Falling Walls Conference 2014: Fourth session at a glance

Starting the day’s final session, Suzanne Topalian chronicled the “war on cancer,” a long-term effort launched in the 1970s to battle the disease.  She noted that cancer is an immunological disorder, a failure of the immune system to properly counter compromised cells.  One reason for this is the inability to pass immune checkpoints, which suppress immune responses to avoid the attack of host cells.  Topalian’s group has been able to visualize cells unable to pass the checkpoint; by introducing novel drug therapy approaches to restore natural immunity, they were able to counter substantial tumors.  This and other forms of cancer immunotherapy are gaining a lot of buzz in the medical research community, offering a new and promising front in the continuing war on cancer.

Joseph Coughlin examined the process and sociology of ageing, an issue that will be increasingly relevant with an ageing population in the developed world.  In the United States, population growth rates are barely above replacement level of 2.1 children per woman.  “We’re not just greying, we’re choosing not to have children,” Coughlin explains.  “The demographics of tomorrow have never been experienced.”  So where does ageing intersect with technology?  Through more effective drugs, implantable sensors, intelligent devices, and personalized medicine, people may well manage several chronic conditions without seeing a substantial decrease in their quality of life.  In Coughlin’s words, “you will be ill, but you may not be sick.”

Roland Fletcher spoke about the vulnerabilities of megacities around the world.  With more people than ever living in cities, we’re changing how we live and interact with our environments.  Modern urban environments show a trend toward lower density, a trend echoed by ancient civilizations like the Mayan empire in central America exhibited higher densities.  The massive complex at Angor Wat in Cambodia, “would have looked like modern day Los Angeles,” with its sprawl, according to Fletcher.  Using advanced radar tools, his team has exposed an extensive grid road network, a water management network, and outlying towns, “patchwork residences” away from the main temple area.  Perhaps, Fletcher suggests, this wide distribution increased susceptibility to natural disasters and may have led to the civilization’s demise.

Svante Paabo described his ancient genome sequencing exploits, a decades-long effort that has resulted in the full genome of a Neanderthal.  To limit contamination, his lab created a clean room lab and implemented strict protocols to avoid cross-contamination.  Ultimately, the data suggested that modern humans came out of Africa and first encountered Neanderthals in the Middle East.  Paabo and his colleagues also found a distinct form of extinct human-like apes, named the Denisovans, which plot in a distinct position on a phylogenetic tree.  This growing family tree is exposing a rich and bizarre saga of interaction, as well as a history of some disease states.

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