CRISPR gene-editing technique used for the first time in humans
The revolutionary gene-editing tool CRISPR-Cas-9 has been used in a human for the first time, as reported in Nature News. In a Chinese clinical trial, immune cells were taken from a patient with a form of lung cancer. The gene for a protein called PD-1 was then removed from the cells and injected back into the patient. PD-1 normally puts the breaks on the response of immune cells – by deleting this gene, the hope is that the immune response against the cancer cells will be increased. The trial, which aims to enroll 10 patients, will mainly evaluate the safety of the technique.
Experts expect this announcement will trigger a race between China and the US in developing the technique in humans (hailed as Sputnik 2.0), which will hopefully expedite the development of these treatments. One thing is for certain – this is the first of many, many clinical trials we can expect to see with CRISPR in the future.
Spine-tingling technology of the future: Wireless device helps paralyzed monkeys walk again
In a study published in Nature, scientists were able to use an implantable wireless device to overcome leg paralysis in monkeys. Normally, leg movement occurs through electrical signals transmitted via nerves from the brain to the spinal cord – when these signals are severed or blocked, paralysis can occur. The implantable device works by detecting electrical signals in the brain and sending them to a computer, which decodes the signals for exact movement e.g. flexing, extending. The computer than sends the information to a stimulator in the monkeys leg, sending electrical pulses to cause the intended movement in real-time. The monkeys in the study were able to do weight-bearing movement as early as six days post-injury.
This is an incredibly exciting development as spinal cord injuries typically do not heal – this technology could offer hope in the future to people with paralysis to regain some muscle control and movement. However, signals in human brains are much more complex than monkeys and the decoding is therefore more complicated. The developers of the technology have started a trial of a pared-down version of the technology in two people in Switzerland. With further development, experts predict that we may have full human trials within several years.
Gut bacteria may alter how cancer immunotherapies work
Every week, new evidence emerges for the role that our gut bacteria have on all aspects of our health. Now we learn they may even affect how cancer immunotherapies work. In a small study presented at the UK’s National Cancer Research Institute’s (NCRI) Cancer Conference, patients with malignant melanoma were more likely to respond to immunotherapy if they had more diverse gut bacteria. Differences were also seen in the types of bacteria present in the guts of responders versus non-responders. The effect may not be solely down to bacteria, however, as people who eat more fruit and vegetables have more diverse gut bacteria and are more likely to be healthy overall, compared to those with a poorer diet and less diverse bacteria.
Immunotherapy is an exciting, emerging field in cancer, which aims to use the body’s own immune system to fight cancer by tweaking immune cells to directly target the disease. Results are promising but are highly variable between patients, and this study goes some way to explain individual differences. It could help doctors determine who may benefit from immunotherapy treatment, as well as the potential to alter patients’ gut bacteria to aid in treatment response.
Poor sleep? Time to put down the phone…
In data that is not that surprising, a new study has shown that increased smartphone screen time exposure leads to poor sleep quality. The study, published in PLOS ONE, measured the amount of time 650 adults in the US spent looking at their phones over a 30 day period, as well as recording their sleep time and quality. Participants looked at their phones for an average of 1.5 hours per day, with increased use in younger participants and those of self-described black/other ethnicity. Increased usage was associated with decreased sleep time and quality, especially when used close to bed time. It is thought that the blue light emitted from screens suppresses melatonin (a sleep hormone) and that interaction on social media/emails may stimulate the brain.
Although a direct causality could not be proven in this study, the results of increased screen time use may have wide-reaching health implications as poor sleep quality is associated with increased risk of numerous diseases, including obesity, type 2 diabetes and depression. If smart phone usage is not altered, this could lead to a whole generation having dramatically increased risk of these diseases.