The Week That Wasn't: 5G Scare, Brain Hacks, Artificial Kidney

Dana Najjar


July 19, 2019

Welcome to The Week That Wasn't. Here are three trending stories we decided not to cover this week, and why.

No, 5G Still Won't Give You Cancer

The fifth and latest generation of wireless mobile technology is coming. 5G carriers around the country are beginning to roll out faster, more efficient, and more expansive coverage. But not everyone's thrilled about it.

Since the advent of wireless technology, fears that high-frequency electromagnetic radiation could be dangerous to humans have been on the rise, despite the lack of evidence to back them up. "There have been thousands of studies on bioeffects of cell-band frequencies, and health agencies have not concluded that any hazard exists below current exposure limits," Kenneth Foster, PhD, professor of bioengineering at the University of Pennsylvania, wrote to Medscape in an email.

Alarmingly, some physicians have also taken up the rallying cry against 5G. A petition addressed to the United Nations and signed by over 100,000 scientists worldwide, including doctors, urgently calls for "a halt to the deployment of the 5G (fifth generation) wireless network." Another group of 250 scientists and doctors submitted a petition to the World Health Organization decrying the dangers of non-ionizing radiation.

Despite these dissenters, there is a firm consensus in the larger scientific community. We decided not to cover these concerns about the ongoing rollout of 5G. Several other outlets did, including the New York Times and the BBC, reassuring their readers that they had nothing to worry about. So if your patients voice any concerns, it might be a good idea to direct them there.

Brain Hacks for Monkeys

Elon Musk's ultrasecretive startup Neuralink made a much anticipated public announcement this week: the implantable brain-machine interface they've been pioneering will be tested on humans as early as next year. The neurotechnology startup has been working on developing brain-machine interface systems for clinical use since 2016, with the aim of restoring sensory and motor function and treating neurologic disorders.

A white paper they authored, posted this week to preprint server Biorxiv, describes "first steps toward a scalable high-bandwidth brain-machine interface system" with "unprecedented packaging density and scalability in a clinically relevant package." Of course, all experiments to date have been on monkeys, which is why we haven't covered this story.

The next step will be obtaining FDA approval for testing in humans, which could present a considerable challenge. Neuralink is going to have to figure out how its system interacts with human tissue and rule out any potential damage, explained Paul Sadja, PhD, director of the Laboratory for Intelligent Imaging and Neural Computing at Columbia University in New York City.

He's cautiously optimistic about Neuralink's promise: "It's exciting that they're trying to do this," he said, but because it's "science mixed with startup, there's typical overhype. Until some of this is peer reviewed and tested, at least from a scientific point of view, we're going to remain a little bit skeptical."

Artificial Kidney Prototype

Kidneys are having a moment in the spotlight. Stevie Wonder recently announced that he'll be a living-donor transplant recipient in the fall, the White House issued an executive order last week advancing kidney care in America, and researchers at Vanderbilt have created a bioartificial kidney that mimics the organ's function and could one day be a solution to end-stage renal failure, they hope.

William Fissel, PhD, of Vanderbilt University, told Tennessee station WSMV — which ran a story on the project this week — that his team can "routinely filter blood with it for extended periods of time" and now "have an implantable filter." The project is a collaboration between Fissel's team at Vanderbilt and a team at the University of California, San Francisco.

The researchers are hoping to begin clinical trials within a year, WSMV reports. When that happens, or when the research team publishes a scientific article describing their work, you can expect more coverage from us on this potentially exciting advancement in kidney care.

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