Category Archives: intellectual property

Masdar Institute and rainmaking

Water security, of course, is a key issue and of particular concern in many parts of the world including the Middle East. (In the Pacific Northwest, an area described as a temperate rain forest, there tends to be less awareness but even we are sometimes forced to ration water.) According to a July 5, 2017 posting by Bhok Thompson (on the Green Prophet website) scientists at the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology (in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates [UA]E) have applied for a patent on a new technique for rainmaking,

Umbrella sales in the UAE may soon see a surge in pricing. Researchers at the Masdar Institute have filed for a provisional patent with the United States Patent and Trademark Office for their discovery – and innovative cloud seeding material that moves them closer to their goal of producing rain on demand. It appears to be a more practical approach than building artificial mountains.

Dr. Linda Zou is leading the project. A professor of chemical and environmental engineering, she is one of the first scientists to explore nanotechnology to enhance a cloud seeding material’s ability to produce rain. By filing a patent, the team is paving a way to commercialize their discovery, and aligning with Masdar Institute’s aim to position the UAE as a world leader in science and tech, specifically in the realm of environmental sustainability.

A January 31, 2017 posting by Erica Solomon for the Masdar Institute reveals more about the project,

The Masdar Institute research team that was one of the inaugural recipients of the US$ 5 million grant from the UAE Research Program for Rain Enhancement Science last year has made significant progress in their work as evidenced by the filing a provisional patent with the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO).

By filing a patent on their innovative cloud seeding material, the research team is bringing the material in the pathway for commercialization, thereby supporting Masdar Institute’s goal of bolstering the United Arab Emirates’ local intellectual property, which is a key measure of the country’s innovation drive. It also signifies a milestone towards achieving greater water security in the UAE, as rainfall enhancement via cloud seeding can potentially increase rainfall between 10% to 30%, helping to refresh groundwater reserves, boost agricultural production, and reduce the country’s heavy reliance on freshwater produced by energy-intensive seawater desalination.

Masdar Institute Professor of Chemical and Environmental Engineering, Dr. Linda Zou, is the principal investigator of this research project, and one of the first scientists in the world to explore the use of nanotechnology to enhance a cloud seeding material’s ability to produce rain.

“Using nanotechnology to accelerate water droplet formation on a typical cloud seeding material has never been researched before. It is a new approach that could revolutionize the development of cloud seeding materials and make them significantly more efficient and effective,” Dr. Zou remarked.

Conventional cloud seeding materials are small particles such as pure salt crystals, dry ice and silver iodide. These tiny particles, which are a few microns (one-thousandth of a millimeter) in size, act as the core around which water condenses in the clouds, stimulating water droplet growth. Once the air in the cloud reaches a certain level of saturation, it can no longer hold in that moisture, and rain falls. Cloud seeding essentially mimics what naturally occurs in clouds, but enhances the process by adding particles that can stimulate and accelerate the condensation process.

Dr. Zou and her collaborators, Dr. Mustapha Jouiad, Principal Research Scientist in Mechanical and Materials Engineering Department, postdoctoral researcher Dr. Nabil El Hadri and PhD student Haoran Liang, explored ways to improve the process of condensation on a pure salt crystal by layering it with a thin coating of titanium dioxide.

The extremely thin coating measures around 50 nanometers, which is more than one thousand times thinner than a human hair. Despite the coating’s miniscule size, the titanium dioxide’s effect on the salt’s condensation efficiency is significant. Titanium dioxide is a hydrophilic photocatalyst, which means that when in contact with water vapor in the cloud, it helps to initiate and sustain the water vapor adsorption and condensation on the nanoparticle’s surface. This important property of the cloud seeding material speeds up the formation of large water droplets for rainfall.

Dr. Zou’s team found that the titanium dioxide coating improved the salt’s ability to adsorb and condense water vapor over 100 times compared to a pure salt crystal. Such an increase in condensation efficiency could improve a cloud’s ability to produce more precipitation, making rain enhancement operations more efficient and effective. The research will now move to the next stage of simulated cloud and field testing in the future.

Dr. Zou’s research grant covers two more years of research. During this time, her team will continue to study different design concepts and structures for cloud seeding materials inspired by nanotechnology.

To give you a sense of the urgent need for these technologies, here’s the title from my Aug. 24, 2015 posting, The Gaza is running out of water by 2016 if the United Nations predictions are correct. I’ve not come across any updates on the situation in the Gaza Strip but both Israel and Palestine have recently signed a deal concerning water. Dalia Hatuqa’s August 2017 feature on the water deal for Al Jazeera is critical primarily of Israel (as might be expected) but there are one or two subtle criticisms of Palestine too,

Critics have also warned that the plan does not address Israeli restrictions on Palestinian access to water and the development of infrastructure needed to address the water crisis in the occupied West Bank.

Palestinians in the West Bank consume only 70 litres of water per capita per day, well below what the World Health Organization recommends as a minimum (100).

In the most vulnerable communities in Area C – those not connected to the water network – that number further drops to 20, according to EWASH, a coalition of Palestinian and international organisations working on water and sanitation in the Palestinian territories.

The recent bilateral agreement, which does not increase the Palestinians’ quota of water in the Jordan River, makes an untenable situation permanent and guarantees Israel a lion’s share of its water, thus reinforcing the status quo, Buttu [Diana Buttu, a former adviser to the Palestinian negotiating team] said.

“They have moved away from the idea that water is a shared resource and instead adopted the approach that Israel controls and allocates water to Palestinians,” she added. “Israel has been selling water to Palestinians for a long time, but this is enshrining it even further by saying that this is the way to alleviate the water problem.”

Israeli officials say that water problems in the territories could have been addressed had the Palestinians attended the meetings of the joint committee. Palestinians attribute their refusal to conditions set by their counterparts, namely that they must support Israeli settlement water projects for any Palestinian water improvements to be approved.

According to Israeli foreign ministry spokesman Emmanuel Nahshon, “There are many things to be done together to upgrade the water infrastructure in the PA. We are talking about old, leaking pipes, and a more rational use of water.” He also pointed to the illegal tapping into pipes, which he maintained Palestinians did because they did not want to pay for water. “This is something we’ve been wanting to do over the years, and the new water agreement is one of the ways to deal with that. The new agreement … is not only about water quotas; it’s also about more coherent and better use of water, in order to address the needs of the Palestinians.”

But water specialists say that the root cause of the problem is not illegal activity, but the unavailability of water resources to Palestinians and the mismanagement and diversion of the Jordan River.

Access to water is gong to be of increasing urgency should temperatures continue to rise as they have. In many parts of the world, potable water is not easy to find and if temperatures continue to rise areas that did have some water security will lose it and the potential for conflict rises hugely. Palestine and Israel may be a harbinger of what’s to come. As for the commodification of water, I have trouble accepting it; I think everyone has a right to water.

CRISPR and editing the germline in the US (part 3 of 3): public discussions and pop culture

After giving a basic explanation of the technology and some of the controversies in part 1 and offering more detail about the technology and about the possibility of designer babies in part 2; this part covers public discussion, a call for one and the suggestion that one is taking place in popular culture.

But a discussion does need to happen

In a move that is either an exquisite coincidence or has been carefully orchestrated (I vote for the latter), researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Madison have released a study about attitudes in the US to human genome editing. From an Aug. 11, 2017 University of Wisconsin-Madison news release (also on EurekAllert),

In early August 2017, an international team of scientists announced they had successfully edited the DNA of human embryos. As people process the political, moral and regulatory issues of the technology — which nudges us closer to nonfiction than science fiction — researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Temple University show the time is now to involve the American public in discussions about human genome editing.

In a study published Aug. 11 in the journal Science, the researchers assessed what people in the United States think about the uses of human genome editing and how their attitudes may drive public discussion. They found a public divided on its uses but united in the importance of moving conversations forward.

“There are several pathways we can go down with gene editing,” says UW-Madison’s Dietram Scheufele, lead author of the study and member of a National Academy of Sciences committee that compiled a report focused on human gene editing earlier this year. “Our study takes an exhaustive look at all of those possible pathways forward and asks where the public stands on each one of them.”

Compared to previous studies on public attitudes about the technology, the new study takes a more nuanced approach, examining public opinion about the use of gene editing for disease therapy versus for human enhancement, and about editing that becomes hereditary versus editing that does not.

The research team, which included Scheufele and Dominique Brossard — both professors of life sciences communication — along with Michael Xenos, professor of communication arts, first surveyed study participants about the use of editing to treat disease (therapy) versus for enhancement (creating so-called “designer babies”). While about two-thirds of respondents expressed at least some support for therapeutic editing, only one-third expressed support for using the technology for enhancement.

Diving even deeper, researchers looked into public attitudes about gene editing on specific cell types — somatic or germline — either for therapy or enhancement. Somatic cells are non-reproductive, so edits made in those cells do not affect future generations. Germline cells, however, are heritable, and changes made in these cells would be passed on to children.

