The Week That Wasn't: Cancer in Space, AI Predicts Intelligence, Curing Blindness

Ellie Kincaid


January 03, 2020

You may have recently seen headlines about a project to send cancer cells to space, neural networks predicting kids' intelligence from MRI scans, and research about how the brain could integrate visual information from a prosthetic retina, making it possible to cure blindness. Here's why you didn't see these stories on Medscape Medical News.

Defy Gravity, Cure Cancer?

Biomedical engineer Joshua Chou, PhD, has a big plan for 2020: launch cancer cells into orbit for an experiment aboard the International Space Station. In previous research, his team at the University of Technology Sydney, in Australia, found that putting cancer cells in a microgravity environment "disabled" them, according to his account on the university website. His aim with the new experiment is to replicate those results in space and identify new drug targets.

Curing cancer is an admirable goal, and experiments in space capture the imagination, so it's clear why this story would attract attention. However, it's not clear that any of Chou's cancer research has been published in peer-reviewed journals, nor how this experiment in orbit would help scientists zero in on an anticancer drug target. Even with hints of a cancer-disabling mechanism, the hard work of drug development remains. There's not much substance to this story beyond the "gee-whiz" reaction, so we didn't think it warranted our readers' attention.

Neural Networks Predict Kids' Intelligence From MRI Scans

Is it possible to predict how intelligent someone is by using artificial intelligence and an MRI scan of the person's brain? Researchers from around the world participated in a competition to try. A team from the Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology in Moscow, Russia, came in fourth place, according to an institutional press release, with their technique, which used ensemble methods based on deep-learning 3D networks.

The contest relied on T1-weighted MRI scans and fluid intelligence scores collected from about 8500 children aged 9 to 10 who participated in the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development Study, which its website describes as "the largest long-term study of brain development and child health in the United States." The intelligence-scoring competition appears to have been an academic exercise, rather than an attempt to develop a tool that would be useful to clinicians. Given that, as well as the questionable ethics of guessing kids' scores on cognitive tests from brain scans, we didn't want to give this research more promotion by covering it.

How a Retinal Prosthetic Could Work

An important question in vision restoration research is how the brain of a person with partial vision loss (such as occurs through macular degeneration) and a retinal prosthetic would respond to stimulation from the prosthetic and the remaining healthy retina at the same time. Research in rats published recently in Current Biology suggests that it's similar to how the brain responds to natural visual stimuli on different areas of the retina. The researchers write that their results "support the feasibility of restoring central vision in patients with age-related macular degeneration, where central prosthetic and peripheral natural vision should co-exist."

This type of basic research with rats is important in developing and understanding new technology to use in patient care. But this particular study doesn't bring to light new information that will help clinicians care for people with macular degeneration ― and is far from bringing a cure for blindness within reach ― so we didn't see the need to tell our readers about it.

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