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Shelly Fan

Shelly Xuelai Fan is a neuroscientist-turned-science writer. She completed her PhD in neuroscience at the University of British Columbia, where she developed novel treatments for neurodegeneration. While studying biological brains, she became fascinated with AI and all things biotech. Following graduation, she moved to UCSF to study blood-based factors that rejuvenate aged brains. She is the co-founder of Vantastic Media, a media venture that explores science stories through text and video, and runs the award-winning blog NeuroFantastic.com. Her first book, "Will AI Replace Us?" (Thames & Hudson) was published in 2019.

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From This Author


A Paralyzed Man Used His Mind to Control Two Robotic Arms to Eat Cake

The man sat still in the chair, staring intently at a piece of cake on the table in front of him. Wires protruded from electrode implants in his brain. Flanking him were two giant...

Metasurfaces Open the Door to Telekinesis and Telepathy With Technology

Stranger Things fans will be familiar with this scene: Eleven, a girl with telekinetic powers, stares intently at a Coke can. Without physically touching the can, she completely crushes it using her mind alone. Changing...

Three Kids Are Thriving After Kidney Transplants With No Immunosuppressants

Less than three years ago, eight-year-old Kruz and his little sister Paizlee lay on a surgical table ready to receive new kidneys. They had both gone through medical treatments that would daunt any adult....

These 3D Printed Millirobots Can Sense and React to Their Surroundings

The millirobot looked like an adorable cartoon vehicle as it expertly navigated a complex maze. It’s a strange creature: the bottom resembles a collapsed fence; the top, a colander-like basket. The size of a...

Scientists Used CRISPR to Trace Every Human Gene to Its Function

Genes are like Egyptian hieroglyphs. Thanks to advances in whole-genome sequencing, it’s increasingly easy to read each DNA letter. But the strings of A, T, C, and G bring up a second puzzle: what,...

In Its Greatest Biology Feat Yet, AI Unlocks the Complex Proteins Guarding Our DNA

AI has done it again. After solving one of the grandest mysteries in biology—predicting protein structure—it decoded how proteins link up into complexes, and dreamed up novel protein structures that may ultimately be turned into...

Quantum Chip Takes Microseconds to Do a Task a Supercomputer Would Spend 9,000 Years On

Are quantum computers overhyped? A new study in Nature says no. A cleverly-designed quantum device developed by Xanadu, a company based in Toronto, Canada, obliterated conventional computers on a benchmark task that would otherwise take...

New CRISPR Tool Protects Against Viruses Without Making Any DNA Cuts

When CRISPR first burst onto the biotech scene, it rose to fame for its precise cutting prowess—break a target DNA strand, silence a gene. But the tool came with hiccups. While far more efficient...

A Critical Immune Protein Helps the Brain Link Memories, and Could Combat Aging

Memories are like scenes in a movie, and the brain is an excellent video editor. Take a normal day as an example. A morning routine—shower, coffee, checking emails—is seamlessly cut into one continuous scene. Other...

What’s Your Biological Age? A New ‘Aging Clock’ Has the Answer

How old are you, really? It seems like a simple question. It’s based on when you’re born. Yet we all know people who seem much younger than their chronological age. They have radiant skin and...

A One-and-Done CRISPR Gene Therapy Will Aim to Prevent Heart Attacks

In a few months, a daring clinical trial may fundamentally lower heart attack risk in the most vulnerable people. If all goes well, it will just take one shot. It’s no ordinary shot. The trial,...

A Virus Just Wiped Out Antibiotic-Resistant Infection in an Immunocompromised Patient

When Dr. Jessica Little laid eyes on the 56-year-old man, Mr. M, she immediately knew he was in bad shape. Striking, painful red welts dotted his entire arm. He knew the cause of his rashes:...

The Brain Has a Built-in System to Keep Unwanted Memories Out, Study Finds

We all have memories we’d rather forget. Yet too often they bubble up into our consciousness. That gaffe at work or during an interview? A faceplant after slipping on ice on a first date?...

Largest Genetic Study to Date Unveils DNA Profiles That Lead to Cancer

Cancers are like malicious snowflakes. Each harbors a unique set of mutations in its genes, gradually turning them to the dark side. Eventually, with no regard for their neighbors, mutated cells destroy tissues, organs,...

Scientists Used Brain Scans to See How Magic Mushrooms Battle Depression. Here’s What They Found

For depression, magic mushrooms may indeed be magic. Over the past decade, a slew of pioneering trials found that just one or two doses of psilocybin, the main component in magic mushrooms, rapidly pulls people...

