DAILY DOSE: Not all gain of function studies are created equal; NASA exploring use of humanoid robots on the moon.


U.S. policymakers are debating how to regulate potentially harmful pathogen research without hindering essential studies for vaccines and therapies. Georgetown University used AI to analyze ‘gain of function’ (GOF) studies, where scientists modify pathogens. While prevalent, only a minority of these studies involve high-risk agents. Approximately 25% relate to vaccine development. The controversy surrounding COVID-19’s origins has amplified calls for stricter oversight. A debate exists on whether it transferred from animals or escaped from a lab during GOF research.

From 159,000 pathogen-related papers published from 2000 to mid-2022, the team identified around 7,000 as potential GOF or LOF studies. After manual review, 488 were confirmed, with most involving moderate-risk pathogens. Only 1% concerned high-risk pathogens like Ebola. The U.S. remains a primary hub for this research, leading to heightened scrutiny and potential bans in some states. However, the Georgetown report cautions against broad regulations, which could reduce preparedness for future outbreaks. Critics argue the study doesn’t sufficiently address ethical concerns. (Nature)


Research funded by the US government indicates that women exposed to certain chemicals face increased risks for various cancers, including a doubled risk for melanoma. The study used CDC data to determine that women diagnosed with hormonally driven cancers often had exposure to specific per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), commonly found in household and industrial products. These chemicals, termed “forever chemicals”, remain in the environment for long periods. The study also identified a link between cancer diagnosis in women and high phenol exposure, commonly used in food packaging and dyes. The research did not find a similar link in men. PFAS chemicals might interfere with female hormone functions, raising their risk of hormone-related cancers. About 97% of Americans have PFAS in their blood, with 45% of US drinking water contaminated with them. Differences were observed across racial groups, possibly due to diet and proximity to contaminated water. The study, based on CDC data from over 10,000 participants, doesn’t conclusively prove the chemicals cause cancer but suggests a significant link, warranting further research. (The Guardian)

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The FDA has approved two wearable monitors designed to enhance continuous electrocardiogram accuracy. The manufacturers are South Korea’s Wellysis, an offshoot from Samsung in 2019, and Switzerland’s SmartCardia. Both devices provide doctors with a detailed view of a patient’s cardiac activity over extended periods, assisting in detecting atrial fibrillation, other arrhythmias, and heart conditions. Wellysis’ S-Patch Ex, already available in many countries, is lightweight, waterproof, and can be worn for up to 72 hours. It sends data to a smartphone app and a cloud-based portal where doctors can access raw ECG data and diagnostic reports. The device uses Samsung’s Bio Processor chip and Wellysis’ AI technology. SmartCardia’s 7L patch, popular in Europe and India, offers a more comprehensive view with its seven leads. Worn for two weeks, it provides real-time monitoring, giving alerts for abnormalities. The entire ECG data is transmitted and analyzed in real-time, ensuring precise arrhythmia detection. (Fierce Biotech)


Tens of thousands of protesters took to the streets to urge an end to fossil fuel use, marking the beginning of New York’s Climate Week. Many directly targeted U.S. President Joe Biden, demanding the halt of new oil and gas projects and urging him to declare a climate emergency. The March to End Fossil Fuels saw prominent participants like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Susan Sarandon, Ethan Hawke, and others. Notably, the event was mainly focused on the fossil fuel industry, with 15% of the participants attending such a protest for the first time. These demonstrators expressed disappointment in Biden’s administration for its continued support of oil and fossil fuel drilling. While environmental activists highlighted the long-term carbon footprint of the U.S., oil and gas industry representatives emphasized the economic significance of their products. The overarching message from protesters was the urgent need to address climate change and end fossil fuel dependency. (Associated Press)

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The 33rd annual Ig Nobel Prizes were recently celebrated, and as always, they recognized unconventional scientific research. Organized by the Annals of Improbable Research, this lighthearted event has transitioned to a virtual format since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic. The laureates, surprisingly presented with their accolades by genuine Nobel Prize winners, were this year given a printable 3D trophy. The spirit behind these prizes is to highlight peculiar yet impactful scientific accomplishments, hoping to pique the public’s interest in diverse fields such as science, medicine, and technology. This year’s notable awardees included Jan Zalasiewicz, who elucidated the reasons geologists sometimes lick rocks; a team that innovatively used dead spider legs as gripping tools; researchers who dived deep into the strange sensation of word repetition; and a study from La Laguna, Spain, on the quirky phenomenon of people speaking backward. Other intriguing projects included the development of a Stanford toilet that examines human waste for potential illnesses, an unusual analysis of nose hairs in cadavers, and the inventive idea of using electric chopsticks and straws to enhance the flavor of food. Additionally, studies highlighted the role of anchovies in ocean mixing, the influence of group behavior in determining if individuals would look up at a building, and the intriguing relationship between perceived teacher boredom and its impact on student motivation. (Smithsonian)


NASA has partnered with Texas-based robotics firm, Apptronik, Inc., to further develop humanoid robots that may soon assist astronauts in space, on the moon, or Mars. The collaboration between the two has been facilitated through the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) contracts program. Apptronik’s humanoid robot, Apollo, originally designed for terrestrial tasks like logistics and manufacturing, has gained NASA’s attention for space applications. Standing 5’8″ and weighing 160 pounds, Apollo’s modular design offers adaptability, dexterity, and the ability to be reprogrammed. With NASA’s expertise, Apollo’s development focuses on robotic mobility and safe human-robot interaction principles. Robots like Apollo could revolutionize space missions, from unloading lunar landers to operating mining facilities, thus making missions more cost-efficient. Apart from Apptronik, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the Dragonfly mission are exploring robotics for space. Leveraging commercial robots for space operations, similar to NASA’s Commercial Crew Program strategy, could save significant funds and foster technological advancements that may eventually benefit the broader economy. (space.com)

Thanks for reading. Let’s be careful out there.

WORDS: The Biology Guy.


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