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Challenge Seeks Health Technology Start-Ups

Stroke rehab jacket

Jacket and gloves with sensors for stroke rehabilitation (New York University)

15 September 2016. A new competition is seeking start-up enterprises worldwide to pitch their ideas for solving health care issues with technology directly to life sciences industry leaders. The deadline for entries in the HealthTech Industry Challenge sponsored by the professional services company Accenture is 21 October 2016.

Accenture says the challenge aims to foster new companies with innovative technologies for health care and life science problems, particularly those with ideas that can disrupt current business practices, as well as provide a way of getting their ideas in front of industry leaders. “With the launch of the Accenture HealthTech Innovation Challenge,” says Anne O’Riordan, senior managing director of Accenture Life Sciences in a company statement, “Accenture will identify emerging innovators and disruptors and act as a catalyst by connecting them with the companies who can fast-track market impact.”

The competition calls for companies in four categories that address health care or life science issues:

Improve access to health care, particularly those underserved by the current system or in remote populations

Provide services that improve adherence to treatments and outcomes, by capturing real-world evidence, particularly from non-traditional data streams

Deliver the right health information and services at the right time to patients, families, and caregivers, particularly when a better understanding of lifestyle needs is needed to optimize care

Improve privacy and security of an individual’s health and lifestyle information, while also improving care and enabling information sharing

Accenture is encouraging early-stage companies to participate, particularly those not well-established in the health care or life sciences industries. Nonetheless, companies taking part should have a product well enough along to demonstrate, and be willing to share access to the product under a non-disclosure agreement. Among the factors judged is the extent to which access to senior-level industry executives would have a meaningful impact on company growth.

Entries to the challenge are accepted by Accenture until 21 October 2016. An initial judging will determine regional competition participants by 4 November, with those participants announced on 11 November. The regional pitching sessions are held on 25 November in London, U.K. and 1 December in New York, where semi-finalists will be selected. Judges are expected to include senior executives from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Cardinal Health, Novartis, and other enterprises.

The top entries in each of the four categories will be selected from the semi-finalists at the final judging round taking place at the StartUp Health Festival, 9 January 2017 in San Francisco, that coincides with the JP Morgan Healthcare Conference. The top-rated entries will gain exposure and access to leading industry executives, as well as be offered places in StartUp Health’s Launchpad program. That program includes industry training and mentoring, participation in a community of entrepreneurial peers, a chance to promote one’s company in the industry, and access to networks of potential investors and customers. No monetary prizes are given.

“This program aims to help health care start-ups advance their business agenda and infuse fresh ideas across the system to improve patient care,” adds Brian Kalis, Accenture’s managing director of digital health. Kalis says Accenture forecasts start-up funding for digital health care, such as wearables and virtual health, will reach $6.5 billion by the end of next year.

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Small Business Grant Funds Natural Dyes Crop Research

Indigo dye

Indigo dye (Stony Creek Colors)

15 September 2016.  A company making natural dyes for clothing and a plant science research center are discovering genomic processes to improve plants producing indigo, the dye giving blue jeans its color. The 1-year project joining Stony Creek Colors Inc. in Goodlettsville, Tennessee and Donald Danforth Plant Science Center in St. Louis is funded by a $224,700 grant from National Science Foundation.

Stony Creek Colors produces dyes made from plants, as alternatives to most dyes today made with chemicals derived from petroleum. The company is also creating a supply chain for natural dyes, working with growers, textile mills, and clothing brands to meet today’s production specifications and build consumer preference for more sustainable fabrics. This supply chain begins with growers producing crops for natural dyes that need tools to improve yields and profitability.

Among Stony Creek’s offerings is indigo, which in the 18th and 19th centuries was derived from plants, making it major cash crop for of its blue color dye. Nearly all indigo dyes today, however, are made from petroleum-based and other hazardous chemicals. While some traditional and artisanal methods still produce natural indigo dyes, their quality is inconsistent and the small quantities produced make these dyes too expensive for manufacturers.

The project calls for Stony Creek and Donald Danforth Plant Science Center to develop analytical tools to better understand molecular features of Persicaria tinctoria, the plant from which indigo dyes are derived, to produce indican, a precursor chemical to indigo. The work includes a genomic mapping of Persicaria tinctoria, to connect the plant’s genetic characteristics to high- and low-yielding crops.

