This past March, headlines suddenly flooded the Internet about a startup company called Nectome. Founded by two graduates of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the new company was charging people $10,000 to join a waiting list to have their brains embalmed, down to the last neuron, using an award-winning chemical compound.
While the lay public presumably burnt their wills and grew ever more excited about the end of humanity's quest for immortality, neurologists let out a collective sigh.
Essentially, participants' brains would turn to a substance like glass and remain in a state of near-perfect preservation indefinitely. "If memories can truly be preserved by a sufficiently good brain banking technique," Nectome's website explains, "we believe that within the century it could become feasible to digitize your preserved brain and use that information to recreate your mind." But as with most Faustian bargains, Nectome's proposition came with a serious caveat -- death.
That's right, in order for Nectome's process to properly preserve your connectome, the comprehensive map of the brain's neural connections, you must be alive (and under anesthesia) while the fluid is injected. This way, the company postulates, when the science advances enough to read and extract your memories someday, your vitrified brain will still contain your perfectly preserved essence--which can then be digitally recreated as a computer simulation.
Almost immediately this story gained buzz with punchy headlines: "Startup wants to upload your brain to the cloud, but has to kill you to do it," "San Junipero is real: Nectome wants to upload your brain," and "New tech firm promises eternal life, but you have to die."
While the lay public presumably burnt their wills and grew ever more excited about the end of humanity's quest for immortality, neurologists let out a collective sigh -- hype had struck the scientific community once again.
The truth about Nectome is that its claims are highly speculative and no hard science exists to suggest that our connectome is the key to our 'being,' nor that it can ever be digitally revived. "We haven't come even close to understanding even the most basic types of functioning in the brain," says neuroscientist Alex Fox, who was educated at the University of Queensland in Australia. "Memory storage in the brain is only a theoretical concept [and] there are some seriously huge gaps in our knowledge base that stand in the way of testing [the connectome] theory."
After the Nectome story broke, Harvard computational neuroscientist Sam Gershman tweeted out:
"Didn't anyone tell them that we've known the C Elegans (a microscopic worm) connectome for over a decade but haven't figured out how to reconstruct all of their memories? And that's only 7000 synapses compared to the trillions of synapses in the human brain!"
Hype can come from researchers themselves, who are under an enormous amount of pressure to publish original work and maintain funding.
How media coverage of Nectome went from an initial fastidiously researched article in the MIT Technology Review by veteran science journalist Antonio Regalado to the click-bait frenzy it became is a prime example of the 'science hype' phenomenon. According to Adam Auch, who holds a doctorate in philosophy from Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia, Canada, "Hype is a feature of all stages of the scientific dissemination process, from the initial circulation of preliminary findings within particular communities of scientists, to the process by which such findings come to be published in peer-reviewed journals, to the subsequent uptake these findings receive from the non-specialist press and the general public."
In the case of Nectome, hype was present from the word go. Riding the high of several major wins, including having raised over one million dollars in funding and partnering with well-known MIT neurologist Edward Boyden, Nectome founders Michael McCanna and Robert McIntyre launched their website on March 1, 2018. Just one month prior, they were able to purchase and preserve a newly deceased corpse in Portland, Oregon, showing that vitrifixation, their method of chemical preservation, could be used on a human specimen. It had previously won an award for preserving every synaptic structure on a rabbit brain.
The Nectome mission statement, found on its website, is laced with saccharine language that skirts the unproven nature of the procedure the company is peddling for big bucks: "Our mission is to preserve your brain well enough to keep all its memories intact: from that great chapter of your favorite book to the feeling of cold winter air, baking an apple pie, or having dinner with your friends and family."
This rhetoric is an example of hype that can come from researchers themselves, who are under an enormous amount of pressure to publish original work and maintain funding. As a result, there is a constant push to present science as "groundbreaking" when really, as is apparently the case with Nectome, it is only a small piece in a much larger effort.
Calling out the audacity of Nectome's posited future, neuroscientist Gershman commented to another publication, "The important question is whether the connectome is sufficient for memory: Can I reconstruct all memories knowing only the connections between neurons? The answer is almost certainly no, given our knowledge about how memories are stored (itself a controversial topic)."
The former home page of Nectome's website, which has now been replaced by a statement titled, "Response to recent press."
Furthermore, universities like MIT, who entered into a subcontract with Nectome, are under pressure to seek funding through partnerships with industry as a result of the Bayh-Dole Act of 1980. Also known as the Patent and Trademark Law Amendments Act, this piece of legislation allows universities to commercialize inventions developed under federally funded research programs, like Nectome's method of preserving brains, formally called Aldehyde-Stabilized Cryopreservation.
