Is Plant-Based Meat Fizzling In the US?

Citing McDonald’s shelved meat-free burger trial and a 70% dip in Beyond Meat’s stock, The Guardian suggests plant-based meats may not interest Americans as much as investors thought. From the report: Getting meat eaters in the US to adopt plant-based alternatives has proven a challenge. Beyond Meat, which produces a variety of plant-based products, including imitations of ground beef, burgers, sausages, meatballs and jerky, has had a rough 12 months, with its stock dipping nearly 70%. Multiple chains that partnered with the company, including McDonald’s, have quietly ended trial launches. In August, the company laid off 4% of its workforce after a slowdown in sales growth. Last week, its chief operating officer was reportedly arrested for biting another man on the nose during a road rage confrontation. It’s a dramatic reversal of fortune. Just two years ago, Beyond Meat, its competitor Impossible Foods and the plant-based meat industry at large seemed poised to start a food revolution.

For a time, Wall Street went vegetarian. In 2019 Beyond Meat was valued at over $10 billion, more than Macy’s or Xerox. The most bullish investors believed that plant-based meat would make up 15% of all meat sales by 2030. But the reality of Americans’ interest in plant-based meat has proven more complicated than investors thought, and the adoption of meat alternatives has been slower than what was once hoped. Today Beyond Meat is valued at just over $900 million. The sobering story is similar to those experienced by many new ventures that see exhilarating hype after a flood of Silicon Valley venture capital cash, fueled by excitement about innovation. Bill Gates backed Beyond Meat, and a number of venture capital firms that typically invest in tech startups funneled money to startups making plant-based meat. Even the meat industry’s biggest players have, ironically, invested in companies coming up with plant-based meat. While eating plant-based meat (or no meat at all) has been shown to be the most effective thing individual consumers can do to fight climate change, “consumers seem hesitant to adapt their behavior when the environment — not their health or wallets — is the sole beneficiary,” reports The Guardian. “Despite the increasing alarm over climate change, the number of Americans who are vegetarian or vegan has remained relatively stable over the last 20 years.”

“Even when participants in a study conducted at Purdue University in Indiana were given information about the carbon footprint of meat production, participants were more likely to go with regular meat over a plant-based alternative.”

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Crispr Gene-Editing Drugs Show Promise In Preliminary Study

Intellia Therapeutics reported encouraging early-stage study results for its Crispr gene-editing treatments, the latest sign that the pathbreaking technology could result in commercially available drugs in the coming years. The Wall Street Journal reports: Intellia said Friday that one of its treatments, code-named NTLA-2002, significantly reduced levels of a protein that causes periodic attacks of swelling in six patients with a rare genetic disease called hereditary angioedema, or HAE. In a separate study building on previously released trial data, Intellia’s treatment NTLA-2001 reduced a disease-causing protein by more than 90% in 12 people with transthyretin-mediated amyloidosis cardiomyopathy, or ATTR-CM, a genetic disease that can lead to heart failure.

Despite the positive results, questions remain about whether therapies based on Crispr will work safely and effectively, analysts said. Intellia’s latest studies involved a small number of patients, and were disclosed in news releases and haven’t been published in a peer-reviewed journal. The NTLA-2002 study results were presented at the Bradykinin Symposium in Berlin, a medical meeting focused on angioedema. The data came from small, so-called Phase 1 studies conducted in New Zealand and the U.K. that didn’t include control groups. Results from such early studies can be unreliable predictors of a drug’s safety and effectiveness once the compound is tested in larger numbers of patients. The findings, nevertheless, add to preliminary but promising evidence of the potential for drugs based on the gene-editing technology. Last year, Intellia said that NTLA-2001 reduced the disease-causing protein involved in ATTR patients.

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MIT Engineers Develop Stickers That Can See Inside the Body

Live and high-resolution images of a patient’s internal organs are already possible with ultrasound imaging technology. But currently the technology “requires bulky and specialized equipment available only in hospitals and doctor’s offices,” explains an annoncement from MIT.

Now a new design by MIT engineers “might make the technology as wearable and accessible as buying Band-Aids at the pharmacy.”
In a paper appearing today in Science, the engineers present the design for a new ultrasound sticker — a stamp-sized device that sticks to skin and can provide continuous ultrasound imaging of internal organs for 48 hours.

