Sarah Watts is a health and science writer based in Chicago. Follow her on Twitter at @swattswrites.
When our son Henry, now six, was diagnosed with spina bifida at his 20-week ultrasound, my husband and I were in shock. It took us more than a few minutes to understand what the doctor was telling us.
When Henry was diagnosed in 2012, postnatal surgery was still the standard of care – but that was about to change.
Neither of us had any family history of birth defects. Our fifteen-month-old daughter, June, was in perfect health.
But more than that, spina bifida – a malformation of the neural tube that eventually becomes the baby's spine – is woefully complex. The defect, the doctor explained, was essentially a hole in Henry's lower spine from which his spinal nerves were protruding – and because they were exposed to my amniotic fluid, those nerves were already permanently damaged. After birth, doctors could push the nerves back into his body and sew up the hole, but he would likely experience some level of paralysis, bladder and bowel dysfunction, and a buildup of cerebrospinal fluid that would require a surgical implant called a shunt to correct. The damage was devastating – and irreversible.
We returned home with June and spent the next few days cycling between disbelief and total despair. But within a week, the maternal-fetal medicine specialist who diagnosed Henry called us up and gave us the first real optimism we had felt in days: There was a new, experimental surgery for spina bifida that was available in just a handful of hospitals around the country. Rather than waiting until birth to repair the baby's defect, some doctors were now trying out a prenatal repair, operating on the baby via c-section, closing the defect, and then keeping the mother on strict bedrest until it was time for the baby to be delivered, just before term.
This new surgery carried risks, he told us – but if it went well, there was a chance Henry wouldn't need a shunt. And because repairing the defect during my pregnancy meant the spinal nerves were exposed for a shorter amount of time, that meant we'd be preventing nerve damage – and less nerve damage meant that there was a chance he'd be able to walk.
Did we want in? the doctor asked.
Had I known more about spina bifida and the history of its treatment, this surgery would have seemed even more miraculous. Not too long ago, the standard of care for babies born with spina bifida was to simply let them die without medical treatment. In fact, it wasn't until the early 1950s that doctors even attempted to surgically repair the baby's defect at all, instead of opting to let the more severe cases die of meningitis from their open wound. (Babies who had closed spina bifida – a spinal defect covered by skin – sometimes survived past infancy, but rarely into adulthood).
But in the 1960s and 1970s, as more doctors started repairing defects and the shunting technology improved, patients with spina bifida began to survive past infancy. When catheterization was introduced, spina bifida patients who had urinary dysfunction, as is common, were able to preserve their renal function into adulthood, and they began living even longer. Within a few decades, spina bifida was no longer considered a death sentence; people were living fuller, happier lives.
When Henry was diagnosed in 2012, postnatal surgery was still the standard of care – but that was about to change. The first major clinical trial for prenatal surgery and spina bifida, called Management of Myelomeningocele (MOMS) had just concluded, and its objective was to see whether repairing the baby's defect in utero would be beneficial. In the trial, doctors assigned eligible women to undergo prenatal surgery in the second trimester of their pregnancies and then followed up with their children throughout the first 30 months of the child's life.
The results were groundbreaking: Not only did the children in the surgery group perform better on motor skills and cognitive tests than did patients in the control group, only 40 percent of patients ended up needing shunts compared to 80 percent of patients who had postnatal surgery. The results were so overwhelmingly positive that the trial was discontinued early (and is now, happily, the medical standard of care). Our doctor relayed this information to us over the phone, breathless, and left my husband and me to make our decision.
After a few days of consideration, and despite the benefits, my husband and I actually ended up opting for the postnatal surgery instead. Prenatal surgery, although miraculous, would have required extensive travel for us, as well as giving birth in a city thousands of miles from home with no one to watch our toddler while my husband worked and I recovered. But other parents I met online throughout our pregnancy did end up choosing prenatal surgery for their children – and the majority of them now walk with little assistance and only a few require shunting.
Sarah Watts with her husband, daughter June, and son Henry, at a recent family wedding.
