IVF turns 40 today, and after six million babies conceived, the revolutionary procedure is still going strong


In-vitro fertislisation (IVF) was, very appropriately, born 40 years ago today.

Lesley Brown, an Englishwoman, secured her place in medical history as the first female to become pregnant through IVF. Ms. Brown and her husband had been trying for a baby for nine years, to no avail.

Then, on November 10, 1977 -exactly 40 years ago today-, the miracle happened at Oldham General Hospital. Lesley was successfully implanted with a viable embryo. Louise Joy Brown was the first human to be born thanks to IVF, weighing 5 pounds, 12 ounces at birth in July 1978. Robert Edwards, one of the developers of the IVF procedure, was awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 2010. His colleague, Steptoe, was not eligible because the prize is not awarded posthumously.

In-vitro fertilization would go on to become a lifeline for those women unable to conceive naturally. Over six million babies have been born thanks to IVF worldwide.



Mankind’s days are numbered, and AI is the reason, according to Stephen Hawking


The days of mankind’s dominance on planet Earth are numbered, according to eminent physicist Stephen Hawking.

The 75-year-old genius has warned, and not for the first time, that AI’s evolution has passed the ‘point of no return’, and that it’s only a matter of time before someone invents an AI entity with self-replication ability.

When such time comes, our very survival will be in serious jeopardy.

In a recent interview for Wired, Hawking said “I fear that A.I. may replace humans altogether,”

“If people design computer viruses, someone will design A.I. that improves and replicates itself. This will be a new form of life that outperforms humans.”

If we are to avoid such grim fate, we should look towards space, Hawking added. The terraforming and colonization of other planets may be our only chance to prevail.

Hawking is not the only one to issue stark warnings about the rise of AI. SpaceX’s founder Elon Musk recently said that it (AI) ‘poses a fundamental risk to the existence of human civilization.’

FDA approves new treatment that uses engineered genes to treat aggressive leukemia, adding a ‘superweapon’ to the existing armamentarium against cancer


The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) agency has recently approved a revolutionary new treatment for one of the most aggressive forms of leukemia, effectively implementing the first ever gene-therapy to treat cancer in the United States.

The brand new treatment is a Chimeric Antigen Receptor (CAR) T-cell therapy created by Swiss pharma company Novartis and commercialized as Kymriah. The therapy has been approved to treat pediatric acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) in patients up to the age of 25 with B-cell precursor ALL that is refractory or in second or later relapse.

ALL is a type of aggressive cancer of the white blood cells and bone marrow. The disease progresses rapidly, causing overproduction of immature white blood cells (lymphocytes), which inhibits the production of mature cells. Death will occur without quick treatment, but complete remission in children is also a typical outcome.

Kymriah uses genetically-modified cells to target a specific cancer cells in the receptor.

The process involves retrieving cells from the patient and sending them to a facility where they are genetically altered to include a new protein (CAR). The modified cells are then sent back and injected into the patient. The new cells stimulate the receptor’s immune system to target specific leukemia cells that contain the CD19 antigen.
Each single treatment is effectively ‘customized’ to every patient. Kymriah has shown astonishingly positive results in clinical trials, where 83 percent of patients treated with it achieved remission within three months.

Kymriah is not without its downsides. Its cost is rather high at present, for example. A single treatment costs $475,000, which may seem incredibly high, but it’s actually well below market expectations of around $700,000 per vial. And that price tag is for the treatment alone, it does not include hospitalization costs, or any other associated monetary outlays. On this regard, Novartis is working with health centres that provide Medicaid and Medicare facilities to iron out financial arrangements for those patients who undergo this treatment.

The new therapy may also cause severe neurological side effects in some cohorts, and the activation of CAR cells in the receptor may trigger a cytokine release syndrome (CRS). Both side effects may be fatal, but are treatable.

Despite these issues, Kymriah has been hailed as a quantum leap forward in the fight against cancer, particularly in the treatment of ALL. Scientists are now open to new avenues of research, and may consider applying similar therapies for the treatment of other types of leukemias and solid tumours.

