This Blood Test Detects Cancer in Dogs. But Do You Want to Know?

WIRED

A startup just showed that its OncoK9 test accurately sounds the alarm for aggressive and advanced cancers. The catch? These often have no cure.

IT WAS TIME for Cici Pepperoni’s annual check-up, but Marina Inserra, the 7-year-old pit bull mix’s owner, wasn’t worried. Inserra worked as a veterinary assistant at the San Diego office where Cici was getting her exam, and as far as she knew, Cici was perfectly fine.

Along with the checkup, Inserra agreed to enter Cici in a clinical study by a company called PetDx that had partnered with her office. The company wanted healthy dogs to donate blood to help validate a test to screen for multiple cancers at once—a liquid biopsy.

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Drones Have Transformed Blood Delivery in Rwanda

WIRED

The autonomous aircraft have shuttled blood to rural, mountainous areas for years. A new analysis proves they’re faster than driving.

SIX YEARS AGO, Rwanda had a blood delivery problem. More than 12 million people live in the small East African country, and like those in other nations, sometimes they get into car accidents. New mothers hemorrhage. Anemic children need urgent transfusions. You can’t predict these emergencies. They just happen. And when they do, the red stuff stored in Place A has to find its way to a patient in Place B—fast.

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When Robots Multiply

GROW

These scientists created living robots out of frog cells. Now these “Xenobots” are reproducing.

IT WOULD PROBABLY have been the science story of the year—any other year. In January 2020, a team of biologists, roboticists and computer scientists announced that they had created the world’s first living robots. These Xenobots were cells culled from a frog, sculpted with the help of an evolutionary algorithm, and then set free to roam under the microscope. Liberated from the constraints of frogness, these cells had designs of their own. They collaborated. They interacted. They performed basic tasks. And eventually, in more recent experiments, they started to multiply.

This is the team’s latest revelation: Xenobots can autonomously assemble identical copies of themselves from individual cells floating in the spring water around them.

Read the full story in GROW.

The War in Ukraine is a Reproductive Health Crisis for Millions

WIRED

Russia’s invasion is making it harder to deliver babies and provide birth control, abortion services, and other essential care.

THE WAR IN Ukraine is becoming a crisis of reproductive health. Over the next three months, more than 80,000 Ukrainian people are expected to give birth, according to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA). That’s about 1,000 deliveries per week. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that 15 percent of pregnancies—in a war zone or not—will require skilled medical care for a potentially life-threatening complication.

Women have already given birth in underground shelters and in subway stations. UNFPA posted a woman’s firsthand account of delivering a baby in Kyiv on the first day of the conflict. “I was lucky,” she wrote, “it did not happen in the basement.”

“Babies don’t wait because there’s a war. Periods don’t stop because there’s a war,” says Caroline Hickson, the European regional director for International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF). Experts are raising concerns about both the short- and long-term tolls of neglecting sexual and reproductive care in Ukraine, including surrogacy and abortion services, disease prevention, and help for survivors of sexual assault. “More than 50 percent of the population are women. And these are non-negotiable needs,” Hickson says.

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To Test Cancer Drugs, These Scientists Grew ‘Avatars’ of Tumors

WIRED

Growing organoids in dishes and xenografts in mice lets scientists recreate a living person’s tumor—and test dozens of drugs against them at the same time.

IN 2018, ALANA Welm found herself in an exciting, yet burdensome, position. The University of Utah breast cancer research lab where she leads joint projects with her husband, Bryan Welm, had created lab-grown versions of real tumors isolated from living cancer patients. Each cancer had been translated into two kinds of biological models: xenografts, made by implanting tissue into mice, and organoids, miniature clumps of tissue grown in plastic dishes.

Each simulated cancer was a way to test which of about 45 drugs, some experimental and others approved by the US Food and Drug Administration, might perform best for the real patient. During testing on one patient’s organoids, the researchers isolated a drug that effectively killed its cancer cells. That was the exciting bit. The burden: Welm had no right to do anything about it. She couldn’t tell the patient or her doctor. “We were just doing this for research,” says Welm.

This particular drug had already earned FDA approval to be used against breast cancer, but it wasn’t approved for this patient’s type of cancer. So Welm dialed up her university’s Institutional Review Board, an ethics oversight group.“We called them and said: We found this, we really think we need to let them know,” Welm recalls. The board agreed; the team could bring the patient’s physician into the loop. “That really was an eye-opener,” Welm says. “Wow, we can actually make a difference!”

Yet by the time Welm reached the physician, it was too late. The patient passed away shortly after. “It was heartbreaking,” she says. But it was also motivating: The Welms’ team doubled down on efforts to refine their methods and turn their research into a clinical tool.

