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Biotechnology and health

Revived, implanted, and analyzed—the personal stories at the heart of cutting-edge biotech

In our weekly newsletter the Checkup, we’ve covered advances that challenge our notions of everything from personhood to parenthood.

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This article first appeared in The Checkup, MIT Technology Review's weekly biotech newsletter. To receive it in your inbox every Thursday, and read articles like this first, sign up here.

As regular readers will know, I tend to start each edition of this newsletter by telling you all about a topic that’s been on my mind—whether it’s a big news story, a fascinating trend, or just something cool I happened to hear about in my reporting.

This week is a bit different. It’s my last Checkup for a while. In a matter of weeks, I’ll be starting a Knight Science Journalism fellowship at MIT (which is completely unrelated to my position at Tech Review). The Checkup will live on—I’ll be passing the baton to my brilliant colleagues while I’m away! But this is a farewell from me, for now.

The Checkup is not yet a year old, but we’ve covered some extremely exciting developments in medicine and biotechnology since we launched last September. We’ve come a long way since then—today, there are over 77,000 of you getting this newsletter in your inboxes every week! We’ve covered everything from teeny-tiny viruses to life-changing brain implants. There’s been a real mix of stories that have made me laugh, cry, and—always—think. So let’s take the opportunity to look at some story highlights from the last 10 months.

The first edition of the Checkup looked at what minimally conscious brains can do. There’s some really fascinating research on the minds of people who are in what’s known as an unresponsive wakefulness state and only show unreliable flickers of awareness. Some studies suggest that people in this state can still learn.

I spoke to neuroscientist John Whyte, who told me about attempts to pull minimally conscious people back into full consciousness. Some of these have involved sticking electrodes into a part of the brain that’s thought to control awareness. Others have involved drugs.

I don’t think I’ll ever forget Whyte’s story about a young man he’d treated with one of these drugs. The man, who had sustained a head injury on his way home from his summer vacation, had been unconscious for three years. Within an hour of being given a drug called zolpidem, he seemed revived—he was even able to hug his parents. But the effects lasted only a few hours, Whyte told me through tears. His parents opted to save the drug for special occasions.

As a reporter covering health and biotech, I am hugely privileged to hear the personal stories of people who have been through incredible experiences. Another story that will stick with me is that of Ian Burkhart, who I spoke to for a more recent edition of the Checkup.

Burkhart also experienced a life-changing injury in his young adulthood—a diving accident that left him with a broken neck. He was no longer able to move his limbs.

A few years later, he volunteered to have an experimental device implanted in his brain. The device, which was essentially a set of 100 electrodes, was designed to record activity in a part of his brain responsible for controlling arm movement. Researchers were able to send recorded brain signals to a sleeve of electrodes on Burkhart’s arm via a computer. He was soon able to use the device to move his hand and fingers by thought alone.

I first spoke to Burkhart in 2016, a couple of years after he’d had the device implanted. By that point, he was able to control his fingers well enough to play Guitar Hero. At the time, he said of the device: “It’s grown to be a part of me.”

But looming funding cuts soon threatened the project, and after an infection, he had to have the implant removed. He found this difficult, he told me. “When I first had my spinal cord injury, everyone said: ‘You’re never going to be able to move anything from your shoulders down again,’” he said. “I was able to restore that function, and then lose it again. That was really tough.” (You can read more about the ethical implications of removing brain implants—particularly when recipients feel it has become part of them—in this piece).

More generally, brain implants can both record brain activity and electrically stimulate parts of the brain. It’s an approach that appears to help treat some disorders, but it’s worth bearing in mind that these devices can collect intimate biological data. And while this data should be used to improve a person’s health, there’s a chance it could be used in a legal setting.

Recordings from a brain device have already been used to clear someone from assault charges. In that case, recordings suggest the person was having a seizure at the time of the alleged assault. But such recordings could just as easily be used against someone, as we explored in a February edition of the Checkup. In another edition, I had an eye-opening chat with futurist and legal ethicist Nita Farahany about the need to protect our brain data and establish our “neurorights.”