In addition, the research team will develop a testing device to quickly measure the presence of indican in crop leaves in the fields. Testing processes today require harvesting leaves from the plants and analyzing them in the lab.

“Currently, the measurement of indigo yield is done by harvesting plants or by chemical analysis of precursors,” says Noah Fahlgren, Danforth Center bioinformatics director in a statement,  “both of which are time-consuming and difficult to do on large populations, so the ability to use non-destructive techniques to measure or estimate indigo yield will be particularly important to enable rapid screening of breeding materials.” Fahlgren is one of the principal investigators on the project.

“Higher yielding and more consistent indigo crops will allow our bio-based colors to reach deeper into the industrial marketplace,” adds Sarah Bellos, CEO and founder of Stony Creek Colors, “ultimately replacing more of the petroleum based-chemicals currently imported by the textile industry with a domestically grown, plant-derived solution.” Stony Creek plans to commercialize the research results into higher-yielding seeds spread over 26,000 acres of farm land in the southeast United States.

National Science Foundation funded the project from its Small Business Technology Transfer, or STTR, program that sets aside research money for collaborations between small businesses and academic or research institute labs.

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Stem Cells Aid Motor Functions in Spinal Cord Patients

Frozen stem cells

Frozen cells removed from storage in liquid nitrogen tanks (Asterias Biotherapeutics)

14 September 2016. First results from a clinical trial show stem cell treatments help restore some arm and hand functioning in patients with complete cervical spinal cord injury. Edward Wirth, chief medical officer of Asterias Biotherapeutics, presented the findings today at a meeting of the International Spinal Cord Society in Vienna, Austria. The early- and intermediate-stage trial is testing the safety of different dose levels of treatments derived from human embryonic stem cells, but is also tracking any restoration of motor functions in the patients’ arms and hands.

Spinal cord injuries are usually caused by a sudden, traumatic blow to the spine that bruises or tears into spinal cord tissue, resulting in fractures or compression to vertebrae, or in some cases severing of the spinal cord. Depending on severity, people with spinal cord injuries often suffer loss of feeling or motor function in the limbs, and in some cases complete paralysis. According to the National Spinal Cord Injury Statistical Center, spinal cord injuries occur in 40 out of 1 million people in the U.S., adding some 12,500 new cases each year.

The clinical trial is testing the treatments, code-named AST-OPC1 among individuals with spinal cord injuries that caused complete loss of sensation and motor functions from the neck down. Asterias, in Fremont, California, acquired stem cell therapies in development by Geron Corporation, including treatments for spinal cord injury. The treatments are derived from human embryonic stem cells, cultured into oligodendrocyte progenitor cells, or OPCs, then transplanted to regenerate into functioning spinal cord nerve cells.

AST-OPC1 is designed to help repair the myelin that provides insulation around nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord. With myelin repaired, signaling of nerve cells is expected to be at least partially restored, allowing for some or more restoration of motor and sensation signals from the brain as well. Studies with lab animals show transplanted human OPCs are capable of restoring some limb functions.

Asterias reported on motor function scores from the first 4 participants receiving single injections of 10 million OPCs — the higher dose level — 90 days after the injections. A 5th participant also received a 10-million cell dose, but less than 90 days ago. The results report as well on 3 patients receiving the lower dose injections of 2 million OPCs after 1 year.

The individuals were rated on a standard scale and algorithm measuring motor and sensory impairment as a result of spinal cord injury, calculating levels of ability in motor functions on 1 or both sides of the body. The company cites research indicating patients with complete spinal cord injuries showing 2 levels of motor improvement on at least 1 side of their body can regain abilities to perform daily activities, such as eating, dressing, and bathing.

The results show participants receiving either high or low doses of OPCs improved their motor functions. After 90 days, all 4 patients receiving 10 million OPCs improved at least 1 level of motor functioning on 1 or both sides of their bodies, while 2 of the 4 participants improved 2 levels of motor function on at least 1 side, and 1 individual achieved 2 levels of functional improvement on both sides.

