December 30, 2022
As is now a tradition, our last missive of the year is for us an opportunity to reflect on the topics we covered in our Notes on Engineering Health during 2022 and see if any updates are in order.
The first topic of 2022 was and still is dear to us. Talking about human milk was a way to expand on personal nutrition, its relevance to health, and the different ways to approach this crucial part of healthcare - from nootropics to medical foods. The complexity of human breast milk was a helpful parallel to exploring the many parameters of nutrition. It was also a time to remind ourselves that just like feeding a baby is as much to attend to her nutritional need as to create a bond, food is an essential part of our social lives.
Over the past year, we tried to wrestle with some of the big questions that move us as scientists, investors, and simple humans looking up to the heavens. The successful launch of the James Webb Space Telescope forced us to think about ways to promote creativity in July. The telescope continued throughout the year to produce ethereal renderings of the cosmos. In May, we dove into a brief history of computation and how it can be applied to everything from life to physics and information. The phenomenal progress of generative AI like GPT3 from OpenAI (and its user-friendly interface ChatGPT) is a nod to Deep Thought. It would certainly have something to say about the “Ultimate question of life.” In February, we tried to clarify some of the definitions of randomness in the context of biology and computer science. And in April, we interrogated how biological systems measured the passing of time, drawing lessons for better health.
In March, we reviewed the advances in genomics and cheered the opportunities to finally understand our genomes’ dark, unexplored alleys. These technologies will further help us decipher what makes us unique, what is passed onto us from previous generations, and what emerges from our interactions with the environment, hopefully settling the age-old debate of nature and nurture that we reviewed in September. The ability to identify and measure better biomarkers was part of our November note on the tools of public health.
In the midst of the blistering summer of 2022, when droughts and fires were plaguing most of the northern hemisphere, when abortion rights were curtailed in the US (we dedicated a note to the topic in June), when it became clear that the war in Ukraine was here to stay, some pessimism about the fate of the world compelled us to write about how risk creation seemed to outstrip risk reduction. While the COP 27 UN Summit did not conclude with any binding agreement, most countries made real advances in committing to preserve biodiversity during the COP 15 UN Biodiversity Conference meeting held recently.
Finally, we mentioned in October our joy to be able to continue our work in creating and investing in companies dedicated to improving human health thanks to a new fund. It is thus looking ahead with excitement for the year to come that the team at Digitalis Ventures wishes you a happy, healthy, and peaceful New Year.
– Jonathan Friedlander, PhD & Geoffrey W. Smith
Notes on Engineering Health 2022
January — On Human Milk and Personalized Nutrition
February — Some Random Thoughts
March — Shifting the Light of Genomics
April — The Time of Your Life
May — Life, the Universe, and Everything
June — Abortion is Healthcare
July — On Creativity
August — Risky Business
September — Nature, Nurture, and Good Luck
October — Some Digitalis News
November — On Public Health
First Five is our curated list of articles, studies, and publications for the month. For our full list of interesting media in health, science, and technology, updated regularly, follow us on Twitter or Instagram.
1/ Charles Darwin's complete correspondence is now available online
This resource will probably not provoke the same emotion as holding a letter from Darwin’s hand, but it might save you a trip to the archives of the University of Cambridge, where over 15,000 letters from Darwin are kept.
2/ A grim but helpful correlation
A large cross-sectional study published in JAMA of 10,798 organ donors and 35,329 recipients of these organs from a national transplant registry from 2005 to 2021, showed that there were 21% more organ donors and 26% more transplant recipients per day during motorcycle rallies in regions near those rallies compared with the four weeks before and after the rallies. Despite public health efforts to minimize accidents on the road, riding a motorbike remains a hazardous activity and certainly not one we should rely on to solve the organ donor shortage.
3/ You are (or may be) what you(r mother) eat(s)
A study published in Nature Metabolism showed that excessive weight gain from a high-fat diet while pregnant modifies brain serotonin levels in male but not female mice, leading them to be more depressed in adulthood. A similar result was found in humans, where the more fat measured in a placenta corresponded to less serotonin in the developing brains of males, but not females.
4/ After birth, everything changes, including the brain
For the first time, researchers compared men’s brains before and after their first child was born. From looking at first-time fathers in the US and Spain, scientists report that there is a meaningful anatomical change in the brain cortical region, supporting the possibility that the transition to fatherhood may represent a window of experience-induced structural neuroplasticity in males.
5/ Cold weather might actually give you a cold
The popular parlance behind the phrase “catching a cold” might have some scientific legs after all. A recent study described a novel mechanism where cold facilitated viral infection in the upper respiratory tract. By blocking extracellular antiviral vesicles, low temperatures seemed responsible for lowering what may be an essential part of our innate immunity.
Public-Interest Technologies for Better Health
Digitalis Commons is a non-profit that partners with groups and individuals striving to address complex health problems by building public-interest technology solutions that are frontier-advancing, open-access, and scalable.
A recent comment in Nature by Sam Rodrigues and his colleagues describes how “focused research organizations,” as a new form of non-profit enterprise, can take on mid-scale projects that don’t get tackled by academia, venture capitalists or government labs. The piece raises a lot of interesting points about how the structure of funding impacts the output of science and ways we could enhance that output by altering our default solutions.