Category Archives: Technology

Human embryos edited to stop disease

Embryo

OHSU
Image caption
Pictures of the genetically modified embryos

Scientists have, for the first time, successfully freed embryos of a piece of faulty DNA that causes deadly heart disease to run in families.

It potentially opens the door to preventing 10,000 disorders that are passed down the generations.

The US and South Korean team allowed the embryos to develop for five days before stopping the experiment.

The study hints at the future of medicine, but also provokes deep questions about what is morally right.

Science is going through a golden age in editing DNA thanks to a new technology called Crispr, named breakthrough of the year in just 2015.

Its applications in medicine are vast and include the idea of wiping out genetic faults that cause diseases from cystic fibrosis to breast cancer.

Heart stopper

US teams at Oregon Health and Science University and the Salk Institute along with the Institute for Basic Science in South Korea focused on hypertrophic cardiomyopathy.

The disorder is common, affecting one in every 500 people, and can lead to the heart suddenly stopping beating.

It is caused by an error in a single gene (an instruction in the DNA), and anyone carrying it has a 50-50 chance of passing it on to their children.

In the study, described in the journal Nature, the genetic repair happened during conception.

Sperm from a man with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy was injected into healthy donated eggs alongside Crispr technology to correct the defect.

It did not work all the time, but 72% of embryos were free from disease-causing mutations.

Eternal benefit

Dr Shoukhrat Mitalipov, a key figure in the research team, said: “Every generation on would carry this repair because we’ve removed the disease-causing gene variant from that family’s lineage.

“By using this technique, it’s possible to reduce the burden of this heritable disease on the family and eventually the human population.”

There have been multiple attempts before, including, in 2015, teams in China using Crispr-technology to correct defects that lead to blood disorders.

But they could not correct every cell, so the embryo was a “mosaic” of healthy and diseased cells.

Their approach also led to other parts of the genetic code becoming mutated.

Those technical obstacles have been overcome in the latest research.

However, this is not about to become routine practice.

The biggest question is one of safety, and that can be answered only by far more extensive research.

There are also questions about when it would be worth doing – embryos can already be screened for disease through pre-implantation genetic diagnosis.

However, there are about 10,000 genetic disorders that are caused by a single mutation and could, in theory, be repaired with the same technology.

Prof Robin Lovell-Badge, from the Francis Crick Institute, told the BBC: “A method of being able to avoid having affected children passing on the affected gene could be really very important for those families.

“In terms of when, definitely not yet. It’s going to be quite a while before we know that it’s going to be safe.”

Nicole Mowbray

Nicole Mowbray lives with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy and has a defibrillator implanted in her chest in case her heart stops.

But she is unsure whether she would ever consider gene editing: “I wouldn’t want to pass on something that caused my child to have a limited or painful life.

“That does come to the front of my mind when I think about having children.

“But I wouldn’t want to create the ‘perfect’ child, I feel like my condition makes me, me.”

Ethical?

Darren Griffin, a professor of genetics at the University of Kent, said: “Perhaps the biggest question, and probably the one that will be debated the most, is whether we should be physically altering the genes of an IVF embryo at all.

“This is not a straightforward question… equally, the debate on how morally acceptable it is not to act when we have the technology to prevent these life-threatening diseases must also come into play.”

The study has already been condemned by Dr David King, from the campaign group Human Genetics Alert, which described the research as “irresponsible” and a “race for first genetically modified baby”.

Dr Yalda Jamshidi, a reader in genomic medicine at St George’s University of London, said: “The study is the first to show successful and efficient correction of a disease-causing mutation in early stage human embryos with gene editing.

“Whilst we are just beginning to understand the complexity of genetic disease, gene-editing will likely become acceptable when its potential benefits, both to individuals and to the broader society, exceeds its risks.”

The method does not currently fuel concerns about the extreme end of “designer babies” engineered to have new advantageous traits.

The way Crispr is designed should lead to a new piece of engineered DNA being inserted into the genetic code.

However, in a complete surprise to the researchers, this did not happen.

Instead, Crispr damaged the mutated gene in the father’s sperm, leading to a healthy version being copied over from the mother’s egg.

This means the technology, for now, works only when there is a healthy version from one of the parents.

Prof Lovell-Badge added: “The possibility of producing designer babies, which is unjustified in any case, is now even further away.”

By James Gallagher/BBCNews

Posted by The NON-Conformist

It’s Here Now: Cheap 100% Renewable Energy

George Goodall’s The Switch: How Solar Storage and New Technology Means Cheap Power for All was enormously valuable in rectifying many of my prior misconceptions about renewable energy. First and foremost was my erroneous belief that high production costs would make renewable energy far more expensive than fossil fuels – that the renewable energy revolution would require either a) a major reduction in population or b) major sacrifice in terms of lifestyle choices.