Of the 3 participants receiving doses of 2 million cells,  2 individuals after 1 year improved 1 level of motor function on both sides of the body, and 1 patient improved 1 level on 1 side. The company says no serious adverse effects were reported in either the higher or lower dose groups, to the stem cells, injection procedures, or immunosuppressive drugs given with the injections.

Asterias plans to report in January 2017 on results of the 10 million dose patient group after 6 months. The trial includes testing of even higher doses of AST-OPC1, 2 injections of 10 million cells, or 20 million OPCs total. The company expects to report on results of those tests later in 2017.

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Computational Drug Discovery Company Launches

Computational biology illustration

(Lawrence Livermore National Lab)

14 September 2016. A new enterprise, Relay Therapeutics, is being formed for computer-driven discovery of new drugs based on the movements and interactions of protein molecules. The company, based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, is raising $57 million in its first funding round, led by life sciences investment firm Third Rock Ventures.

Relay Therapeutics plans to combine research from a number of disciplines to find new treatments addressing targets previously considered difficult to reach, beginning with cancer. The company’s technology is built on research into protein movement and dynamics, a different investigation of proteins from conventional work that the company says views proteins largely as static entities.

Relay’s drug discovery work is expected to combine inquiries into the structure of protein molecules, with chemistry, biophysics, and computational techniques. The company aims to apply these disciplines to design molecules that influence the behavior of proteins, and find changes in disease-causing proteins as they bind to and interact with these designed molecules. This kind of drug discovery requires a large number of complex and iterative simulations, which will need supercomputer-scale processing.

The company’s founders include researchers from the academic and business worlds:

Matthew Jacobson, professor of pharmaceutical chemistry at University of California, San Francisco, who studies computer-aided drug design, particularly in predicting actions of enzymes and regulating energy functions in proteins.

Dorothee Kern, biochemistry professor at Brandeis University, who investigates dynamic processes of biological molecules using advanced spectroscopy techniques to uncover and visualize the catalytic power of enzymes.

Mark Murcko, a lecturer in biological engineering at MIT, and founder or advisor to several biotechnology companies; Murcko is serving as Relay’s chief scientist.

David Shaw, research fellow in computational biology and bioinformatics at Columbia University, and chief scientist at David E. Shaw Research in New York.

As reported in Science & Enterprise, Jacobson is also founder of the biotechnology company Global Blood Therapeutics developing treatments for blood-related disorders that went public last year, raising $120 million.

Relay’s first venture financing round is raising $57 million, led by life sciences and health care investment company Third Rock Ventures in Boston. David E. Shaw Research is also an investor in the company. Third Rock Ventures partner Alexis Borisy is serving as Relay’s interim CEO.

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Science News Service Hacked, Taken Offline

Hacker

(bykst, Pixabay)

14 September 2016. EurekAlert, an online scientific news distribution service, was taken down last night after discovering a security breach that occurred on Friday, 9 September. An investigation by American Association for the Advancement of Science, or AAAS, that publishes EurekAlert, shows “registrants’ user names and passwords were compromised.”

A letter posted by Ginger Pinholster, Chief Communications Officer at AAAS, says the organization learned of the breach on Sunday, 11 September. Her letter notes …

An investigation revealed that our web site had experienced an aggressive attack on September 9 that compromised usernames and passwords. As we were working to implement a secure password-reset protocol for all registrants, the unknown hacker publicly released an embargoed EurekAlert! news release. We then decided to bring the site down immediately, to protect other embargoed content.

Pinholster adds that financial information from subscribing institutions is not kept on the EurekAlert site, and was not affected by the breach.

The letter said AAAS “will bring the site back online as soon as we can ensure that vulnerabilities have been eliminated,” but gave no indication of how long that would take.

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Patent Issued for Online Hearing Aid Calibration

iHear test device

iHear testing device (iHear Medical Inc.)

13 September 2016. A technology for fitting and programming a hearing aid online received a U.S. patent earlier this month. The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office issued patent number 9,439,008 on 6 September to Adnan Shennib, founder and CEO of iHear Medical Inc. in San Leandro, California. USPTO awarded another patent earlier in the year for the company’s online hearing test technology.

