On August 1, San Diego-based ViaCyte, Inc., a privately-held, regenerative medicine company, announced that the first patients have been implanted with the PEC-Direct device. It is an islet cell (specialized pancreatic cells) replacement therapy in development for patients with type 1 diabetes who are at high risk for acute life-threatening complications.
ViaCyte has worked on turning human stem cells into pancreatic precursor cells that can mature to produce insulin and control blood glucose levels in diabetic patients. The precursor cells are contained in semi-permeable PEC-Direct device which is implanted under the skin of diabetic patients. After implantation, these cells are expected to become mature human islet tissue and to produce insulin on demand.
This therapy is being developed specifically for type 1 diabetes patients that are at a higher risk of severe hypoglycemic episodes, extreme glycemic lability and hypoglycemia unawareness all of which can be fatal.
“Patients with high-risk type 1 diabetes complications, such as hypoglycemia unawareness, are at constant risk of life-threatening low blood glucose,” said Jeremy Pettus, MD, investigator in the clinical trial and Assistant Professor of Medicine at UC San Diego. “The PEC-Direct islet cell replacement therapy is designed to help patients with the most urgent medical need.”
It’s for people like Valeria Guerrero who can never leave her house without all her supplies with her, just in case….
Two years ago journalist James Vincent wrote an article about being at work in the office from 3,500 miles away.
Vincent lives in Britain and he needed to speak to his boss and meet colleagues in the New York office. He managed that via a telepresence.
Telepresence robots are screens on wheels that you move around with an app or within a browser. You log in like on Skype and you’re ready to move around the office and talk to colleagues, attend meetings or even lead meetings, all from the comfort of your home.
Telepresence robots have been around for a while, and a number of companies use them to manage the presence of colleagues who need to give vital input on ongoing projects, and now their use is being extended from business to making it possible for chronically ill children to attend school.
Thousands of children worldwide are unable to attend school due to chronic illness. Apart from falling behind in school work and dealing with the illness itself, children miss out on critical social interaction and experience isolation from their peers and schoolmates.
With a telepresence robot it is possible for the child to attend school with friends while being cared for at home.
Research has shown that children accept robots easily and interact with them naturally, treating robots as living things and that “physical presence, when combined with movement, enhances the perception of a social link for the operator.” The children at school readily accept the robot as the representative of the sick friend at home.
A telepresence robot specially for children and young adults with long-term illness
When Maja was three-years-old, she was diagnosed with cancer. Due to treatment and hospital stays, she is absent from school for prolonged periods of time. Recently, her elementary school invested in an AV1. The robot is Maja’s eyes and ears in the classroom on days that she can’t be physically present. Now she participates in class, during break-time, and on field trips – all from her bed.
Maja is one of more than 200 children and young adults whose lives the Norway startup Noisolation has enriched with their AV1 telepresence robot.
And it’s so cute! See the video below.
The robot has a sci-fi look, is small enough to be carried around and is designed to sit on the absent student’s desk where it operates as student’s the eyes and ears. The child operates the robot through an app and can rotate its head to see all around the class.
The student signals that they want to speak by instructing the top of the AV1’s head to blink and if they don’t feel like actively participating in class, they let their peers know by turning on the blue light on top of the AV1’s head.
AV1 was launched in Norway in September 2016 and is already in use in Norway, Sweden, Denmark, the Netherlands, and the UK.
Today’s generation is far more self-absorbed than even our parent’s generation was. We want more and we want it now. So it seems strange to have a conversation about how the things we are doing and studying and experimenting with now are going to have not just global impacts, but universal impacts.
Juan Enriquez is a scientist who studies what life looks like in the future. The most important question that society needs to ask itself right now is “is it ethical to alter the human body to further our species”?
If you have one of those self-absorbed perspectives, you might not think twice about saying, “yes! Change it all so humanity can survive!” But Enriquez pushes the question further and asks if that is really what needs to happen.
