“Virtual Biopsies” May Soon Make Some Invasive Tests Unnecessary
At his son's college graduation in 2017, Dan Chessin felt "terribly uncomfortable" sitting in the stadium. The bouts of pain persisted, and after months of monitoring, a urologist took biopsies of suspicious areas in his prostate.
This innovation may enhance diagnostic precision and promptness, but it also brings ethical concerns to the forefront.
"In my case, the biopsies came out cancerous," says Chessin, 60, who underwent robotic surgery for intermediate-grade prostate cancer at University Hospitals Cleveland Medical Center.
Although he needed a biopsy, as most patients today do, advances in radiologic technology may make such invasive measures unnecessary in the future. Researchers are developing better imaging techniques and algorithms—a form of computer science called artificial intelligence, in which machines learn and execute tasks that typically require human brain power.
This innovation may enhance diagnostic precision and promptness. But it also brings ethical concerns to the forefront of the conversation, highlighting the potential for invasion of privacy, unequal patient access, and less physician involvement in patient care.
A National Academy of Medicine Special Publication, released in December, emphasizes that setting industry-wide standards for use in patient care is essential to AI's responsible and transparent implementation as the industry grapples with voluminous quantities of data. The technology should be viewed as a tool to supplement decision-making by highly trained professionals, not to replace it.
MRI--a test that uses powerful magnets, radio waves, and a computer to take detailed images inside the body--has become highly accurate in detecting aggressive prostate cancer, but its reliability is more limited in identifying low and intermediate grades of malignancy. That's why Chessin opted to have his prostate removed rather than take the chance of missing anything more suspicious that could develop.
His urologist, Lee Ponsky, says AI's most significant impact is yet to come. He hopes University Hospitals Cleveland Medical Center's collaboration with research scientists at its academic affiliate, Case Western Reserve University, will lead to the invention of a virtual biopsy.
A National Cancer Institute five-year grant is funding the project, launched in 2017, to develop a combined MRI and computerized tool to support more accurate detection and grading of prostate cancer. Such a tool would be "the closest to a crystal ball that we can get," says Ponsky, professor and chairman of the Urology Institute.
In situations where AI has guided diagnostics, radiologists' interpretations of breast, lung, and prostate lesions have improved as much as 25 percent, says Anant Madabhushi, a biomedical engineer and director of the Center for Computational Imaging and Personalized Diagnostics at Case Western Reserve, who is collaborating with Ponsky. "AI is very nascent," Madabhushi says, estimating that fewer than 10 percent of niche academic medical centers have used it. "We are still optimizing and validating the AI and virtual biopsy technology."
In October, several North American and European professional organizations of radiologists, imaging informaticists, and medical physicists released a joint statement on the ethics of AI. "Ultimate responsibility and accountability for AI remains with its human designers and operators for the foreseeable future," reads the statement, published in the Journal of the American College of Radiology. "The radiology community should start now to develop codes of ethics and practice for AI that promote any use that helps patients and the common good and should block use of radiology data and algorithms for financial gain without those two attributes."
Overreliance on new technology also poses concern when humans "outsource the process to a machine."
The statement's leader author, radiologist J. Raymond Geis, says "there's no question" that machines equipped with artificial intelligence "can extract more information than two human eyes" by spotting very subtle patterns in pixels. Yet, such nuances are "only part of the bigger picture of taking care of a patient," says Geis, a senior scientist with the American College of Radiology's Data Science Institute. "We have to be able to combine that with knowledge of what those pixels mean."
Setting ethical standards is high on all physicians' radar because the intricacies of each patient's medical record are factored into the computer's algorithm, which, in turn, may be used to help interpret other patients' scans, says radiologist Frank Rybicki, vice chair of operations and quality at the University of Cincinnati's department of radiology. Although obtaining patients' informed consent in writing is currently necessary, ethical dilemmas arise if and when patients have a change of heart about the use of their private health information. It is likely that removing individual data may be possible for some algorithms but not others, Rybicki says.