Hearing loss is a major cause of disability, with 13 percent of individuals in the U.S. age 12 and over reporting hearing loss in both ears. The rate rises to 25 percent for people age 65 to 74, and 50 percent for individuals age 75 or more. National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, or NIDCD, says less than 1 in 3 people age 70 and over (30%) who could benefit from a hearing aid use a device. For adults under 70, the usage rate drops by about half to 16 percent.

The technology in the patent makes it possible for hearing aid customers to fit and program their hearing aids from home, rather than going to a clinic, which iHear Medical says helps bring down the high cost of programmable hearing aids. With the iHear platform, says the company, customers can perform hearing tests, as well as device fitting and programming from their homes.

The new patent covers the technology for generating and sending streaming audio signals over the Internet to the customer, with the customer interacting with the device and signals to program the hearing aid to meet the individual’s conditions and circumstances. A remote server sends out sound segments, which the hearing aid device receives and customer adjusts based on his or her ability to hear those sounds. The technology includes contingencies where the customer uses a personal computer to receive the signals, or voice over Internet protocol or VOIP connections.

Some iHear devices, those designed for mild to moderate hearing loss, are worn inside the ear, and the patent covers methods for fitting the hearing aid. The technology includes personalized configuration of the device to hear both loud and soft volume sounds. While the technology anticipates most customers interacting directly with system, it does allow for customer assistance staff helping out if needed.

The patent follows another U.S. patent issued in May 2016 for online hearing tests, which screens for hearing loss. The patent covers the company’s equipment that attaches to a personal computer and software that generates sound signals and evaluates the customer’s responses. The test, cleared by FDA, helps determine an individual’s candidacy for a hearing aid, but is not considered a full-scale clinical diagnostic for hearing disorders. The testing technology patent also credits Adnan Shennib as its inventor.

The company says its processes allowing for initial screening and device fitting and programming at home could change the economics of the hearing aid business. The iHear devices cost consumers less than $300, while the company claims programmable devices from conventional hearing aid clinics have an average price of $2,400.

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Brain Signals Drive Computer Cursor for Faster Typing

Paul Nuyujukian

Paul Nuyujukian (L.A. Cicero, Stanford University)

13 September 2016. A system capturing motor signals in the brain is shown in tests with monkeys to direct a cursor to type text on a keyboard display at rates as high as 12 words per minute. A team from the lab of bioengineering professor Krishna Shenoy at Stanford University published its findings yesterday in the journal Proceedings of the IEEE (paid subscription required).

The research team led by first author and postdoctoral fellow Paul Nuyujukian is seeking a more efficient connection between the brain and digital systems for people with paralysis and other movement disorders to communicate with computers and mobile devices. Most systems being studied or tested now, say the authors, track muscular activity such as eye movements or facial muscles, which may be difficult for some people to control. Results of tests so far with these systems shows producing text is laborious and slow.

Nuyujukian and colleagues are building on previous work that developed small multi-electrode arrays implanted in hand and arm motor regions of the brain, as well as decoder algorithms that improve the speed and reliability of two-dimensional cursor control on display screens. The team previously tested individual algorithms with monkeys, but not together in an integrated system.

The researchers tested the electrode arrays and algorithms on two rhesus monkeys, named J and L, who were earlier trained to type letters displayed on computer screens. J and L then were shown text passages, with corresponding nerve signals to motor regions of the brain captured by the implanted electrodes. Those brain signals were then translated by the decoding algorithms into electronic signals to direct the cursor over a keyboard display on a computer screen.

The monkeys were shown text from a New York Times article and a passage from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, which J typed at an average rate of 10.0 words per minute and L produced at 7.2 words per minute. Adding a clicking sound to the text production increased the rates to 12.0 and 7.8 words per minute respectively. The authors say these rates are 3 times faster than earlier methods.

While the tests show the feasibility of the technology, the authors acknowledge real-life factors could slow down typing speeds. “The interface we tested is exactly what a human would use,” says Nuyujukian in a university statement. “What we cannot quantify is the cognitive load of figuring out what words you are trying to say.” That cognitive load would also include factors such as thinking of correct spellings and filtering out distractions.