Scientists develop new process to induce death of cancer cells


The fight against cancer has scored a major victory today, after researchers develop a brand new process to induce the death of cancerous cells.

The new method, known as Caspase Independent Cell Death (CICD), has achieved total eradication of tumours in experimental models.

Current standard treatments for cancer patients include chemotherapy and radiotherapy, which kill off cancer cells via apoptosis.

Apoptosis is a sort of ‘programmed cell death’, where a cell is effectively induced to kill itself. This process involves proteins called caspases, which kick off the apoptosis process by breaking down the essential components needed for cell survival. The cells shrink, and as they do, they send out distress signals which are picked up by the human immune system. Macrophages (white blood cells) are then dispatched to consume the dying cell, essentially cleaning up the body. Apoptosis is often neat and leads no trace of the cell.

Despite its efficacy, apoptosis often fails to kill off all targeted cells, and crucially, the remaining cancerous cells fail to trigger an immune response, which is the reason why some types of cancer tend to reoccur.

CICD triggers cell death in such a way that the dying cell alerts the human immune system via the release of inflammatory proteins. The body responds and kills off the cancerous cells that escaped treatment.

CICD has shown great potential by inducing complete tumour regression in experimental models, and the results suggest new ways of treating cancer more effectively in the near future.

The Great American Eclipse: Vast swathes of the United States will be plunged into darkness on August 21


The United States is gearing up for a once-in-a-century astronomical event.

On August 21, 2017, the Moon will be positioned between the Earth and the Sun just right, creating a total solar eclipse, the first since 1979.

The event will be visible across the entire continent as the shadow of the Moon crosses the country, but a 70 miles-wide strip will experience night-like conditions for a brief period of time.

Spanning from South Carolina to Oregon, the so-called ‘path of totality’ will be plunged into total darkness for just over two and a half minutes. Planets and stars will become visible during this time.

The event will commence at 9.05am local time on the Pacific coast (5.05pm UK), and will finish at 4.09pm local time on the east coast (9.09pm UK).


Sirtuins: Miracle protein or Pandora’s Box?


It seems that the answer to that quandary would depend on your point of view. Sirtuins are the talk of the town these days. Fierce controversy rages on about whether or not they do (or could do) what some scientists speculate they do.

Because you see, sirtuins could prolong life.

Longevity, and the curse of aging that we’re all stuck with from the moment of our birth, have for centuries been a subject of fervent research and heated discussion, both from the scientific and religious fields. People just do not want to get older, it seems.

Enter sirtuins, the fulcrum upon which may swing the next step of human evolution.

But what exactly are sirtuins?

Without descending into purely academic territory, sirtuins are a class of proteins that regulate some important biological pathways in certain organisms. The name “sirtuin” is a portmanteau of the name for the yeast gene ‘silent mating-type information regulation 2’, the gene that is responsible for cellular regulation in yeast.

Scientific research has associated sirtuins (sirtuin 6, SIRT6, in particular) with influencing certain cellular processes, including aging. SIRT6 has been proved to lengthen the lifespan of male mice by as much as 15.8%, for instance

But don’t go planning your 250th birthday bash just yet. While initial results are encouraging, we still are a long way off from opening a new chapter in the very definition of human life as we know it. The strain of mice used in such research is prone to tumours, for instance, specially the males. Since SIRT6 may also have an anti-cancer effect, it is conceivable that the test mice may have lived longer because they did not become ill, as opposed to not aging.

Sirtuins also do not prevent aging, only appear to slow it down (in test male mice, remember. This thing has yet to be tested on humans, assuming it ever does). Thus, you shall not stay forever looking as you did when you were 19, nor will eternal life be granted unto you, thus challenging all known laws of Nature. Your lifespan may be extended, by how much (if at all), nobody knows.

These musings do pose some interesting questions and challenges, however.

If society were to become a huge community of 200-plus year old geriatrics, how, and when and for how long would our pensions be funded, for example? What would the legal retirement age be, then? 90? 150? 300? Or how about the prison system? Would our jails be inhabited by 400 year old undying ‘old timers’, languishing in 3×3 cells, and wishing they had never set their thieving eyes on those blue pills a couple of hundred years earlier? Perhaps prison authorities could introduce a mandatory prisoner cull, anyone over the age of 275, let’s say, if only to make room for the next batch of walking mummies.

