Tech

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.
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New approach to brain health is sparking memories

This fall, Robert Reinhart of Boston University published a study finding that electrical stimulation can boost memory - and Reinhart was surprised to discover the effects lasted a full month.

Cydney Scott

What if a few painless electrical zaps to your brain could help you recall names, perform better on Wordle or even ward off dementia?

This is where neuroscientists are going in efforts to stave off age-related memory loss as well as Alzheimer’s disease. Medications have shown limited effectiveness in reversing or managing loss of brain function so far. But new studies suggest that firing up an aging neural network with electrical or magnetic­ current might keep brains spry as we age.

Welcome to non-invasive brain stimulation (NIBS). No surgery or anesthesia is required. One day, a jolt in the morning with your own battery-operated kit could replace your wake-up coffee.

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Eve Glicksman
Eve Glicksman is a freelance writer and editor in the Washington, DC, area following a long career in Philadelphia. She writes for the health and science section of The Washington Post along with a mix of stories for other media and associations on trends, culture, psychology, lifestyle, business and travel. Previously, she served as a managing editor for UnitedHealth Group and the Association for American Medical Colleges. To see more of her work, visit eveglicksman.com. 
New tech helps people of all ages stay social

Sonja Bauman, 39, and Mariela Florez, 83, taking one of their regular walks in Plantation, Fla. The pair met through an online platform called Papa that provides "family on demand." (Photo by Sonja Bauman)

In March, Sonja Bauman, 39, used an online platform called Papa, which offers “family on demand,” to meet Mariela Florez, an 83-year-old retiree. Despite living with her adult children, Florez was bored and lonely when they left for work, and her recoveries from a stroke and broken hip were going slowly. That's when Bauman began visiting twice per week. They take walks, strengthening Florez’s hip, and play games like Connect Four for mental stimulation. “It’s very important for me so I don’t feel lonely all day long,” said Florez. Her memories, blurred by the stroke, are gradually returning.

Papa is one of a growing number of tech approaches that are bringing together people of all ages. In addition to platforms like Papa that connect people in real life, other startups use virtual reality and video, with some of them focusing especially on deepening social connections between the generations — relationships that support the health of older and younger people alike. “I enjoy seeing Mariela as much as she enjoys seeing me,” Bauman said.

Connecting in real life

Telehealth expert Andrew Parker founded Papa in 2017 to improve the health outcomes of older adults and families. Seniors can meet people — some their grandkids’ age — for healthy activities, while working parents find retirees to watch their children. These “Papa Pals” are provided as a benefit through Medicare, Medicaid and some employer health plans.

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Matt Fuchs

Matt Fuchs is the editor-in-chief of Leaps.org. He is also a contributing reporter to the Washington Post and has written for the New York Times, Time Magazine, WIRED and the Washington Post Magazine, among other outlets. Follow him on Twitter @fuchswriter.