February 16, 2017

Flying Cars and High-Tech Health Advances

By Grace Carr
Human Gene Editing Receives Science Panel’s Support  

The National Science and Medical Academies has given approval to clinical efforts to prevent horrific diseases through gene editing. Procedures include altering human eggs, sperm, and embryos to prevent babies from inheriting genes known to cause serious diseases and disability. To ease the fears of those who are worried that these gene editing techniques could be used to select desirable traits and create designer children, there are strict limitations on who would qualify for gene modification – e.g., individuals carrying two copies of the genetic mutation that causes Huntington’s disease. Crispr-Cas9, the gene-editing tool that allows researchers to snip, insert, and delete genetic material, is extremely precise, but it will be several years before the technology can be perfected and shown to work on humans. Scientists are currently testing the technology on mice.

Possibilities for Bionic Bodies Keep Expanding 

Bionic technology is transforming lives. Robotic exoskeletons now allow paraplegics to walk again. A bionic eye, Argus II, partially restores vision: the detection of light, shapes, obstacles, and movement. A brain implant called the Brain-Computer Interface (BCI) reads brainwaves to let wheelchair-bound patients move bionic hands. Mobile prosthetic arms that connect electrodes to nerves and muscles are now possible, restoring not only hand use but sensory experience. Bionic legs free patients from wheelchairs, helping them stand, walk slowly and exercise. An artificial pancreas that can monitor blood sugar and accurately pump insulin now provides an alternative to insulin injections for people with diabetes. The possibilities continue expanding.  

Uber Hires Veteran NASA Engineer to Develop Flying Cars  

In 2010, NASA aircraft engineer Mark Moore outlined the possibility of creating small electric aircraft that would provide a quicker and more interesting way to get to work than most commuters currently enjoy. Moore has left NASA to join Uber as the Director of Engineering for “Uber Elevate.” Uber isn’t constructing a flying car yet though, and many obstacles (not all technical) stand in the way. Uber Elevate must negotiate with suppliers to get prices down as well as lobby regulators to certify the new aircraft and reduce air-traffic restrictions. Uber envisions pairing conventional Ubers with “vertiports” that will fly commuters to work. Moore predicts that we will see several flying cars in the next few years and enthusiastically turns to the private industry to most efficiently develop promising new aviation markets.  

Biologists help deaf mice hear again by inserting healthy genes into their ears  

Deafness affects millions of people, and genetics cause roughly half of these cases. Now, medical researchers have been able to restore hearing in mice by inserting mutated genes into their bodies. In their experiments, scientists administered Usher syndrome type IC (which causes deafness, balance dysfunction, and blindness in human children) into mice. To improve and eliminate hearing loss, the research team injected a synthetic virus with a curative gene into the mice’s ears. It was the first time scientists have been able to identify a virus that can enter the inner ear and deliver genes to the inner and outer hair cells required for normal hearing ability. They can now effectively restore hearing by gene transfer. Researchers tested the gene transfer method with human tissue with promising results.