For most of my life, if I’ve thought at all about the bacteria living on my skin, it has been while trying to scrub them away. But recently I spent four weeks rubbing them in. I was Subject 26 in testing a living bacterial skin tonic, developed by AOBiome, a biotech start-up in Cambridge, Mass. The tonic looks, feels and tastes like water, but each spray bottle of AO+ Refreshing Cosmetic Mist contains billions of cultivated Nitrosomonas eutropha, an ammonia-oxidizing bacteria (AOB) that is most commonly found in dirt and untreated water. AOBiome scientists hypothesize that it once lived happily on us too — before we started washing it away with soap and shampoo — acting as a built-in cleanser, deodorant, anti-inflammatory and immune booster by feeding on the ammonia in our sweat and converting it into nitrite and nitric oxide. ... While most microbiome studies have focused on the health implications of what’s found deep in the gut, companies like AOBiome are interested in how we can manipulate the hidden universe of organisms (bacteria, viruses and fungi) teeming throughout our glands, hair follicles and epidermis. ... AOBiome does not market its product as an alternative to conventional cleansers, but it notes that some regular users may find themselves less reliant on soaps, moisturizers and deodorants after as little as a month. Jamas, a quiet, serial entrepreneur with a doctorate in biotechnology, incorporated N. eutropha into his hygiene routine years ago; today he uses soap just twice a week. The chairman of the company’s board of directors, Jamie Heywood, lathers up once or twice a month and shampoos just three times a year. The most extreme case is David Whitlock, the M.I.T.-trained chemical engineer who invented AO+. He has not showered for the past 12 years. ... I got close enough to shake their hands, engage in casual conversation and note that they in no way conveyed a sense of being “unclean” in either the visual or olfactory sense.
This apple had been carefully grown somewhere in Washington state, the result of millions of dollars and two decades of labor. Break apart its unremarkable surface to reveal its flesh, wait long enough, and you’ll see what’s different: It remains pure white. It doesn’t start to brown right after you take a bite and leave it on the kitchen counter. In fact, it doesn’t start to brown until it molds or rots. It doesn’t bruise, either. Through a feat of genetic engineering, Carter’s apples hold on indefinitely to the pearly-white insides that inspired their name — the Arctic. ... The Arctic was conceived by Carter’s company, Okanagan Specialty Fruits, which he runs with his wife, Louisa, and four other full-time employees, newly under the umbrella of a large biotech company that bought it this year. It’s an intended solution to what Carter sees as two interrelated problems: First, millions of pounds of perfectly good apples get dumped every year because they look a little too bruised or brown, the victims of an instinctive human aversion to fruits and vegetables that aren’t smooth, shiny, and symmetrical. And at the same time, North American consumers, accustomed to 100-calorie packs and grab-and-go everything, have developed an impatience for food that can’t be quickly eaten. ... Taken together, these two trends mean that while apple consumption has flatlined in the United States for decades, a staggering amount of apples go wasted. ... Apples in particular have been transformed dramatically by commercial cultivation and serendipitous acts of nature over the last two millennia. The apples grocery store shoppers pluck off shelves in 2015 are vastly different from the ones first discovered in Kazakhstan, or even the ones grown by Johnny Appleseed in the 19th century. ... A study in the Journal of Consumer Affairs estimated that $15 billion in fresh and processed fruit was lost from the U.S. food supply in 2008 — about $9 billion at the consumer level and the rest at the retail level.
His latest venture, Human Longevity, Inc., or HLI, creates a realistic avatar of each of its customers – they call the first batch ‘voyagers’ – to provide an intimate, friendly interface for them to navigate the terabytes of medical information being gleaned about their genes, bodies and abilities. Venter wants HLI to create the world’s most important database for interpreting the genetic code, so he can make healthcare more proactive, preventative and predictive. Such data marks the start of a decisive shift in medicine, from treatment to prevention. Venter believes we have entered the digital age of biology. And he is the first to embark on this ultimate journey of self-discovery. ... His critics call him arrogant but, having talked to him on and off for more than two decades, I think Venter has earned the right to be bullish about his abilities to build a biotech venture from scratch. ... So far, HLI has amassed the sequences of around 20,000 whole genomes, says Venter (he won’t be drawn on whether it is the biggest cache – probably, but he adds that it depends on the details and that “all kinds of people make all kinds of claims”). But, of course, he wants even more. The company has room for more sequencing facilities on its third floor and is considering a second centre in Singapore, planning to rapidly scale to sequencing the genomes of 100,000 people per year – whether children, adults or centenarians, and including both those with disease and those who are healthy. By 2020, Venter aims to have sequenced a million genomes. ... in about a month, each Illumina sequencer can tear through 16 human genomes at the same coverage in just three days. Each week, these machines pump terabytes of data into the cloud run by Amazon Web Services. ... Venter says their findings have changed his static view of the genome. For instance, he has been able to compare his 2006 genome with today’s, using three different sequencing technologies. “One of the findings that would have shocked me and the rest of the world 15 years ago is that our genome is continually changing,” he says. “We can relatively accurately predict your age from your genome sequence, or at least the age when the sample was taken.” ... Targeted initially at self-insured executives and athletes, a full health scan will be priced at $25,000.
