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The Download: tech’s hardest problems, and cancer-fighting cell therapies

The Download: tech’s hardest problems, and cancer-fighting cell therapies

This is today’s edition of The Download, our weekday newsletter that provides a daily dose of what’s going on in the world of technology.

What are the hardest problems in tech we should be more focused on as a society?

Technology is all about solving big thorny problems, yet one of the hardest things is knowing where to focus our efforts. There are so many urgent issues facing the world. Where should we even begin? 

We asked dozens of people to identify what problem at the intersection of technology and society that they think we should focus more of our energy on. We queried scientists, journalists, politicians, entrepreneurs, activists, and CEOs.

Some broad themes emerged: the climate crisis, global health, creating a just and equitable society, and AI all came up frequently. There were plenty of outliers, too, ranging from regulating social media to fighting corruption. Read the full list to find out what they said.

This story is from our most recent print issue of MIT Technology Review, which is all about society’s hardest problems, and how we should tackle them. If you don’t subscribe already, sign up now to get future issues when they land.

Innovative new cell therapies could finally get at tough-to-target cancers

The news: A biotech company is making headway in leveraging patients’ own immune systems to destroy cancerous cells in solid tumors. While researchers have recently had success in treating some hard-to-treat blood cancers with engineered T cells, solid tumors, which make up the vast majority of cancer diagnoses, have proved much more difficult.

How they did it: The technicians harvested T cells, which help the body fight infections, from a patient’s blood, before genetically engineering the cells to carry a receptor called a chimeric antigen receptor, or CAR, which can bind to a protein on the surface of the cancer cell. Next they grow these engineered cells in the lab, then reinfuse them back into the body. When the cells encounter the protein they’re designed to recognize, they activate and start destroying the cancer cells.

The results: BioNTech treated 44 people with solid tumors with varying doses of CAR T cells and, in some cases, a vaccine to help boost the therapy. Among the 38 people for whom there was enough data to assess how well the treatment worked, 45% responded, meaning their tumors shrank or disappeared altogether. Read the full story.

—Cassandra Willyard

China wants to win the gene therapy race—and it’ll spend millions

Last week, our China reporter Zeyi Yang and Antonio Regalado, our senior editor for biomedicine, broke an amazing story: Chinese scientists used gene therapy to restore hearing ability in children who were born deaf. 

During the trial, five young patients received injections of a virus that added replacement DNA to the hair cells in their inner ear. Four of them have since developed the ability to hear. But while this is a phenomenal step forward in using gene therapy to restore human senses, it faces the same challenging financial calculations that plague a lot of niche medical solutions. 

One thing that may help is generous government subsidies. It’s one area that Chinese authorities also may be more willing to spend on given the fact that, at least in this application of gene therapy, the country has raced ahead of its competitors in the West. Read the full story.

Zeyi’s story is from China Report, our weekly newsletter covering tech and power in China. Sign up to receive it in your inbox every Tuesday.

The must-reads

I’ve combed the internet to find you today’s most fun/important/scary/fascinating stories about technology.

1 The UK’s AI summit is kicking off today 
The great and the good of the AI world have gathered to thrash out some guidelines. (WP $)
+ Chinese AI scientists are calling for tighter controls, too. (FT $)
+ Kamala Harris will urge attendees to address AI’s short-term threats. (The Guardian)

2 Sam Bankman-Fried’s fraud trial testimony is over
The jurors could start deliberating a verdict as soon as tomorrow. (NYT $)
+ His decision to testify is undoubtedly a risky move. (WP $)+ SBF’s courtroom sketches are…unflattering to say the least. (The Guardian)

3 The second person to receive a pig’s heart transplant has died
The experimental procedure is fraught with risks. (Wired $)
+ This company plans to transplant gene-edited pig hearts into babies next year. (MIT Technology Review)

4 The global semiconductor industry is emerging from its slump
Chipmakers are confident the worst is over—for now. (WSJ $)
+ Samsung is feeling particularly optimistic. (FT $)+ These simple design rules could turn the chip industry on its head. (MIT Technology Review)

5 YouTube really wants you to stop using ad blockers
To the extent that it’s refusing to play some videos if you’ve got one running. (The Verge)

6 China’s private commercial space exploration sector is booming
Thanks to the major boost of government subsidies. (Bloomberg $)
+ A NASA spacecraft is on its way to an asteroid. (New Scientist $)

7 Norway is having second thoughts about electric cars
Emissions are down, but financial inequality has worsened. (Vox)
+ Solar panels are experiencing a backlash, too. (The Atlantic $)
+ Europe’s best-selling Chinese EV maker has a surprising name. (MIT Technology Review)

8 Creator-led startups are in dire straits
The majority of them never really got off the ground, and now they’re going out of business. (The Information $)
+ News-focused creators are flourishing, however. (WP $)

9 Every psychedelic trip is unique
Now researchers want to map them to discover more about how our brains work. (Inverse)
+ VR is as good as psychedelics at helping people reach transcendence. (MIT Technology Review)

10 Japan has some pretty wild ideas about the future of mobility
Inflatable electric chair, anyone? (Ars Technica)

Quote of the day

“We need to stop thinking about making AI safe, and start thinking about making safe AI.”

—Stuart Russell, a professor of computer science at University of California, tells the Guardian how he wants our thinking on artificial intelligence to shift.

The big story

One city’s fight to solve its sewage problem with sensors

April 2021

In the city of South Bend, Indiana, wastewater from people’s kitchens, sinks, washing machines, and toilets flows through 35 neighborhood sewer lines. On good days, just before each line ends, a vertical throttle pipe diverts the sewage into an interceptor tube, which carries it to a treatment plant where solid pollutants and bacteria are filtered out.

As in many American cities, those pipes are combined with storm drains, which can fill rivers and lakes with toxic sludge when heavy rains or melted snow overwhelms them, endangering wildlife and drinking water supplies. But city officials have a plan to make its aging sewers significantly smarter. Read the full story

—Andrew Zaleski

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