Even more amazing to me is that now – seven years after Henry's diagnosis, and not quite a decade since the landmark MOMS trial – the standard of care could be about to change yet again.
Regardless of whether they have postnatal or prenatal surgery, most kids with spina bifida still experience some level of paralysis and rely on wheelchairs and walkers to move around. Now, researchers at UC Davis want to augment the fetal surgery with a stem cell treatment, using human placenta-derived mesenchymal stromal cells (PMSCs) and affixing them to a cellular scaffold on the baby's defect, which not only protects the spinal cord from further damage but actually encourages cellular regeneration as well.
The hope is that this treatment will restore gross motor function after the baby is born – and so far, in animal trials, that's exactly what's happening. Fetal sheep, who were induced with spinal cord injuries in utero, were born with complete motor function after receiving prenatal surgery and PMSCs. In 2017, a pair of bulldogs born with spina bifida received the stem cell treatment a few weeks after birth – and two months after surgery, both dogs could run and play freely, whereas before they had dragged their hind legs on the ground behind them. UC Davis researchers hope to bring this treatment into human clinical trials within the next year.
A century ago, a diagnosis of spina bifida meant almost certain death. Today, most children with spina bifida live into adulthood, albeit with significant disabilities. But thanks to research and innovation, it's entirely possible that within my lifetime – and certainly within Henry's – for the first time in human history, the disabilities associated with spina bifida could be a thing of the past.
Sarah Watts is a health and science writer based in Chicago. Follow her on Twitter at @swattswrites.
In 2014, the city of Flint, Michigan switched the residents' water supply to the Flint river, citing cheaper costs. However, due to improper filtering, lead contaminated this water, and according to the Associated Press, many of the city's residents soon reported health issues like hair loss and rashes. In 2015, a report found that children there had high levels of lead in their blood. The National Resource Defense Council recently discovered there could still be as many as twelve million lead pipes carrying water to homes across the U.S.
What if Flint residents and others in afflicted areas could simply flick water onto their phone screens and an app would tell them if they were about to drink contaminated water? This is what researchers at the University of Cambridge are working on to prevent catastrophes like what occurred in Flint, and to prepare for an uncertain future of scarcer resources.
Underneath the tough glass of our phone screen lies a transparent layer of electrodes. Because our bodies hold an electric charge, when our finger touches the screen, it disrupts the electric field created among the electrodes. This is how the screen can sense where a touch occurs. Cambridge scientists used this same idea to explore whether the screen could detect charges in water, too. Metals like arsenic and lead can appear in water in the form of ions, which are charged particles. When the ionic solution is placed on the screen's surface, the electrodes sense that charge like how they sense our finger.
Imagine a new generation of smartphones with a designated area of the screen responsible for detecting contamination—this is one of the possible futures the researchers propose.
The experiment measured charges in various electrolyte solutions on a touchscreen. The researchers found that a thin polymer layer between the electrodes and the sample solution helped pick up the charges.
"How can we get really close to the touch electrodes, and be better than a phone screen?" Horstmann, the lead scientist on the study, asked himself while designing the protective coating. "We found that when we put electrolytes directly on the electrodes, they were too close, even short-circuiting," he said. When they placed the polymer layer on top the electrodes, however, this short-circuiting did not occur. Horstmann speaks of the polymer layer as one of the key findings of the paper, as it allowed for optimum conductivity. The coating they designed was much thinner than what you'd see with a typical smartphone touchscreen, but because it's already so similar, he feels optimistic about the technology's practical applications in the real world.
While the Cambridge scientists were using touchscreens to measure water contamination, Dr. Baojun Wang, a synthetic biologist at the University of Edinburgh, along with his team, created a way to measure arsenic contamination in Bangladesh groundwater samples using what is called a cell-based biosensor. These biosensors use cornerstones of cellular activity like transcription and promoter sequences to detect the presence of metal ions in water. A promoter can be thought of as a "flag" that tells certain molecules where to begin copying genetic code. By hijacking this aspect of the cell's machinery and increasing the cell's sensing and signal processing ability, they were able to amplify the signal to detect tiny amounts of arsenic in the groundwater samples. All this was conducted in a 384-well plate, each well smaller than a pencil eraser.