Public support of therapeutic editing was high both in cells that would be inherited and those that would not, with 65 percent of respondents supporting therapy in germline cells and 64 percent supporting therapy in somatic cells. When considering enhancement editing, however, support depended more upon whether the changes would affect future generations. Only 26 percent of people surveyed supported enhancement editing in heritable germline cells and 39 percent supported enhancement of somatic cells that would not be passed on to children.

“A majority of people are saying that germline enhancement is where the technology crosses that invisible line and becomes unacceptable,” says Scheufele. “When it comes to therapy, the public is more open, and that may partly be reflective of how severe some of those genetically inherited diseases are. The potential treatments for those diseases are something the public at least is willing to consider.”

Beyond questions of support, researchers also wanted to understand what was driving public opinions. They found that two factors were related to respondents’ attitudes toward gene editing as well as their attitudes toward the public’s role in its emergence: the level of religious guidance in their lives, and factual knowledge about the technology.

Those with a high level of religious guidance in their daily lives had lower support for human genome editing than those with low religious guidance. Additionally, those with high knowledge of the technology were more supportive of it than those with less knowledge.

While respondents with high religious guidance and those with high knowledge differed on their support for the technology, both groups highly supported public engagement in its development and use. These results suggest broad agreement that the public should be involved in questions of political, regulatory and moral aspects of human genome editing.

“The public may be split along lines of religiosity or knowledge with regard to what they think about the technology and scientific community, but they are united in the idea that this is an issue that requires public involvement,” says Scheufele. “Our findings show very nicely that the public is ready for these discussions and that the time to have the discussions is now, before the science is fully ready and while we have time to carefully think through different options regarding how we want to move forward.”

Here’s a  link to and a citation for the paper,

U.S. attitudes on human genome editing by Dietram A. Scheufele, Michael A. Xenos, Emily L. Howell, Kathleen M. Rose, Dominique Brossard1, and Bruce W. Hardy. Science 11 Aug 2017: Vol. 357, Issue 6351, pp. 553-554 DOI: 10.1126/science.aan3708

This paper is behind a paywall.

A couple of final comments

Briefly, I notice that there’s no mention of the ethics of patenting this technology in the news release about the study.

Moving on, it seems surprising that the first team to engage in germline editing in the US is in Oregon; I would have expected the work to come from Massachusetts, California, or Illinois where a lot of bleeding edge medical research is performed. However, given the dearth of financial support from federal funding institutions, it seems likely that only an outsider would dare to engage i the research. Given the timing, Mitalipov’s work was already well underway before the recent about-face from the US National Academy of Sciences (Note: Kaiser’s Feb. 14, 2017 article does note that for some the recent recommendations do not represent any change).

As for discussion on issues such as editing of the germline, I’ve often noted here that popular culture (including advertising with the science fiction and other dramas laid in various media) often provides an informal forum for discussion. Joelle Renstrom in an Aug. 13, 2017 article for slate.com writes that Orphan Black (a BBC America series featuring clones) opened up a series of questions about science and ethics in the guise of a thriller about clones. She offers a précis of the first four seasons (Note: A link has been removed),

If you stopped watching a few seasons back, here’s a brief synopsis of how the mysteries wrap up. Neolution, an organization that seeks to control human evolution through genetic modification, began Project Leda, the cloning program, for two primary reasons: to see whether they could and to experiment with mutations that might allow people (i.e., themselves) to live longer. Neolution partnered with biotech companies such as Dyad, using its big pharma reach and deep pockets to harvest people’s genetic information and to conduct individual and germline (that is, genetic alterations passed down through generations) experiments, including infertility treatments that result in horrifying birth defects and body modification, such as tail-growing.

She then provides the article’s thesis (Note: Links have been removed),

Orphan Black demonstrates Carl Sagan’s warning of a time when “awesome technological powers are in the hands of a very few.” Neolutionists do whatever they want, pausing only to consider whether they’re missing an opportunity to exploit. Their hubris is straight out of Victor Frankenstein’s playbook. Frankenstein wonders whether he ought to first reanimate something “of simpler organisation” than a human, but starting small means waiting for glory. Orphan Black’s evil scientists embody this belief: if they’re going to play God, then they’ll control not just their own destinies, but the clones’ and, ultimately, all of humanity’s. Any sacrifices along the way are for the greater good—reasoning that culminates in Westmoreland’s eugenics fantasy to genetically sterilize 99 percent of the population he doesn’t enhance.

Orphan Black uses sci-fi tropes to explore real-world plausibility. Neolution shares similarities with transhumanism, the belief that humans should use science and technology to take control of their own evolution. While some transhumanists dabble in body modifications, such as microchip implants or night-vision eye drops, others seek to end suffering by curing human illness and aging. But even these goals can be seen as selfish, as access to disease-eradicating or life-extending technologies would be limited to the wealthy. Westmoreland’s goal to “sell Neolution to the 1 percent” seems frighteningly plausible—transhumanists, who statistically tend to be white, well-educated, and male, and their associated organizations raise and spend massive sums of money to help fulfill their goals. …

On Orphan Black, denial of choice is tantamount to imprisonment. That the clones have to earn autonomy underscores the need for ethics in science, especially when it comes to genetics. The show’s message here is timely given the rise of gene-editing techniques such as CRISPR. Recently, the National Academy of Sciences gave germline gene editing the green light, just one year after academy scientists from around the world argued it would be “irresponsible to proceed” without further exploring the implications. Scientists in the United Kingdom and China have already begun human genetic engineering and American scientists recently genetically engineered a human embryo for the first time. The possibility of Project Leda isn’t farfetched. Orphan Black warns us that money, power, and fear of death can corrupt both people and science. Once that happens, loss of humanity—of both the scientists and the subjects—is inevitable.

In Carl Sagan’s dark vision of the future, “people have lost the ability to set their own agendas or knowledgeably question those in authority.” This describes the plight of the clones at the outset of Orphan Black, but as the series continues, they challenge this paradigm by approaching science and scientists with skepticism, ingenuity, and grit. …

I hope there are discussions such as those Scheufele and Brossard are advocating but it might be worth considering that there is already some discussion underway, as informal as it is.

-30-

Part 1: CRISPR and editing the germline in the US (part 1 of 3): In the beginning

Part 2: CRISPR and editing the germline in the US (part 2 of 3): ‘designer babies’?

CRISPR and editing the germline in the US (part 2 of 3): ‘designer babies’?

Having included an explanation of CRISPR-CAS9 technology along with the news about the first US team to edit the germline and bits and pieces about ethics and a patent fight (part 1), this part hones in on the details of the work and worries about ‘designer babies’.

The interest flurry

I found three articles addressing the research and all three concur that despite some of the early reporting, this is not the beginning of a ‘designer baby’ generation.

First up was Nick Thieme in a July 28, 2017 article for Slate,

MIT Technology Review reported Thursday that a team of researchers from Portland, Oregon were the first team of U.S.-based scientists to successfully create a genetically modified human embryo. The researchers, led by Shoukhrat Mitalipov of Oregon Health and Science University, changed the DNA of—in MIT Technology Review’s words—“many tens” of genetically-diseased embryos by injecting the host egg with CRISPR, a DNA-based gene editing tool first discovered in bacteria, at the time of fertilization. CRISPR-Cas9, as the full editing system is called, allows scientists to change genes accurately and efficiently. As has happened with research elsewhere, the CRISPR-edited embryos weren’t implanted—they were kept sustained for only a couple of days.

In addition to being the first American team to complete this feat, the researchers also improved upon the work of the three Chinese research teams that beat them to editing embryos with CRISPR: Mitalipov’s team increased the proportion of embryonic cells that received the intended genetic changes, addressing an issue called “mosaicism,” which is when an embryo is comprised of cells with different genetic makeups. Increasing that proportion is essential to CRISPR work in eliminating inherited diseases, to ensure that the CRISPR therapy has the intended result. The Oregon team also reduced the number of genetic errors introduced by CRISPR, reducing the likelihood that a patient would develop cancer elsewhere in the body.

Separate from the scientific advancements, it’s a big deal that this work happened in a country with such intense politicization of embryo research. …

But there are a great number of obstacles between the current research and the future of genetically editing all children to be 12-foot-tall Einsteins.

Ed Yong in an Aug. 2, 2017 article for The Atlantic offered a comprehensive overview of the research and its implications (unusually for Yong, there seems to be mildly condescending note but it’s worth ignoring for the wealth of information in the article; Note: Links have been removed),

… the full details of the experiment, which are released today, show that the study is scientifically important but much less of a social inflection point than has been suggested. “This has been widely reported as the dawn of the era of the designer baby, making it probably the fifth or sixth time people have reported that dawn,” says Alta Charo, an expert on law and bioethics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “And it’s not.”

Given the persistent confusion around CRISPR and its implications, I’ve laid out exactly what the team did, and what it means.

Who did the experiments?