Largest-Ever Collection of Brain Maps Charts How the Brain Changes Over a Lifetime

Our brains are unique snowflakes that change shape throughout our lives. Yet buried underneath individual differences is a common throughline, with the brain growing rapidly during childhood then slowly declining with age. But that’s just...

Scientists Used Cellular Rejuvenation Therapy to Rewind Aging in Mice

At roughly 70 years human age, the mice looked elderly and unremarkable. Yet hidden underneath was a youthful cellular clock, turned back in time based on a Nobel-Prize-winning strategy. It’s also the latest bet...

Brain Implant Allows Locked-In Man to Translate Thoughts Into Written Sentences

ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis) is devastatingly cruel. As neurons that control movement slowly die off, you lose the ability to walk, speak, and breathe. Your mind remains sharp, but you’re completely locked in, without...

This Algorithm Designs Proteins From Scratch to Accelerate Drug Discovery

The proteins that control our lives are like rolling tumbleweeds. Each has a tangled, unique shape, with spiky side-branches dotting its surface. Hidden in the nooks and crannies are the locks to battle our...

Can We Resurrect Extinct Species? Scientists Put Jurassic Park to the Test

De-extinction grabbed our imagination in the 90s with Jurassic Park. Scientists have since asked: how possible is it? According to a new study, nearly impossible. But wait—it’s not all bad news. While bringing back a...

CRISPR On-Off Switch Will Help Unlock the Secrets of Our Immune System

T cells are fierce warriors. With just a hint of an attack—be it an infection or a nascent cancer—they rally, ramp up in numbers, and launch a full-scale defense. But they’re not invincible. Sometimes the...

New Brain Map Charts Every Component in the Biological Universe

Neurons make up less than half of the brain. Yet when it comes to brain mapping, they get all the limelight. It’s easy to see why: as shockingly powerful mini-processors, neurons and their connections—together dubbed...

First Controlled Human Trial Shows Cutting Calories Improves Health, Longevity

To some aging researchers, the secret to longevity is simple: eat less. Decades of research have shown that moderately restricting calories, without any other intervention, increases healthy lifespan in flies, worms, and mice. Yet bring...

A Spinal Cord Implant Allowed Paralyzed People to Walk in Just One Day

Michel Roccati never thought he’d walk again, much less swim, cycle, or paddle a kayak. A terrifying motorcycle collision in 2017 damaged his spinal cord, leaving him completely paralyzed from the waist down. Yet on...

The Dog Aging Project Will Study Longevity in 60,000 Pups

Our furry friends are about to fetch new answers to the tough problem of longevity. The Dog Aging Project (DAP), launched in 2018, is recruiting tens of thousands of loyal canine companions for a comprehensive...

Psychedelics Without the Trip Could Be ‘Healing Magic’ for Mental Health

Once counterculture staples, LSD and magic mushrooms are starting to trip out another world: psychiatry. A small—but rapidly growing—group of doctors is embracing the drugs as powerful tools against a myriad of mental demons....

After First Pig-to-Human Heart Transplant, Scientists Aim to Make It Routine

Jan 7, 2022 marked a medical breakthrough. For the first time ever, surgeons transplanted a genetically modified pig heart into a living human. Two weeks later, David Bennett is doing well, with the heart...

New Virus-Like Particles Can Deliver CRISPR to Any Cell in the Body

Gene therapy is a lot like landing a Mars rover. Hear me out. The cargo—a rover or gene editing tools—is stuffed inside a highly technical protective ship and shot into a vast, complex space targeting...

Breakthrough Shot of Engineered Immune Cells Helps Heal Heart Damage

It’s now possible to transform immune cells directly into “super soldiers” inside the body. I’m talking about CAR-T, the immunotherapy that revolutionized blood cancer treatment. Here, a person’s immune T cells are removed from the...

These 2021 Biotech Breakthroughs Will Shape the Future of Health and Medicine

It’s that time of year again! With 2021 behind us, we’re going down memory lane to highlight biotech innovations that shaped the year—with impact that will likely reverberate for many years to come. Covid-19...

The Biggest Brain Maps Ever Created Are Pushing the Frontiers of Neuroscience

Our quest to understand the brain’s connections is a bit like aliens trying to understand Earthlings from outer space. Imagine having to track down every single person and their conversations across different continents, reconstruct...

Scientists Used CRISPR Gene Editing to Choose the Sex of Mouse Pups

“Do you want a boy or a girl?” can be an awkward question. But in certain circles, it’s a question that’s asked every day. Take agriculture. In a perfect world, most cows would only birth...

The ‘Twilight Zone’ Before Deep Sleep Could Boost Your Creativity

Sleep on it. That’s the advice we’ve all heard when challenged with a seemingly impossible dilemma. A new study suggests it’s not just folklore. When over 100 volunteers were given the chance to nap, if...