Both turn out to be totally untrue. Renewable energy (mainly photo-voltaic solar energy) is already cheaper than fossil fuels in many parts of the world. By 2040 the low cost of producing renewable energy will make fossil fuels virtually obsolete.

The first section of the book focuses on a mathematical explanation of what he refers to as the “experience curve.” Energy economists use this formula to explain the rapid decrease in the cost of manufacturing PV cells, solar panels and solar batters. The same process can be used to predict future costs of manufacture. Which is one of the main reasons Wall Street financiers are refusing to invest in new coal and gas-fired power plants. They know the electricity they produce will never compete with the low cost and efficiency of renewable energy.

In the past two decades, the main purpose of new gas-fired power plants has been to address power outages during peak demand periods. Because they only power up 10-50 hours a year, they are extremely inefficient and expensive to operate. In a number of regions, power suppliers using smart technology and creative billing schemes are flattening out peak demand by encouraging large energy consumers to shift their energy usage to non-peak periods.

Goodall asserts that six billion of the world’s seven billion population could easily switch to 100% solar energy now because they live in hot sunny regions. The other one billion, in Northern Europe and parts of the US (and New Zealand), will need to supplement PV solar with other forms of renewable energy (wind, hydro, geothermal, biofuel, etc) and develop short and long term storage technology to meet their winter energy needs.

The cost of lithium ion storage batteries is also dropping rapidly, though it lags several years behind PV production costs. As more and more energy consumers invest in solar storage systems, grid-based energy will continue to increase rapidly – with the cost of maintaining energy transmission infrastructure falling on fewer and fewer shoulders. This will only hasten the switch to renewable technology.

by Stuart Jeanne Bramhall/DissidentVoice

Posted by The NON-Conformist

Botched nuclear shipment puts pressure on Los Alamos to make changes

Small amounts of radioactive material being transported incorrectly has led to the firing of several employees after an incident at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, the prominent facility that specializes in nuclear weapons.

Last month, federal regulators launched an investigation into the lab after small amounts of nuclear materials were shipped by air, instead of by ground, as they were intended to be. They were supposed to be sent to facilities in California and South Carolina aboard a commercial cargo plane. Air transport of these materials is not allowed due to US regulations, according to a press release by the National Nuclear Security Administration.

The laboratory has said it will not comply with requests to provide any details about the mistakes of its employees in connection to last month’s error and have said that everyone involved in the mishap has been held to account for their actions, according to the Associated Press.

The lab has transferred the duties related to certain nuclear shipments to another division in the wake of the accident. They have also created more controls for the making of shipment labels.

A spokesman for Los Alamos said “the lab is putting into place laboratory-wide measures to significantly reduce the likelihood of similar events occurring,” the Albuquerque Journal reported.

The lab also said in a statement that “although these shipments arrived safely at their destinations and no one was hurt, this mistake, taken together with other mistakes in recent years, is unacceptable and is in the process of being addressed promptly and thoroughly.” They went on to say “our response to this incident is not business as usual,” the AP reported.

Nuclear watchdog groups spoke out following the incident and said that the lab was lucky to avoid a disaster because its packaging of materials allowed for possible rapid pressure changes.

No contamination or loss of radioactive material was found after tests were done on the shipments when they arrived at their destination.

Los Alamos is currently preparing to ramp up production of a key plutonium component for the US cache of nuclear weapons. Federal regulators, which are composed of an independent panel, have opened up a review of the lab’s track record and its ability to work safely with plutonium, the AP reported.

The lab is operated by Los Alamos National Security LLC, which is a private consortium, which includes the University of Southern California and Bechtel. Following performance reviews that were deemed unsatisfactory, the federal government made the decision to not extend the consortium’s more than $2 billion annual operating contract past 2018. The feds have also started to compose and rebid the contract. There has been increased criticism of Los Alamos after many articles were written by the Center for Public Integrity about federal regulators’ interest in safety lapses at the lab, according to the Journal.

From RT

Posted by The NON-Conformist

Business Partnerships between Fitbit and Health Insurance Companies

Insurance companies are developing new ways to deny health coverage to customers who have preexisting medical conditions. Insurance companies are partnering with Qualcomm Life to develop a special program, which allows insurance companies to monitor customers’ activity via wearable fitness devices, such as a Fitbit. However, as Andrew Boyd reported for The Conversation in February 2017, insurance companies do not have customers’ best interests in mind. Rather, they aim to monitor customers’ data via Fitbit to deny coverage to unhealthy individuals and boost their insurance rates.