Since its inception, the Checkup has also covered some of the most exciting aspects of microbiome research. Anyone who knows me understands my fascination with the tiny bugs that live in and on us. (Former colleagues referred to me as their “poo correspondent” for my reporting on fecal transplants.)

So perhaps it’s no surprise that a recent edition of this newsletter looked at what fecal analysis can tell you about your diet and your microbiome. Scientists are developing new tools that they hope will eventually allow them to create personalized, microbiome-based diet plans. Others are working on engineering “designer microbes” for healthier microbiomes.

It’s a worthwhile endeavor given just how important these microbes seem to be for our health. They even change as we age, which has led some scientists to wonder if establishing a “younger” microbiome in the gut might somehow improve older people’s health.

We’ve also explored some really tricky ethical questions that surround reproduction and parenthood as a result of new scientific advances. Scientists can now use stem cells to make what look like early-stage embryos, for example. How far should we allow them to develop?

We can also use cells from dead people to make babies. Who should get to decide how and when that technology is used, if ever? And then there’s the race to make functional human egg and sperm cells in the lab. This technology could allow us to create babies with more than two parents, or none at all. Will it change our understanding of what it means to be a parent?

There often aren’t definitive answers to questions like these, but exploring them has been a blast. I’d like to say a great big thank you for doing that with me.

Read more from Tech Review's archive

I’ve really enjoyed writing to you from reporting trips I’ve taken over the last year, especially from an exclusive conference in Switzerland for uber-wealthy people looking to add years to their lives.

And from a seaside resort in Montenegro where life-extension enthusiasts explored a way to turn Rhode Island into a longevity state.

While I’m away, the Checkup will live on! It will take a short break and then return to your inboxes in early August. In the meantime, I’d also like to flag the other amazing weekly newsletters written by my fabulous colleagues.

Every Monday morning, Melissa Heikkilä shares her insights on the wild world of AI with subscribers of the Algorithm. And there’s more throughout the week. If you’re interested in batteries, concrete, lab-grown meat, and all things climate-related, Casey Crownhart’s newsletter, the Spark, is for you.

Tate Ryan-Mosley has all you need to know about power, politics, and Silicon Valley in the Technocrat. And you can probably guess what Zeyi Yang’s informative and entertaining China Report is all about.

From around the web

There’s evidence that weight-loss drugs like Wegovy work well in children—and trials in children as young as six are about to start. But taking these drugs could be a lifelong commitment, and they could be harmful for those with eating disorders. So should we ever give weight-loss drugs to kids? (New Scientist)

Humans transmitted the coronavirus to white-tailed deer more than 100 times in late 2021 and early 2022, according to new research. The virus probably spread among the deer, mutated, and then passed back to us. (The New York Times)

Activists are suing the Idaho government over a state law that prohibits adults from helping minors access abortions. The law was hastily cobbled together and is unconstitutional, according to the plaintiffs. (The Guardian)

The US Food and Drug Administration has approved a daily contraceptive pill for over-the-counter use. The move should allow people to buy birth control pills without a prescription. (Reuters)

There are somewhere between 50 and 800 longevity clinics in the US, where clients pay as much as $100,000 for sometimes unproven treatments. (The Wall Street Journal)

Two virologists have testified in support of their findings that the coronavirus had a "natural" origin and was not engineered in a lab. At a hearing titled “Investigating the proximal origin of a cover-up,” the scientists also said that Anthony Fauci did not exert influence over their research paper. (The New York Times)

Deep Dive

Biotechnology and health

How scientists traced a mysterious covid case back to six toilets

When wastewater surveillance turns into a hunt for a single infected individual, the ethics get tricky.

An AI-driven “factory of drugs” claims to have hit a big milestone

Insilico is part of a wave of companies betting on AI as the "next amazing revolution" in biology

The quest to legitimize longevity medicine

Longevity clinics offer a mix of services that largely cater to the wealthy. Now there’s a push to establish their work as a credible medical field.

There is a new most expensive drug in the world. Price tag: $4.25 million

But will the latest gene therapy suffer the curse of the costliest drug?

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