Can blockchain help solve the Henrietta Lacks problem?
Science has come a long way since Henrietta Lacks, a Black woman from Baltimore, succumbed to cervical cancer at age 31 in 1951 -- only eight months after her diagnosis. Since then, research involving her cancer cells has advanced scientific understanding of the human papilloma virus, polio vaccines, medications for HIV/AIDS and in vitro fertilization.
Today, the World Health Organization reports that those cells are essential in mounting a COVID-19 response. But they were commercialized without the awareness or permission of Lacks or her family, who have filed a lawsuit against a biotech company for profiting from these “HeLa” cells.
While obtaining an individual's informed consent has become standard procedure before the use of tissues in medical research, many patients still don’t know what happens to their samples. Now, a new phone-based app is aiming to change that.
Tissue donors can track what scientists do with their samples while safeguarding privacy, through a pilot program initiated in October by researchers at the Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics and the University of Pittsburgh’s Institute for Precision Medicine. The program uses blockchain technology to offer patients this opportunity through the University of Pittsburgh's Breast Disease Research Repository, while assuring that their identities remain anonymous to investigators.
A blockchain is a digital, tamper-proof ledger of transactions duplicated and distributed across a computer system network. Whenever a transaction occurs with a patient’s sample, multiple stakeholders can track it while the owner’s identity remains encrypted. Special certificates called “nonfungible tokens,” or NFTs, represent patients’ unique samples on a trusted and widely used blockchain that reinforces transparency.
Blockchain could be used to notify people if cancer researchers discover that they have certain risk factors.
“Healthcare is very data rich, but control of that data often does not lie with the patient,” said Julius Bogdan, vice president of analytics for North America at the Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society (HIMSS), a Chicago-based global technology nonprofit. “NFTs allow for the encapsulation of a patient’s data in a digital asset controlled by the patient.” He added that this technology enables a more secure and informed method of participating in clinical and research trials.
Without this technology, de-identification of patients’ samples during biomedical research had the unintended consequence of preventing them from discovering what researchers find -- even if that data could benefit their health. A solution was urgently needed, said Marielle Gross, assistant professor of obstetrics, gynecology and reproductive science and bioethics at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine.
“A researcher can learn something from your bio samples or medical records that could be life-saving information for you, and they have no way to let you or your doctor know,” said Gross, who is also an affiliate assistant professor at the Berman Institute. “There’s no good reason for that to stay the way that it is.”
For instance, blockchain could be used to notify people if cancer researchers discover that they have certain risk factors. Gross estimated that less than half of breast cancer patients are tested for mutations in BRCA1 and BRCA2 — tumor suppressor genes that are important in combating cancer. With normal function, these genes help prevent breast, ovarian and other cells from proliferating in an uncontrolled manner. If researchers find mutations, it’s relevant for a patient’s and family’s follow-up care — and that’s a prime example of how this newly designed app could play a life-saving role, she said.
Liz Burton was one of the first patients at the University of Pittsburgh to opt for the app -- called de-bi, which is short for decentralized biobank -- before undergoing a mastectomy for early-stage breast cancer in November, after it was diagnosed on a routine mammogram. She often takes part in medical research and looks forward to tracking her tissues.
“Anytime there’s a scientific experiment or study, I’m quick to participate -- to advance my own wellness as well as knowledge in general,” said Burton, 49, a life insurance service representative who lives in Carnegie, Pa. “It’s my way of contributing.”
Liz Burton was one of the first patients at the University of Pittsburgh to opt for the app before undergoing a mastectomy for early-stage breast cancer.
The pilot program raises the issue of what investigators may owe study participants, especially since certain populations, such as Black and indigenous peoples, historically were not treated in an ethical manner for scientific purposes. “It’s a truly laudable effort,” Tamar Schiff, a postdoctoral fellow in medical ethics at New York University’s Grossman School of Medicine, said of the endeavor. “Research participants are beautifully altruistic.”
Lauren Sankary, a bioethicist and associate director of the neuroethics program at Cleveland Clinic, agrees that the pilot program provides increased transparency for study participants regarding how scientists use their tissues while acknowledging individuals’ contributions to research.
However, she added, “it may require researchers to develop a process for ongoing communication to be responsive to additional input from research participants.”
Peter H. Schwartz, professor of medicine and director of Indiana University’s Center for Bioethics in Indianapolis, said the program is promising, but he wonders what will happen if a patient has concerns about a particular research project involving their tissues.