Shoukhrat Mitalipov is a Kazakhstani-born cell biologist with a history of breakthroughs—and controversy—in the stem cell field. He was the scientist to clone monkeys. He was the first to create human embryos by cloning adult cells—a move that could provide patients with an easy supply of personalized stem cells. He also pioneered a technique for creating embryos with genetic material from three biological parents, as a way of preventing a group of debilitating inherited diseases.

Although MIT Tech Review name-checked Mitalipov alone, the paper splits credit for the research between five collaborating teams—four based in the United States, and one in South Korea.

What did they actually do?

The project effectively began with an elevator conversation between Mitalipov and his colleague Sanjiv Kaul. Mitalipov explained that he wanted to use CRISPR to correct a disease-causing gene in human embryos, and was trying to figure out which disease to focus on. Kaul, a cardiologist, told him about hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (HCM)—an inherited heart disease that’s commonly caused by mutations in a gene called MYBPC3. HCM is surprisingly common, affecting 1 in 500 adults. Many of them lead normal lives, but in some, the walls of their hearts can thicken and suddenly fail. For that reason, HCM is the commonest cause of sudden death in athletes. “There really is no treatment,” says Kaul. “A number of drugs are being evaluated but they are all experimental,” and they merely treat the symptoms. The team wanted to prevent HCM entirely by removing the underlying mutation.

They collected sperm from a man with HCM and used CRISPR to change his mutant gene into its normal healthy version, while simultaneously using the sperm to fertilize eggs that had been donated by female volunteers. In this way, they created embryos that were completely free of the mutation. The procedure was effective, and avoided some of the critical problems that have plagued past attempts to use CRISPR in human embryos.

Wait, other human embryos have been edited before?

There have been three attempts in China. The first two—in 2015 and 2016—used non-viable embryos that could never have resulted in a live birth. The third—announced this March—was the first to use viable embryos that could theoretically have been implanted in a womb. All of these studies showed that CRISPR gene-editing, for all its hype, is still in its infancy.

The editing was imprecise. CRISPR is heralded for its precision, allowing scientists to edit particular genes of choice. But in practice, some of the Chinese researchers found worrying levels of off-target mutations, where CRISPR mistakenly cut other parts of the genome.

The editing was inefficient. The first Chinese team only managed to successfully edit a disease gene in 4 out of 86 embryos, and the second team fared even worse.

The editing was incomplete. Even in the successful cases, each embryo had a mix of modified and unmodified cells. This pattern, known as mosaicism, poses serious safety problems if gene-editing were ever to be used in practice. Doctors could end up implanting women with embryos that they thought were free of a disease-causing mutation, but were only partially free. The resulting person would still have many tissues and organs that carry those mutations, and might go on to develop symptoms.

What did the American team do differently?

The Chinese teams all used CRISPR to edit embryos at early stages of their development. By contrast, the Oregon researchers delivered the CRISPR components at the earliest possible point—minutes before fertilization. That neatly avoids the problem of mosaicism by ensuring that an embryo is edited from the very moment it is created. The team did this with 54 embryos and successfully edited the mutant MYBPC3 gene in 72 percent of them. In the other 28 percent, the editing didn’t work—a high failure rate, but far lower than in previous attempts. Better still, the team found no evidence of off-target mutations.

This is a big deal. Many scientists assumed that they’d have to do something more convoluted to avoid mosaicism. They’d have to collect a patient’s cells, which they’d revert into stem cells, which they’d use to make sperm or eggs, which they’d edit using CRISPR. “That’s a lot of extra steps, with more risks,” says Alta Charo. “If it’s possible to edit the embryo itself, that’s a real advance.” Perhaps for that reason, this is the first study to edit human embryos that was published in a top-tier scientific journal—Nature, which rejected some of the earlier Chinese papers.

Is this kind of research even legal?

Yes. In Western Europe, 15 countries out of 22 ban any attempts to change the human germ line—a term referring to sperm, eggs, and other cells that can transmit genetic information to future generations. No such stance exists in the United States but Congress has banned the Food and Drug Administration from considering research applications that make such modifications. Separately, federal agencies like the National Institutes of Health are banned from funding research that ultimately destroys human embryos. But the Oregon team used non-federal money from their institutions, and donations from several small non-profits. No taxpayer money went into their work. [emphasis mine]

Why would you want to edit embryos at all?

Partly to learn more about ourselves. By using CRISPR to manipulate the genes of embryos, scientists can learn more about the earliest stages of human development, and about problems like infertility and miscarriages. That’s why biologist Kathy Niakan from the Crick Institute in London recently secured a license from a British regulator to use CRISPR on human embryos.

Isn’t this a slippery slope toward making designer babies?

In terms of avoiding genetic diseases, it’s not conceptually different from PGD, which is already widely used. The bigger worry is that gene-editing could be used to make people stronger, smarter, or taller, paving the way for a new eugenics, and widening the already substantial gaps between the wealthy and poor. But many geneticists believe that such a future is fundamentally unlikely because complex traits like height and intelligence are the work of hundreds or thousands of genes, each of which have a tiny effect. The prospect of editing them all is implausible. And since genes are so thoroughly interconnected, it may be impossible to edit one particular trait without also affecting many others.

“There’s the worry that this could be used for enhancement, so society has to draw a line,” says Mitalipov. “But this is pretty complex technology and it wouldn’t be hard to regulate it.”

Does this discovery have any social importance at all?

“It’s not so much about designer babies as it is about geographical location,” says Charo. “It’s happening in the United States, and everything here around embryo research has high sensitivity.” She and others worry that the early report about the study, before the actual details were available for scrutiny, could lead to unnecessary panic. “Panic reactions often lead to panic-driven policy … which is usually bad policy,” wrote Greely [bioethicist Hank Greely].

As I understand it, despite the change in stance, there is no federal funding available for the research performed by Mitalipov and his team.

Finally, University College London (UCL) scientists Joyce Harper and Helen O’Neill wrote about CRISPR, the Oregon team’s work, and the possibilities in an Aug. 3, 2017 essay for The Conversation (Note: Links have been removed),

The genome editing tool used, CRISPR-Cas9, has transformed the field of biology in the short time since its discovery in that it not only promises, but delivers. CRISPR has surpassed all previous efforts to engineer cells and alter genomes at a fraction of the time and cost.

The technology, which works like molecular scissors to cut and paste DNA, is a natural defence system that bacteria use to fend off harmful infections. This system has the ability to recognise invading virus DNA, cut it and integrate this cut sequence into its own genome – allowing the bacterium to render itself immune to future infections of viruses with similar DNA. It is this ability to recognise and cut DNA that has allowed scientists to use it to target and edit specific DNA regions.

When this technology is applied to “germ cells” – the sperm and eggs – or embryos, it changes the germline. That means that any alterations made would be permanent and passed down to future generations. This makes it more ethically complex, but there are strict regulations around human germline genome editing, which is predominantly illegal. The UK received a licence in 2016 to carry out CRISPR on human embryos for research into early development. But edited embryos are not allowed to be inserted into the uterus and develop into a fetus in any country.

Germline genome editing came into the global spotlight when Chinese scientists announced in 2015 that they had used CRISPR to edit non-viable human embryos – cells that could never result in a live birth. They did this to modify the gene responsible for the blood disorder β-thalassaemia. While it was met with some success, it received a lot of criticism because of the premature use of this technology in human embryos. The results showed a high number of potentially dangerous, off-target mutations created in the procedure.

Impressive results

The new study, published in Nature, is different because it deals with viable human embryos and shows that the genome editing can be carried out safely – without creating harmful mutations. The team used CRISPR to correct a mutation in the gene MYBPC3, which accounts for approximately 40% of the myocardial disease hypertrophic cardiomyopathy. This is a dominant disease, so an affected individual only needs one abnormal copy of the gene to be affected.

The researchers used sperm from a patient carrying one copy of the MYBPC3 mutation to create 54 embryos. They edited them using CRISPR-Cas9 to correct the mutation. Without genome editing, approximately 50% of the embryos would carry the patients’ normal gene and 50% would carry his abnormal gene.

After genome editing, the aim would be for 100% of embryos to be normal. In the first round of the experiments, they found that 66.7% of embryos – 36 out of 54 – were normal after being injected with CRIPSR. Of the remaining 18 embryos, five had remained unchanged, suggesting editing had not worked. In 13 embryos, only a portion of cells had been edited.

The level of efficiency is affected by the type of CRISPR machinery used and, critically, the timing in which it is put into the embryo. The researchers therefore also tried injecting the sperm and the CRISPR-Cas9 complex into the egg at the same time, which resulted in more promising results. This was done for 75 mature donated human eggs using a common IVF technique called intracytoplasmic sperm injection. This time, impressively, 72.4% of embryos were normal as a result. The approach also lowered the number of embryos containing a mixture of edited and unedited cells (these embryos are called mosaics).

Finally, the team injected a further 22 embryos which were grown into blastocyst – a later stage of embryo development. These were sequenced and the researchers found that the editing had indeed worked. Importantly, they could show that the level of off-target mutations was low.