The information is de-identified to protect patient privacy. Using it to advance research is akin to analyzing human tissue removed in surgical procedures with the goal of discovering new medicines to fight disease, says Maryellen Giger, a University of Chicago medical physicist who studies computer-aided diagnosis in cancers of the breast, lung, and prostate, as well as bone diseases. Physicians who become adept at using AI to augment their interpretation of imaging will be ahead of the curve, she says.
As with other new discoveries, patient access and equality come into play. While AI appears to "have potential to improve over human performance in certain contexts," an algorithm's design may result in greater accuracy for certain groups of patients, says Lucia M. Rafanelli, a political theorist at The George Washington University. This "could have a disproportionately bad impact on one segment of the population."
Overreliance on new technology also poses concern when humans "outsource the process to a machine." Over time, they may cease developing and refining the skills they used before the invention became available, said Chloe Bakalar, a visiting research collaborator at Princeton University's Center for Information Technology Policy.
"AI is a paradigm shift with magic power and great potential."
Striking the right balance in the rollout of the technology is key. Rushing to integrate AI in clinical practice may cause harm, whereas holding back too long could undermine its ability to be helpful. Proper governance becomes paramount. "AI is a paradigm shift with magic power and great potential," says Ge Wang, a biomedical imaging professor at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York. "It is only ethical to develop it proactively, validate it rigorously, regulate it systematically, and optimize it as time goes by in a healthy ecosystem."
Tom Oxley is building what he calls a “natural highway into the brain” that lets people use their minds to control their phones and computers. The device, called the Stentrode, could improve the lives of hundreds of thousands of people living with spinal cord paralysis, ALS and other neurodegenerative diseases.
Leaps.org talked with Dr. Oxley for today’s podcast. A fascinating thing about the Stentrode is that it works very differently from other “brain computer interfaces” you may be familiar with, like Elon Musk’s Neuralink. Some BCIs are implanted by surgeons directly into a person’s brain, but the Stentrode is much less invasive. Dr. Oxley’s company, Synchron, opts for a “natural” approach, using stents in blood vessels to access the brain. This offers some major advantages to the handful of people who’ve already started to use the Stentrode.
The audio of this episode improves about 10 minutes in. (There was a minor headset issue early on, but everything is audible throughout.) Dr. Oxley’s work creates game-changing opportunities for patients desperate for new options. His take on where we're headed with BCIs is must listening for anyone who cares about the future of health and technology.
In our conversation, Dr. Oxley talks about “Bluetooth brain”; the critical role of AI in the present and future of BCIs; how BCIs compare to voice command technology; regulatory frameworks for revolutionary technologies; specific people with paralysis who’ve been able to regain some independence thanks to the Stentrode; what it means to be a neurointerventionist; how to scale BCIs for more people to use them; the risks of BCIs malfunctioning; organic implants; and how BCIs help us understand the brain, among other topics.
Dr. Oxley received his PhD in neuro engineering from the University of Melbourne in Australia. He is the founding CEO of Synchron and an associate professor and the head of the vascular bionics laboratory at the University of Melbourne. He’s also a clinical instructor in the Deepartment of Neurosurgery at Mount Sinai Hospital. Dr. Oxley has completed more than 1,600 endovascular neurosurgical procedures on patients, including people with aneurysms and strokes, and has authored over 100 peer reviewed articles.
Synchron website - https://synchron.com/
Assessment of Safety of a Fully Implanted Endovascular Brain-Computer Interface for Severe Paralysis in 4 Patients (paper co-authored by Tom Oxley) - https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamaneurology/art...
More research related to Synchron's work - https://synchron.com/research
Tom Oxley on LinkedIn - https://www.linkedin.com/in/tomoxl
Tom Oxley on Twitter - https://twitter.com/tomoxl?lang=en
Tom Oxley website - https://tomoxl.com/
Novel brain implant helps paralyzed woman speak using digital avatar - https://engineering.berkeley.edu/news/2023/08/novel-brain-implant-helps-paralyzed-woman-speak-using-a-digital-avatar/
Edward Chang lab - https://changlab.ucsf.edu/
BCIs convert brain activity into text at 62 words per minute - https://med.stanford.edu/neurosurgery/news/2023/he...