They placed arsenic sensors with different sensitivities across part of the plate so it resembled a volume bar of increasing levels of arsenic, similar to diagnostics on a Fitbit or glucose monitor. The whole device is about the size of an iPhone, and can be scaled down to a much smaller size.
Dr. Wang says cell-based biosensors are bringing sensing technology closer to field applications, because their machinery uses inherent cellular activity. This makes them ideal for low-resource communities, and he expects his device to be affordable, portable, and easily stored for widespread use in households.
"It hasn't worked on actual phones yet, but I don't see any reason why it can't be an app," says Horstmann of their technology. Imagine a new generation of smartphones with a designated area of the screen responsible for detecting contamination—this is one of the possible futures the researchers propose. But industry collaborations will be crucial to making their advancements practical. The scientists anticipate that without collaborative efforts from the business sector, the public might have to wait ten years until this becomes something all our smartphones are capable of—but with the right partners, "it could go really quickly," says Dr. Elizabeth Hall, one of the authors on the touchscreen water contamination study.
"That's where the science ends and the business begins," Dr. Hall says. "There is a lot of interest coming through as a result of this paper. I think the people who make the investments and decisions are seeing that there might be something useful here."
As for Flint, according to The Detroit News, the city has entered the final stages in removing lead pipe infrastructure. It's difficult to imagine how many residents might fare better today if they'd had the technology that scientists are now creating.
Of all its tragedy, COVID-19 has increased demand for at-home testing methods, which has carried over to non-COVID-19-related devices. Various testing efforts are now in the public eye.
"I like that the public is watching these directions," says Horstmann. "I think there's a long way to go still, but it's exciting."
A natural material that looks and feels like real leather is taking the fashion world by storm. Scientists view mycelium—the vegetative part of a mushroom-producing fungus—as a planet-friendly alternative to animal hides and plastics.
Products crafted from this vegan leather are emerging, with others poised to hit the market soon. Among them are the Hermès Victoria bag, Lululemon's yoga accessories, Adidas' Stan Smith Mylo sneaker, and a Stella McCartney apparel collection.
The Adidas' Stan Smith Mylo concept sneaker, made in partnership with Bolt Threads, uses an alternative leather grown from mycelium; a commercial version is expected in the near future.
Hermès has held presales on the new bag, says Philip Ross, co-founder and chief technology officer of MycoWorks, a San Francisco Bay area firm whose materials constituted the design. By year-end, Ross expects several more clients to debut mycelium-based merchandise. With "comparable qualities to luxury leather," mycelium can be molded to engineer "all the different verticals within fashion," he says, particularly footwear and accessories.
More than a half-dozen trailblazers are fine-tuning mycelium to create next-generation leather materials, according to the Material Innovation Initiative, a nonprofit advocating for animal-free materials in the fashion, automotive, and home-goods industries. These high-performance products can supersede items derived from leather, silk, down, fur, wool, and exotic skins, says A. Sydney Gladman, the institute's chief scientific officer.
That's only the beginning of mycelium's untapped prowess. "We expect to see an uptick in commercial leather alternative applications for mycelium-based materials as companies refine their R&D [research and development] and scale up," Gladman says, adding that "technological innovation and untapped natural materials have the potential to transform the materials industry and solve the enormous environmental challenges it faces."
In fewer than 10 days in indoor agricultural farms, "we grow large slabs of mycelium that are many feet wide and long. We are not confined to the shape or geometry of an animal."
Reducing our carbon footprint becomes possible because mycelium can flourish in indoor farms, using agricultural waste as feedstock and emitting inherently low greenhouse gas emissions. Carbon dioxide is the primary greenhouse gas. "We often think that when plant tissues like wood rot, that they go from something to nothing," says Jonathan Schilling, professor of plant and microbial biology at the University of Minnesota and a member of MycoWorks' Scientific Advisory Board.
