Gene therapy surprisingly boosts vision in both eyes / Humans + Tech - #58

+ TIME's First-Ever Kid of the Year + France to start research into 'enhanced soldiers' + Facial recognition algorithms continue to be biased against people of colour

Hi,

I hope you had a fantastic week. Let’s get to this week’s articles.

Single gene therapy injection surprisingly boosts vision in both eyes

Scientists and researchers around the world are working on gene therapies to treat a variety of ailments and illnesses.

Scientists at the University of Cambridge, the University of Pittsburgh, and Paris’ Institut de la Vision conducted a study on patients with a form of inherited vision loss called Leber hereditary optic neuropathy (LHON). LHON usually affects people in the 20s and 30s, destroying their retinal ganglion cells and in turn, the optic nerve, rendering them legally blind in a few weeks.

Surprisingly, they found that a gene therapy treatment in one eye provided benefits to the other eye as well [Nick Lavars, New Atlas].

The majority of patients suffer from the same mutation affecting the MT-ND4 gene, so the researchers were hopeful of targeting this mutation as a way of improving treatment outcomes for sufferers of LHON. They trialed their gene therapy as part of a study involving 37 patients who had suffered vision loss in the preceding six to 12 months. This meant injecting a viral vector packed with a modified complementary DNA called rAAV2/2-ND4 into the vitreous cavity at the back of just one eye, with a sham treatment injected into the other eye.

“We expected vision to improve in the eyes treated with the gene therapy vector only,” says study author Dr Yu-Wai-Man. “Rather unexpectedly, both eyes improved for 78 percent of patients in the trial following the same trajectory over two years of follow-up.”

Happy surprises like this are always welcome and showing this improvement over two years indicates it could eventually become a promising treatment for those affected by LHON.

I’m personally still sceptical about the long-term effects of any form of gene therapy. Still, if I were in the shoes of an LHON patient, I would seriously consider therapies like this as they become available.


TIME's First-Ever Kid of the Year

TIME magazine’s first-ever Kid of the Year award went to Scientist and Inventor, Gitanjali Rao, a 15-year old [TIME].

Gitanjali has been using technology to solve issues like contaminated drinking water, opioid addiction, cyberbullying, and has even mentored 30,000 students so far. Her mission is to create a global community of innovators to solve problems worldwide.

Kids have so much to teach us these days. The whole interview is incredibly inspiring, and I highly recommend reading it in full. My favourite question and answer from the interview are here below:

AJ: I think you are. Your generation is unique. You don’t just accept what’s being put forward, but ­really question it, and that’s so important. I know there are many, many issues we’re facing today. With your work on water contamination, is the environment something that’s very much on your radar?

GR: Yeah. Our generation is facing so many problems that we’ve never seen before. But then at the same time we’re facing old problems that still exist. Like, we’re sitting here in the middle of a new global pandemic, and we’re also like still facing human-rights issues. There are problems that we did not create but that we now have to solve, like climate change and cyberbullying with the introduction of technology.

I think more than anything right now, we just need to find that one thing we’re passionate about and solve it. Even if it’s something as small as, I want to find an easy way to pick up litter. Everything makes a difference. Don’t feel pressured to come up with something big.

Most of my work with the bio-contaminants is based on a gene-based therapy solution which I’m still trying to figure out. I’m also working on a product that helps to diagnose prescription-­opioid addiction at an early stage based on protein production of the mu opioid receptor gene. I’ve been really, really interested in genetics. That’s what I like, so that’s what I’m deciding to work on.


France to start research into 'enhanced soldiers'

In what they see as an effort to keep up with other countries such as the U.S., Russia, and China, France has given their military the go-ahead to start research on how to enhance their soldiers [BBC].

France has considered the ethics of creating bionic supersoldiers. They say any eugenic or genetic practices will be banned along with any enhancement that will endanger a return to civilian life.

Details of the report by the military ethics committee were released on Tuesday.

"Human beings have long sought ways to increase their physical or cognitive abilities in order to fight wars," it warned. "Possible advances could ultimately lead to capacity enhancements being introduced into soldiers' bodies."

It’s certain that if this is coming out in public now, the militaries of various countries have been experimenting with this for many years. We are going to witness to some bizarre capabilities as these “enhanced soldiers” start getting deployed in the near future. It’s not something I’m looking forward to.


Facial recognition algorithms continue to be biased against people of colour

SN Technologies, a Canadian company, installed a network of facial recognition cameras for Lockport City School District in upstate New York. Vice reports that they misled the district about their algorithm’s accuracy, such as how it mistakes broom handles as guns and how often it misidentifies Black faces [Todd Feathers, Vice].

These false positives that particularly target Black people is a major concern for parents as the system automatically alerts police when it detects weapons or people on a watchlist.

“The police have said if they get a notification they’re going to treat it as a live shooter system, and you have a system that’s predisposed to make mistakes and misidentify people,” Jim Shultz, a Lockport parent, told Motherboard. “The risk of an accident, the risk of something horrible happening because the system is structured the way it is, to me, is 1 million times higher than [the chance] that the cameras are going to prevent a real situation.”

Lockport schools are 11 percent Black, and Renee Cheatham, a Lockport school board member and parent, told Motherboard that the thought of biased facial recognition triggering an armed police response has outraged Black parents and led to a “very, very dark time.” Both Shultz and Cheatham are plaintiffs in a lawsuit against the New York State Education Department (NYSED) seeking to ban the use of facial recognition in schools.

Across the pond in the UK, Southern Co-op, a food store franchise has been using facial recognition to look for potential shoplifters in some of its branches [Jane Wakefield, BBC].

Southern Co-op said they deployed the system, from start-up Facewatch, to identify people who had a previous record of theft or assault and violence. They explained that this gave their staff more time to plan any action they need to take and kept them safer.

Privacy and civil rights groups are concerned about the increasing use of surveillance technology in the private sector, especially due to innocent people being wrongly flagged from algorithmic bias.

In an open letter to the retailer, Privacy International questioned the legality of the technology in stores. It also asked whether information was being shared with the police.

Director of civil rights group Big Brother Watch, Silkie Carlo, said: "To see a supposedly ethical company secretly using rights-abusive tech like facial recognition on its customers in the UK is deeply chilling.

"This surveillance is well-known to suffer from severe inaccuracy and biases, leading to innocent people being wrongly flagged and put on criminal databases. 

"Live facial recognition is more commonly seen in dictatorships than democracies. This is a serious error of judgement by Southern Co-op and we urge them to drop these Big Brother-style cameras immediately."

Facewatch sells its technology to retailers in Argentina, Brazil, and Spain.


Quote of the week

“The police have said if they get a notification they’re going to treat it as a live shooter system, and you have a system that’s predisposed to make mistakes and misidentify people. The risk of an accident, the risk of something horrible happening because the system is structured the way it is, to me, is 1 million times higher than [the chance] that the cameras are going to prevent a real situation.”

—Jim Shultz, a Lockport parent, concerned about the use of facial recognition cameras in his children’s school. From the article, “Facial Recognition Company Lied to School District About its Racist Tech” [VICE]

I wish you a brilliant day ahead :)

Neeraj