As Boyd reported, insurance companies like UnitedHealthcare now offer participants nearly $1,500 in deductibles each year for health care services, depending on how active participants are. Wellness programs like UnitedHealthcare’s offer participants motivation to become more active.

But the insurance industry has larger aims for wireless technology, too. Qualcomm has offered a $10 million prize to a team that can develop a multifunction medical device. The medical device must be able to accurately diagnose thirteen health conditions, including indicators for pneumonia and diabetes, as well as provide real time data on five vital signs, including heart rate breathing rate. As Boyd reported, this competition is in its final stages, with a winner expected to be determined later in 2017. “That could bring wearables’ insights to doctors–and insurance companies–much sooner than we might think,” he wrote.

Boyd noted that, “if used–and regulated–well, the devices can help individual patients change their daily habits to become healthier, saving insurance companies money, and passing some of those savings along to customers. Alternatively, the devices could provide justification for denying coverage to the inactive or unhealthy… Consumers should not assume their insurance companies will use their data only to improve patient care. With millions of dollars on the line, insurers will be sorely tempted. With the legal landscape around preexisting conditions in flux, people should think twice before signing up.”

As of March 27, 2017, corporate media have not fully covered this particular news report, but two major corporate newspapers have provided some coverage. In April 2015, the Los Angeles Times ran an opinion piece raising concerns about how insurance companies might use Fitbit monitors. A March 2016 article in the Wall Street Journal described UnitedHealth’s wellness programs, including its $1,460 per year credits for active participants who share their data; but it did not address the possibility that other, less active insurees might be forced to pay higher rates. Overall, corporate media fail to inform their audience of the dangers of sharing personal information with health insurance companies.

By Andrew Boyd/ProjestCensored

Posted by The NON-Conformist

Germany approves bill to fine social media up to €50mn over online hate speech, fake news

The German parliament has voted to fine social media networks up to €50 million ($56 million) if they fail to remove hateful content or fake news. The networks will be given 24 hours to block or delete any inappropriate content.

“Freedom of speech ends where criminal law begins,” Justice Minister Heiko Maas said, adding that the measure “end[s] the internet law of the jungle.”

The law gives social media 24 hours to remove or block the illegal content. If a case is more complicated, the platform will be given a week to deal with it. The networks also obliged to report back to those who filed the complaint about the case details and how they dealt with it.

The measure won’t be imposed after only one violation, but only after a company systematically refuses to delete or block illegal content, the bill suggests.

The companies will have to publish a report every six months, describing in detail how they have dealt with complaints of hate speech on their platforms, the bill suggests.

According to Maas, who proposed the bill back in March, the number of hate crimes in Germany jumped by over 300 percent in the last two years.

“This law is the logical next step for effectively tackling hate speech since all voluntary agreements with the platform providers have been virtually unsuccessful,” the Central Council of Jews in Germany said, praising the measure, as cited by Reuters.

However, the companies affected, including Facebook, did not welcome the bill, saying it could crack down on free speech.

“This law as it stands now will not improve efforts to tackle this important social problem,” a Facebook statement said.

“We feel that the lack of scrutiny and consultation do not do justice to the importance of the subject. We will continue to do everything we can to ensure safety for the people on our platform.”

“RSF opposes this bill, which would just contribute to the trend to privatize censorship by delegating the duties of judges to commercial online platforms and making them decide where or not content should be deleted, as if the Internet giants can replace independent and impartial courts,” said Elodie Vialle, the head of RSF’s Journalism and Technology desk.

 

Uber CEO Travis Kalanick quits under pressure from investors

The co-founder of ride-hailing firm Uber, Travis Kalanick, has stepped down as chief executive in the face of mounting pressure from shareholders. His resignation follows the company having to grapple with months of scandal and controversy.

According to The New York Times, five of Uber’s major investors demanded on Tuesday the chief executive resigns immediately. Kalanick will, however, remain on the board of directors.

“I love Uber more than anything in the world, and at this difficult moment in my personal life I have accepted the investors request to step aside so that Uber can go back to building rather than be distracted with another fight,” Kalanick said in a statement.

Last week Kalanick said he was taking an indefinite leave of absence following the death of his mother in a boating accident.

Uber’s board said in a statement that “Travis has always put Uber first. This is a bold decision and a sign of his devotion and love for Uber.”

“By stepping away, he’s taking the time to heal from his personal tragedy while giving the company room to fully embrace this new chapter in Uber’s history. We look forward to continuing to serve with him on the board.”