Leaps.org: The Mind-Blowing Promise of Neural Implants - https://leaps.org/the-mind-blowing-promise-of-neural-implants/
For generations, the Indigenous Tjupan people of Australia enjoyed the sweet treat of honey made by honeypot ants. As a favorite pastime, entire families would go searching for the underground colonies, first spotting a worker ant and then tracing it to its home. The ants, which belong to the species called Camponotus inflatus, usually build their subterranean homes near the mulga trees, Acacia aneura. Having traced an ant to its tree, it would be the women who carefully dug a pit next to a colony, cautious not to destroy the entire structure. Once the ant chambers were exposed, the women would harvest a small amount to avoid devastating the colony’s stocks—and the family would share the treat.
The Tjupan people also knew that the honey had antimicrobial properties. “You could use it for a sore throat,” says Danny Ulrich, a member of the Tjupan nation. “You could also use it topically, on cuts and things like that.”
These hunts have become rarer, as many of the Tjupan people have moved away and, up until now, the exact antimicrobial properties of the ant honey remained unknown. But recently, scientists Andrew Dong and Kenya Fernandes from the University of Sydney, joined Ulrich, who runs the Honeypot Ants tours in Kalgoorlie, a city in Western Australia, on a honey-gathering expedition. Afterwards, they ran a series of experiments analyzing the honey’s antimicrobial activity—and confirmed that the Indigenous wisdom was true. The honey was effective against Staphylococcus aureus, a common pathogen responsible for sore throats, skin infections like boils and sores, and also sepsis, which can result in death. Moreover, the honey also worked against two species of fungi, Cryptococcus and Aspergillus, which can be pathogenic to humans, especially those with suppressed immune systems.
In the era of growing antibiotic resistance and the rising threat of pathogenic fungi, these findings may help scientists identify and make new antimicrobial compounds. “Natural products have been honed over thousands and millions of years by nature and evolution,” says Fernandes. “And some of them have complex and intricate properties that make them really important as potential new antibiotics. “
In an era of growing resistance to antibiotics and new threats of fungi infections, the latest findings about honeypot ants are helping scientists identify new antimicrobial drugs.
Bee honey is also known for its antimicrobial properties, but bees produce it very differently than the ants. Bees collect nectar from flowers, which they regurgitate at the hive and pack into the hexagonal honeycombs they build for storage. As they do so, they also add into the mix an enzyme called glucose oxidase produced by their glands. The enzyme converts atmospheric oxygen into hydrogen peroxide, a reactive molecule that destroys bacteria and acts as a natural preservative. After the bees pack the honey into the honeycombs, they fan it with their wings to evaporate the water. Once a honeycomb is full, the bees put a beeswax cover on it, where it stays well-preserved thanks to the enzymatic action, until the bees need it.
Less is known about the chemistry of ants’ honey-making. Similarly to bees, they collect nectar. They also collect the sweet sap of the mulga tree. Additionally, they also “milk” the aphids—small sap-sucking insects that live on the tree. When ants tickle the aphids with their antennae, the latter release a sweet substance, which the former also transfer to their colonies. That’s where the honey management difference becomes really pronounced. The ants don’t build any kind of structures to store their honey. Instead, they store it in themselves.
The workers feed their harvest to their fellow ants called repletes, stuffing them up to the point that their swollen bellies outgrow the ants themselves, looking like amber-colored honeypots—hence the name. Because of their size, repletes don’t move, but hang down from the chamber’s ceiling, acting as living feedstocks. When food becomes scarce, they regurgitate their reserves to their colony’s brethren. It’s not clear whether the repletes die afterwards or can be restuffed again. “That's a good question,” Dong says. “After they've been stretched, they can't really return to exactly the same shape.”
These replete ants are the “treat” the Tjupan women dug for. Once they saw the round-belly ants inside the chambers, they would reach in carefully and get a few scoops of them. “You see a lot of honeypot ants just hanging on the roof of the little openings,” says Ulrich’s mother, Edie Ulrich. The women would share the ants with family members who would eat them one by one. “They're very delicate,” shares Edie Ulrich—you have to take them out carefully, so they don’t accidentally pop and become a wasted resource. “Because you’d lose all this precious honey.”
