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How Printable Testing Kits Could Turn Healthcare Upside-down

Biosensors like e-skin could give us cheap, fast and convenient health data, say researchers at an international biosensing conference

You put a droplet of saliva on a credit card-sized testing kit and wait a few seconds. Your mobile phone lights up and displays your medical results, which it also sends to the online diagnosis database. Your diagnosis app opens and shows you a list of treatment options with detailed information about the medication and side effects. You order the pills through the app, opting to have them delivered to your office the same day.

Is this the stuff of science fiction? Perhaps not, according to researchers meeting this week at Elsevier’s 4th International Conference on Bio-Sensing Technology in Lisbon, Portugal.

Anthony Turner, PhD, DScAnthony Turner, PhD, DSc“If you’re a runner, you might already use mobile technologies to monitor your pulse, the steps you’ve taken, your heart rate, blood pressure, distance and speed,” said Prof. Anthony Turner, Head of the Biosensors & Bioelectronics Centre at Linköping University in Sweden, who is presenting a new diagnostic device at the conference. “Everyone recognizes the huge potential of this technology, but the measurements we’re currently making are the easy ones. What we really want to know about is the body’s chemistry – its function, malfunction and how the environment is impacting that.”

Biosensors can detect and analyze data to give patients information on their blood sugar, lactate, stress and hormone levels, and even test whether they are infected with antibiotic-resistant bacteria. This detection technology is a step forward in personal medicine, giving patients real-time information about how their bodies are functioning and suggesting the most suitable treatments.

Printing technology makes cheap, portable diagnostic instruments

Dr. Turner and his collaborators at Acreo Swedish ICT have developed an instrument that looks like a business card and can analyze blood and saliva samples. It is simple to use: you switch it on by pressing a button, then apply your sample to a circle in the bottom right corner and wait for a digital reading to be displayed and even sent to your mobile phone.

Demo printed diagnostic instruments that look like business cards, made by Dr. Turner and Acreo Swedish ICT.Demo printed diagnostic instruments that look like business cards, made by Dr. Turner and Acreo Swedish ICT.The whole instrument is printed on the card using a screen-printing technique. It could be used to monitor diabetes, kidney disease and heart disease – even to detect cancer. This, says Dr. Turner, could turn a 2,500-year-old paradigm on its head and put the power in the patient’s: hands.

We’re on the cusp of an entirely new era – not just for bio-sensing, but for measurements in healthcare and diagnostics generally. Until now, we have been used to going to a doctor, who endows us with some wisdom and retains information about us, and then waiting to see if we get better. Modern sensors and telecommunications are rebalancing this power; in the future, patients could have the information, while physicians provide a service.

The printed instruments are the result of a collaboration between the Biosensors and Bioelectronics Centre at Linköping University and Acreo Swedish ICT, and the team is now looking for corporate partners to work with to mass-produce them. At just €5 each – a cost that’s expected to fall to €0.50 – the paper diagnostic instruments offer an inexpensive way to analyze samples.

“When I started doing electrochemistry 30 years ago, an instrument like this would have been the size of a filing cabinet, and would have cost me €10,000,” said Dr. Turner. “We’ve now got the technology figured out; we had to combine the area of printed electronics and printed biosensors. It’s the first time anyone has printed an entire instrument.”

This means they have the potential to provide patients and doctors in developing countries with accessible, affordable medical tests. For example, the printed card could be made part of the packaging of antibiotics, helping determine which antibiotic would be best to treat a patient’s infection.

Flexible electronics make wearable diagnostic systems

Such printable devices could also be worn like plasters or contact lenses, transmitting information to mobile phones. Similarly, e-skin devices are also designed to be wearable and portable, and to transmit data about how a patient’s body is functioning.

Prof. Ting Zhang of the Suzhou Institute of Nano-Tech and Nano-Bionics at the Chinese Academy of Sciences is presenting a new kind of e-skin at the conference. E-skin is developed based on flexible electronic technology and nanotechnology; because of its unique ability to detect tiny changes in pressure, e-skin can be used to monitor blood pressure, heart rate and wrist pulse.

Dr. Zhang and his team have developed two key aspects of the technology – making the sensor element more sensitive and making the material more flexible – bringing wearable diagnostic systems a step closer. They have used carbon nanotubes and sheets of graphene only a few atoms thick to construct ultra-sensitive, transparent and flexible e-skin.

“We’re very excited to present our new technology,” said Dr. Zhang. “We’ve shown that the e-skin can be used to monitor many different human physiological signals. We believe our new material can give real-time diagnosis of diseases and provide an instant health assessment while a patient is wearing it.”