“I can imagine a situation where a patient objects to their sample being used for some disease they’ve never heard about, or which carries some kind of stigma like a mental illness,” Schwartz said, noting that researchers would have to evaluate how to react. “There’s no simple answer to those questions, but the technology has to be assessed with an eye to the problems it could raise.”
To truly make a difference, blockchain must enable broad consent from patients, not just de-identification.
As a result, researchers may need to factor in how much information to share with patients and how to explain it, Schiff said. There are also concerns that in tracking their samples, patients could tell others what they learned before researchers are ready to publicly release this information. However, Bogdan, the vice president of the HIMSS nonprofit, believes only a minimal study identifier would be stored in an NFT, not patient data, research results or any type of proprietary trial information.
Some patients may be confused by blockchain and reluctant to embrace it. “The complexity of NFTs may prevent the average citizen from capitalizing on their potential or vendors willing to participate in the blockchain network,” Bogdan said. “Blockchain technology is also quite costly in terms of computational power and energy consumption, contributing to greenhouse gas emissions and climate change.”
In addition, this nascent, groundbreaking technology is immature and vulnerable to data security flaws, disputes over intellectual property rights and privacy issues, though it does offer baseline protections to maintain confidentiality. To truly make a difference, blockchain must enable broad consent from patients, not just de-identification, said Robyn Shapiro, a bioethicist and founding attorney at Health Sciences Law Group near Milwaukee.
The Henrietta Lacks story is a prime example, Shapiro noted. During her treatment for cervical cancer at Johns Hopkins, Lacks’s tissue was de-identified (albeit not entirely, because her cell line, HeLa, bore her initials). After her death, those cells were replicated and distributed for important and lucrative research and product development purposes without her knowledge or consent.
Nonetheless, Shapiro thinks that the initiative by the University of Pittsburgh and Johns Hopkins has potential to solve some ethical challenges involved in research use of biospecimens. “Compared to the system that allowed Lacks’s cells to be used without her permission, Shapiro said, “blockchain technology using nonfungible tokens that allow patients to follow their samples may enhance transparency, accountability and respect for persons who contribute their tissue and clinical data for research.”
Read more about laws that have prevented people from the rights to their own cells.
The glass-encased cabinet looks like a display meant to hold reasonably priced watches, or drugstore beauty creams shipped from France. But instead of this stagnant merchandise, each of its five shelves is overgrown with leaves — moss-soft pea sprouts, spikes of Lolla rosa lettuces, pale bok choy, dark kale, purple basil or red-veined sorrel or green wisps of dill. The glass structure isn’t a cabinet, but rather a “micro farm.”
The gadget is on display at the Richmond, Virginia headquarters of Babylon Micro-Farms, a company that aims to make indoor farming in the U.S. more accessible and sustainable. Babylon’s soilless hydroponic growing system, which feeds plants via nutrient-enriched water, allows chefs on cruise ships, cafeterias and elsewhere to provide home-grown produce to patrons, just seconds after it’s harvested. Currently, there are over 200 functioning systems, either sold or leased to customers, and more of them are on the way.
The chef-farmers choose from among 45 types of herb and leafy-greens seeds, plop them into grow trays, and a few weeks later they pick and serve. While success is predicated on at least a small amount of these humans’ care, the systems are autonomously surveilled round-the-clock from Babylon’s base of operations. And artificial intelligence is helping to run the show.
Babylon piloted the use of specialized cameras that take pictures in different spectrums to gather some less-obvious visual data about plants’ wellbeing and alert people if something seems off.
Imagine consistently perfect greens and tomatoes and strawberries, grown hyper-locally, using less water, without chemicals or environmental contaminants. This is the hefty promise of controlled environment agriculture (CEA) — basically, indoor farms that can be hydroponic, aeroponic (plant roots are suspended and fed through misting), or aquaponic (where fish play a role in fertilizing vegetables). But whether they grow 4,160 leafy-green servings per year, like one Babylon farm, or millions of servings, like some of the large, centralized facilities starting to supply supermarkets across the U.S., they seek to minimize failure as much as possible.
Babylon’s soilless hydroponic growing system
Courtesy Babylon Micro-Farms
Here, AI is starting to play a pivotal role. CEA growers use it to help “make sense of what’s happening” to the plants in their care, says Scott Lowman, vice president of applied research at the Institute for Advanced Learning and Research (IALR) in Virginia, a state that’s investing heavily in CEA companies. And although these companies say they’re not aiming for a future with zero human employees, AI is certainly poised to take a lot of human farming intervention out of the equation — for better and worse.