Dong stumbled upon the honeypot ants phenomenon because he was interested in Indigenous foods and went on Ulrich’s tour. He quickly became fascinated with the insects and their role in the Indigenous culture. “The honeypot ants are culturally revered by the Indigenous people,” he says. Eventually he decided to test out the honey’s medicinal qualities.
The researchers were surprised to see that even the smallest, eight percent concentration of honey was able to arrest the growth of S. aureus.
To do this, the two scientists first diluted the ant honey with water. “We used something called doubling dilutions, which means that we made 32 percent dilutions, and then we halve that to 16 percent and then we half that to eight percent,” explains Fernandes. The goal was to obtain as much results as possible with the meager honey they had. “We had very, very little of the honeypot ant honey so we wanted to maximize the spectrum of results we can get without wasting too much of the sample.”
After that, the researchers grew different microbes inside a nutrient rich broth. They added the broth to the different honey dilutions and incubated the mixes for a day or two at the temperature favorable to the germs’ growth. If the resulting solution turned turbid, it was a sign that the bugs proliferated. If it stayed clear, it meant that the honey destroyed them. The researchers were surprised to see that even the smallest, eight percent concentration of honey was able to arrest the growth of S. aureus. “It was really quite amazing,” Fernandes says. “Eight milliliters of honey in 92 milliliters of water is a really tiny amount of honey compared to the amount of water.”
Similar to bee honey, the ants’ honey exhibited some peroxide antimicrobial activity, researchers found, but given how little peroxide was in the solution, they think the honey also kills germs by a different mechanism. “When we measured, we found that [the solution] did have some hydrogen peroxide, but it didn't have as much of it as we would expect based on how active it was,” Fernandes says. “Whether this hydrogen peroxide also comes from glucose oxidase or whether it's produced by another source, we don't really know,” she adds. The research team does have some hypotheses about the identity of this other germ-killing agent. “We think it is most likely some kind of antimicrobial peptide that is actually coming from the ant itself.”
The honey also has a very strong activity against the two types of fungi, Cryptococcus and Aspergillus. Both fungi are associated with trees and decaying leaves, as well as in the soils where ants live, so the insects likely have evolved some natural defense compounds, which end up inside the honey.
It wouldn’t be the first time when modern medicines take their origin from the natural world or from the indigenous people’s knowledge. The bark of the cinchona tree native to South America contains quinine, a substance that treats malaria. The Indigenous people of the Andes used the bark to quell fever and chills for generations, and when Europeans began to fall ill with malaria in the Amazon rainforest, they learned to use that medicine from the Andean people.
The wonder drug aspirin similarly takes its origin from a bark of a tree—in this case a willow.
Even some anticancer compounds originated from nature. A chemotherapy drug called Paclitaxel, was originally extracted from the Pacific yew trees, Taxus brevifolia. The samples of the Pacific yew bark were first collected in 1962 by researchers from the United States Department of Agriculture who were looking for natural compounds that might have anti-tumor activity. In December 1992, the FDA approved Paclitaxel (brand name Taxol) for the treatment of ovarian cancer and two years later for breast cancer.
In the era when the world is struggling to find new medicines fast enough to subvert a fungal or bacterial pandemic, these discoveries can pave the way to new therapeutics. “I think it's really important to listen to indigenous cultures and to take their knowledge because they have been using these sources for a really, really long time,” Fernandes says. Now we know it works, so science can elucidate the molecular mechanisms behind it, she adds. “And maybe it can even provide a lead for us to develop some kind of new treatments in the future.”
Lina Zeldovich has written about science, medicine and technology for Popular Science, Smithsonian, National Geographic, Scientific American, Reader’s Digest, the New York Times and other major national and international publications. A Columbia J-School alumna, she has won several awards for her stories, including the ASJA Crisis Coverage Award for Covid reporting, and has been a contributing editor at Nautilus Magazine. In 2021, Zeldovich released her first book, The Other Dark Matter, published by the University of Chicago Press, about the science and business of turning waste into wealth and health. You can find her on http://linazeldovich.com/ and @linazeldovich.