You can watch Juan Enriquez’ TED fascinating TED talk here:
If you can’t watch the video right now, here’s a summary in text:
As he recounts a lifetime of experiments involving human evolution, natural and forced, he continues to push the question of whether or not this is the right thing to do. Pacemakers extend lives, new hips help people walk, but where does it stop?
Well, it turns out that it isn’t stopping anytime soon.
As more and more scientists take on keeping the human race alive as long as possible, new and interesting (any maybe questionable) experiments are being conducted to find out what it looks like to transplant prosthetic kidneys, lungs, entire bones, skin, and brains.
“And four of the smartest people that I’ve ever met — Ed Boyden, Hugh Herr, Joe Jacobson, Bob Lander — are working on a Center for Extreme Bionics. And the interesting thing of what you’re seeing here is these prosthetics now get integrated into the bone. They get integrated into the skin. They get integrated into the muscle. And one of the other sides of Ed is he’s been thinking about how to connect the brain using light or other mechanisms directly to things like these prosthetics. And if you can do that, then you can begin changing fundamental aspects of humanity. So how quickly you react to something depends on the diameter of a nerve. And of course, if you have nerves that are external or prosthetic, say with light or liquid metal, then you can increase that diameter and you could even increase it theoretically to the point where, as long as you could see the muzzle flash, you could step out of the way of a bullet. Those are the order of magnitude of changes you’re talking about.”
A Chinese scientist is conducting hundreds of surgeries to find out if a mouse head can be transplanted to see if the brain lives and if it retains anything.
And we all know that human experimentation starts with the mice.
“The second experiment to think about is a really weird experiment that’s been taking place in China. So this guy has been transplanting hundreds of mouse heads. Right? And why is that an interesting experiment? Well, think of the first heart transplants. One of the things they used to do is they used to bring in the wife or the daughter of the donor so the donee could tell the doctors, “Do you recognize this person? Do you love this person? Do you feel anything for this person?” We laugh about that today. We laugh because we know the heart is a muscle, but for hundreds of thousands of years, or tens of thousands of years, “I gave her my heart. She took my heart. She broke my heart.” We thought this was emotion and we thought maybe emotions were transplanted with the heart. Nope.”
The point of all this heavy conversation is to determine if we need to prepare to vacate earth and how the human body will be able to adapt if life needs to continue to exist somewhere else.
Enriquez depicts interesting imagines of how the human body has already adapted and evolved to what we know today, but that our next generations might need adaptive help through genome evolution, biological prosthetics and even change the entire body itself to be something more conducive to living on Mars or on a moon far off in space.
Enriquez reminds us that there have been five extinction level events in the history of the planet and if we are smart we’d be preparing for the next one to ensure that the human race continues beyond the events of the future. And to that end, he turns the question of ethical behavior on its head and argues that knowing the extinction level event is coming, it would be unethical not to continue to find a way to save the human race.
“This is taken from six billion miles away, and that’s Earth. And that’s all of us. And if that little thing goes, all of humanity goes. And the reason you want to alter the human body is because you eventually want a picture that says, that’s us, and that’s us, and that’s us, because that’s the way humanity survives long-term extinction. And that’s the reason why it turns out it’s actually unethical not to evolve the human body even though it can be scary, even though it can be challenging, but it’s what’s going to allow us to explore, live and get to places we can’t even dream of today, but which our great-great-great-great- grandchildren might someday.”
With everything that we know about our bodies, our history, and our DNA today, it’s hard to believe there are still things to be discovered about how our world shapes us into the people we are today.
Moshe Szyf, a geneticist, recounts his experiences with discovering how the way we experience life in the beginning can have lasting impacts on our lifestyles as adults.
Studying rats and later monkeys, because studying humans is hard and unethical, Szyf found that by separating newborn animals from their mothers into two groups (one where the baby animal got lots of attention and “love” from its surrogate mother, and one group where the baby was given minimal “love” and attention from its surrogate mother), the dynamic of that animal, the preparedness for life, and the understanding of things like social class were intrinsically present.
But how is this possible?