Most of these companies are compiling their own data sets to identify anything that might block the success of their systems. Babylon had already integrated sensor data into its farms to measure heat and humidity, the nutrient content of water, and the amount of light plants receive. Last year, they got a National Science Foundation grant that allowed them to pilot the use of specialized cameras that take pictures in different spectrums to gather some less-obvious visual data about plants’ wellbeing and alert people if something seems off. “Will this plant be healthy tomorrow? Are there things…that the human eye can't see that the plant starts expressing?” says Amandeep Ratte, the company’s head of data science. “If our system can say, Hey, this plant is unhealthy, we can reach out to [users] preemptively about what they’re doing wrong, or is there a disease at the farm?” Ratte says. The earlier the better, to avoid crop failures.
Natural light accounts for 70 percent of Greenswell Growers’ energy use on a sunny day.
Courtesy Greenswell Growers
IALR’s Lowman says that other CEA companies are developing their AI systems to account for the different crops they grow — lettuces come in all shapes and sizes, after all, and each has different growing needs than, for example, tomatoes. The ways they run their operations differs also. Babylon is unusual in its decentralized structure. But centralized growing systems with one main location have variabilities, too. AeroFarms, which recently declared bankruptcy but will continue to run its 140,000-square foot vertical operation in Danville, Virginia, is entirely enclosed and reliant on the intense violet glow of grow lights to produce microgreens.
Different companies have different data needs. What data is essential to AeroFarms isn’t quite the same as for Greenswell Growers located in Goochland County, Virginia. Raising four kinds of lettuce in a 77,000-square-foot automated hydroponic greenhouse, the vagaries of naturally available light, which accounts for 70 percent of Greenswell’s energy use on a sunny day, affect operations. Their tech needs to account for “outside weather impacts,” says president Carl Gupton. “What adjustments do we have to make inside of the greenhouse to offset what's going on outside environmentally, to give that plant optimal conditions? When it's 85 percent humidity outside, the system needs to do X, Y and Z to get the conditions that we want inside.”
AI will help identify diseases, as well as when a plant is thirsty or overly hydrated, when it needs more or less calcium, phosphorous, nitrogen.
Nevertheless, every CEA system has the same core needs — consistent yield of high quality crops to keep up year-round supply to customers. Additionally, “Everybody’s got the same set of problems,” Gupton says. Pests may come into a facility with seeds. A disease called pythium, one of the most common in CEA, can damage plant roots. “Then you have root disease pressures that can also come internally — a change in [growing] substrate can change the way the plant performs,” Gupton says.
AI will help identify diseases, as well as when a plant is thirsty or overly hydrated, when it needs more or less calcium, phosphorous, nitrogen. So, while companies amass their own hyper-specific data sets, Lowman foresees a time within the next decade “when there will be some type of [open-source] database that has the most common types of plant stress identified” that growers will be able to tap into. Such databases will “create a community and move the science forward,” says Lowman.
In fact, IALR is working on assembling images for just such a database now. On so-called “smart tables” inside an Institute lab, a team is growing greens and subjects them to various stressors. Then, they’re administering treatments while taking images of every plant every 15 minutes, says Lowman. Some experiments generate 80,000 images; the challenge lies in analyzing and annotating the vast trove of them, marking each one to reflect outcome—for example increasing the phosphate delivery and the plant’s response to it. Eventually, they’ll be fed into AI systems to help them learn.
For all the enthusiasm surrounding this technology, it’s not without downsides. Training just one AI system can emit over 250,000 pounds of carbon dioxide, according to MIT Technology Review. AI could also be used “to enhance environmental benefit for CEA and optimize [its] energy consumption,” says Rozita Dara, a computer science professor at the University of Guelph in Canada, specializing in AI and data governance, “but we first need to collect data to measure [it].”
The chef-farmers can choose from 45 types of herb and leafy-greens seeds.
Courtesy Babylon Micro-Farms
Any system connected to the Internet of Things is also vulnerable to hacking; if CEA grows to the point where “there are many of these similar farms, and you're depending on feeding a population based on those, it would be quite scary,” Dara says. And there are privacy concerns, too, in systems where imaging is happening constantly. It’s partly for this reason, says Babylon’s Ratte, that the company’s in-farm cameras all “face down into the trays, so the only thing [visible] is pictures of plants.”
