Investing in life sciences R&D by design
Issues facing the global community have also spurred innovation in life sciences. Research in areas like agriculture technology and virology could help address some of the challenges wrought by climate change, which, as Freeman asserts, directly contribute to global instability. “The big flashpoints geopolitically in the next few years are probably going to be around water, food, pandemics, energy.”
And the industry has had other measurable results. Turnover in the UK’s life sciences industry jumped from £63.5 billion in 2016 to £94.2 billion in 2021.
Guided by proven expertise and academic excellence
With two of the top five universities for biological sciences in the world — the University of Cambridge and the University of Oxford — the UK has a solid foundation for investment in life science innovation. “We have really deep science that you can’t buy off the shelf,” Freeman says.
As an example, Freeman points to the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology, which has 24 Nobel prizes shared among its researchers and alumni in chemistry, and medicine and physiology. In the area of chemistry, the MRC Laboratory has more Nobel prizes than the entire country of France. “Those kinds of labs don’t just suddenly appear; they are incubated through layers of great science over years,” Freeman says.
The UK has also long been home to a strong pharmaceutical industry. For example, GlaxoSmithKline can trace its history in the UK back to 1715 and it now has nine manufacturing sites there. And AstraZeneca, which was formed after a merger between British and Swedish companies in 1999, bases its global headquarters in Cambridge. “We’ve had some big pharmaceutical companies here, and they’ve stayed here,” Freeman comments, pointing to the expertise this alone has incubated in the UK.
The National Health Service leads the way
Another factor that has enabled the UK to emerge as a leader in life sciences R&D is the National Health Service (NHS), one of the world’s first universal healthcare systems. Dr. Julia Wilson, associate director at the Wellcome Sanger Institute, says, “If you’re going to do longitudinal large-scale studies, following patients over time with repeated monitoring of diseases, risk factors or health outcomes, then you need a healthcare system that can enable you to access all the relevant information and recall patients.”
Such studies undertaken by the NHS have focused on issues like long covid and cognition in people over 50 years of age. “These studies are very much a partnership with the patient, scientists, and clinicians,” says Wilson. However, the institutions supporting life sciences R&D in the UK do not co-exist in a vacuum. There is “a good track record of collaboration across the different sectors,” Wilson says. “Within life sciences, there is porosity between academia, commercial, NHS, that really helps our R&D succeed and deliver.”
Deliberate collaboration for cutting-edge research
This collaboration is backed up by investment from both the government, as well as the charity sector. One such charitable global health foundation, the Wellcome Trust, announced in early 2022 that it would invest £16 billion in the UK over the next 10 years in four interlinked areas of life sciences: discovery research, infectious disease, mental health, and climate and health.
The Download: AI films, and the threat of microplastics
The Frost nails its uncanny, disconcerting vibe in its first few shots. Vast icy mountains, a makeshift camp of military-style tents, a group of people huddled around a fire, barking dogs. It’s familiar stuff, yet weird enough to plant a growing seed of dread. There’s something wrong here.
Welcome to the unsettling world of AI moviemaking. The Frost is a 12-minute movie from Detroit-based video creation company Waymark in which every shot is generated by an image-making AI. It’s one of the most impressive—and bizarre—examples yet of this strange new genre. Read the full story, and take an exclusive look at the movie.
—Will Douglas Heaven
Microplastics are everywhere. What does that mean for our immune systems?
Microplastics are pretty much everywhere you look. These tiny pieces of plastic pollution, less than five millimeters across, have been found in human blood, breast milk, and placentas. They’re even in our drinking water and the air we breathe.
Given their ubiquity, it’s worth considering what we know about microplastics. What are they doing to us?
The short answer is: we don’t really know. But scientists have begun to build a picture of their potential effects from early studies in animals and clumps of cells, and new research suggests that they could affect not only the health of our body tissues, but our immune systems more generally. Read the full story.
