Your body’s superpowers

The remarkable abilities already inside us.

Norovirus might have laid you low for a short while, but you’re recovering, aren’t you? Your immune system is to die for. Researchers are still getting to grips with how it works but at every turn it has thrown out marvellous surprises. In the early days of vaccination against tuberculosis, for example, it was noted that it protected you not only from TB, but a host of other diseases, too.

We still don’t know why; it’s clear that we have yet to understand the full power of the human immune system. Just in December, for instance, we learned that the system’s T-cells, which fight viruses and bacteria, are not all created equal. Almost all of our knowledge of human T-cells has come from blood samples. But research using T-cells harvested from the organs of New York cadavers has shown that each region of the body has its own particular way of fighting invaders. Columbia University’s Donna Farber, who led the study, believes this discovery may open up the path to tightly focused vaccines that can activate the most appropriate of the body’s immune responses.

Her optimism is supported by another surprise the immune system has just delivered. New Scientist reported this month that there is now hope for a vaccine against age-related macular degeneration (AMD), an incurable condition that blinds millions of people around the world.

AMD comes from the build-up of proteins and other debris on the retina. In healthy people this is cleared away by specialist cells. Those cells stop working in people with AMD. This appears to have two consequences: the build-up of debris continues and the light-sensitive cells of the retina beneath the debris start to die off. The result is a slowly widening black hole at the centre of your field of vision.

Pioneering treatments with a laser can stimulate the nonfunctioning cells to get them going again, which is exactly what Robyn Guymer of the University of Melbourne was trying to do in his trial on 50 patients. The idea was to try the laser treatment in one eye and leave the other eye as a control. Then tests on each eye would show what improvements the procedure could give.

So, you could imagine it was a little frustrating that in the tests the lasered eye didn’t seem to be that much better than the one that had been left alone. But Guymer soon realised this was because the vision of the untreated eye had also improved. The laser surgery had stimulated the patients’ immune system to respond to alarm calls from the eye.

Your eyes are usually offlimits to your immune system. It seems a sensible evolutionary trick, because the immune system’s standard response causes inflammation, which could be catastrophic in an instrument as sensitive as the eye. However, the cells destroyed by the laser appear to send out a signal so loud that the immune system overrides the safety mechanism and sends in the troops – to both eyes – to restore order.

There is now hope that AMD can be treated with a routine procedure at a very early stage, and that those most at risk of developing it can have their immune systems stimulated before the symptoms appear. But there is a wider lesson: with various successes in vaccines against cancer – particularly colon cancer – looking likely in the next few years, it’s becoming clear that the most profitable path for medicine might be to explore partnerships with the remarkable abilities that already lie within us.

Michael Brooks’s “The Secret Anarchy of Science” is published by Profile Books (£8.99)

There is now hope for a vaccine against age-related macular degeneration. Photograph: Getty Images

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 28 January 2013 issue of the New Statesman, After Chavez

Lifestage
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Everything that is wrong with the app Facebook doesn't want over 21s to download

Facebook's new teen-only offering, Lifestage, is just like your mum: it's trying too hard to relate and it doesn't care for your privacy.

Do you know the exact moment Facebook became uncool? Designed as a site to connect college students in 2004, the social network enjoyed nearly a decade of rapid, unrivalled growth before one day your mum – yes, your mum – using the same AOL email address she’s had since her dial-up days, logged on. And then she posted a Minion meme about drinking wine.

Facebook knows it’s uncool. It had a decline in active users in 2014, and in 2015 a survey of 4,485 teens discovered it came seventh in a ranking of ten social apps in terms of coolness. In fact, only 8 per cent of its users are aged between 13 and 19. This is the main reason the corporation have now created Lifestage, an app specifically for under-21s to “share a visual profile of who [they] are with [their] school network”.

Here’s how it works. After signing up and selecting their school, users are prompted to create a series of short videos – of their facial expressions, things they like, and things they dislike – that make up their profile. Once 20 people from any school sign up, that school is unlocked, meaning everyone within it can access one another’s profiles as well as those from nearby schools. Unlike Snapchat (and truly, this is the only thing that is unlike Snapchat) there is no chat function, but teens can put in their phone number and Instagram handles in order to talk. Don’t worry, though, there are still vomit-rainbows.

But with this new development, rather than hosting your mum, Facebook has become her. Lifestage is not only an embarrassing attempt to be Down With The Kids via the medium of poop emoji, it is also an invasive attempt to pry into their personal lives. Who’s your best friend? What do you like? What’s not cool? These are all questions the app wants teens to answer, in its madcap attempt to both appeal to children and analyse them.

“Post what you are into right now – and replace the video in that field whenever you want,” reads the app description on the iTunes store. “It's not just about the happy moments – build a video profile of the things you like, but also things you don’t like.” They might as well have written: “Tell us what’s cool. Please.”

Yet this is more than an innocent endeavour to hashtag relate, and is a very real attempt, like Facebook’s many others, to collect as much data on users as possible. Teens – no matter how many hot pink splashes and cartoon toilet rolls are used to infantilise them – are smart enough to have figured this out, with one of the 16 reviews of the app on the iTunes store titled “Kinda Sorta Creepy”, and another, by a user called Lolzeka, reading:

“I don't like how much information you have to give out. I don't want my phone number to be known nor do I want everyone to know my Instagram and Snapchat. I could not figure out how to take a picture or why my school was needed. Like I said, I don't want all my information out there.”

But Facebook already knows everything about everyone ever, and it’s not this data-mining that is the most concerning element of the app. It is the fact that – on an app specifically designed for children as young as 13 to share videos of themselves – there is no user verification process. “We can't confirm that people who claim to go to a certain school actually go to that school,” Facebook readily admits.

Although the USP of this app is that those over the age of 21 can only create a profile and aren’t allowed to view others, there isn’t a failsafe way to determine a user’s age. There is nothing to stop anyone faking both their age and the school they go to in order to view videos of, and connect with, teens.

Yet even without anyone suspicious lurking in the shadows, the app’s privacy settings have already come under scrutiny. The disclaimer says all videos uploaded to Lifestage are “fully public content” and “there is no way to limit the audience of your videos”. Despite the fact it is designed to connect users within schools, videos can be seen anyone, regardless of their school, and are “viewable by everyone”.

Of course none of this matters if teens don’t actually bother to use the app, which is currently only available in the US. Lifestage’s creator, 19-year-old Michael Sayman, designed it as a “way to take Facebook from 2004 and bring it to 2016”. Although he has the successful app 4Snaps under his belt, there is no guarantee Lifestage will succeed where Facebook’s other app attempts (Notify, Facebook Gifts, Poke) have not.

There are a few tricks Facebook has put in place to prompt the app to succeed, including the fact that users are ranked by how active they are, and those who don’t post enough updates will be labelled with a frowning or (here we go again) poop emoji. Still, this hardly seems enough for an app whose distinguishing feature is “Privacy? Nah.” 

Only time will tell whether the app will appeal to teens, but one thing is certain: if it does, your mum is totally downloading it.

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.