But that assumption doesn't hold true for all carbon in plant tissues. When the fungi dominating the decomposition of plants fulfill their function, they transform a large portion of carbon into fungal biomass, Schilling says. That, in turn, ends up in the soil, with mycelium forming a network underneath that traps the carbon.
Unlike the large amounts of fossil fuels needed to produce styrofoam, leather and plastic, less fuel-intensive processing is involved in creating similar materials with a fungal organism. While some fungi consist of a single cell, others are multicellular and develop as very fine threadlike structures. A mass of them collectively forms a "mycelium" that can be either loose and low density or tightly packed and high density. "When these fungi grow at extremely high density," Schilling explains, "they can take on the feel of a solid material such as styrofoam, leather or even plastic."
Tunable and supple in the cultivation process, mycelium is also reliably sturdy in composition. "We believe that mycelium has some unique attributes that differentiate it from plastic-based and animal-derived products," says Gavin McIntyre, who co-founded Ecovative Design, an upstate New York-based biomaterials company, in 2007 with the goal of displacing some environmentally burdensome materials and making "a meaningful impact on our planet."
After inventing a type of mushroom-based packaging for all sorts of goods, in 2013 the firm ventured into manufacturing mycelium that can be adapted for textiles, he says, because mushrooms are "nature's recycling system."
The company aims for its material—which is "so tough and tenacious" that it doesn't require any plastic add-on as reinforcement—to be generally accessible from a pricing standpoint and not confined to a luxury space. The cost, McIntyre says, would approach that of bovine leather, not the more upscale varieties of lamb and goat skins.
Already, production has taken off by leaps and bounds. In fewer than 10 days in indoor agricultural farms, "we grow large slabs of mycelium that are many feet wide and long," he says. "We are not confined to the shape or geometry of an animal," so there's a much lower scrap rate.
Decreasing the scrap rate is a major selling point. "Our customers can order the pieces to the way that they want them, and there is almost no waste in the processing," explains Ross of MycoWorks. "We can make ours thinner or thicker," depending on a client's specific needs. Growing materials locally also results in a reduction in transportation, shipping, and other supply chain costs, he says.
Yet another advantage to making things out of mycelium is its biodegradability at the end of an item's lifecycle. When a pair of old sneakers lands in a compost pile or landfill, it decomposes thanks to microbial processes that, once again, involve fungi. "It is cool to think that the same organism used to create a product can also be what recycles it, perhaps building something else useful in the same act," says biologist Schilling. That amounts to "more than a nice business model—it is a window into how sustainability works in nature."
A product can be called "sustainable" if it's biodegradable, leaves a minimal carbon footprint during production, and is also profitable, says Preeti Arya, an assistant professor at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City and faculty adviser to a student club of the American Association of Textile Chemists and Colorists.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, products composed of petroleum-based polymers don't biodegrade—they break down into smaller pieces or even particles. These remnants pollute landfills, oceans, and rivers, contaminating edible fish and eventually contributing to the growth of benign and cancerous tumors in humans, Arya says.
Commending the steps a few designers have taken toward bringing more environmentally conscious merchandise to consumers, she says, "I'm glad that they took the initiative because others also will try to be part of this competition toward sustainability." And consumers will take notice. "The more people become aware, the more these brands will start acting on it."
A further shift toward mycelium-based products has the capability to reap tremendous environmental dividends, says Drew Endy, associate chair of bioengineering at Stanford University and president of the BioBricks Foundation, which focuses on biotechnology in the public interest.
The continued development of "leather surrogates on a scaled and sustainable basis will provide the greatest benefit to the greatest number of people, in perpetuity," Endy says. "Transitioning the production of leather goods from a process that involves the industrial-scale slaughter of vertebrate mammals to a process that instead uses renewable fungal-based manufacturing will be more just."