"[Universities use] every incentive now to talk about innovation," explains Dr. Ivan Oransky, president of the Association of Health Care Journalists and co-founder of retractionwatch.com, a blog that catalogues errors and fraud in published research. "Innovation to me is often a fancy word for hype. The role of journalists should not be to glorify what universities [say, but to] tell the closest version of the truth they can."
In this case, a combination of the hyperbolic press, combined with some impressively researched expose pieces, led MIT to cut its ties with Nectome on April 2nd, 2018, just two weeks after the news of their company broke.
The solution to the dangers of hype, experts say, is a more scientifically literate public—and less clickbait-driven journalism.
Because of its multi-layered nature, science hype carries several disturbing consequences. For one, exaggerated coverage of a discovery could mislead the public by giving them false hope or unfounded worry. And media hype can contribute to a general mistrust of science. In these instances, people might, as Auch puts it, "fall back on previously held beliefs, evocative narratives, or comforting biases instead of well-justified scientific evidence."
All of this is especially dangerous in today's 'fake news' era, when companies or political parties sow public confusion for their own benefit, such as with global warming. In the case of Nectome, the danger is that people might opt to end their lives based off a lacking scientific theory. In fact, the company is hoping to enlist terminal patients in California, where doctor-assisted suicide is legal. And 25 people have paid the $10,000 to join Nectome's waiting list, including Sam Altman, president of the famed startup accelerator Y Combinator. Nectome now has offered to refund the money.
Founders McCanna and McIntyre did not return repeated requests for comment for this article. A new statement on their website begins: "Vitrifixation today is a powerful research tool, but needs more research and development before anyone considers applying it in a context other than research."
The solution to the dangers of hype, experts say, is a more scientifically literate public—and less clickbait-driven journalism. Until then, it seems that companies like Nectome will continue to enjoy at least 15 minutes of fame.
Jamie Rettinger was still in his thirties when he first noticed a tiny streak of brown running through the thumbnail of his right hand. It slowly grew wider and the skin underneath began to deteriorate before he went to a local dermatologist in 2013. The doctor thought it was a wart and tried scooping it out, treating the affected area for three years before finally removing the nail bed and sending it off to a pathology lab for analysis.
I have some bad news for you; what we removed was a five-millimeter melanoma, a cancerous tumor that often spreads, Jamie recalls being told on his return visit. "I'd never heard of cancer coming through a thumbnail," he says. None of his doctors had ever mentioned it either. "I just thought I was being treated for a wart." But nothing was healing and it continued to bleed.
A few months later a surgeon amputated the top half of his thumb. Lymph node biopsy tested negative for spread of the cancer and when the bandages finally came off, Jamie thought his medical issues were resolved.
Melanoma is the deadliest form of skin cancer. About 85,000 people are diagnosed with it each year in the U.S. and more than 8,000 die of the cancer when it spreads to other parts of the body, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
There are two peaks in diagnosis of melanoma; one is in younger women ages 30-40 and often is tied to past use of tanning beds; the second is older men 60+ and is related to outdoor activity from farming to sports. Light-skinned people have a twenty-times greater risk of melanoma than do people with dark skin.
"It was pretty weird, I was totally blasted away. Who had thought of this?"
Jamie had a follow up PET scan about six months after his surgery. A suspicious spot on his lung led to a biopsy that came back positive for melanoma. The cancer had spread. Treatment with a monoclonal antibody (nivolumab/Opdivo®) didn't prove effective and he was referred to the Hillman Cancer Center at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, a four-hour drive from his home in western Ohio.
An alternative monoclonal antibody treatment brought on such bad side effects, diarrhea as often as 15 times a day, that it took more than a week of hospitalization to stabilize his condition. The only options left were experimental approaches in clinical trials.
"When I graduated from medical school, in 2005, melanoma was a death sentence" with a cure rate in the single digits, says Dr. Diwakar Davar, 39, an oncologist at Hillman who specializes in skin cancer. That began to change in 2010 with introduction of the first immunotherapies, monoclonal antibodies, to treat cancer. The antibodies attach to PD-1, a receptor on the surface of T cells of the immune system and on cancer cells. Antibody treatment boosted the melanoma cure rate to about 30 percent. The search was on to understand why some people responded to these drugs and others did not.
At the same time, there was a growing understanding of the role that bacteria in the gut, the gut microbiome, plays in helping to train and maintain the function of the body's various immune cells. Perhaps the bacteria also plays a role in shaping the immune response to cancer therapy.
One clue came from genetically identical mice. Animals ordered from different suppliers sometimes responded differently to the experiments being performed. That difference was traced to different compositions of their gut microbiome; transferring the microbiome from one animal to another in a process known as fecal transplant (FMT) could change their responses to disease or treatment.