A brave new world?

So does this mean we finally have a cure for debilitating, heritable diseases? It’s important to remember that the study did not achieve a 100% success rate. Even the researchers themselves stress that further research is needed in order to fully understand the potential and limitations of the technique.

In our view, it is unlikely that genome editing would be used to treat the majority of inherited conditions anytime soon. We still can’t be sure how a child with a genetically altered genome will develop over a lifetime, so it seems unlikely that couples carrying a genetic disease would embark on gene editing rather than undergoing already available tests – such as preimplantation genetic diagnosis or prenatal diagnosis – where the embryos or fetus are tested for genetic faults.

-30-

As might be expected there is now a call for public discussion about the ethics about this kind of work. See Part 3.

For anyone who started in the middle of this series, here’s Part 1 featuring an introduction to the technology and some of the issues.

CRISPR and editing the germline in the US (part 1 of 3): In the beginning

There’s been a minor flurry of interest in CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats; also known as CRISPR-CAS9), a gene-editing technique, since a team in Oregon announced a paper describing their work editing the germline. Since I’ve been following the CRISPR-CAS9 story for a while this seems like a good juncture for a more in-depth look at the topic. In this first part I’m including an introduction to CRISPR, some information about the latest US work, and some previous writing about ethics issues raised when Chinese scientists first announced their work editing germlines in 2015 and during the patent dispute between the University of California at Berkeley and Harvard University’s Broad Institute.

Introduction to CRISPR

I’ve been searching for a good description of CRISPR and this helped to clear up some questions for me (Thank you to MIT Review),

For anyone who’s been reading about science for a while, this upbeat approach to explaining how a particular technology will solve all sorts of problems will seem quite familiar. It’s not the most hyperbolic piece I’ve seen but it barely mentions any problems associated with research (for some of the problems see: ‘The interest flurry’ later in part 2).

Oregon team

Steve Connor’s July 26, 2017 article for the MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) Technology Review breaks the news (Note: Links have been removed),

The first known attempt at creating genetically modified human embryos in the United States has been carried out by a team of researchers in Portland, Oregon, MIT Technology Review has learned.

The effort, led by Shoukhrat Mitalipov of Oregon Health and Science University, involved changing the DNA of a large number of one-cell embryos with the gene-editing technique CRISPR, according to people familiar with the scientific results.

Until now, American scientists have watched with a combination of awe, envy, and some alarm as scientists elsewhere were first to explore the controversial practice. To date, three previous reports of editing human embryos were all published by scientists in China.

Now Mitalipov is believed to have broken new ground both in the number of embryos experimented upon and by demonstrating that it is possible to safely and efficiently correct defective genes that cause inherited diseases.

Although none of the embryos were allowed to develop for more than a few days—and there was never any intention of implanting them into a womb—the experiments are a milestone on what may prove to be an inevitable journey toward the birth of the first genetically modified humans.

In altering the DNA code of human embryos, the objective of scientists is to show that they can eradicate or correct genes that cause inherited disease, like the blood condition beta-thalassemia. The process is termed “germline engineering” because any genetically modified child would then pass the changes on to subsequent generations via their own germ cells—the egg and sperm.

Some critics say germline experiments could open the floodgates to a brave new world of “designer babies” engineered with genetic enhancements—a prospect bitterly opposed by a range of religious organizations, civil society groups, and biotech companies.

The U.S. intelligence community last year called CRISPR a potential “weapon of mass destruction.”

Here’s a link to a citation for the groundbreaking paper,

Correction of a pathogenic gene mutation in human embryos by Hong Ma, Nuria Marti-Gutierrez, Sang-Wook Park, Jun Wu, Yeonmi Lee, Keiichiro Suzuki, Amy Koski, Dongmei Ji, Tomonari Hayama, Riffat Ahmed, Hayley Darby, Crystal Van Dyken, Ying Li, Eunju Kang, A.-Reum Park, Daesik Kim, Sang-Tae Kim, Jianhui Gong, Ying Gu, Xun Xu, David Battaglia, Sacha A. Krieg, David M. Lee, Diana H. Wu, Don P. Wolf, Stephen B. Heitner, Juan Carlos Izpisua Belmonte, Paula Amato, Jin-Soo Kim, Sanjiv Kaul, & Shoukhrat Mitalipov. Nature (2017) doi:10.1038/nature23305 Published online 02 August 2017

This paper appears to be open access.

CRISPR Issues: ethics and patents

In my May 14, 2015 posting I mentioned a ‘moratorium’ on germline research, the Chinese research paper, and the stance taken by the US National Institutes of Health (NIH),

The CRISPR technology has reignited a discussion about ethical and moral issues of human genetic engineering some of which is reviewed in an April 7, 2015 posting about a moratorium by Sheila Jasanoff, J. Benjamin Hurlbut and Krishanu Saha for the Guardian science blogs (Note: A link has been removed),

On April 3, 2015, a group of prominent biologists and ethicists writing in Science called for a moratorium on germline gene engineering; modifications to the human genome that will be passed on to future generations. The moratorium would apply to a technology called CRISPR/Cas9, which enables the removal of undesirable genes, insertion of desirable ones, and the broad recoding of nearly any DNA sequence.

Such modifications could affect every cell in an adult human being, including germ cells, and therefore be passed down through the generations. Many organisms across the range of biological complexity have already been edited in this way to generate designer bacteria, plants and primates. There is little reason to believe the same could not be done with human eggs, sperm and embryos. Now that the technology to engineer human germlines is here, the advocates for a moratorium declared, it is time to chart a prudent path forward. They recommend four actions: a hold on clinical applications; creation of expert forums; transparent research; and a globally representative group to recommend policy approaches.

The authors go on to review precedents and reasons for the moratorium while suggesting we need better ways for citizens to engage with and debate these issues,

An effective moratorium must be grounded in the principle that the power to modify the human genome demands serious engagement not only from scientists and ethicists but from all citizens. We need a more complex architecture for public deliberation, built on the recognition that we, as citizens, have a duty to participate in shaping our biotechnological futures, just as governments have a duty to empower us to participate in that process. Decisions such as whether or not to edit human genes should not be left to elite and invisible experts, whether in universities, ad hoc commissions, or parliamentary advisory committees. Nor should public deliberation be temporally limited by the span of a moratorium or narrowed to topics that experts deem reasonable to debate.

I recommend reading the post in its entirety as there are nuances that are best appreciated in the entirety of the piece.

Shortly after this essay was published, Chinese scientists announced they had genetically modified (nonviable) human embryos. From an April 22, 2015 article by David Cyranoski and Sara Reardon in Nature where the research and some of the ethical issues discussed,

In a world first, Chinese scientists have reported editing the genomes of human embryos. The results are published1 in the online journal Protein & Cell and confirm widespread rumours that such experiments had been conducted — rumours that sparked a high-profile debate last month2, 3 about the ethical implications of such work.

In the paper, researchers led by Junjiu Huang, a gene-function researcher at Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou, tried to head off such concerns by using ‘non-viable’ embryos, which cannot result in a live birth, that were obtained from local fertility clinics. The team attempted to modify the gene responsible for β-thalassaemia, a potentially fatal blood disorder, using a gene-editing technique known as CRISPR/Cas9. The researchers say that their results reveal serious obstacles to using the method in medical applications.

“I believe this is the first report of CRISPR/Cas9 applied to human pre-implantation embryos and as such the study is a landmark, as well as a cautionary tale,” says George Daley, a stem-cell biologist at Harvard Medical School in Boston, Massachusetts. “Their study should be a stern warning to any practitioner who thinks the technology is ready for testing to eradicate disease genes.”

….

Huang says that the paper was rejected by Nature and Science, in part because of ethical objections; both journals declined to comment on the claim. (Nature’s news team is editorially independent of its research editorial team.)

He adds that critics of the paper have noted that the low efficiencies and high number of off-target mutations could be specific to the abnormal embryos used in the study. Huang acknowledges the critique, but because there are no examples of gene editing in normal embryos he says that there is no way to know if the technique operates differently in them.

Still, he maintains that the embryos allow for a more meaningful model — and one closer to a normal human embryo — than an animal model or one using adult human cells. “We wanted to show our data to the world so people know what really happened with this model, rather than just talking about what would happen without data,” he says.

This, too, is a good and thoughtful read.

There was an official response in the US to the publication of this research, from an April 29, 2015 post by David Bruggeman on his Pasco Phronesis blog (Note: Links have been removed),

In light of Chinese researchers reporting their efforts to edit the genes of ‘non-viable’ human embryos, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Director Francis Collins issued a statement (H/T Carl Zimmer).

