September 25, 2022

The download: cancer-detecting blood tests, and crypto’s big merger

The download: cancer-detecting blood tests, and crypto’s big merger


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

The US is launching a trial for blood tests that promise to detect cancers earlier

The news: The US is starting a national trial to determine how effective tests designed to detect signs of multiple types of cancer in blood taken from a patient’s arm really are. The goal is to help determine how blood test results for cancer should be interpreted, and it should provide a standard approach to piloting cancer screening studies as companies flood the field with new tests.

Why it matters: Most cancers can’t be reliably screened until symptoms start—tools like mammograms and Pap smears are exceptions, not the rule. Most of these multi-cancer early detection tests work by looking for remnants of tumor cells that explode after the immune system attacks them. Debris from dead tumors appears in the bloodstream, where it can potentially be detected to warn of cancer before someone feels sick. If imaging confirms the finding, a biopsy follows.

What is next: The trial, run by the National Cancer Institute, will begin enrolling participants in 2024 and test how effective various blood tests are at detecting cancer in 24,000 healthy patients over four years. If the findings look promising, a clinical trial nearly 10 times the size will begin. Read the full story.

– Hana Kiros

Why Ethereum is Switching to Proof of Stake and How It Will Work

Later this week, one of the world’s largest blockchains should move to a new way of approving transactions, away from the energy-intensive “proof of work” system.

If successful, the process, known as The Merge, should reduce Ethereum’s energy consumption by around 99.95%, potentially helping it reach 100,000 transactions per second. If The Merge continues at its current pace, the process should complete on Thursday. Read our explanation of how this will work.

The must read

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

1 Russia’s government has been hit with its first climate change lawsuit
A group of activists hopes to force the country’s authorities to adhere to the Paris climate agreement. (The Guardian)
+ Russia’s forest biome is at serious risk from climate change. (FT$)
+ Europe’s increasing demand for coal is undermining its climate credentials. (Reuters)

2 A new cancer drug appears to be more effective than chemotherapy
However, there is no evidence that this has reduced the total number of deaths. (WSJ $)

3 Twitter’s whistleblower appears before the US Senate
Peiter Zatko’s testimony next week could change the course of Elon Musk’s legal battle with the platform. (CNN)
+ Here are just a few of the questions Zatko faces. (The Guardian)
+ Why China’s authorities are buying ads on Twitter, despite banning it. (Reuters)

4 A Blue Origin rocket suffered a booster failure during a launch
However, no people were on board. (WP$)
+ Perhaps we need to expand our search for ‘intelligent life’. (The Atlantic $)

5 Why it’s so important to understand why some people don’t get covid
And why many people think they are immune when they are not. (Thread $)
+ Long covid’s brain fog affects women disproportionately. (The Atlantic $)
+ A fight rages over long covid in children. (MIT Technology Review)

6 CRISPR needs its smartphone moment
A push toward mainstream adoption could change how we treat genetic mutations. (The Atlantic $)
+ Protein factories can help us shine a light on the origins of life. (New Scientist $)
+ Modifications to a cholesterol gene could stop the greatest killer on earth. (MIT Technology Review)

7 Why the Internet Archive’s lawsuit could change digital history
It can also lose a large part of it in the process. (Slates $)

8 Antarctica is in danger
We are still learning how vulnerable the East Antarctic ice sheet really is. (CNET)

9 How beauty AI repackaged physiognomy for selfie lovers
His claims to read personality traits from facial features are not supported by science. (The information $)
+ The Battle for “Instagram Face” (MIT Technology Review)

10 WhatsApp groups trick us into a false sense of intimacy
But leaving them is easier said than done. (The Guardian)

Quote of the day

“Our biggest demand is not to be killed.”

—Camila, a student in Mexico City, tells Rest of the World how her classmates track each other’s whereabouts through WhatsApp amid a dramatic increase in violence against women in Mexico.

The big story

The 50-year-old problem that eludes theoretical computer science

October 2021

In July 2021, a proof appeared online at the esteemed journal ACM Transactions on Computational Theory. The result purported to solve the problem of all problems—the Holy Grail of theoretical computer science, worth a $1 million prize and fame rivaling Aristotle’s.

This precious problem – known as “P versus NP” – is simultaneously considered the most important in theoretical computer science and mathematics and completely out of reach. It addresses questions central to the promise, limits and ambitions of computation, asking: Why are some problems harder than others? What problems can computers realistically solve? How much time will it take?

The million dollar question that P vs. NP stated is the following: Are these two classes of problems one and the same? Which is to say, could the problems that seem so difficult actually be solved with an algorithm in a reasonable amount of time, if only the right, devilishly fast algorithm could be found? Because if all the difficult problems could be transformed with such an algorithmic handle, the consequences for society – for humanity and our planet – would be enormous. Read the full story.

—Siobhan Roberts

We can still have nice things

A place for comfort, fun and distraction in these strange times. (Got any ideas? Drop me a line ortweet them to me.)

+ Netflix’s new thriller Glass Onion, a sequel to Knives Out, looks like a lot of fun.
+ This Twitter account of a cat vibe about music is the best (thanks Melissa!)
+ Whether you’re comfortable in the water or not, we can all agree that waves look pretty majestic.
+ Teen TV shows are surprisingly good at dealing with death. Here’s why.
+ TikTok is throwing its weight behind California’s striking farmworkers.





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