When researchers looked at humans, they found that the patients who responded well to immunotherapies had a gut microbiome that looked like healthy normal folks, but patients who didn't respond had missing or reduced strains of bacteria.
Davar knew that FMT had a very successful cure rate in treating the gut dysbiosis of C. difficile infection and he wondered if a fecal transplant from a patient who had responded well to cancer immunotherapy treatment might improve the cure rate of patients who did not originally respond to immunotherapies for melanoma.
"It was pretty weird, I was totally blasted away. Who had thought of this?" Jamie first thought when the hypothesis was explained to him. But Davar's explanation that the procedure might restore some of the beneficial bacterial his gut was lacking, convinced him to try. He quickly signed on in October 2018 to be the first person in the clinical trial.
Fecal donations go through the same safety procedures of screening for and inactivating diseases that are used in processing blood donations to make them safe for transfusion. The procedure itself uses a standard hollow colonoscope designed to screen for colon cancer and remove polyps. The transplant is inserted through the center of the flexible tube.
Most patients are sedated for procedures that use a colonoscope but Jamie doesn't respond to those drugs: "You can't knock me out. I was watching them on the TV going up my own butt. It was kind of unreal at that point," he says. "There were about twelve people in there watching because no one had seen this done before."
A test two weeks after the procedure showed that the FMT had engrafted and the once-missing bacteria were thriving in his gut. More importantly, his body was responding to another monoclonal antibody (pembrolizumab/Keytruda®) and signs of melanoma began to shrink. Every three months he made the four-hour drive from home to Pittsburgh for six rounds of treatment with the antibody drug.
"We were very, very lucky that the first patient had a great response," says Davar. "It allowed us to believe that even though we failed with the next six, we were on the right track. We just needed to tweak the [fecal] cocktail a little better" and enroll patients in the study who had less aggressive tumor growth and were likely to live long enough to complete the extensive rounds of therapy. Six of 15 patients responded positively in the pilot clinical trial that was published in the journal Science.
Davar believes they are beginning to understand the biological mechanisms of why some patients initially do not respond to immunotherapy but later can with a FMT. It is tied to the background level of inflammation produced by the interaction between the microbiome and the immune system. That paper is not yet published.
It has been almost a year since the last in his series of cancer treatments and Jamie has no measurable disease. He is cautiously optimistic that his cancer is not simply in remission but is gone for good. "I'm still scared every time I get my scans, because you don't know whether it is going to come back or not. And to realize that it is something that is totally out of my control."
"It was hard for me to regain trust" after being misdiagnosed and mistreated by several doctors he says. But his experience at Hillman helped to restore that trust "because they were interested in me, not just fixing the problem."
He is grateful for the support provided by family and friends over the last eight years. After a pause and a sigh, the ruggedly built 47-year-old says, "If everyone else was dead in my family, I probably wouldn't have been able to do it."
"I never hesitated to ask a question and I never hesitated to get a second opinion." But Jamie acknowledges the experience has made him more aware of the need for regular preventive medical care and a primary care physician. That person might have caught his melanoma at an earlier stage when it was easier to treat.
Davar continues to work on clinical studies to optimize this treatment approach. Perhaps down the road, screening the microbiome will be standard for melanoma and other cancers prior to using immunotherapies, and the FMT will be as simple as swallowing a handful of freeze-dried capsules off the shelf rather than through a colonoscopy.
In Sydney, Australia, in the basement of an inner-city high-rise, lives a mass of unexpected inhabitants: millions of maggots. The insects are far from unwelcome. They are there to feast on the food waste generated by the building's human residents.
Goterra, the start-up that installed the maggots in the building in December, belongs to the rapidly expanding insect agriculture industry, which is experiencing a surge of investment worldwide.
The maggots – the larvae of the black soldier fly – are voracious, unfussy eaters. As adult flies, they don't eat, so the young fatten up swiftly on whatever they can get. Goterra's basement colony can munch through 5 metric tons of waste in a day.
"Maggots are nature's cleaners," says Bob Gordon, Head of Growth at Goterra. "They're a great tool to manage waste streams."
Their capacity to consume presents a neat response to the problem of food waste, which contributes up to 8% of global greenhouse gas emissions each year as it rots in landfill.
"The maggots eat the food fairly fresh," Gordon says. "So, there's minimal degradation and you don't get those methane emissions."
Alongside their ability to devour waste, the soldier fly larvae hold further agricultural promise: they yield an incredibly efficient protein. After the maggots have binged for about 12 days, Goterra harvests and processes them into a protein-rich livestock feed. Their excrement, known as frass, is also collected and turned into soil conditioner.
"We are producing protein in a basement," says Gordon. "It's urban farming – really sustainable, urban farming."
Goterra's module in the basement at Barangaroo, Sydney.