“NIH will not fund any use of gene-editing technologies in human embryos. The concept of altering the human germline in embryos for clinical purposes has been debated over many years from many different perspectives, and has been viewed almost universally as a line that should not be crossed. Advances in technology have given us an elegant new way of carrying out genome editing, but the strong arguments against engaging in this activity remain. These include the serious and unquantifiable safety issues, ethical issues presented by altering the germline in a way that affects the next generation without their consent, and a current lack of compelling medical applications justifying the use of CRISPR/Cas9 in embryos.” …

The US has modified its stance according to a February 14, 2017 article by Jocelyn Kaiser for Science Magazine (Note: Links have been removed),

Editing the DNA of a human embryo to prevent a disease in a baby could be ethically allowable one day—but only in rare circumstances and with safeguards in place, says a widely anticipated report released today.

The report from an international committee convened by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences (NAS) and the National Academy of Medicine in Washington, D.C., concludes that such a clinical trial “might be permitted, but only following much more research” on risks and benefits, and “only for compelling reasons and under strict oversight.” Those situations could be limited to couples who both have a serious genetic disease and for whom embryo editing is “really the last reasonable option” if they want to have a healthy biological child, says committee co-chair Alta Charo, a bioethicist at the University of Wisconsin in Madison.

Some researchers are pleased with the report, saying it is consistent with previous conclusions that safely altering the DNA of human eggs, sperm, or early embryos—known as germline editing—to create a baby could be possible eventually. “They have closed the door to the vast majority of germline applications and left it open for a very small, well-defined subset. That’s not unreasonable in my opinion,” says genome researcher Eric Lander of the Broad Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Lander was among the organizers of an international summit at NAS in December 2015 who called for more discussion before proceeding with embryo editing.

But others see the report as lowering the bar for such experiments because it does not explicitly say they should be prohibited for now. “It changes the tone to an affirmative position in the absence of the broad public debate this report calls for,” says Edward Lanphier, chairman of the DNA editing company Sangamo Therapeutics in Richmond, California. Two years ago, he co-authored a Nature commentary calling for a moratorium on clinical embryo editing.

One advocacy group opposed to embryo editing goes further. “We’re very disappointed with the report. It’s really a pretty dramatic shift from the existing and widespread agreement globally that human germline editing should be prohibited,” says Marcy Darnovsky, executive director of the Center for Genetics and Society in Berkeley, California.

Interestingly, this change of stance occurred just prior to a CRISPR patent decision (from my March 15, 2017 posting),

I have written about the CRISPR patent tussle (Harvard & MIT’s [Massachusetts Institute of Technology] Broad Institute vs the University of California at Berkeley) previously in a Jan. 6, 2015 posting and in a more detailed May 14, 2015 posting. I also mentioned (in a Jan. 17, 2017 posting) CRISPR and its patent issues in the context of a posting about a Slate.com series on Frankenstein and the novel’s applicability to our own time. This patent fight is being bitterly fought as fortunes are at stake.

It seems a decision has been made regarding the CRISPR patent claims. From a Feb. 17, 2017 article by Charmaine Distor for The Science Times,

After an intense court battle, the US Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) released its ruling on February 15 [2017]. The rights for the CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing technology was handed over to the Broad Institute of Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

According to an article in Nature, the said court battle was between the Broad Institute and the University of California. The two institutions are fighting over the intellectual property right for the CRISPR patent. The case between the two started when the patent was first awarded to the Broad Institute despite having the University of California apply first for the CRISPR patent.

Heidi Ledford’s Feb. 17, 2017 article for Nature provides more insight into the situation (Note: Links have been removed),

It [USPTO] ruled that the Broad Institute of Harvard and MIT in Cambridge could keep its patents on using CRISPR–Cas9 in eukaryotic cells. That was a blow to the University of California in Berkeley, which had filed its own patents and had hoped to have the Broad’s thrown out.

The fight goes back to 2012, when Jennifer Doudna at Berkeley, Emmanuelle Charpentier, then at the University of Vienna, and their colleagues outlined how CRISPR–Cas9 could be used to precisely cut isolated DNA1. In 2013, Feng Zhang at the Broad and his colleagues — and other teams — showed2 how it could be adapted to edit DNA in eukaryotic cells such as plants, livestock and humans.

Berkeley filed for a patent earlier, but the USPTO granted the Broad’s patents first — and this week upheld them. There are high stakes involved in the ruling. The holder of key patents could make millions of dollars from CRISPR–Cas9’s applications in industry: already, the technique has sped up genetic research, and scientists are using it to develop disease-resistant livestock and treatments for human diseases.

….

I also noted this eyebrow-lifting statistic,  “As for Ledford’s 3rd point, there are an estimated 763 patent families (groups of related patents) claiming CAS9 leading to the distinct possibility that the Broad Institute will be fighting many patent claims in the future.)

-30-

Part 2 covers three critical responses to the reporting and between them describe the technology in more detail and the possibility of ‘designer babies’.  CRISPR and editing the germline in the US (part 2 of 3): ‘designer babies’?

Part 3 is all about public discussion or, rather, the lack of and need for according to a couple of social scientists. Informally, there is some discussion via pop culture and Joelle Renstrom notes although she is focused on the larger issues touched on by the television series, Orphan Black and as I touch on in my final comments. CRISPR and editing the germline in the US (part 3 of 3): public discussions and pop culture

The greatest intellectual theft in history? Tea!

Following my green tea and sensitive teeth story (August 4, 2017 posting), I stumbled on this August 2, 2017 story by Nicola Twilley and Cynthia Graber for The Atlantic,

… The Chinese domesticated tea over thousands of years, but they lost their near monopoly on international trade when a Scottish botanist, disguised as a Chinese nobleman, smuggled it out of China in the 1800s, in order to secure Britain’s favorite beverage and prop up its empire for another century. The story involves pirates, ponytails, and hard drugs—and, to help tell the tale, Cynthia and Nicky visit Britain’s one and only commercial tea plantation, tucked away in a secret garden on an aristocratic estate on the Cornish coast. While harvesting and processing tea leaves, we learn the difference between green and black tea, as well as which is better for your health. Put the kettle on, and settle in for the science and history of tea!

A podcast from Gastropod (Nicola Twilley’s and Cynthia Graber’s blog) is embedded into The Atlantic story but you can also find it here on the Gastropod website along with more details in the accompanying text (Note: Links have been removed),

It seemed so simple in the mid-1700s: China had tea, Britain wanted tea. First introduced by Portuguese princess Catherine de Braganza in 1662, tea soon overtook beer as Britain’s favorite brew. The only problem, according to Sarah Rose, author of For All the Tea in China: How England Stole the World’s Favorite Drink and Changed History, was that the Chinese weren’t purchasing any British goods in return. Britain was simply dumping its silver into China, creating a serious balance of payments problem. Britain’s solution? Trade drugs for drugs—specifically, the caffeine fix in tea for the poppies that grow abundantly on the Afghan-Pakistan border, which at the time was part of the British empire. “They just start dumping opium into China,” explained Rose. But drug-dealing proved to be an expensive headache, and so, in 1848, Britain embarked on the biggest botanical heist in history, as well as one of the biggest thefts of intellectual property to date: stealing Chinese tea plants, as well as Chinese tea-processing expertise, in order to create a tea industry in India.

I first wrote about Robert Fortune, master thief and scientist and Sarah Rose, author of ‘For All the Tea in China: How England Stole the World’s Favorite Drink and Changed History‘ (2011) in the context of computer chips, US and China relations, and piracy fears (my Aug. 11, 2010 posting).

In the Gastropod podcast, Rose seems to be willing to give more details from her book now that it’s no longer fresh off the press. Amongst other gems, you’ll find out that Fortune was six feet* or more in height, had shaved himself bald and had a queue sewn into his scalp, couldn’t speak any Chinese languages, and was a white Scotsman. How did he pass? It had to do with how the Chinese in that period viewed ‘foreigness’; for more details you’ll need to listed to the podcast. Rose also mentions the British East India Company, a quasi-government (they had their own army) , in some jurisdictions, and pirates.

As regular readers know, I have often featured intellectual property stories here and while this doesn’t seem to fit into my emerging technologies focus, arguably, tea could be described as an emerging technology (albeit stolen from China) for the British Empire at that time.

I strongly suggest listening to and/or reading the July 31, 2017 Gastropod posting in its entirety.

*One quick comment, I had a professor some years ago who was involved with various Chinese ethnic groups who were to be displaced by the massive ‘Three Gorges Project’ and learned this. The Han people are dominant in China but my professor noted there are others including are least one ethnic group where males are six feet and taller and the females five foot 10 inches and taller due to their preference for eating buckwheat rather than white rice as their main grain. Robert Fortune’s height may not have been quite as unusual as I would have believed prior to that lecture.

Making a trademark claim memorable and fun

Usually when I write about intellectual property, it concerns technology and/or science disputes but this particular response to an alleged trademark violation amuses me greatly, swipes at a few Canadian stereotypes, and could act as a model for anyone who wants to lodge such protests. Before getting to the video, here are some details bout the dispute from a July 13, 2017 posting by Mike Masnick for Techdirt,

… — a few years ago, there was a virally popular rap song and video, by Brendan “B.Rich” Richmond, called Out for a Rip, spoofing Canadian culture/stereotypes. It got over 12 million views, and has become a bit of an anthem.

