Editorial 1 : Cell-free DNA promises to transform how we find diseases in advance


In the human body, most of the DNA in a genome is neatly packed inside cells with the help of specific proteins, protecting it from being degraded. However, in a variety of scenarios,some fragments of DNA are ‘released’ from their containers and are present outside the cell, in body fluids. These small fragments of nucleic acids are widely known as cell-free DNA (cfDNA).

A useful tool

  • cfDNA can be generated and released from a cell in a number of possible situations, including when a cell is dying and the nucleic acids become degraded.
  • Since an array of processes modulates the degradation, the amount, size, and source of the cfDNA can vary across a range as well.
  • The  release of cfDNA could occur together with a variety of processes, including those required for normal development, those related to the development of certain cancers, and those associated with several other diseases.
  • One of the initial reports of the levels of cfDNA in diseases came from studies that were taking a closer look at an autoimmune disease: systemic lupus erythematosus – where the body’s own immune system attacks specific cells.

Checking the baby

  • By far, one of the most widely used applications of cfDNA has been in screening foetuses for specific chromosomal abnormalities, an application known as non-invasive prenatal testing.
  • The availability of affordable genome-sequencing approaches will allow clinicians to sequence cfDNA fragments that correspond to foetal DNA.
  • They can then use it to understand specific chromosomal abnormalities that involve changes in the chromosomal copy number.
  • Such changes can lead to conditions such as Down’s syndrome, which is due to a change in chromosome 21 .
  • As a result, thanks to a cfDNA-based technique, clinicians can now screen mothers from a few millilitres of blood, obtained after nine or ten weeks of pregnancy, to ensure the developing foetus is devoid of such chromosomal abnormalities.
  • The test is almost 99% accurate for trisomy 21 or Down’s syndrome and a bit less so for other common trisomies (of chromosomes 13 and 18).
  • Screening for such abnormalities before the genome-sequencing era would have entailed inserting a fine needle into the body to retrieve the amniotic fluid and cells covering the developing foetus, and analysing them in the lab. This method carries risks to both the foetus and the mother.

Catching a cancer

  • Another emerging application of cfDNA is in the early detection, diagnosis, and treatment of cancers.
  • Last month, researchers reported developing a new test they have dubbed ‘Genome-wide Mutational Incidence for Non-Invasive detection of cancer’, or ‘GEMINI’. They adopted a whole-genome-sequencing approach to cfDNA extracted from patients.
  • Specifically, the researchers examined a type of genetic mutation that, when combined with machine-learning approaches, could provide a way to detect cancer early.
  • Using a particular machine-learning model, some genomic data, and data from a computed tomography (CT) scan, the researchers could successfully detect lung cancer.
  • It has also been found to detect over 300 individuals who were at high risk of developing lung cancer.

Almost infinite applications

  • There are a number of emerging applications of cfDNA, including in understanding why a body is rejecting a transplanted organ.
  • Here, some cfDNA obtained from the donor of the organ – called donor-derived cfDNA, dd-cfDNA – could provide an early yet accurate estimate of how well the organ is being taken up.
  • Indeed, cfDNA seems to have an almost infinite number of applications, especially as nucleic-acid sequencing becomes rapidly democratised and finds more applications of its own in clinical settings.
  • There have already been some reports suggesting that cfDNA could be used as a biomarker for neurological disorders like Alzheimer’s disease, neuronal tumours, stroke, traumatic brain injury, and even metabolic disorders such as type-2 diabetes and non-alcoholic fatty liver disease.


In a true sense, cfDNA genomics promises to set us on the path of more effective disease-screening and early diagnosis, and on course for a healthy world.

Editorial 2 : What is Sam Altman’s biometric project?


On July 24, OpenAI CEO Sam Altman took to Twitter to formally re-introduce Worldcoin, a project of his that was eclipsed by the popularity of ChatGPT.


  • Worldcoin is an initiative to create a digital network in which everyone can claim some kind of stake, and join the digital economy.
  • Using a device called “Orb,” Worldcoin volunteers known as ‘Orb operators’ scan a person’s iris pattern to collect their biometric data and help them get a World ID through the World app.
  • Worldcoin claims it is building the “world’s largest identity and financial public network” open to people worldwide.

The working

  • The users need to be willing to scan irises and/or get their own irises scanned.
  • Volunteers sign up to be “Orb operators” in their locality and receive basic training and a biometric device with which to scan irises.
  •  Orb operators can even rent out the Orb to others to let them scan eyeballs as well.
  • Those who have their irises scanned and collect a World ID can use this to claim the WLD crypto, which they may use for transactions or hold on to the asset in the hope that its price might rise, as it did after launching.
  • However, users can also buy or sell WLD without getting scanned or using the app.
  • In return for signing up more people to the Worldcoin network, Orb operators get WLD, which is a token based on the Ethereum blockchain.
  • Ethereum has a native coin, Ether, which is the second-largest crypto by market capitalisation.
  • However, anyone can create a token which runs on the Ethereum blockchain. WLD is one such cryptocurrency.

Scanning irises

  • Worldcoin explained that it wanted to include everyone in its network and that using biometric information to avoid duplication was a valid method for this.
  • The company claimed that India had “proven the effectiveness of biometrics” through its Aadhaar system.
  • Worldcoin notes that Aadhaar IDs stopped people from signing up multiple times to benefit from social welfare schemes.
  • The company said that it uses a technology known as zero-knowledge proofs (ZKPs) to maintain users’ privacy.
  • Worldcoin has also said it is fully compliant with Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).
  • Individuals who want to receive a World ID are not required to share their name, phone number, email address, or home address. Images collected by the Orb are used to generate a unique iris code.
  • By default these images are immediately deleted once the iris code is created, unless the user opts in to Data Custody.

The Criticism

  • Worldcoin was criticised long before its re-launch.
  • A whistleblower ointed out that even if a person’s biometric scans were deleted for privacy reasons — as Worldcoin said it would do — the unique identifier for the scan would match future scans of the same person’s eyes.

Worldcoin and India

According to the company website, it has. Worldcoin lists 18 locations, largely in Delhi, Noida, and Bangalore, where Orb operators are scanning people’s eyes. Some locations include popular malls and metro stations in these cities.


While the Worldcoin project’s ambition to create a secure digital identity system is commendable, it has also given rise to legitimate privacy concerns. The collection and storage of biometric data, such as iris scans, raise questions about the potential misuse of this sensitive information. Additionally, the idea of a global identification system may lead to fears of surveillance and centralized control over personal data.


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