Putting the patient at the center of future healthcare

“We seem to be experiencing the perfect storm,” says Dr. Turner. With new sensing technology combined with advances in microelectronics, the power of telecommunications and mobility, and the big data revolution, there are vast amounts of data being generated.

Using the sort of printing technology we work with, you could produce a stick-on patch that communicates with your mobile phone, or a diagnostic instrument that’s part of the packaging of your pills. Looking further ahead, there’s even potential for developing technology that would enable on-demand printing of diagnostic instruments.

Let’s say you suddenly have a rash; today you might go to the internet to look up your symptoms, then visit a doctor. In the future, you could take this a step further: after looking it up, you could print your own diagnostic instrument, do the test, transmit the results and receive a diagnosis based on the chemical analysis.

Dr. Turner says this has the potential to change the whole way we deliver healthcare:

This really puts the patient at the center, rather than healthcare revolving around the institution. Advances like this mean you might not have to visit a doctor at all; the service could be delivered when and where you want it.

This change would have a profound effect on institutions, governments, hospitals and companies, completely disrupting the status quo. With so much vested interest, will healthcare really change that much?

“We see revolutions in many different areas,” Dr. Turner said. “Look at publishing and music, for example. We now have eBooks to read on iPads and Kindles, and we can listen to music on demand on Spotify: these things have changed the paradigm. But it doesn’t always go that way, sometimes things don’t change so dramatically. We still have physical meetings, in addition to video conferences, and in healthcare, there will still be a need for a comforting human touch.”

Source: Elsevier


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A Potato Made with Gene Editing

Plant scientists can swiftly modify crops in ways that would take years with conventional breeding.

Dan Voytas is a plant geneticist at the University of Minnesota. But two days a week he stops studying the fundamentals of DNA engineering and heads to a nearby company called Cellectis Plant Sciences, where he applies them.

His newest creation, described in a plant journal this month, is a Ranger Russet potato that doesn’t accumulate sweet sugars at typical cold storage temperatures. That will let it last longer, and when it’s fried it won’t produce as much acrylamide, a suspected carcinogen.

What’s different about the potato is that it was bred with the help of gene editing, a new kind of technique for altering DNA that plant scientists say is going to be revolutionary for its simplicity and power. The technology could also be a way to engineer plants that avoid the stigma, and the regulations, normally associated with genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

In the case of the Ranger Russet, Voytas’s gene-editing technique, known as TALENs, left behind no trace other than a few deleted letters of DNA. The edit disabled a single gene that turns sucrose into glucose and fructose. Without it, Voytas thinks, the potatoes can be stored far longer without loss of quality.

The potato is a prototype of what plant scientists say is a rapidly arriving new generation of genetically modified plants. With gene editing, small companies think they can very quickly develop new crops for a fraction of the typical cost—even in species so far mostly untouched by biotechnology, like avocados, sorghum, and decorative flowers.

Most genetically modified crops that have been grown commercially so far incorporate genes from bacteria to make them produce insecticides or resist weed killers. Public opposition and regulatory requirements make these transgenic plants expensive to develop. That is why nearly all biotech plants are lucrative, big-acreage crops like soy, corn, and cotton and are sold by just a few large companies, like Monsanto and DuPont.

In August, the U.S. Department of Agriculture told Cellectis that unlike transgenic plants, its potato wouldn’t be regulated. That means instead of being grown in fenced-in test plots and generating folder upon folder of safety data, the Ranger Russet may go quickly to the market. Two years ago the agency reached a similar conclusion when it considered a DNA-edited corn plant developed by Dow AgroSciences, although it isn’t being sold yet.

* * * * * * *

Scientists say products like the potato are just the start for gene-editing techniques in plants. The same technologies are going to allow far more sophisticated engineering, including manipulation of photosynthesis to make plants grow faster and yield more food. “It’s an enormous opportunity, an unfathomable opportunity,” says Martin Spalding, a plant researcher at Iowa State University.

For now, the techniques are being used to modify plants in more modest ways. “The first wave of this technology is just removing a few base pairs,” says Yinong Yang, a professor of plant pathology at Penn State University, referring to the combinations of DNA letters—A, G, C, and T—that make up a genome. By “knocking out” just the right gene, as researchers did with the potato, it’s possible to give a plant a few valuable properties.

The next step, Yang says, will be to change the DNA letters of plant genes, swapping one plant’s version of a gene for that of another known to offer, say, resistance to disease. Yang says there is a blight-resistant form of rice that differs from commercial species by only a few DNA letters. “I could just change that over to resistance,” he says. “It’s like gene therapy in humans.” He says he’s negotiating a contract to produce the gene-edited rice now.