Shenoy and Nuyujukian are also taking part in the BrainGate project, which includes an early-stage clinical trial testing the safety and feasibility of direct brain-to-computer signaling technology with individuals having severe movement disorders including spinal cord injuries and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS. Science & Enterprise reported several times on this project, including a story in 2012 on development of algorithms by Shenoy and Nuyujukian to control on-screen cursors with brain signals.

The following video gives a demonstration of the technology used to type a classic line from Hamlet.

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Synthetic Viruses in Gene Therapy Licensed for Production

Lonza Houston facility

Lonza viral therapies production facility in Houston, Texas (Lonza Ltd.)

12 September 2016. Techniques from academic research for developing synthetic viruses to deliver gene therapies are being licensed for commercial production and distribution. Lonza Houston Inc. is licensing processes for generating synthetic adeno-associated viruses from the lab of Luk Vandenberghe, an ophthalmology professor at Massachusetts Eye and Ear in Boston, but financial terms were not disclosed.

Lonza Houston is a division of Lonza Ltd., based in Basel, Switzerland, a supplier of biotechnology components including stem cells and viruses for therapeutic delivery. The company’s Houston, Texas facility specializes in producing viral carriers for gene therapies, including adeno-associated viruses. hardy and ubiquitous viruses in humans and animals that cause infections, but with few, if any, symptoms. Lonza is building a new virus and stem cell manufacturing facility in nearby Pearland, Texas, expected to be operational by the end of 2017.

Vandenberghe and colleagues at Mass. Eye and Ear, a teaching hospital of Harvard Medical School, developed techniques for creating synthetic adeno-associated viruses, known as Anc-AAVs, with computer-guided design methods that anticipate evolutionary transformations of viral particles and improve their capabilities. These artificial viral particles then carry human genes as therapies for inherited diseases of the retina, and disorders in other organs, including spinal muscular atrophy and hemophilia.

One of Vandenberghe’s synthetic viruses, code-named Anc80, was licensed in May 2016 to biotechnology company Selecta Biosciences in Watertown, Massachusetts. Selecta licensed Anc80 to deliver the company’s drug candidate for rare genetic diseases, such as the metabolic disorder methylmalonic acidemia, where even mild immune reactions to natural viruses would be harmful or where multiple treatments may be needed.

Under the agreement, Lonza receives an exclusive option position to Anc-AAV technology for future commercial licensing, while Mass. Eye and Ear retains all rights to the technology in very rare disorders, and other commercial and academic rights. Lonza will fund research at Mass. Eye and Ear to discover and develop new gene transfer reagents, to improve on limitations in current adeno-associated viruses, including tissue and immune responses, and manufacturing yields.

“In this era of personalized medicine, the partnership with Lonza is unique, and potentially very effective,” says Vandenberghe in a joint statement. “We believe this concept will bring innovative gene therapies to patients in a more efficient and expedient way, and that it will increase access to enabling gene therapy technology to unlock treatment for diseases of unmet need, including those affecting vision and hearing.”

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Sanofi, Alphabet Create Diabetes Venture

Contact lens with sensors

Prototype contact lens with sensors to detect and measure glucose levels in tears (Alphabet Inc.)

12 September 2016.  Drug maker Sanofi and Verily Life Sciences, a division of Alphabet — parent company of Google — are creating Onduo, a joint venture to develop health management solutions for people with diabetes. Financial and intellectual property terms of the collaboration were not disclosed.

Onduo, says a Sanofi statement, will develop products and services that help people with type 2 diabetes make better decisions managing their condition and overall health. Diabetes is a chronic disorder where the pancreas does not create enough insulin to process the sugar glucose to flow into the blood stream and cells for energy in the body. In type 2 diabetes, which accounts for some 90 percent of all diabetes cases, the pancreas produces some but not enough insulin, or the body cannot process insulin. According to the International Diabetes Federation, diabetes affects 415 million people worldwide, of which 44 million are in North America.

The venture, based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, is expected to combine Sanofi’s clinical expertise in producing diabetes drugs with Verily’s work with miniaturized electronics, data analytics, and software. Joshua Riff, named CEO of Onduo, says the venture’s solutions will address day-to-day challenges faced by people with type 2 diabetes. “From monitoring food intake. to testing glucose levels, to actively seeking medical care,” notes Riff, “the challenges both on the physical and mental well-being of a person living with diabetes are incredibly difficult.”

