Genetically modified high school grads, stem cell treatment for diabetes, and deciphering memory engrams.

23 October 2014

A couple of years ago I did an article on the disclosure that mitochondrial genetic modifications were carried out on thirty embryos in the year 2001 to treat mitochondrial diseases that would probably have been fatal later in life. I also wrote in the article that this does not constitute full scale genetic modification ala the movie Gattaca. It is true that mitochondria are essential to human life but they do not seem to influence any traits that we usually think about, such as increased intelligence or hair color, as they are primarily involved in metabolism. In other words, mitochontrial manipulation does not seem to fundamentally change a person's morphology. While I cannot speak to the accuracy of the news site they recently published an article that got me thinking: Those children whose mitochondrial configuration was altered before they were born in an attempt to give them healthy, relatively normal lives are probably going to graduate from high school next year. We still don't know who those kids are or where they're living, nor do we really know what health problems they have right now, if they have any that is. We do know that a followup is being done at this time but we're probably not going to find out the results for a while, if at all. We also don't know the implications for the children of those kids years down the line. The mitochondrial transfer process broke new ground when it was carried out and I don't know if it's been done since. My gut says "no, probably not."

I don't actually have a whole lot to say on this particular topic due to privacy concerns. Let's face it, these are kids growing up and trying to figure out their lives and it seems a little creepy to go digging for this kind of information. As far as we know, data's being collected and hopefully some of the results will be published someplace we can read them. Hard data would be nice, too, so we can draw our own conclusions. Definitely food for thought no matter how you cut it.

In other news Type 1 diabetes is a condition in which the patient's body does not manufacture the hormone insulin (warning: Broken JavaScript, some browsers may complain) and thus cannot regulate the use of sugar as fuel. Over time, poorly managed blood sugar levels will wear away the integrity of your body, and your health along with it. I've heard it said that you've got 20 good years at most once the diagnosis comes down the wire. Type one diabetes is treated primarily with the administration of insulin, if not through injection than an implanted pump or biostatus monitor. A research team at Harvard University headed up by professor Doug Melton has made a breakthrough in stem cell technology - they've been able to replicate clinically active numbers of beta cells in vitro, hundreds of thousands at a time, which appear to be usable for implantation. Beta cells reside within pancreatic structures called the islets of langerhans and do the actual work of secreting and releasing insulin on demand. Trials of the replicated beta cells in diabetic nonhuman primates are reportedly looking promising; after implantation they're not being attacked by the immune system, they've been observed to be thriving, and they're producing insulin the way they're supposed to when compared to nondiabetic lifeforms. Word on the street has it that they're ready to begin human clinical trials in a year or two. Whether or not this would constitute a cure of type 1 diabetes in humans on a permanent basis remains to be seen, but I think it prudent to remain hopeful.

One of the bugaboos of philosophy and psychology is qualia - what a sentient mind's experience of life is really like. Is the red I see really the red you see? What about the sound the movement of leaves makes? Are smells really the same to different people? The experience of everything that informs us about the outside world is unique from person to person. A related question that neuroscience has been asking since it first began reverse engineering the human brain is whether or not there is a common data format underlying the same sensory stimuli across different people. If everybody's brain is a little different, will similar patterns of electrical activity arise due to the same stimuli? The implications for neuroscience, bioengineering, and artificial intelligence would be profound if there were. A research team based out of Washington University in Saint Louis, Missouri published a paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences with evidence that this is exactly the case. The research team used a scene from an Alfred Hitchcock movie in conjunction with functional magnetic resonance imaging to map the cognitive activity of test subjects for analysis. The idea is that the test subjects watched the same movie clip under observation, and the fMRI scan detected the same kinds of cognitive activity across the test subjects in response. This seems to support the hypothesis that similar patterns of quantifiable neurological activity occurred in the brains of all of the test subjects. To test the hypothesis the process was repeated with two test subjects who have been in persistent vegetative states for multiple years at a time. Long story short, the PVS patients were observed to show quantifiably similar patterns of neurological activity in response to being subjected to the same Hitchcock scene. This implies that, on some level, the patients are capable of interpreting sensory input from the outside world and interpreting it - thinking about the content, context, and meta-context using the executive functions of the brain. This also seems to cast doubt upon the actual level of consciousness that patients in persistent vegetative states possess...