In The Lab

Heart model

Elaine Kamil had just returned home after a few days of business meetings in 2013 when she started having chest pains. At first Kamil, then 66, wasn't worried—she had had some chest pain before and recently went to a cardiologist to do a stress test, which was normal.

"I can't be having a heart attack because I just got checked," she thought, attributing the discomfort to stress and high demands of her job. A pediatric nephrologist at Cedars-Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles, she takes care of critically ill children who are on dialysis or are kidney transplant patients. Supporting families through difficult times and answering calls at odd hours is part of her daily routine, and often leaves her exhausted.

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Lina Zeldovich
Lina Zeldovich has written about science, medicine and technology for Scientific American, Reader’s Digest, Mosaic Science and other publications. She’s an alumna of Columbia University School of Journalism and the author of the upcoming book, The Other Dark Matter: The Science and Business of Turning Waste into Wealth, from Chicago University Press. You can find her on http://linazeldovich.com/ and @linazeldovich.
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Did Anton the AI find a new treatment for a deadly cancer?

Researchers used a supercomputer to learn about the subtle movement of a cancer-causing molecule, and then they found the precise drug that can recognize that motion.

Matthew Monteith

Bile duct cancer is a rare and aggressive form of cancer that is often difficult to diagnose. Patients with advanced forms of the disease have an average life expectancy of less than two years.

Many patients who get cancer in their bile ducts – the tubes that carry digestive fluid from the liver to the small intestine – have mutations in the protein FGFR2, which leads cells to grow uncontrollably. One treatment option is chemotherapy, but it’s toxic to both cancer cells and healthy cells, failing to distinguish between the two. Increasingly, cancer researchers are focusing on biomarker directed therapy, or making drugs that target a particular molecule that causes the disease – FGFR2, in the case of bile duct cancer.

A problem is that in targeting FGFR2, these drugs inadvertently inhibit the FGFR1 protein, which looks almost identical. This causes elevated phosphate levels, which is a sign of kidney damage, so doses are often limited to prevent complications.

In recent years, though, a company called Relay has taken a unique approach to picking out FGFR2, using a powerful supercomputer to simulate how proteins move and change shape. The team, leveraging this AI capability, discovered that FGFR2 and FGFR1 move differently, which enabled them to create a more precise drug.

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Sarah Philip
Sarah Philip is a London-based freelance journalist who writes about science, film and TV. You can follow her on Twitter @sarahph1lip.
What will the $100 genome mean?

A company has slashed the cost of assessing a person's genome to just $100. With lower costs - and as other genetic tools mature and evolve - a wave of new therapies could be coming in the near future.

Adobe Stock

In May 2022, Californian biotech Ultima Genomics announced that its UG 100 platform was capable of sequencing an entire human genome for just $100, a landmark moment in the history of the field. The announcement was particularly remarkable because few had previously heard of the company, a relative unknown in an industry long dominated by global giant Illumina which controls about 80 percent of the world’s sequencing market.

Ultima’s secret was to completely revamp many technical aspects of the way Illumina have traditionally deciphered DNA. The process usually involves first splitting the double helix DNA structure into single strands, then breaking these strands into short fragments which are laid out on a glass surface called a flow cell. When this flow cell is loaded into the sequencing machine, color-coded tags are attached to each individual base letter. A laser scans the bases individually while a camera simultaneously records the color associated with them, a process which is repeated until every single fragment has been sequenced.

Instead, Ultima has found a series of shortcuts to slash the cost and boost efficiency. “Ultima Genomics has developed a fundamentally new sequencing architecture designed to scale beyond conventional approaches,” says Josh Lauer, Ultima’s chief commercial officer.

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David Cox
David Cox is a science and health writer based in the UK. He has a PhD in neuroscience from the University of Cambridge and has written for newspapers and broadcasters worldwide including BBC News, New York Times, and The Guardian. You can follow him on Twitter @DrDavidACox.