So, yeah. Coca Cola is using the phrase “out for a rip” on its Coke bottles and Richmond and his lawyer Kittredge decided the best way to respond was to write a song calling out Coca Cola on this and then recording a whole video. At the end of the video there’s an actual letter (part of which is dictated in the song itself) which is also pretty damn amusing:

Dear Coke,

I represent Brendan (B.Rich) Richmond (a.k.a. Friggin’ Buddy). You jacked his catchphrase, but you already know that.

Buddy owns the registered trademark “OUT FOR A RIP” in Canada (TMA934277). The music video for buddy’s original composition “OUT FOR A RIP” has been viewed more than 12 million times. Canadians associate the phrase “OUT FOR A RIP” with him.

Personally, I’m pretty psyched about this once-in-a-career opportunity to send a demand letter in the form of a rap video. Nonetheless, unlicensed use of OUT FOR A RIP violates my client’s rights. From what I understand, you guys do fairly well for yourselves – at least in comparison to most other multinational corporations, the GDP of most countries, or, say, the average musician, right? No room in your budget to clear IP rights?

Contact me no later than August 1, 2017 to discuss settlement of this matter. If you do not wish to discuss settlement, we require that you immediately cease using the OUT FOR A RIP mark, recall all OUT FOR A RIP bottles, and take immediate steps to preserve all relevant evidence in anticipation of possible litigation.

Regards,
Rob Kittredege

….

Here’s the ‘cease and desist’ video,

Enjoy!

Robot artists—should they get copyright protection

Clearly a lawyer wrote this June 26, 2017 essay on theconversation.com (Note: A link has been removed),

When a group of museums and researchers in the Netherlands unveiled a portrait entitled The Next Rembrandt, it was something of a tease to the art world. It wasn’t a long lost painting but a new artwork generated by a computer that had analysed thousands of works by the 17th-century Dutch artist Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn.

The computer used something called machine learning [emphasis mine] to analyse and reproduce technical and aesthetic elements in Rembrandt’s works, including lighting, colour, brush-strokes and geometric patterns. The result is a portrait produced based on the styles and motifs found in Rembrandt’s art but produced by algorithms.

But who owns creative works generated by artificial intelligence? This isn’t just an academic question. AI is already being used to generate works in music, journalism and gaming, and these works could in theory be deemed free of copyright because they are not created by a human author.

This would mean they could be freely used and reused by anyone and that would be bad news for the companies selling them. Imagine you invest millions in a system that generates music for video games, only to find that music isn’t protected by law and can be used without payment by anyone in the world.

Unlike with earlier computer-generated works of art, machine learning software generates truly creative works without human input or intervention. AI is not just a tool. While humans program the algorithms, the decision making – the creative spark – comes almost entirely from the machine.

It could have been someone involved in the technology but nobody with that background would write “… something called machine learning … .”  Andres Guadamuz, lecturer in Intellectual Property Law at the University of Sussex, goes on to say (Note: Links have been removed),

Unlike with earlier computer-generated works of art, machine learning software generates truly creative works without human input or intervention. AI is not just a tool. While humans program the algorithms, the decision making – the creative spark – comes almost entirely from the machine.

That doesn’t mean that copyright should be awarded to the computer, however. Machines don’t (yet) have the rights and status of people under the law. But that doesn’t necessarily mean there shouldn’t be any copyright either. Not all copyright is owned by individuals, after all.

Companies are recognised as legal people and are often awarded copyright for works they don’t directly create. This occurs, for example, when a film studio hires a team to make a movie, or a website commissions a journalist to write an article. So it’s possible copyright could be awarded to the person (company or human) that has effectively commissioned the AI to produce work for it.

 

Things are likely to become yet more complex as AI tools are more commonly used by artists and as the machines get better at reproducing creativity, making it harder to discern if an artwork is made by a human or a computer. Monumental advances in computing and the sheer amount of computational power becoming available may well make the distinction moot. At that point, we will have to decide what type of protection, if any, we should give to emergent works created by intelligent algorithms with little or no human intervention.

The most sensible move seems to follow those countries that grant copyright to the person who made the AI’s operation possible, with the UK’s model looking like the most efficient. This will ensure companies keep investing in the technology, safe in the knowledge they will reap the benefits. What happens when we start seriously debating whether computers should be given the status and rights of people is a whole other story.

The team that developed a ‘new’ Rembrandt produced a video about the process,

Mark Brown’s April 5, 2016 article abut this project (which was unveiled on April 5, 2017 in Amsterdam, Netherlands) for the Guardian newspaper provides more detail such as this,

It [Next Rembrandt project] is the result of an 18-month project which asks whether new technology and data can bring back to life one of the greatest, most innovative painters of all time.

Advertising executive [Bas] Korsten, whose brainchild the project was, admitted that there were many doubters. “The idea was greeted with a lot of disbelief and scepticism,” he said. “Also coming up with the idea is one thing, bringing it to life is another.”

The project has involved data scientists, developers, engineers and art historians from organisations including Microsoft, Delft University of Technology, the Mauritshuis in The Hague and the Rembrandt House Museum in Amsterdam.

The final 3D printed painting consists of more than 148 million pixels and is based on 168,263 Rembrandt painting fragments.

Some of the challenges have been in designing a software system that could understand Rembrandt based on his use of geometry, composition and painting materials. A facial recognition algorithm was then used to identify and classify the most typical geometric patterns used to paint human features.

It sounds like it was a fascinating project but I don’t believe ‘The Next Rembrandt’ is an example of AI creativity or an example of the ‘creative spark’ Guadamuz discusses. This seems more like the kind of work  that could be done by a talented forger or fraudster. As I understand it, even when a human creates this type of artwork (a newly discovered and unknown xxx masterpiece), the piece is not considered a creative work in its own right. Some pieces are outright fraudulent and others which are described as “in the manner of xxx.”

Taking a somewhat different approach to mine, Timothy Geigner at Techdirt has also commented on the question of copyright and AI in relation to Guadamuz’s essay in a July 7, 2017 posting,

Unlike with earlier computer-generated works of art, machine learning software generates truly creative works without human input or intervention. AI is not just a tool. While humans program the algorithms, the decision making – the creative spark – comes almost entirely from the machine.

Let’s get the easy part out of the way: the culminating sentence in the quote above is not true. The creative spark is not the artistic output. Rather, the creative spark has always been known as the need to create in the first place. This isn’t a trivial quibble, either, as it factors into the simple but important reasoning for why AI and machines should certainly not receive copyright rights on their output.

That reasoning is the purpose of copyright law itself. Far too many see copyright as a reward system for those that create art rather than what it actually was meant to be: a boon to an artist to compensate for that artist to create more art for the benefit of the public as a whole. Artificial intelligence, however far progressed, desires only what it is programmed to desire. In whatever hierarchy of needs an AI might have, profit via copyright would factor either laughably low or not at all into its future actions. Future actions of the artist, conversely, are the only item on the agenda for copyright’s purpose. If receiving a copyright wouldn’t spur AI to create more art beneficial to the public, then copyright ought not to be granted.

Geigner goes on (July 7, 2017 posting) to elucidate other issues with the ideas expressed in the general debates of AI and ‘rights’ and the EU’s solution.

The ultimate natural sunscreen

For those of us in the northern hemisphere, sunscreen season is on the horizon. While the “ultimate natural sunscreen” researchers from the University of California at San Diego (UCSD) have developed is a long way from the marketplace, this is encouraging news (from a May 17, 2017 news item on Nanowerk),

Chemists, materials scientists and nanoengineers at UC San Diego have created what may be the ultimate natural sunscreen.

In a paper published in the American Chemical Society journal ACS Central Science, they report the development of nanoparticles that mimic the behavior of natural melanosomes, melanin-producing cell structures that protect our skin, eyes and other tissues from the harmful effects of ultraviolet radiation.

“Basically, we succeeded in making a synthetic version of the nanoparticles that our skin uses to produce and store melanin and demonstrated in experiments in skin cells that they mimic the behavior of natural melanosomes,” said Nathan Gianneschi, a professor of chemistry and biochemistry, materials science and engineering and nanoengineering at UC San Diego, who headed the team of researchers. The achievement has practical applications.

A May 17, 2017 UCSD news release, which originated the news item, delves into the research,

“Defects in melanin production in humans can cause diseases such as vitiligo and albinism that lack effective treatments,” Gianneschi added.

Vitiligo develops when the immune system wrongly attempts to clear normal melanocytes from the skin, effectively stopping the production of melanocytes. Albinism is due to genetic defects that lead to either the absence or a chemical defect in tyrosinase, a copper-containing enzyme involved in the production of melanin. Both of these diseases lack effective treatments and result in a significant risk of skin cancer for patients.

“The widespread prevalence of these melanin-related diseases and an increasing interest in the performance of various polymeric materials related to melanin prompted us to look for novel synthetic routes for preparing melanin-like materials,” Gianneschi said.

