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tech

Can blockchain help solve the Henrietta Lacks problem?

Marielle Gross, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh, shows patients a new app that tracks how their samples are used during biomedical research.

Marielle Gross

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.

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Susan Kreimer
Susan Kreimer is a New York-based freelance journalist who has followed the landscape of health care since the late 1990s, initially as a staff reporter for major daily newspapers. She writes about breakthrough studies, personal health, and the business of clinical practice. Raised in the Chicago area, she holds a B.A. in Journalism/Mass Communication and French, with minors in German and Russian, from the University of Iowa and an M.S. from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.
New tech for prison reform spreads to 11 states

The U.S. has the highest incarceration rate in the world, costing $182 billion per year, partly because its antiquated data systems often fail to identify people who should be released. A tech nonprofit is trying to change that.

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A new non-profit called Recidiviz is using data technology to reduce the size of the U.S. criminal justice system. The bi-coastal company (SF and NYC) is currently working with 11 states to improve their systems and, so far, has helped remove nearly 69,000 people — ones left floundering in jail or on parole when they should have been released.

“The root cause is fragmentation,” says Clementine Jacoby, 31, a software engineer who worked at Google before co-founding Recidiviz in 2019. In the 1970s and 80s, the U.S. built a series of disconnected data systems, and this patchwork is still being used by criminal justice authorities today. It requires parole officers to manually calculate release dates, leading to errors in many cases. “[They] have done everything they need to do to earn their release, but they're still stuck in the system,” Jacoby says.

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Cari Shane
Cari Shane is a freelance journalist (and Airbnb Superhost). Originally from Manhattan, Shane lives carless in Washington, DC and writes on a variety of subjects for a wide array of media outlets including, Scientific American, National Geographic, Discover, Business Insider, Fast Company, Fortune and Fodor’s.
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Last minute holiday gifts for the bio-inspired

The process of finding the right gift for your favorite life science lover can be daunting. Here's a roundup of the coolest bio-products related to health, nutrition, gaming, lifestyle and more.

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“Merry Christmas! Isn’t it fun to say Merry Christmas to everyone? Time for a party and presents and things that make children happy and give their hearts wings!” go the lyrics of the popular Christmas poem. But adults (of various religions) need their gifts this time of year, too. For the biologically inspired big children, the process of finding the right fit can be daunting. To inform your choices in both conventional and unconventional ways, Leaps.org is presenting a roundup of the coolest bio-products related to health, nutrition, gaming, lifestyle and more.

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Stav Dimitropoulos
Stav Dimitropoulos's features have appeared in major outlets such as the BBC, National Geographic, Scientific American, Nature, Popular Mechanics, Science, Runner’s World, and more. Follow her on Facebook or Twitter @TheyCallMeStav.
Your phone could show if a bridge is about to collapse

Researchers have tested a new smartphone app that could gather data about whether bridges are "structurally deficient" —a low-cost citizen-scientist alternative to current methods that are expensive and complex.

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In summer 2017, Thomas Matarazzo, then a postdoctoral researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, landed in San Francisco with a colleague. They rented two cars, drove up to the Golden Gate bridge, timing it to the city’s rush hour, and rode over to the other side in heavy traffic. Once they reached the other end, they turned around and did it again. And again. And again.

“I drove over that bridge 100 times over five days, back and forth,” says Matarazzo, now an associate director of High-Performance Computing in the Center for Innovation in Engineering at the United States Military Academy, West Point. “It was surprisingly stressful, I never anticipated that. I had to maintain the speed of about 30 miles an hour when the speed limit is 45. I felt bad for everybody behind me.”

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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.
Will religious people reject organ transplants from pigs?

Scientists are getting better at transplanting pig organs into humans. But religious followers of prohibitions on consuming pork may reject these organs, even if their bodies could accept them.

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The first successful recipient of a human heart transplant lived 18 days. The first artificial heart recipient lived just over 100.

Their brief post-transplant lives paved the way toward vastly greater successes. Former Vice President Dick Cheney relied on an artificial heart for nearly two years before receiving a human heart transplant. It still beats in his chest more than a decade later.

Organ transplantation recently reached its next phase with David Bennett. He survived for two months after becoming the first recipient of a pig’s heart genetically modified to function in a human body in February. Known as a xenotransplant, the procedure could pave the way for greatly expanding the use of transplanted vital organs to extend human lives.