And what about the holy institution of marriage? Take the vows and you’re doomed to have sex with the same person for the next 400 years. How does that sound? Though perhaps some legislation could be introduced to force a mandatory divorce every hundred years or so, if only to keep the statistics of spousal murder rate at an acceptable level.

More interesting concepts: How long would females remain fertile? Until they’re in their hundreds, perhaps? Would centuries pass between siblings? It is conceivable that women could be churning out babies for hundreds of years. The nappy industry would collapse with the demand. If one follows that train of thought, what would the nurseries of this topsy-turvy world of unprecedented longevity look like? Mega-locales where thousands of screaming and shitting babies would have to be looked after for decades, since they age slowly (assuming they are given the wonder pill at birth, that is)? The same concept applies to schools all over the world. How long would you be on your teens? A firestorm of raging hormones lasting 15, 25 years, who knows.

The nursery idea raises the question, would everyone be given sirtuins at birth (i.e., would it be a right, a natural entitlement like your individual freedom), or would the privilege of ancestral longevity have to be ‘earned’, somehow, or paid for? If it’s the latter, would only the richest in society be able to live until well past their sell-by date? Where is the moral demarcation?

Pharmaceutical companies would sell their souls to be the first to commercialize a sirtuin-based drug that really prolonged longevity. The profits would rank in the hundreds of billions. And indirectly, the very raison-de-etre for those same companies would become their leitmotif. The equation would go somewhat like this: Humans would live longer. A lot longer. Longevity means more time and frequency to become ill. Frequent and abundant morbidity requires plenty medicinal drugs output. K-ching!

It is unlikely that any of us will see any significant development in the sirtuin front in our lifetime. But one day, mankind may rise to challenge the very immortality of the gods.

The question, however, is, do we want to?


Cosmic fury: Titanic struggles in deep space, as black holes consume stars more often than previously thought


New deep-space research has concluded that black holes are consuming stars at an alarming rate, way faster than astronomers previously thought.

A brand new study has found that supermassive black holes lurk in dark regions of space, always ready to trap nearby stars and slowly consume their matter, a la galactic Venus Flytrap.

This phenomenon was well known, but it is the frequency at which it happens that has stunned the research community at the University of Sheffield, the conductors of the study.

A black hole is an anomaly created when a celestial body, usually a star, runs out of fuel and collapses unto itself under the force of gravity. Eventually, gargantuan amounts of matter are compressed into a relatively small area of space, creating a super-dense region with such colossal gravitational pull that not even light can escape. It is because of this trait that black holes are only revealed through special equipment and by observing the surrounding space.

When a star wanders in the vicinity of one of these cosmic monsters, it becomes trapped in an inescapable gravitational pull, slowly dwindling away as the black hole swallows it whole.

In scientific terms, such predation is called a Tidal Disruption Event (TDE). Prior knowledge stated that one such event would happen once every 10,000 to 100,000 years per galaxy.

However, it has now transpired that TDEs occur about 100 times more often, particularly as galaxies collide with one another.

TDEs are exceptionally violent episodes of utter chaos at cosmic level, with devastating consequences. When galaxies collide, their structure warps, ripping stars out of their orbits, and often throwing them into the ravenous maws of lurking black holes. The outcome of such cataclysmic events is a single, enormous new galaxy risen from the remnants of the two colliding titans.

And the bad news is that our very own galactic home, the Milky Way, is on an inexorable collision course with Andromeda, the closest spiral galaxy. This end-of-days event will happen in about 5 billion years though, so don’t go making plans for your TDE blaze of glory just yet.

Vera Rubin: The woman who unwound Dark Matter’s cosmic spindle


Among so many celebrity and A-listers deaths this year, the passing of some less well known (but by no means less important) people has all but gone unnoticed.

Vera Rubin was the American astronomer who first proved the existence of Dark Matter. Initially met with skepticism by the scientific community -mainly because she was a woman-, Rubin would come to be vindicated in later years, as her theories and discoveries proved to be correct.