Patrick Soon-Shiong wants to turn cancer treatment upside down. On January 12, Soon-Shiong and a consortium of industry, government, and academia announced the launch of the Cancer MoonShot 2020, an ambitious program aiming to replace a long history of blunt trial-and-error treatment with what amounts to a training regimen for the body’s own immune system. That system, Soon-Shiong argues, is perfectly adept at finding and eliminating cancer with exquisite precision—if it can recognize the mutated cells in the first place. Helping it to do so could represent a powerful new treatment for the disease, akin to a flu vaccine. ... Soon-Shiong has hit home runs before. This past July, one of his firms underwent the highest-value biotech IPO in history. A cancer drug he developed, called Abraxane, is approved to fight breast, lung, and pancreatic cancers in more than 40 countries. Soon-Shiong’s path from medical school in South Africa through residency in Canada, to UCLA professor, NASA researcher and corporate CEO has given him the bird’s-eye view necessary to take on a project this ambitious, as well as the resources to marshal the world-class computing and genome-sequencing facilities that it requires.
- Also: Science Alert - Scientists report "unprecedented" success using T-cells to treat cancer < 5min
- Also: Aeon - Death of cancer 5-15min
- Also: The Conversation - The equation that will help us decode cancer’s secrets < 5min
- Also: The New Yorker - Tough Medicine: A disturbing report from the front lines of the war on cancer. < 5min
- Repeat: Mosaic - What’s wrong with Craig Venter? 5-15min
In a searing investigation into the once lauded biotech start-up Theranos, Nick Bilton discovers that its precocious founder defied medical experts—even her own chief scientist—about the veracity of its now discredited blood-testing technology. She built a corporation based on secrecy in the hope that she could still pull it off. Then, it all fell apart. ... At Theranos, Holmes preferred that the temperature be maintained in the mid-60s, which facilitated her preferred daily uniform of a black turtleneck with a puffy black vest—a homogeneity that she had borrowed from her idol, the late Steve Jobs. ... Holmes had learned a lot from Jobs. Like Apple, Theranos was secretive, even internally. Just as Jobs had famously insisted at 1 Infinite Loop, 10 minutes away, that departments were generally siloed, Holmes largely forbade her employees from communicating with one another about what they were working on—a culture that resulted in a rare form of executive omniscience. At Theranos, Holmes was founder, C.E.O., and chairwoman. There wasn’t a decision—from the number of American flags framed in the company’s hallway (they are ubiquitous) to the compensation of each new hire—that didn’t cross her desk. ... And like Jobs, crucially, Holmes also paid indefatigable attention to her company’s story, its “narrative.” ... In a technology sector populated by innumerable food-delivery apps, her quixotic ambition was applauded. ... she is often surrounded by her security detail, which sometimes numbers as many as four men, who (for safety reasons) refer to the young C.E.O. as “Eagle 1”—and headed to the airport. (She has been known to fly alone on a $6.5 million Gulfstream G150.) ... it is impossible to get a precise result from the tip of a finger for most of the tests that Theranos would claim to conduct accurately. When a finger is pricked, the probe breaks up cells, allowing debris, among other things, to escape into the interstitial fluid. While it is feasible to test for pathogens this way, a pinprick is too unreliable for obtaining more nuanced readings. Furthermore, there isn’t that much reliable data that you can reap from such a small amount of blood.
Oxitec is trying to leverage this mating instinct to help wipe out one particular species of mosquito: Aedes aegypti, carrier and spreader of some of the worst insect-borne diseases known to medicine—dengue, malaria, and Zika. The A. aegypti mosquito has evolved to survive even the most effective pesticides. It can lay 500 eggs in just a bottle cap’s worth of water, and it prefers to bite humans over animals, so it lives in places where no one thinks to spray, like under the couch. ... The idea behind Oxitec’s experiment is that if enough genetically modified male A. aegypti mosquitoes are released into the wild, they’ll track down large numbers of females in those hard-to-find places and mate with them. The eggs that result from any union with an Oxitec mosquito will carry a fatal genetic trait engineered into the father—a “kill switch,” geneticists call it. The next generation of A. aegypti mosquitoes will never survive past the larval stage, never fly, never bite, and never spread disease. No mosquitoes, no Zika. ... Oxitec is far from the first company or research team that’s tried to sterilize an entire insect population. Scientists have been going after A. aegypti in this way since the 1970s, usually by irradiating them. The problem with radiation is that it makes the mosquitoes too weak to get out and breed. The great innovation of the Oxitec method is that it cleverly achieves the same result as sterilization, while leaving mosquitoes able to do what mosquitoes do. ... Oxitec charges about $7.50 per person per year in each area it treats.
Why should we care about a Chinese chemical company buying a Swiss agricultural business, however mammoth the deal might be? For starters, it’s part of a wave of global consolidation in agriculture that will put an increasingly large portion of the world’s commercial seed market—roughly 50%—under the control of a few giant multinationals. In addition to the ChemChina/Syngenta union, Dow Chemical is buying DuPont, and Germany’s Bayer is in the process of swallowing up Monsanto, perhaps the most controversial producer of genetically modified seed species. This combined $170 billion deal binge promises to have a profound impact on the future of global agriculture. ... Beyond that, ChemChina’s purchase of Syngenta provides valuable insight about China’s broader view of its future. The deal signals important trends in the country’s policy on innovation, biotechnology, intellectual property, and globalization.