Onduo already signed up two regional health care chains, Sutter Health in Northern California and Allegheny Health Network in western Pennsylvania, to help design and test its offerings for people with diabetes. The venture is also in discussions with the patient advocacy group Taking Control of Your Diabetes as a collaborator.

The collaboration plans to later expand its solutions to people with type 1 diabetes, an autoimmune condition where insulin-producing beta cells in the pancreas are attacked by the immune system, stopping production of insulin. The work could also expand to include systems or services designed to prevent the onset of diabetes among people at risk of the disease.

Verily Life Sciences, in Mountain View, California, and Sanofi, in Paris, are already partnering on developing medical devices for people with diabetes, beginning with a contact lens using sensors to monitor glucose levels in tears, rather than taking pinprick blood samples. Sanofi also joined an initiative with Duke Clinical Research Institute and Massachusetts General Hospital to harness data analytics and artificial intelligence to improve patient adherence to diabetes medications.

The announcement by Verily of the collaboration with Sanofi follows the launch of a similar venture with pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline in August 2016 called Galvani Bioelectronics. As reported in Science & Enterprise, Galvani plans to discover and develop implanted electronic devices that send signals along nerve pathways in the body addressing chronic diseases.

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Trial Testing Diabetes Drug as Parkinson’s Treatment

Brain illustration

(DARPA.gov)

9 September 2016. A clinical trial has started to test a current drug for type 2 diabetes as a treatment for Parkinson’s disease. The trial is a joint project of the Cure Parkinson’s Trust, a research foundation in London, U.K., and Van Andel Research Institute in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Parkinson’s disease occurs when the brain produces less of the substance dopamine, a neurotransmitter that sends signals from one neuron or nerve cell to another. As the level of dopamine lowers, individuals become less able to control their bodily movements and emotions. Symptoms include tremors, i.e. shaking, slowness and rigidity in movements, loss of facial expression, decreased ability to control blinking and swallowing, and in some cases, depression and anxiety. According to Parkinson’s Disease Foundation, some 60,000 new cases of Parkinson’s disease are diagnosed in the U.S. each year, with more than 10 million people worldwide living with the disease.

A key focus of Cure Parkinson’s Trust is to find drugs currently approved to address other disorders as potential treatments for Parkinson’s, since these medications were already tested and found safe, at least for their current patients. Among those drugs identified as possible Parkinson’s therapies is liraglutide, marketed as Victoza by Novo Nordisk, which is supporting the trial.

Liraglutide is in a class of drugs known as glucagon-like peptide-1 agonists, or GLP-1 agonists, that act like hormones in the gut generating a greater insulin response, and thus help regulate blood glucose levels. Liraglutide is an injected, long-acting drug, prescribed for people who find it difficult to control their blood glucose levels through diet and exercise and need extra help.

Preliminary lab studies show liraglutide also activates GLP-1 receptors in the brain. Insulin resistance is a feature of type 2 diabetes often associated with the onset of Parkinson’s disease, and related to impaired brain insulin signaling, as well as malfunctioning brain cells and impaired cognition, anxiety, and depression. These preliminary findings suggest activating GLP-1 receptors may protect against degenerative damage to brain cells, including those affected by Parkinson’s disease.

The trial is being conducted at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, directed by neurology professor Michele Tagliati. The trial is not yet registered with ClinicalTrials.gov and details are sketchy.

“Given the increasing evidence of a possible role of insulin resistance in neurodegeneration,” says Tagliati in a Van Andel statement, “we expect this GLP-1 agonist to have a great impact on the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease and its progression. A remarkable aspect of this new avenue of research is the focus on mechanisms that may address both motor and non-motor features of the disease.”

GLP-1 agonists are also being tested as a treatment for heart disease. As reported in Science & Enterprise in June 2016, liraglutide was shown in a clinical trial to reduce serious heart disease in people with type 2 diabetes also at high risk of heart disease.

Van Andel Institute is a not-for-profit research organization that studies genetic, molecular, and cellular origins of Parkinson’s, cancer, and other diseases as well as translating the findings into therapies.

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