Microplastics are everywhere. What does that mean for our immune systems?
Here, bits of plastic can end up collecting various types of bacteria, which cling to their surfaces. Seabirds that ingest them not only end up with a stomach full of plastic—which can end up starving them—but also get introduced to types of bacteria that they wouldn’t encounter otherwise. It seems to disturb their gut microbiomes.
There are similar concerns for humans. These tiny bits of plastic, floating and flying all over the world, could act as a “Trojan horse,” introducing harmful drug-resistant bacteria and their genes, as some researchers put it.
It’s a deeply unsettling thought. As research plows on, hopefully we’ll learn not only what microplastics are doing to us, but how we might tackle the problem.
Read more from Tech Review’s archive
It is too simplistic to say we should ban all plastic. But we could do with revolutionizing the way we recycle it, as my colleague Casey Crownhart pointed out in an article published last year.
We can use sewage to track the rise of antimicrobial-resistant bacteria, as I wrote in a previous edition of the Checkup. At this point, we need all the help we can get …
… which is partly why scientists are also exploring the possibility of using tiny viruses to treat drug-resistant bacterial infections. Phages were discovered around 100 years ago and are due a comeback!
Our immune systems are incredibly complicated. And sex matters: there are important differences between the immune systems of men and women, as Sandeep Ravindran wrote in this feature, which ran in our magazine issue on gender.
Welcome to the new surreal. How AI-generated video is changing film.
Fast and cheap
Artists are often the first to experiment with new technology. But the immediate future of generative video is being shaped by the advertising industry. Waymark made The Frost to explore how generative AI could be built into its products. The company makes video creation tools for businesses looking for a fast and cheap way to make commercials. Waymark is one of several startups, alongside firms such as Softcube and Vedia AI, that offer bespoke video ads for clients with just a few clicks.
Waymark’s current tech, launched at the start of the year, pulls together several different AI techniques, including large language models, image recognition, and speech synthesis, to generate a video ad on the fly. Waymark also drew on its large data set of non-AI-generated commercials created for previous customers. “We have hundreds of thousands of videos,” says CEO Alex Persky-Stern. “We’ve pulled the best of those and trained it on what a good video looks like.”
To use Waymark’s tool, which it offers as part of a tiered subscription service starting at $25 a month, users supply the web address or social media accounts for their business, and it goes off and gathers all the text and images it can find. It then uses that data to generate a commercial, using OpenAI’s GPT-3 to write a script that is read aloud by a synthesized voice over selected images that highlight the business. A slick minute-long commercial can be generated in seconds. Users can edit the result if they wish, tweaking the script, editing images, choosing a different voice, and so on. Waymark says that more than 100,000 people have used its tool so far.
The trouble is that not every business has a website or images to draw from, says Parker. “An accountant or a therapist might have no assets at all,” he says.
Waymark’s next idea is to use generative AI to create images and video for businesses that don’t yet have any—or don’t want to use the ones they have. “That’s the thrust behind making The Frost,” says Parker. “Create a world, a vibe.”
The Frost has a vibe, for sure. But it is also janky. “It’s not a perfect medium yet by any means,” says Rubin. “It was a bit of a struggle to get certain things from DALL-E, like emotional responses in faces. But at other times, it delighted us. We’d be like, ‘Oh my God, this is magic happening before our eyes.’”
This hit-and-miss process will improve as the technology gets better. DALL-E 2, which Waymark used to make The Frost, was released just a year ago. Video generation tools that generate short clips have only been around for a few months.
The most revolutionary aspect of the technology is being able to generate new shots whenever you want them, says Rubin: “With 15 minutes of trial and error, you get that shot you wanted that fits perfectly into a sequence.” He remembers cutting the film together and needing particular shots, like a close-up of a boot on a mountainside. With DALL-E, he could just call it up. “It’s mind-blowing,” he says. “That’s when it started to be a real eye-opening experience as a filmmaker.”