Tweaks to improve AI for CEA are happening all the time. Greenswell made its first harvest in 2022 and now has annual data points they can use to start making more intelligent choices about how to feed, water, and supply light to plants, says Gupton. Ratte says he’s confident Babylon’s system can already “get our customers reliable harvests. But in terms of how far we have to go, it's a different problem,” he says. For example, if AI could detect whether the farm is mostly empty—meaning the farm’s user hasn’t planted a new crop of greens—it can alert Babylon to check “what's going on with engagement with this user?” Ratte says. “Do they need more training? Did the main person responsible for the farm quit?”
Lowman says more automation is coming, offering greater ability for systems to identify problems and mitigate them on the spot. “We still have to develop datasets that are specific, so you can have a very clear control plan, [because] artificial intelligence is only as smart as what we tell it, and in plant science, there's so much variation,” he says. He believes AI’s next level will be “looking at those first early days of plant growth: when the seed germinates, how fast it germinates, what it looks like when it germinates.” Imaging all that and pairing it with AI, “can be a really powerful tool, for sure.”
Story by Big Think
For over a century, scientists have dreamed of growing human organs sans humans. This technology could put an end to the scarcity of organs for transplants. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. The capability to grow fully functional organs would revolutionize research. For example, scientists could observe mysterious biological processes, such as how human cells and organs develop a disease and respond (or fail to respond) to medication without involving human subjects.
Recently, a team of researchers from the University of Cambridge has laid the foundations not just for growing functional organs but functional synthetic embryos capable of developing a beating heart, gut, and brain. Their report was published in Nature.
The organoid revolution
In 1981, scientists discovered how to keep stem cells alive. This was a significant breakthrough, as stem cells have notoriously rigorous demands. Nevertheless, stem cells remained a relatively niche research area, mainly because scientists didn’t know how to convince the cells to turn into other cells.
Then, in 1987, scientists embedded isolated stem cells in a gelatinous protein mixture called Matrigel, which simulated the three-dimensional environment of animal tissue. The cells thrived, but they also did something remarkable: they created breast tissue capable of producing milk proteins. This was the first organoid — a clump of cells that behave and function like a real organ. The organoid revolution had begun, and it all started with a boob in Jello.
For the next 20 years, it was rare to find a scientist who identified as an “organoid researcher,” but there were many “stem cell researchers” who wanted to figure out how to turn stem cells into other cells. Eventually, they discovered the signals (called growth factors) that stem cells require to differentiate into other types of cells.
For a human embryo (and its organs) to develop successfully, there needs to be a “dialogue” between these three types of stem cells.
By the end of the 2000s, researchers began combining stem cells, Matrigel, and the newly characterized growth factors to create dozens of organoids, from liver organoids capable of producing the bile salts necessary for digesting fat to brain organoids with components that resemble eyes, the spinal cord, and arguably, the beginnings of sentience.
Organoids possess an intrinsic flaw: they are organ-like. They share some characteristics with real organs, making them powerful tools for research. However, no one has found a way to create an organoid with all the characteristics and functions of a real organ. But Magdalena Żernicka-Goetz, a developmental biologist, might have set the foundation for that discovery.
Żernicka-Goetz hypothesized that organoids fail to develop into fully functional organs because organs develop as a collective. Organoid research often uses embryonic stem cells, which are the cells from which the developing organism is created. However, there are two other types of stem cells in an early embryo: stem cells that become the placenta and those that become the yolk sac (where the embryo grows and gets its nutrients in early development). For a human embryo (and its organs) to develop successfully, there needs to be a “dialogue” between these three types of stem cells. In other words, Żernicka-Goetz suspected the best way to grow a functional organoid was to produce a synthetic embryoid.
As described in the aforementioned Nature paper, Żernicka-Goetz and her team mimicked the embryonic environment by mixing these three types of stem cells from mice. Amazingly, the stem cells self-organized into structures and progressed through the successive developmental stages until they had beating hearts and the foundations of the brain.
“Our mouse embryo model not only develops a brain, but also a beating heart [and] all the components that go on to make up the body,” said Żernicka-Goetz. “It’s just unbelievable that we’ve got this far. This has been the dream of our community for years and major focus of our work for a decade and finally we’ve done it.”
If the methods developed by Żernicka-Goetz’s team are successful with human stem cells, scientists someday could use them to guide the development of synthetic organs for patients awaiting transplants. It also opens the door to studying how embryos develop during pregnancy.