The researchers applied the stickers to volunteers and showed the devices produced live, high-resolution images of major blood vessels and deeper organs such as the heart, lungs, and stomach. The stickers maintained a strong adhesion and captured changes in underlying organs as volunteers performed various activities, including sitting, standing, jogging, and biking….
From the stickers’ images, the team was able to observe the changing diameter of major blood vessels when seated versus standing. The stickers also captured details of deeper organs, such as how the heart changes shape as it exerts during exercise. The researchers were also able to watch the stomach distend, then shrink back as volunteers drank then later passed juice out of their system. And as some volunteers lifted weights, the team could detect bright patterns in underlying muscles, signaling temporary microdamage.

“With imaging, we might be able to capture the moment in a workout before overuse, and stop before muscles become sore,” says Chen. “We do not know when that moment might be yet, but now we can provide imaging data that experts can interpret.”

They’re already envisioning other possibilities:
If the devices can be made to operate wirelessly — a goal the team is currently working toward — the ultrasound stickers could be made into wearable imaging products that patients could take home from a doctor’s office or even buy at a pharmacy. “We envision a few patches adhered to different locations on the body, and the patches would communicate with your cellphone, where AI algorithms would analyze the images on demand,” says the study’s senior author, Xuanhe Zhao, professor of mechanical engineering and civil and environmental engineering at MIT.

“We believe we’ve opened a new era of wearable imaging: With a few patches on your body, you could see your internal organs.”

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Edits To a Cholesterol Gene Could Stop the Biggest Killer On Earth

A volunteer in New Zealand has become the first person to undergo DNA editing in order to lower their blood cholesterol, a step that may foreshadow wide use of the technology to prevent heart attacks. MIT Technology Review reports: The experiment, part of a clinical trial by the US biotechnology company Verve Therapeutics, involved injecting a version of the gene-editing tool CRISPR in order to modify a single letter of DNA in the patient’s liver cells. According to the company, that tiny edit should be enough to permanently lower a person’s levels of “bad” LDL cholesterol, the fatty molecule that causes arteries to clog and harden with time. The patient in New Zealand had an inherited risk for extra-high cholesterol and was already suffering from heart disease. However, the company believes the same technique could eventually be used on millions of people in order to prevent cardiovascular disease.

In New Zealand, where Verve’s clinical trial is taking place, doctors will give the gene treatment to 40 people who have an inherited form of high cholesterol known as familial hypercholesterolemia, or FH. People with FH can have cholesterol readings twice the average, even as children. Many learn they have a problem only when they get hit with a heart attack, often at a young age. The study also marks an early use of base editing, a novel adaptation of CRISPR that was first developed in 2016. Unlike traditional CRISPR, which cuts a gene, base editing substitutes a single letter of DNA for another.

The gene Verve is editing is called PCSK9. It has a big role in maintaining LDL levels and the company says its treatment will turn the gene off by introducing a one-letter misspelling. […] One reason Verve’s base-editing technique is moving fast is that the technology is substantially similar to mRNA vaccines for covid-19. Just like the vaccines, the treatment consists of genetic instructions wrapped in a nanoparticle, which ferries everything into a cell. While the vaccine instructs cells to make a component of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, the particles in Verve’s treatment carry RNA directions for a cell to assemble and aim a base-editing protein, which then modifies that cell’s copy of PCSK9, introducing the tiny mistake. In experiments on monkeys, Verve found that the treatment lowered bad cholesterol by 60%. The effect has lasted more than a year in the animals and could well be permanent. The report notes that the human experiment does carry some risk. “Nanoparticles are somewhat toxic, and there have been reports of side effects, like muscle pain, in people taking other drugs to lower PCSK9,” reports MIT Technology Review. “And whereas treatment with ordinary drugs can be discontinued if problems come up, there’s as yet no plan to undo gene editing once it’s performed.”

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New CRISPR-based Map Ties Every Human Gene To Its Function

In 2003, the Human Genome Project finished sequencing every bit of human DNA, remembers MIT News.

“Now, over two decades later, MIT Professor Jonathan Weissman and colleagues have gone beyond the sequence to present the first comprehensive functional map of genes that are expressed in human cells.”
The data from this project, published online June 9 in Cell, ties each gene to its job in the cell, and is the culmination of years of collaboration on the single-cell sequencing method Perturb-seq.