UC San Diego Ultimate natural sunscreenThe scientists found that the synthetic nanoparticles were taken up in tissue culture by keratinocytes, the predominant cell type found in the epidermis, the outer layer of skin. Photo by Yuran Huang and Ying Jones/UC San Diego

Melanin particles are produced naturally in many different sizes and shapes by animals—for iridescent feathers in birds or the pigmented eyes and skin of some reptiles. But scientists have discovered that extracting melanins from natural sources is a difficult and potentially more complex process than producing them synthetically.

Gianneschi and his team discovered two years ago that synthetic melanin-like nanoparticles could be developed in a precisely controllable manner to mimic the performance of natural melanins used in bird feathers.

“We hypothesized that synthetic melanin-like nanoparticles would mimic naturally occurring melanosomes and be taken up by keratinocytes, the predominant cell type found in the epidermis, the outer layer of skin,” said Gianneschi.

In healthy humans, melanin is delivered to keratinocytes in the skin after being excreted as melanosomes from melanocytes.

The UC San Diego scientists prepared melanin-like nanoparticles through the spontaneous oxidation of dopamine—developing biocompatible, synthetic analogues of naturally occurring melanosomes. Then they studied their update, transport, distribution and ultraviolet radiation-protective capabilities in human keratinocytes in tissue culture.

The researchers found that these synthetic nanoparticles were not only taken up and distributed normally, like natural melanosomes, within the keratinocytes, they protected the skin cells from DNA damage due to ultraviolet radiation.

“Considering limitations in the treatment of melanin-defective related diseases and the biocompatibility of these synthetic melanin-like nanoparticles in terms of uptake and degradation, these systems have potential as artificial melanosomes for the development of novel therapies, possibly supplementing the biological functions of natural melanins,” the researchers said in their paper.

The other co-authors of the study were Yuran Huang and Ziying Hu of UC San Diego’s Materials Science and Engineering Program, Yiwen Li and Maria Proetto of the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry; Xiujun Yue of the Department of Nanoengineering; and Ying Jones of the Electron Microscopy Core Facility.

The UC San Diego Office of Innovation and Commercialization has filed a patent application on the use of polydopamine-based artificial melanins as an intracellular UV-shield. Companies interested in commercializing this invention should contact Skip Cynar at invent@ucsd.edu

Here’s a link to and a citation fro the paper,

Mimicking Melanosomes: Polydopamine Nanoparticles as Artificial Microparasols by
Yuran Huang, Yiwen Li, Ziying Hu, Xiujun Yue, Maria T. Proetto, Ying Jones, and Nathan C. Gianneschi. ACS Cent. Sci., Article ASAP DOI: 10.1021/acscentsci.6b00230 Publication Date (Web): May 18, 2017

Copyright © 2017 American Chemical Society

This is an open access paper,

Patent Politics: a June 23, 2017 book launch at the Wilson Center (Washington, DC)

I received a June 12, 2017 notice (via email) from the Wilson Center (also know as the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars) about a book examining patents and policies in the United States and in Europe and its upcoming launch,

Patent Politics: Life Forms, Markets, and the Public Interest in the United States and Europe

Over the past thirty years, the world’s patent systems have experienced pressure from civil society like never before. From farmers to patient advocates, new voices are arguing that patents impact public health, economic inequality, morality—and democracy. These challenges, to domains that we usually consider technical and legal, may seem surprising. But in Patent Politics, Shobita Parthasarathy argues that patent systems have always been deeply political and social.

To demonstrate this, Parthasarathy takes readers through a particularly fierce and prolonged set of controversies over patents on life forms linked to important advances in biology and agriculture and potentially life-saving medicines. Comparing battles over patents on animals, human embryonic stem cells, human genes, and plants in the United States and Europe, she shows how political culture, ideology, and history shape patent system politics. Clashes over whose voices and which values matter in the patent system, as well as what counts as knowledge and whose expertise is important, look quite different in these two places. And through these debates, the United States and Europe are developing very different approaches to patent and innovation governance. Not just the first comprehensive look at the controversies swirling around biotechnology patents, Patent Politics is also the first in-depth analysis of the political underpinnings and implications of modern patent systems, and provides a timely analysis of how we can reform these systems around the world to maximize the public interest.

Join us on June 23 [2017] from 4-6 pm [elsewhere the time is listed at 4-7 pm] for a discussion on the role of the patent system in governing emerging technologies, on the launch of Shobita Parthasarathy’s Patent Politics: Life Forms, Markets, and the Public Interest in the United States and Europe (University of Chicago Press, 2017).

You can find more information such as this on the Patent Politics event page,

Speakers

Keynote


  • Shobita Parthasarathy

    Fellow
    Associate Professor of Public Policy and Women’s Studies, and Director of the Science, Technology, and Public Policy Program, at University of Michigan

Moderator


  • Eleonore Pauwels

    Senior Program Associate and Director of Biology Collectives, Science and Technology Innovation Program
    Formerly European Commission, Directorate-General for Research and Technological Development, Directorate on Science, Economy and Society

Panelists


  • Daniel Sarewitz

    Co-Director, Consortium for Science, Policy & Outcomes Professor of Science and Society, School for the Future of Innovation in Society

  • Richard Harris

    Award-Winning Journalist National Public Radio Author of “Rigor Mortis: How Sloppy Science Creates Worthless Cures, Crushes Hope, and Wastes Billions”

For those who cannot attend in person, there will be a live webcast. If you can be there in person, you can RSVP here (Note: The time frame for the event is listed in some places as 4-7 pm.) I cannot find any reason for the time frame disparity. My best guess is that the discussion is scheduled for two hours with a one hour reception afterwards for those who can attend in person.

Emerging technology and the law

I have three news bits about legal issues that are arising as a consequence of emerging technologies.

Deep neural networks, art, and copyright

Caption: The rise of automated art opens new creative avenues, coupled with new problems for copyright protection. Credit: Provided by: Alexander Mordvintsev, Christopher Olah and Mike Tyka

Presumably this artwork is a demonstration of automated art although they never really do explain how in the news item/news release. An April 26, 2017 news item on ScienceDaily announces research into copyright and the latest in using neural networks to create art,

In 1968, sociologist Jean Baudrillard wrote on automatism that “contained within it is the dream of a dominated world […] that serves an inert and dreamy humanity.”

With the growing popularity of Deep Neural Networks (DNN’s), this dream is fast becoming a reality.

Dr. Jean-Marc Deltorn, researcher at the Centre d’études internationales de la propriété intellectuelle in Strasbourg, argues that we must remain a responsive and responsible force in this process of automation — not inert dominators. As he demonstrates in a recent Frontiers in Digital Humanities paper, the dream of automation demands a careful study of the legal problems linked to copyright.

An April 26, 2017 Frontiers (publishing) news release on EurekAlert, which originated the news item, describes the research in more detail,

For more than half a century, artists have looked to computational processes as a way of expanding their vision. DNN’s are the culmination of this cross-pollination: by learning to identify a complex number of patterns, they can generate new creations.

These systems are made up of complex algorithms modeled on the transmission of signals between neurons in the brain.

DNN creations rely in equal measure on human inputs and the non-human algorithmic networks that process them.

Inputs are fed into the system, which is layered. Each layer provides an opportunity for a more refined knowledge of the inputs (shape, color, lines). Neural networks compare actual outputs to expected ones, and correct the predictive error through repetition and optimization. They train their own pattern recognition, thereby optimizing their learning curve and producing increasingly accurate outputs.

The deeper the layers are, the higher the level of abstraction. The highest layers are able to identify the contents of a given input with reasonable accuracy, after extended periods of training.

Creation thus becomes increasingly automated through what Deltorn calls “the arcane traceries of deep architecture”. The results are sufficiently abstracted from their sources to produce original creations that have been exhibited in galleries, sold at auction and performed at concerts.

The originality of DNN’s is a combined product of technological automation on one hand, human inputs and decisions on the other.

DNN’s are gaining popularity. Various platforms (such as DeepDream) now allow internet users to generate their very own new creations . This popularization of the automation process calls for a comprehensive legal framework that ensures a creator’s economic and moral rights with regards to his work – copyright protection.

Form, originality and attribution are the three requirements for copyright. And while DNN creations satisfy the first of these three, the claim to originality and attribution will depend largely on a given country legislation and on the traceability of the human creator.

Legislation usually sets a low threshold to originality. As DNN creations could in theory be able to create an endless number of riffs on source materials, the uncurbed creation of original works could inflate the existing number of copyright protections.

Additionally, a small number of national copyright laws confers attribution to what UK legislation defines loosely as “the person by whom the arrangements necessary for the creation of the work are undertaken.” In the case of DNN’s, this could mean anybody from the programmer to the user of a DNN interface.

Combined with an overly supple take on originality, this view on attribution would further increase the number of copyrightable works.