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Ron Shinkman
Ron Shinkman is a veteran journalist whose work has appeared in the New England Journal of Medicine publication Catalyst, California Health Report, Fierce Healthcare, and many other publications. He has been a finalist for the prestigious NIHCM Foundation print journalism award twice in the past five years. Shinkman also served as Los Angeles Bureau Chief for Modern Healthcare and as a staff reporter for the Los Angeles Business Journal. He has an M.A. in English from California State University and a B.A. in English from UCLA.
A Stomach Implant Saved Me. When Your Organs Fail, You Could Become a Cyborg, Too

Ordinary people are living better with chronic conditions thanks to a recent explosion of developments in medical implants.

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Beware, cyborgs walk among us. They’re mostly indistinguishable from regular humans and are infiltrating every nook and cranny of society. For full disclosure, I’m one myself. No, we’re not deadly intergalactic conquerors like the Borg race of Star Trek fame, just ordinary people living better with chronic conditions thanks to medical implants.

In recent years there has been an explosion of developments in implantable devices that merge multiple technologies into gadgets that work in concert with human physiology for the treatment of serious diseases. Pacemakers for the heart are the best-known implants, as well as other cardiac devices like LVADs (left-ventricular assist devices) and implanted defibrillators. Next-generation devices address an array of organ failures, and many are intended as permanent. The driving need behind this technology: a critical, persistent shortage of implantable biological organs.

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Eve Herold

Eve Herold is a science writer specializing in issues at the intersection of science and society. She has written and spoken extensively about stem cell research and regenerative medicine and the social and bioethical aspects of leading-edge medicine. Her 2007 book, Stem Cell Wars, was awarded a Commendation in Popular Medicine by the British Medical Association. Her 2016 book, Beyond Human, has been nominated for the Kirkus Prize in Nonfiction, and a forthcoming book, Robots and the Women Who Love Them, will be released in 2019.

Scientists Want to Make Robots with Genomes that Help Grow their Minds

Giving robots self-awareness as they move through space - and maybe even providing them with gene-like methods for storing rules of behavior - could be important steps toward creating more intelligent machines.

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One day in recent past, scientists at Columbia University’s Creative Machines Lab set up a robotic arm inside a circle of five streaming video cameras and let the robot watch itself move, turn and twist. For about three hours the robot did exactly that—it looked at itself this way and that, like toddlers exploring themselves in a room full of mirrors. By the time the robot stopped, its internal neural network finished learning the relationship between the robot’s motor actions and the volume it occupied in its environment. In other words, the robot built a spatial self-awareness, just like humans do. “We trained its deep neural network to understand how it moved in space,” says Boyuan Chen, one of the scientists who worked on it.

For decades robots have been doing helpful tasks that are too hard, too dangerous, or physically impossible for humans to carry out themselves. Robots are ultimately superior to humans in complex calculations, following rules to a tee and repeating the same steps perfectly. But even the biggest successes for human-robot collaborations—those in manufacturing and automotive industries—still require separating the two for safety reasons. Hardwired for a limited set of tasks, industrial robots don't have the intelligence to know where their robo-parts are in space, how fast they’re moving and when they can endanger a human.

Over the past decade or so, humans have begun to expect more from robots. Engineers have been building smarter versions that can avoid obstacles, follow voice commands, respond to human speech and make simple decisions. Some of them proved invaluable in many natural and man-made disasters like earthquakes, forest fires, nuclear accidents and chemical spills. These disaster recovery robots helped clean up dangerous chemicals, looked for survivors in crumbled buildings, and ventured into radioactive areas to assess damage.

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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.
A New Web Could be Coming. Will It Improve Human Health?

A number of emerging technologies are in the mix to define Web3, the next era of the digital age. They could contribute to our overall health and well-being.

Photo by Avi Richards on Unsplash

The Web has provided numerous benefits over the years, but users have also experienced issues related to privacy, cybersecurity, income inequality, and addiction which negatively impact their quality of life. In important ways, the Web has yet to meet its potential to support human health.

Now, engineers are in the process of developing a new version of the Web, called Web3, which would seek to address the Web’s current shortcomings through a mix of new technologies.

It could also create new problems. Industrial revolutions, including new versions of the Web, have trade-offs. While many activists tend to focus on the negative aspects of Web3 technologies, they overlook some of the potential benefits to health and the environment that aren’t as easily quantifiable such as less stressful lives, fewer hours required for work, and a higher standard of living. What emerging technologies are in the mix to define the new era of the digital age, and how will they contribute to our overall health and well-being?

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Randall Mayes
Randall Mayes is a technology analyst, author, futurist (technology forecaster), and instructor of emerging technologies in Duke University’s OLLI program.