Moshe Szyf explains his theories, experiments and findings in this compelling TED talk below:
Basically, the hypothesis was that our DNA could be physically changed based on the mother who cared for us — or in this case, the rats and monkeys.
The amount of care rats and monkeys received from their “mothers” during experiments had impacts on the levels of stress, anxiety, obesity, and illness overall. Animals who experienced more attention and care were less likely to develop these conditions, while animals who only received the basic life necessities were more likely to be stressed out and become ill later on in life.
The correlations between the findings in the animals and the likelihood of this occurring in humans seems to be high. One study was referenced about babies that were born after a particularly economic and environmental stressor in a city in Canada that caused the mothers-to-be a great deal of anxiety and worry while they were pregnant. Some 15 years later, these children are experiencing higher levels of disease, anxiety, and obesity.
It’s partly because of our hardwiring DNA that we are all born with, and it’s partly because, Szyf believes, based on how we were raised in our early years. He gives many examples of how children who are brought up to conserve food and eat when they can due to famine or lack of resources to feed a family struggle with obesity and depression later in life because they can’t break the cycle of needing to eat to prepare for a time when there will be no more food.
As more studies are conducted, we might find that our existing DNA can be influenced by our upbringings, our lots in life, and our mothers.
Climate change is no longer a myth that policy makers can scoff about. No pretending that it doesn’t exist. No pretending that it isn’t already affecting mankind. Not in the face of unprecedented and dramatic weather extremes that people all over the world are living through right now: heat waves, floods, mudslides, droughts, wildfires, hurricanes and more.
These severe weather conditions will increasingly affect food security. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimates that the risk of hunger and malnutrition worldwide could increase by as much as 20 percent by 2050, with developing countries predicted to be especially vulnerable.
But mankind has genius on its side – people whose curiosity, observation and love for nature is insisting on finding solutions. One such person is microbiologist Rusty Rodriguez, CEO and founder of Symbiogenics. He gave a fascinating TEDxTalk on his work that promises to secure food production for generations to come (see below).
He believes we can protect crops against global warming by exploiting the secrets of plants that already thrive in the most punishing climates. To find out how plants survive in soil and moisture extremes he and geneticist Regina Redman collected 200 different samples of panic grass in Yellowstone National Park.
Rodriguez and his team studied the plants under microscopes and discovered that all the plants were colonized by the same fungus. The scientists then grew the plants and fungi separately to find out if there were an ecological significance to this association.
They made a significant discovery: when growing separately neither could survive temperatures above 100 degrees but when they grow together they can survive temperatures of 160 degrees and more.
“These plants were no more adapted to those stressors than your average garden plant, but they had adapted by forming symbiotic associations with the microscopic fungi that lived inside them,” says Rodriguez.
The researchers realized they were on to something. They sprayed different agricultural plants with fungi and subjected them to a range of stressed conditions in their lab and discovered that the fungi and the plants survived.
“Some fungi have the ability to form symbiotic associations with plants that are genetically distant from the species they were discovered in,” told his TEDxRainer audience.
This is the key point: fungi can form symbiotic relationships with a large range of different food crops humans need to survive.
“We looked at stress habitats ranging from coastal beaches to high up on Mount Everest. We found that none of the plant survived, except through symbiotic cooperation with microscope fungi that live inside the plants – they grow in between then plant cells.”
The amazing life-saving takeaway?
The scientist developed formulations of micro-organisms that can be sprayed onto the seeds of crop plants and the emergent plants are resistant to drought, temperature and salt stress.
This technology has been proven to increase crop yields and it has happened without requiring additional land, fertilizer, labor or most importantly, water.
“It’s a truly remarkable technology, and you know, it has been developed by nature for about 450 million years,” says Rodriguez.
This is a reminder from nature to all of us that extraordinary things can be achieved through cooperation concluded Rodriguez.
As humanity scrambles for ways to adapt, scientists are looking for ways to protect the future of food. Seattle-based microbiologist Rusty Rodriguez believes one possible solution might be to leverage an ancient cooperative relationship between fungi and plants.