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New Cancer Treatment “Remembers” Tumors and Won’t Let Them Regrow

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Researchers have found a way to train the immune system to eradicate cancer cells and “remember” them in case they try to return. A report of the technique was published today in the journal Science Immunology.

Cancer is a stealthy invader. Rather than facing the body’s defenses head-on, it manipulates the sentries of our immune system, shutting them down or even turning them against us.

One commonly hijacked sentry is called the CD4+ T regulatory (Treg) cell. When they’ve been bamboozled by cancer, Treg cells tell our defenses to leave tumors alone. So if we could find a way to shut those Treg cells up, our immune systems would, theoretically, treat cancer like the intruder it is. The problem is that Treg cells are themselves kind of slippery and hard to target with drugs.

One possible way in is a molecule called LAP, which has previously been linked to worse outcomes for people with cancer.

To learn more, researchers examined interactions between Treg cells and LAP in mice with melanoma, colon cancer, and brain cancer. They found that zapping the molecule with special anti-LAP antibodies did the trick, effectively shutting the hijacked cells down so the immune system could do its work. Mice treated with these antibodies had lower levels of Treg cells and cancer cells.

Better yet, when the researchers mixed the anti-LAP antibodies with tumor vaccines, they discovered that tumors wouldn’t grow, even in mice exposed to cancer-causing proteins. The effects of this cocktail lasted for months.

Best of all, the treatment seemed to create “memories” of the tumors in the rodents’ immune systems, enabling them to recognize cancer cells more quickly and prevent relapse.

Before you get too excited, we should mention a few things about these experiments. First, as we’ve said before and will say again, mice are not people. Second, the treatments were tested under the mice’s skin, not in the places where these tumors would naturally grow.

Still, the researchers say, the anti-LAP molecules are a good step, and they are eager to explore them further.

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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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May 23, 2017
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