The risk, in both cases, is that artists will be less willing to publish their own works, for fear of infringement of DNN copyright protections.

In order to promote creativity – one seminal aim of copyright protection – the issue must be limited to creations that manifest a personal voice “and not just the electric glint of a computational engine,” to quote Deltorn. A delicate act of discernment.

DNN’s promise new avenues of creative expression for artists – with potential caveats. Copyright protection – a “catalyst to creativity” – must be contained. Many of us gently bask in the glow of an increasingly automated form of technology. But if we want to safeguard the ineffable quality that defines much art, it might be a good idea to hone in more closely on the differences between the electric and the creative spark.

This research is and be will part of a broader Frontiers Research Topic collection of articles on Deep Learning and Digital Humanities.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Deep Creations: Intellectual Property and the Automata by Jean-Marc Deltorn. Front. Digit. Humanit., 01 February 2017 | https://doi.org/10.3389/fdigh.2017.00003

This paper is open access.

Conference on governance of emerging technologies

I received an April 17, 2017 notice via email about this upcoming conference. Here’s more from the Fifth Annual Conference on Governance of Emerging Technologies: Law, Policy and Ethics webpage,

The Fifth Annual Conference on Governance of Emerging Technologies:

Law, Policy and Ethics held at the new

Beus Center for Law & Society in Phoenix, AZ

May 17-19, 2017!

Call for Abstracts – Now Closed

The conference will consist of plenary and session presentations and discussions on regulatory, governance, legal, policy, social and ethical aspects of emerging technologies, including (but not limited to) nanotechnology, synthetic biology, gene editing, biotechnology, genomics, personalized medicine, human enhancement technologies, telecommunications, information technologies, surveillance technologies, geoengineering, neuroscience, artificial intelligence, and robotics. The conference is premised on the belief that there is much to be learned and shared from and across the governance experience and proposals for these various emerging technologies.

Keynote Speakers:

Gillian HadfieldRichard L. and Antoinette Schamoi Kirtland Professor of Law and Professor of Economics USC [University of Southern California] Gould School of Law

Shobita Parthasarathy, Associate Professor of Public Policy and Women’s Studies, Director, Science, Technology, and Public Policy Program University of Michigan

Stuart Russell, Professor at [University of California] Berkeley, is a computer scientist known for his contributions to artificial intelligence

Craig Shank, Vice President for Corporate Standards Group in Microsoft’s Corporate, External and Legal Affairs (CELA)

Plenary Panels:

Innovation – Responsible and/or Permissionless

Ellen-Marie Forsberg, Senior Researcher/Research Manager at Oslo and Akershus University College of Applied Sciences

Adam Thierer, Senior Research Fellow with the Technology Policy Program at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University

Wendell Wallach, Consultant, ethicist, and scholar at Yale University’s Interdisciplinary Center for Bioethics

 Gene Drives, Trade and International Regulations

Greg Kaebnick, Director, Editorial Department; Editor, Hastings Center Report; Research Scholar, Hastings Center

Jennifer Kuzma, Goodnight-North Carolina GlaxoSmithKline Foundation Distinguished Professor in Social Sciences in the School of Public and International Affairs (SPIA) and co-director of the Genetic Engineering and Society (GES) Center at North Carolina State University

Andrew Maynard, Senior Sustainability Scholar, Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability Director, Risk Innovation Lab, School for the Future of Innovation in Society Professor, School for the Future of Innovation in Society, Arizona State University

Gary Marchant, Regents’ Professor of Law, Professor of Law Faculty Director and Faculty Fellow, Center for Law, Science & Innovation, Arizona State University

Marc Saner, Inaugural Director of the Institute for Science, Society and Policy, and Associate Professor, University of Ottawa Department of Geography

Big Data

Anupam Chander, Martin Luther King, Jr. Professor of Law and Director, California International Law Center, UC Davis School of Law

Pilar Ossorio, Professor of Law and Bioethics, University of Wisconsin, School of Law and School of Medicine and Public Health; Morgridge Institute for Research, Ethics Scholar-in-Residence

George Poste, Chief Scientist, Complex Adaptive Systems Initiative (CASI) (http://www.casi.asu.edu/), Regents’ Professor and Del E. Webb Chair in Health Innovation, Arizona State University

Emily Shuckburgh, climate scientist and deputy head of the Polar Oceans Team at the British Antarctic Survey, University of Cambridge

 Responsible Development of AI

Spring Berman, Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering, Arizona State University

John Havens, The IEEE [Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers] Global Initiative for Ethical Considerations in Artificial Intelligence and Autonomous Systems

Subbarao Kambhampati, Senior Sustainability Scientist, Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability, Professor, School of Computing, Informatics and Decision Systems Engineering, Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering, Arizona State University

Wendell Wallach, Consultant, Ethicist, and Scholar at Yale University’s Interdisciplinary Center for Bioethics

Existential and Catastrophic Ricks [sic]

Tony Barrett, Co-Founder and Director of Research of the Global Catastrophic Risk Institute

Haydn Belfield,  Academic Project Administrator, Centre for the Study of Existential Risk at the University of Cambridge

Margaret E. Kosal Associate Director, Sam Nunn School of International Affairs, Georgia Institute of Technology

Catherine Rhodes,  Academic Project Manager, Centre for the Study of Existential Risk at CSER, University of Cambridge

These were the panels that are of interest to me; there are others on the homepage.

Here’s some information from the Conference registration webpage,

Early Bird Registration – $50 off until May 1! Enter discount code: earlybirdGETs50

New: Group Discount – Register 2+ attendees together and receive an additional 20% off for all group members!

Click Here to Register!

Conference registration fees are as follows:

  • General (non-CLE) Registration: $150.00
  • CLE Registration: $350.00
  • *Current Student / ASU Law Alumni Registration: $50.00
  • ^Cybsersecurity sessions only (May 19): $100 CLE / $50 General / Free for students (registration info coming soon)

There you have it.

Neuro-techno future laws

I’m pretty sure this isn’t the first exploration of potential legal issues arising from research into neuroscience although it’s the first one I’ve stumbled across. From an April 25, 2017 news item on phys.org,

New human rights laws to prepare for advances in neurotechnology that put the ‘freedom of the mind’ at risk have been proposed today in the open access journal Life Sciences, Society and Policy.

The authors of the study suggest four new human rights laws could emerge in the near future to protect against exploitation and loss of privacy. The four laws are: the right to cognitive liberty, the right to mental privacy, the right to mental integrity and the right to psychological continuity.

An April 25, 2017 Biomed Central news release on EurekAlert, which originated the news item, describes the work in more detail,

Marcello Ienca, lead author and PhD student at the Institute for Biomedical Ethics at the University of Basel, said: “The mind is considered to be the last refuge of personal freedom and self-determination, but advances in neural engineering, brain imaging and neurotechnology put the freedom of the mind at risk. Our proposed laws would give people the right to refuse coercive and invasive neurotechnology, protect the privacy of data collected by neurotechnology, and protect the physical and psychological aspects of the mind from damage by the misuse of neurotechnology.”

Advances in neurotechnology, such as sophisticated brain imaging and the development of brain-computer interfaces, have led to these technologies moving away from a clinical setting and into the consumer domain. While these advances may be beneficial for individuals and society, there is a risk that the technology could be misused and create unprecedented threats to personal freedom.

Professor Roberto Andorno, co-author of the research, explained: “Brain imaging technology has already reached a point where there is discussion over its legitimacy in criminal court, for example as a tool for assessing criminal responsibility or even the risk of reoffending. Consumer companies are using brain imaging for ‘neuromarketing’, to understand consumer behaviour and elicit desired responses from customers. There are also tools such as ‘brain decoders’ which can turn brain imaging data into images, text or sound. All of these could pose a threat to personal freedom which we sought to address with the development of four new human rights laws.”

The authors explain that as neurotechnology improves and becomes commonplace, there is a risk that the technology could be hacked, allowing a third-party to ‘eavesdrop’ on someone’s mind. In the future, a brain-computer interface used to control consumer technology could put the user at risk of physical and psychological damage caused by a third-party attack on the technology. There are also ethical and legal concerns over the protection of data generated by these devices that need to be considered.

International human rights laws make no specific mention to neuroscience, although advances in biomedicine have become intertwined with laws, such as those concerning human genetic data. Similar to the historical trajectory of the genetic revolution, the authors state that the on-going neurorevolution will force a reconceptualization of human rights laws and even the creation of new ones.

Marcello Ienca added: “Science-fiction can teach us a lot about the potential threat of technology. Neurotechnology featured in famous stories has in some cases already become a reality, while others are inching ever closer, or exist as military and commercial prototypes. We need to be prepared to deal with the impact these technologies will have on our personal freedom.”

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Towards new human rights in the age of neuroscience and neurotechnology by Marcello Ienca and Roberto Andorno. Life Sciences, Society and Policy201713:5 DOI: 10.1186/s40504-017-0050-1 Published: 26 April 2017

©  The Author(s). 2017

This paper is open access.