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This Plastic Dot Sniffs Out Infections Doctors Can’t See

WIRED

Keeping wounds covered can help them stay clean. But if bacteria grow beneath the bandages, things can get dangerous.

LIFE, AT ALL scales, leaves behind chemical fingerprints. Some are scents we can pick up with our noses: Jasmine petals lend their sweet aldehydes; an upstairs neighbor leaves his noxious amines in the stairwell. “But there are also gasses that we can’t smell, because they’re just that basic kind of background,” says Andrew Mills, a professor of chemistry at Queen’s University Belfast, United Kingdom. “Things basically undergoing life, turning oxygen into carbon dioxide.”

Mills specializes in detecting volatile chemicals, from stinky sulfides to odorless CO2. His lab has focused on sensing gasses as signatures of strange life in undesirable places: Think contaminated ground beef and—more recently—infected wounds. In a study published last month in the journal Chemical Communications, Mills unveiled a simple CO2 detector that can be inserted into dressings for chronic wounds. It changes color when it senses rising concentrations of the gas, a tell-tale sign of dangerous infections.

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A Twist on Stem Cell Transplants Could Help Blood Cancer Patients

WIRED

Cell grafts can help people fighting leukemia—but they risk a dangerous immune reaction. An experimental way to filter donors’ cells might offer a solution.

CATHY DOYLE FELT fine. And in April 2016, when she logged in to a web portal to check the results of some routine blood work, the little numbers on the screen agreed—mostly. But her white blood cell count looked low. She called the doctor’s office. “What’s going on?” the chatty, spiritual 58-year-old from Pittsburgh remembers saying.

The staff asked if she’d recently been sick. She had. Doyle caught a bad cough on a family cruise, but it had passed. That might be it, they agreed, but it would be best to come in for more blood tests. “Bless the doctor,” Doyle says. “He just kept hoping it wouldn’t be leukemia.”

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The Brutal Reason Some Primates are Born a Weird Color

WIRED

When species have babies with conspicuous fur, it can attract good attention—or bad. A new theory could explain why.

THE FIRST THING you might notice about the Delacour’s langur is its color. It’s got a jet black torso, limbs, and head, with a shaggy white butt sandwiched in the middle. (These monkeys—Trachypithecus delacouri if you want to get technical—quite literally look like Oreos.) But that’s just how the adults look. The babies are a different story: They’re orange.

This is their distinct “natal coat,” which fades after a few months. Babies from dozens of other primate species also have fur that’s a different color from that of adults. “One of the big questions has always been why—why would they have distinct coats?” asks Ted Stankowich, an evolutionary ecologist and Director of the Mammal Lab at California State University Long Beach.

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Machine Learning Gets a Quantum Speedup

QUANTA MAGAZINE

Two teams have shown how quantum approaches can solve problems faster than classical computers, bringing physics and computer science closer together.

For Valeria Saggio to boot up the computer in her former Vienna lab, she needed a special crystal, only as big as her fingernail. Saggio would place it gently into a small copper box, a tiny electric oven, which would heat the crystal to 77 degrees Fahrenheit. Then she would switch on a laser to bombard the crystal with a beam of photons.

This crystal, at this precise temperature, would split some of those photons into two photons. One of these would go straight to a light detector, its journey finished; the other would travel into a tiny silicon chip — a quantum computing processor. Miniature instruments on the chip could drive the photon down different paths, but ultimately there were only two outcomes: the right way, and the many wrong ways. Based on the result, her processor could choose another path and try again.

The sequence feels more Rube Goldberg than Windows, but the goal was to have a quantum computer teach itself a task: Find the right way out.

Read the full story in Quanta Magazine

Why Some Animals Can Tell More from Less

WIRED

Researchers find that densely packed neurons play an outsize role in quantitative skill—calling into question old assumptions about evolution.

AT AN UPSTATE New York zoo in 2012, an olive baboon sat with her baby at a table opposite a mesh screen and a curious grad student who was holding some peanuts. In one hand, the student had three peanuts. In the other, eight. The mother baboon could see both hands through the mesh, and she chose the one with eight. The student noted the correct choice. But she also noticed the baby, who followed along and interfered by reaching to make choices itself.

“It was clear that the baby understood what the theme was,” says Jessica Cantlon, who studies the evolution of cognition at Carnegie Mellon and led that Seneca Park Zoo study. In a second version of the test, her team found that even tiny baboon infants, at less than a year old, chose the bigger quantity on their own. The team concluded that both adult baboons and their babies could, in a sense, count.

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