Supplied by Goterra
Goterra's founder Olympia Yarger started producing the insects in "buckets in her backyard" in 2016. Today, Goterra has a large-scale processing plant and has developed proprietary modules – in shipping containers – that use robotics to manage the larvae.
The modules have been installed on site at municipal buildings, hospitals, supermarkets, several McDonald's restaurants, and a range of smaller enterprises in Australia. Users pay a subscription fee and simply pour in the waste; Goterra visits once a fortnight to harvest the bugs.
Insect agriculture is well established outside of the West, and the practice is gaining traction around the world. China has mega-facilities that can process hundreds of tons of waste in a day. In Kenya, a program recently trained 2000 farmers in soldier fly farming to boost their economic security. French biotech company InnovaFeed, in partnership with US agricultural heavyweight ADM, plans to build "the world's largest insect protein facility" in Illinois this year.
"The [maggots] are science fiction on earth. Watching them work is awe-inspiring."
But the concept is still not to everyone's taste.
"This is still a topic that I say is a bit like black liquorice – people tend to either really like it or really don't," says Wendy Lu McGill, Communications Director at the North American Coalition of Insect Agriculture (NACIA).
Formed in 2016, NACIA now has over 100 members – including researchers and commercial producers of black soldier flies, meal worms and crickets.
McGill says there have been a few iterations of insect agriculture in the US – beginning with worms produced for bait after World War II then shifting to food for exotic pets. The current focus – "insects as food and feed" – took root about a decade ago, with the establishment of the first commercial farms for this purpose.
"We're starting to see more expansion in the U.S. and a lot of the larger investments have been for black soldier fly producers," McGill says. "They tend to have larger facilities and the animal feed market they're looking at is potentially quite large."
InnovaFeed's Illinois facility is set to produce 60,000 metric tons of animal feed protein per year.
"They'll be trying to employ many different circular principles," McGill says of the project. "For example, the heat from the feed factory – the excess heat that would normally just be vented – will be used to heat the other side that's raising the black soldier fly."
Although commercial applications have started to flourish recently, scientific knowledge of the black soldier fly's potential has existed for decades.
Dr. Jeffery Tomberlin, an entomologist at Texas A&M University, has been studying the insect for over 20 years, contributing to key technologies used in the industry. He also founded Evo, a black soldier fly company in Texas, which feeds its larvae the waste from a local bakery and distillery.
"They are science fiction on earth," he says of the maggots. "Watching them work is awe-inspiring."
Tomberlin says fly farms can work effectively at different scales, and present possibilities for non-Western countries to shift towards "commodity independence."
"You don't have to have millions of dollars invested to be successful in producing this insect," he says. "[A farm] can be as simple as an open barn along the equator to a 30,000 square-foot indoor facility in the Netherlands."
As the world's population balloons, food insecurity is an increasing concern. By 2050, the UN predicts that to feed our projected population we will need to ramp up food production by at least 60%. Insect agriculture, which uses very little land and water compared to traditional livestock farming, could play a key role.
Insects may become more common human food, but the current commercial focus is animal feed. Aquaculture is a key market, with insects presenting an alternative to fish meal derived from over-exploited stocks. Insect meal is also increasingly popular in pet food, particularly in Europe.
While recent investment has been strong – NACIA says 2020 was the best year yet – reaching a scale that can match existing agricultural industries and providing a competitive price point are still hurdles for insect agriculture.
But COVID-19 has strengthened the argument for new agricultural approaches, such as the decentralized, indoor systems and circular principles employed by insect farms.
"This has given the world a preview – which no one wanted – of [future] supply chain disruptions," says McGill.
As the industry works to meet demand, Tomberlin predicts diversification and product innovation: "I think food science is going to play a big part in that. They can take an insect and create ice cream." (Dried soldier fly larvae "taste kind of like popcorn," if you were wondering.)
Tomberlin says the insects could even become an interplanetary protein source: "I do believe in that. I mean, if we're going to colonize other planets, we need to be sustainable."
But he issues a word of caution about the industry growing too big, too fast: "I think we as an industry need to be very careful of how we harness and apply [our knowledge]. The black soldier fly is considered the crown jewel today, but if it's mismanaged, it can be relegated back to a past."
Goterra's Gordon also warns against rushing into mass production: "If you're just replacing big intensive animal agriculture with big intensive animal agriculture with more efficient animals, then what's the change you're really effecting?"
But he expects the industry will continue its rise though the next decade, and Goterra – fuelled by recent $8 million Series A funding – plans to expand internationally this year.
"Within 10 years' time, I would like to see the vast majority of our unavoidable food waste being used to produce maggots to go into a protein application," Gordon says.
"There's no lack of demand. And there's no lack of food waste."