The data are available for other scientists to use. “It’s a big resource in the way the human genome is a big resource, in that you can go in and do discovery-based research,” says Weissman, who is also a member of the Whitehead Institute and an investigator with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute….

“I think this dataset is going to enable all sorts of analyses that we haven’t even thought up yet by people who come from other parts of biology, and suddenly they just have this available to draw on,” says former Weissman Lab postdoc Tom Norman, a co-senior author of the paper.

The announcement credits the single-sequencing tool Perturb-seq and CRISPR-Cas9 genome editing which introduced genetic changes into cells and then captured information about which RNAs expressed (uses single-cell RNA sequencing).

The researchers scaled the method to the entire genome using human blood cancer cell lines and noncancerous cells derived from the retina, ultimately using Perturb-seq across more than 2.5 million cells.

Thanks to Slashdot reader Hmmmmmm for sharing the news.

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Theranos Founder Elizabeth Holmes Found Guilty

After deliberating for more than 40 hours over six days, jurors in the Elizabeth Holmes criminal trial have found Holmes guilty on four of 11 charges of defrauding the company’s investors and patients. She was found not guilty on four counts. NPR reports: When the verdict was read, Holmes had no visible reaction. She sat masked in the courtroom and later hugged members of her family in the front row of the court. Holmes could face up to 20 years in prison, although legal experts say her sentence is likely to be less than that. During the nearly four-month federal trial in San Jose, jurors heard from over 30 witnesses called by prosecutors. Together, they painted Holmes as a charismatic entrepreneur who secured hundreds of millions of dollars in investment for a medical device that never delivered on her promises. When Theranos’ technology fell short, the government argued, Holmes covered it up and kept insisting that the machines would transform how diseases are diagnosed through blood tests. The jury’s decision followed seven days of deliberations. Still, the jury could not reach a unanimous decision on three charges, which will be resolved at a later date..

Holmes took the witness stand for more than 20 hours to defend herself. She accused her ex-boyfriend and former deputy at Theranos, Ramesh “Sunny” Balwani, of sexual abuse, saying that clouded her sense of judgement. Balwani faces a separate fraud trial in the same court in February. Holmes also showed remorse on the stand. She said she wished she had handled some key business matters differently. But she blamed others for the downfall of Theranos. She said lab directors whom she had trusted were the ones closest to the technology. And she said Balwani, not her, oversaw the company’s financial forecasts, which were later discovered to be grossly inflated. Yet the government offered evidence that Holmes had an iron grip on Theranos’ operations. Prosecutors argued she did not stop — and even helped spread — falsehoods about the company that misled investors into pouring millions into the startup. Theranos’ value, once estimated at more than $9 billion, was ultimately squandered.

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Sugar Additive Trehalose Could Have Helped Spread Dangerous Superbug Around the US

A sugar additive used in several foods could have helped spread a seriously dangerous superbug around the US, according to a 2018 study. ScienceAlert reports: The finger of blame is pointed squarely at the sugar trehalose, found in foods such as nutrition bars and chewing gum. If the findings are confirmed, it’s a stark warning that even apparently harmless additives have the potential to cause health issues when introduced to our food supply. In this case, trehalose is being linked with the rise of two strains of the bacterium Clostridium difficile, capable of causing diarrhea, colitis, organ failure, and even death. The swift rise of the antibiotic-resistant bug has become a huge problem for hospitals in recent years, and the timing matches up with the arrival of trehalose.

“In 2000, trehalose was approved as a food additive in the United States for a number of foods from sushi and vegetables to ice cream,” said one of the researchers, Robert Britton from the Baylor College of Medicine in Texas, back in January 2018. “About three years later the reports of outbreaks with these lineages started to increase. Other factors may also contribute, but we think that trehalose is a key trigger.”

The C. difficile lineages Britton is referring to are RT027 and RT078. When the researchers analysed the genomes of these two strains, they found DNA sequences that enabled them to feed off low doses of trehalose sugar very efficiently. In fact, these particular bacteria need about 1,000 times less trehalose to live off than other varieties of C. difficile, thanks to their genetic make-up. […] It’s still not certain that trehalose has contributed to the rise of C. difficile, but the study results and the timing of its approval as an additive are pretty compelling. More research will now be needed to confirm the link. According to figures from the CDC, “C. difficile was responsible for half a million infections across the year and 29,000 deaths within the first 30 days of diagnosis,” adds ScienceAlert. The findings were published in the journal Nature.

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