Dark Matter: The Great Universal Enigma

There is a great universe out there. Ever expanding, all entities contained in such gigantic grain of sand keep moving at a steady pace away from each other.

The 14bn-year-old (give or take some loose millions of years) three- (or fourth-, if you listen to some theorists) dimensional Universe grows and grows in apparently
random directions, and all galaxies, nebulae, black holes, and whatever other space stuff is out there moves at dizzying speeds.

And this is only the observable Universe. In other words, the portion of Universe, however vast, that contains the light that has had enough time to reach us since the Big Bang occurred, all those billions of years ago.

But wait. If we can only see some of the Universe, what’s beyond this visible slice of Universal cake?

And more importantly, what holds the Universe together? Dark Matter, that’s the invisible thread that binds all things together out there.

Now, enter Vera Rubin.

‘As long as you stay away from science you should do okay.’

So an ill-advised school physics teacher said to a young Vera Rubin. But fortunately for the science community, she paid little heed to such cheap negativity.

A daughter of Jewish immigrants, Rubin’s interest on astronomy began when she was 10 years old. She had recently moved to Washington DC with her family, and the stars she saw through her bedroom window held the young Rubin in their thrall.

But Rubin’s path to the stars would not be an easy one.

In 1947, at 20 years of age, Rubin requested a graduate-school prospectus from Princeton University, only to be told by a dean that women were not accepted into the program (females would not be allowed to enroll in Princeton as undergraduates until 1969.)

She was also unable to attend Harvard because she married young, and followed her husband to Cornell University in New York, where he was studying physics. The young bride would go on to obtain a master’s in Astronomy at Cornell.

Undeterred by these artificial barriers, Rubin learned most of what she knew by conducting her own research, away from ‘centers of excellence.’ This circumstance would play against her, as fellow scientists would have a hard time accepting anything outside the norm.

Dark Matter: The unseen force that binds the fabric of the Universe

Let’s go back to that big bad Universe for a moment.

The Universe is full of stuff, that much everyone kind of agrees. Understanding this stuff, well, that’s another matter.

Back in the 1960s, the convention was that galactic mass was concentrated around a galaxy’s bright center. Based on this assumption, it would stand to logic that stars located the farthest from the center would move on a slower orbit, as they would be subjected to less intense gravitational pull.

However, Rubin’s research concluded that the speed at which remote stars orbited the galaxy’s center was about the same as stars closer to it.

This, according to Rubin, suggested that there must be another, yet unseen gravitational force, at work.

The existence of Dark Matter had been postulated as far back as 1933. Technological limitations of the era, and the advent of Second World War prevented any serious research into it, however. Rubin’s work infused new life into the pursuit of this elusive cosmic mystery.

Conducting pioneering work with fellow astronomer Kent Ford, Rubin used our closest galactic neighbour, Andromeda, as an example. The team discovered that the rotational speeds of Andromeda’s stars increased rapidly as they moved towards their orbit’s edges, then levelled off. And these rates did not decrease, irrespective of the star’s distance to the central galactic mass. Rather, they became a constant value.

But what was most revealing was that the star’s rotational curve (that is, the orbital speeds of visible stars) remained flat. This contravened all expectations and accepted astronomic conventions of the time.

Admitting that this might have been a phenomenon occurring locally at Andromeda, she looked at other galaxies. Astonishingly, she observed the exact same behavior.

In layman terms, Rubin discovered that most stars present in spiral galaxies orbit at roughly the same velocity, a concept that would defy the established laws of the Universe.

Vera Rubin’s cosmic legacy

Rubin’s groundbreaking work was met with deep skepticism and mistrust, for two reasons: Her unconventional path to learning, and most of all, because she was a

Galaxies and stars are caught in the thrall of something called dark matter, named so because it remains invisible to the entire electromagnetic spectrum. In other words, we can’t see it, at least current technology can’t.

But thanks to Vera Rubin, we know it’s there, molding and handling entire galaxies into shape.

Rubin died of natural in an assisted-care facility in Princeton, New Jersey, at the age of 88. She had suffered from dementia for a number of years.