The Download: rub-on gene therapy, and safeguarding email memories

This is today’s edition of The Download, our weekday newsletter that provides a daily dose of what’s going on in the world of technology.

The FDA just approved rub-on gene therapy that helps “butterfly” children

The news: Last week, the US Food and Drug Administration approved sales of the first gene therapy that is directly applied to the body—as well as the first intended to be used on the same person repeatedly.

How it works: The treatment introduces a missing gene to skin cells so they can make collagen. It’s already helping people with dystrophic epidermolysis bullosa, a rare inherited disease that makes skin incredibly fragile. The topical ointment helps to heal the disease’s chronic, blistering wounds, while an eyedrop version can prevent scar tissue from building up in their eyeballs and improve their vision.

The next steps: The gene treatment is unusual as it doesn’t involve injection or altering immune cells outside the body. It suggests similar approaches could have lucrative applications. The biggest question right now, however, is how much it will cost the families who need it. Read the full story.

—Antonio Regalado

How to preserve your digital memories

—Tate Ryan-Mosley

My email archive holds treasured messages marking the important days of my life: a letter of acceptance to graduate school, travel plans with my sisters, a job offer at Tech Review, an invitation to reconnect with a close friend with whom I’d lost touch. 

I’ve never thought all that much about what to do with all these digital records. I have had a sort of expectation that I’ll always be able to access and manage my emails on my own terms. And while I don’t currently save particularly important ones, I probably need to change that.

That’s because, in reality, I’m just renting space owned by a tech company. Google and Twitter recently announced new policies to remove inactive accounts, and it’s a reminder of just how impermanent and fragile our digital lives really are. Read the full story.

Tate’s story is from The Technocrat, her weekly newsletter covering policy power struggles in Silicon Valley. Sign up to receive it in your inbox every Friday.

The must-reads

I’ve combed the internet to find you today’s most fun/important/scary/fascinating stories about technology.

1 The EU has slapped Meta with a record €1.2 billion fine 
For failing to safeguard users’ data during its transfer from Europe to the US. (Politico)
+ Meta’s been given five months to stop any further personal data transfer to the US. (Bloomberg $)

2 Carbon removal is becoming big business
That doesn’t mean it necessarily does much to combat climate change. (Economist $)
+ Grassy roofs are helping Brazil’s favelas to beat the punishing heat. (Undark)
+ What it will take to achieve affordable carbon removal. (MIT Technology Review)

3 The chip industry is under threat
Crackdowns on “forever chemicals” are threatening chipmakers’ manufacturing processes. (FT $)+ China claims it’s unearthed security risks in US-made Micron chips. (Bloomberg $)

4 China’s ramping up its satellite network plans
Launch sites are being prepared, and new companies are cropping up. (WSJ $)
+ Starlink signals can be reverse-engineered to work like GPS—whether SpaceX likes it or not. (MIT Technology Review)

5 SpaceX’s second private mission is on its way to the IS
The three paying customers will spend a week aboard the space station. (CNN)

6 E-sports isn’t the money-spinner it once was
Viewers seem to be losing interest, and team owners are selling up. (NYT $)

7 Bitcoin’s blockchain is being taken over by memecoins and NFTs
And bitcoin purists aren’t happy about it. (Bloomberg $)

8 Caregiving robots don’t always deliver on their promises
Some human carers find they can be more trouble than they’re worth. (The Guardian)
+ Inside Japan’s long experiment in automating elder care. (MIT Technology Review)

9 MDMA therapy could be on the horizon
But taking psychedelics in medical environments doesn’t always produce the desired effect. (Vox)
+ Mind-altering substances are being overhyped as wonder drugs. (MIT Technology Review)

10 Why voicemail isn’t going anywhere 📞
There’s no better alternative, for one. (The Atlantic $)

Quote of the day

“AI is not magic. There are a lot of people involved – humans.”

—Timnit Gebru, the computer scientist fired by Google in 2020 for sounding the alarm on AI bias, dismisses the tendency to treat the technology as something fantastical to the Guardian.

The big story

What cities need now

April 2021

The latest smart city projects have much in common with previous iterations. Again and again, these initiatives promise novel “solutions” to urban “problems.”

After a decade of pilot projects and flashy demonstrations, though, it’s still not clear whether smart city technologies can actually solve or even mitigate the challenges cities face. Read the full story.

—Jennifer Clark

We can still have nice things

A place for comfort, fun and distraction in these weird times. (Got any ideas? Drop me a line or tweet ’em at me.)

+ Who knew that neolithic humans were surprisingly efficient planners?
+ It’s time to wake up and smell the coffee—quite literally, in the case of these intrepid scientists.
+ These savory pancakes could be having a moment. 🥞
+ We’re learning more about Mars, thanks to what we already know about Earth.
+ Healthy breakfasts and positive vibes are just some of the top tips for living a longer, happier life.

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