Monkey avatars, cell therapeutics and genes in space

Science 2014-02-24

Last week was an exciting week for science. With the launch of a smartphone game designed to aid the discovery of new cancer treatments, a breakthrough in treatment for leukaemia and the development of controlled movement through a monkey avatar – innovative uses of science and technology are driving advances in medicine, now more than ever.


Monkey avatar

Spinal cord damage causes thousands of people to suffer from lost or impaired function, often leaving them unable to walk or feed themselves. A new piece of machinery, developed by scientists at Harvard Medical School, hopes to give functional control back to paralyzed people. Using two monkeys, a brain chip was inserted into the first ‘master’ monkey. This could monitor the electrical activity of 36 electrodes implanted into the spinal cord of the sedated ‘avatar’ monkey. During training, their patterns of physical and electrical activities were matched, and using brain scans that read the master monkey’s, mind this stimulated movement in the avatar’s arm. The brain chip could monitor the activity of up to 100 neurons, and in the future this technology could allow the creation of completely natural movement stimulated by the person’s own brain signals. This has a long way to go, but is the first step towards offering people with brain stem or spinal cord paralysis the ability of movement.


Avatar monkey


Leukaemia immune cell therapy breakthrough

This week in Science Translational Research magazine, a study was published which made huge progress in treating adult B cell acute lymphoblastic leukaemia (B-ALL). A clinical trial on 16 acute lymphoblastic leukaemia patients found 14 of them had achieved complete remission, after receiving the therapy. This extraordinary success offers hope for patients where other treatments have failed. By altering patients’ T cells to express a specific chimeric antigen receptor, they are engineered to target and kill cancer cells expressing the CD19 antigen. Only available in research settings, the long-term effects have yet to be explored and this hasn’t yet been approved by the Food & Drug Administration (FDA).


Smartphone game used in the fight against cancer

The new app, Play to Cure: Genes in Space is a game that allows players to help research scientists to analyse vast amounts of genetic data. The player must steer the spaceship to follow the ‘Element Alpha path’, and shoot asteroids as they go, highlighting genetic faults that can cause cancer. The path left behind by the ‘citizen scientist’ is a stream of peaks and troughs, which can be used to identify genetic abnormalities linked to cancer. The data are processed and sent back to Cancer Research UK, where scientists can identify areas that require further research. With each time a player plays the game and contributes their data, this app is accelerating the discovery of new treatments. Developed by Guerilla Tea, it is the world’s first app created to unravel genetic data, and so far 200,000 people have classified almost 2 million cancer images.


Come across any innovative and ground-breaking science you’d like to share? Let me know @Rajatnotch !