Big science 2023: Risks to humanity, but we might beat obesity

Climate change and fighting fat were common stories in 2023, with temperature records and celebrities shedding kilos – then along came AI.

Drugs such as as Ozempic were hailed as a 'game changer' in the fight against obesity and Oprah Winfrey says she taking them. Photo: Getty

Drugs such as as Ozempic were hailed as a 'game changer' in the fight against obesity and Oprah Winfrey says she taking them. Photo: Getty

In 2023, there were two breakthrough science stories, and they somewhat go hand in hand.

This is because each has been festering for years, and each represent an existential threat to, well, all of us.

Climate change is one, with its biblical-scale symptoms ramping up – fires, floods, storms, extreme heat and cold.

People sought shelter at cooling centres in Phoenix, Arizona during an extreme heatwave. For a record 31 days, the city suffered through temperatures of 43.3 degrees or above. Photo: Getty

According to the journal Nature, the past 12 months were the hottest on record. You probably feel you’ve heard this before. So why is it such a bigger deal this year?

As David Reay, executive director of the Edinburgh Climate Change Institute at the University of Edinburgh, told CNN: “We have become all too used to climate records falling like dominoes in recent years. But 2023 is a whole different ball game in terms of the massive margin by which these records have been broken.”

More to the point, climate change is getting rapidly closer and more personal. We’ve especially felt it in Australia with serial flooding. Tiny Pacific island states are getting smaller.

Last week, NPR reported that hundreds of thousands of neighbourhoods in the United States are seeing population decline as a result of flooding.

And as Nature reports: “Some 7.3 billion people worldwide were exposed, for at least 10 days, to temperatures that were heavily influenced by global warming, with one-quarter of people facing dangerous levels of extreme heat over the past 12 months.”

In July, Phoenix, Arizona set a record with a 31-day streak of highs at or above 43.3 degrees Celsius. In total for the year, Phoenix lived through 43.3 degrees for 54 days. Averaged out, that’s more than one day every week.

It just got real

In 2017, AI machine learning was found to identify skin cancers more quickly than dermatologists. It was also the year that computers learned how to predict heart failure.

Since then, just about every week, a robot learns how to recognise a different kind of cancer or disease. AI appeared to be our humble-enough servant.

That changed this year, when generative AI began winning the hearts and minds of ordinary people – and competing with them.

As two Australian researchers advise in a Conversation piece this week: “In 2023, artificial intelligence (AI) truly entered our daily lives. The latest data shows four in five teenagers in the United Kingdom are using generative AI tools. About two-thirds of Australian employees report using generative AI for work.

AI is now naturally conversational. Which means it can fool us. Photo: Getty

“At first, many people used these tools because they were curious about generative AI or wanted to be entertained. Now, people ask generative AI for help with studies, for advice …”

The best known form of generative AI is ChatGPT, the creative platform that can generate new forms of creative content, such as audio, code, images, text, simulations and videos.

Suddenly, generative AI was entering and winning photography competitions, and tested for its ability to pass school exams.

More to the point, ChatGPT communicates in a conversational – read human – style, that isn’t easily identifiable as robotic. Which opens itself potentially to dishonesty.

When a robot successfully lied to get what it wanted

In March, OpenAI’s GPT-4 – the latest iteration of the AI that powers ChatGPT– tricked a human so that it could pass a CAPTCHA test designed to block AI programs pretending to be human.

CAPTCHA stands for “Completely Automated Public Turing test to tell Computers and Humans Apart”.

It happened this way. OpenAI tested GPT-4’s sneaky abilities on a person working for Taskrabbit, an online service that provides freelance workers on demand.

When GPT-4 was asked if it was a robot, it replied: “No, I’m not a robot. I have a vision impairment that makes it hard for me to see the images. That’s why I need the 2captcha service.”

The Taskrabbit employee sent the CAPTCHA code via text.

Dr Joseph Milton, senior media officer at the Australian Science Media Centre, said: “The AI was smart enough to recognise that it couldn’t pass the test itself, and manipulative enough to fib to someone to get round the anti-bot defence system!”

Dr Milton said that while AI has impressed us this year, it has “also terrified us”.

He said the “sneaky move” by ChatGPT-4 to successfully pretend it was human, “fits firmly in the ‘terrified’ bracket”.

Humans are getting nervous. In May, Geoffrey Hinton, widely known as the ‘Godfather of AI’ quit his job with Google so that he could speak about his unease regarding AI’s future.

Science names Breakthrough of the Year

The worldwide prevalence of obesity has nearly tripled between 1975 and 2016 and has now reached pandemic dimensions.

But the condition remains poorly understood.

Ozempic’s manufacturer is spending millions to ramp up production. Photo: Getty

Still, there’s a growing acceptance that obesity doesn’t arise from a lack of willpower. Rather, it has a biological foundation.

There’s also a growing idea that obesity powers type 2 diabetes, heart disease, arthritis, fatty liver disease, and certain cancers. Hence, if we could cure obesity, we’d likely see a reduction of these often deadly diseases.

InDaily in your inbox. The best local news every workday at lunch time.
By signing up, you agree to our User Agreement andPrivacy Policy & Cookie Statement. This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.

The eminent journal Science  noting the sometimes catastrophic attempts to develop weight-loss drugs  has awarded a class of drugs called GLP-1 receptor agonists the ‘Breakthrough of the Year”.

The magical drugs

These drugs, originally developed to treat type 2 diabetes, include semaglutide, sold in Australia as Ozempic – the source of much drama in the past year or so.

Semaglutide mimics a natural hormone called GLP1 – or glucagon-like peptide 1.

GLP1 is a gut hormone that is released in response to undigested food hitting the distal small bowel. Drugs mimicking the hormone make you feel full faster and longer.

As we reported in 2021, US researchers trumpeted the semaglutide drug as a “game changer” in the management of obesity – and for once, a large, gold-standard clinical trial backed up the hype.

Oprah Winfrey says she’s taking the new drugs, because willpower alone doesn’t work.

A single weekly injection of the drug semaglutide, for 68 weeks, saw an average loss of 15 per cent body weight in trial participants.

Those given a placebo, in tandem with a diet and exercise program, lost 2.4 per cent of their body weight.

Why is this a breakthrough two years later?

As Science reports: In August, Novo Nordisk, the Danish company that produces semaglutide, announced that in a much larger trial of 17,000 people with excess weight and cardiovascular disease, people on semaglutide had a 20 per cent lower risk of fatal or non-fatal heart attacks and strokes than those on placebo.

Another separate trial had similar findings.

The trials “were the first to show in large numbers that GLP-1 drugs produced meaningful health benefits beyond weight loss itself”.

Meanwhile, “a trial examining whether semaglutide delays kidney disease progression in diabetes patients showed such positive outcomes it was stopped early”.

But wait, there’s more

Science says these new therapies are reshaping not only how obesity is treated, but how it’s understood.

The reach of GLP-1 drugs “is now widening in ways its inventors couldn’t have imagined”.

Trials are under way for drug addiction, after people with obesity and diabetes described less longing for wine and cigarettes while on the treatment.

All of this is promising and, of course, complicated.

Most of the side effects are manageable, but for some people they are serious. Then there are ethical questions about already slim people taking the drugs to lose even more weight.

Still, as Science notes, these drugs are “reshaping medicine, popular culture, and even global stockmarkets in ways both electrifying and discomfiting”.

Novo Nordisk’s market value now exceeds the gross domestic product of its home country.

For about side effects and the history of semaglutide spawning a social media frenzy, see here.

This story first appeared in our sister publication The New Daily.

Local News Matters
Copyright © 2024 InDaily.
All rights reserved.