As for Voytas, this isn’t the first time he has set out to gene-edit plants. A decade ago he started a company called Phytodyne based on an earlier technology, called zinc finger nucleases, but it folded after Dow AgroSciences paid more than $50 million for exclusive rights to use that type of gene editing in plants.

Voytas teamed up with the French biotechnology company Cellectis in 2010 after it offered to install him as science chief of a new plant engineering division. But initial efforts ran into difficulty when another gene-editing system, meganucleases, proved challenging to work with and also got tied up by patent disputes.

Eventually, Voytas returned to the lab and coinvented a new way to edit genes, using specially engineered proteins called TALENs. That technology was used to make Cellectis’s potato, as well as a soybean with improved oil. Since then, Voytas and Cellectis have also worked with a newer technique, called CRISPR (see “Genome Surgery”).

Voytas says the potato took only about a year to create. “If you did it via breeding it would take five to 10 years,” he says.

Altogether, says Luc Mathis, CEO of Cellectis Plant Sciences, developing the potato cost a tenth of what it does to create and bring to market a transgenic plant, like corn or soy. “We will still need to generate some data, but it will not be a huge process,” says Mathis, who continues to meet with regulators to determine what steps remain before the potato can be sold.

Cellectis will move ahead with preliminary planting as soon as warm weather arrives in Minnesota. The first crops will determine whether the potatoes have the commercial benefits seen in greenhouse tests. “We need to check that we can store the potato in the cold,” says Mathis. “Once we have the commercial proof of concept, we can discuss with farmers what the interest level is.”

Kevin Folta, a professor of horticultural sciences at the University of Florida, says about 50 experts, including scientists and lawyers, met in Arizona earlier this year to discuss gene editing and how to orchestrate the industry’s approach to regulators in the United States and abroad. “Anyone who works in any kind of plant engineering is vigorously pursuing these technologies, especially with crops that have complex genomes or that you can’t breed easily,” he says. “There are lots of plants that need solutions.” He says gene editing will allow citrus trees to be modified in ways that would take 150 years with conventional breeding.

Folta says opponents of GMOs were not included in the planning meeting. “To invite people who view things nonscientifically would clog the discussion,” says. “There is no technology they are happy with.”

Source: MIT Technology Review

Genetically Edited Fruit May be Welcomed Where Genetically Modified Organisms Are Not

Recent advances that allow the precise editing of genomes now raise the possibility that fruit and other crops might be genetically improved without the need to introduce foreign genes, according to researchers writing in the Cell Press publication Trends in Biotechnology.

With awareness of what makes these biotechnologies new and different, genetically edited fruits might be met with greater acceptance by society at large than genetically modified organisms (GMOs) so far have been, especially in Europe, they say. This could mean that genetically edited versions of GMOs such as “super bananas” that produce more vitamin A and apples that don’t brown when cut, among other novelties, could be making an appearance on grocery shelves.

“The simple avoidance of introducing foreign genes makes genetically edited crops more “natural” than transgenic crops obtained by inserting foreign genes,” said Chidananda Nagamangala Kanchiswamy of Istituto Agrario San Michele in Italy.

For instance, changes to the characteristics of fruit might be made via small genetic tweaks designed to increase or decrease the amounts of natural ingredients that their plant cells already make. Genome editing of fruit has become possible today due to the advent of new tools – CRISPR, TALEN, and the like – and also because of the extensive and growing knowledge of fruit genomes.

So far, editing tools have not been applied to the genetic modification of fruit crops. Most transgenic fruit crop plants have been developed using a plant bacterium to introduce foreign genes, and only papaya has been commercialized in part because of stringent regulation in the European Union (EU). The researchers say that genetically edited plants, modified through the insertion, deletion, or altering of existing genes of interest, might even be deemed as nongenetically modified, depending on the interpretation of the EU commission and member state regulators.

Fruit crops are but one example of dozens of possible future applications for genetically edited organisms (GEOs), Kanchiswamy and his colleagues say. That would open the door to the development of crops with superior qualities and perhaps allow their commercialization even in countries in which GMOs have so far met with harsh criticism and controversy.

“We would like people to understand that crop breeding through biotechnology is not restricted only to GMOs,” he said. “Transfer of foreign genes was the first step to improve our crops, but GEOs will surge as a “natural” strategy to use biotechnology for a sustainable agricultural future.”

Source: MNT


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