Kalanick co-founded Uber in 2009, turning it into a dominant global ride-hailing service.

Over the past year, the company has been rocked by scandals and negative publicity. They included revelations of questionable spy programs, claims of sexual harassment and discrimination, as well as criticism of the way Kalanick was running the company.

Uber has also been dealing with an intellectual property lawsuit from Google’s parent company, Alphabet, over alleged theft of trade secrets related to driverless cars.

Kalanick’s departure is just the latest in a number of senior executives to leave the company.

In recent months, Uber has fired more than 20 employees after an investigation into the company’s culture. The firm has reviewed more than 200 HR complaints including harassment and bullying.

Despite all the troubles, Uber’s business is growing with revenue reaching $3.4 billion in the first quarter of this year. The company is currently valued at $69 billion.

From RT

Posted by The NON-Conformist

Skull Discovery In South Africa Indicates Human Family Tree More Diverse for Longer Than Previously Thought

JOHANNESBURG (AP) — A species belonging to the human family tree whose remnants were first discovered in a South African cave in 2013 lived several hundred thousand years ago, indicating that the creature was alive at the same time as early humans in Africa, scientists said Tuesday.

A meticulous dating process showed that Homo naledi (nah-LEH-dee), which had a mix of human-like and more primitive characteristics such as a small brain, existed in a surprisingly recent period in paleontological terms, said Prof. Lee Berger of The University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Berger led the team of researchers, which also announced that it had found a second cave with more fossils of the Homo naledi species, including a relatively well-preserved skull of an adult male.

The conclusion that Homo naledi was living between 236,000 and 335,000 years ago — and had not become extinct much earlier — shows that the human “Homo” family tree was more diverse than previously thought at that point in the evolution of our species, Homo sapiens, said John Hawks of the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Wits University.

The next step in research is to “sort the relationship of these different species to each other and also their role in our process of becoming human,” Hawks said during an announcement of the discoveries at the Cradle of Humankind, a site near the South African town of Magaliesburg where the fossils were found. The research was also published in the journal eLife.

The name of Homo naledi refers to the “Homo” evolutionary group, which includes modern people and our closest extinct relatives, and the word for “star” in the local Sotho language. The fossils were found in the Rising Star cave system, which includes more than 2 kilometers (1.25 miles) of underground, mapped passageways. The second chamber containing the more recent fossil discoveries is more than 100 meters (330 feet) from the cave where the original discoveries were made, and publicly announced in 2015.

Some experts who were not involved in the research also marveled at the age of the fossils, determined by dating Homo naledi teeth and cave sediments.

“This is astonishingly young for a species that still displays primitive characteristics found in fossils about two million years old, such as the small brain size, curved fingers, and form of the shoulder, trunk and hip joint. Yet, the wrist, hands, legs and feet look more like those of Neanderthals and modern humans, and the teeth are relatively small and simple and set in lightly built jawbones,” Chris Stringer of the Natural History Museum in London wrote in an email to The Associated Press.

Stringer said there were parallels with the late survival of the species Homo floresiensis — also known as the “hobbit” — in apparent isolation on an island in what is today Indonesia and raised a key question: “How did a comparably strange and small-brained species linger on in southern Africa, seemingly alongside more ‘advanced’ humans?”

Richard Potts of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington said it was likely that Homo naledi evolved and persisted in isolation from other species of Homo.

‘”Island habitats’” can occur on continents, too, in small environmental refuges that are sustained long term,” Potts said. “Yes, on continents it’s typically lizards, butterflies, fish, and small mammals that are susceptible to separation and isolated evolution, and the effects of that isolation can arise rapidly. To me, naledi and floresiensis are nature’s experiments of isolated evolution in two of our evolutionary cousins.”

Berger, the research team leader, said the discovery of a second chamber with Homo naledi remains gives more credence to the idea that the species deliberately disposed of its dead in pitch-black caves that are extremely difficult to reach. However, some experts who were not on the research team questioned whether the small-brained species was capable of such behavior and speculated that other ways to access the chambers may have existed in the past.

So far, there is no evidence that Homo naledi used stone tools or harnessed fire for its own uses.

The new discoveries offer a unifying message that counters populism, intolerance and ethnic prejudice sweeping many parts of the world, said Adam Habib, vice-chancellor of the University of the Witwatersrand.

“This research shows that we come from common roots, that we represent a common humanity,” Habib said. “If we’re going to survive as a species, that’s what we need to remember.”

By Associated Press

Posted by The NON-Conformist