How DeepMind’s AI Helped Crack Two Mathematical Puzzles That Stumped Humans for Decades

With his telescope, Galileo gathered a vast trove of observations on celestial objects. With his mind, he found patterns in that universe of data, creating theories on motion and mechanics that paved the way...

Decades-Old ‘Water Pill’ Opens New Avenues for Alzheimer’s Treatment

The cause of Alzheimer’s was supposedly simple. Mangled proteins aggregate into tangles and clumps. These clumps overwhelm neurons. Neurons lose their function and eventually die, leading to cognitive troubles that are the hallmark of...

How AI Is Deepening Our Understanding of the Brain

Artificial neural networks are famously inspired by their biological counterparts. Yet compared to human brains, these algorithms are highly simplified, even “cartoonish.” Can they teach us anything about how the brain works? For a panel at...

AI Can Now Model the Molecular Machines That Govern All Life

Thanks to deep learning, the central mysteries of structural biology are falling like dominos. Just last year, DeepMind shocked the biomedical field with AlphaFold, an algorithm that predicts protein structures with jaw-dropping accuracy. The University...

New Spiking Neuromorphic Chip Could Usher in an Era of Highly Efficient AI

When it comes to brain computing, timing is everything. It’s how neurons wire up into circuits. It’s how these circuits process highly complex data, leading to actions that can mean life or death. It’s...

These Mice Pups Inherited Immunity From Their Parents—But Not Through DNA

The rules of inheritance are supposedly easy. Dad’s DNA mixes with mom’s to generate a new combination. Over time, random mutations will give some individuals better adaptability to the environment. The mutations are selected...

Friend or Foe? Single Neurons in the Brain Control Social Interaction, Study Finds

Neurons live in a society, and scientists just found the ones that may allow us to thrive in our own society. Like humans, individual neurons are strikingly unique. Also like humans, they’re constantly in touch...

Super-Precise CRISPR Gene Editing Tool Is Set to Tackle Tough Genetic Diseases

For all its supposed genetic editing finesse, CRISPR’s a brute. The Swiss Army knife of gene editing tools chops up DNA strands to insert genetic changes. What’s called “editing” is actually genetic vandalism—pick a...

AI-Powered Brain Implant Eases Severe Depression With a Zap of Electricity

Sarah hadn’t laughed in five years. At 36 years old, the avid home cook has struggled with depression since early childhood. She tried the whole range of antidepressant medications and therapy for decades. Nothing worked....

Moonshot Project Aims to Understand and Beat Cancer Using Protein Maps

Understanding cancer is like assembling IKEA furniture. Hear me out. Both start with individual pieces that make up the final product. For a cabinet, it’s a list of labeled precut plywood. For cancer, it’s a...

Scientists Completed the First Human Genome 20 Years Ago. How Far Have We Come, and What’s Next?

If the Human Genome Project (HGP) was an actual human, he or she would be a revolutionary whiz kid. A prodigy in the vein of Mozart. One who changed the biomedical universe forever as...

Scientists Create Artificial Mitochondria That Can Make Energy for Damaged Cells

Cells like to gulp and burp. It’s not indigestion. Rather, cells squeeze out little fatty blobs that can merge with another cell as a way to share materials and information. It’s an integral part...

The CRISPR Family Tree Holds a Multitude of Untapped Gene Editing Tools

Thanks to CRISPR, gene therapy and “designer babies” are now a reality. The gene editing Swiss army knife is one of the most impactful biomedical discoveries of the last decade. Now a new study...

Deep Learning Is Tackling Another Core Biology Mystery: RNA Structure

Deep learning is solving biology’s deepest secrets at breathtaking speed. Just a month ago, DeepMind cracked a 50-year-old grand challenge: protein folding. A week later, they produced a totally transformative database of more than 350,000...

Surprise! Our Bodies Have Been Hiding a Trojan Horse for Gene Therapy

Nature hides astonishing medical breakthroughs. Take CRISPR, the transformative gene editing tool. It was inspired by a lowly bacterial immune defense system and co-opted to edit our genes to treat inherited diseases, bolster cancer treatments,...

Molecular Farming Means the Next Vaccine Could Be Edible and Grown in a Plant

It’s the dog days of summer. You bite down on a plump, chilled orange. Citrus juice explodes in your mouth in a refreshing, tingling burst. Ahh. And congratulations—you’ve just been vaccinated for the latest virus. That’s...

A Secret to Healthy Aging May Be the Bugs in Your Microbiome

The group of Japanese centenarians had seemingly magical health powers. Sure, with an average age of 107, they’re among the longest-living humans on Earth. But they were also shockingly healthy, protected from chronic diseases that...

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